Sri Lanka has attracted travellers for centuries. Marco Polo described it as the finest island of its size in the world, while successive waves of Indian, Arab and European traders and adventurers flocked to its palm-fringed shores, attracted by reports of rare spices, precious stones and magnificent elephants.
Lapped by the Indian Ocean, the coast is fringed with idyllic – and often refreshingly undeveloped – beaches, while the interior boasts a compelling variety of landscapes ranging from wildlife-rich lowland jungles, home to extensive populations of elephants, leopards and rare endemic bird species, to the misty heights of the hill country, swathed in immaculately manicured tea plantations. Sri Lanka boasts more than two thousand years of recorded history, and the remarkable achievements of the early Sinhalese civilization can still be seen in the sequence of ruined cities and great religious monuments that litter the northern plains. Here are the top places to visit in Sri Lanka.
Colombo: Situated about two-thirds of the way down the west coast, Sri Lanka’s sprawling capital, Colombo, is an intriguing and characterful city which offers a fascinating microcosm of contemporary Sri Lanka. Its natural harbor at the mouth of the Kelani River was a magnet for successive traders and conquerors – initially the Arab merchants, then Portuguese, Dutch and British imperialists.
The city is a jarring mix of old and new, with a central cluster of high-rise office blocks and hotels overshadowing red-tiled colonial-era buildings and sprawling street markets which overflow with high-piled fruit and vegetables, colourful silks and cottons, and deliciously fragrant spices. On its crowded streets stand places of worship, symbolic of Sri Lanka‘s multiethnic heritage: graceful Buddhist viharas (temples), for instance, stand close to extravagant temples encrusted with Hindu statuary, along with Muslim mosques with minarets scattered along Colombo’s streets. There is a lively nightlife at a number of International standard hotels, clubs, pubs and dining venues while it is limited mainly to the high end customer. During the day, Colombo’s colorful street markets, colonial-era buildings, museums and galleries, churches, mosques and temples, and the lovely Viharamahadevi Park with its beautiful trees, makes it a great place to explore on foot.
The south: A land of a thousand sleepy villages sheltered under innumerable palms, where the laid-back pace of life still revolves around coconut farming, rice cultivation and fishing (the last still practiced in places by the distinctively Sri Lankan method of stilt-fishing). Culturally, too, the south remains a bastion of Sinhalese traditions exemplified by the string of temples and giant Buddha statues which dot the coast, and by the colorful festivals celebrated throughout the region, which culminate in the exuberant religious ceremonies enacted nightly at the ancient shrine of Kataragama.
Kandy and the hill country: The landscape here is a beguiling mixture of nature and nurture. In places the mountainous green hills rise to surprisingly rugged and dramatic peaks; in others, the slopes are covered in carefully manicured tea gardens whose neatly trimmed lines of bushes add a toy-like quality to the landscape, while the mist and clouds which frequently blanket the hills add a further layer of mystery.
The hill country has been shaped by two very different historical forces. The northern portion, around the historic city of Kandy, was home to Sri Lanka’s last independent kingdom, which survived two centuries of colonial incursions before finally falling to the British in 1815. The cultural legacy of this independent Sinhalese tradition lives on today in the city’s distinctive music, dance and architecture, encapsulated by the Temple of the Tooth, home to the island’s most revered Buddhist relic, and the exuberant Kandy Esala Perahera, one of Asia’s most spectacular festivals.
In contrast, the character of the southern hill country is largely a product of the British colonial era, when tea was introduced to the island, an industry which continues to shape the economy and scenery of the region today.
At the heart of the tea-growing uplands lies the town of Nuwara Eliya, which preserves a few quaint traces of its British colonial heritage and provides the best base for visiting the misty uplands of Horton Plains and World’s End. To the south, in Uva Province, a string of small towns and villages – Ella, Bandarawela and Haputale – offer marvelous views and walks through the hills and tea plantations. At the southwestern corner of the hill country lies the town of Ratnapura, the island’s gem-mining center and a possible base for visits to the Sinharaja reserve, a rare and remarkable pocket of surviving tropical rainforest, Uda Walawe National Park, home to one of the island’s largest elephant populations, and Adam’s Peak, whose rugged summit, imprinted with what is claimed to be the Buddha’s footprint, remains an object of pilgrimage for devotees of all four of the island’s principal religions.
The Cultural Triangle: North of Kandy, the tangled green hills of the central highlands tumble down into the plains of the dry zone, a hot and denuded region covered in thorny scrub and jungle and punctuated by isolated mountainous outcrops that tower dramatically over the surrounding flatlands. Despite the unpromising natural environment, these northern plains – traditionally referred to as Rajarata, or ‘The King’s Land’, although now more popularly known as the Cultural Triangle – served as the crucible of early Sinhalese civilization, centered on the great cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, whose grandiose monuments still serve as potent reminders of the golden age of Sinhalese civilization.
At the spiritual heart of the Triangle lies the great ruined city of Anuradhapura, capital of the island from the third century BC to 993 AD and one of medieval Asia’s great metropolises, dotted with vast monasteries, elaborate palaces, enormous tanks and a trio of monumental dagobas. The remains of Polonnaruwa, the island’s second capital, are equally absorbing, while the spectacular rock citadel of Sigiriya, is perhaps Sri Lanka’s single most extraordinary sight. Other leading attractions include the marvelous cave temples of Dambulla, a magical treasure box of Buddhist sculpture and painting, and the religious center of Mihintale, scene of the introduction of Buddhism to the island.