There are places in the world that steal a bit of your heart, and Sri Lanka is one of them.
It’s been a week since I have returned from my first trip to Sri Lanka and I am already wishing I could go back and explore some more of what this fantastic country has to offer. I didn’t expect to fall in love so much with Sri Lanka. The people, the scenery, the food, the wildlife, the culture, Sri Lanka has something for everyone.
It’s pretty unbelievable how many things you can experience, even if you visit Sri Lanka just for a short time. I spent 10 days in Sri Lanka and I already know that I will return as soon as I can.
From admiring elephants in the wild to watching the fishermen at sunrise bring their catch of the day to the shore, from climbing what is said to be the 8th wonder of the world to relaxing with an Ayurveda treatment, from exploring the local market to eating the most delicious fish curry, there are so many experiences that make Sri Lanka one of the best destinations in the world for any type of traveller. I tried to compile just a few of the most amazing experiences that I had during my 10 days trip to Sri Lanka that will convince you to book a flight to Colombo as soon as you finish reading this article.
Ayubowan: Experience the Sri Lankan hospitality
Ayubowan, welcome to Sri Lanka!
Ayubowan is a special word that all people in Sri Lanka use when they meet each other, when they answer the phone, before they start a conversation with a stranger, and pretty much in any other human interaction. Ayubowan means “Long Life” and it’s usually accompanied by the hands joined together in a prayer-like manner.
How special is that, to be greeted with “Long Life” instead of with a simple “hello”?
One thing that really stood out during my trip to Sri Lanka was how friendly and hospitable the people in Sri Lanka are. Everybody I met was kind to me, everyone smiled to me.
Each morning, by the time I reached the breakfast room at my hotel, at least 5 people already smiled to me and said “good morning”. How not to start the day in a positive way? Another morning I met the cleaning lady whilst I was leaving my room, who asked me if I was happy with how she cleaned the room…. How couldn’t I have been, when she even left an elephant made with towels on the bed?
Sri Lankans are such warm and friendly people, happy to talk to you about what makes their country so special.
Enjoy the views of Colombo from inside an infinity pool
Colombo is a great city, with a rich architectural heritage given by its long history of an important trade port, ruled successively by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. Colombo is a fascinating city to explore but it also has a great skyline to admire, as modern skyscrapers and glass covered shopping malls have raised among the old colonial buildings.
The best way to explore Colombo’s skyline is from a rooftop of a skyscraper. My choice? The Movenpick Hotel, which not only that has a privileged location between the ocean and the city, but its fantastic infinity rooftop pool offers incredible panoramic views. You can sip from a cocktail whilst admiring the view or swim with the world at your feet, gazing towards the Indian ocean.
Explore Colombo on a double decker bus
For a different tour of Colombo, I recommend exploring the city on board the open deck double decker bus, the only one in Sri Lanka. There are three routes that you can take. The Glimpse of Colombo takes you around the historical landmarks of the city, the Heritage of Colombo takes you around the remains of the British Colonial Architecture, whilst the Colombo at Night tour shows you the city in a different light and includes a boat ride on Diyawannawa Lake as well.
Watch the train passing through the oldest golf course in Colombo
The Royal Colombo Golf Club is the oldest one in Sri Lanka, founded in 1880. The 18 holes par 71 golf club is unique in the world because of the active rail line that goes through the fairway and on which regular trains are passing daily.
Being in the middle of the city, the golf course is surrounded by tall buildings, but this only contributes to the uniqueness of it, as there is plenty of nature and wildlife around to provide the quietness needed to concentrate on the game.
The club house is a great place to stop for lunch or a cup of Ceylon tea.
Get friendly with the deer at Ati Koneswaram Temple
Sri Lanka is a country where 70% of the people are Buddhists and live in peace and harmony with the rest 30% who are Hindus, Muslims and Christians.
Located on top of a cliff overlooking the beautiful ocean in one of the world’s largest natural harbours, Ati Koneswaram temple has a very long and tumultuous history, being destroyed several times under the Portuguese and Dutch occupations. This very colourful and beautiful temple is dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva.
To reach the temple you have to go up a narrow road, dotted with cafes overlooking the bay and souvenir sellers. At the top of the road, just before the temple, deer roam free and they are simply adorable to look at!
Watch the fishermen bring the catch of the day in, at sunrise
Watching the fishermen bring their catch of the day at sunrise was probably one of the most unexpected things I’ve seen in Sri Lanka. As I was setting my tripod and my camera for a sunrise time-lapse, a group of fishermen passed by, pulling their nets from the ocean.
Watching them coordinating and pulling the rope at a certain angle was fascinating. Pulling the rope with their bare hands, whilst attaching it to the belts on their waists, shouting at every step, moving rhythmically, it all seemed like some sort of a ritual. As they kept advancing, people from behind would move to the front of the line and pull until reaching the back again.
They were on the beach before I arrived and after I left. The locals say that if you help them pulling, when they finally manage to get the nets out of the sea, they split the catch of the day with you, offering fish for your efforts.
Do yoga on the beach at sunrise
Yoga is a great way to relax your body and mind, especially when you are traveling. It is the perfect way to start your day in a positive way, with your mind relaxed. The beaches in Trincomalee are not only beautiful but also a perfect place to practice yoga at sunrise.
As the sun will raise from below the sea level, you can feel its warm rays surrounding your body as you do the 12 steps of sun salutation. From my experience, there will be almost nobody on the beach at that time, so there is plenty of privacy for practicing yoga.
Cycle through the second kingdom of Sri Lanka, Polonnaruwa
The ancient city of Polonnaruwa is also the second kingdom of Sri Lanka and served as the island’s capital during the 10th century. Polonnaruwa has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1982. During its prosper time, Polonnaruwa was a self-sufficient city, with its own road infrastructure, superior water and irrigation supplies, flourishing agriculture and trade.
The site might be in ruins now, but you can still imagine how grandiose it used to be in its glory days just by looking at the pieces still standing. At the nearby museum you can see the reconstructed scale models of the buildings, with their intricate architecture and wooden roofs.
The best way to explore the ruins of the ancient city of Polonnaruwa is by bike, due to the long distances between the monuments. To see the entire site you probably need at least half a day. Only the archaeological museum, which I highly recommend going to before you enter the ancient city of Polonnaruwa in order to understand more about what you are about to explore, can take at least an hour of your time.
Join the locals for a warm bath at the Kanniya hot water spring
The Kanniya Hot Spring are 7 square shaped wells filled with natural warm water where people come to enjoy a relaxing and fun bath. The wells are ancient and have been recognised as a protected archaeological monument. Each of the water wells has a different temperature, which is interesting as they all come from the same source. There are small buckets with which you can take the water out of the well and pout it over yourself. No soap or shampoo is allowed, to protect the wells.
The Ramayana legend says that the wells have been created when the Great King Ravana stuck the earth with his sword seven times in seven spots, after his mother died.
Learn about ancient rock paintings at the Golden Temple of Dambulla
The Golden Temple from Dambulla is not only a proof of what humans can do but also an example of the best-preserved ancient paintings in the world. It is the largest cave temple complex in Sri Lanka, dedicated to Buddha and his life.
The ancient paintings cover an area of 2,100 square meters inside the caves, and have been created using natural sourced paints, such as the miracle rainbow wood. The shavings of this type of tree changes the color when in contact with different elements such as iron, chalk or even lime.
The temples are not only famous for the ancient paintings but also for the 153 statues of Buddha, with the biggest, depicting the resting position, measuring 14 meters.
Climb the eighth wonder of the world, Sigiriya
Declared by UNESCO the 8th Wonder of the World, Sigiriya is a spectacular remain of ancient civilizations, and a proof of what amazing things our ancestors could do. During its glory days, Sigiriya must have been quite a special place to see, with its landscaped gardens and ponds, culminating with the Lion’s Rock overlooking it all. It is said that the entire western façade of the rock was painted but today only a very small 5th century pre-Christian fresco remains.
Sigiriya has one of the oldest ancient landscaped gardens in the world. Also, the poems scribbled onto the Mirror Wall in the 6th century are some of the oldest examples of written Sinhalese language.
Climbing up Sigiriya looks challenging from the ground, but it’s not really that hard. Looking up it looks quite impossible to climb such a steep and perfectly shaped rock, but you can reach the top in probably around 30-45 minutes, depending how much time you spend admiring the frescoes. The way up is mostly stairs.
The entrance to the fortress is guarded by two giant lion paws. It is believed that during ancient times there used to be a lion’s head as well, carved in stone, acting as the main gate to the fortress.
Be welcomed with traditional dances at Sigiriya Hotel
Sigiriya Hotel is the only accommodation in the area from which you can see the Lion’s Rock without any interference. Imagine swimming in the pool, having this marvellous panorama in front of you!
The welcoming at Sigiriya Hotel was so special!
Our group was greeted with flower garlands and traditional Sri Lankan Dancers, which we followed to the lobby. There, one by one, we lit the oil lamp with a red candle. The ceremony of lighting the oil lamp is a symbol of hope, prosperity and good luck.
The Ves Dance, the one we were greeted with, has developed from an ancient purification ritual. The costume the Ves dancers are wearing has 64 ornaments and it is believed to be associated with the deity it was initially performed for, god Kohomba.
Stumble upon a wild elephant crossing the main road
I would guess that only in Sri Lanka you can stumble upon an elephant, whilst driving, on a national road. During my two days stay in Habarana I have seen not only one but three wild elephants just hanging around by the main road, either crossing it or just eating next to it.
Whilst in many European countries we have road signs to pay attention at deer or cows crossing the road, in Sri Lanka the same warnings have elephants on them.
As elephants are wild and FREE animals, it is important not to get out of the car and not to engage with them in any way. It is ok to stop the car if it’s safe to do so and admire them, but don’t get closer.
See wild elephants at Minneriya National Park
Seeing wild elephants in their natural environment, in Minneriya National Park, was the most emotional experience I had in Sri Lanka. Watching them walk around in herds, with their babies following, was heart-warming.
Probably the highlight of watching the elephants in a safari in Minneriya National Park was seeing the interaction between baby elephants and how they were playing and pushing each other with their trunks. Mama and papa elephant were never more than a few feet away, watching over them. Cuteness overload? Oh yes!
Looking at them, I couldn’t not think about all the elephants that are held captive because of human entertainment… elephants should only be observed in a safari. They are gentile creatures, very smart, that feel emotions the same way as we do, which is scientifically proven. I do hope that you, the reader of this article, will never engage in any animal tourism activity and will teach your friends to do the same. Because little by little, human by human, it is in our power to make a change and stop the suffering of so many animals.
Go bird watching in a lagoon boat safari
Sri Lanka is home to over 430 different species of birds and 200 seasonal migratory ones, which makes the country one of the best birding destinations in the world. There are many national parks in which you can spend days just observing and trying to spot as many species as birds possible.
Kunchikumban Aru River Estuary is a great off the beaten path place where you can enjoy bird watching whilst slowly cruising in a wooden boat. The lagoon is very quiet, proving an excellent environment for aquatic birds such as egrets, pelicans or cormorants.
Ride the blue train between Kandy and Ella
The blue train from Kandy to Ella is probably one of the most iconic things you picture in your mind when you think about Sri Lanka. Riding on the blue train is a lot of fun, and not only because of the many photo opportunities hanging off it, but also because of the spectacular scenery.
Most of the journey goes through tea plantations crossed through by rivers and waterfalls.
Relax with an Ayurveda treatment
As a frequent traveller I suffer from back pain. All those uncomfortable chairs that don’t recline on planes, that have barely any space for your feet on buses or on trains have been affecting my back muscles for years. And flying to Sri Lanka was no different, as sitting down for almost 12 hours didn’t help.
But on my second day in Sri Lanka I was introduced to the Ayurveda medical practices, which are very popular in the country. Just to make an idea of how much, imagine that the first aid kit in Sri Lanka has mostly ayurvedic products in it.
I was greeted with a glass of freshly squeezed passion fruit juice when I arrived at Siddhalepa Anarva Mount Lavinia Hotel, the place to go for an authentic Ayurveda treatment in Colombo. They are experts in Ayurveda medicine, as they also own a hospital nearby where people go for courses of treatment. Their own health resort in Wadduwa is also very popular with people who come to Sri Lanka for a holistic approach to their illnesses.
Before my treatment I was seen by one of the doctors for a medical consultation and I was prescribed a full body relaxation massage. The massage was very relaxing, and the oils used did help my back muscles loosen up a lot. I almost forgot I was on a plane for 12 hours! It was a fantastic experience and next time I am in Colombo I will definitely return for a course of treatment, maybe Ayurveda will treat my back pain for good.
Feel the pulse of the town in the local market
Visiting the local market and the supermarket when you are traveling in a new country can be an experience in itself. Going to the local market in Trincomalee not only that will show you how lively the city is, but it will also give you an insight about what to expect from the local cuisine, through the fruits and vegetables sold here.
By visiting the local market from Trincomalee you will get the chance to immerse yourself in the daily life of the community and observe what the locals buy and sell. Why not get yourself a couple of king coconuts and have a chat with the seller? You might even learn a couple of new words in Sinhala such as “Stuti” (Thank you) or “Hari” (OK).
A hopper is a bowl-shaped thin pancake made out of rice flour and coconut milk. It can be eaten for breakfast with an egg inside, for dinner filled with fish curry, even for dessert when sugar is added to the batter and the hopper is served with curd and treacle.
The hopper is a staple of the Sri Lankan cuisine and you can’t visit the country without having at least one. You can find hoppers everywhere, from the local small eateries in town to the hotel restaurant you are staying at. During my trip to Sri Lanka, every hotel I stayed at had an egg station where the chef would make fresh hoppers for breakfast. I would have them with eggs inside and seeni sambol (kind of a sweet and spicy onion relish) on the side.
Besides the bowl-shaped hoppers you can also try the strong hoppers, which look like long thin spaghetti. They are made out of rice flour mixed with water and then pressed through a sieve to achieve the long, thin shape. They are mostly eaten for breakfast with dhal and curry.
Try fresh curd with coconut honey from the side of the road
Curd is a thick coagulated milk, similar with yogurt. The different between the two is that curd is obtained by the curdling of the milk with natural acidic substances such as vinegar or lemon juice, whilst yogurt is created though bacterial fermentation.
As you leave Trincomalee and reach Kantale you will spot lots of clay pots of all sizes stacked on top of each other, on the side of the road. The curd inside is topped with plenty of coconut honey, creating a perfect dessert worth stopping for.
It is a must try when you are visiting Sri Lanka. I had curd with honey in restaurants as well, but none compared with the homemade one, from the side of the road. That coconut honey is to die for.
Try pineapple with chili and salt
Pineapple is one of those fruits that we don’t really appreciate when we are at home and we keep rediscovering it during our travels. The best tasting pineapples I have ever had were freshly picked from the plant, either just brought to the market or directly at the plantation. The advantage to buy this fruit at a plantation is that you will know for sure that the pineapple you are about to eat is going to be sweet. Not to mention, you will get to see baby pineapples growing on the plants, and they are so cute.
In Sri Lanka pineapple is often eaten with salt and chili on top and to my surprise, it’s a delicious combination. The sweetness of the fruit is so well balanced by the salt, whilst the chili gives it a nice kick. I definitely recommend it.
Drink king coconut water
You have probably drunk water from a coconut many times in your life. But have you ever tried king coconut water? These big orange coconuts are naturally sweeter than their brown relatives, and besides being very refreshing, they are also nutritious. The king coconut is native to Sri Lanka and you won’t find it anywhere else in the world. The locals swear by it to “take the heat away from the body”, and experiencing how hot the country can get, I trust them.
The best place to have king coconut is for sure by the side of the road, where the local sellers will make a hole in it to drink the water, after which they will crack it open, to eat the flesh. They even carve a piece of the king coconut’s shell to serve as a spoon.
Drink tea at a tea estate
Did you know that Sri Lanka is the fourth largest tea producer in the world, after China, India and (surprisingly) Kenya? Tea has been introduced to Sri Lanka in 1867, in Kandy, by the British James Taylor. What started with a 19 acres plantation transformed to an entire industry that spreads over 180,000 hectares and employs over one million people.
It has always been a dream of mine to visit a tea estate and learn more about the process through which a leaf goes through from the plant to our cups. And in Sri Lanka is very easy to do this. I visited the Pedro Estate in Nuwara Eliya where, after a factory tour I got to roam around free around the tea plantation. Unfortunately, I was there during the full moon, when everyone has the day off, so I didn’t get to see the women working in the fields. So, my advice, check the calendar and plan your visit avoiding the full moon. 😊
Pedro Estate produces a very light tea which is processed at night, when the temperature drops under 15 degrees.
Having a cup of tea on the balcony of their teahouse which overlooks the plantation is quite special.
Stop the ice cream tuk tuk and indulge with a cold treat
Sri Lanka is a hot country so it’s normal for people to cool down with ice creams. What I didn’t know it was that ice cream tuk tuks are driving around towns playing enchanting music, inviting people to stop them as enjoy a cold ice cream.
Imagine my surprise when, in the middle of nowhere, I heard the music played by such a tuk tuk. I stopped it and had my delicious cone of ice cream, whilst admiring the beautiful panorama of the lake I was standing by. I had to eat it quick though, as the sun was melting it very fast.
Learn how to cook fish curry
Fish curry is always present when it comes to Sri Lankan food. A staple of the Sri Lankan cuisine, same as the hoppers, the fish curry is eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner, and you can always find it to order in the local restaurants.
The Sri Lankan fish curry is not only very aromatic but also quite spicy and a bit sour. Meaty fish such as tuna is sautéed in a blend of condiments (cinnamon, curry leaves, turmeric, garlic, black pepper) and then mixed with goraka, a dried fruit that resembles tamarind, which gives the curry its sour taste. Goraka is not only used for the taste but also for its preservation qualities, which allows the curry to be kept at room temperature for a week without getting bad. As a spice lover, of course I brought back home plenty of packs of goraka.
As a foodie, I always recommend learning how to cook some of the traditional dishes of a places you visit. So, if you want to learn how to cook an authentic Sri Lankan fish curry, you have to take a cooking class. I’ve learned how to make a mild version of the curry, with all the spices but less chili, at the Anarva Mount Lavinia Hotel. Here you can learn how to cook a healthy version of the fish curry, made only with fresh ingredients and the highest quality of spices.
Visit a spice garden
Wandering around a spice garden is an eye-opening experience to where the condiments we use to cook with are coming from. I didn’t know that peppercorn grows in a tree or that vanilla is a species of orchid.
All of the plants growing in a spice garden are used either in cooking or in the manufacture of Ayurveda products. At Highland Spice and Herbal Garden you can try some of these natural products and get advice on how to use them from a professional Ayurveda doctor. At the end of the garden tour I received a very relaxing neck massage and a cup of vanilla tea, which tasted delicious.
See how batik is made
Batik is a technique of producing coloured fabrics by using wax resisting dye. The result is beautiful, and it lasts forever, the color does not fade or come out when you wash the fabric.
Seeing how batik is made is really interesting because it takes around one week for a piece of fabric as big as an A4 paper to be done. The entire process of making batik is manual, from the drawing of the initial design to the wax work that is applied on each element. The more intricate the design is, the more laborious and time consuming the work is.
The batik pieces created in Sri Lanka are 100% cotton, depicting traditional motifs and colours.
You can see how batik is made at Henry Batiks, in Inamaluwa.
Try on a saree (or a sarong if you are a man)
If you are traveling like a local, then why not look like a local as well? Trying on a saree at Lanka Silks was such a fun experience! Putting on a saree is not easy, and I have no idea how Sri Lankan women can do it by themselves. I definitely needed a lot of help to get into mine.
Before trying on the saree, I didn’t know that it measures 6 meters long! The fabrics are all so pretty, from plain gorgeous shades of color to intricate embroidering.
Visit a gem museum
The famous explorer Marco Polo wrote in his travel diaries that Sri Lanka had the best sapphires and topazes in the world, so the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean” name that the country is often referred has with this occasion a literal meaning.
By visiting a gem museum you not only see different jewellery made with the precious stones but you can also experience how they are mined. The entire process is quite fascinating, from the offerings the men give to the deity before they start digging to all the manual labour that goes into the building of the mine.
It has been estimated that 25% of Sri Lanka’s land is potentially gem bearing.
Send a postcard from Nuwara Eliya Post Office
The post office from Nuwara Eliya is a prime example of Tudor style architecture, a two storey red bricks mansion with a clock tower. It is one of the oldest post offices in Sri Lanka, built in 1894 by the British.
Whilst the upstairs rooms have been converted into tourist accommodation in 2012, the downstairs still functions as a post office, which you can visit. More so, they sell beautiful postcards and stamps. So why not send your dear ones at home or even yourself an elephant postcard from a century old post office?
So what are you waiting for? Book that flight to Sri Lanka right now and enjoy all these amazing experiences too!
Disclaimer: Please note that I visited Sri Lanka as a guest of the Sri Lankan Tourism Board. However, all the opinions in this article are my own and I would not recommend anything that I wouldn’t have enjoyed myself doing or think it was a great place to visit.
Some of the links one this website are “affiliate links.” This means that if you click on the link and do a purchase, I will receive an affiliate commission at no extra cost for you. This helps me keep my website running and continue to share my traveling knowledge with you. I thank you for booking your flights or hotels using the links on my website. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.