Off the beaten track in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka tourism is booming, but many destinations still remain relatively unknown. Drawing on the in-depth knowledge and experience of both our guidebook author and our Sri Lanka local experts, here is our guide to where to go to get ahead of the crowds, off the beaten track in Sri Lanka.
The Aluvihara Rock Cave Temple in Sri Lanka. Photo: saiko3p/Shutterstock
The Aluvihara Rock Cave Temple in Sri Lanka. Photo: saiko3p/Shutterstock

1. Meet Sri Lanka's indigenous tribes

The Vedda people were Sri Lanka’s first inhabitants, having crossed over from India more than 16,000 years ago. Their culture is unique in Sri Lanka and their customs are fascinating. Today, populations are dwindling due to gradual loss of their traditional lands and a lack of recognition from the country’s government. 

Gal Oya Lodge, located inside the eponymous national park, hosts authentic walking experiences with the tribesmen, providing a chance to understand this unique tribe and their traditional way of life. You can meet the Gal Oya Vedda chief and discover the jungle with his guidance as part of Insight Guides’ Wild and Wonderful Sri Lanka trip  .

2.  Trekking in the Knuckles Range

Rising out of the island’s central highlands east of Kandy, the wild mountains of the Knuckles Range are Sri Lanka’s very own Shangri-La – remote, beautiful, and known only to a privileged few. Swathed in a dense tangle of dwarf cloud forest and often concealed behind veils of drifting cloud, the Knuckles’ jagged grey peaks are best appreciated on foot (roads only nibble at the edges of the wilderness), and the entire region remains relatively unvisited, despite being added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2010. 

Trekking also offers the chance to appreciate the range’s status as one of Sri Lanka’s most remarkably biodiverse hotspots, with leopards lurking in the shadows (although they’re rarely seen) along with other rare creatures including purple-faced langur monkeys, giant squirrels and superb abundant endemic birdlife.

The Knuckles Mountain Range offers visitors some of Sri Lanka's best hiking. Photo: SurangaSL/Shutterstock

3. Swim with sharks off Pigeon Island

Located 1km offshore from the town of Nillaveli on Sri Lanka's northeastern coast, Pigeon Island National Park is two tiny specks of land that are home to fine white-sand beaches and shallow waters. As one of only two official marine parks in Sri Lanka, snorkellers here can spot an exotic array of fish, colourful corals and turtles just a few metres away from the beach. Take a trip to Shark Point Reef: one of a handful of places where inexperienced snorkellers can spot blacktip reef sharks.

Visitors can also surf, fish or head out to deeper waters on a whale watching excursion, while back on dry land hikers can take advantage of the island’s many walking trails.

4. Boating with dolphins in Kalpitiya

Tucked away on Sri Lanka’s northwest coast, the remote Kalpitiya Peninsula is one of the island’s relatively undiscovered gems. The peninsula comprises a narrow sliver of land, with the waves of the Indian Ocean crashing against its western coastline and the tranquil waters of the Puttalam Lagoon on the other. There’s world-class kite-surfing here, plus idyllic accommodation a cluster of eco-lodges and laid-back beachfront resorts. 

The biggest draw, however, is the vast pods of spinner dolphins (along with the occasional whale) which can regularly be seen offshore. Dawn trips offer unforgettable oceanic experiences, as your boat ploughs through the waves and the waters around churn with literally dozens of dolphins racing alongside, occasionally acrobatically launching themselves clean out of the ocean waters. 

A pod of dolphins near Kalpitiya. Photo: SurangaSL/ShutterstockA pod of dolphins near Kalpitiya. Photo: SurangaSL/Shutterstock

5. Taking in incredible views at Yapahuwa

Today, little remains of the former royal city of Yapahuwa apart from its spectacular stone staircase, one of the Cultural Triangle’s greatest sights: an astonishingly well-preserved, near-vertical stairway, decorated with friezes of musicians and dancers, guarded by a pair of superb lions (one of which appears on the island’s 10-rupee note). The steps lead to the top of a huge rock outcrop, though almost nothing survives of the royal palace and temple that once stood at the summit. The main reward for making the breathless climb up the sheer steps is the fine views across the plains below, and over the modest remains of the former city at the foot of the rock, protected by two semicircular ramparts and a moat.

6. Exploring ancient Ritigala

The great ancient Buddhist monuments of Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa and Dambulla are high on most visitors’ wishlists, but for somewhere equally magical but far less well-known, head to the thickly forested hill of Ritigala, deep in the heart of Sri Lanka’s northern plains. Ritigala’s remote location and dense forest have appealed to generations of religious ascetics, revolutionary activists and others seeking a place to hide from the world. 

Buddhist monks established a monastery here some 5,000 years ago, and although most of its buildings have now been swallowed up by the surrounding jungle, substantial remains survive, including beautiful 'meditation walkways' running through the trees and quaint little monastic residences dotting the forest floor, comprising a pair of tiny houses, connected by an even tinier bridge and surrounded by miniature moats.  

Discover the remains of Ritigala. Photo: My Good Images/ShutterstockDiscover the remains of Ritigala without another traveller in sight. Photo: My Good Images/Shutterstock

7. Handungoda Tea Estate

Sri Lanka is world-famous for its tea, and rightly so. But few visitors learn about the production of the island's unique virgin white tea. Travellers looking to explore tea estates, understand plantation life or taste a fresh brew, all head for the central highlands. However, Handunugoda Tea Estate is one of a handful of plantations located on the coastal belt, and the only tea estate to produce the specialist virgin white tea.

Completely untouched by hands, the virgin white tea production at Handunugoda follows an ancient, traditional Chinese ritual. Alleged to be the healthiest tea in the world, the drink is packed with antioxidants and makes for a light afternoon refreshment. Visitors making the trip here will be given a guided tour of the plantation, while being walked through the unique production processes. After this, of course, a tasting session is provided, so you can sip, swirl and slurp your way through the finest produce, along with a slice or two of sugary Sri Lankan cake. 

8. Meditate at Nilambe

For a real insight into Buddhist spirituality, and a calming stay in the idyllic uplands of Sri Lanka’s beautiful Hill Country, head for the peaceful Nilambe Buddhist Meditation Centre. Located in a beautifully quiet rural setting just outside the historic city of Kandy, Nilambe is the most foreigner-friendly of the various meditation retreats in this part of the island, with sessions led by internationally acclaimed instructor Upul Nishantha Gamage.

Obviously the longer you stay the more you’re likely to benefit from a visit, although time-pressed visitors can turn up with just a day’s notice beforehand and stay for as long, or as short a time as they like. Just remember to bring a torch, an umbrella, and an open mind.

Meditation with a view at Nilambe. Photo: My Good Images/ShutterstockMeditation with a view at Nilambe. Photo: My Good Images/Shutterstock

9. Enjoy isolation on the island’s best beaches

Sri Lanka’s southern coast can often be swarmed with tourists and locals alike come high season. To get away from the crowds and experience paradise to yourself, head to Dikwella a short westward journey from Nilwella. You’ll find a glorious stretch of golden sand and few people here to share it with. Protected by headlands, reefs and sand bars, it makes a great spot for swimming, when sunbathing gets too much, of course. The nearby reefs provide ample snorkelling opportunities, while a 15-minute walk along the coastline you’ll find another bay, Hiriketiya, with beach shacks, surf rentals and people.

10. Riding the road to Jaffna

Divided from the rest of the country for more than two decades during the country’s devastating civil war, the north remains Sri Lanka’s final frontier, and the ultimate destination for those wishing to get firmly off the tourist trail. The long journey up the old A9 highway to Jaffna is unquestionably the country’s most absorbing road trip, taking you from the Buddhist south into the Hindu heartlands of the Tamil north. Every mile of highway was once bitterly fought over, and although massive road improvements mean that the journey is now easier than ever, there’s still a looming sense of history as you head into the war-torn former territories of the Tamil Tigers, past the overblown war monuments of Kilinochchi and Elephant Pass before arriving finally at far-flung Jaffna, with its colourful temples and time-warped colonial architecture. 

 The distinctive architecture of Jaffna Public Library. Photo: Maithree Wimalasekare/ShutterstockThe distinctive architecture of Jaffna Public Library. Photo: Maithree Wimalasekare/Shutterstock

11. Explore beneath the earth's surface at Aluvihara

The Aluvihara cave temples are another fascinating, but little-visited, site. Here you’ll find underground trails and caverns covered in intricate paintings and ancient inscriptions, along with a ten-metre-long sleeping Buddha. Undoubtedly a site of incredible significance to Buddhists, it is here that the oral teachings of the Buddha (the Tripitaka), were originally committed to writing for the first time in the 3rd century AD.

Visitors venturing this far will find a maze-like jumble of temples hidden amongst boulders, along narrow pathways and up flights of uneven steps. Keep going right to the top for a terrace overlooking the surrounding countryside. 

Reclining Buddha in Aluvihara cave temple, Matale in Sri Lanka. Photo: MicheleB/Shutterstock

12. Get spiritual deep in the jungle at Arankele

The forest monastery of Arankele is one of the Cultural Triangle’s best-kept secrets, tucked away along a small side road some 24km (15 miles) north of Kurunegala. The main part of the monastery dates back to the 6th century (although a few remains from much earlier survive) and was formerly home to a group of ascetic pamsukulika monks who lived a reclusive life of Buddhist contemplation in caves dotted around the jungle here; their modern brethren can still be found inhabiting the small monastery at the back of the site. Like the similar forest temple of Ritigala, Arankele consists of a rather enigmatic but wonderfully atmospheric collection of ruins buried in thick jungle, including various 'double platform' structures (each carefully aligned along an east-west axis and surrounded by small moats, all now dry) connected by a remarkable, arrow-straight stone pathway, formerly used for the practice of walking meditation.

Ready to head off the beaten track in Sri Lanka?

Our local experts can plan wonderful trips for you in Sri Lanka. Simply get in touch, letting us know the dates you'd like to visit and where you'd like to go. We will then create a personalised itinerary for you, which you can amend until you're totally happy with every detail before you book. Browse our existing itineraries for inspiration, and remember, all of our planned itineraries can be tailored to meet your specific needs.


Updated 21 March, 2019