Tucked away at the bottom of India and surrounded by the Indian Ocean, the island of Sri Lanka is a haven for wildlife, filled with solitary beaches and snorkelling opportunities, plates of spicy curries, bustling cities and temples galore. The usual mentality of people visiting Sri Lanka is to choose either the greenery and wildlife of the hill country and the north, or the relaxing vibe of the south, where all those beautiful beaches are. However, there’s no reason why a trip to Sri Lanka can’t take in the best bits of the whole county – particularly now that the previously war-torn north has become more accessible to tourists (although there is still a visible presence of the former situation in the region, such as checkpoints and so on). A well-planned trip to the country has the potential to include everything from a surf lesson in Weligama and a dive to an old shipwreck to a cooking course in Galle town and elephant feeding in Kandy.
Many travellers pass through this sprawling city and head down to the south without as much as a backward glance. Don’t make the same mistake – Colombo has plenty to offer visitors, from museums, galleries and tours to balloon rides, meditation centres, golf, shopping and restaurants.
THINGS TO DO: Get your camera out and be prepared for a whole lot of sightseeing. Colombo has a seemingly endless list of temples, churches, mosques, bell towers, and period buildings to see; and yes, some of them really are worth a visit. The Sri Kailawasanathar Swami Devasthanam Kovil is said to be the oldest Hindu Temple in the country and is one of the most elaborately decorated buildings you’re likely to see, while the Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple is the most famous Buddhist site in the city. For culture vultures, the Colombo National Museum houses artefacts important to Sri Lanka’s history, while the National Art Gallery alongside the museum is a great place to check out the country’s best artists. Indoor exploring isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and luckily Colombo has an abundance of outdoor activities. The cycling tour of the city is a great way to get your bearings and see Colombo’s hotspots. Choose from a suburban cycling tour – taking in the Talangama Wetlands, semi-urban areas, and lake surrounding the Sri Lankan Parliament – or the urban tour, which includes the Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple, Manning Market station, and Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court.
If you’re keen to stay active, but want to try something a little more adventurous, there are white-water rafting trips in the area, or you can organise a hot air balloon trip over the city. When all the ballooning, biking, and general hubbub of the city get to be a little bit much, relaxation is the order of the day. There are seemingly hundreds of day spas in Colombo, which offer everything from a quick foot rub to a full-on body polish. If you’re in need of an even longer break from the hustle and bustle, there are several yoga classes (or courses) to try.
Going out: Although Colombo doesn’t have quite the nightlife reputation of Bangkok or Hong Kong, like any big, bustling city there are still plenty of pubs, clubs and bars to be found. Curry Leaf restaurant is well known for serving fantastic Sri Lankan fare, and there is also plenty of street food on offer from stalls dotted around the city. Big spenders would be well-advised to head to the Fort district – which is also the financial centre of the city – where there are a string of upmarket cocktail bars, as well as fancy hotel dining. Alternatively, a little way down Galle Road, there are a number of drinking establishments and clubs (both classy and questionable) to choose from.
Stay: Escape the city’s hustle and bustle at Colombo Beach Hostel in Mount Lavinia colombobeachostel.com, or, for a more central location close to the action, try Clock Inn Colombo clockinn.lk.
Galle & surrounding areas
Although many people consider a visit to Sri Lanka incomplete without including beach time in Unawatuna or a stroll around Galle fort, the area is refreshingly free of crowds and largely unspoilt by tourism.
Things to do: In such a beautiful area, it’s hard to muster up the energy to do anything bar taking pictures and kicking back with a cocktail. However, Galle and the areas nearby (including Unawatuna and Koggala) have a lot more to offer. A stroll around Galle Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a must. Much of the fort’s walls are now covered in grass, facing out into the sea, and there are more than a few photo opportunities here. In the town of Galle itself, cafés, cute shops and restaurants are dotted up and down picturesque streets, and locals are more than happy to point you in the direction of top-notch grub. The little town is also a great place to book onto a Sri Lankan cooking course. Most lessons will encompass a market tour – where you can see exactly which spices and produce are going into the food you’ll prepare later – and are a great way to take some knowledge of the country’s delicious cuisine back home with you. Plus, you get to eat at the end of the evening. Winner. Just outside Galle, near Koggala, it’s possible to book onto a rainforest trek to learn more about the country’s ecosystem and spot exotic birds, monkeys aplenty and, unfortunately, the odd leech. Top tip: long sleeves and trousers are a must. In Koggala itself, the turtle hatchery (yes, it is as cute as it sounds) is a great place to see baby turtles, and, for a lucky few, release them back into the sea. If you’re fortunate enough to be in Sri Lanka between December and April, the area is a perfect base from which to book a whale watching trip. Tours take place about an hour’s drive from Koggala and start at around 6am (so get set for an early wake-up call). All that yawning is worth it though; you’re likely to spot sperm whales, blue whales and dolphins.
Going out: Head to one of the beachfront bars and restaurants in Unawatuna for some Sri Lankan food and beer (or try the locally brewed arrak, which is distilled from the sap of coconut flowers, if you’re feeling brave). You’re also likely to find the odd late-night bar or low-key club along one of these stretches of beach if retiring early doesn’t float your boat, but be warned – Ministry of Sound it ain’t. Think drunken dancing in flip flops to dubious music with a gaggle of other backpackers.
Stay: Treat yourself with an eco-luxury style stay on an old tea plantation at kahandakanda.com or try one of the many (cheaper) backpacker hostels in Unawatuna.
Kandy and nearby
A visit to Kandy and the hill country is an absolute must during a trip to Sri Lanka. This green wonderland is the cultural heart of the country; filled with trekking opportunities, tea plantations, monkeys, dense jungle and temples – this verdant wonderland is just begging to be explored.
Things to do: The beauty of this area is, well, the beauty of it. A simple drive or stroll provides myriad opportunities to gaze over miles and miles of green – a little like The Land of Oz, but without the wizard. There are flying (or rather leaping) monkeys in abundance though – and their chattering is a wonderful sound to wake up to. If you’re really keen to get into the nature of the area, there are a variety of treks on offer, mainly to the Knuckles Mountain Range and other nearby sweet spots. Hikes in this area can vary from short (just one day) to a long weekend or even a week, and include dazzling views, waterfalls and tea plantations. For the more adventurous, there are also opportunities to try mountain biking and rafting. A visit to the hill country wouldn’t be complete without a proper tour of a tea plantation, where visitors learn about how tea is grown and harvested, as well as get an opportunity to try the tea (yum). There are also some beautiful temples in the region, including the Temple of the Tooth, which houses the relic of the tooth of Buddha. The temple is situated within the Royal Palace Complex in Kandy, right next to a rather picturesque lake – perfect for quiet contemplation (and a few holiday snaps to make the folks back home jealous). Visits to the hill country are often associated with the nearby elephant orphanage of Pinnawala, where visitors can feed elephants, watch them frolicking in the river, and learn about how paper can be made from elephant poo (lovely).
Going out: Kandy and the hill country isn’t known for the crazy nightlife – a single glance at the quiet natural beauty of the place is enough to suggest that most of its inhabitants are likely to be tucked up in bed by 9pm. That said, there are a number of rather up-market restaurants hidden away in the region – including Heritance Tea Factory in Nuwara Eliya; the most extravagant of its several eateries being TCK 6685, a converted 1930s railway carriage. For a less excessive evening, there are a number of massage centres in Kandy that specialise in ayurvedic treatments – a full body massage will ensure a blissful night’s sleep.
Stay: For a central location in Kandy and a breathtaking balcony, the Drop Inn Kandy is a good bet, or there are opportunities to arrange a homestay in hill country, which is a great way to learn more about the area and the people who live there (plus enjoy a home-cooked meal).
Sri Lanka’s southern coast provides a real mish-mash of places – from good surf and snorkelling destinations, remote beaches, religious sites and new developments to stunning nationals parks filled with a variety of flora and fauna.
Things to do: There’s a reason many backpackers bypass the allures of the hill country and head straight for the coast – the beaches. Busy, empty, developed or remote, Sri Lanka’s beaches have a little something for everyone. Start by grabbing a board and hitting the waves around Weligama (surf lessons can be booked here, or those who already know how can opt for board hire), or, if you’d rather see what’s under the waves, head to Polhena beach and rent a snorkel or book onto a dive. You’re likely to spot a variety of fish among the reefs, and even the odd turtle. Out of the water, Weligama is largely a sleepy beach town, but does have a few little spots worth exploring. The coconut factory is a great little place to poke around and learn about the variety of uses for the humble nut, plus there’s the usual offering of splendid temples as well as an organic fruit farm. Inland, Udawalawe National Park is well worth a visit. Slap bang in the middle of two provinces, Uva and Sabaragamuwa, the park is home to wild boar, leopards (eek!) and herds of elephants. The best way to explore the park is, of course, with a guide (srilankaecotourism.com), usually in a 4×4 – meaning you can cover more ground and hopefully see some of the more exciting animals the park has to offer. Around an hour’s drive from the national park is the town of Kataragama, which is one of the country’s most important religious sites. People from all manner of religious backgrounds make pilgrimages to the town, where a shrine to the God Skandha lies within a large temple complex. The town also hosts a yearly Kataragama festival, in the Sinhalese Calendar month of Esala (July/August), which is held in honour of the God Skandha. During the festival, the town becomes filled with dancing crowds and lots of firewalking.
Going out: It’s no surprise that the dining speciality in the beach town of Tangalle (sometimes called Tangalla) is seafood. There are numerous idyllic beach huts selling a variety of fishy delights of an evening, while the nearby seafront bars are expert at whipping up an excellent after-dinner cocktail (or three).
Stay: For a seafront location, Beach Inns (beach-inns.com), near Matara, is a great place to lay your hat, or, for those who can’t bear to leave the national park, a stay at Grand Udawalawe Safari Resort (udawalawesafari.com) is a real treat. Alternatively, there are other more budget-conscious options in the park.
Sri Lanka’s northernmost regions tend to go unexplored by tourists – thanks largely to several decades of civil war and the resulting travel restrictions in the area, plus the physical remnants of war (some parts are still heavily mined, for example). However, the area is opening up, and provides great rewards for the intrepid traveller.
Things to do: Simply being in the north of the country is its own experience. Geographically, Jaffna – the northernmost point in Sri Lanka – sits right underneath the southern tip of India, which has led to inevitable comparisons between the town’s cuisine and culture and that of south India. Such an assessment isn’t without its value – one bite of the distinctive northern cuisine is enough to tell that the north is proud of its neighbour’s influence. The pretty town of Jaffna has its own fort as well as temples and noteworthy buildings such as the recently restored library and the archaeology museum.
A stroll around here is a must-do and is the best way to enjoy the different, slightly set-apart vibe of the country’s north. Plus it is a great opportunity to meet the eternally friendly people (and, as a tourist, you may even find yourself the main attraction). Outside of the town, there are a number of tranquil beach spots on the Jaffna peninsula that certainly warrant a trip. Chatty Beach, on Kayts (one of the many tiny islands off the peninsula), is a particularly nice spot to soak up a few rays. South of Jaffna, near Mannar Island, is the Giant’s Tank Sanctuary, which, despite the name, is not a rescue home for large old tanks but a massive irrigation reservoir that also happens to be a great place for bird watching and possibly spotting the odd elephant or two (but be warned, wild elephants should never be approached). Mannar Island itself is also a pretty little spot to visit – if a little out of the way. This is one best to be enjoyed with a cold drink and a big book.
Going out: Due to its turbulent history, Jaffna and the nearby areas are largely under-developed in terms of tourism infrastructure – including nightlife. However, there are several nice cafes and restaurants in the area, including Gnanams Café in Vavuniya (a town the majority of people venturing up to the north pass through enroute to Jaffna), and Mangos restaurant in Jaffna, which serves curries and excellent dosas. It is also possible to visit the Hindu Kovil near the Keerimalai springs for a vegetarian lunch.
Stay: If you’re looking to save money, the good ol’ YMCA hostel in Jaffna is an incredibly cheap option. For a few more home comforts (including a swimming pool), the Green Grass Hotel (jaffnagreengrass.com) is right in the centre of town.
Batticaloa and surrounding area
Batticaloa, which is affectionately called ‘Batti’ and known as the land of the ‘singing fish’ thanks to fish under the Lady Manning Bridge which make a noise that sounds like a plucked guitar string, is pretty far from the usual tourist trail. Despite its beautiful setting of beaches, islands and lagoons, it doesn’t draw in large numbers of holidaymakers – which is all the more relaxing for those who do venture there.
Things to do: If you don’t feel chilled out on the beaches around Batticaloa, well, you’ll never feel calm anywhere. Picture perfect, mostly deserted, and dipping into the Indian Ocean, it’s the kind of place you daydream about during a sweaty commute to work. Batticaloa’s three lagoons are also laze-worthy spots, and the birds and fishermen (who you’ll often spot pulling their daily catch from the water) make it all the prettier. For those who feel the need to get into the sea rather than lie beside it, there are opportunities to go snorkelling, swimming, kayaking and take boat trips in the area (including journeys with local fisherman to see the rumoured ‘singing fish’ the town is famous for), as well as guided dives to the underwater HMS Hermes aircraft carrier, which sunk in 1942 after being attacked by Japanese aircraft off the coast of Sri Lanka. On land, the Old Dutch Fort (yes, there are a lot of forts in Sri Lanka), which is more than 350 years old, is a good place to take a stroll around. The fort now houses local government offices, but much of the original structure remains intact, and you’ll also spot the odd canon on site. The town’s other structure of note is the nearby lighthouse, which is well worth a visit – particularly as eager photographers (and those who aren’t afraid of heights) can climb to the top for fantastic views over the town and coastline.
Going out: Batticaloa’s tranquil nature doesn’t allow for a whole lot of evening activity – although there are some great restaurants here, which can be found by having a good old fashioned wander around the town (although walking alone at night is not recommended, so solo travellers should take transport). Kattankudy shopping area, which is around 5km from central Batticaloa, has a variety of bits and bobs to buy, from souvenirs and mobile phones to random hardware, while Central Street in Batticaloa has a dazzlingly colourful variety of clothes on offer.
Stay: Riviera Resort in Batticaloa (riviera-online.com), seems to have won the location lottery. Set right beside one of the lagoons, this eco-friendly hotel is the perfect place from which to watch the sun set and bed down for the night. It also houses a popular restaurant that serves local grub.
By Harriet Sinclair