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If you’re planning a trip to Sri Lanka then this blog is for you! It outlines the absolute best things to do in Sri Lanka for travelers including popular tourist hot spots as well as off-the-beaten-path attractions (that most travelers miss!)
Sri Lanka has established itself as one of the top tourist destinations in the world, and for good reason. This small island nation offers a range of things to do and see for travelers!
From pristine beaches to mountains to wildlife, Sri Lanka has it all! There is amazing scenery, exciting adventures, the tastiest food, friendly people, and so much more!
But with so many amazing things to do in Sri Lanka to choose from, it can be hard to know what experiences are “must-do” things, and which ones can be skipped.
For that reason, I’ve written this blog about the 25 absolute BEST things to do in Sri Lanka. These are the activities and attractions that made my trip around Sri Lanka simply unforgettable, and I hope will do the same for you!
- 1. Explore the vast tea plantations
- 2. Watch the trains pass by Nine Arch Bridge
- 3. Eat a home-cooked meal at a guesthouse
- 4. Take a cooking class
- 5. Hike to Adam’s Peak
- 6. Ride the train from Ella to Kandy
- 7. Spot leopards in Yala National Park
- 8. Relax at Secret Beach in Mirissa
- 9. Go on safari in Udawalawe National Park
- 10. Visit a baby elephant orphanage
- 11. Swim with massive Sea turtles
- 12. Visit a turtle hatchery
- 13. Spot Blue Wales
- 14. Explore Sigiriya Rock Fortress
- 15. Sip the finest local tea at the Grand Hotel High Tea
- 16. Learn to surf
- 17. Spot wild elephants (without going on a safari!)
- 18. Spend a sunrise at Lipton’s Seat
- 19. Snorkel at Pigeon Island
- 20. Drive a tuk-tuk
- 21. Watch baby turtles being released
- 22. Hike to the top of Pidurangala Rock
- 23. Go on an overnight safari
- 24. Wander the Dambulla Cave Temples
- 25. Hike the largest Rose Quartz Mountain in Asia
- Before you go…
1. Explore the vast tea plantations
Sri Lanka is world-famous for tea. In the mountainous area of the cultural triangle, tea grows on every hillside. It’s not only a great place to try the freshest and cheapest tea in the world, but the views are simply stunning as well.
There are plenty of places to wander tea fields around Sri Lanka with some of the most popular being Ella, Nuwara Eliya, and Haputale. In these stunning towns, you can enjoy spectacular views of the tea fields all day long right from your hotel window!
You can also go for walks in the tea fields, visit tea factories, and learn all about how tea is made from start to finish!
We actually explored the tea fields near Lipton’s Seat. Here, we saw workers picking tea leaves as we walked the beautiful fields from Lipton’s Seat down to the Dambatenne Tea Factory. This is a common route that tourists walk and it can be done either independently, or on a guided tour.
Once at the Dambatenne Tea Factory, we took a factory tour and saw how tea is made from leaf to cup! Although a short 30-minute tour, it offered good insight into the tea-making process for only 250 LKR per person.
We loved wandering the fields near Lipton’s Seat and the Dabatenne Tea Factory tour, but this isn’t the only place you can have this experience in Sri Lanka. From Ella, you can visit Uva Halpewatta tea factory and do a tour. Or from Nuwara Eliya, you can do a tea picking and factory tour nearby too!
No matter where you choose to do it, exploring the tea fields and learning how tea is made is definitely one of the top things to do in Sri Lanka! I mean, tea is one of their biggest exports and a part of Sri Lankan culture.
2. Watch the trains pass by Nine Arch Bridge
Few places in Sri Lanka are as popular as Nine Arch Bridge – it’s one of the best things to do in Ella, Sri Lanka! To some, the large crowds are off-putting, however, coming from me (a hater of large, over touristic places) it’s still so worth a visit!
It’s just that beautiful!
If you do want to avoid most of the larger crowds then sunrise is the best time to visit. If you get there before 6:15 am you can just catch the first train passing by, and if you stay until 6:45 am you’ll get to see the famous blue passenger train!
You can either make your own way to the Nine Arch Bridge from Ella or, go on a guided sightseeing tour. Either way, it is a gorgeous attraction and easily one of the best places to visit in Sri Lanka!
If you do want to visit without a guide, the best way to catch the early trains is to stay somewhere close to the bridge. Some of the closest hotels to the Nine Arch Bridge are:
Hotels overlooking the Nine Arch Bridge
3. Eat a home-cooked meal at a guesthouse
One of my favorite parts about traveling around Sri Lanka was the food. It’s colorful, tasty, and cheap! But the best part? It’s healthy!
Sri Lankans eat a majority vegetarian diet that consists of lentils, beets, mango, and peppers (capsicum if you’re from Australia like me!) They also use lots of coconut including coconut oil and coconut milk.
I didn’t try a meal in Sri Lanka that I didn’t like, but the best place to eat was by far at local guest houses. One of my favorites was in Haputale, Sri Lanka (pictured above.)
The meals are freshly prepared and by staying and eating at local guesthouses you’re directly supporting the local communities and small businesses! It’s also one way to try real Sri Lankan food as your hosts will cook for you exactly what they would normally eat.
We paid on average around 600 LKR ($3.50 USD) each for a spread of 5-6 curries with rice, poppadums, and unlimited tea! If you want meat, expect to pay around 1000 LKR.
Some of my favorite guesthouses in Sri Lanka were:
Our Favourite Guest Houses in Sri Lanka
Sunny Place Guest House, Mirissa
4. Take a cooking class
While we’re on the topic of food, we may as well talk about the next best thing to eating Sri Lankan food – and that’s cooking it! Honestly, it’s one of the best things I did in Sri Lanka, and something that surprised me the most was how simple their food is to cook!
Our cooking lesson went for around 2 hours and in that time we cooked five different vegetarian dishes. Cooking classes vary in price depending on your choice of meat/vegetarian and how many curries you cook. However, anything around the 2,000 LKR ($11.30 USD) mark is a good price.
We did our cooking class at a Hotel in Ella. This was a family-owned guesthouse and the mother actually did our cooking class with us. It was only 1,400 LKR each for our private class.
Many guesthouses around Sri Lanka offer cooking classes and they are normally cheaper than specific cooking class establishments.
5. Hike to Adam’s Peak
Adam’s Peak is arguably one of the most important places to the Sri Lankan people. For them, it’s a pilgrimage of high religious significance. For many tourists like me, it’s not about religious significance but more about the breathtaking views and walking with the Sri Lankan people.
The hike to Adam’s Peak is best done in the early hours of the morning in order to reach the summit for sunrise. Adam’s Peak is not for the faint-hearted and does climb a whopping 1,000 meters in elevation. The actual peak sits at 2,243 meters above sea level and takes around 5 -7 hours to complete in total.
The trail is most commonly hiked from Kandy and tours leave early in the morning. They include transport to and from Adam’s Peak as well as a local guide.
Learn More: If you would like to go on a guided tour of Adam’s Peak, you can check out this highly-rated tour here!
6. Ride the train from Ella to Kandy
The train from Ella to Kandy was voted one of the most beautiful train rides in the world. This 6-hour train ride travels through some of the most stunning areas of Sri Lanka winding its way through the sprawling tea plantations in the cultural center.
It’s one of the best and most popular things to do in Sri Lanka – a must-do in my eyes!
The train does need to be booked in advance if you want first or second-class tickets especially during peak season (December to March). You can book your tickets here on 12go to secure your spot. Ticket prices start at 150 LKR each, but of course, first and second-class tickets will cost more (but the comfort is definitely worth it!)
Alternatively, you can pay this company to buy your ticket for you in advance. They can then drop the ticket to you or arrange pickup at the train station. This would be my recommendation for those who really want to do this experience without any hiccups.
7. Spot leopards in Yala National Park
Leopards are one of the rarest animals in Sri Lanka and spotting one is on just about on everyone’s bucket list. Unfortunately for me, I never did get to see one, however, it’s always worth a try!
One of the best places to see a leopard is on a safari in Yala National Park. Yala National Park is easily one of Sri Lanka’s most popular parks and rightly so. It’s not only home to these rare wildcats but it’s also home to elephants, monkeys, water buffalo, crocodiles, and much more.
There are lots of different safaris great for spotting leopards, but your best chances are on a two-night safari. This way you can get far away from the crowds that often scare the cats off. That doesn’t mean you won’t see one on a day trip, it’s just much less likely!
8. Relax at Secret Beach in Mirissa
Secret Beach is easily one of my favorite beaches in Sri Lanka. Although not so secret anymore, this stunning secluded bay is hands down worth a visit and one of the best things to do in Mirissa. From Mirissa, the beach is only a 5-minute tuk-tuk ride away and all of the local drivers know the spot.
Once there, you can sit back in one of the lounge chairs or find yourself a nice bit of beach to lay down. At the beach, there is a small restaurant that sells both food and drinks. Be sure to allow yourself at least half a day to truly enjoy this “hidden” gem!
9. Go on safari in Udawalawe National Park
Yala National Park is great for spotting leopards, but if you want to see tons of elephants then you’d best jump on a safari through Udawalawe National Park.
Udawalawe is home to one of the densest populations of elephants in Sri Lanka. On almost every single safari in the park, you’ll see many different elephants.
On my safari through Udawalawe, I must have spotted around 20 elephants including two small babies with their mother. Aside from elephants I also saw monkeys, water buffalo, lizards, crocodiles, and peacocks.
Half-day tours through the park cost around $15USD for two people in a jeep on average. You can book on the day but to secure a jeep it’s best to book in advance (especially during busy times!)
Learn More: For a complete guide with all of the info you need, check out our blog all about Udawalawe National Park!
10. Visit a baby elephant orphanage
If you’ve made it to Udawalawe for a safari, there’s one other elephant encounter you simply can’t miss. And that’s a visit to the Elephant Orphanage!
The Elephant Transit Home in Udawalawe is one of the real orphanages in Sri Lanka that actually looks after baby elephants and releases them into the wild.
The entrance to the orphanage is only 500 LKR and it goes directly to feeding the elephants. Four times a day they do a feeding and this is when you can come and watch the little baby elephants eat. You can’t play with them, touch them, nor even get close to them. They’re wild elephants and they want to keep them that way!
It’s a great cause to support and the best place to see up to 50 baby elephants at once in Sri Lanka!
11. Swim with massive Sea turtles
If you’re like me and love turtles then you’re in for a treat on your holiday through Sri Lanka! Throughout the country, there are many opportunities to swim with and view Sea turtles.
There are two places in Sri Lanka that offer the best chances to see them in the wild, Hikkaduwa Beach and Polhena Beach. At both of these beaches, you can swim from the shore and literally get within meters of huge sea turtles.
Polhena Beach was my favorite place to swim with the turtles because of the calm water. Polhena Beach is just 20 minutes south of Mirissa and taxis can take you straight there.
At both beaches, swimming with the sea turtles is completely free. However, for the best look, you may want snorkel gear that is available to rent from vendors at the beach.
Note: It is against the law to touch the Sea turtles in Sri Lanka. So, watch them all you would like, but refrain from touching them or trying to feed them as it is bad for the turtles and you could risk a hefty fine!
12. Visit a turtle hatchery
If swimming with turtles is a little scary for you or you’d just love to support a good cause, then I highly recommend visiting a turtle hatchery. In Sri Lanka, turtle eggs are highly sought after by poachers and as such, the eggs need to be protected.
Turtle hatcheries are the perfect place for the young turtles to hatch in a safe place and then be released. At the hatcheries, you can not only learn about the turtles but also see rescued turtles. These turtles are being nursed back to good health before being released back into the wild.
There are hatcheries throughout the southwest coast near Hikkaduwa, Mirissa, Unawatuna, and Galle. The entrance fee is usually by donation and goes directly to funding the projects.
13. Spot Blue Wales
I bet you’re thinking…more wildlife…really?? Well, Sri Lanka hasn’t become one of my all-time favorite countries to visit for no reason, and yes, there’s plenty more wildlife to see!
Our next wildlife encounter is likely the most impressive in the country – the Blue whale. These guys are the largest living creature to ever roam the planet and can grow to a whopping 100 ft! And as you may have guessed, Sri Lanka is one of, if not the best place in the world to see them.
This is honestly an opportunity you can’t pass on providing you’re in Sri Lanka during the right time of year.
On the west coast, during the months of December to April is when the whales are around with April being the best month. On the east coast, the season begins in July and runs until September.
Of course, you won’t just spot Blue whales and many of the sightseeing tours also look for pods of dolphins, Humpback whales, Sperm whales, and more!
The best places to do tours are in Mirissa and Hikkaduwa on the southwest coastline and Trincomalee on the east coast. Tours start from $65 USD and at certain times of the year, they guarantee you’ll see whales or dolphins.
You can browse a range of whale watching tours in Mirissa, Hikkaduwa or Trincomalee online in advance to secure the best tour!
14. Explore Sigiriya Rock Fortress
Sri Lanka is home to many ancient ruins but few are as impressive as Sigiriya Rock (also known as Lion Rock.) This massive rock reaches just over 200 meters (656 feet) in height and was one of the most important urban planning sites of the first millennium.
The history and legend behind the rock and the city that surrounded it, go much deeper than this, and the best way to learn about it is in Sigiriya.
Entrance to the Sigiriya Rock Fortress isn’t cheap and costs $25 USD, but considering its significance, it’s totally worth it!
Sigiriya Rock is located in the town of Sigiriya. Visiting the ancient city is easily the most popular thing to do in Sigiriya however, there are plenty of other attractions to see too.
You can browse hotels in Sigiriya online in advance, however, my recommendation is to stay at Hotel Sigiriya – it’s easily the best hotel in town!
15. Sip the finest local tea at the Grand Hotel High Tea
The Grand Hotel high tea in Nuwara Eliya is easily one of the finest afternoon teas in Sri Lanka. It is a really good place to try a selection of high-quality teas prepared by professionals.
In all honesty, I wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy it as much as I did. Despite feeling a little too fancy for me, I had a great time and drank way too much tea!
The afternoon tea costs 1,500 LKR per person and comes with three large plungers of tea per person (you choose your flavors) as well as a range of fine finger foods. It is really great value considering the quality of the food tea, service, and ambiance!
Attending the Grand Hotel High Tea is definitely one of the best things to do in Nuwara Eliya, and to me, in all of Sri Lanka too! But, being such a great attraction does mean it gets busy, so it’s best to reserve your table in advance by calling ahead, or, be sure to arrive right when the high tea starts at 3:30 pm!
16. Learn to surf
Sri Lanka is an awesome place to learn to surf! With a seemingly endless coastline, cheap board rentals, lessons, and waves perfect for all levels there’s never been a better time to learn to surf than on your trip in Sri Lanka.
Surfing in Sri Lanka is best on the west coast between the months of January to April and the east coast between May and July. However, if you’re just learning then you can surf almost any time of year!
One of the best learner beaches is Weligama Beach. It’s only a short drive from Mirissa and well worth checking out if you want to learn to catch some waves.
Alternatively, Arugam Bay is world-famous for surfing and there is a range of surf schools there. If you are really serious about surfing, then Arugam Bay could be the best place for you to go in Sri Lanka!
Surf lessons cost around $14 USD for 2 hours but you can do lessons as a group which is cheaper.
17. Spot wild elephants (without going on a safari!)
This is not your average thing to do in Sri Lanka nor is it a popular one. In fact, many of you probably haven’t heard of Maduru Oya National Park, however, if you truly want to see wild elephants then you really should visit!
The unique thing about Maduru Oya is that there’s actually a public highway (the B502) that runs through the middle of the national park. From this road at both sunrise and sunset, you can spot wild elephants. Because it’s a public road it’s also completely free – other than your driver of course.
We spent two nights at a beautiful lodge nearby called the Blue Lake Ridge and spent our mornings and afternoons watching actual wild elephants. It’s the only hotel out there but it’s so beautifully located you won’t regret spending a night or two (like we did!)
The reason I say “actual” wild elephants is because the elephants in the other national parks around Sri Lanka are so used to humans they’re almost tame. However, the elephants here will charge you and must be watched from afar.
This is a very off-the-beaten-path experience but it’s the best encounter we had with elephants in Sri Lanka. This will be hard to do without a driver or your own transport (we had our tuk-tuk) so keep that in mind when planning your Sri Lanka trip.
You can also go on a safari in Maduru Oya Nationa Park and it’s much less visited than others so you’ll be sure to get a better experience!
18. Spend a sunrise at Lipton’s Seat
I loved Adam’s Peak and I really enjoyed the World’s End, however, my favorite viewpoint in Sri Lanka was Lipton’s Seat. Situated high above the tea fields of Dambatenne, this viewpoint requires no hiking, and instead, you can take the access road right to the top.
The best time to visit is, of course, sunrise with taxis and tours leaving from both Ella and Haputale daily. The trick to Lipton Seat is the visit early in the morning, before the daily fog sets in.
If you want more info check out our complete guide to Lipton’s Seat, or, just book one of these tours from all over Sri Lanka and let someone else do the planning while you just enjoy the views!
The entrance fee to Lipton Seat is 500 LKR and there is a small cafe at the top to enjoy. Surprisingly, the prices are very reasonable.
19. Snorkel at Pigeon Island
Okay, so you now know about some of Sri Lanka’s best national parks on land, but are you aware Sri Lanka has a stunning marine national park called Pigeon Island? Both the island and the waters around the island are protected, but it’s what’s in the water that most come to see!
Turtles, sharks, and beautifully colored corals are just some of the things you’ve got to look forward to!
The island is located off the coast of Trincomalee and Nilaveli – two very popular tourist destinations in Sri Lanka. Entrance to the park includes a national park fee so expect to pay around 8,000 LKR for two people.
You can choose from a range of tours and secure your spot on a boat online in advance!
20. Drive a tuk-tuk
By far the most unique (and sometimes challenging) thing I did in Sri Lanka was rent a tuk-tuk to drive around for 30 days. Instead of catching buses or paying for taxis we cruised the coast and climbed the mountains in our own tuk-tuk.
The idea first came to us after seeing something online and once we thought about it we simply had to do it! A tuk-tuk isn’t necessarily cheap and costs between $16 and $20 USD per day. But when you add up taxi costs and the time lost catching buses, it isn’t that bad. Plus, it’s a really cool way to travel!
After completing a month in our tuk-tuk I can’t recommend it enough. Don’t get me wrong, driving at first can be a little crazy, but once you get the hang of it, it’s amazing!
We rented out tuk-tuk from Tuktuk Rental and can honestly recommend them! They take the stress out of it and look after you the entire way! If you do choose them, use the code DEST to get 5% off your rental price!
21. Watch baby turtles being released
Remember when I said baby turtles had to be protected in Sri Lanka? Well, not all of them are guarded in a hatchery and instead, some are guarded on the beach.
In Hikkaduwa, Mirissa, Polhena, and many more beaches around Sri Lanka, baby turtles hatch regularly on the beach and are released by the guards who protect them.
We were lucky enough to see baby turtles being released on a few occasions with one of the best moments on Mirissa Beach in Mirissa, Sri Lanka! Here, about halfway down the beach at the lifeguard tower, we saw around 100 babies taking their first steps and eventually their first swim!
Of course, not every day will you see them, but be sure to keep an eye out or ask a local!
22. Hike to the top of Pidurangala Rock
Sigiriya Rock usually takes most of the spotlight in Sigiriya, but did you know you can climb another rock only 3 ft. shorter than Sigiriya Rock for a fraction of the price?
But the best part?
Pidurangala Rock sits directly opposite Sigiriya Rock and gives you the best seat in the house to watch the sunset. Climbing Pidurangala Rock only takes around 20 minutes and entrance is a mere 500 LKR ($2.84 USD!)
It’s also far less busy and for many, it’s the cheaper alternative to hiking Sigiriya Rock. Of course, Pidurangala rock doesn’t have ancient ruins, but if history’s not your thing then it may not matter!
You can do tours to Pidurangala Rock and Sigiriya Rock from Colombo, Kandy, and Negambo. Alternatively, you can stay in Sigiriya and visit on your own!
Learn More: Read our blog all about Pidurangala Rock for more information on visiting and tips!
23. Go on an overnight safari
A safari in any national park will be an unforgettable experience, but without a doubt, the best way to experience any national park in Sri Lanka is on an overnight or multi-day safari.
On these safaris, you’ll see more, and have a very unique experience in Sri Lanka compared to most travelers.
Imagine spending the nights completely surrounded by nature and your days spotting all the wild animals! Tours cost around $650 USD but include all your food, transport, and safaris to see the animals.
An overnight safari is easily one of the best things to do in Sri Lanka, so why come all this way to only half do it!
24. Wander the Dambulla Cave Temples
One of the most important temples to the Sri Lankan people is the Dambulla Cave Temples. Visiting the temples was a rewarding experience. Although not the greatest thing I did in Sri Lanka, it was very heartwarming and a privilege to walk among such an important part of the Sri Lankan culture.
I highly recommend reading up on the Dambulla caves before you visit so that you can truly appreciate them!
Entrance to the caves isn’t cheap and does cost 1,500 LKR, however, it’s the best thing to do in Dambulla, Sri Lanka, and worth every penny!
25. Hike the largest Rose Quartz Mountain in Asia
I’m going to finish this list with one of the least known things to do in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka is home to the largest Rose Quartz Crystal in Asia. But the best part? You can hike it for only 500 LKR! How cool is that?!
It’s located in Jathika Namal Uyana Reserve near the city of Dambulla which alone is worth a visit. The chance to walk among this giant piece of rose quartz is one you really shouldn’t miss.
The rock itself shines a light shade of pink and from the top the views of the surrounding area are breathtaking. When Bailey and I went we were the only people there which was crazy in my opinion! So, if you visit Sigiriya or Dambulla this is really a must-do!
Getting Around Sri Lanka
To visit all of the best places in Sri Lanka, you’re going to need a mode of transport. You have a few choices when it comes to getting around Sri Lanka:
Rent a Tuk-tuk
Easily the most popular (and most fun) way to travel around Sri Lanka. We actually rented a tuk-tuk on our trip and absolutely loved it! Tuk-tuks are easy to drive, cheap to rent, and the freedom that comes with your own wheels is unmatched.
If you do decide to rent a tuk-tuk in Sri Lanka, be sure to go with a reputable company that provides quality tuk-tuks, such as Tuktuk Rental (who we rented from.) These guys not only offer an amazing service, but their tuk-tuks are actually rented from local families, providing income for the local community.
If you decide to rent from Tuktuk Rental, be sure to use the coupon code ‘DEST‘ for 5% off!
For more info, read our blog: The Truth about Renting a Tuk-tuk in Sri Lanka.
Hire a Driver
If you’re only planning on going to a couple of destinations, then a private driver is not a bad idea. In the comfort of an air-conditioned vehicle, your driver can take you to your next destination. All you have to do is sit back and relax!
You can hire highly-rated drivers in advance to pick you up right from the airport when you arrive in Sri Lanka. This driver will take you to your hotel in Mirissa, Galle, Bentota, or Unawatuna. Whereas, this driver will take you to Kandy.
Of course, every time you want to change destinations you will have to arrange for another driver (unless you book this driver who will drive you around for an entire week). Car transfer can easily be organized through your hotel.
Take Public Transport
This is a choice I only recommend for those on a very tight budget and with plenty of time. Public transport is everywhere in Sri Lanka in the form of public buses and trains. It is also very cheap, costing less than a couple of dollars per journey.
However, it isn’t the most comfortable way to travel. The buses don’t have air conditioning and neither do many train services. They can also be slow-moving, stopping every couple of minutes to pick up more passengers.
With that said, public transport is popular with budget backpackers, and it is mostly safe. This is one way to travel for those who want to get around as the locals do!
Before you go…
There you go, 25 amazing things to do in Sri Lanka! This list is the reason I loved my trip so much and thinking back, it’s crazy how many amazing moments there are to be had in such a small country.
Of course, we have written a ton more about travel in Sri Lanka and you can see all of our articles on our Sri Lanka blog page. Otherwise, some articles you may like are:
The BEST Honeymoon Hotels in Sri Lanka
10 Absolute BEST Beaches in Sri Lanka
17 BEST Things to do in Mirissa, Sri Lanka