Sri Lanka, the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean”, is a dream destination for every traveler. With its rich history, breathtaking landscapes and diverse culture, Sri Lanka offers a variety of sights and experiences that will enchant any visitor. In this article, we discover the top 10 attractions in Sri Lanka that should not be missing from your itinerary.
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1. Sigiriya – An impressive sight in Sri Lanka
Sigiriya, also known as Lion Rock, is one of the most spectacular and unforgettable sights in Sri Lanka. Located in the center of the island, it is a gigantic rock formation that rises about 200 meters from the surrounding jungle landscape. It is famous not only for its impressive natural beauty, but also for the historical and archaeological significance it holds.
In the 5th century AD, the then King Kasyapa transformed this natural rock formation into a luxurious royal residence. He built a palace building at the top of the rock surrounded by magnificent gardens and ponds. Halfway up the rock, he built a monumental lion sculpture, of which only the huge paws remain today, giving the place its name: Sigiriya or Lion Rock.
Sigiriya is also known for its impressive murals, the so-called Cloud Girls. These exquisitely painted frescoes of semi-nude women were painted in a protected alcove of the rock and are still in excellent condition despite their age.
A visit to Sigiriya is an adventure that offers both physical exertion and spiritual fulfillment. The climb to the top can be challenging for some, but the spectacular views from the top are more than worth the effort. The trail passes the famous Cloud Maidens and the Lion’s Gate statue and ends in the ruins of the palace at the summit.
- Tickets: Tickets for Sigiriya can be purchased online or on site. The price of a ticket is around $30 for foreign tourists.
- Hints and tips: It is advisable to visit Sigiriya early in the morning to avoid the hottest part of the day. Wear comfortable shoes for the climb and take enough water with you. Note that there are no toilets on the rock, so make sure you go before climbing.
- How to get there: Sigiriya is about 3 hours drive from Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. You can take a private driver, cab or tour bus, or if you are adventurous, you can take a local bus.
- Opening hours: Sigiriya is open daily from 6:30 am to 5:30 pm, with last entry at 5:00 pm.
- Sightseeing time: plan at least 3 to 4 hours for your visit, as the ascent and descent takes some time.
Sigiriya is without a doubt one of the most fascinating sights in Sri Lanka and a must-see on your itinerary. The sight of the massive rock rising from the green landscape, the historical ruins and frescoes and the breathtaking view from the top make it an unforgettable experience.
2. Dambulla Cave Temple – A Fascinating Spiritual Center
Just a short drive from Sigiriya is the Dambulla Cave Temple, also known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla. This impressive cave temple complex, consisting of five caves under an overhanging cliff, houses an impressive collection of Buddhist artwork and is one of the most fascinating and sacred Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka.
The history of Dambulla Cave Temple dates back to the 1st century BC, when King Valagamba found refuge in these caves during a 14-year exile. Upon his return to power, he had the caves transformed into impressive temples in gratitude.
Upon entering the temple complex, you will be greeted by a large golden Buddha statue sitting in a meditative pose. Inside the caves you will find numerous other Buddha statues in various poses, along with Hindu deities and Sri Lankan royalty. The walls and ceilings of the caves are covered with finely painted murals depicting various episodes from the life of Buddha.
- Tickets: The entrance fee for foreign visitors is about $10.
- Hints and tips: As in all Buddhist temples, you should be respectfully dressed when visiting the Dambulla Cave Temple. This means shoulders and knees should be covered and shoes must be removed at the entrance. Remember to bring socks as the floor can get hot.
- How to get there: Dambulla is about 3.5 hours from Colombo. You can take a cab, a private driver or a local bus.
- Opening hours: The temple is open daily from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm, with the caves accessible from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm.
- Visit duration: a visit to Dambulla usually takes 2 to 3 hours.
The Dambulla Cave Temple is an impressive place, fascinating for both its artistic and spiritual significance. The peace and serenity emanating from the statues and frescoes will make you forget the noise and bustle of the modern world and offer a deep insight into Buddhist art and culture.
3. Polonnaruwa – insight into medieval Sri Lanka
Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka’s second oldest royal city, is another incredible stop on your tour of Sri Lanka’s top 10 sights. A visit to Polonnaruwa takes you deep into the heart of Sri Lanka’s history and culture. The city was the country’s thriving capital between the 11th and 13th centuries AD and is now an impressive archaeological site that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The ruined city of Polonnaruwa is rich in well-preserved temples, palaces, statues and stupas that bear witness to the splendor and wealth of the period. Prominent features include the royal palace complex with the impressive seven-story palace of King Parakramabahu, the Vatadage, a circular reliquary, and the impressive Buddha statues of Gal Vihara.
- Tickets: The entrance fee for foreign visitors is about $25.
- Hints and tips: Polonnaruwa is an extensive archaeological site and it can get very hot, so make sure to bring comfortable shoes, sunscreen and plenty of water. Renting a bike is also an excellent way to explore the site.
- How to get there: Polonnaruwa is about a 5 hour drive from Colombo. There are regular buses and trains, or you can hire a cab or private driver.
- Opening hours: The site is open daily from 7:30 am to 6:00 pm.
- Sightseeing Time: Plan on at least half a day to explore the sights of Polonnaruwa.
Polonnaruwa is a fascinating journey back in time to medieval Sri Lanka. The sight of the majestic ruins nestled in a landscape of lush green fields and reservoirs is an unforgettable experience and a must for any history and culture lover.
4. Anuradhapura – Ancient city with diverse attractions
One of the greatest places you can visit in Sri Lanka is Anuradhapura. This ancient city, recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, was the first capital of Sri Lanka from the 4th century BC to the 11th century AD. Today it is an important archaeological site and a major center of Buddhism.
Anuradhapura is known for its well-preserved ruins of ancient civilizations, white dagobas (stupas), ancient temples and palaces, as well as its sacred Bodhi tree – the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world, growing from an offshoot of the original Bodhi tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment.
Another notable feature of the city are the ornate stone tanks and ancient reservoirs known as “tanks.” They are a testament to the advanced hydraulic and water management techniques of the ancient Sinhalese.
- Tickets: the entrance fee for foreign visitors is about US$25.
- Hints and tips: Make sure you are dressed appropriately as Anuradhapura is a sacred Buddhist site. Shoulders and knees should be covered and shoes must be removed when entering the temples. Due to the heat and the long distances between sites, it is advisable to rent a bicycle or take a tuk-tuk.
- How to get there: Anuradhapura is about 4 hours away from Colombo. There are regular bus and train services, or you can hire a cab or private driver.
- Opening hours: Most sites are open daily from 7:00 am to 6:00 pm.
- Sightseeing Time: Plan on at least a full day to explore the diverse sites of Anuradhapura.
A visit to Anuradhapura is a journey into Sri Lanka’s fascinating history and an unforgettable experience. From the imposing white dagobas to the sacred temples and the sacred Bodhi tree, the spiritual atmosphere and historical significance of this city are impressive and inspiring.
5. Yala National Park – The Jewel of Sri Lanka’s Wildlife
Yala National Park, the largest and most famous national park in Sri Lanka, is a nature lover’s paradise and an essential part of any Sri Lanka tour. The park is known for its high density of leopards, but also for its impressive variety of other animals, including elephants, crocodiles, deer, bears and a variety of birds.
In addition to wildlife viewing, Yala National Park also offers a range of outdoor activities, including jeep safaris, bird watching tours and nature walks. The park is also home to a number of historical sites, including the Sithulpahuwa Rock Temple and the Magul Maha Viharaya, an ancient Buddhist temple.
- Tickets: a safari tour typically costs between $30 and $40 per person, including entrance fee and jeep rental.
- Hints and tips: The best time for wildlife viewing is during the dry season from February to July, when the animals congregate around the waterholes. Wear comfortable clothes and bring sunscreen, insect repellent and a camera.
- How to get there: Yala National Park is located about 300 kilometers from Colombo. You can hire a cab or private driver, or you can use an organized tour provider.
- Opening hours: The park is open daily from 6:00 am to 6:30 pm.
- Tour duration: a typical safari tour lasts about 3-4 hours, but you can also book full day tours.
Yala National Park is a must-see for wildlife and nature lovers. The opportunity to observe the impressive variety of Sri Lankan wildlife in their natural habitat is an experience you will not soon forget.
6. Temple of the Tooth (Sri Dalada Maligawa) – The Heart of Buddhism in Sri Lanka
The Temple of the Tooth, also known as Sri Dalada Maligawa, is located in the charming city of Kandy and is one of the most important religious centers of Buddhism. The temple houses the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha, considered one of the holiest Buddhist artifacts and attracts pilgrims from all over the world every year.
The main temple building is an impressive example of traditional Kandy architecture, with its white facade, gilded roofs and elaborately decorated interiors. The daily ceremonies that take place in the temple are a fascinating spectacle and offer a deep insight into Buddhist culture and spirituality.
- Tickets: The entrance fee is about $10.
- Hints and tips: Remember to dress appropriately – shoulders and knees should be covered and shoes must be removed at the entrance. Avoid standing with your back to the tooth relic as this is considered disrespectful.
- How to get there: the temple is located in the heart of Kandy and can be reached on foot, by tuk-tuk or by cab.
- Opening hours: The temple is open daily from 5:30 am to 8:00 pm. Puja ceremonies take place three times a day – at 5:30, 9:30 and 18:30.
- Visiting time: plan at least 1-2 hours for your visit.
A visit to the Temple of the Tooth is an unforgettable experience that offers a deep insight into Sri Lanka’s rich culture and spirituality. Whether you are a spiritually minded traveler or simply want to enjoy the impressive architecture and atmosphere of the temple, Sri Dalada Maligawa is a must-see on your Sri Lanka trip.
7. Adams Peak (Sri Pada) – A Sacred Hike to the Top
Adams Peak, or Sri Pada, is more than just a mountain – it is an important pilgrimage site that attracts thousands of pilgrims each year. This 2,243-meter mountain is known for the “sacred footprint,” a rocky niche near the summit that is considered Buddha’s footprint in Buddhism, Shiva’s footprint in Hinduism, and Adam’s footprint in Islam and Christianity.
Climbing Adams Peak is a challenging but rewarding experience. The route consists of about 5,200 steps winding through beautiful forests and tea plantations. The climb usually takes 3-5 hours, depending on your fitness level.
- Hints and tips: The pilgrimage season runs from December to May, when the weather is dry and the route is lit. The climb is often done at night to get to the summit in time for the spectacular sunrise. Make sure to bring warm clothes, water and snacks.
- How to get there: the starting point of the hike is in the town of Dalhousie. You can take a cab or a bus from Colombo or Kandy to Dalhousie.
- Duration of visit: the ascent and descent takes about 7-8 hours in total.
Although climbing Adams Peak can be physically demanding, the reward is incomparable – the breathtaking sunrise from the summit is an experience you will never forget. In addition, climbing Adams Peak is a unique opportunity to witness an important spiritual ritual in Sri Lanka and mingle with the locals.
8. Galle and its Dutch fortress – A journey back in time to the colonial era
The city of Galle, in southern Sri Lanka, is famous for its well-preserved Dutch fortress, which is one of the finest examples of colonial architecture in South Asia. The fort, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, includes a variety of historic buildings, including the Dutch Reformed Church, the Galle National Museum, and the old Dutch Hospital, which now houses a variety of restaurants and boutiques.
During your visit, you can stroll through the quaint cobblestone streets, admire the magnificent colonial buildings, and enjoy the breathtaking views of the sea from the old fortress walls.
- Hints and tips: Don’t forget to cap your visit with the sunset from the fortress walls – an unforgettable sight. The fort also hosts various cultural events, including the Galle Literary Festival and the Galle Art Festival.
- How to get there: Galle is about 120 kilometers from Colombo and can be reached by bus, train or cab.
- Sightseeing time: plan on at least half a day to explore the fort.
Galle and its Dutch fort offer a fascinating window into Sri Lanka’s past. The city’s charming atmosphere, rich history, and cultural events make Galle an essential part of any Sri Lanka trip.
9. Nuwara Eliya and tea plantations – An oasis in the middle of tea mountains
Nuwara Eliya, often referred to as “Little England,” is a picturesque town in the central highlands of Sri Lanka. Known for its cool temperatures, colonial buildings and lush tea plantations, Nuwara Eliya offers a welcome change from the tropical climate of the rest of the island.
The tea plantations are undoubtedly Nuwara Eliya’s main attraction. You can visit a tea factory to learn more about the tea making process and enjoy a cup of freshly brewed Ceylon tea. Some plantations also offer guided tours where you can learn more about the history of tea in Sri Lanka and admire the stunning scenery.
- Tickets: entrance fees for tea factory tours vary, but are usually between US$2 and US$3.
- Hints and tips: The best time to visit Nuwara Eliya is during the tea harvest from February to April. Don’t miss the opportunity to watch a cricket match at the Nuwara Eliya Cricket Ground, one of the most picturesque cricket grounds in the world.
- How to get there: Nuwara Eliya is about 160 kilometers from Colombo and can be reached by train, bus or cab.
- Opening hours: Tea factories are usually open Monday through Friday from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm.
- Sightseeing Time: Plan on at least a full day to explore Nuwara Eliya and the surrounding tea plantations.
Whether you’re a tea lover, a nature lover, or just a fan of idyllic landscapes, Nuwara Eliya has something for everyone. Visiting this charming town and its stunning tea plantations is an unforgettable experience and an absolute must on your Sri Lanka trip.
10. Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage – A place to protect and care for Asian elephants
The Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, located near the town of Kegalle, is a special place dedicated to the rescue, care and rehabilitation of orphaned and injured elephants in Sri Lanka. Founded in 1975, the orphanage has taken in more than 80 elephants over the years and now offers visitors the opportunity to see these fascinating animals up close.
A highlight of a visit to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is the daily bathing of the elephants in the nearby river. Here you can watch the elephants playing and bathing – an impressive and unforgettable sight. Another important activity is feeding, where you can see the keepers feeding the younger elephants with milk.
- Tickets: an adult ticket costs about $20 and a child ticket costs $10.
- Hints and tips: Please remember that the orphanage is a place established for the welfare of elephants. It is important to follow the instructions of the staff and treat the elephants with respect.
- How to get there: the orphanage is located about 90 kilometers from Colombo. You can take a cab or book an organized tour.
- Opening hours: The orphanage is open daily from 8:30 am to 5:30 pm.
- Sightseeing time: plan about 2-3 hours for your visit.
A visit to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is not only a unique opportunity to see Asian elephants up close, but also a glimpse into the conservation efforts of these majestic animals. It is an experience that is sure to touch you and leave a lasting impression.
11. Hortons Plains and Worlds End – A Changing Paradise in the Highlands of Sri Lanka
Hortons Plains, located in the central highlands of Sri Lanka, is a unique nature reserve and a paradise for hikers. The area, located at an altitude of 2,100 meters above sea level, consists of open grasslands, dense cloud forests, gushing waterfalls and diverse wildlife.
One of the most famous points in Hortons Plains is “World’s End”, a spectacular viewpoint that offers an uninterrupted view of the landscape all the way to the southern coast of Sri Lanka – a distance of almost 80 kilometers. On a clear day, the view is breathtaking and it feels like you are standing on the edge of the world. Hence the name “World’s End.”
- Tickets: The entrance fee to Hortons Plains is about $25 for foreigners and includes the entrance fee to the nature reserve.
- Hints and Tips: The best time to visit is in the early morning hours when visibility is at its best. It can get quite cold and foggy, so it is advisable to bring warm clothes. Avoid making noise or leaving litter to preserve the natural beauty of the area.
- How to get there: Hortons Plains is about 200 kilometers from Colombo and can be reached by train to Nuwara Eliya and then by cab.
- Opening hours: The nature reserve is open daily from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm.
- Visit Duration: Plan at least half a day for your visit to explore the main attractions and complete the approximately 9 kilometer loop trail.
Whether you are a nature lover, a hiker or an adventurer, a visit to Hortons Plains and Worlds End is an unforgettable experience. The breathtaking beauty, abundant flora and fauna, and spectacular views make this place a highlight of any trip to Sri Lanka.