Anuradhapura: This UNESCO World Heritage Site – Sri Lanka’s first capital city founded in the fourth century BCE – was a model of systematic planning, and is known for housing some of the most complex irrigation systems of the ancient world. The Sacred Bo Tree is the oldest historically documented tree on earth, dating back to the year 245 BCE. The Folk Museum founded in 1971, houses a collection of artifacts which illustrate the rural life of the North Central Province.
Colombo: This is the largest city and the commercial, industrial and cultural capital of Sri Lanka. Colombo was known to ancient mariners some 2,000 years ago due to its large harbor and strategic position along the East-West sea trade routes. It served as the island’s capital when Sri Lanka was ceded to the British Empire in 1815, and remained the capital city until 1978, when administrative functions were moved to nearby Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte. The city is home to several museums including the Colombo Museum, established in 1877, the National Museum of Natural History and the Galle National Museum. The Galle Museum is located in the oldest Dutch building of the Galle Fort, originally constructed in 1656.
Dambulla: This large town, situated in the Matale District, is thought to be inhabited from as early as the seventh to third century BCE. Major attractions of the area include the largest and best-preserved cave temple complex of Sri Lanka. Statues and paintings in these caves date back to the first century BCE. But the paintings and statues were repaired and repainted in the 11th, 12th, and 18th century. The area also has the largest rose quartz mountain range in South Asia, as well as an iron wood forest. The Ibbankatuwa prehistoric burial site near the cave temples is just the latest archaeological site of significant historical importance found here.
Galle: Galle is an ancient seaport from which King Solomon took ivory, peacocks, spices and other valuables. Cinnamon was exported from here as early as 1400 BCE. Galle had been a prominent seaport long before the island came under the rule of foreign powers. Persians, Arabs, Greeks, Romans, Malays, Indians and Chinese traders have been doing business through this port city for centuries. In the early 1400s, the Galle Trilingual Inscription was erected in Galle to commemorate the second visit to Sri Lanka by the Chinese admiral Zheng He. The Dutch Fort is among the best-preserved sea forts in Southeast Asia. The Dutch and the English colonial styles of architecture are evident throughout the old neighborhoods. Originally established by the Portuguese in the 16th century, it reached its zenith under Dutch rule in the 18th century. The fort offered spacious housing, wide roads and all necessary facilities within its walls including an intricate sewage system that was way ahead of its time. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was the main port of call for ships sailing between the Orient and Europe. Inside the ramparts and stonewalls, magnificent buildings remain, the most absorbing of which is the 17th-century Dutch Reformed Church. The streets are dotted with colonial villas, and the fort is home to some exclusive boutique-style accommodations in former villas artfully restored to their colonial glory.
Kandy: Kandy is one of Sri Lanka’s prettiest cities and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its cultural richness. Here, the famous Temple of Tooth (Sri Dalada Maligawa) houses a sacred relic – one of the Buddha’s teeth – making the city one of the most sacred places for Buddhists. Other holy spots include the Gadaladeniya Temple and the Lankathilake Temple. Kandy’s Royal Palace is a treasure trove of history that encompasses queen’s chambers, quarters for concubines, armory and council chambers. Kandy is the second largest city in the country after Colombo and was the last capital of the ancient kings of Sri Lanka. The city lies in an area of lush tropical tea plantations and serves as both an administrative and religious center.
Kalthota Cycling Trail and Kinchigune Nature Trail: Travel by bicycle offers viewpoints from Kinchigune, the Samanalawewa Reservoir Dam, Pambahinna, and Kalthota. From Kalthota, the route travels 27 kilometers/17 miles on a hilly inclined road to Balangoda. The total cycling distance is approximately 60 kilometers/37 miles from Belihuloya to Kalthota, and from Kalthota to Balangoda, another four to five hours, depending on the cyclists, of moderate to hard cycling. From Balangoda to Belihuloya, there is an option to travel ten miles by cycle or by vehicle. Kinchigune Nature Trail, about six kilometers/3.72 miles, presents an exhilarating half-day hiking experience that begins in Belihuloya and encompasses paddy fields, rivers and local villages, where travelers learn about daily life and the local agricultural systems.
Polonnaruwa: The second most ancient of Sri Lanka’s kingdoms, Polonnaruwa became the capital city after the destruction of Anuradhapura in 993. Today, the UNESCO World Heritage Site remains one of the best-planned archaeological sites in the country. Under the patronage of King Parakramabahu I, trade and agriculture flourished in the 12th century. He insisted that rainwater was never to be wasted, so irrigation systems were put in place that still supply the water necessary for rice paddy cultivation. The town contains numerous temples and other Buddhist structures, most of them also dating from the 12th century. In addition to the green environment, amazing ancient constructions, and Parakrama Samudra – a large lake created in 1200 – the city has a thriving population of toque macaques that have been living among the ruins since human occupation and have continued to thrive long after humans left.
Sigiriya: Sigiriya is found within the cultural triangle formed by Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy, which includes five of the eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the country. The city is famous for its 200-meter/656-foot high, red stone fortress with its palace ruins. The top of the fortress is reached by a series of about 750 steps. It is also known for its ancient fresco paintings, which are reminiscent of the Ajanta Caves in India. The fortress was built by King Kasyapa (477–495 CE), who seized power from the rightful heir. Most of the elaborate constructions on the rock summit and around it, including defensive structures, palaces, and gardens, date back to this period. The king was defeated in 495, and the fortress again became and remained a Buddhist monastery until the 13th or 14th century.
Best Time to Travel to Sri Lanka
Festivals and Special Events
Suggested Sri Lanka Tour Itinerary
Day 1: Colombo, Sri Lanka / Negombo
Negombo City was a trading port for the Portuguese and Dutch, and offers charming churches which date back to the 17th century.
Day 2: Negombo / Kandanagedara
Kandegedara is noted for a vast coconut plantation, traditional villages and Buddhist temples that can be explored by bicycle or on foot.
Day 3: Kandanagedara / Anuradhapura
Anuradhapura is home to the Sacred Bo Tree, considered to be the oldest historically documented tree on earth.
Day 4: Anuradhapura / Aukana / Habarana / Sigiriya
Sigiriya is known as one of the best preserved examples of ancient urban planning.
Day 5: Sigiriya / Polonnaruwa / Sigiriya
The ancient city of Polonnaruwa’s palaces, shrines, temples and stupas were built in the mid-1100s.
Day 6: Sigiriya / Dambulla / Kandy
The second-century Rock Cave Temples in Dambulla are known for their statues and paintings, including 48 of the Buddha.
Day 7: Kandy / Pinnawela / Kegalle
Elephant Orphanage at Pinnawela is home to elephants of all ages, which are cared for until they are ready to work or be returned to the jungle.
Day 8: Kegalle
Tea plantations, rubber trees and rice paddy offer a glimpse of rural lives and landscapes.
Day 9: Kegalle / Kithulgala
A whitewater rafting adventure (level II and III category rapids) is followed by abseiling – rappelling, down a rock face inside a waterfall.
Day 10: Kithulgala / Avissawella / Kottawa / Galle / Mirissa
Galle is an ancient seaport that has been used for centuries by Persian, Arab, Greek, Roman, Malay, Indian and Chinese traders. Galle is also famous for its ebony carving and delicate handmade lace.
Day 11: Mirissa / Unawatuna / Mirissa
A snorkeling excursion takes in two prime locations: “Rock Island” and “Jungle Beach.”
Day 12: Mirissa / Uanawatuna / Wadduwa
Whales, dolphins and a marine turtle hatchery are the focus; 27 different species of whales have been sighted here.
Day 13: Wadduwa / Ratnapura / Colombo
Gem mining, mountain biking, forest trekking and kayaking are adventure options as well as a visit a local meditation center.
Day 14: Colombo / Depart
Dambulla (2 days)
The area has the largest and best-preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka with statues and paintings dating back to the first century BCE.
Kalthota Cycling Trail and Kinchigune Nature Trail (5 days)
For different perspectives, one can explore the local village and forest reserve on foot or by bicycle.
Land price, per person, double occupancy: From US$400 per person per day