Can you imagine soaring above a Sri Lankan mountain range via hot air balloon? How about speeding along a massive big spotting colorful king fishers? Want to learn how to differentiate a dozen different curries, or wave your hands in the air while riding a city tuk-tuk? Maybe you’d love a big beach party with your crew, complete with a bursting sunset of reds and yellows framed by swaying palm trees? Let’s get everyone together and make plans for the top 10 things to do and what to see in Sri Lanka – an incredibly diverse, wild and welcoming country!
Take a Tuk Tuk photo safari through the streets of Colombo
The only way to embrace the chaos of what to see in Sri Lanka is to dive in head first. The guys at Tuk Tuk Safari are ready to help you get acclimated right away to everything that is Sri Lanka from the back of a tuk-tuk, which is basically a three-wheeled motorbike and carriage. During your four-hour tour, you’ll see a little bit of everything across the city. Visit urban temples, have some Kottu Roti street food, visit the waterfront and drive right through one of the city’s busiest markets. When you start feeling brave, you can have a young coconut hacked open by machete to hydrate or a little some stronger, like a Lion beer, from the cooler. I suggest letting your driver open up the top of the tuk-tuk and standing up with the refreshing breeze – it can be a wild ride!
Something else? Try a fully organized experience with Olanka Travels tour packages.
Learn to eat like a local
I hope you have an empty stomach when you land in Sri Lanka – it’ll be the last time you’re not full of delicious culinary delights. Most food can be customized to your spice level, and almost all of it is made super fresh, even the street food. Some of the best meals we had were in the villages, cooked by seasoned chefs over open fires and in clay pots. Pile your flat basket and banana leaf with red rice, dhal and jackfruit curries, kale mallung and a bit of roti for a hearty meal. The proper way to eat meals is with your fingers by gently rolling and sectioning off bits with bread. It takes a little practice, but once you master the art form the ladies cooking will stop giggling at the curry all over your face!
Fly high in a hot air balloon
You will have to get up at 3-4AM for this one, but it’s totally worth it. Sun Rise Ballooning, based near Dambulla, will take care of you from start to finish of your adventure. Have the early pick-up right at your hotel door and venture to the field where you can watch the balloon be filled with fiery hot air. Jump in the basket, which can hold up to eight people and gently begin your ascent. The reward is unforgettable selfie sessions overlooking beautiful lakes, mountains, rice paddies and wildlife below just as the first rays come up over the sky. Touch down softly right outside a small village and be greeted by a local welcoming committee eager to say hello. If you’re into a little celebration, there’s plenty of bubbly to pop once back on the ground provided by the tour.
Visit ancient ruins and temples by bicycle
Being mindful and living for the moment is the idea behind the Buddhist faith. By visiting some of these sacred spots throughout Sri Lanka, your crew can learn a bit more about the spirituality of Sri Lanka and witness its beauty taking form in temples. Grab a cheap bike rental at the UNESCO Ancient City of Polonnaruwa to spend a leisurely afternoon among amazing temple ruins and lots of wild monkeys.
About a three drive away from Polonnaruwa is the city of Kandy and Sri Lanka’s most sacred temple. There you will find the Temple of the Tooth, which houses one of Buddha’s pearly whites. It was humbling to see so many faithful people visit this spot for prayer and meditation from all over the country. Do make sure you wear appropriate clothing, including fully covered shoulders and legs for both men and women. Down by the ocean, it’s well worth visiting the Peace Pagoda in Unawatuna to check out its sleek design.
Splash cash at beautiful accommodations
Finding perfect places and where to stay in Sri Lanka is not difficult. There are countless pretty bungalows, hostels, and Sri Lanka resorts along the coast to choose from if you’re looking for something budget-friendly. But even if you have a little more to spend, most properties are comfortably affordable and offer amazing perks, especially for groups. The Cinnamon Red hotel in the capital city of Colombo is an ideal base for traveling groups, as the rooms are spacious and the rooftop deck with pool and bar are great gathering spots. Cinnamon also has a beautiful property in Habarana that caters to crews looking to explore inland wonders of the island. Not to mention, some of the best Sri Lankan cuisine is found there, from dhal curries and fresh string hoppers to coconut sambol and healthy mallung.
From there, have a look at the Grand Udawalawe Safari Resort, only minutes away from the safari park and elephant sanctuary. The welcome smoothie and cold, minty towel are just about the best things that can happen to you on a hot day. Rooms have large, lofty ceilings and the pool area is oozing luxurious tranquility.
For the grand finale, let’s hit the beach and spread out at the Lantern. This impressive complex in Mirissa on the ocean has some stunning villas that let groups have private bedrooms but share a chic living space. It’s open concept, wrapping around a glittery pool and private beach access. You can order dinner at your villa and relax until the sun goes down with your group.
Spend the afternoon in a village
Want to not only find out about traditional Sri Lankan life but also support the local economy? Many villages in the country welcome guests with open arms to try some fresh, homemade cooking, explore the natural surroundings and have a peek at everyday life.
First head for the Muthurajawela Lagoon and take a fun safari boat ride to spot oodles of tropical birds. Then make time for the Hiriwadunna Gama village where you can see how carts pulled by bull cattle are used and try another relaxing boat across lily pad covered waters. If you’re nice to the captain, he’ll make you all lily pad hats and necklaces!
Take a wild range rover safari in Udawalawe
In theory, this is an unforgettable experience to see wild elephants up close from the safety of a rumbling range rover on these protected lands. However, we found ourselves caught in a torrential downpour. Making the most of it, we laughed at our predicament and prayed that we’d clear the rushing waters that bubbled up out of nowhere from gathering rain. I will say, it was still pretty unforgettable and something your group can bond over when drying up over a cocktail later. The monsoons that occasionally happen do pass fairly quickly, so the chances of a safari being a complete wash are rare.
Have a tea picking contest
The Pedro Tea Estate is near the lovely town of Nuwara Eliya and lets you really sink your teeth into the art of tea making. Sure, you can just have a cuppa on property and sample some of their amazing varieties, or you can suit up and try your hand at picking young tea leaves too. The contraption of part baseball hat, part nylon sack isn’t exactly traditional, but it can be a blast to try out with your friends and watch the locals put your efforts to shame off in the distance.
Near many of the tea fields is the Jetwing St. Andrews Hotel, which offers the perfect base to have a refreshing tea mojito after a long day. You can have a few more adventures onsite at the hotel too, including a complimentary wild frog spotting session at night with the hotel’s on-hand naturist, Ishanda.
Learn about sea turtle conservation
With humble funding and resources, Sri Lanka does everything it can to help the local wildlife populations thrive. Have a look at the Kosgoda Sea Turtle Conversation Project on the beach, where staff work hard to ‘rescue’ eggs from the sand so they aren’t taken by poachers or predators. They relocate the eggs to fenced-in areas so they have a higher heating rate. Once babies are born, you can donate to the project and release them off into the nearby ocean. There are some injured full-grown turtles on site as well, with a few being rehabilitated and released back into the wild.
Schmooze with the dolphins via private catamaran
If you’ve survived all your amazing adventures with your group throughout Sri Lanka, it’s now time to party! While there are some options for large whale watching boats that take a bunch of people out at the same time, it can be much more pleasant to search or sealife via catamaran. It’s fairly wallet-friendly to rent out a private catamaran from Sail Lanka Charter for the day for up to 25 people to not only whale watch, but have some great on-board meals and opportunities for water sports. On our trip, we had two giant pods of dolphins have a long splash in the boat’s wake as we sailed along crystal clear waters. Later on, we spotted pilot whales flipping their tails and blowing out sea air. It couldn’t be any more perfect.
Thinking about a trip to Sri Lanka longer than 7-10 days? Here’s a great itinerary for three whole weeks exploring the country.
I was a guest of the Sri Lanka Tourism Board. Of course, all opinions are of Pure Wander staff alone. Thanks to Udara for the group shot!
What would you like to see in Sri Lanka?