Best Cities in Sri Lanka to Visit
The Teardrop Island Sri Lanka is known for its lush tea plantations, exciting wildlife and tropical beaches, but also for its wonderful cities. Most of Sri Lanka's cities combine an exciting mix of European and local heritage and are full of historical treasures and fascinating cultures. Here is our list of the best cities to visit during your luxury holiday in Sri Lanka.
The gateway to Sri Lanka's tear gland island, Colombo, is a melting pot of cultures and boasts a rich colonial heritage. Often overlooked in the past, Colombo is now a destination in its own right and offers the perfect start or destination for any Sri Lankan itinerary. Traditionally, the city served as a major port on the old east-west trade route, and Colombo's architecture reflects its Portuguese, Dutch and British roots by blending colonial buildings and churches with modern shopping malls and skyscrapers. This cosmopolitan city is home to a number of must-see attractions, including the Buddha-lined Gangaramaya Temple, the impressive red mosque of Jami Ul-Alfar and the picturesque Lake Beira. A trip to Colombo is not complete without a visit to Pettah, a district with a bustling open-air market. Immerse yourself in the sights, sounds and smells of the bazaar, which is filled with colourful silk fabrics, fragrant spices and tempting street food.
Anuradhapura, one of the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Chosen by King Pandukabhaya in the 4th century as the capital of the Sinhala people, Anuradhapura was one of the most important cities in Asia with its powerful dagobas, many temples and prosperous monastery complexes. Today the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is famous for its rich collection of archaeological wonders and well-preserved ruins. One of the city's most famous landmarks is the Abhayagiri Dagoba. This stupa made of terracotta with beautiful carvings and an octagonal spire dates from the 1st century and was once one of the most colossal buildings of the ancient world (together with the pyramids of Giza). Another place of great importance is Mihintale, which is believed to be the birthplace of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Today a place of pilgrimage, climb the summit to remarkable dagobas and on the way there you will pass shimmering pools, old monastery ruins and rock inscriptions.
The city of Galle is located on the southwest coast of Sri Lanka and is especially famous for its UNESCO listed fort and old town. It is a must see when visiting the south of Sri Lanka and many visitors stay in the beautiful historic buildings while exploring the city. The charming jewel of Galle, which was settled by the Dutch, Portuguese and British, is one of the best examples of a fortified city built by Europeans in Asia, which has been sympathetically preserved to this day. The exotic trading port and the old town offer beautiful buildings from the Dutch colonial period, old mosques and churches and the famous lighthouse overlooking the turquoise ocean. However, it is not only the beauty and interesting architecture of Galle that attracts visitors, many travellers are seduced by the seductive atmosphere of the city. Stroll through the picturesque cobblestone streets to soak up the atmosphere of the stylish cafes and charming boutiques, or look for some vintage items at the Galle Fort flea market every Sunday.
Kandy, the capital of the Sri Lankan hill country, is one of the most important cultural and religious centres of the country. This beautiful city is situated on a plateau surrounded by emerald green mountains and stretches around the picturesque Kandy Lake. Probably the most famous reason to visit Kandy is the encounter with the revered tooth temple, where the Buddha's tooth relic is kept. Although you can't actually see the tooth, it is worth a walk to the beautiful temples and shrines. Also the botanical garden of Peradeniya, a former royal pleasure garden, is a must. It contains over 4,000 species and is one of the most beautiful botanical gardens on the subcontinent. Culturally Kandy has a lot to offer: daily traditional dance and music performances, fantastic street food and the home of the great annual Buddhist festival Esala Perahera; a spectacle of musicians, jugglers, dancers, fire-eaters and lavishly decorated elephants.
The colonial Nuwara Eliya mountain station from the 19th century, dotted with English country houses, mock Tudor buildings and fairly well-kept gardens, was a popular summer retreat for the British during their rule. Nuwara Eliya in the Central Province lies 2,000 metres above sea level and is often shrouded in mist. The temperate, cool climate provides ideal conditions for tea cultivation and is one of the best destinations in Sri Lanka for exploring the vast and beautiful tea plantations. Nuwara Eliya is also close to the Horton Plains National Park, which is home to lush cloud forest and endemic plants and animals. Take a hike to the dramatically situated World's End; this hike offers some of the most beautiful and expansive views in Sri Lanka. Within the city of Nuwara, Eliya takes a boat trip on the picturesque Gregory Lake, strolls through Victoria Park or explores the beautifully tended gardens full of roses and orchids at the Hakgala Botanical Garden.
One of the earliest Indo-Tamil settlements in Sri Lanka, the beginning of the colonial period and the magnificent natural harbour of Trincomalee made this port city one of the political and economic powerhouses of the subcontinent. Situated on the northeast coast of Sri Lanka, Trincomalee is surrounded by beautiful Indian Ocean beaches such as Uppuveli and Nilaveli, where visitors normally flock, but it is worth spending time in this charming and historic town beforehand. The colourful and medieval Hindi temple of Kandasamy Kovil, dedicated to Shiva and standing on the Swami Rock cliff, is a highlight of Trincomalee and also a great place to watch blue whales migrating through the Sapphire Ocean. Other places of interest include Fort Frederick, a fort built by the Portuguese in the 17th century, the revered Lover's Leap cliff point and the vibrant Pathitakali temple of Amman.
The spectacular city of Polonnaruwa, which is not technically a modern city, is on this list as a royal ancient city in Sri Lanka. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, this centre is a treasure trove of wonderful archaeological remains that give visitors a good idea of what the city looked like in its heyday. The square alone is reason enough to visit Polonnaruwa and it is one of the most beautiful collections of antique buildings in Sri Lanka. The various temples and ruins are elaborately decorated with columns, steps and religious carvings. The Gal Vihara Buddha figures are another highlight in this ancient city. The site consists of four statues, all carved from the same granite slab; these Buddhas are considered the pinnacle of Sri Lankan rock carving. Also worth mentioning is the white Kiri Vihara Dagoba, which was built in the 6th century for the queen of kings. Discovered by archaeologists after 700 years of neglect in the jungle, the original white lime plaster of the stuba was still in perfect condition and should be a must on every Polonnaruwa tour.
Located at the northern tip of Sri Lanka, Jaffna was closed to foreign visitors until 2010 due to the civil war. The city is slowly reopening to tourism, but is currently still very off the beaten track and offers an interesting alternative to the busy south. Historically, Jaffna was built as a port by the Portuguese and was lost to the Dutch, who then lost it to the British in 1796. After independence, the Tamils and Sinhalese fought over the city. Today Jaffna is still a stronghold of Hindu-Tamil culture and this has shaped the composition of the city and the surrounding region. A special highlight in Jaffna is the colourful Kandaswamy Temple, one of the most important Hindu temple complexes on the island, probably dating from the 10th century. Other sights of the city include the somewhat dilapidated Jaffna Fort, one of the oldest and largest in Sri Lanka, the interesting archaeological museum, St. Mary's Cathedral and St. James Church.
The historic Batticaloa on the east coast is one of the lesser known cities of the island after years of isolation and turbulence during the civil war. During this period, Batticaloa and the surrounding area was a stronghold for the LTTE and one of the most dangerous places in Sri Lanka at that time. Since the end of the civil war, Batticaloa's gentle vibrations and magical location have made it a very pleasant place to visit and a refreshing change from the busy cities on the west coast of Sri Lanka. Overlooking the sparkling Batticaloa lagoon and the Indian Ocean, the piece of land that makes up Batticaloa offers a spectacular backdrop. Within the town there are some wonderful sights and attractions to visit, such as the old Dutch fort, the Batticaloa lighthouse and the interesting Kattankudy Heritage Museum, as well as learning about its fascinating yet grim history. Beach lovers should head 30 minutes north of Batticaloa to the jewels of the east coast, Passikudah and Kalkudah, where you will find numerous bathing spots, palm-fringed coves and a wealth of excellent seafood restaurants.
Just an hour's drive north of Colombo, Negombo is a large and important town in Sri Lanka with a picturesque beach popular with locals and visitors alike. Due to its proximity to the international airport, it is a popular area for travellers to rest, relax and acclimatise after their long distance flight before setting off to explore Sri Lanka. Although mainly a transit destination, Negombo offers beautiful architecture and a charming ambience that is well worth exploring. The town's heritage is still visible everywhere, including the remains of a 17th century Dutch fortress lining the harbour area, pastel coloured Portuguese Catholic churches and impressive Buddhist temples and murals. Negombo is also home to a lush large lagoon, surrounded by mangroves, coconut groves and rice fields. It is an important fishing site that supplies the fish market of Negombo, one of the largest in Sri Lanka. Negombo Beach is another highlight; stroll along the shore, swap in the handicraft souvenir shops and relax on the golden sand beach. Enjoy spectacular sunsets in the evening and discover the myriad beach restaurants and live music bars that pepper the promenade.
Known as the "City of Gemstones", Ratnapura is the gateway to Sri Lanka's hilly country, where you will pass emerald rice fields, extensive tea plantations and working rubber plantations. Perhaps most famous for its wealth of gemstones, Ratnapura has a rich history of mining some of the world's most precious stones. Here you have the opportunity to visit the Gemstone Museum or explore some of the region's gemstone workshops or mines, where you can see different coloured jewels and learn about the history and methodology of the industry. Ratnapura is also a good starting point to tackle the ascending peak of Adam's Peak. This impressive natural monument with a height of 2,243 m is shrouded in mystery and legend has it that the footprint of Buddha himself is on the summit. No wonder it is one of the most famous pilgrimage sites in Sri Lanka.