Off the beaten track in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is one of the world's top tourist destinations, but many places on the island remain relatively unknown. Drawing on the in-depth knowledge of our guidebook author and 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, Sri Lanka. Photo: saiko3p/Shutterstock
The Aluvihara Rock Cave Temple, Sri Lanka. Photo: saiko3p/Shutterstock

1. Meet Sri Lanka's indigenous tribes

The Vedda people were the first inhabitants in Sri Lanka, having crossed over from India around 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 treks with the tribesmen. These experiences provide a chance to meet members of the tribe and gain an insight on their way of life. Discover the jungle under the guidance of the Gal Oya Vedda chief and as part of Insight Guides’ Wild and Wonderful Sri Lanka trip.

2.  Trek in the Knuckles Range

Rising out of the island’s central highlands east of Kandy, the wild mountains of the Knuckles Range are remote, beautiful, and known by few travellers in Sri Lanka. 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. The entire region remains relatively unvisited, despite being UNESCO World Heritage listed since 2010.

Treks here offer the chance to appreciate one of the country’s most remarkably biodiverse hotspots. Leopards lurk in the shadows (although they’re rarely seen) along with other rare creatures including purple-faced langur monkeys and giant squirrels, as well as abundant endemic birdlife.

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

3. Swim with sharks off Pigeon Island

Located a short boat ride from Nilaveli Beach, off Sri Lanka's northeastern coast, Pigeon Island National Park comprises two tiny specks of land. Home to fine white-sand beaches and shallow waters, the reserve is one of only two official marine parks in the country. Snorkelers here can view an exotic array of fish, colorful corals and turtles in waters just a few meters off the beach. Take a trip to Shark Point Reef: one of a handful of locations where inexperienced snorkelers can spot blacktip reef sharks.

Visitors can also surf, fish or head out to deeper waters on a whale watching excursion. Back on dry land, hikers can take advantage of the island’s 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 is world-class kite-surfing here, as well as a cluster of eco-lodges and laid-back beachfront resorts. 

The biggest draw, however, are the vast pods of spinner dolphins which can regularly be seen offshore. Dawn trips offer unforgettable oceanic experiences. As your boat ploughs through the waves, the surrounding waters churn with literally dozens of dolphins racing alongside, occasionally launching themselves clean out of the ocean.

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

5. Take in breathtaking 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, this astonishingly well-preserved, near-vertical stairway, is adorned with friezes of musicians and dancers, and guarded by a pair of superb lions. The steps lead to the top of a huge rocky outcrop, though almost nothing survives of the royal palace and temple that once stood at the summit. The main reward for making the climb up the sheer steps is the fine views across the plains below, and the modest remains of the former city at the foot of the rock, protected by two semicircular ramparts and a moat.

6. Explore ancient Ritigala

The great ancient Buddhist monuments of Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa and Dambulla feature on most travellers’ Sri Lanka itineraries. 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 forests have appealed to generations of religious ascetics wishing to hide from the world.

Buddhist monks established a monastery here some 5,000 years ago. Although most of its buildings have now been enveloped by the surrounding jungle, substantial remains are still accessible. Beautiful 'meditation walkways' run through the trees and quaint little monastic residences dot the forest floor – a pair of tiny houses, connected by an even tinier bridge and encircled 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. Travelers looking to explore tea estates typically head for the central highlands. However, Handunugoda Tea Estate is one of a handful of plantations located on the coastal belt, and the only estate to produce virgin white tea.

Completely untouched by human hands, 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. 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, tasting sessions offer the chance to sample the finest produce, accompanied by a slice of sugary Sri Lankan cake.

8. Meditate at Nilambe

For a real insight into Buddhist spirituality, head for the tranquil Nilambe Buddhist Meditation Centre. Located in idyllic Hill Country uplands outside the city of Kandy, Nilambe is the most foreigner-friendly of the meditation retreats in the region. Sessions here are led by internationally acclaimed instructor Upul Nishantha Gamage.

The longer you stay the more you’re likely to benefit, although time-pressed visitors can turn up with just a day’s notice 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, Sri Lanka. Photo: My Good Images/Shutterstock

9. Enjoy isolation on the island’s finest beaches

Sri Lanka’s southern coast can often be busy with tourists and locals alike come high season. To get away from the crowds, head to Dikwella a short journey west from Nilwella. Here you will find a glorious stretch of golden sand, but few people to share it with. Protected by headlands, reefs and sandbars, it makes a great spot for sunbathing and swimming. The nearby reefs provide ample snorkeling opportunities, while a 15-minute walk along the coastline, Hiriketiya has beach shacks, surf rentals, and people.

10. Explore beneath the earth's surface at Aluvihara

The Aluvihara Rock Cave Temple is a fascinating, but little-visited site. A series of caverns carved out of towering rocky outcrops are covered in beautiful paintings and ancient inscriptions, along with a ten-meter-long reclining Buddha. The oral teachings of the Buddha (the Tripitaka), were originally committed to writing for the first time here 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 where a terrace offers sweeping views of the surrounding countryside.

Reclining Buddha in Aluvihara Cave Temple, Sri Lanka. Photo: MicheleB/Shutterstock

11. 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 off a small side road some 24km (15 miles) north of Kurunegala, the main part of the monastery dates back to the 6th century. Formerly home to a group of ascetic monks who lived a reclusive life of Buddhist contemplation, their modern brethren still live in the small monastery at the back of the site. Arankele consists of an enigmatic cluster of ruins buried in thick jungle. Highlights include a variety of 'double platform' structures connected by remarkable, arrow-straight stone pathways, 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 to let us know your ideas for the trip and when you would like to travel. We will then create a personalized itinerary especially, which you can amend until you're totally happy with every detail before booking. Browse our existing itineraries for inspiration, and keep in mind that all of our planned itineraries can be tailored to meet your specific needs.


Updated 14 November, 2019