Brilliant beaches, vivid history, and sumptuous cuisine – Sri Lanka’s got it all.
As an island nation packed full of natural and cultural delights, it’s no surprise that Sri Lanka topped Lonely Planet’s list of top travel destinations in 2018. Whether you want to relax on a tropical beach, hike up a historical fortress, or indulge in art and culture, Sri Lanka’s got something to suit everyone’s travel style. We’ve rounded up the best the island has to offer, out of an overwhelming number of essential destinations, perfect for any trip you plan on taking to the Pearl of the Indian Ocean.
Sigiriya is one of Sri Lanka’s three ancient cities (along with Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, also excellent destinations), but it’s probably the most notable for its intriguing history – the ruins of a 5th century city rest at the top of Sigiriya Rock, a former fortress. And on your hike up, you’ll see a huge set of lion’s paws, the remnants of a formerly large gateway in the shape of a lion, and the Mirror Wall, with inscriptions from past visitors. There’s more than just the rock, too – you can tour the grounds, which feature a complex hydraulic system, water gardens, and a terraced landscape.
If you’re looking for a bit of excitement in your holiday, you won’t find anywhere better than Arugam Bay. As one of the world’s best surfing spots, you’ll find some of the best waves – whether you’re a beginner or a pro surfer, it’s the ideal spot to practice the sport. And if you’re not keen on cruising the waves, its idyllic nature makes it the perfect place for a relaxing beach day.
Galle is an unmissable destination – with the historical Galle Fort, a plethora of bars and restaurants, and the gorgeous Unawatuna Beach, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is by far one of Sri Lanka’s top spots. It’s a bustling shopping destination as well as a former colonialist town, so you get a perfect mixture of culture, past and present. A notable destination, apart from the aforementioned, is the Dutch Reformed Church, for its dazzling interior, and the Sinharaja Forest Reserve – a hubbub of biodiversity that’s one of the world’s few remaining virgin forests.
Ministry of Crab
Helmed by chef Dharshan Munidasa, Ministry of Crab has everything you could want from a Sri Lankan restaurant – stunning seafood, a host of awards, and celebrity co-owners in cricketers Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardena. Situated in the fabled Dutch Hospital shopping complex (another essential Colombo destination), it was #29 on a list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2019.
Another one of Sri Lanka’s celebrity-owned star joints, this cleverly named restaurant (‘kaema’ is food in Sinhala) is owned by Bollywood actress Jacqueline Fernandez. Combining traditional Sri Lankan food with modern tropical décor, the food is definitely something to write home about, and – since it’s on the fourth floor of Colombo’s Shangri-La Hotel – it’s close to heavenly.
Paradise Road Gallery Café
The Gallery Café was given new life in 1998, when the redecoration from architects’ office to gallery café was overseen by the previous owner, world-famous architect Geoffrey Bawa. While the menu is dazzlingly varied, with both local and international cuisine (for any palate) and a dessert menu of innumerable choices, the café is also a feast for the eyes. Monthly exhibitions by both up-and-coming and renowned artists feature heavily in the gallery side of the Paradise Road establishment.
One of the best parts of Sri Lanka is the food – and if you want traditional food in a sleek setting, there’s nowhere better than Upali’s. Authentic dishes, such as their signature Jaffna Crab Curry and the classic Chicken Curry, populate the menu, which are perfect paired with a thambili (king coconut) juice, a Sri Lankan must. Upali’s success has been so assured, they’ve expanded worldwide, with one in Melbourne, if you want to share the same experience wherever you roam.
ON14 Rooftop Bar & Lounge
There’s nothing quite like a rooftop bar, which anyone would learn from an evening spent at the OZO Hotel’s bar, on the 14th floor of the hotel. The ON14 Rooftop Bar & Lounge has, in addition to uniquely crafted cocktails, stunning views of Sri Lankan sunsets, which you can watch from the comfort of the hotel’s infinity pool.
In… on the Green
Although the ellipses in the title might seem odd, the Inn is anything but. One of Galle Face’s prime spots, the In… on the Green is an excellent place to spend a night, with a relaxed pub-like feel and a live band that are both well worth the visit. Inspired by the ambience and style of English pubs, it’s a great place to end a busy day in Galle.
An important part of a night out on the town is the atmosphere, and Silk is here to serve. With a dazzling variety of cocktails and a great selection of DJs, this night club is ready to spice up your evening like no other – especially on Thursdays, when they have salsa night.
Shangri-La’s Hambantota Golf Resort & Spa
When you’re in an island that looks like a paradise, you need a hotel that matches. While Colombo’s Shangri-La is certainly nothing to sneeze at, with its endless ocean views, the Hambantota Resort is a world of its own. With an 18-hole golf course, artisan village, and a spa that offers Sri Lanka’s own ayurvedic treatments, you’d be hard-pressed to leave. However, you should venture outside to surrounding Hambantota, a port town with plenty of natural delights to visit and marvel at.
Jungle Beach by Uga Escapes
Uga Escapes aims to provide the ultimate experience for anyone looking to leave behind life’s troubles for a while, and Jungle Beach is perfect for doing so. The design of the resort incorporated natural life and trees as much as possible, so if you have any unfulfilled dreams of living in a treehouse, elevate the experience by heading to this 5-star resort.
And although we’ve picked Uga Escapes’ Trincomalee location for its close proximity to the beach, there are a host of other escapes to choose from, for anywhere you want to go.
Nestled in a British-built building as a vestige of Sri Lanka’s colonial past, this highly exclusive hotel (with just eight rooms for ultimate intimacy) is elegantly placed in central Colombo, so you have access to all the art galleries, shopping areas, and golf courses that you could want. There’s even a personalised butler service, to cater for your every need.