The island country of Sri Lanka is known as the gem of the Indian Ocean. With diverse landscapes and cultures spread across the different regions of Sri Lanka, there really is something for everyone. This list is quite adventurous and involves a few hikes and all things action! The culture and food of Sri Lanka are incredibly unique and will captivate you throughout your adventures. During two trips to the tropical island, these are my favorite things to do in Sri Lanka.
THREE TOURS I RECOMMEND IN SRI LANKA
Before we get into the list of the top things to do in Sri Lanka, I wanted to share with you three of my favorite tours in Sri Lanka.
Golden Hour Safari: The most popular safari tour is the Golden Hour Safari Experience in Yala National Park
Whale Watching: The Morning Whale Watching Tour from Mirissa Beach is one of the most popular activities in the entire country. See a variety of animals including blue whales, sperm whales, and dolphins from the observation deck.
Sigiriya Rock Tour: Discover the Sigirya rock fortress on a 2-3-hour walking trip which will provide an insight into the art, tradition, and history of Sri Lanka. Book your tour: Sigiriya Rock Climb Guided Tour
MY TOP PLACES TO STAY IN SRI LANKA
Sri Lanka is a huge region so it depends on where you are and which of the best places to visit in Sri Lanka are on your list as to which accommodation will be the best. For example, when you are visiting Sigiriya Rock, Hotel Sigiriya is clearly the best choice!
- Top pick: A stunning estate in the Tea Country: Thotalagala
- Best overall experience -(with Sigiriya Rock): Hotel Sigiriya
- Best for heritage in Galle: Galle Fort Hotel
- Best for elephant safaris: Cinnamon Lodge Habarana
- Best for beachfront bliss in Tangalle: Buckingham Place
- Best for exploring Colombo: The Kingsbury or the Movenpick
- Best for home-cooked food in Kandy: Green View Boutique
15 Awesome Things to do in Sri Lanka
Hike Little Adams Peak
If you want to enjoy some of the best views in Ella without needing to hike for hours, Little Adam’s Peak is an awesome adventure. It’s best enjoyed during sunrise or sunset and is a must-see in Sri Lanka. It’s one of the top things to do in Sri Lanka if you enjoy hiking!
The trail begins with a moderate incline as it winds through tea plantations. It will lead you up to 1141m above sea level although you already begin at a high elevation so you will only hike up a few hundred meters. There are multiple platforms, rocks, and viewpoints perfect for photos once you hit the top of Little Adam’s Peak.
If you are in Ella and looking to visit Little Adam’s Peak but also want to see Ella Rock and the Famous Nine Arch Bridge, there is a great day tour that packs it all in. It’s extremely good value considering you can tick off all three attractions in just one day for about $55. It is called the Ella Three Icons Day Tour.
Read my full blog post: Little Adam’s Peak in Ella
Book this tour: Ella Three Icons Day Tour
Ride the Kandy to Ella Train
The Kandy to Ella train journey is said to be one of the most scenic, epic train journeys in not only just Sri Lanka but the world. So with a few days to spare in Sri Lanka, I decided to purchase a ticket for $1.50 and climb aboard for the 5-hour journey. Yes, the train really does cost just $1.50.
I have now taken the train in both directions. From Kandy to Ella and in reverse from Ella to Kandy. On both occasions, I just arrived at the train station and bought the cheapest ticket and walked on. I didn’t sit in a seat, I preferred to an open door and hang my legs over the edge for the entire journey.
There is another option, which is actually quite useful. You can do a tour where you take the train from Kandy to Ella and do a tea-plantation visit. It includes lunch and they take care of all the ticketing and organization so it’s a pretty relaxing journey. Riding this train was definitely one of my favorite things to do in Sri Lanka.
Read the full blog post: Kandy to Ella – Most Scenic Train Journey in Asia
Book your tour: Kandy to Ella Train with Tea Plantation Visit
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Trek through a Tea Plantation in Nuwara Eliya
Lipton Tea is a staple item in the cupboard of most families around the world. Never did I expect to be trekking with a 60-yr-old local Sri Lankan up and down the steep mountains home amongst the famous Lipton Tea and other highly lauded tea estates. If you are looking to gain historical context and perspective this is one of the best things to do in Sri Lanka.
There’s this great value tour that visits the Dambatenne Tea Factory, and then heads over to Lipton’s Seat for magnificent views.
Book your tour: Lipton Seat & Dambatenne Tea Factory Day Tour
The Royal Tea Trail begins innocuously by the roadside before beginning to the wind between steep tea terraces. Although unlike the rice terraces in Bali these are not tiered. There are no steps and the tea-pluckers must scale the sharp incline. The tea plants are scattered with no particular pattern although they are often layered creating a beautiful linear design on the side of the mountains. If you only do one guided tour is activity is one of the must-do in Sri Lanka!
Read the full blog post: Trekking through a tea plantation in Sri Lanka
Go on Safari in Sri Lanka
It is an unmissable experience to go on a safari while in Sri Lanka. There are many national parks with great experiences including Yala and Kaudulla. I ended up choosing Kaudulla National Park and I was amazed at what we saw. Our group got into an open-top jeep and began cruising through the jungle. Keep your eyes out for elephants, leopards, sloths, turtles, and more amazing wildlife. On my safari, we came across a massive herd of 100+ elephants drinking at a lake. We cruised slowly, letting the elephants go about their business as we watched calves follow their mothers while males were fighting.
It was truly an immersive wildlife experience and one of the best things to do in Sri Lanka for photographers! You can actually do a safari, which is surprisingly affordable with a 3-hour experience but the 2-Day All-Inclusive Safari option allows you to sleep in a luxury accommodation amongst the wilderness with better chances of spotting leopards at dawn and dusk.
Visit Nine Arch Bridge in Ella
The Nine Arch Bridge in Ella is on the Demodara loop and spans 91 meters at a height of 24m. The beautiful nine arches make it a very picturesque spot especially as it is located in a dense jungle and agricultural setting. Behind the railway, a forest is booming, and below, tea leaves are being cultivated.
The bridge was built at Gotuwala between the Ella and Demodara stations during the British Colonial period. Locally it is known as ‘Ahas Namaye Palama’ meaning nine skies bridge in Sinhala. The name derives from the visual experience. When you stand below the bridge and look up you can see the sky through the nine arches.
The unique part about this bridge is that it is built entirely from rocks, bricks, and cement with no use of steel or metals throughout the structure. The bridge was commissioned in 1941 and the story goes that as the bridge was being planned World War I broke out.
There are a number of cafes in the hills with vantage points of the bridge but down at the bridge is where you want to be. The Nine Arch Bridge has a huge bend in it so in my opinion standing on the side the bridge bends away from makes for the best photos and accentuates the arch. Watching a train come around the bend on this bridge was one of my favorite things to do in Sri Lanka.
If you are in Ella and looking to visit Little Adam’s Peak but also want to see Ella Rock and the Famous Nine Arch Bridge, there is a great day-tour that packs it all in. It’s extremely good value considering you can tick off all three attractions in just one day for about $55. It is called the Ella Three Icons Day Tour.
Read the full blog post here: Nine Arch Bridge in Ella
Book this tour: Ella Three Icons Day Tour
Sunset at the Famous Rope swing in Dalawella
There are plenty of places around the world that have become viral travel hotspots overnight. A few popular Instagrammers or vloggers blow a place up and all of a sudden it becomes a must-do activity while you visit a region. The palm tree rope swing at Dalawella Beach is a prime example of a social media hotspot. Having said that it’s an awesome spot for a fun afternoon or a sunset and chill place to hang out whether you intend on getting that ‘Instagrammable’ travel shot or not.
The location of the swing is on Dalawella Beach, which is in the south of Sri Lanka near the popular town of Unawatuna. It takes about two hours to get to Dalawella Beach by train from Colombo and will cost a couple of bucks for the ticket. Once you are at Dalawella Beach the exact location is actually in front of a guesthouse called Dream Cabana.
The guys at Dream Cabana built the swing as something fun for themselves and it is evolved into one of the most talked-about spots in Sri Lanka. It’s crazy how something a few mates built has become one of the most popular things to do in Sri Lanka.
Read the full blog post: The Palm Tree Rope Swing in Dalawella
Surf at Hikkaduwa
The south coast of Sri Lanka is a surfers paradise. Around each corner is a new break being enjoyed by only a handful. A searing sun, the warmest water, and endless waves make the south the perfect surfari destination. What makes it a surfari? No matter where you travel along the coast you are never far from the jungle, monkeys, peacocks, and jungle bliss. There really aren’t too many places in the world that combine both the jungle and surf in such close proximity.
Read the full blog post: Sunset Surf Session at Hikkaduwa
Hike to the top of Diyaluma Falls
Diyaluma Falls is the 2nd biggest waterfall in Sri Lanka and is the perfect spot for a full day adventure. There are multiple falls and natural pools throughout this hike in the Badulla region. I could’ve spent days here.
The hike was almost entirely downhill and led us through the long grass but the trail was marked the whole way. It appeared that the trail wasn’t used too often as the trail was quite overgrown in many parts.
There’s a day tour that runs from Ella and takes you on the hike to Diyaluma Falls that I can recommend below. This was one of the best-unexpected adventures in Sri Lanka during my trip!
Read my full blog post: Hiking to Diyaluma Falls
Book your tour: Diyaluma Falls Adventure from Ella
Go Hiking in Riverston
Hiking in Riverston Sri Lanka was an unexpected highlight of my journey throughout the island. Riverston is a region best defined by the popular term, ‘off the beaten path’. We drove for several hours, parked in the middle of nowhere, and then embarked on a hike. If you want something unique and to get away from the crowds, this is one of the best places to visit in Sri Lanka
The hike doesn’t have a specific name according to the locals other than the Riverston Hike. The hike looks out over the Knuckles mountain range and the surrounding highlands. It’s one of the short day trip hikes in the area. The end of the hike ends with a sharp 300m drop, which made for some pretty epic photos. From here you can chill and take in the views of the Thelgamuwa Valley, the terraced rice fields, and the Knuckles mountain range. This spot is called ‘The Worlds End’. The hike is 5km long but not incredibly difficult.
If you would like to organize a tour there is actually a really cool tour that takes you from Kandy on a hike to see the ‘Knuckles’ at World’s End. The tour takes you along the ridges of the Knuckles mountain range as you enjoy the beautiful views during this full-day adventure that includes pick-up and drop-off from Kandy.
Book the tour: Knuckles Hiking day tour from Kandy
Get a Tattoo in Galle
Getting a tattoo in a developing country is always an interesting experience. In Sri Lanka, there are plenty of different tattoo studios to choose from. I was in Unawatuna in the south of the country and found a tattoo artist called Sajee in the nearby city of Galle.
I visited the studio to meet Sajee and check out some of his work. The studio wasn’t spotless but it was fairly clean and the photos of his previous work filled me with confidence. A few hours later I had a tiger on my arm. You might call it risky but this was one of my best memories and one of the epic things to do in Sri Lanka that I definitely don’t regret!
Explore the Markets
There are markets all over Sri Lanka, all of which will be great to explore. Try new fruits, taste some local dishes and of course meet the local vendors. I visited a small market in Nuwara Eliya and met some beautiful grocers and vendors who loved having their portraits taken as I wandered throughout the stalls.
Hike to the Top of Pidurangala Rock
While Sigiriya Rock is rich in history and has some pretty dramatic features such as the lion’s paw and the mirror wall, Pidurangala Rock has a much more natural feel, despite also housing a temple.
Pidurangala Rock is adjacent to Sigiriya Rock and is the best viewing spot of Sigiriya Rock as it is only slightly lower. Pidurangala is a popular spot for sunrise as you can enjoy 360-degree views of not only the valleys but also Sigiriya Rock.
There is no need to choose between the two. Many travelers wake up for the sunrise at Pidurangala and then head to sunset on top of Sigiriya Rock. This is exactly what I did and I highly recommend it.
Read the full blog post: Pidurangala Rock Hike
Climb Sigiriya Rock
Sigiriya Rock is referred to as the eighth wonder of the world. It is a truly astonishing feat of architecture. The fortress at the top has been subjected to many wars and invasions, making this a very historic site. It’s one of the most popular tourist things to do in Sri Lanka.
370 meters above sea level and 200 meters higher than the jungle below is the top of Sigiriya Rock. The fortress is comprised of abandoned palaces, ponds, waterways, canals, stairs, and walls. We climbed all the way to the top for sunset and witnessed Sri Lanka’s most popular site during one of the best sunsets of the year.
If you are in Colombo, there’s a great full-day tour including climbing to the top of Sigiriya Rock that you should definitely check out at the link below.
Book your tour: Sigirya Rock Climb Guided Tour
A road trip along the South Coast
From Unawatuna to Mirissa to Tangalle, the south coast of Sri Lanka is perfect for a road trip. You can grab a bike and cruise your way through each town stopping for a surf or a coffee at every new beach. Palm trees and epic beaches line the coast. There are so many awesome, tropical beaches along this coastline that it gets repetitive in a good way. So grab a bike hit the road and enjoy one of the top things to do in Sri Lanka!
Explore Colombo City
After all of your adventurous travels throughout Sri Lanka, a night in a hotel might be warranted in Colombo. During my trip with the tourism board, we were lucky enough to stay at the Movenpick Colombo, which had an infinity pool looking out over the city to the ocean. It was a perfect spot for sunset. Whether you like it or not, your trip is likely to begin or end in Colombo as that is where the airport is. Exploring the city with a tour or hanging out at the hotels is one of the relaxing things to do in Sri Lanka after your big adventure!
One of the best ways to see Colombo is on this top-rated half-day tour of Colombo City with an English-speaking guide who knows all of the best spots and places to eat.
Book your tour: Half-Day Tour of Colombo City (Top-rated)
What are my favorite pieces of travel gear?
There are four pieces of gear that I simply never travel without. These are four items that I using right now and this list gets updated every year! Here are my travel essentials.
- Packing Cube Set: Once you cube you’ll never go back. Organize your clothes within your luggage with these smart mesh containers. It will revolutionize your packing.
- Quick-Dry Towel: A quick-dry towel is a must for travelers. It hardly takes up any room and dries in seconds.
- Travel Wallet: Keep your passport, wallet, and vaccine card safe as well as any forms and important documents you need to store.
- Grayl GeoPress Water Filter Bottle: I’ve used this for three years. It filters your water with one press and you can drink directly from it. Never buy a plastic water bottle again!
READ MORE SRI LANKA BLOG POSTS
- Ultimate Guide: 15 BEST THINGS TO DO IN SRI LANKA
- Hiking in Ella: LITTLE ADAM’S PEAK HIKE IN ELLA
- Riding the Train: Kandy to Ella by Train
- The famous Sri Lanka rope swing: THE PALM TREE ROPE SWING AT DALAWELLA
- The famous bridge: NINE ARCH BRIDGE IN ELLA
- Getting a tattoo in Sri Lanka: MY EXPERIENCE GETTING A TATTOO IN SRI LANKA
- Where to stay: 20 BEST ECO LODGES IN SRI LANKA
- Sri Lanka Packing List: THE ULTIMATE SRI LANKA PACKING LIST: WHAT TO PACK AND WHY