Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka

For a relatively small island, Sri Lanka has a big history, and much to recommend it. It’s the world’s oldest Theravada Buddhist country and contains eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites—several of them the former capitals of Sinhalese Kings. With it’s range of ecosystems from coastal wetlands to tropical rainforest and high-altitude cloud forest, it’s a wonderful destination for birders, hikers and for wildlife viewing. The entire island is ringed by white sand beaches and the warm waters of the Indian Ocean—which draws surfers, divers, whale watchers and beach goers from all over the world.

Some of Our Favorite Places

The Buddhist World Heritage Sites

(Left) Anuradaphura, (Right) Dambulla Cave Temple

Anuradaphura
The Royal city of Anuradaphura ruled supreme for 1,000 years until it was conquered by Tamil invaders in the 10th century. Today it remains a magical place—of palaces, shrines, dagobas—built on the site of a transplanted branch of the Bodhi Tree under which the Buddha gained enlightenment.

Dambulla Cave Temple
There are actually five caves that until recently were lived in by monks, dating back to 100 years B.C. They’re are a treasure trove of statues and murals that represent Sinhalese Buddhist art at its finest.

Sigiriya
One of Sri Lanka’s most dramatic sights is the royal palace and fortress of Sigiriya Rock. It was built by a Sinhalese king in the 5th century and it rises an impressive 660 feet from the jungle below. At the top of a 1,200-step climb, you’re rewarded with a commanding view, water gardens and a boulder garden. At the base are a series of caves which hold stunning frescoes known at the Sigiriya Damsels.

(Above) Reclining Buddha at Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa
The great ruined capital of Polonnaruwa is one of the highlights of a visit to Sri Lanka. In it’s heyday (in the 12th century), it represented the height of Sinhalese civilization. It was later taken over by the Hindu Tamils from southern India, which is why one sees both Buddhist and Hindu temples in the city. It was abandoned to the jungle for more than seven centuries, but today it’s again a pilgrimage site for Buddhists.

Kandy

(Left) Kandy, (Right) Colombo

The Cities & Towns

Kandy
The cultural capital of Sri Lanka was up until the early 1800’s an independent kingdom which managed to fight off both the Dutch and the British. Visit The Temple of the Sacred Tooth in the royal palace complex—considered the most sacred site for Sri Lankan Buddhists, and the Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya. The gardens hold more than 4,000 species and are a lovely place for a walk and quiet contemplation. Don’t miss taking in a cultural dance and drumming performance.

Colombo
Colombo is the country’s biggest port, and a sprawling city along the western seaboard that was first settled by Muslim traders in the 15th century. The city is a crossroads of tradition and modernity whose main bazaar—The Pettah Market is a colorful, chaotic, frenzy of activity that makes for a fascinating visit. All international flights arrive at nearby Bandaranaike airport.

(Left) Nuwara Eliya, (Right) Galle

Nuwara Eliya & the Tea Estates
Much of the southern hill country around the town of Nuwara Eliya is cultivated in tea plantations that were originally established by the British. The town itself has a bit of bygone British charm, but it’s the vivid green of the surrounding tea estates that are the big draw—from a pick-your-own experience to formal tea tastings.

Kataragama
Off the tourist path, due to it’s remote location near Yala National Park, Kataragama is an important pilgrimage site for the island’s Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims. Visit for the evening Puja when pilgrims bearing offerings descend on the Sacred Precinct where musicians play and people dance in a festive devotional display.

Galle
At the heart of the modern city, but quietly detached from it is the historic Dutch Fort district. It’s a time warp of Dutch architecture, homes and churches that date back to the 1700s. Walk around quiet streets, as the entire district is traffic free. Galle is also the center of gemstone cutting and woodcarving.

Trincomalee
A superb deep-water port with a sleepy fort and quiet colonial charm, Trinco’s predominant Tamil population means that there are many colorful Hindu temples, and a decidedly Indian flavor in the restaurants, music and culture. This is the gateway to stunning and little-visited beaches north along the coast near the towns of Uppuveli and Nilaveli.

(Left) Elephants at Minneriya, (Right) Leopard at Yala

The National Parks

Minneriya—If you only have time for one park, this is an easy one to get to, located in the cultural triangle, near Sigirya and Dambulla. On a morning jeep safari you’re very likely to see elephants.

Horton Plains—Covers a wild stretch of high-altitude grassland that’s the best place on the island for birdwatching—from colorful Bea Eaters to the many endemic species. It’s one of the few parks where hiking is allowed, and one of the best hikes here is to see the dramatically plunging cliffs of World’s End.

Yala—Yala has one of the highest leopard densities in the world and a beautiful setting along the southeastern coastline. The number and variety of birds, elephants, crocodiles and monkeys also make it the island’s most popular park.

Uda Walawe—Located at the base of Horton Plains, this lowland park is another great place to see elephants in the wild, along with hundreds of water buffaloes, birds, purple-faced langurs, macaques and deer.

Sri Pada—Within the Sinjahara Forest Reserve, Sri Pada (which is also known as Adam’s Peak), is held sacred by Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians alike—with the claim that the footprint shape in the rock at the very top was made by Buddha, Shiva, or Adam. Climb the steps in the early morning hours to reach the top in time for the sunrise.

Choose from our recommended itineraries below or let us create a custom trip for you.
Sri Lanka: Path of the Buddha: Year Round