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Sri Lanka stole a piece of my heart. It felt like stepping back in time. Perhaps it was the pure sensuality of the nation – its smells, sights and sounds combined with the grace of the lovely people. The effect was a lasting one. Sri Lanka left its mark on me. These 9 best places to visit in Sri Lanka will let you scratch the surface of this unique country, however, I can guarantee you won’t want to leave!
Sri Lanka: 9 Best Places to Visit
These nine places – Arugam Bay, Dambulla, Ella, Galle, Haputale, Kandy, National Parks, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya – stole my heart. They will leave an impression on any traveller who ventures their way.
1. Arugam Bay
Such a laid-back, relaxed vibe here. Could be the surfing. Take a lesson or hang out and watch the surfers while you sip killer pink lemonade (or something stronger) at Upali Beach Surf Café. Listen to the crashing waves. Watch the fishermen and families playing in the ocean.
Nothing moves quickly here.
Bring cards to the restaurants. Play a game or two while you wait for your meal.
Many restaurants do not serve alcohol but you can bring your own. The only place to buy alcohol in town is at the bar called Sasushi / Meena’s.
2. Best Places To Visit In Sri Lanka: Dambulla
One of eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka, the five-rock temple caves at Dambulla are well worth a visit. It is thought to have been a place of worship since the 1st century B.C. Over one hundred Buddha statues, intricate cave paintings, monks and an enormous golden Buddha make this a thoughtful and important stop.
You can store your backpack in the museum for 100 Sri Lankan Rupees ($0.90 Cdn)
Cover your knees and shoulders. Be prepared to climb all the steps to the temples.
3. Best Places To Visit In Sri Lanka: Ella
After a gorgeous train ride through the hill country, we arrived in Ella. Ella claims to be everyone’s favourite hill town and sure enough, it was mine. There are many hikes to do in the area. We hiked Little Adam’s Peak which is not strenuous and has sweeping views of the landscape.
I just loved the Nine Arch Bridge. Find out what time the train will be passing by, walk the tracks and wave furiously as the train passes.
I have to admit we liked it so much we stayed for the next train and went back the next day! There is a little concession stand near the tunnel – perfect for some fresh coconut water while you wait.
The Dowa Temple is just outside of Ella and accessible by public bus. The 14 foot Buddha that is carved into the rock face is spectacular. It also happens to be about 2000 years old. The temple itself is filled with sitting buddhas and a reclining Buddha underneath beautifully painted rock ceillings. There is a secret tunnel that apparently goes all the way to Kandy.
Note that tea factories have no processing on Mondays as there is no picking of tea leaves on Sundays. We decided to wait until Tuesday to go BUT it was a full moon day (known as poya) and there was no one working. Almost everything is closed on poya days in Sri Lanka.
4. Best Places To Visit In Sri Lanka: Galle
Everyone says you can “do” Galle in an afternoon. I guess you can but like everywhere I go the longer you linger, the more a place creeps into your soul. You can walk the seawall once and stay for sunset or you can revisit it and have a different experience. Different people. Different waves. Different spot to stop and just be.
Galle, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was initially built in the 16th century by the Portuguese. The Dutch took over in 1640 and rebuilt the city. It has been a thriving port city ever since. Galle remains a fine example of a walled city.
On December 26, 2004 the tsunami hit Galle killing thousands of people. There alone are two reasons to spend time in Galle – its rich history and the proud determination of its people to rebuild and move forward.
The walled town is full of historical buildings, shops, restaurants, tourists and many locals. I was lucky enough to be in Galle during a cricket match between Sri Lanka and Australia. I stood up on the fort with resident Sri Lankans looking down on the pitch and cheering on Sri Lanka amongst all the flags snapping in the wind.
There are many places of worship in the old city including Catholic and Methodist churches, a convent, a Muslim temple and a Buddhist temple. These buildings reflect Galle’s history and its current multi-ethnic and multi-religious population.
The old town is laid back. Wander into the shops and linger at the restaurants that have a view. I loved A Minute by Tuk Tuk for its great view and discovered the little terrace at Maison de Raux Café.
5. Best Places To Visit In Sri Lanka: Haputale
Another fabulous little hill town. You must walk through the Lipton Tea Plantation. We took a tuktuk part way up the hill and then walked to the summit. The views are spectacular. Walking back through the plantation, tea pickers are hard at work filling their baskets with tea leaves. I left determined to have a greater appreciation for every cup of tea I drink.
6. Best Places To Visit In Sri Lanka: Kandy
I was the last to exit the bus at Dambulla, thus started the conversation with the driver. He drove me (personal chauffeur!) a few extra blocks and asked me where I was going next. I replied, “Every Sri Lankan asks if I have been to Kandy, so I am going to Kandy.”
He swung his head to look at me and replied thoughtfully, “Kandy is the heart of Sri Lanka. It is the people’s heart.”
Following a monk in the Temple of the Tooth complex
The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (Sri Dalada Maligawa) is where that heart lies. It is one of Sri Lanka’s holiest shrines and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On a Sunday morning, with some tourists and masses of Sri Lankans practising their living faith, I entered the mystical temple. There was the scent of lotus flowers mixed with incense, drummers drumming, babies crying and a sense of being carried forward with the crowd. There were thousands of people but a hushed tone had settled over the crowd.
Entering the Temple of the Tooth
When the door was opened to see the sacred relic of Buddha’s tooth I was able to catch a glimpse of glittering gold – the casket that holds the relic. The relic of the tooth is displayed several times a day.
The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic complex houses an audience hall, other temples and museums. Plan to spend a few hours.
Gorgeous lotus flowers available to purchase
Entry: 1000 Sri Lanka Rupees ( $9 Canadian) – however the price was set to be increased and to include the museums in the complex. When I visited, there was an additional charge to visit the World Buddhist Museum.
Knees and shoulder need to be covered. Shoes are checked. You enter in bare feet.
7. Best Places To Visit In Sri Lanka: The National Parks
A true highlight of the trip, not to be missed when you visit Sri Lanka.
Read More: 5 National Parks in Sri Lanka that are a must to visit
8. Best Places To Visit In Sri Lanka: Polonnaruwa
I could not decide which of the ancient cities to visit – Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa. Both UNESCO World Heritage sites are worth visiting and decidedly different. I decided on Polonnaruwa, the second most ancient of Sri Lanka’s kingdoms.
About 800 years ago, Polonnaruwa was a thriving royal city. There are ruins of the royal palace, Buddhas, stupas and a market place all set amongst the jungle with a paved road threading them together. Renting a bicycle is a fantastic way to visit the expansive site.
The Quadrangle is a group of sacred ruins raised up and surrounded by a wall. It was the religious heart of the ancient city and believed at one point to house the remains of Buddha’s tooth which is now found in Kandy.
Gal Vihara which means “rock monastery,” is the most visited temple in Polonnaruwa. There are four enormous Buddhas carved into one slab of granite rock. They are incredible examples of ancient Sinhalese sculpting from the 12th century.
Gal Vihara – one of the four enormous Buddhas carved into the granite rock
Admission: 3500 Sri Lankan rupees ( $22 Cdn)
Cover your knees and shoulders as you are entering sacred buildings.
Bring socks!! You are required to remove your shoes to enter the sacred monuments and the stones are piping hot.
The museum at the entrance is excellent and provides great information and visuals to understand the history and significance of the site.
Gal Vihara – the stunning reclining Buddha carved into the granite rock
9. Sigiriya and Pidurangala Rock
Sigiriya (Lion Rock) – as seen from Pidurangala Rock
I had every intention to climb Sigiriya although I knew it was expensive for Sri Lankan standards and also very busy. When I arrived at my homestay I was invited to join them on a climb up Pidurangala Rock which I had indeed heard of. It is a fraction of the cost to climb and not very busy! And so ensued my adventures to the top of Pidurangala Rock with a group of 10 Sri Lankans!
At the top, the view of Sigiriya and the surrounding landscape was magnificent.
Cost: 500 Sri Lankan Rupees ($4.50 Canadian)
There is a temple at the base of the path so cover your knees and shoulders.
These nine amazing places to visit in Sri Lanka are unforgettable. Can you see how Sri Lanka left its mark on me?
Would you put Sri Lanka on your list of places to explore in the world? Perhaps it will steal a piece of your heart too.
“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
Until next time,
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