Incredible tea, spicy flavours, stunning golden beaches, fascinating wildlife, colourful festivals, and a rich cultural heritage all make the island of Sri Lanka a highly popular vacation destination. Those at one with nature will find exploring caves, trekking in rainforests, swimming in waterfalls, and watching the sunset over phenomenal landscapes are just some of the charms of Sri Lankan life. If you've always wanted to see an elephant or a leopard in their natural environment, this is the place to realise that dream.
As far as exploring Asia goes, the significantly slower pace of life here makes for a more leisurely travel experience. Adam's Peak, Sri Lanka's 2,243-metre-high mountain, is considered a place of spiritual pilgrimage, owing to the scared footprint found at its peak.
Discover the history, cultural highlights and scenic beauty of this tear-shaped island, including visits to the local markets and the archeological marvel of Polonnaruwa. Stay in luxury in the misty hills of Nuwara Eliya, savour the freshest tea possible during a plantation visit and take in the wondrous mountain ranges from the Mahaweli Reach Hotel.
Locals to the island, which is fondly referred to as the 'Pearl of the Indian Ocean', are avid followers of cricket and rugby, although volleyball is actually the national sport. Given its turbulent history of multiple invasions, Sri Lankan culture and cuisine benefits from having a unique mix of Arabian, British, Malaysian, Indian, Portuguese and Dutch influences.
Negombo is one of Sri Lanka’s major cities where you will no doubt notice European markers that point back to a time when the island was occupied by several other nations. Close to the airport, this coastal town boasts a large fishing community where it is possible to see the fruits of local fishing trips in the lagoon. Habarana, a large village in the centre of Sri Lanka's Cultural Triangle of UNESCO World Heritage sites, has a vast lake that wild elephants drink from in the evenings.
For a real flavour of archaeological wonders, head to what was once Sri Lanka's capital - the sacred city of Anuradhapura - to see the rich architectural wonders of dagobas, brick towers, pools and crumbling towers, built during the city's thousand years of rule over the country. A visit to the iconic rock fortress, Sigiriya, will give you an insight into the ancient civilisation that once occupied this land. Despite its age dating back to the 5th century, the thoughtful attention to detail in the planning and execution of the remarkable engineering, architecture and artistic flair involved in constructing the fortress complex are still evident today.
Another historical marvel is that of Polonnaruwa, an archaeological park revealing what life was like some 800 years ago, when this city was the thriving epicentre of commercial and religious life. Here, you will find hundreds of ancient structures, tombs, temples, statues and stupas. Further sacred sites that deserve a visit include: Raja Maha Vihara, the most impressive of Sri Lanka's Cave Temples, known for its spectacular Buddha and Hindu statue-filled interiors, dating back to the 1st century; and Dalada Maligawa, the Sacred Tooth Relic, considered one of the most holy sites to the Buddhist community of Sri Lanka.
Moving forward in Sri Lanka’s more recent history, the rolling hills of Nuwara Eliya hold the secrets of what was once a haven for English and Scottish pioneers of the tea industry. Similarly, sightseeing in Colombo provides an opportunity to visit the Fort, the former British administrative centre and military garrison, the goldsmith's quarters in the heart of Pettah, and the Bazaar area. Now the central business district of Sri Lanka, this is a great place to purchase beautiful gifts for family and friends back home.
Fresh seafood is an important part of traditional cuisine in this stunning island, with fish curries being a favourite dish with locals. Sour fish curry (ambul thiyal) combines tuna or mackerel with hot, peppery, flavoursome spices and rice. The latter is also a staple with prawn, beef, mutton, goat, vegetable and red lentil (massor dahl) curries.
Another dish that goes well with rice is wambatu moju - slices of deep-fried eggplant, cooked together with multiple spices, vinegar, shallots, ginger and garlic to create a taste similar to a caramelised pickle. Kottu rati is like a stir fry, with bread (rati) pieces, plus shredded vegetables or meat cooked in soy sauce. Hoppers are made from a runny kind of batter that is formed into the shape of a bowl, accompanied with additional ingredients to either make it taste savoury or sweet.
Coconut and wood apple are among some of the exotic fruits to be enjoyed in Sri Lanka, used in both cooking and drinks. Coconut milk, rice flour, spices, and sugar, treacle or honey form the base of numerous desserts and sweets. Watalappan is one such example of a type of coconut custard pudding, seasoned with cardamom, cloves and nutmeg. Many desserts are baked or steamed and light in texture.
Continuing with the coconut theme, coconut water is a go-to drink in Sri Lanka; coming from either fresh or canned coconuts, you will find it all over. Tea and coffee, in an assortment of flavours, are consumed both hot and cold but please note that tap water is not safe to drink here; stick to bottled water on your travels. Arrack is made using fermented coconut flowers. This distilled, alcoholic drink is either drank neat or mixed with coke, lemonade, or ginger beer to taste (the latter being a popular drink in itself).
Beer and lager are readily available and Lion Beer is a refreshing ale that you will regularly come across too.
Landscape and wildlife
Wildlife is abundant in Sri Lanka, in the form of incredible mammals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures.
On land, you will no doubt be awe-struck at the magnificent presence of Asian elephants, leopards, wild buffaloes, sloth bears, porcupines and monkeys, to name but a few species. All of these creatures defy the common laws of nature where typically, small islands are not the home of such large mammals. In the surrounding Indian Ocean, dolphins and whales, including almighty blue whales make Sri Lanka a sought-after destination for whale-watching boat excursions.
Meanwhile in the Sinjharja rainforest, multiple amphibians, reptiles and species of bird can be found. As a way of protecting its incredible biodiversity, Sri Lanka has 26 National Parks including Yala, Horton Plains, Bundala, and Uda Walawe. Some of these National Parks were once royal reserves hundreds of years ago and as such, have a long-standing history of being areas of significant splendour. The immense range of landscapes – sandy beaches, tea plantations, densely forested areas, highlands and arid plains – together with such an impressive range of flora and fauna, all contribute to Sri Lanka’s natural beauty and wonder that is sure to leave a lasting impression.