Sri Lanka’s history, culture and natural beauty are undeniably alluring. The country’s 2000-plus years of culture can be discovered at ancient sites where legendary temples boast beautiful details even as they shelter in caves or perch on prominent peaks. More recent are evocative colonial fortresses, from Galle to Trincomalee. Safari tours of Sri Lanka’s pleasantly relaxed national parks facilitate encounters with leopards, water buffaloes, all manner of birds and a passel of primates.
When you are ready to escape the tropical climate of the coast and lowlands, head for the hills, with their temperate, achingly green charms. Verdant tea plantations and rain forested peaks beckon walkers, trekkers and those who just want to see them from a spectacular train ride. And then there are the beaches. Dazzlingly white and often untrodden, they ring the island so that no matter where you go, you will be near a sandy gem. Here are the top places to visit in Sri Lanka.
Kandy: The landscape here is a beguiling mixture of nature and nurture. In places the mountainous green hills rise to surprisingly rugged and dramatic peaks; in others, the slopes are covered in carefully manicured tea gardens whose neatly trimmed lines of bushes add a toy-like quality to the landscape, while the mist and clouds which frequently blanket the hills add a further layer of mystery. Among the imposing colonial-era and Kandyan architecture, none more impressive exist than the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, one of Buddhism’s most sacred shrines.
Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist relic — a tooth of the Buddha — is housed in the golden-roofed Temple of the Sacred Tooth. It is kept in a gold casket shaped like a dagoba (stupa), which contains a series of six dagoba caskets of diminishing size.
A unique attraction in this city is The Ceylon Tea museum that occupies the 1925-vintage Hantane Tea Factory which was abandoned for more than a decade. The museum holds exhibits on tea pioneers James Taylor and Thomas Lipton, and includes a number of vintage tea-processing paraphernalia for visitors to explore.
Nuwara Eliya: Often referred to as ‘Little England’, this genteel highland community does have a rose-tinted, vaguely British-country-village feel to it, with its colonial-era bungalows, Tudor-style hotels, well-tended hedgerows and pretty gardens. Indeed, Nuwara Eliya was once the favored cool-climate escape for the hard-working and hard-drinking English and Scottish pioneers of Sri Lanka’s tea industry. Till date it still makes a fine base for a few days’ relaxation. The verdant surrounding countryside of tea plantations, carefully tended vegetable plots and craggy hills is highly scenic.
Horton Plains National Park & World’s End: Horton Plains, a beautiful, stark world with excellent hikes in the shadows of Sri Lanka’s second and third highest mountains, Kirigalpotta and Totapola. The ‘plains’ form an undulating plateau over 2000m high, covered by wild grasslands and interspersed with patches of thick forest, rocky outcrops, filigree waterfalls and misty lakes. The surprising diversity of the landscape is matched by the wide variety of wildlife, although many of the larger animals are very elusive. The plateau comes to a sudden end at World’s End, a stunning escarpment that plunges 880m.
Colombo: Colombo is a collection of disparate neighborhoods than as a single, coherent urban space. At the heart of the old colonial city, the moribund and bomb-afflicted Fort district, Colombo’s former administrative and financial center, offers a stark reminder of the conflicts which have beset modern Sri Lanka, while to the east and south lie the bustling mercantile district of the Pettah and the engaging temples and old-fashioned street life of Slave Island.
Colombo’s cosmopolitan side supports ever-more stylish eateries, galleries and shops. With a little exploration you will find great local food, shops filled with character and tiny, convivial cafes.
The National Museum, one of the premier cultural institutions in the city, enables an encounter with all manner of art, carvings and statuary from Sri Lanka’s ancient past, as well as swords, guns and other paraphernalia from the colonial period.
A unique spot in the city is The Dutch Period Museum which was originally the 17th-century residence of the Dutch governor and has since been used as a Catholic seminary, a military hospital, a police station and a post office. The mansion contains a lovely garden courtyard and has a nice faded feel since a 1977 restoration. Exhibits include Dutch colonial furniture and other artifacts.
Galle: An endlessly exotic old trading port which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and blessed with imposing Dutch-colonial buildings, ancient mosques and churches, grand mansions and museums. Wandering its rambling lanes you will pass stylish cafes, quirky boutiques and impeccably restored hotels.
The treasure-trove Historical Mansion Museum showcases a vast collection of colonial-era (and other) bric-a-brac accumulated over the past three decades. It is also worth looking into the Olanda warehouse-shop, opposite, an old Dutch building stuffed full of colonial furniture and other bits and pieces.
Among the main attractions are the florid Meeran Jumma Mosque, at the heart of Galle’s Muslim quarter, and the town’s picturesque old lighthouse. From here, you can walk all the way around the town’s well-preserved old stone and coral ramparts, which offer breezy sea views on one side and picturesque panoramas of the red-tiled rooftops of Galle Fort on the other. Built by the Dutch, beginning in 1663, Galle’s core is the Fort, a walled enclave surrounded on three sides by the ocean. Flag Rock, at the southernmost end of the Fort, was once a Portuguese bastion. Other popular sites in the area include the Dutch Reformed Church, which was originally built in 1640, although the present building dates from 1752. Its floor is paved with gravestones from Dutch cemeteries, while other impressive features include the organ and an imposing pulpit made from calamander wood and topped by a grand hexagonal canopy.