Adventure Bucket employs affiliate links in some posts. I feature only products I trust. Clicking and purchasing through these links may earn me a commission at no extra cost to you.
Ceylon. The Pearl of the Indian Ocean. Teardrop of India. With descriptors like these, it’s no wonder Sri Lanka is fast becoming one of Asia’s hottest tourism destinations. If you’re planning a trip and looking for things to do in Sri Lanka, you’ve come to the right place. I recently spent three months exploring this tropical paradise, and this is my personal list of the best things to eat, things to see, and things to do in Sri Lanka.
(As always, posts on My Adventure Bucket may contain affiliate links. Using these links costs you nothing but helps support the maintenance of this site and my dog’s organic broccoli habit.)
To make it easy for you, I’ve broken my recommendations down by region.
Because these are solely my personal recommendations, you won’t see anything from areas I didn’t visit. Although I saw a lot in three months, I’m sure I also missed some really excellent things. Feel free to let me know in the comments if you have some recommendations I missed!
Things to Eat:
1. Sunday brunch in the Barefoot Garden Cafe (704 Galle Rd, Col 3). Purely for the atmosphere, the tea, and the live jazz in the afternoon. Have a browse through the shop when you’re done; it’s a sweet rabbit warren of books, textiles, and other unique souvenirs you won’t find at the kitschy airport kiosks.More tea, Vicar? Indulging in a pot of real Ceylon tea in a sunny garden is a fabulous way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
2. Vegetable kotthu at any no-name dive joint. You can find kotthu all over, but the very best ones come from the sketchiest looking little roadside stands. Walk out of your hotel around 6 p.m. and follow your nose. If you’ve never had kotthu, the best way I can describe it is “spicy Sri Lankan Stove-Top Stuffing on steroids.” Half the fun of eating kotthu is watching the chef prepare it on his flat-top griddle with knives and sizzling spices flying. If you could feel the heat emanating from this spicy plate of kotthu, your eyes would water.
3. OK, this isn’t something you eat, but the blackcurrant iced tea at Tea Avenue (55 Barnes Pl, Col 7) was outstanding.
4. Mouth-watering fried dumplings at Momos By Ruvi (43/1D Galle Rd, Col 4). One of my favorite meals in Colombo, and ridiculously cheap to boot. It’s hidden down an alley, so you may have to search a bit, but it’s worth it. Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know what a momo was, either. All you need to know is that they’re delicious.
5. Chicken tacos at Let’s Taco Colombo. Ignore the recently-opened Taco Bell and come to this family-owned startup serving the first real Mexican food in Sri Lanka.What? You can’t eat curry every day, can you? Long live Taco Tuesday.
6. A proper Sunday roast at a proper British pub: the Cheers Pub in the Cinnamon Grand hotel puts on an incredible spread. Despite the unfortunately smoky atmosphere, my inner Anglophile doesn’t allow me to pass up this favorite English tradition, no matter where I am in the world. It’s pricey by Sri Lankan standards, but the food is excellent.This is only a photo; please don’t lick your screen.
7. Masala dosa and other Indian delicacies at Shanmugas (53/3 Ramakrishna Rd, Col 6). Having come to Sri Lanka from a very enjoyable stay in Bangalore, I was experiencing severe Indian food withdrawals. This modest vegetarian joint hit the spot amazingly well.
Things to See:
- Wolvendaal Church (Wolvendaal Lane, Col 11). This whole building is a work of art. Built in 1749, this little church at the edge of hectic Pettah is an absolute jewel. From the carved wooden furniture to the ornate Dutch colonial tombstones used as floor pavers, I spent at least an hour wandering and admiring. Little bits of aesthetic magic are hidden literally all over this timeworn historical treasure.
- A tree full of enormous flying foxes in the center of Viharamahadevi Park.
- Gay pride celebrations every June. If you’re visiting from a western country, these gatherings might seem like no big deal. But here in a country where homosexuality is illegal, these inspiring activists put themselves at risk to wave the rainbow flag.
4. Arthur C. Clarke’s house (25 Barnes Pl, Col 7). Although this private residence isn’t open to the public, if you’re a fan you’ll definitely get a thrill from being able to stand outside the very house where the sci-fi master lived for so many years.
Things to Do:
- Attend the Vesak Poya celebrations in May. This major Buddhist holiday is celebrated throughout the country, but at Gangaramaya Temple, this is the Sri Lankan version of New Year’s Eve in Times Square. Only without the freezing temperatures and inability to find a bathroom.
- Get a pedicure at Nail Anatomy (14 Reid Ave, Col 7). After walking around sightseeing all day, the peppermint cooling gel is pure bliss.
- Or, go all out with a spa treatment at Amber Spa at Colombo Courtyard.
- Sunday afternoon at Galle Face Green. It seems like the whole city comes out here to Colombo’s front lawn on Sunday afternoon to walk, fly kites, soak in the sun, and sample treats from the myriad food vendors. Pull up a chair, order a Lion Lager and a plate of spicy kotthu, and settle in for some magnificent people-watching.
- Shop for souvenirs at the Laksala Museum Store. The shop has a ton of cute things and they’re not ridiculously overpriced. If you’re not a huge museum buff and/or you’re short on time, don’t feel guilty about skipping the National Museum. I loved the architecture and the old Dutch tombstones, but otherwise found it dark, stuffy, and rather poorly presented. After shopping, stop in the attached cafe for a fresh lime soda.
- Wander around Borella Cemetery for a few hours. The final resting place of sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke and most of the city’s well-heeled dead, Borella Cemetery is a fabulous place to spend an afternoon. I don’t know about you, but I love to visit cemeteries in other countries and marvel at the different ways we find to memorialize our loved ones. See how many tiny Buddhist shrines you can find hidden in the trees. Learn from one of my myriad mistakes, though- don’t stick around too long if they’re burning plastic trash in the cemetery, which is unfortunately a common waste disposal method. As I learned the hard way.
- Take your life into your hands by riding through the city in a tuktuk. OK, you’ll probably be fine, but…hang on, just in case. Clearly in mortal peril here, people.
Things to Eat:
- Fresh pasta at the Dolphin Beach Resort. I know you’re not in Italy, but you may be second-guessing that after you taste one of the resident chef’s homemade pastas. The spaghetti carbonara I had here was the best pasta of my whole entire life.
- Fruit salad with ice cream at Top Secret, Hikkaduwa. This backpacker joint is anything but a secret anymore. The food is just OK, but this chilly dessert was an absolute godsend on days it was too hot for anything more substantial.
- Vegetable fried noodles at Tree Tops, Hikkaduwa. If all the spicy curries have your stomach a little on edge, this is just the kind of comfort food that will set you to rights. Added bonus: you’re basically eating in a tree house.
Things to See:
- The Tsunami Photo Museum, Telwatta. Bring your Kleenex. This family’s tiny, handcrafted display of the devastating 2004 tsunami will rip your heart out. En route to the museum, take note of how many hulking shells of decimated homes and buildings still sit abandoned.
Things to Do:
- Lounge by the pool at one of Kalpitiya’s fabulous resorts. Yes, lounging by the pool is a no-brainer when you’re on vacation in a tropical paradise, but it’s even better here. The constant winds that make the Kalpitiya Peninsula one of Asia’s best kitesurfing spots also ensure you can sunbathe for hours without ever getting too hot or sticky. The massive oceanfront pool where I spent nearly all of my time at the Bar Reef Resort in Kalpitiya. Because it was the off season, I had this lovely scene all to myself most of the time.
- Touch a baby sea turtle at the Sea Turtle Hatchery & Rescue, Hikkaduwa. It’s a small rescue center so you won’t need a lot of time, but it’s more than worth a visit to support this grassroots conservation effort.
- Watch the technicolor sunsets on the beach near Ambalangoda. Yes, all sunsets are beautiful. But these sunsets are something special.
- No filter necessary.
- Shower under an enormous sperm whale skull at the Bar Reef Resort. Yes, really. The resort manager informed me that this is the only giant sperm whale skull shower in the world. Who am I to argue?
- Get an Ayurveda massage. For about $20 US or less, a nice person will spend an hour pummelling your sore muscles and marinating you in so many oils and spices you’ll feel like a pork roast. A really, really relaxed pork roast. Embrace your inner pork roast, friends.
- Buy some of these darling and ubiquitous soft pants that all the roadside shops have on display. Once you realize that it’s socially acceptable to wear things that feel like pajamas out in public, you’ll never go back to suffering for the sake of fashion. This is my friend Pride, and she’s the sweetest.
Things to Eat:
- Vegetable curry at Spoon’s Cafe inside the fort. This crimson-fronted walk-in closet of a restaurant serves some of the best curry in Galle. Grab an outside table just after sunset, place your order, and get in some great people watching as the two young men in the kitchen start filling the air with mouth-watering aromas, laughter, and tinny Bob Marley tunes.
- Gelato from the Pedlar’s Inn, Galle Fort. They change up their selection every day, and after three weeks in the fort, I can confirm: they are all amazing. Grab one late in the afternoon to enjoy as you stroll along the fort walls.
- Fresh mango slices with paprika. Trust me on this.
- Hummus, Greek salad, and literally anything else on the menu at Chambers (40 Church Street, Galle). The best hummus I’ve ever had in my life, and one of the top three meals I had during my three months in Sri Lanka. I hate to repeat restaurants while I’m traveling because I always feel like I’m going to miss out on all the other great places around, but I came back to Chambers three times. It’s just that good. Would it be weird if I went all the way back to Sri Lanka just to eat here again?
Things to See:
- The Dutch Reformed Church (Church & Middle Streets, inside Galle Fort). If you enjoyed poking around Wolvendaal Church in Colombo, you’re going to love this antique beauty. From the stunning exterior with its curved moulding to the tombstone-paved floor and stained glass windows, there’s enough here to keep history and architecture buffs occupied for a good long time.
Things to Do:
- Take the train from Colombo to Galle or vice-versa. Secure your baggage and lean out the open doors with the hand rails for support. The track runs right along the ocean in some places, and you’ll feel the salty sea spray on your face and arms. Bonus points if there’s a light, cooling rain.
- Take an early morning or sunset stroll around the Galle Fort walls. Sunset will be crowded; that’s when the whole city comes out to relax and reconnect. Trust me, you’re going to want to grab a gelato and join them.
- Get a pedicure at the Galle Fort Spa. This was one of the most relaxing pedicures I had in Sri Lanka, and that’s saying something. Instead of traditional pedicure chairs, you sit on a cushioned bench on the wide back porch and watch for monkeys frolicking in the plumeria trees while the aesthetician works her magic on your tired feet. Yes, I’m wearing these pants again.
- Watch for whales! If you stay inside the walls of the fort, try to get a guest room facing the water. I spent many happy hours relaxing on my guesthouse balcony with a cocktail, watching humpback whales migrate past.
- Crash a wedding inside Galle Fort. Or, just watch from the sidelines. Sri Lankan brides are uniformly stunning with their colorful gowns, flawless makeup, and flower-accented hair. On one sunny Saturday I counted no less than 14 weddings taking place inside the fort, each one more elaborate than the last. You’ll want to stop short of crashing the reception, though. Don’t make it weird.
- Drink a “Galle Fort” cocktail on the balcony of the waterfront restaurant A Minute By Tuk Tuk in the Dutch Hospital Shopping Complex while watching a storm roll in over the ocean. Take lots of pictures like this one and you, too, can make your friends back home hate your guts.
- Listen for Galle’s musical garbage truck inside the fort. No one leaves their trash outside to attract vermin; when they hear the pastel truck’s soft classical melody, residents walk outside to deposit their refuse directly into the truck. It’s a terribly elegant way to deal with such an unsavory task.
The Hill Country
Things to Eat:
- Chicken curry at Villa Rosa. If you’re a guest of the hotel, you’ll even be invited to join the chef on his daily trip to the local market and help out in the kitchen.;
- Anything on the Menu du Jour at Ceylon Tea Bungalows. In my collaboration with this hotel, I described it as being less like a hotel and more like going to stay with your doting Grandma. That absolutely extends to the dinner table, where you can relax with a glass of wine under the stars while they whip up some delicious comfort food for you. Don’t pass up the chance to try the spicy beet curry if they offer it.
- Chicken samosas on the train. You might not even be hungry, but when a man with a large plastic bin hops on your train and yells, “Hot hot very fresh samosas!” you need to flag him down. Period.
- Baskin Robbins flavors you can’t get in other parts of the world. Try a Roses & Cream, made with pink and white rose ice cream and real rose petals. Your breath will smell like Valentine’s Day.
Things to See:
- Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, Kandy. The holiest site in Sri Lankan Buddhism, this is the one spot in Kandy that you just can’t miss. The temple itself is absolutely gorgeous, and the reverence with which the locals approach it is beautiful to watch. Photos are allowed, but read up on appropriate temple etiquette before you go so you don’t inadvertently become that clueless tourist taking selfies with a Buddha statue.
- The World Buddhism Museum. On the same grounds as the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, this was one of my favorite museums in Sri Lanka. It’s very well laid out and takes you on a journey following the spread of Buddhism throughout the world.
- Kandy Garrison Cemetery. Yeah, you may have noticed I have a thing for cemeteries. This little hilltop graveyard is a fantastic history lesson, though. If you want to know what became of the British officers who settled in Kandy, well…here they are. Keep an eye out for the charming young man who tends the cemetery; he is an absolute wealth of knowledge. He knows the story behind every monument here and will happily tell you about all of them, including the “very very fat man” who succumbed to sunstroke while fleeing a rampaging elephant.
Things to Do:
- Take a stroll around the Peradeniya Botanic Gardens. You can easily pack a picnic lunch and spend an entire day here if you’re a nature lover. And if you enjoyed the flying foxes in Colombo, wait until you catch sight of the massive colony that roosts here. Thousands of them fill the trees near the avenue of majestic royal palms; walking under them with your eyes glued skyward will make you feel like you’ve stumbled into a prehistoric jungle. In the unlikely event that enormous bats aren’t your thing, the orchid house is breathtaking.
- Take the train to Ella, or anywhere else in the hill country. There’s a reason this is considered one of the most beautiful train rides in the world. Photos don’t do it justice, and you can experience all of this breathtaking beauty for just a few dollars. If you’re feeling extra fancy, pay a dollar more and get a first class reserved seat in a glass observation car for the ride of your life.
- Walk to Ella Rock. Make your trip to Ella worthwhile, because it’s mostly a huge tourist trap. If you replaced the mountains with the beach, you’d be in Hikkaduwa. But the mountain views are legitimately gorgeous and worth the stroll. If you can stand a little bit of tourist trap atmosphere, make a brief stop at Cafe Chill for an Ella Mule: cardamom-infused vodka, lime, local ginger beer, and fresh ginger. (Then get back on the train and head somewhere with fewer backpacker hostels and juice bars.)
4. Get up at the crack of dawn for a visit to Uda Walawe National Park. Have you ever had a herd of wild elephants all to yourself? You can here. Worlds different than the crowded Yala, Uda Walawe always seems to get passed over for its hectic sibling. I left my guesthouse in Galle at 5 a.m., spent two hours trying not to hurl on the winding mountain roads, and arrived at the gates right when they opened. Without another tourist vehicle in sight, I spent a brilliant morning riding through the empty park, spotting elephants and loads of other wildlife with no other company besides my jeep driver and guide.
The Ancient Cities
Things to Eat:
Keeping it real here: I don’t have anything to recommend in this category. I ended up eating in my hotel most of the time, due to a combination of illness and not having other options within a reasonable distance. Between bland hotel food and lackluster local options, there’s nothing in this category I can recommend. I’m hoping one of my readers can make up for my failings in the comments!
Things to See:
- Dambulla Cave Temples. Despite the disastrous day I had surrounding my visit to Dambulla, I had an absolutely amazing time poking around in these ancient caves. It’s a pretty steep trek to the top, so wear comfortable shoes and bring lots of water. And watch out for the monkeys.
Things to Do:
- Climb to the top of Sigiriya. This ancient rock monastery has come to symbolize this whole exotic island, and once you get there, it’s easy to see why. It’s an even tougher climb than Dambulla, but the views from the top (and sense of accomplishment) are more than worth it. Beware the extreme winds you can encounter as you near the top; at one point I was crawling on my hands and knees to avoid becoming a human kite. Please note that is not on this list of things to do.
- Join the throngs of white-clad Buddhist faithful on a pilgrimage to Sri Maha Bodhi on a full moon poya day. Make sure and go early if you want a chance of getting near this sacred tree; by mid-morning, the crowds and heat will be unbearable. Black and very dark clothing is prohibited, so consider adapting the local dress code. (Wearing all white will also keep you as cool as possible!)
Jaffna & The North
Things to Eat:
- Ice cream at Rio in Jaffna. The perfect spot to cool off on your walk around town. You’ll see everyone here from elderly Buddhist monks to groups of young men on motorcycles. When you’re out braving the punishing northern sun, the mango sundae is the best 200 rupees you’ll spend all day.
- The morning pastry buffet at the Jetwing Jaffna Hotel. Find the things that look like skinny croissants rolled in coarse sugar crystals and eat 15 of them. This is nirvana.
Things to See:
- Puja at Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil. This regular ceremonial worship inside Jaffna’s massive golden temple is like a rock concert for your soul. There’s drumming, elaborate ritual, and shirtless men running around with fire. Expect it to stir the very pit of your stomach.
- The Mantri Manai, the ancient Minister’s Quarters of the fallen Jaffna Kingdom. If you’re a history buff, be prepared for heartbreak. Decades of war means precious little attention has been paid to preserving, excavating, and protecting Jaffna’s archaeological treasures. At the time of my visit, I was able to walk right into this and other priceless historical sites unquestioned. Unfortunately, vandals and graffiti artists have been afforded the same freedom. If you can overlook layers of spraypainted initials, you’ll marvel at the bones of this grand old structure.
3. The Mansion at Old Park. Like the Mantri Manai, this former British colonial governor’s residence is an architectural work of art that has been allowed to fall into heartbreaking disrepair. I spent hours walking around and taking photos without anyone bothering me because there is no official protection or preservation for this crumbling piece of history. If you haven’t had enough of my beloved flying foxes yet, there’s a tree full of them in the back of the playground next door.
4. Thousands of Hindu temples like sweet shop candies piled up into the sky. The intricate detail of these carvings is made all the more remarkable by the fact that you’ll only see a tiny portion of them from your vantage point on the street.
Things to Do:
- Wander down any random Jaffna street and marvel at what remains of the elaborately appointed old homes, mouldering and overgrown but still as captivating as an aging beauty queen. There’s no denying that war has ravaged this city ferociously, but the beauty is still there. If you have a little imagination, you can see what a paradise this place once was.
There you have it, adventurers: my personal list of the best things to eat, things to see, and things to do in Sri Lanka. Did I miss something? Do you have favorite things to do in Sri Lanka that I missed? Let me know your favorites in the comments!
Looking for more things to do in Sri Lanka? Check out all of my Sri Lanka posts.