Formerly known as Ceylon, Sri Lanka is a small but idyllic island nation found in the Indian Ocean at the southeast of the Indian Subcontinent. What this small destination lacks in size, it more than makes up for in breathtaking scenery, spectacular beaches, imposing mountains, and various fauna and flora. That's even before you mention the rich heritage, the welcoming and friendly people, and the delicious food you will find around the island.
Sri Lanka has so much going for it. For some people, it may be too much, and you might need help to figure out the things to do in Sri Lanka that will ensure you get the most out of your trip. That's where we come in. With this guide, we want to make planning a memorable trip to this little island easy for you.
1. Watch the Sunrise over The Little Adam's Peak
Whether young or old, with friends, traveling solo, or as a couple, one of the best things to see and do in Sri Lanka is to watch the sunrise over Little Adam's peak. Although the word peak may fill you with dread, don't be alarmed, as many people of different ages and abilities take this easy-to-do hike up to the summit. Starting the walk early is the best way to get the most out of your experience. It will take roughly one hour to complete when it's still dark and dusty outside. By reaching the summit, you will be in a prime position to take in the sun's rise.
2. Bird Watch at Bundala National Park
If you are a fan of wildlife, particularly birds, one of the top things to do in Sri Lanka is to visit Bundala National Park. The Ramsar-recognized wetlands in the south of the island nation are home to almost 200 different species of migratory and native birds.
Birdwatching tours start very early at 6 am and last for around 3 to 4 hours, enabling you to enjoy the sights and sounds of the park's wildlife. You can watch peaceful crocodiles resting, dancing peacocks, Asian green bee-eaters, whistling wild duck families, many hundreds of storks, and Brahminy kites. By afternoon, you will see wild boar, spotted deer among the Palu Neem and Weera trees, and wild Asian elephants.
3. Sample the World's Best Cinnamon at Ganduwa Island
It may be debatable for some people, but many believe the best cinnamon in the world is produced in the south of Sri Lanka. One of the best things in Sri Lanka for all foodies, spice fans, and those looking to learn more about culinary history is a trip to Ganduwa Island. Located south of Galle on Koggala Lake, you can access the island by boat and learn about the generational peelers who spend their days shaving the delicate layers off the inner bark to produce quills of fresh cinnamon.
You can also buy quills, oil, and powder in small packets.
4. Watch The Sun Rise or Set Pidurangala
One of the most famous things in Sri Lanka is the ancient ruins of a palace known as Sigiriya, which encompasses frescos, water gardens, and the ruins near the massive rock known as Pidurangala.
Depending on how you fare in the morning, you should get up early to enjoy the delightful sunrise. You can always see the sunset before they close the ticket office if you need to.
This is one of those places where you will want to ensure you have your camera or phone fully charged to take some stunning photographs.
5. Enjoy Sri Lankan Crabs
If you are looking for things to eat in Sri Lanka, why not try some delicious Sri Lankan crab dishes at the Mayura Hotel in Pettah Market or the Ministry of Crab within the Dutch Hospital Complex?
What if you are in Northern Sri Lanka? You must order the Jaffna crab curry at Cosy Restaurant at Jaffna Railway Station. However, the curry comes with an exquisite spicy and punchy kick.
6. Train Ride from Columbo
Looking for fun things to do in Sri Lanka to give you an exhilarating experience? Why not take a train ride from Columbo to Ella? This journey through the Nine Arch Bridge takes in gushing water views, British Colonial-era railway stations, tea gardens, and some of the most fantastic mountain vistas you will likely see.
It would help if you also considered taking the train from Colombo to Galle to experience some breathtaking views of the Indian Ocean and palm trees blowing in the gentle sea wind.
7. Camp in the Beautiful Misty Haputale Mountains
Traveling as a family and looking for things to do with kids in Sri Lanka? Why not spend some of your trip camping in truly spectacular mountains? Many local family-run and family-orientated campsites in and around the Haputale mountains are known for icy-cold streams and tea plantations.
Even children and adults who are not big fans of the outdoors will be won over by the beautiful sunrise views and the sound of birdsong in the morning.
8. Leopard Spotting at Wilpattu National Park
One of the reasons why so many people visit Yala National Park is in the hopes of seeing the endangered and remarkable Sri Lankan leopard. But this particular reserve is overcrowded, and the 4WDs the park staff use have scared animals away.
A more conscientious and enjoyable experience would be to take a trip to the Wilpattu National Park. There are so many reasons why, for animal lovers, this is one of the top things to do in Sri Lanka. Crucially, though, while the guides won't chase after potential sightings, they will turn off the engine of their vehicles when animals are nearby.
They even whisper when they come across a sighting so they don't disturb or scare the animals. It's not just leopards; the park is also home to barking deer, sloth bears, and Asian elephants. All in all, this is a better way to experience these beautiful animals without having to chase around after them and constantly scare them away.
Also, it's an excellent opportunity to get some killer shots for your social media, scrapbook, or memories.
9. Take in the World's Biggest Wild Asian Elephant Gathering
There are around 4000 wild Asian elephants in Sri Lanka, so it makes sense that many of the best things to do in Sri Lanka revolve around these beasts. It is best to see these beautiful and majestic giants in their natural home, the island's national parks. In the dry months between July and September, the expansive reservoirs of Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks attract large herds of Asian elephants who come to play, bathe, and eat the grass there.
On warmer days of the year, elephants will shelter in the jungles but appear later in the afternoon.
10. Eat Authentic Sri Lankan Curry and Rice in Unawatuna
If you want more great things in Sri Lanka, you should eat like the locals and try authentic curry and rice. Sri Lankans eat this at least once daily and often eat it for all meals. Therefore, there are plenty of great places to try this staple of Sri Lankan cuisine. However, one of the best places is Mettha's Home Cooked Meals, located in the south of the island at Unawatuna, between the various souvenir shops and cafes.
There, Aunt Mettha, with the help of her family, prepares the Sri Lankan dal in a rich and decadent coconut milk onsite.
11. Explore the Quirkiness of Galle Fort's Lanes
Galle Fort is one of the best things to do in Sri Lanka if you have time to spare and want to experience the different architectural influences of British, Dutch, and Portuguese colonies that have come to the island. It is surrounded by little boutiques, ice cream parlors, souvenir shops, luxury hotels, and spas. The Fort lanes open in the morning. The best way to approach a tour around Galle Fort is to stop for something to eat at the National Tea Rooms, and then you are complete and ready to go.
12. Cycle Through Polonnaruwa Kingdom
Polonnaruwa became the second capital city of Sri Lanka after the fall of Anuradhapura and remained so between 1070 and 1232. The city's ruins are recognized officially as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can hire a bike and cycle through and explore its ancient Royal Palace. Ensure you also visit the circular relic house with a giant Buddha statue, the Vatadage.
There are also other outstanding archeological relics like Gal Vihara, which has a variety of Buddha statues made from granite, and a standing Buddha at Lankatilaka Vihara.
13. Chase Waves is the First Local Female-Run Surf Club on the Island
Arugam Bay is a popular haunt for surfers of all abilities on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka. This idyllic little ocher sand-covered beach comes to life from April to August with many events, parties, live music, and drinks. You will also find the first all-women club called Arugam Bay Girls Surf Club, which offers yoga, surfing, and swimming lessons for the local community.
14 Adventure Among the Many Tea Plantations
As noted, Sri Lanka is home to many tea plantations. If you are looking for a quintessential Sri Lankan experience, one of the famous things to do in Sri Lanka is Nuwara Eliya. Haputale and Ella are among the most popular.
15. Have a Relaxing Stop by The Crystal Waters of Mirissa
If you want something more relaxing than many of the fun things to do in Sri Lanka highlighted in this article, you may enjoy Secret Beach. Okay, so the name is not precisely actual anymore, but this is a stunning and splendidly quiet little secluded bay worth visiting if you are near Mirissa. It's just five minutes away by tuk-tuk, and all local drivers know how to get there.
When you get there, make the most of your time by finding a nice bit of sand to lie down on or one of the many lounge chairs. For food and drink, there is also a small, quiet restaurant that serves some grub and something to wash it down with. Planning for at least half a day is best to get the most out of this hidden little part of the island.
16. Visit a Turtle Hatchery
To round off our list, we wanted to draw attention to one of the things to do with kids in Sri Lanka that will get them up close to nature. While there is the choice to swim with turtles, which is also a lot of fun, you can support an excellent cause involving these beautiful aquatic animals. Turtle eggs are of high value to poachers and need protection.
That is where the precious and excellent work of turtle hatcheries comes into play. At these establishments, young turtles can hatch safely, and then when they are mature and ready to face the wild, they can be released. You will not only learn about turtles but also get to see recently rescued turtles. The turtles are nursed back to health. Turtle hatcheries can be found along the island's southwest coast in places like Galle, Unawatuna, Mirissa, and Hikkaduwa. Although there is a small fee to these hatcheries, as they are normally charitable organizations, the price is given as a donation and is used to fund their projects.
As you can see, there are plenty of great things to see and do in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan locals are famous for their warm, friendly attitude and hospitality to tourists. If you are heading there, we hope our guide to the best things to do in Sri Lanka is helpful. If you have already been and think we may have missed some incredible places on our list, please drop recommendations in the comments section below. Enjoy your trip to the beautiful island of Sri Lanka!
I’m Steve. I’m an English Teacher, traveler, and an avid outdoorsman. If you’d like to comment, ask a question, or simply say hi, leave me a message here, on Twitter (@thefrugalexpat1). Many of my posts have been written to help those in their journey to financial independence. I am on my journey, and as I learn more I hope to share more. And as always, thanks for reading The Frugal Expat.