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Thinking about heading to Sri Lanka? This beautiful island country south of India is filled with exciting experiences unique from other parts of Asia. Worried about filling your time? Don’t! You will not run out of things to do in Sri Lanka. If anything you’ll be planning a return trip to finish off your list.
Brands mentioned provided some consideration.
My daughter and I were beyond excited when we were invited by the Sri Lankan Tourism Promotion Bureau to participate in their first ever Family Blogger tour. Sri Lanka has some of the most diverse landscapes I’ve ever seen. Culturally, influence from the British and Dutch alongside varying religious influences have resulted in points of interest that include ancient ruins and UNESCO world heritage sites. Wondering if Sri Lanka should be on your visit list? Here’s why families should consider a trip.
How to Plan out Things to Do in Sri Lanka
The first thing you need to note while planning out things to do in Sri Lanka is that even though you look at the map and see an island that looks small, it’s not. Sri Lanka is roughly the size of Maine. The road system in Sri Lanka is good but the natural geography of some areas adds to travel times. For example, Nuwara Eliya is a popular area in Sri Lanka’s hill country. Roads leading in and out are winding with numerous twists and turns. These indirect routes add to travel time. For a vacation of a week you should plan 3 cities to focus on if you really want to have time to see them.
TravelingMom Tip: Pay attention to what time of year you are heading to Sri Lanka. Located in the Indian Ocean, the East and West Coasts of Sri Lanka have different rainy seasons. The North East Coast experiences monsoon season from December to February while the South West Coast generally has monsoon season from May to September.
Packing for Sri Lanka? Here’s what to you need to know.
Things to Do in Sri Lanka- Negombo and Colombo
Chances are on your arrival into Sri Lanka you’ll end up at Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo. It’s named after the very first elected female Prime Minister (1960) in the world, Sirimavo Bandaranaike.
Negombo is close to the airport, which makes that a popular spot to book a room before you fly out. We stayed at the lovely Jetwing Sea. My daughter enjoyed the beach and I was a huge fan of their rooftop spa and affordable treatments. We also toured the fish market and strolled through town to check out some shops. It reminded me a little of Venice with all of the canals and boats parked.
Depending on what part of Colombo you’re staying in you could be looking at a one to two hour drive when you arrive in. Our driver told us that Fridays are especially busy because workers who spend the week in Colombo may be heading back home for the weekend.
Our drive to the Mount Lavinia Hotel took just under 2 hours. Mount Lavinia had beautiful beaches, a great backstory, a museum on property and a wide variety of food options.
In Colombo, you can take a city bus tour to see the major sites efficiently. There are mosques, temples and many cultural sites. Check out our Things to Do in Colombo recommendations here.
Things to Do in Sri Lanka- Kandy
Kandy is a well-known city in Sri Lanka. Not only is it the last capitol of the ancient kings but the entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Kandy is very accessible from all parts of the island by bus, train and car. Its biggest attraction is the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (Sri Dalada Maligawa). The temple is ornate and centered around the relic, one of Buddha’s teeth.
It was believed that whomever controlled the tooth relic controlled the government. Over the course of several hundred years the tooth relic passed through the hands of several kings. The temple is now one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in the world.
Visiting Temple of the Tooth
- You must cover your shoulders. No shorts. These rules apply to men, women and children alike. Don’t wear black.
- Prepare to take your shoes off. You’ll need to leave them at the shoe check before entering. Bring a few rupees to tip. If it is summer you may want to bring low cut socks to wear. The bricks can get hot.
- You can buy flower offerings around the outside of the temple. We chose not to participate in this as it felt like “posturing” since we didn’t fully understand the story behind the action.
- This is a sacred spot for Buddhists. We are lucky to be allowed to visit and observe. Do not interfere with worship- be it with loud voices or intrusive photos. This may be your holiday but it’s their church. Unfortunately, we witnessed some very rude tourists on our visit.
- You may be approached in the outer courtyard and told you need a guide to tour. This is not true. Do not buy tickets from 3rd parties outside the temple. You can book ahead of time with Viator.
Peradeniya- Royal Botanical Gardens
Located roughly 15 minutes outside of Kandy, it’s a must visit for orchid lovers. The Mahaweli River does a hairpin turn and the gardens are tucked inside that bend. Originally used to cultivate coffee and cinnamon the gardens are now home to 4000+ species of plants.
You can pay to take a golf cart through the gardens or stroll them. For families, be aware there are few spots to sit down and rest if you choose to walk. Cost for an entrance fee will be between $3.50-$10. Only pay at the ticket booth.
Bahiravokanda Vakara Kandy Buddha Statue
When you first get into Kandy you’ll notice a giant hilltop Buddha statue. Standing at 88 feet tall you can’t miss it! You can either walk up or grab a tuk-tuk. You’ll pay a donation to visit of roughly 250 rupees ($1.40).
Bring a bag to put your shoes in or you’ll also pay a donation to someone to babysit your shoes. Great photo opportunities from up here over the city. It’s a temple so same rules as above apply. Shoulders and legs covered.
Check out the markets.
Kandy has a fairly walkable downtown area. We walked around taking in the fruit market views. Have a sweet tooth? Be sure to hit up the bakeries!
Where to Stay Near Kandy:
We stayed at Mahaweli Reach and the property was very pretty. The rooms had Juliet balconies and the food was excellent. Dinner included a glass of wine. The luxury Ayurveda spa had a seating area with special chairs dedicated to head and foot massages. Prices were excellent and the treatments were very relaxing.
Take a train journey to Ella (or from Ella to get to Kandy).
This experience is so high up on my Sri Lanka bucket list! Unfortunately we didn’t get the chance to do it but we did catch some glimpses of the train snaking it’s way through the highlands.
Ella means waterfall in Sinhalese. The area contains gorgeous water falls and a natural phenomena called cloud forests. Cloud forests are a type of mountain rainforest that occur when dense rainfall and heavy condensation mix. The pictures are both haunting and romantic.
Ella is also home to Little Adam’s Peak. The hike to the top is a family-friendly alternative to Adam’s Peak (get off at the Hatton train station to head here) and winds through tea plantations. If your kids are active and older you may want to look into climbing the more difficult Ella Rock.
The train journey from Ella to Kandy winds its way through the tea plantations of Nuwara Eliya mentioned below. It’s a great way to combine sightseeing with transportation. If you’re wondering why there’s a train that winds through the mountain ranges so did I. The British built this route to get tea and coffee to port cities.
The train journey can be done for a few dollars. Seriously. You can purchase tickets at the stations the day of travel. First class is air conditioned and less crowded. If you have young kids go first class. No worry about being jostled near open doorways.
Second class may be crowded but you’ll get stunning images through open windows and doors. Invest in a phone sling so your iPhone doesn’t end up overboard. I’ve had this style on my phone case for several years and love it.
One of the big draws of Sri Lanka for many tourists rests in its British name- Ceylon. In the Hill Country of Sri Lanka tea plantations are around every corner. Not only can you take a tour of the tea factory to see how tea is processed but many of the tea estates have large tasting rooms where you can sit and try teas.
The founder of Lipton (who invented tea bags) had his very first tea plantation in Sri Lanka so the area is “steeped” (haha) in history. The Lipton factory, Dambatenne Tea Factory, is located Haputale (a stop on the train to Kandy).
If you are coming into Nuwara Eliya by way of the train you disembark at the Nanuoyo station. From there it’s a short tuk tuk ride (cost 50 cent to $3- negotiate!) to Nuwara Eliya and the tea plantations. There is a bus available at the station 5 minutes from the train station (cost is around 20 cents).
One of the most popular destinations in Nuwara Eliya is Lake Gregory. This lake is a popular vacation spot for locals and visitors alike. You can take a ride around the lake on a speedboat, try a variety of street food and let the kids try out horseback riding. The cooler climate is a nice break from the heat- especially in the summer.
Nuwara Eliya Post Office
This is one of the oldest post offices in Sri Lanka. It looks like it was picked up from Britain and dropped here. Snap a photo for a great visual representation of why the area is called “Little England”.
Where to Stay in Nuwara Eliya:
Jetwing St. Andrew’s was located just a short walk from the town center making it perfect for exploring. It had a very regal feel to it with formal sitting and game rooms. During our stay occupancy was low so the dinner was a set menu with table service. It was extremely good and the choices were kid-friendly. The breakfast buffet had some dishes that we hadn’t seen at other locations.
Climb Sigiriya Rock between Dambulla and Habarana
It is honestly hard to find the words to describe Sigiriya, aka Lion Rock (because it originates from the word Sighari). This UNESCO World Heritage site is an ancient fortress. You climb on stone steps and iron stairs up to the top which rises 200 meters above the surrounding area. It’s a very physical climb, keep in mind you’ll be climbing something that’s the equivalent of a 65 story building!
I freely admit I was slightly terrified going up. Heights are not my strong suit, especially when I’m also questioning when the last time the metal stairs were inspected was. There is a section where you’ll use spiral staircases to climb to view frescoes on the rock and then return down a second spiral staircase.
If you need to conserve energy you can walk straight past these two staircases and continue to the top without the extra climb. The view from the top? Stunning. Explore thrones, bathing pools, and building foundations dating back thousands of years.
Headed to Sigiriya? Here is what you need to know:
- Start EARLY. It gets hot and crowded. Sigiriya opens at 7 am. Don’t get there later than 8:30a. Admission is $30 and also gets you into the Sigiriya Museum. You can purchase in advance through Viator.
- We were told to plan 3-4 hours round trip. Our group had 3 adults and 3 kids ranging from 9-16. It took us less than 2 hours round trip with ample time for photo taking at the top. Although we do pride ourselves on our beast mode we don’t feel that we were that fast so our guess is timing accounts for crowds. We went early, in the off season.
- Bring your passport! You will need to show it with your ticket.
- After you get your ticket stamped at the bottom keep it accessible. You will show it again upon arrival at the lion’s paws, before tackling the iron staircase.
- I don’t want to scare anyone off but be aware that Sigiriya has wasp colonies. Watch for signs warning about “quiet areas” where they nest. The wasps are thought to be reincarnated armies of King Kasyapa protecting the fortress therefore they do not remove nests. Attacks happen occasionally. It’s recommended that you wear something that covers arms and legs. There are mesh cages to “hide” in during attacks. We had zero issues and from what I’ve researched they appear to be most prevalent in July and summer months. If you have an allergy to stings bring your Epi-Pen. Epi-Pen storage at the proper temperature can be challenging on vacation. Personally, I use this Epi-Pen case and it is the best one I’ve ever had.
- Bring water and sunscreen.
What to Wear to Sigiriya:
- Wear sneakers. Although our awesome driver wore slide sandals up (we were impressed) the stone steps vary in lengths and have wear from thousands of years of use. I wore these Adidas Cloudfoam sneakers. In a fun twist, two other folks I was traveling with had the same ones and we all agreed they were super comfy.
- If you burn easily wear a hat with a wide brim.
- Consider long sleeves and pants if hiking in the summer when wasps are more active.
Day Trips Near Sigiriya Rock
Sigiriya Rock is a very popular thing to do in Sri Lanka. There are numerous side trips you can do in the same area and many tours combining Sigiriya Rock fortress with other stops exist.
Some popular things to do the same day as Sigiriya are:
Rangiri Dambulla Cave Temple
Also a UNESCO World Heritage site, this cave monastery has five sanctuaries, wall murals and 150+ statues. Buddhists still make pilgrimages to this sacred space. Dambulla Cave Temple is roughly 30 minutes from Sigiriya, located to the north on the road to Anuradhapura. There is stair climbing involved with this trip as well. I didn’t make it here and it is on my top things to do in Sri Lanka list for my next visit!
If you were looking at pictures you might confuse Pidurangala Rock with Sigiriya. Both are roughly the same height and both are volcanic rock formations. Sigiriya has more to do at the top and is significantly busier. Pidurangala is a harder climb. There is no iron staircase here and while trekking to the top you’ll have to scramble a little bit. This is better for adults and older kids.
- Be aware that the hike includes a section at the beginning where you enter through a Buddhist temple. This means knees and shoulders (on both males and females) MUST be covered or you will not be able to enter. You will also need to remove your shoes. Once you are through the temple you can where what you would like to for the actual hike.
- Cost is $3 US. It also opens earlier than Sigiriya at 5am. If you were an eager beaver you could technically climb Pidurangala at 5am, come down, take a tuk-tuk to Sigiriya and still get there early enough to climb before it was hot.
- Climbing Pidurangala early will give you a stunning 360 degree view of the sunrise AND a fantastic photo opportunity for views of Sigiriya.
- Scared of snakes? Be aware that there are snakes. If you’ll be hiking in the early am bring a headlamp so you can see them. I’m a fan of the LED ones that are rechargeable with a USB. This two pack is less than $17!
- Looking for the classic you with gorgeous rock background pic? Pidurangala is more pronounced and less obstructed by greenery and tourists than Sigiriya.
Authentic Village Meal
Near Sigiriya you can experience that an authentic lunch at a nearby village. Many can pair with a boat ride or bullock cart ride. We did both. Once in the village we had time to explore. The kids in the group attempted to climb a coconut tree, the adults were less successful. There was also a treehouse to play in.
Watching food prep and a fresh coconut being opened with a machete were the highlights of this experience. The food was delicious and included several items like a banana flower salad that I hadn’t tried yet.
Where to Stay Near Sigiriya:
Jetwing Lake was my favorite hotel of our stay. It managed to be both eco and modern. The open air lobby was filled with unique art and knick-knacks. There was a viewing deck you could climb up to to see the lake. The rooms felt modern and clean. A giant soaking tub and walk-in shower were highlights in the bathroom. We had a balcony overlooking the pool. The food spreads were some of the best we saw in Sri Lanka. In the morning it was only a 20 minute drive to Lion Rock.
Our stay here was too short! I would definitely book it again to check out the spa and take a hotel tour. There eco efforts including alternative fuel were impressive.
With 22 national parks, there is no shortage of beauty in Sri Lanka. Protected national park areas cover almost 15% of Sri Lanka’s land mass! On this trip I only made it to one but you’d better believe I’m heavily researching them for my return visit.
Yala National Park
Located southeast of Ella, Yala National Park is the nation’s oldest. If you’re planning to visit Arugam Bay to try your hand at surfing it is at the furthest eastern edge. The claim to fame here? Leopards. The park boasts on of the most dense leopard populations. Even so, book a reputable tour ahead of time. Many recommend booking several tours. No guarantee you’ll see leopards. They are very elusive. Booking a few tours ups your chances.
Yala can be a busier experience than some of the other national parks due to its proximity to beach resorts, ideal location for surfers and proximity to pilgrimage town Kataragama. If you do head there you can combine a safari with a whale watching trip nearby or down in Mirissa.
Udawalawe National Park
Udawalawe National Park is located between Hortons Plains Plains National Park and the southern coast of Sri Lanka. This location is known for its elephant herds. It can be a quieter alternative to busy Yala National Park. Leopards live here as well as sloth bears (both are hard to spot and rare). Numerous types of birds make this a great spot for birdwatchers.
Horton Plains National Park
Located in the highlands, Horton Plains is roughly 20 miles from Nuwara Eliya. It is also a great spot for birdwatchers since there are 21 species here that can only be found in Sri Lanka. A scenic drop-off called World’s End is located in Horton Plains and is a popular photo spot in the park.
Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks
Located close to each other Minneriya and Kaudulla form a habitat for migrating elephants. On our visit to Minneriya we saw multiple herds of elephants including calves. This was in February. The herds move between the parks and our guide told us that sightings can go down after rainfall or in the rainy season. Our guide was truly a pro. He took us off the beaten path and this allowed us to get close to several herds that no one else had found yet. He was careful not to invade the elephants’ space.
Minneriya is located northwest of UNESCO World Heritage site Polonnaruwa. This ancient cities ruins are located in a fairly compact area making them a great spot for families.