Most people travelling to South Asia tend to opt for a visit to India. Many overlook the tiny island to the southeast of the Indian subcontinent, Sri Lanka. Having been gripped by the throes of civil war for a large portion of its recent history, Sri Lanka has not been high on the tourist radar.
Now, living in peace and working towards a brighter future, Sri Lanka is slowly being discovered by foreigners as a culturally rich, naturally beautiful country, and, above all, a truly amazing place to holiday. From ancient ruins and bustling cities, to pristine beaches and an abundance of wildlife, there really is a little something for everyone packed into this small island.
Cities and Towns
Every Sri Lankan adventure begins in Colombo and it’s worth spending a day or two in the capital. Visit the old Portuguese Fort and explore the market area of Pettah, before strolling along the beach and enjoying the buzz of Galle Face Green at dusk. Also, head up into the hill country, if only to escape from the heat for a few days. Kandy is considered the ‘cultural capital’ of Sri Lanka and is also home to the important Buddhist pilgrimage site of ‘The Temple of the Tooth’. The area surrounding Nuwara Eliya, right up in the mountains, is the centre of Sri Lanka’s booming tea industry and the expanse of greens leaves is a beautiful sight. Perched on the island’s southern-most tip is Galle, Sri Lanka’s fourth largest city. The old Dutch quarter known as Galle Fort is Sri Lanka’s best preserved colonial town and a great place to explore.
Known as Ceylon until 1972, Sri Lanka has over 2,000 years of documented history that is fascinating to discover, and an impressive collection of temples and ruins that represent this rich heritage. Smaller in total land area than even Ireland, Sri Lanka still boasts eight UNESCO World Heritage-listed sites.
If you visit the ‘Cultural Triangle’ in the centre of the island, you can see three of these World Heritage sites; Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya. Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa were the first two capitals of the Sinhalese kingdom spanning from the 3rd century BC, followed by Kandy, until British occupation in 1815. Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa have incredibly well-preserved ruins of the ancient cities, including giant stupas (Buddhist meditation structures), statues, monasteries and palaces.
The breathtaking Sigiriya, meaning ‘Lion Rock’, is a giant rock formation reaching around 200 metres in height. The really interesting thing about this rock is that in the 5th century AD, King Kassapa built his palace on the summit of the rock, with the rest of the palace complex sprawling from the base of the rock. Climbing Sigiriya is a must. You will see beautiful rock frescoes lining the walls, terrific views of the surrounding countryside and the palace ruins on the summit.
Sri Lanka is unique in its abundance of influences over its long history. Arab, Malay, Portuguese, Dutch and British settlers have all occupied Sri Lanka at some time, each affecting the culture, architecture and cuisine in their own way. Sri Lanka is also home to many religions, ethnicities and languages, which makes driving from one town to the next often a very differing cultural experience. Tnhe people are friendly and happy, so don’t be surprised if, when you ask for directions, that the person actually takes you right to the door, even if it is streets away.
If you visit Sri Lanka, be prepared for every type of curry you could ever imagine and lots of spice. Sri Lankans eat rice and curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but there are many other interesting Sri Lankan dishes to try. The street food is mostly safe to eat, but use your own judgement on this one. Delicious local foods include egg hoppers, string hoppers and all kinds of different roti.
Sri Lanka is home to an abundance of wildlife and has many national parks to explore. See elephants, leopards, sloth bears, buffalo, crocodiles and much more in the wild. Yala National Park is one of the popular options and they offer safaris to explore the vast and varying terrain. If you are physically up for a 10 -kilometre hike, visit Horton Plains National Park and walk to World’s End, an eerie but awesome 1-kilometre sheer drop on the side of a mountain.
The 1,330 kilometres of coastline offers countless beach choices. The beaches of the west coast such as Bentota and Beruwala offer more resort-style stays, while the beaches on the south coast, such as Mirissa and Unawatuna, provide a more laid-back hippy vibe. East coast beaches such as Trincomalee and Arugam Bay are more secluded and frequented by less tourists, due to a concentration of violence in that area during the war. They’re now are safe to visit, although less built up, and are some of the most popular beaches with surfers.
So whether you want to enjoy the fine dining and shopping of the bustling big cities, get lost in the culture and history of the countryside, or simply relax on the white sands of one of the many beaches, Sri Lanka is sure to have something to suit your tastes.