After decades of civil war, Sri Lanka, the island nation off the very tip of India, is emerging as a world-class tourist destination, and for good reason: it packs a lot into one island, including beautiful beaches, Buddhist temples and ruins, amazing wildlife, unspoiled nature and possibly the best tea in the world.
The country is an easy flight from many European hubs. It can be a stopover on the way to the Maldives from Dubai. It's also a short flight from India. Transportation is very affordable here, but car and bus travel is slow, with traffic and single-lane roads. Trains are faster, but only service a few parts of the country. Most travelers opt to hire and driver for several days. Inexpensive compared to Western prices, it allows you to get to places that would be challenging by public transport.
Sigiriya is one of the first visits on many a traveler’s list. A huge rock jutting out of the jungle, it's a destination for adventurers who climb to its peak, complete with the remains of a temple that would be well suited to an Indiana Jones movie. After a steep climb, you get to the next level by ascending a set of steps sandwiched between two giant claws carved out of rock. The journey is half the fun, but climbers are rewarded with amazing views of the jungle and other rock formations below.
The ancient Buddhist cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa are UNESCO World Heritage sites and have amazing temple ruins, giant stupas and tribes of monkeys swinging around looking for handouts. There's a lot of impressive Buddha statues sprinkled throughout the ruins. (You might recognize the region from Duran Duran's “Save a Prayer” video.) The nearby Buddhist caves in Dambulla are very well preserved and also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Forty miles east of Dambulla and Sigiriya is Kandy, a beautiful little city in the middle of the country with an artificial lake in the center, steep hills surrounding it, and a memorable name. Many of the tourist lodges are perched on these hills, and they make for a beautiful, relaxing view to unwind from a long day of travel. Its most famous landmark is probably the “Temple of the Tooth," an enormous temple built around what is believed to be one of Buddha’s actual teeth. What happened to the rest of him is probably only known by his dentist. Kandy is the hub for exploring some of the nearby hillside towns and tea farms.
If you like tea, you won’t find a better place to visit the tea fields and factories that produce much of the world’s tea than Nuwara Eliya. An hour drive from Kandy, it boasts beautiful tea leaf fields and more waterfalls than you can imagine next to a stretch of impossibly green rolling hills. A single tea plant produces several varieties of tea, and it’s awesome to learn about how this popular beverage is produced and then have a hot cup straight from the source. Sri Lanka is the world’s fourth-largest producer of tea, an impressive feat given the small size of the country and its tea-growing region.
Sri Lanka has a very Asian/Indian feel, but the UNESCO city of Galle on the southwest coast is an altogether different experience than the rest of the island. The city was built by the Portuguese in the 16th century and then passed over to the Dutch in the 17th century. Remains of the largest European built fort in Asia as well as lots of other interesting colonial buildings make up this old historical area. Galle is probably the most touristy of any of Sri Lanka’s cities, with a variety of art galleries and little artisan shops. There’s definitely a cruise port vibe to this little European enclave.
Many visitors come to Sri Lanka just to relax in the sun and enjoy the sun and sand. Prices are low, and the beaches are beautiful. There’s water sports such as diving, whale watching, surfing and sailing. The East coast is sparsely populated, so if you like solitude, it’s easy to have your own private beach. On the southwest coast, there’s scores of small hotels, restaurants, surf shacks and stilt fishermen perched on primitive poles, happy to pose for tourists. They're an interesting sight and a great photo-op, but it’s hard to tell if anyone is really doing any fishing or not.
Colombo is a big, noisy, bustling city but has some surprisingly interesting temples. Nearby Negombo has a little less more personality, plus a famous fish market. Watching boatloads of fish being brought in, hacked with machetes, sold and then carted off is a unique experience unlike anything you’re likely to see in your homeland. Close to the international airport, it's usually the first and last city on most travel itineraries to Sri Lanka.
Finally, if you love elephants, Sri Lanka might be one of the best places on earth to see them in the wild. The island has elephant corridors between the national parks, which basically means that the animals can run around wherever they want between the reserves. Visiting the elephant sanctuary and national reserves give you a better opportunity to see these amazing giants roaming in herds.
Sri Lanka has loads of things to see packed into one small island, and now is the perfect time to see it. The war is over, the country is rebuilding its highways, and it's now one of the most exciting up-and-coming destinations in the world.