10 beautiful things to see and do in Sri Lanka

by Travelbag on 15 July 2015, 10:07AM

Sri Lanka is an island located south of India, and is quickly becoming one of the most-loved beach destinations in the world. It still remains untouched by heavy amounts of tourists – so it’s a fantastic place to visit if you’re searching for a more ‘authentic’ travel experience away from the clichéd tourist traps.

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It is a former Portuguese, Dutch and British colony, and achieved independence as a nation in 1948. Sri Lanka boasts eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites (pretty incredible for such a small region) and it also has many ancient pieces of architecture, which many people from the west have only ever seen in movies.

The island nation is steeped in history as well as having a vibrant culture, distinctive cuisine and welcoming attitude to tourism and visitors. Sri Lanka's attractions include exciting festivals, juxtaposition of colonial and ancient architecture, pristine beaches, a huge variety of wildlife, several excellent national parks and absolutely breath-taking scenery. Did we convince you it’s worth a visit yet?

It truly is a great destination for both an adventure holiday and a more meditative retreat, as there is so much on offer, and so much to try and experience.

1. The Ancient City of Galle

The picturesque town of Galle is easily reached from the capital Colombo. Galle is renowned for its architecture, the highlight being the Galle Fort, built by Portuguese colonists in 1588 and later taken over by the Dutch. Galle Fort is built on a peninsula overlooking the ocean on three sides, with magnificent views from the wide grassy ramparts. Stunning colonial buildings found in Galle include a lighthouse, religious buildings and the former offices of the Governor. Today, it is a Unesco World Heritage Site and is must-see for visitors to Sri Lanka.

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2. Uda Walawe National Park

Lonely Planet says that if you only visit one national park during your time in Sri Lanka, you should make it Uda Walawe, and that’s advice we’ll take! A herd of 250 wild elephants lives here, as well as leopards, water buffalo, crocodiles and over 200 different bird species. The diverse wildlife is helped along by the Walawe River and reservoir, surrounded by more open territory making it the ideal jeep safari or trekking destination. It’s the kind of experience some people may only have once in a lifetime – and seeing such beautiful creatures in the wild is truly awe-inspiring. Don’t forget your camera!

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3. Kandy and the Temple of the Sacred Tooth

The Sacred Tooth is the most important relic in Buddhism, and the temple complex surrounding it is well worth a visit. It houses a number of museums and temples, including the World Buddhism Museum. Tourists arriving to coincide with the annual Esala Perahera festival, occurring at full moon in either July or August can enjoy one of the most beautiful festivals in Asia. A procession of costumed elephants and people parade through town, and the last elephant carries the gold box containing the sacred tooth, removed from its temple for this special day.

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4. Bundala National Park

Bundala is another of Sri Lanka's spectacular national parks, and is home to elephants, crocodiles and more. Bundala is a haven for birdwatchers, and is particularly famous for its flocks of hundreds of greater flamingos, this being the only place they are found in southern Sri Lanka. The rich, diverse wetland habitats mean that birds literally flock here in season. Marine turtles also come ashore here to lay their eggs, and there are some special groups that can provide access to this incredible event – so you can witness it for yourself. No one can quite describe how magical this is – so if you get the chance to see it, then do.

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5. The Ancient City of Polonnaruwa

Over 800 years ago, Polonnaruwa was one of the royal cities of Sri Lanka, before the country was colonised by Europeans. The archaeological sites here include fabulous ancient stone temples with edges worn smooth by the winds, giant Buddhas carved into the sides of hills and the ruins of a garden city planted by a 12th century king. Polonnaruwa is the main location for the 2015 Disney Nature documentary Monkey Kingdom, starring the local macaques that live among the spectacular ruins. Polonnaruwa is near several national parks, so can be taken in as part of a touring holiday across Sri Lanka.

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6. Adam's Peak

By taking the mainline train from Colombo you can reach Dalhousie, the gateway to Adam's Peak. This 7,329 ft. mountain is said to have been a sacred site for thousands of years, and pilgrims regularly tackle the four-hour ascent from Dalhousie. The climb takes you through a rather magical cloud forest, and when the peak itself is finally revealed, you are treated to heart-stopping 360 degree views across the area. Here, a small temple guards an ancient footprint embedded in the rock. Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians each have their own story, but all regard the footprint as holy.

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7. Kataragama

Kataragama lies in the south east of Sri Lanka, an ancient sacred town surrounded by lush rainforest. It is a holy site for Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. The Kataragama serehera happens in July and August and, although it’s a religious festival, it's enjoyed by pilgrims and tourists of all affiliations, and features fire-breathing, stilt-walking and dressed-up elephants. Outside of festival time, the town is tranquil and can be enjoyed at a sleepier pace.

8. The Sacred City of Anuradhapura

Anuradhapura is another of Sir Lanka's Unesco World Heritage sites, and deservedly so. The town was built in about 500 BC, around a cutting from the legendary fig tree beneath which the Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment. The tree still stands today. The city contains many temples, including structures that are almost as large as the pyramids in Egypt. Centuries-old artefacts like bas-relief sculptures and carved statues abound, a pleasure for enthusiasts and amateur historians alike.

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9. Sigiriya Big Rock

Sigiriya Big Rock is just what it sounds like. An ancient king in central Sri Lanka identified this almost rectangular monolithic rock as a place to build a great palace, and proceeded to build on top of it and have frescoes painted all over the sides. At the entrance to the palace a lion-shaped gateway was carved into the rock. The king's citadel is intriguing and alluring, and the remains of ancient buildings and frescoes can still be observed.

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10. Sun, Surf and Sand on the Stunning Beaches

Wherever you stay in Sri Lanka, you're never too far from a beach, and let’s be honest – Sri Lanka has some pretty amazing ones you’ll want to try out. There are big, beautiful hotels along the beaches – as well as smaller beach-hut style accommodations, so you’re sure to find something that suits you.

There are ‘party’ beaches with lots of nightlife and restaurants, but quieter spots too, which are home to more upmarket resorts with some even part of the country’s national parks. It’s all about choosing the right spot for you to enjoy some time, whether that’s surfing and kayaking – or just laying back and catching some sunshine.

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