Top 10 tips for your Sri Lanka holiday

From Sri Lanka's best surfing spots to its little-visited national parks, local expert and Insight Guides trip planner Imran shares his best-kept secrets on how to make your Sri Lanka holiday unforgettable
Sunrise in the jungles of Sri Lanka
Sunrise in the jungles of Sri Lanka. Photo: Shutterstock

Sunrise in the jungles of Sri Lanka. Photo: Shutterstock

Temples, wildlife hotspots, scenery and cultural highlights... Here, at a glance, are Insight Guides trip planner and local expert Imran's recommendations to help you create your dream Sri Lanka holiday

1. A view worth the effort

Don't miss Sri Lanka's single most extraordinary sight: a royal palace in the sky on top of a giant rock. Sigiriya Rock Fortress may be a tiring climb, but the views from the top are sensational. Only those with a rock-solid head for heights will fail to feel at least a slight frisson of vertigo on this ascent. After the narrowness of the steps up, the summit seems surprisingly spacious, and with peerless views in all directions. 

Climb early in the morning or in the late afternoon to avoid the crowds and escape the heat of the midday sun. My Sri Lanka: Culture and Coast trip itinerary will take you to Sigiriya on a guided tour; explore the palatial gardens before trekking the 1,200 steps to the top. 

2. Catch a wave or two

Those looking for good surfing breaks should head to Mirissa between December to April, and Arugam Bay from May to September. Mirissa, one of the south coast's most intimate beaches, with a picture-perfect arc of sand screened by toppling palms, is also a great place to go whale-watching too. While Arugam Bay is internationally-renowned as a great surf spot, the nearby village also has bags of laid-back charm and a number of interesting sights nearby. Submit a trip request today and we can create your dream holiday to Sri Lanka's best beaches.

3. Yes or no?

The Sri Lankan head wiggle can be extremely confusing. Neither a nod nor a shake, for many travellers this bobbing motion signals uncertainty. In fact, it means ‘yes’, ‘okay’ or ‘I understand’.

Image titleUnique monolith Buddha statue in Polonnaruwa temple. Photo: Nicram Sabod / Shutterstock

4. Crowd-free ruins

Interested in Sri Lanka’s ancient history? As well as the popular ruins of Polonnaruwa, visit Anuradhapura (which dates back to 1st century AD) and Ritigala, an ancient monastery hidden in a mountain rainforest. Much of the region's history is contained in the remains of Anuradhapura, capital of the island for well over a millennium and adorned by countless kings with a succession of extravagant buildings, including three of the largest stupas the world has ever seen. 

Further south, Polonnaruwa, is a wonderful treasure trove of ancient Buddhist monuments, from royal palaces to colossal rock-cut statues. 

5. The holiest Buddhist temple

Perched on the lakeside at the eastern end of Kandy's centre are the serene white buildings of the Temple of the Tooth. The most important pilgrimage place in Sri Lanka, the Temple of the Tooth is home to the revered Tooth Relic of the Buddha, believed by many Buddhists to be the most precious object in the world. Explore it and watch the daily processions on my Sri Lanka: Culture and Coast holiday. Touring with a local guide, you'll learn about the various chambers and the history associated with each. 

The relic is kept upstairs in a room whose doors are only opened during the thrice-daily pujas. Visit in the evening and watch the atmospheric ritual being performed – it is a powerful and moving experience.

Temple of the Tooth. Photo: ShutterstockTemple of the Tooth. Photo: Shutterstock

6. When to visit Sri Lanka

Different parts of the island come into season at different times of the year. If you want to completely avoid any monsoon rains, head to the west and south between December to April, but choose the east and the Cultural Triangle if you’re travelling from March to September. Submit a trip request today and we can organise your trip for the time of year that best matches your desired activities. 

7. Off-the-beaten-track wildlife

Wilpattu National Park is Sri Lanka’s largest national park, yet is rarely visited by tourists. Sadly the park was badly damaged (and much of its wildlife killed or dispersed) during the civil war, but it's now once again open to visitors and is gradually beginning to recover some of its former lustre. As well as elephants, deer and various types of bird, this is a great place for spotting elusive leopards. Sri Lanka's national parks are home to abundant wildlife ranging from elephants and whales through to leopards, crocodiles and a huge array of colourful birds. 

Image titleA herd of Sri Lankan elephant in Minneriya National Park. Photo: Shutterstock

8. Don’t ride elephants

It can be harmful to the creature and promotes malpractice when it comes to handling elephants. View these beautiful creatures in the wild at Minneriya National Park instead. Time it right and you'll witness the world's largest gathering of Asian elephants, who congregate here in their hundreds yearly from June to September. My Sri Lanka: Culture and Coast holiday includes a stop at Minneriya; review the full itinerary online now.

9. Beneath the surface...

Snorkel at Pigeon Island in Trincomalee and see blacktip reef sharks and several types of sea turtle. Five of the world's seven species of sea turtle nest on Sri Lanka’s shores. 

10. Into water-sports?

Kite-surfing and wind-surfing are particularly rewarding in Kalpitiya on the island’s west coast. Just south of Puttalam, a small side road leads around the edge of the extensive Puttalam Lagoon to reach the Kalpitiya peninsula, a beautiful remote area hemmed in by sea and lagoon on three sides.

Alternatively, go white-water rafting down the Kelani River near Kitulgala – kids will love it! Just north of the island's world-famous Adam's Peak, lies the village of Kitugala. The area shot to fame thanks to its role in David Lean's classic Bridge on the River Kwai, but today is better known thanks to its location on the raging Kelani Ganga. This stretch of water provides a series of exhilarating grade 2 and 3 rapids, shooting through dramatic landscapes of sheer-sided wooded hills either side of the village. 

Aboriginal boat on the sandy shores of the famous beach Nilaveli in the north-east of Sri Lanka. Photo: ShutterstockAboriginal boat on the sandy shores of the famous beach Nilaveli in the north-east of Sri Lanka. Photo: Shutterstock

Whether you want to explore tea plantations, marvel at herds of elephants or relax in luxury, Insight Guides can take you there 

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