What Sri Lanka lacks in size it makes up for in overwhelming beauty, in fact, there are few countries of similar size that can lay claim to as many cultural and natural wonders as this small island nation. Over 2000 years of history and culture has inundated this Pearl of the Indian Ocean with a wealth of sacred sites, ancient cities, lush tea plantations and incredible landscapes, resulting in UNESCO recognition of not one, not three, not five, but eight World Heritage Sites. From the ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya and medieval city of Polonnaruwa, to the rock cave temples of Dambulla and revered Temple of the Tooth in Kandy there is plenty to keep you busy on this Tear Drop Isle.
Here is our pick of the must do experiences in Sri Lanka.
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1. Discover the cave temples of Dambulla
As one of the most impressive and well-preserved cave temples on the island, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is not to be missed. Spanning across five different caves, the walls and ceilings of this Buddhist site are covered in remarkable mural paintings, and the caves themselves are scattered with statues and sculptures of Buddha himself.
2. Uncover ancient ruins in Polonnaruwa
This unique city dates back to the 11th century and features ancient stupas, temples and beautiful stone sculptures – including three enormous Buddha figures – and is revered as one of the most sacred sites in Sri Lanka. Wander through the ancient buildings, explore the temples and take a walk around the enormous Rankot Vihara, a stupa of some 175m in diameter and 55m high.
3. Climb the rock fortress of Sigiriya
Standing some 370 metres above lush jungle foliage this granite rock fortress is accessed via a steep set of stairs up the side of the rock, and along the way there is an opportunity to see a fantastic collection of frescos known as the Heavenly Maidens of Sigiriya. Climb to the summit and enjoy spectacular views of the jungle below and mountains in the distance.
4. See the sacred tree in Anuradhapura
Acclaimed as the greatest monastic city of the ancient world and where Buddhism was first introduced to the island. Built around a sacred tree – which is believed to have been planted here in the 3rd century BC, Anuradhapura flourished for around 1300 years as the political and religious capital. Explore this ancient city and discover enormous stupas, ruins and of course the sacred tree itself.
5. Visit the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy
Brimming with history, culture and sacred sites, the easy-going hill city of Kandy is not to be missed. Here visit the famous Temple of the Tooth, alleged to house a tooth of Buddha enclosed within a bejewelled golden casket. Once a year this revered artefact is paraded around the streets on elephant-back during the Kandy Festival, when the city breaks into a lavish display of music and dance.
6. Explore the capital city of Colombo
Once a stop off for ancient seafarers trading in pearls, spices and precious stones, this modern-day sea port city is a fascinating blend of old and new with colonial buildings and lively oriental bazaars juxtaposed with commercial high-rise buildings and hotels. Explore the sights of Sri Lanka's capitall, from the commercial district and oriental bazaar, to sacred temples and the ritzy Cinnamon Gardens.
7. Spot a leopard in Yala National Park
Set on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, this wonderful national park is the best place on the island to spot the elusive leopard. This majestic creature shares the park with some 200 birds and 40 mammal species, including the highest concentration of Asian elephants in the world. Leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles can also be seen swimming around the coastline of the park.
8. Soak up the sun on the beach
Whether you’d like to snorkel amongst colourful coral reefs, learn to surf or simply tup up your tna, you are bound to find respite on one of Sri Lanka’s many glorious beaches. On the northern coast unwind on the sandy shores of Trincomalee or Nilaveli, or soak up the sun in the south, on the pristine beaches of Bentota, Beruwala or Kalutara.
9. Learn how tea is made in Nuwara Eliya
Sri Lanka’s cool hill country offers a welcome antidote to the heat of the coast. Situated amongst verdant tea plantations Nuwara Eliya is one of the most attractive towns in the region. Learn how tea is made and graded at one of the tea plantations, where tea pickers can be seen harvesting the crop, and enjoy a cup of delicious pure Ceylon tea in the factory.
10. Meet elephants in Pinnawala
First established in 1975, the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage provides care for around 80 abandoned and orphaned elephants, many of which come to the orphanage as calves. Watch as baby elephants are bottle-fed by their handlers, and follow the herd to a nearby river and see these magnificent creatures splashing and rolling in the water during bath time.