Places to visit in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is packed with exciting things to do and see for children of all ages. We have put together a selection of the most popular places to visit in Sri Lanka and can take you to the highlights as well as off the beaten track. If you aren’t sure where you want to go or if you are ready to start planning your trip, just get in touch and we can put together an itinerary for you.
Colombo & Negombo
The main international airport in Sri Lanka is located around 40km north of the capital Colombo, just next to the beach resort of Negombo. As there is little to see in Colombo itself, and the traffic is awful, we usually recommend avoiding the city altogether and staying in Negombo instead. There is a wide range of accommodation here and it is just 15 minutes from the airport.
Most hotels are either directly on the seafront or very close to it and almost all have a pool, perfect for cooling off after the long flight. There are lots of excellent restaurants dotted along the seafront so you can spend your first evening working through a platter of seafood as you watch the sun set over the Indian Ocean. What better way to start?
There are also a couple of superb boutique hotels inland of the airport set in beautiful plantations. Depending on your budget these can also be an ideal place to start.
Sigiriya & Dambulla
Dubbed the Cultural Triangle, the country’s central plains are home to Sri Lanka’s historic heart. Perhaps most astounding is the 5th century rock citadel of Sigiriya. Rising over 650 feet high the climb to the top can feel demanding. Steep stairways are carved into the rock, but you can stop along the way to admire colourful frescos and once you reach the summit the views are spectacular.
Children will enjoy hearing about the tangled family feud that led to the building of the citadel and find the climb up quite exciting. Note that there are some steep drops so you need to keep a close eye on younger children.
Dating from the 1st century the UNESCO world heritage caves at Dambulla are also well worth a visit. Decorated with brightly coloured frescos and statues of Buddha and his disciples, the site is of huge importance to Buddhists. It is great fun to join the many local pilgrims on the climb up to the hilltop caves. Take your time as you walk to the top, stopping in the shade (with lots of Sri Lankan grannies) to enjoy the views. The hillside is also home to a large number of playful monkeys who are intent on stealing any food they can from passers by… you have been warned!
The remains of the ancient royal city of Polonnaruwa are some of the most child-friendly of Sri Lanka’s ruins. The many tombs, giant Buddha statues, palaces and well-preserved temples are spread over a wide area and there are lots of large shade-giving trees.
Older children will like exploring by bike as the roads are very quiet and the landscape is flat. You can also head out into the countryside after you have finished sightseeing, passing through the paddy fields to local villages where you can stop for a cool drink. There are often large local school groups visiting the ruins so you may well find yourselves surrounded by eager children all wanting to practice their English.
Sri Lanka has a large number of national parks, each with its own unique landscape and animal population.
Our favourite is Wilpattu National Park, the largest in Sri Lanka. This was closed for many years and has not made it onto most tour itineraries so remains wonderfully peaceful. The park is centred around a number of lakes where the animals congregate and there are good chances of seeing wild elephant, crocodile and many types of deer. We have also had a lot of success with leopard and sloth bear sightings.
There are African-style safari camps around the edge of the park where you can sleep in comfort in a permanent tent and sit out around a campfire under the stars in the evening. This park is north of Colombo and fits in well with a trip to the cultural triangle.
Another favourite national park that we include on most itineraries is Minneriya. This park is home to the largest wild elephant population in Asia and you can regularly get up close to herds of 150-200 elephants. This is a wonderful experience and there are often babies in with the herd, which is particularly enjoyable for children.
Yala is Sri Lanka’s most famous park and undoubtedly one of the country’s premier wildlife destinations. It is home to the highest concentration of leopard in the world so your chances of seeing this elusive animal are relatively good. There are also many species of deer and large herds of wild elephants.
The park is located in the far south east of the island. This can tie in well with a Christmas or Easter itinerary where you end on the southern beaches. However it does not fit well with a summer itinerary when you are likely to head to the north eastern beaches around Trincomalee.
Uda Walawe is another national park in the south of the country and can be paired with a visit to Yala and the southern beaches (at Christmas and Easter). It is famous for its large herds of elephant as well as populations of crocodile, monitor lizard and sloth bear. It is particularly beautiful as it is centred around a large lake where you have great chances of seeing crocodile. The views here are stunning.
Anuradhapura and Mihintale
Families with a particular interest in history will enjoy visiting Anuradhapura, the oldest of Sri Lanka’s ancient cities. This was the country’s political and religious capital for more than 1,300 years and remains an important place of pilgrimage for Buddhists today.
However, the ruins here are perhaps less child-friendly than others in Sri Lanka. They are quite spread out and the huge stupas, whilst impressive, don’t necessarily fire the children’s imagination in the way that the giant Buddhas of Polonarruwa do. If you do visit, the landscape is quite flat and there are lovely cycling routes connecting the different parts of the site. Older children will therefore enjoy a bike ride interspersed with the occasional stop at the ruins.
Near Anuradhapura is Mihintale, another important Buddhist pilgrimage site. It is said that Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka here. You can climb to the hilltop temples and get fabulous sunset views over the surrounding landscape.
The ruins are extensive and depending on the age of your children they are best explored by bike. They are spread out over a large area that is connected by quiet country roads, which are ideal for cycling.
Not too far from Anuradhapura is Mihintale, another important Buddhist pilgrimage site. It is said that Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka here. You can climb to the hilltop temples and get fabulous sunset views over the surrounding landscape.
Located in the centre of Sri Lanka and surrounded by mountains, Kandy was once the capital of the Sinhalese kingdom. Today it is a bustling city with street markets, museums and temples to explore. Most famous is the scared Temple of the Tooth (Sri Dalada Maligawa), which is said to house a relic tooth of the Buddha. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 1988.
The arrival of the tooth in Kandy in the 4th century AD gave rise to the world-renowned annual Esala Perahera Festival in August where the tooth is paraded through the streets accompanied by hundreds of dancers, painted elephants and musicians.
Just outside the city centre are the botanical gardens with graceful lawns, immaculately tended flowerbeds and an impressive orchid house. There are a number of beautiful trees dotted around the park that were planted by famous people including King George V. Younger children can be tasked with a mini treasure hunt of finding them all… reward courtesy of the ice-cream shop?
Nuwara Eliya and the Hill Country
Sri Lanka’s mountainous centre is home to the country’s most spectacular scenery. The rolling hills are covered in endless tea plantations, the ridges and valleys cloaked in the dark green glossy shrub and dotted with local Tamil tea-pickers dressed in brightly-coloured saris. There are dramatic waterfalls, remote villages and gorgeous colonial-era plantation houses. This is a wonderful area to spend a few days, based in an old plantation bungalow and spending your days hiking, swimming in waterfalls and drinking in the gorgeous views.
Nuwara Eliya is perhaps the most well-known town in the hill country, a serene retreat that was popular with the British during the colonial era as it offered a respite from the heat and bustle of Colombo. The town is nestled in a wooded basin at the foot of Mount Pidurutalagala, Sri Lanka’s highest peak. Nearby you can visit the dramatic Horton Plains and hike to World’s End for magnificent dawn views. You can get here on a very picturesque train ride from Kandy which can be fun for the children.
Both the Knuckles Ranges (north of Kandy) and Ella (further along the railway from Nuwara Eliya) are home to particularly beautiful scenery and there are a number of lovely old tea plantations here that you can stay at. We will recommend one that fits in with the rest of the itinerary and which matches your budget.
The tea here is of the highest quality. You will see endless ridges and valleys cloaked in the dark green shrub, dotted with local Tamil tea-pickers, dressed in brightly coloured saris. There is excellent walking from here across the Horton Plains and to World’s End for magnificent views in the early morning.
As an island Sri Lanka has stunning beaches, each with a different flavour and suitable for visiting at different times of year.
If you are visiting during the European summer holidays from May to September the weather will be best on the east coast. Here there are long stretches of pristine beaches dotted with a small handful of hotels and restaurants. Most families stay in Nilaveli, north of Trincomalee. There is snorkelling off the coast here and the option to take dolphin and whale watching trips. Note that the whales can arrive any time from May to September. In 2015 they never appeared here but in 2016 they arrived in mid-August.
Further south there are also many lovely resorts around Batticaloa and Passikudah. There is no snorkelling or whale watching in this area but the beaches are gorgeous with long swathes of white sand backed by palm trees.
If you are visiting Sri Lanka over Christmas or Easter the weather is likely to better on the west and southern coasts. There are a large number of different resorts along these coasts so we will suggest somewhere that will suit your family. Those looking to get away from it all will love Kalpitiya, north of the international airport. Here there are deserted beaches and just a small handful of eco-lodges which offer comfortable ‘Robinson Crusoe’ style accommodation but without the amenities of a big resort.
If you would like access to lots of watersports and activities and like to be able to choose from a variety of restaurants you will be better off on the south coast, around Una Watuna and Galle. Here there are some lovely beaches but this area is much more developed with a far greater number of tourists. However there are some world-class hotels and plenty to do.
Further around the south coast, towards Tangalle, the developments dwindle again and you can find some gorgeous properties on much quieter sections of beach.
Right on Sri Lanka’s southern coast, Galle is a lovely town to visit if staying nearby. Here, Dutch colonial architecture mixes with boutique shops and craft centres in a tropical setting on the Indian Ocean. Galle’s historic fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and children will love exploring its narrow streets and labyrinthine alleyways.
Snap pictures of the famous stilt fishermen perched above the waves, enjoy the exotic scent of heady spices being blown by the sea air and savour a more relaxed pace of life without the anarchic traffic scenes found in other Sri Lankan cities.
Call us and we will be happy to provide you with a free-of-charge no obligation itinerary and quotation designed for you.
Sri Lanka in pictures
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