Located at the south end of its much more imposing neighbor India, Sri Lanka is slowly showing up on independent travelers’ radar since the end of the civil war in 2009. Theatre of inter-ethnic conflicts for over 30 years that left dozens of thousands dead, the country – now at peace – is not only home to a rich cultural history, it has some of the most beautiful tropical landscapes in Asia, incredible wildlife and smiley, friendly and generous locals.
Of course, not everything is happy and shiny in the land of serendipity. Around five percent of the population lives below the poverty line, environmental degradation is highly visible with forests disappearing and human/wildlife problems increasing, plastic pollution is evident on the fifth largest plastic-polluting nation on the planet and finally the fate of stray animals is heartbreaking for any animal lover.
Yet, the month I spent there earlier this year was incredible in every way. I met so many kind-hearted people, laughed with locals, learned to surf (badly), practised yoga (a lot), ate delicious local food, learned about so many different religions, rescued beach puppies and cried a lot when it was time to leave.
So, in case you’re going soon, here are my top four of what not to miss if you’re in Sri Lanka!
The former royal capital of the country and Unesco World Heritage Site, Sigiriya is about 160 km north of Colombo. In the middle of a luxurious garden divided into several themes lays an imposing rock, 1200 steps high with an incredible view of the surroundings. The climb will take you through a 13-meter long Buddha, two giant lion paws carved in rock, families of curious monkeys searching for food and aggressive hornet nests flagged by signs asking you to be quiet to avoid drawing their attention. The 1,200 steps can be challenging if you’re not used to walking long distances or if it’s one of the sunniest days of the year, so don’t forget to bring plenty of water and natural sunscreen to enjoy Sigiriya safely!
The best way to visit this highly touristy place is to spend the night in one of the many guest houses on the road leading to Sigiriya and to be there when the ticket office opens at 7am. This will enable you not to feel pressured in the many steps that lead to the top and be able to enjoy the beauty of the view in a quiet environment and avoid the scorching heat that begins around 9am. My advice? Climb the rock first and then wander around the garden.
Note: Make sure to bring some cash as the ATM is a good five-minute walk from the ticket office.
Known as Sri Pada by the locals, Adam’s Peak is a 2243-meter-high summit that is a holy place for all the religions represented on the island. At the top, a cavity carved in rock is supposed to be the footprint of Vishnu for the Hindus, Adam for the Muslims and Buddha for the Buddhists. Sri Lankans will usually perform the ascent several times in their lives, including as very young children and even in the elder, later years of their life.
As a tourist, it is an incredible adventure. Not only because it’s very very challenging to reach the top (5,000 steps up and same amount down, which is 7km each way) but also incredibly humbling to see these Sri Lankan believers pushing through their physical limits to achieve this pilgrimage sometimes barefoot at 80+ years old, sometimes carrying young children on their shoulders, sometimes having been walking for over six hours, but never doubting that they’ll reach the summit to watch the sunrise and pray in the monastery located at the top.
From a practical point of view, climbers usually stay in the cities of Nuwara Eliya or Dalhousie and start the ascent around 1:30 – 2:00 am. The path is well-lit during high-season but during low-season, a flashlight is required. The ascent starts flat before reaching the steps that are unequal in height and width. The path is paved with tea houses offering much-needed tea, coffee, snacks and chairs to rest tired legs. The last section of the climb is the hardest with only one line of people able to progress to the top. Coming down is actually harder than going up because of the exhaustion and physical demands on the body, but it’s absolutely worth it! It took a total of about seven hours for the round-trip but don’t be scared by those numbers. It’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience and the feeling of reaching the top and sharing a spiritual experience with pilgrims is like no other!
Probably the most touristy town in Sri Lanka, Ella in itself isn’t really worth the trip. What makes it so popular is its incredible surroundings and all the activities you can do from Ella town.
If you got spooked by the real Adam’s Peak, the little Adam’s Peak is a lovely walk from Ella and once at the top, you can enjoy views of rice fields and tea plantations. Feeling more ambitious? Ella’s rock is more of a challenge but is also full of leeches – so don’t forget to wear long pants!
An instagrammer’s favorite is the famous Nine Arch Bridge where you can watch the colorful trains pass by if you’re lucky. It’s a bit of a walk along the train rails but chances are you’ll be alone to enjoy the stunning views and if you bump into a local on the way, don’t hesitate to chat, they LOVE a good conversation!
One of my favorite activities while staying in Ella was visiting a tea plantation. Many tourists prefer the closest ones to town which are usually industrial factories belonging to famous tea companies, but we wanted to experience something aligned with our values. After some research, we found Amba Estate. About 30 minutes away from Ella by tuk-tuk, this traditional tea plantation is much smaller than its counterparts but is organic and based on fair trade principles, meaning workers are paid a fair wage. It has a family-like environment and one percent of the production is reserved for workers so they can drink quality tea. Everything is hand-made from the picking of the leaves to the drying and packaging of the tea.
The visit is free and very informative and there’s a possibility to participate in a tasting afterwards for 500 rupees. All the teas are delicious and the little shop allows visitors to shop, giving you the chance to take some traditional Sri Lankan tea home with you (which also makes a perfect present!). Also, don’t miss the 30-minute walk to the natural pools of Ravana Falls from the plantation. Most tourists make the visit to the end of the falls where you’re not permitted to swim but from Amba Estate a path takes you to the natural pools way up the falls where you can swim and be completely on your own! It’s truly spectacular.
The South Coast
Probably my favorite part of Sri Lanka. The southern coastline is home to dreamy tropical landscapes with coconut and crystal clear water, small colorful villages and delicious food. Every beach has its own special features but here’s the ones that I fell in love with.
Tangalle: Probably the last beach east before the national parks, Tangalle will make you feel like Robinson Crusoe. It’s not rare to be the only one on the beach and the many hotels feel more like beach huts than actual hospitality establishments. The only downside – you can’t really swim in Tangalle because the current is so strong but that’s probably why it’s so quiet and enjoyable.
Hiriketiya: If heaven was a beach, it would probably be Hiriketiya. This 500-meter strip of sand in the shape of a horseshoe is still a hidden gem known only to surfers, yoga addicts and seasoned travelers. Not so many hotels/hostels/B&B around here which makes booking mandatory and prices higher than the rest of the coast, but the crystal clear water and the white sandy beach make it so very worth it. Also surfing with turtles swimming beneath you is not uncommon.
Mirissa: Didn’t stay here as it ’s very family-oriented, particularly at the hotels, but the beach is beautiful and the town is also home to the famous palm tree grove which isn’t easy to find but makes an excellent background for photography lovers. Also has delicious vegan breakfast hotspots such as Shady Lane and Aloha Coffee Gallery.
Weligama: A beginner surfer’s paradise! This beach town is home to several very affordable hostels and is considered one of the best destinations in the world to learn to surf. And I can confirm! The beach is full of “surfing schools” next to each other and it can sometimes be overwhelming to choose. I chose mine based on the presence of puppies and eventually made friends with the local instructors for the rest of the stay.
Weligama also has plenty of yoga classes including at the beautiful Ceylon Sliders rooftop. The town is witnessing, as the rest of the south coast, a boom in delicious healthy (often plant-based) cuisine. Insider’s tip: If you’re in town, don’t miss the local restaurant Zam Zam, it may not look like much from the outside but you’ll eat the best kottu of the south coast!
Ahangama/Midigama: A little less known than its neighbors above, the fishing villages of Ahangama and Midigama are the perfect base to explore the south coast if you’re staying for a while. The vibe is much more chilled and relaxed as inhabitants are mostly locals and foreigners staying for several months. Some of our favorite accommodations from our time there were in these two villages and included:
The Kip: Owned by an Italian-Australian couple, this beautiful colonial house will give you some serious design inspo envy. Every detail is perfect from the reusable net bags in the room in case you’re going shopping to the swing in the courtyard and the beautiful water bottle. Their credo? #Slowliving and to celebrate that, they organize regular workshops on kombucha-making, vegetable-dying and handmade craftsmanship.
Jamu Surf Lodge: Our home for our last days in Sri Lanka, this surf temple that warmly welcomes you if you’re not a surfer (or a terrible one) is located two minutes from an advanced surf spot and less than 15-minute from easier ones. Grey tones, Scandinavian design (owners are Swedish), delicious coffee and a yoga shala makes Jamu the perfect place to chill and enjoy the Sri Lankan way of life.
Finally, don’t hesitate to rent a scooter if you’re on the south coast. Locals drive like crazy but the key to safety is to drive very slowly and veer to the most left -side of the road as possible, and you should be fine! Also, there are plenty of stray dogs and cats that are very friendly but desperate for love and food. We always had dog food with us and fed several of them and if you see an animal hurt, don’t hesitate to bring it to SOS Animals or Wecare. You may feel it may not make the slight bit of difference for the faith of stray dogs in the country, but please know it will change considerably the life of the one you saved.
Sri Lanka is truly a special place and I hope you’ll love it as much as I did if you have the opportunity to visit this beautiful country 🙂
To see more of Chloe’s eco-adventures, make sure to follow her on Instagram @thegreenmonki
Want more eco-friendly travel guides? Make sure to sign up for our newsletter and we’ll send them over as we publish. We’ll also shoot over our 12-page Sustainable Lifestyle Guide that lists 101+ tips on how to live more planet-friendly. You can subscribe to our newsletter here.