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Don't leave Sri Lanka without... | Insight Guides Blog

Don't leave Sri Lanka without...

From watching a cricket game to tracking down leopards and touring tea plantations... How do you know what to include and what to skip on your trip to Sri Lanka? Here, we round-up the 10 unmissable things you must do and how to add them to your itinerary
 The Kandy Esala procession in Kandy, Sri Lanka. Photo: Shutterstock
The Kandy Esala procession in Kandy, Sri Lanka. Photo: Shutterstock

There's so much to see and do in Sri Lanka it's tough nailing down a firm itinerary (unless you're taking a trip with Insight Guides, of course). Whether you want to chill-out on the island's best beaches or explore the colonial towns and history, here are ten things you simply can't miss...

1. Climbing to the top of Sigiriya

Ascending this unforgettable rock-fortress, one of Sri Lanka’s most dramatic natural sights, gives you incredible views over the surrounding plains.

Sigiriya Palace was built on top of the huge rock as an impregnable fortress by King Kassapa (AD 447–95), who had killed his father and feared revenge from his brother. There are licensed freelance guides available close to the entrance to the park surrounding the Sigiriya rock, who can explain the history in detail. Alternatively, Insight Guides' Sri Lanka: Culture and Coast tour includes a guided tour of Sigiriya, which will steer clear of the crowds so you experience this impressive site at its best. There is also a museum dedicated to the Sigiriya story, about a 300m walk northwest after passing through the park entrance enclosure before the Sigiriya complex.

The foot of the rock is surrounded by ornate gardens of contrasting characters. The well-preserved Water Gardens look like a tiny piece of Versailles transported to ancient Sri Lanka, with carefully tended lawns dotted with symmetrically arranged ponds, water channels and diminutive fountains, while beyond lie the wilder Boulder Gardens, comprising a small swathe of picturesque forest dotted with huge boulders and quaint rock arches.

2. Hitting the beach

Sri Lanka’s coast is fringed with sun-soaked golden beaches and luscious palm trees; you can explore our favourite beaches in Sri Lanka here or discover them for yourself on the chilled-out itinerary of our Perfectly Sri Lanka holiday.

If you’re short for time, head to Negombo, just half an hour from Colombo airport. The beach is blocked off from the road by the hotels lining the shore, so you might have to walk through a hotel lobby to reach it. This is a working beach, the preserve of fishermen mending their nets, making reed baskets or working on their vessels ahead of the night’s fishing.

This part of town is one of the liveliest on the island, particularly at night: a slightly edgy place with a distinct party atmosphere thanks to its above-average number of bars and the crowds of sun-crazed holiday-makers passing through the place and resident expats – a far cry from the sleepier resorts further south. After dark, the strip of bars and restaurants on both sides of Poruthota Road fill up with crowds of western tourists.

3. Paying homage to the tooth

Time your visit to Kandy’s Temple of the Tooth right and you’ll be rewarded with a glimpse of the golden casket containing the Buddha’s Tooth Relic, at this most important of pilgrimage sites in Sri Lanka. 

The temple is home to what is said to be a tooth of the Buddha himself, brought to Sri Lanka in the 4th century from India. The tooth itself is kept carefully locked up in a casket within the temple and shown only to the most important of visitors, although you at least can catch a glimpse of the casket during the thrice-daily temple ceremonies (pujas) held at 5.30am, 9.30am and 6.30pm.

The extensive temple complex is a superb showcase of traditional Kandyan arts and architecture – it is lavishly decorated throughout. Also within the temple grounds you’ll find a small museum housing the stuffed remains of the magnificent tusker, Raja, who for many years served as the lead elephant in the magnificent Esala Perahera procession, held in honour of the Tooth Relic over 10 days in July or August.

Talk to one of our local experts today to time your trip right, or review the itinerary for our Luxury Sri Lanka and the Maldives holiday, which tours the temple on day 5.

4. Sampling hoppers

Appa (hoppers), a type of pancake with crispy edges and made of rice flour or plain flour with coconut milk and yeast, is a favourite Sri Lankan breakfast dish. Found at most street cafés, these delicate little bowl-shaped pancakes are great on their own, eaten with curry or cooked with an egg in the centre. It can also be served with a fried egg nestling in it and is sensational when eaten with a beef curry and seeni sambol, a sweet, spicy onion relish.

5. Catching a Kandyan dance show

Spectacularly costumed dancers perform acrobatic choreography to an insistent accompaniment of high-octane drumming. If you’re staying the night in Kandy, it’s well worth taking in one of the trio of dancing shows performed every evening around town. Arguably the best of the three is held at the Kandyan Art Association on Sangaraja Mawatha (near the Temple of the Tooth), where an hour-long performance of traditional dancing and drumming begins nightly at 6pm, featuring lots of spectacularly costumed, superbly acrobatic Kandyan dancers accompanied by traditional drummers.

Add this activity to your trip itinerary with Insight Guides: review Sri Lanka holidays stopping in Kandy online and enquire now.

Female Tea Pickers in Plantage, Sri Lanka. Photo: Shutterstock

Female tea pickers in Plantage, Sri Lanka. Photo: Shutterstock

6. Visiting a tea plantation

Travel past spectacular waterfalls, verdant hills lined with tea terraces and roadside fruit sellers to reach Sri Lanka’s working tea plantations, where you can have a brew and learn all about the process from plant to cup. Some 15km (9 miles) before Nuwara Eliya, the Labookellie Tea Factory is located in pleasantly cool and breezy countryside around 1,500m (4,921ft) above sea level. 

The factory hosts guided tours explaining how tea is made, as well as offering visitors the chance to walk through its immaculate tea gardens, buy tea to take away or just try a cup or two, accompanied by a slice of chocolate cake, in its garden café.

7. Catching a cricket match

Join the crowds at a test or one-day match for an insight into Sri Lanka’s other major religion: cricket. 

Cricket is a national obsession in Sri Lanka, and the national team’s exploits are followed religiously. The cricket season begins in September and ends with the finals in April. Keen visitors can enjoy the benefits of temporary membership at the Colombo Cricket Club. On a local level, boys playing cricket on village greens and on the beach are often delighted if you join in – though don’t expect an easy time!

8. Taking in the view at Ella Gap

The staggering view from Ella Gap, in a charming hill country village, takes in miles of peaks,valleys and – on a clear day – the southern plateau all the way to the coast. 

A sleepy village a decade ago, it now attracts large numbers of foreign visitors, with an ever-growing plethora of guesthouses and cafes which are now threatening to overwhelm the gorgeous natural setting. The main attraction is the stunning view through a narrow cleft in the hills, known as Ella Gap – the garden of the Grand Ella Motel, offers one of the best vantage points.

It’s possible to walk up Ella Rock – a steep but exhilarating hike of about three hours return. Alternatively, the shorter and less strenuous walk up the nearby Little Adam’s Peak provides almost equally memorable views. 

Spend two nights in Ella on Insight Guides' Unforgettable Sri Lanka holiday where you'll take on Little Adam's Peak and view Ella Waterfalls before moving onto the spectacular Yala National Park.  

9. Learning about Ayurveda

Ayurvedic wellness centres are found everywhere and even if you’re not looking for a specific cure, the natural science behind it is fascinating to discover. The traditional system of holistic health care known as Ayurveda (from the Sanskrit, meaning ‘the science of life’) has been practised in India and Sri Lanka for centuries. According to the Ayurvedic system, all bodies are made up of varying combinations of the five basic elements (ether, fire, air, earth and water) and governed by three doshas (pitta, vata and kapha). Rather than treating illnesses and symptoms in isolation, Ayurveda aims to treat the whole patient, to encourage a more balanced lifestyle. Several resorts on the west coast provide Ayurveda therapy to alleviate medical problems, while others practise ‘soft’ Ayurveda to inspire well-being. Ayurveda practitioners have to be licensed by the government, and the treatment is a soothing adventure in natural wellness therapy.

Sri Lankan leopard.

Sri Lankan leopard. Photo: Shutterstock

10. Spotting leopards

Tracking down this elusive big cat at Yala National Park is an experience even if you don’t manage a sighting, with elephants, wild boar and more to keep you diverted. Other species that call Yala home include herds of deer, buffaloes, crocodiles, sambhurs, monkeys, ying squirrels and birds that migrate from India and as far afield as Europe including painted stork, heron, ibis, green bee-eater, green pigeon and Malabar pied hornbill. You'll usually find them near waterholes, where animals come to drink in the evening and early morning. 

The real highlight of Yala is its remarkable population of leopards, reckoned to be the densest anywhere in the world, with 60–70 animals living in the area of the park open to visitors. Sightings of these notoriously difficult-to-spot and largely nocturnal animals are far from guaranteed, but spend a day in the park and you’ve got a reasonable chance, with animals sometimes seen sat atop the various rock outcrops which dot the park preening themselves in the sun, dangling from the branches of a tree overhead, or occasionally sauntering casually down one of the park’s dirt tracks.

Insight Guides Unforgettable Sri Lanka holiday includes a jeep safari in Yala National Park and a stay in a jungle chalet. What are you waiting for? 

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