A Beginner’s Guide to Travelling in Sri Lanka

Published 20 March 2017

Lauren Williams

Although Sri Lanka may be small, it is definitely mighty. Filled to the brim with dense jungle to explore, paradise beaches to lie on and wildlife to spot, it’s easy to get overwhelmed on this little island nation. You can be in the mountains for breakfast then on idyllic sands for cocktails by night, trekking through humid rainforest looking for leopards one day and floating in a wonderful, luxurious infinity pool the next. The choices are endless, but here are Sri Lanka’s cherry on what is already a well decorated cake.

Kottu roti

Eat like a local

If you like food, you’ll like Sri Lanka. If you really like food, places where you don’t order from a menu and your meal is just put in front of you is where you’ll find this country’s soul. Deep fried aubergine, banana flower curry, sambol (grated fresh coconut with lime and chilli), rice hoppers (noodles squashed into circles), kottu roti (roti bread shredded and chopped with spices) and dhal are just the beginning of the intense flavours that appear as if by magic out of home kitchens. Warning: don’t be a hero, curries here are hot.

Blue whale tail

Whale watch in Mirissa

Just an hour or so by boat out into the horizon from Mirissa live a family of blue whales. And you can go and watch them and it is maybe the most amazing thing I have ever seen. There are several companies on Mirissa Beach offering whale watching tours, but none are as environmentally friendly as Raja and the Whales, who coordinate with universities and conservationists about sea life populations in the area. Others are slightly cheaper, but are not so kind, and have a tendency to get too close for comfort to these magnificent beasts.

Lauren riding a train in Sri Lanka image: Lauren Williams

Ride the trains

Sitting in the door of a train, legs swinging in the wind, as it trundles over the hill country from Kandy to Ella has to be one of the best ways to spend an afternoon. You’ll travel through the clouds and over Little England, past tea plantations and between glorious mountains. There’s a reason this train journey has been dubbed one of the most beautiful in the world, so stock up on snacks, sip on chai from the chai wallah who constantly paces the length of the carriages and watch the wonderful green hills roll away beneath your feet.

Sigiriya from Pidurangala image: Lauren Williams

Sigirya Rock

Maybe Sri Lanka’s most famous tourist attraction, Sigirya Rock is a landmark that won’t be forgotten in a hurry. This giant, 200 meter high rock, which rises out of the jungle from out of nowhere, has one hell of a history. It’s a steep and sweaty hike to the top, but worth it for the views of this little island going on forever below. Look out for ancient artwork painted on the side of the rock, the shining mirror wall and lions.

Ella's welcome sign

Spend some time in Ella

I’m not going to lie, Ella isn’t the quietest of towns to spend some time in, in fact, it’s almost a rite of passage for any traveller coming to Sri Lanka to hike to Little Adam’s Peak, Ella Rock and to drink boozey drinks until the small hours on beanbags in the roof of Cafe Chill. It’s lovely, it’s beautiful and a great place to have some downtime from sweltering Kandy or to get the heart rate going after a week on the beach.

Dambulla Cave Temple image: Lauren Williams


Where do I begin? Everywhere you go in Sri Lanka there is a temple worthy of visiting. The famous Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, imposing Sigirya, quiet Pidirangula, Dambulla caves - the list goes on. However, it’s easy to be templed-out in Sri Lanka, so space them out with other activities in-between, or pick the ones you want to see the most and stick only to them.

Kandy Botanical Gardens

Kandy Botanical Gardens

If you spend more than one night in Kandy, you’ll need more to do than visit the temple and walk around the lake. The Botanical Gardens, which are just outside of the city, were one of my Sri Lanka highlights and we only stumbled across it as we were killing time one afternoon. Giant bamboo as thick as car tyres sway in the breeze, flying foxes hang and screech from branches high in the sky, monkeys walk next to you as you stroll and flowers bigger than your head are in wonderful, technicolour bloom.

Descending Adam's Peak image: Lauren Williams

Climb Adam’s Peak

Join the pilgrims and wander up the 5,500 steps to the summit of Adam’s Peak overnight. It’s a stunning, if knee shattering hike, and the sunrise from the top is something rather magical. If you’re not in any immediate rush, take the time to sit and listen to worshippers huddle around a candle to sing and chant as they rest. Weekdays offer a quiet hike for tourists to get to the top in quick time, weekends are a slow dawdle to the summit with the monks and a chorus of soaring voices.

Head to Sri Lanka with Round the World Experts' Sri Lanka Holidays, or chat to our Sri Lanka Experts for further information.

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10 Things Not to Miss in Sri Lanka

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