Here comes our ultimate and most comprehensive Sri Lanka Bucket List! Don’t miss any of the places once you are in Sri Lanka. If by any chance we missed your favourite place, don’t hesitate to add it in the comment section. If you are looking for the perfect itinerary including these places, don’t miss out on our related article either: The best itinerary for a round trip in Sri Lanka.
Colombo can be many things but it is not a tourist city. It is real and authentic, full of life and with a very local atmosphere. The narrow streets of the downtown, especially Pettah, are always crowded and vivid with people selling, buying goods and chatting in the middle of your path. Fort is more sterile, clean and desertic and has some nice buildings as a ghost metropolis that is never fitting in the general picture. Colombo is a place to get lost and walk around. Don’t expect much and be ready to get surprised.
The main reason why you most likely will visit Negombo is because Bandaranaike International Airport is just there. So you will land there. Negombo is a town close to Colombo, the capital of the country. And, compared with Colombo, Negombo is peaceful and calm and it has some resorts and hotels on the coast which make it a convenient option to rest after a long flight or to stay while waiting to depart. Since it can be a demanded place by tourists, Negombo has many restaurants, bars and tourist offers. The beaches there can be very nice, like Browns Beach or the cleaned beaches of the resorts. Besides that, it can be dirty and contaminated, so it’s better to stay with the recommended options only. Read more opinions about Negombo here:
Anuradhapura is a major city in Sri Lanka. Moreover, it is the capital city of North Central Province and the capital of Anuradhapura District. Anuradhapura is one of the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka, famous for its well-preserved ruins of an ancient Sinhala civilisation. You know that you are close to Anuradhaoura, when you start spotting all the big, even bigger and giant Stupas. Moreover, Anuradhapura is all about traditions and buddhism. You can walk from temple to temple and from complex to complex to discover the next big ancient Stupa on an almost never-ending list.
The city, now a World Heritage Site, was the centre of Theravada Buddhism for many centuries. The city lies 205 km north of the current capital of Colombo, on the banks of the historic Malvathu River. It is one of the oldest cities in the world and one of the eight World Heritage Sites of Sri Lanka. Read more about Anuradhapura here:
Jaffna is different. This is the capital of the Tamil territory in Sri Lanka. If you ask any of the very proud locals they will answer that their culture is different. Moreover, you will find it not only different but amazing. Indeed, Jaffna is a must in your visit to Sri Lanka just because you will be able to catch up with a unique multicultural way of living and understanding life. Let’s see why in this article.
The city of Jaffna is located in the extreme north of Sri Lanka. We can agree that is far from everything but definitely worth it to go. This oceanside town has been closed to tourists for years. The civil war in Sri Lanka ended in 2009, but it was most intense in the north of the country. Therefore, tourists were not allowed to enter this region. Still nowadays the north of Sri Lanka remains much less visited than the south and the presence of military controls and their barriers are more intense there. Even though, you will have not problems at all to get in the territory nor any hustle at any of these controls, either you go with public transport or your own rented vehicle. Read more about Jaffna here:
The name of Point Pedro is a corruption of the Portuguese“Ponta das Pedras” meaning “the rocky cape”. The name of the town in Tamil is “Paruthithurai“, which literally mean “Cotton Harbour“. As the harbor exported cotton to South India for centuries.
Pedro Point is the northernmost point of the entire Sri Lankan island. Besides this fact, and it’s little lighthouse, it’s worth to visit this territory for its beaches and the colourful fishing boats all around. The eastern coast of Point Pedro forms a 36 km long beach with sand dunes, extending to Thalayady. The porous soil has a water table deep underground with an estimated one billion litres of fresh water.
Once you want to enter or leave Jaffna Peninsula, for sure you will be passing by Elephant Pass. It is located in the gateway of Jaffna Peninsula. The pass lies about 340 km north from capital. It has an important military base and used to be the island’s largest salt field. It was regularly the site of battles during the Sri Lan kan civil war. Elephant Pass connects the militarily significant town of Chavakacheri in the Jaffna peninsula to the Sri Lankan mainland. Read more about the Elephant Pass here:
Mullaitivu is a tiny village with an amazing coastline. The sandy beaches are nicely cleaned and all around the hotels it’s marked when it’s safe to enter the water. They always worn you about the currents as well. Because of the location, off the beaten track on the east coast, you’ll find these beaches almost empty. Plus, the scenery is really breathtaking. They place here many colourful boats, that obviously add to your pictures a lot. They really take care about their boats, hard to find any that is not freshly or recently painted.
Nilaveli is a coastal resort town and suburb of the Trincomalee District. It is located 16 km northwest of the city of Trincomalee. A historically popular Tamil village and tourist destination of the district alongside the nearby Uppuveli, the numbers of visitors declined following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Sri Lankan Civil War, but have risen again since 2010.
It’s hard to find calm beaches in Sri Lanka. The currents all around the island are constantly causing big waves, making Sri Lanka the perfect spot for surf lovers. But if you prefer calmer beaches, where you can just swim, snorkel, and relax in the warm water, this is your coastline. Starting from Mullaitivu, via Kuchchaveli till Nilaveli and Uppuveli. We could spend hours in the water just enjoying the perfect temperature of the ocean and meanwhile admiring all the palm trees and the sandy coastline.
If you hadn’t had enough from sandy beaches, you can also visit the neighbouring Uppuveli. Some of the locals prefer even more Uppuveli’s beach than Nilaveli. It’s up to preferences, but it’s definitely worth the visit, if you want to enjoy a complete beach day. Not to miss the famous Fernando’s Bar, where you can get fresh cocktails and sun-beds to enjoy your day to the fullest. Be prepared to meet other tourists as well, as it’s a famous chill-out at meeting point for any kind of travellers.
The second oldest of all Sri Lanka’s kingdoms, Polonnaruwa was first established as a military post by the Sinhalese kingdom. It was renamed Jananathamangalam by the Chola dynasty after their successful invasion of the country’s then capital, Anuradhapura, in the 10th century. The “Ancient City of Polonnaruwa” has been declared a World Heritage Site. Today the ancient city of Polonnaruwa remains one of the best planned archaeological relic cities in the country, standing testimony to the discipline and greatness of the Kingdom’s first rulers.
Near the ancient city, there is a small town with several hotels and some glossy shops, and places to fulfill day-to-day needs. There are government institutions in a newly built area called “New Town,” about 6 km away from the town and the main road. The modern Polonnaruwa is undergoing a major development project known as the “Awakening of Polonnaruwa,” championed by former President Maithripala Sirisena. It envisions the development of all sectors in Polonnaruwa including roads, electricity, agriculture, education, health and environment.
Sigiriya is an ancient rock fortress located in the northern Matale District. It is a site of historical and archaeological significance that is dominated by a massive column of rock approximately 180 metres high. According to the ancient Sri Lankan chronicle the Cūḷavaṃsa, this area was a large forest, then after storms and landslides it became a hill and was selected by King Kashyapa (477 – 495 AD) for his new capital. He built his palace on top of this rock and decorated its sides with colourful frescoes. On a small plateau about halfway up the side of this rock he built a gateway in the form of an enormous lion.
The capital and the royal palace were abandoned after the king’s death. It was used as a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century. Sigiriya today is a UNESCO listed World Heritage Site. It is one of the best preserved examples of ancient urban planning.
Dambulla is a must have destination if you are in Sri Lanka. Even if you are not a big fun of sacred temples, or you think you have already seen enough of them, you must visit the cave temples of Dambulla. Since it’s very close to Sigiriya & Polonnaruwa, just make sure you dedicate a half a day or so for this place as well. You won’t regret it!
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Dambulla Cave Temple is a living Buddhist monastery located in Central Sri Lanka. Popularly referred to as the Golden Temple of Dambulla, this place has the best-preserved wall paintings and Buddha statues in Sri Lanka.
Kandy is a major city in Sri Lanka located in the Central Province. It was the last capital of the ancient kings’ era of Sri Lanka. The city lies in the midst of hills in the Kandy plateau, which crosses an area of tropical plantations, mainly tea. Kandy is both an administrative and religious city and is also the capital of the Central Province. Kandy is the home of the Temple of the Tooth Relic (Sri Dalada Maligawa), one of the most sacred places of worship in the Buddhist world. It was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1988. Historically the local Buddhist rulers resisted Portuguese, Dutch, and British colonial expansion and occupation.
Nuwara Eliya is a city in the hill country of the Central Province, Sri Lanka. Its name means “city on the plain (table land)” or “city of light”. The city is the administrative capital of Nuwara Eliya District, with a picturesque landscape and temperate climate. It is at an altitude of 1,868 m and is considered to be the most important location for tea production in Sri Lanka. The city is overlooked by Pidurutalagala, the tallest mountain in Sri Lanka. Nuwara Eliya is known for its temperate, cool climate – the coolest area in Sri Lanka.
In Haputhale, the area has a rich bio-diversity dense with numerous varieties of flora and fauna. Haputhale is surrounded by hills covered with cloud forests and tea plantations. The town has a cooler climate than its surroundings, due to its elevation. The Haputhale pass allows views across the Southern plains of Sri Lanka. The South-West boundary of Uva basin is marked by the Haputale mountain ridges, which continue on to Horton Plains and Adam’s Peak to the west. CNN in 2010 named Haputale as one of Asia’s most overlooked destinations.
Ella is the most visited place by tourists. So be prepared to see here more tourists than locals. Everyone is queuing here to do the famous train ride from Ella station. And everyone is visiting and hiking to the famous Nine Arch Bridge as well. You can also find many restaurants, European standard chill-out bars, cafes, basically all set for tourists. It’s weird, but if you are a lonely traveller, here for sure you can meet other travel buddies.
Tangalle is one of those Sri Lankan beaches for paradise seekers. It’s a bit harder to reach as it’s not on the usual Sri Lanka route but so worth a visit! This means that few tourists visit Tangalle, creating a more tranquil experience. The currents around Tangalle are crazy strong though. Be careful once entering the ocean, it might surprise you!
If you are looking for these views, go to Lagoon Paradise Beach Resort. You can rent rooms there of course, or you can just get a daily pass to enjoy their facilities, pool, cocktails, so on, while you can take thousands of amazing pictures at their coast & enjoy their beach restaurant, the Big Crocodile.
Dondra is a settlement on the extreme southernmost tip of Sri Lanka, in the Indian Ocean near Matara, in the Southern Province. The Dondra Head Lighthouse, ruins of several Hindu shrines of Tenavaram and a Vihara (Buddhist temple) are located in the vicinity. In Dondra, just on the way to the lighthouse you can find many lovely bays where you can have a bath. You can spot here many locals as well enjoying their bath.
The beach of Mirissa is maybe the most well-known in Sri Lanka. You can spot here the most tourists, and the most touristy services. It’s famous for excellent surfing conditions, restaurants, bars, and snorkeling. You can find many European standard bars and hotels here as well. The coastline is like in the paradise and you can find some natural swimming pools as well shaped out of the natural rocks of the ocean.
If you ask me, the best & most picturesque beaches of Sri Lanka you can find in Koggala. It’s unreal, so beautiful that you would think that you are in paradise. I’m not joking. You can find here the perfect palm tree, in the perfect angle, the long waves, and extremely clean beaches. You can capture here the perfect postcard. Not to mention the stick fishermen, that makes this idyll even more authentic – even if you need to pay those fishermen to pose for you.
Unawatuna Beach is one of the most visited beach in Sri Lanka besides Mirissa and Hikkaduwa. It provides us with all the tourist facilities that you would need. They organize snorkeling, surfing, diving & paddle boarding as well. It is safe and clean and has lots of marine life. You can find many good diving sites close to the beach. Also, a Submarine Diving school is on the beach for this purpose. The beach is offering a large amount of restaurants and bars. Several options for tourist tours and glass bottom boat tours, too.
Galle is one of the most touristy towns of Sri Lanka. It’s not a surprise, as they have many offerings and services for tourists, so you can easily spend here couple of days more and not getting board. You definitely need to explore the Dutch Galle Fort and the Old Town. The Galle Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is arguably the most popular tourist attraction in the city. In the Old Town you can easily spend some hours too, walking around, admiring the little shops, the walls, visiting the Mosque or just enjoy one of its nice restaurants.
The beach of Hikkaduwa is located to the closest to Colombo, so it’s a very frequent point and visited by tourists and locals as well. Hikkaduwa Beach is one of the most popular beaches in Sri Lanka. Coral reefs are one of the main attractions of this beach. There is shallow water and you can be lucky and during season you can be touching and feeding even turtles here.
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