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The Ultimate Guide to Sri Lanka: 7 Best Places to Visit for First-Time Travelers (2023)


palm trees, beaches, temples, surfing, yoga, reiki, visit Sri Lanka in 2023, 2024, 2025..
Coconut Hill

Sri Lanka continues to be one of our absolute favorite countries we've visited. Known as the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka's rich lands, culture, and history, Sri Lanka has a lot to offer for every traveler. The tropical climate all year long, mesmerizing beaches, beautiful waterfalls, epic train rides, safaris, and delicious food are a few of the many reasons you should visit Sri Lanka! The island is also relatively inexpensive, making a trip to Sri Lanka affordable for budget travelers. If this is your first time visiting Sri Lanka, below are our top seven places I recommend visiting while traveling to the Pearl of the Indian Ocean!


7 - The Fortified City of Galle

The Galle lighthouse in Sri Lanka. The best city to visit while in backpacking in Southeast Asia in 2023, 2024, 2025.
A beach view of the Galle lighthouse.

As you explore Galle Fort, one of Asia's most important remaining colonial-era fortresses, you will automatically feel as though you've traveled 300 years into the past.


Portuguese explorers founded Galle in the 16th century. Later that same century, they surrendered the city to the Dutch, who continued its development until the arrival of the British empire in the 18th century. This history is evident as you explore the cobbled city streets, where you will find remnants of Portuguese and Dutch architecture on every corner. With such a rich cultural history, Galle has a lot to offer for anyone visiting this beautiful fortified city. From Michelin-rated restaurants, lovely cafes, unique boutiques, and excellent spas, Galle will not disappoint you. Also, don't forget to visit the famous Galle Light House or have some custom-made sapphire jewelry made in one of the many gemstone jewelers within the city.


Tip: Watch the sunset from the Galle Fort walls.


6 - Kandy

The Temple of the Sacred Tooth of Buddha in Kandy Sri Lanka. Locals gather in preparation for the ritual/ceremony.
Inside the Temple of the Tooth.

Also dubbed Sri Lanka's cultural capital, Kandy has a rich and unique history that dates back to the 14th century. What was once the capital city of the Kingdom of Kandy is now a travelers hub for locals and foreigners alike.


Kandy serves as a pilgrimage site for Buddhists worldwide, where they all gather at The Temple of the Sacred Tooth to catch a glimpse of the tooth-relic of the Budha himself. Legend says that whoever keeps the relic is said to have control of the country.


Furthermore, while in Kandy, you can also visit the Royal Botanical Gardens, where you will be mesmerized by all the different colors of mother nature. Or, if you are up for a bit of adventure, you can hike up to the Bahiravokanda Vihara Buddha Statue, the biggest Budha statue in Sri Lanka!


Last, Kandy is the gateway for the renowned train journey to the city of Ella. Travelers from around the world will assemble at the train station in the early morning hours for their chances to catch the beautiful 8-hour train ride to Ella.


Note: While in Kandy, don't forget to dress modestly, as it is a sacred city and site of worship for many people.


5 - Dambulla

Inside the temple caves in Dambulla, Sri Lanka. Must see while in Sri Lanka.
Inside the one of the temple caves in Dambulla.

Tucked away in the heart of Sri Lanka, the town of Dambulla has one of the largest and best-conserved cave temples in Sri Lanka. With evidence of human remains dating back to the first century BCE, the temple caves in Dambulla are also the oldest in the country. You could spend an entire day exploring the 80-plus caves and hundreds of Budha paintings statues registered in this unique UNESCO World Heritage Site.


Furthermore, while in Dambulla, you can catch a 30-minute taxi ride to the famous ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya Rock, where you can hike to the top and witness the remanence of an ancient civilization.


Tip: Start your hike up to Sigiriya Rock in the early morning to see the sunrise from the summit (don't forget a flashlight!).



4 - Udawalawe National Park

Udawalde National Park safari with elephants. The best safari in Sri Lanka with leopards.
Lonely elephant in Udawalde National Park.

If you ever dreamed of going on a safari and spotting a herd of elephants, this is your chance!


Located in the southern part of Sri Lanka, Udawalde National Park is the 6th-largest reserve on the island. With more than 308 square kilometers (119 square miles), the park has an abundance of wildlife, making it a must-visit for those seeking an authentic safari adventure!


With such an abundance of wildlife, your chances of spotting elephants, water buffalos, deers, crocodiles, and peacocks are high! And if you're really lucky, you could even spot a leopard!


The best time to visit the Udawalawe National Park is during the dry season of January to March, when precipitation is at its lowest and temperatures are mild.


Tip: Start your safari in the early morning or late afternoon; during the day, most animals are most likely seeking shelter from the sun, thus making it harder to spot them.



3 - Arugam Bay

Surfers surfing in Sri Lanka. Surfing in Arugam Bay the best places in the world for surfing.
Surfers heading out to catch some of the best waves in Sri Lanka.

What once was a quiet fishing village has become a world-renowned surfing destination for many travelers. Situated approximately 319 kilometers (200 miles) from Colombo, Arugam Bay is also said to have one of the best surf breaks in the world!

Even if you are not into surfing, Arugam Bay still has a lot to offer everyone. From beachfront bungalows, hidden cafes, oceanside restaurants, yoga retreats, and much more, a few days in Arugam Bay will be well worth it!


There are also plenty of nearby places to visit, such as the Muhudu Maha Vihara temple, elephant rock, and the Kudumbigala Monastery, which is said to have been built in 246 BC.


Tip: Avoid traveling to Arugam Bay in the off-season from around May through October, as many hotels and shops will be closed.



2 - Ella

Train crossing the Nine Arches Bridge in Ella, Sri Lanka. Best spot for taking pictures in Sri Lanka.
Train crossing the Nine Arches Bridge in Ella, Sri Lanka.

When we reflect back on our trip to Ella, only one thing comes to mind: adventure. With hidden waterfalls, cloud forests, tea plantations, zip-lines, and epic hikes, Ella was our absolute favorite destination in Sri Lanka.


You can start your journey to Ella by catching the well-known train ride from the city of Kandy, where you will travel through lush forests and mountains until reaching the central train station in Ella. Upon your arrival, don't forget to check out the famous The Nine Arch Bridge and visit one of the many tea plantations in the area.


The following day pack up your hiking gear and hit the trails up Ella's Rock, Little Adam's Peak, and Ella's Gap, where you will have incredible views of the country. Once you're done hiking, head off to the Diyaluma Falls, Sri Lanka's second tallest falls, to cool off and take some fantastic pictures. Finally, In the evening, you can relax and dine in one of the many restaurants and bars Ella has to offer.


With no shortlist of activities to do and a new adventure around every corner, Ella should be on everyone's itinerary while visiting Sri Lanka.


Tip: Beat the masses and head to the Nine Arch Bridge for sunrise, where you can admire its beauty without the crowds.



1 - Colombo

Street food vendor in Sri Lanka selling delicious and authentic dishes.
Local street food vendor selling snacks.

A trip to Sri Lanka is impossible without visiting the capital city of Colombo. With a rich colonial inheritance and a melting pot of cultures and races, Sri Lanka's capital city has plenty to offer for everyone.

While in Colombo, you can visit one of the many fragrant spice markets, mosques, churches, temples, museums, cafes, restaurants, etc. Colombo is also known for its numerous street food markets and vendors, where you can try the delicious Kottu Roti, one of Colombo's most delicious street food dishes.


In a city of so much contrast, history, and rich culture, the remarkable city of Colombo should be on every traveler's bucket list!


*****


Have you traveled to Sri Lanka? What was your favorite city you visited? Let us know in the comments below!

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