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Although far less popular than neighboring India, Sri Lanka has an array of attractions that should be on the bucket list of every traveler. The country offers an incredible range of unspoiled beaches, fascinating colonial history, tongue-tingling cuisines, and some of the best places in the world to spot leopards in the wild. Whether it is the temples and monasteries in Anuradhapura, the shoreline along the country’s south, the hill country in Kandy, or the newly opened-up north, you will not regret exploring a nation where myth and contemporary culture rub shoulders.
Not only does Sri Lanka have a plethora of astounding sights and experiences, but the country’s size (comparable to Austria and the US state of South Carolina) means that multiple attractions can easily be combined without endless hours on the road or in the air. If you are short on time, you can still make a serious dent in the bustling streets of Colombo before heading south to Galle. With a week, you can top up your Sri Lanka itinerary with a trip to Yala National Park for leopard and elephant encounters.
To cast your net further afield, we recommend two weeks in Sri Lanka. This allows you to combine both the northern and southern parts of the country along with the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Sigiriya and Anuradhapura. If you really want to make a lasting impression, take the slow road with a three-week Sri Lanka itinerary and explore the Knuckles Mountain Range.
The journey from Colombo’s international airport to the old heart of the capital is a feast to the senses. Tuk-tuks dart into impossibly small spaces while fruit bats flap elegantly overhead. Be sure to spend at least a day exploring the capital. Its humid climate can be lessened with an evening stroll along with Galle Face Green, whose views extend from the Indian Ocean to shining new office blocks.
Then head into the nation’s central region, where Kandy, Sri Lanka’s cultural capital, is located. The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, which houses one of the Buddha’s molars, is the main attraction in town, with dancing and mask carving also second-to-none. Situated among the hills, Kandy also offers plenty of hiking opportunities, although Nuwara Eliya is generally considered to be Sri Lanka’s gateway to wilderness trails, given its proximity to both Horton Plains National Park and Saint Clair Major Falls.
The extra couple of days afforded by a one-week Sri Lanka itinerary gives you the luxury of uncovering even more of this fascinating country. Continue north from Kandy and you will soon be enthralled by one of Sri Lanka’s finest sights. Sigiriya rises out of the surrounding countryside on a pinnacle of rock.
Alternatively, you could incorporate a trip to Wilpattu National Park, which, like Yala, is home to both the endangered Sri Lankan subspecies of leopards and herds of Asian elephants. However, if it is the wide-open ocean that holds your attention, why not dedicate your time to sailing the clear waters off Sri Lanka’s southern coast instead? Not only will you get to take in Galle, but you can also anchor in small, secluded bays that regularly encounter both dolphins and migrating whales.
Your highlights during a ten-day Sri Lanka itinerary can include the Fort district of Colombo, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy, and the walled streets of Galle. You can combine them with a host of additional attractions without exhausting yourself.
Having delved into the layers upon layers of culture that exist in both the capital and in Kandy, you are then in the perfect position to explore some of the island nation’s past. Largely unknown outside of Sri Lanka, these relics of the bygone era are nonetheless incredible, with tales of warrior kings battling it out for the control of the country right up until the early nineteenth century.
Lovers of the arts, they left behind staggering sculptures that dot the ancient city of Anuradhapura. Not far away is another highlight, the verdant grasslands of Minneriya National Park, which host elephant herds that can grow to 400 individuals during ‘the gathering’. Birders might instead like to spend a couple of days at Bundala National Park, recognized as one of the country’s foremost birding sites.
In addition to everything that is possible during a ten-day Sri Lanka itinerary, 14 days in Sri Lanka provides the chance to explore the nation’s dense, tropical jungles, montane forests, and grasslands from a different perspective.
Why not do like the locals and jump on a bicycle? Sri Lanka unravels magically as you pedal through its dusty backroads, with canals cut by the Dutch linking British urban centers with tiny villages where every day is a market day and outsiders are still a rarity.
Taking to the road on a bicycle does not mean missing out on the country’s big-ticket attractions either. The best tours incorporate ancient cities like Polonnaruwa along with the caves of Dambulla, which have been used for religious purposes for hundreds if not thousands of years.
If you would rather stick to two feet, it is the Knuckles Range you will want to explore, with Kandy or Nuwara Eliya being your starting point. Protruding above the Sri Lankan landscape with its knuckle-like ridges, the mountain range is dotted with colonial-era bungalows, tea plantations, and misty hillsides just waiting to be discovered.
Walking and cycling will only get you so far. But with three weeks in Sri Lanka, there is plenty of time to explore the country from top to bottom, including the country’s north, where the Tamil people live. Closed to foreigners for decades, this region is opening up once more and allowing travelers to experience a different side of Sri Lankan life.
Take the express train across the country from Colombo to Jaffna, perhaps stopping off at Anuradhapura along the way. Then drift down the northeast coast on a boat, keeping an eye out for blue and humpback whales en route to Trincomalee. Not only does this port city have a magnificent series of Hindu temples worth paying your respects to, but it is also surrounded by pristine beaches littered only with colorful fishing boats.
Travelling to Sri Lanka? Chat with a local travel specialist in Sri Lanka who can help organize your trip.