Sri Lanka has been continuously inhabited for more than 2 million years, with the original inhabitants descended from Stone Age hunter gatherers. Immigration arrived from northern India around the 5th century BCE, forming the basis of the modern Sinhalese population. Tamils from the south of India arrived approximately two centuries later, settling in Jaffna. In contrast to the largely Buddhist Sinhalese, most Tamils are Hindu or Christian and form a minority in the Sri Lankan population.

The legendary north Indian Prince Vijaya and his 700 followers landed near Puttallam and formed the first Sinhalese kingdom around Anuradhapura. In the 3rd century BCE, Buddhism arrived from India at Mihintale, where the conversion of Sinhalese King Tissa occurred. Early Buddhist emissaries brought a cutting from the Bodhi tree under which Lord Buddha attained enlightenment; it survives in Anuradhapura and is an important pilgrimage site. Tensions with Tamil Kingdoms in India were never far away and a Pandyan invasion in 432 led to the establishment of the rock fortress at Sigiriya as the capital. Legends surrounding the fortress also tell a story of King Kassapa building the residence on top of the rock after murdering his own father. Following Kassapa’s short rule, the capital returned to Anuradhapura before moving to Polonnaruwa in 1070 where it remained for 150 years.

Kandy came into prominence after the Portuguese arrived in 1505 and was soon the only independent kingdom in Sri Lanka, falling to the British in 1815 after defying the Portuguese and the Dutch for 300 years. By 1518 the Portuguese had established good relations with the King and were allowed to build a fort at Colombo, with favourable trading concessions in return for the king’s protection. Meanwhile, the Dutch established a trading fort in Galle, destroying the earlier Portuguese outpost. It was not long until the Dutch East India Company controlled most of Ceylon. But France’s control over the Netherlands and defeat in the Napoleonic wars saw British control of Sri Lanka confirmed at the Treaty of Amiens.

Unrest under colonial rule saw the Ceylon National Congress formed in 1919, uniting Sinhalese and Tamils. A constitution was written and some concessions provided but it was not until the 1947 constitution came into effect that Ceylon gained independence in 1948. The 1972 constitution proclaimed the Republic of Sri Lanka but tensions between Sinhalese and Tamils grew into a civil war that lasted from 1983 to 2009, with the defeat of the Tamils.

On Boxing Day 2004 a disastrous tsunami struck the southwest coast, killing 30,000 people and displacing 1.5 million more. Today Sri Lanka is a democratic republic governed by a president and prime minister. Tourism has now become a major industry. In the early 21st century the economy of Sri Lanka is growing steadily. Sri Lanka is growing more prosperous. Today the population of Sri Lanka is 22 million.

With its pristine beaches, mosaic landscape and picturesque topography, Sri Lanka has so much to offer.Sri Lanka doesn’t experience the extremes when it comes to weather conditions. The best time to visit Sri Lanka depends upon the region you’re keen to visit. December to March is the perfect time for visiting most of the country (Highlands, West Coast, and South coast). May to September is ideal for visiting the Eastern Coasts. 

1. The Dambulla Cave Temple

The largest temple complex in Sri Lanka and the most popular among the best places to visit in Sri Lanka is the Dambulla cave temple. It tops the Sri Lanka tourist destinations. The largest temple complex in Sri Lanka, its statues and paintings date back to 12th Century CE. The temple complex has five rooms of different sizes; all rooms have Buddha in a different position looking calm and peaceful. The temple is built on a black rocky mountain which serves as a nice contrast with the white walls of the temple. Dont miss the view from the top. The temple can be easily accessed from both Colombo and Kandy.

2. Yala National Park

Missing Yala National Park while Sri Lanka sightseeing might bring regret to wildlife lovers. It is home to a host of wildlife and birds you are bound to run into a group of elephants bathing in streams, tossing their trunks wildly or leopards nestling lazily on tree branches. You could opt for the safari drives or a nature trail among the thick green foliage of the forest. Some tourists also camp at Yala and enjoy barbeque under the stars. Yala is the perfect place to try your hand at wildlife photography. Getting to Yala National Park is quite simple. All you will have to do is drive down to the Park from Colombo. Another way is by taking a bus to Tissamaharama.

3. Arugam Bay

Turquoise Heaven for adrenaline junkies. Sri Lanka has a coastline of over 1600 km and is ideally suited for windsurfing, speed boating, and other water sports. Arugam Bay has azure skies and slanting coconut trees. If you are looking to surf in turquoise waters, Arugam Bay must be in your list of must see tourist places in Sri Lanka. It is on the southeast coast around 320 km from Colombo. It is the ideal place to sip coconut water, take in the scent of jasmine and allow the southern sun to tan your skin. Besides Arugam bay, other beaches among best places to visit in Sri Lanka are Unawatuna in the South; and Tangalla again in the south around 195 km south of Colombo. 

4. Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa

Ruggedness amidst the greenery. Sigiriya or the mount of remembrance is a World Heritage Site and one of the most stunning places to see in Sri Lanka. This giant formation of rock rises out of nowhere towering over everything in its vicinity. It is quite a climb to the top but once up there you will get to see a panoramic view of the nearby sights and the Sigiriya fort. The rock fortress is a slice of history perched on a rock and is really worth a visit. Not much is heard and said about Polonnaruwa, but this ancient city is no less than the Petra of the south. A gem among Sri Lanka tourist attractions, this ancient ruined city stands amidst its erstwhile sturdy columns and architecture.

The best way to explore this ancient city is to hire a bike and ride around the ruins. The site is well maintained and is a telling example of Sri Lankas history and culture. Polonnaruwa can be easily accessed via Sigiriya. You can take a tuk-tuk or a bus from Sigiriya or you can take a bus from Dambulla to Polonnaruwa.

Best Hotels in the area:

Jetwing Vil Uyana, Camelia Resort and Spa, Hotel Sigiriya, Camellia Resort and Spa, and Lal Homestay

5. Galle

A 16th Century Marvel. Galle is an important city in Sri Lanka and is a one stop destination wherein you can take in all sights and sounds. One of the best places to visit in Sri Lanka is the Galle Fort. The Galle Fort area has wide cobblestoned roads and a number of eateries and cafes. Try and catch the sunset while you are there. There are a number of trinket shops and galleries that you can visit. It is among the most visited places in Sri Lanka. Another picturesque destination for sightseeing in Sri Lanka is the Japanese Peace Pagoda. Quite close to the Unawatuna beach, it is a white dome of serenity.

Best Hotels in the area:

Jetwing Lighthouse, Amangalla, Tamarind Hill, Apa Villa Thalpe, and The Fortress

6. Jaffna

A peep Into the past. Although a bit crowded, the temple Nallur Kovil is a nice pick among the best places to see in Sri Lanka. Another place of interest is the Jaffna Fort. This fort is in the center of the city and is a tourist hub. If you are in Jaffna, you cannot miss the Nagadipa Purana Vihara, the temple can be accessed by boat. One of calmest among Sri Lanka tourist attractions, the temple is surreal and a wonderful place to meditate.

Best Hotels in the area: PJ Hotels, and Morgans

7. Temple of Tooth at Kandy

Treat to the eyes and soul. The temple of the tooth is again a popular one among tourist places in Sri Lanka. This temple in Kandy is iconic because of the history attached to it. With a quaint setup and interesting artifacts, this temple is worth a visit.

Constructed in the 16th century AD, the Temple of the Tooth is also known as the Sri Dalada Maligawa. The temple is situated adjacent to the Royal Palace complex of the former kingdom of Kandy. The shrine overlooks the vast expanse of Kandy Lake. The temple proudly boasts as the humble abode of Buddha’s tooth. As the story goes, the sacred tooth is said to have been taken from his funeral pyre in Kushinagar in India, and later smuggled into Sri Lanka.

The entire temple complex is built using classical Kandyan architecture. The main shrine has two floors. There are different chambers on every floor including the one where the tooth relic is kept known as ‘handun kunama’. The tooth is housed in a dedicated temple held in a golden stupa inside the two story shrine fronted by two large elephant tusks. The relic rests on a solid gold lotus flower, encased in jeweled caskets that sit on the throne.

In ancient times, the tooth was given to the Sri Lankan Monarchy. During this period, the tooth was passed around to various kings and holy men. Before it finally made it to the temple, the tooth is said to have been relocated several times across the centuries, where it eventually landed up in Kandy. To safeguard Buddha’s tooth, the temple was built in the royal palace complex. Today, both Kandy, as well as the temple, is listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

8. Nuwara Eliya

Get closer to pristine nature. Nuwara Eliya is most famous for its tea gardens and scenery. With misty clouds, lush green sloping hills and a train that looks that it has come out of the Harry Potter films, Nuwara Eliya is a hilly paradise and another great addition to Sri Lankas tourist attractions. It is one of the most unique and spectacular areas of the country. Nestled high away in the mountains, it is almost like an entirely different world. Filled with an abundance of gorgeous green tea plantations and they have more than their fair share of rain as well. It is no wonder they call it Little England! To help make your stay as enjoyable as possible, here is our go-to list of the 16 best things to do in Nuwara Eliya at any time of the year.

9. Trincomalee

An unmissable beach getaway. Trincomalee, among many similar Sri Lanka tourist spots, is blessed with a beautiful beach. If you are up for an underwater diving tour, then SLDT (Sri Lanka Diving Tours) will give you the best experience. Besides water sports, there are also many temples and beaches in Trincomalee. There is also a war cemetery which is surrounded by lush gardens, which makes it one of the best places to see in Sri Lanka.

10. Polonnaruwa Sacred City

Explore the golden past of Sri Lanka.This city was once the ancient kingdom of Sri Lanka and walking into this still gives a feeling of the Golden Age. Inside this city there are still ruins of palaces, shrines and stupas which makes it one of the top tourist attractions in Sri Lanka. All these landmarks give a closure to the historical remains which hold a glorious past. This place has a lot to explore and gives a peek to the golden past of this side of Sri Lanka. It is among the best Sri Lanka tourist places.

Main Highlights: One you should not miss witnessing, the statue of Parakramabahu I who ruled during the golden age. Alongside, one can also see the magnificent view of the Lotus Pond which is made in a lotus shaped petals and built on 4 tiers. 

11. Anuradhapura

The greatest monastic city of ancient world. This is one of the top tourist places in Sri Lanka which is also claimed to be one of the world heritage sites. The place gained its importance after the arrival of the Bodhi Tree which is also called the “tree of enlightenment”. The place protects the tree and keeps it away from the wild elephants during the reign of King Kirthi Sri Rangasingha. Best time to visit is April and September. Its location is approximately 1 hours drive from Anuradhapura on the Padeniya highway.

12. Mihintale

The birth place of Buddhism. It is a birth place of Buddhism attracting hundreds of pilgrims to this site every year. It is a mountain located near the town of Anuradhapura where you can visit many religious and historical structures. 

13. Udawalawe National Park

Must visit place for wildlife enthusiasts. It is one of those few places where elephant sightings are quite frequent. Not only elephant, you get a chance to get a glimpse of many animals including peacocks, water buffalo, crocodiles, jackals, monkeys and deer. For the best experience of this top attractions in Sri Lanka, take a safari early morning when the animals are most active. 

14. Ravana Falls

The beautiful Ravana falls is one of the famous Sri Lanka attractions. The majestic and magnificent fall is an impressive sight especially during the rainy season. Located on the main road to Ella, it is a common stop for the visitors during their journey. During the hot summer months, the falls are used for bathing. It is among the most stunning waterfalls in Sri Lanka. 

15. Adam’s Peak

An Important Pilgrim Site. The topmost point of the peak has a footprint cast in stone which has spiritual significance to different religions. Many pilgrimage trek to the top on full moon nights. Most of them also start hiking around 3 AM to reach the summit by sunrise for a splendid view. 

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