In August 2011, I traveled to the island nation of Sri Lanka. Most people who hear the name Sri Lanka most likely don’t even know where it is so I often have to explain that it is an island nation off the southern tip of India. This is a very peaceful island and at the moment, after enduring a 26-year civil war, it is completely safe for international tourism. In hopes you will add this incredible country to your bucket list, here are my top things to see and do in Sri Lanka.
The most interesting thing about this country is that it was home to several ancient kingdoms and was later colonized by the Dutch, Portuguese and British. The ancient Ceylon kings and European colonists left their mark on this now-peaceful island nation. I traveled around the island for a total of 12 days, always traveling by car with my guide. I highly recommend hiring one if you plan to visit. We traveled to the two biggest cities Colombo and Kandy. Both are bustling and lively, but nowhere near as special as Sri Lanka’s other, more ancient, places.

The first ancient location I visited on the island was the Dambulla Cave Temple. The temple is an ancient Buddhist site revered by Sri Lankans and popular with tourists. Each cave is adorned with dozens of gilded Buddha statues, murals, and offerings from devotees. All the while there are monkeys watching your every move. Make sure to hide those energy bars or you’ll have unwanted company.
After visiting the cave temple we made our way to Sigiriya rock fortress and palace, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is considered to be Sri Lanka’s most important treasure and no trip to the island is complete without visiting this spectacle known as Lion Mountain. When we arrived it was literally 100 degrees F°. I guess everyone forgot to mention that Sigiriya has miles of gardens (the oldest landscaped gardens in the world!) and hundreds of stairs to climb up to the rock palace. Remember to wear comfortable shoes that day (thank goodness I did!) Sigiriya was built by King Kaspaya (477-495 AD.) He designed it as a stylish compound complete with mirrored walls, colorful frescoes of nude women, and a gorgeous sprawling view from the summit of his beautiful Lion Mountain.

Next up on our list was Polonnaruwa– the Medieval capital of Sri Lanka that was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We spent about 4 hours exploring the ruins and I would say that that is more than enough time to see everything and take pictures. There are so many ruins throughout the complex but the ones that you cannot miss are the Royal Palace, the four Buddha statues of Gal Vihara, and the statue of King Parakrambahu. If you don’t have a guide, don’t worry because there are dozens of locals ready to give you a tour of the grounds. I would suggest negotiating a price before taking a tour as to not get ripped off. This is one of the best top things to see and do in Sri Lanka for most travelers.

Most people usually end their trip in Anuradhapura, but I think it should be first on any itinerary. This is the birthplace of Sri Lanka- established in the 4th century B.C., but Iron Age artifacts have led historians to agree that humans have inhabited the area since the 10th century B.C. The town of Anuradhapura is just like any other town in Sri Lanka with bustling streets and crowded homes. The main thing to do here is to go visit the ruins. I only was in Anuradhapura for 2 full days, but a minimum of 4 days is needed to explore all the ruins. There are many stupas within the city. A stupa, or “dagoda” is a mound-shaped Buddhist structure that represents the Buddha and the path to enlightenment. Some stupas contain relics of the Buddha, while others are places where offering are made. There are many variations of the stupa, with some featuring protrusions of various shapes and sizes, found across the world. Another of Anuradhapura’s sites is the Sacred Bodhi Tree. It was planted in 288 BC, which makes it the oldest living tree in the world! It is a sacred fig tree that was propagated from the original bodhi tree under which Siddhartha Gautama achieved enlightenment.
Outside of Anuradhapura lies the small town of Mihintale, which is considered to be the cradle of birth of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. The reason they consider it to be the birth place of Buddhism is because the Buddhist monk Mahinda and King Devanampiyatissa met here and decided that Buddhism would be the religion of the people. The absolute must-do here is to make your way up to the top of the Rock of Aradhana Gala. This is where they say Mahinda flew from India and landed on this rock. Getting to the top of this rock is a little scary and you should definitely watch your step because it will be packed with other people. You have to wait in line holding a railing and stepping on a rock with no shoes on because this is sacred ground. There are less people during weekdays.
The ancient locations I described are by no means the only places to see in magical Sri Lanka, but they are the most impressive. The best route would be to arrive in Colombo then head straight north to Adnuradhapura and stay there for 3 nights so that you can explore the ancient city and visit Mihintale. From there head south and stay 3 nights in the Sigiriya area. Take 1 day to visit Sigiriya, another for Dambulla and another for Polonnaruwa. Dambulla is the only one of the sites that is rather quick, so 2-3 hours is more then sufficient. It is my sincerest hope that this article inspires you to discover beyond the beaches and national parks and gain a sense of the history of what was once a prosperous and timeless society.
What are your favorite top things to see and do in Sri Lanka? To read more about Sri Lanka check out our article on The Ancient Cities of Sri Lanka