From crazy bus rides to iconic train journeys; delicious local food in sublime scenery and ancient treasures. Here are the best things to do in Sri Lanka.

By - Paul | Last Updated - 21 Nov 2023 | Go to - Comments & Questions

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Rice and curry. Never a disappointment and never the other way around.

This Sri Lankan institution accompanied many great experiences in Sri Lanka. It comforted us after fast-moving ceremonies, after even faster-moving buses and on slow-moving trains. It sustained us after hours of cycling around exotic ancient temples and supplemented impossibly beautiful landscapes.

But Sri Lanka is more than the numerous components on a rice and curry platter. This tropical gem perched just above the equator in the shadow of India has given us many memorable experiences.

Here are our top things to do in Sri Lanka.

Kandy to Ella train, Sri Lanka


Trees swayed to the gentle breeze of a warm Sri Lankan afternoon. Monkeys climbed over ancient stone ruins, their playful banter echoing through the remains of once powerful empires. Mangos were piled high on tables beside smiling locals, turning them in to lassies under the shade of towering stupas. Our palms were sweaty, our legs were tired – slowly getting caked with the dust from our bikes.

The ancient city of Polonnaruwa, deep in the central plains of Sri Lanka, was the playground of kings and the capital of the country. It peaked in the 12th century but within 100 years power and wealth fled from Polonnaruwa and it was subsequently abandoned in 1310. Crumbling ruins on dusty tracks in central Sri Lanka are now all that remain from those heady times.

We cycled passed the huge white stupa of Kiri Vihara and on to Lankatilaka Viharaya, one of the most evocative ruins in Polonnaruwa built by King Parakramabahu. We purchased some mango and tucked into it beside the ancient king’s swimming pool. In front of us, towering above the welcome shade of the trees stood 17 metre carved bas-relief walls. A towering self-indulgent monument to a long-forgotten king and one of the most evocative landmarks in Sri Lanka.

Read More // Cycling in Polonnaruwa


We were met by a broad tooth grin as the bus doors flung open. Waving us on with excited arms, the ticket inspector grabbed the correct fare from our upturned palms like a kid scavenging for the best bits of candy. Neon lights beckoned us down the aisle as rave music pumped from tiny speakers not built for the distress they were being put through.

A Sri Lankan bus ride is like no other.

Every seat was full, most overflowing. Parents, children, grandchildren and their pets occupied a small vinyl space designed for far fewer people. Still, there was plenty of room for us. Locals scooched over to allow us half a cheek space on the edge of their seat.

Flying down windy country roads, we swayed in sync with the dancing Buddha at the front of the bus. We deflected both the gaudy decorations swinging from the roof and the questions from our fellow passengers.

“Where are you from?”

“Do you like Sri Lanka?”

“Where are your wives?”

All in a day riding Sri Lanka’s fast and furious local buses. With inquisitive locals, dance music, neon lights and bouncing decorations, it was the best $1 club we’ve ever been to.

10 day Sri Lanka itinerary local bus


The narrow entrance to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth was covered in gold leaf and flower motif. Through the entrance, a large wooden shrine sat in the centre of a massive hall. Etched in red, blue and gold it was menacingly defended by massive elephant tusks protruding from a golden fence. Two men stood guard – naked from the waist up – banging drums to a building rhythmic beat. The ceremony of the sacred tooth had begun and it was proving to be one of the most atmospheric places to visit in Kandy.

The tooth is said to belong to Siddhārtha Gautama, Buddha himself. When he was cremated in India, one of his teeth was recovered and made its way to Sri Lanka where it was presented to the king. Over the centuries the tooth was handed down to each subsequent king who built temples to house it under protective custody.

Mingling families, dressed in their finest, prayed over a carpet of flowers as incense flickered through lantern light. We joined a queue and slowly proceeded up a grand staircase and around the temple before arriving at the tooth, safely hidden in an intricately carved gold case, surrounded by another 6 intricately carved gold cases. After a few seconds, a burly-looking guard nudged us on.

Our experience viewing the tooth was complete. Luckily, sacred relics in gloriously mysterious locations is only the begining of the beguiling things to do in Kandy – Sri Lanka’s cultural capital.

Top things to do in Sri Lanka


The day slowly started to fade as the sun set over the golden sands of Mirissa Secret Beach. The bright blue ocean we’d been admiring all day, softened into a dark glistening grey. The night shift started to swing into action. Restaurants set up tables on patches of sand vacated by sunbathers, music rose and candles started to flicker over menus.

We headed to a small wooden table sunk in the sand to inspect today’s catch. Swordfish, dory, red snapper, sea bream, wahoo, grouper. Our selection was plonked on a nearby BBQ made out of an old boat. With toes crunched in sand, we watched the last of the surfers make their way inland as beers were delivered to our table. Before long, our fish arrived, simply grilled with a wedge of lemon.

The lively hubbub of the day paused while the sunset captivated everyone’s attention; only to reemerge again as chilled party mode. With sunset complete, we ate our grilled sea bream by the light of the BBQ and the hum of the music starting to build in the restaurants behind us.

Itinerary // Our 10-day Sri Lanka Itinerary


The dramatic Sri Lankan highlands had trundled past our train window for the last 3 hours. And just as our stomachs began to rumble in time with the train a local man pushed his antique cart up our aisle. It was packed with all sorts of goodness. Yoghurt lassi, fried samosas and fresh-smelling cupcakes. But our attention was caught by the spicy nuts peeking out of a piece of paper fashioned into a cone and the sweet tea in a flask.

Sri Lanka’s railway network was conceived, designed and introduced by the British colonial government in 1864 to transport tea – also a British introduction – from the mountain highlands north to Colombo. Today this Sri Lankan institution pushes 200,000 smiling locals and slightly confused tourists around.

Not content with watching the scenery through smudgy windows, we took our spicy nuts and our deliciously sweet chai tea and sat on the floor in a doorway. We watched the world go by with our legs dangling out the door. Sweeping views of steep-sided valleys packed with lush verdant vegetation and manicured tea plantations rushed past us. Peering down the length of the train, with the wind in our hair and through our shirts, we saw excited faces, just like ours, staring back. Quite simply the best thing to do in Sri Lanka.

Read More // Kany to Ella Train


An average hotel in a stunning location. The uninviting breakfast room was laid out ready for busloads of breakfast goers. But beyond the crockery and paper napkins, the mist from the waterfall wafted over manicured tea plantations.

At Ramboda, deep in the Sri Lankan highlands, the high plateau suddenly surrenders to a precipitous drop. Vast volumes of the region’s rainfall twisted as it collapsed over the valley walls. The result is the impressive Ramboda Falls; a scenic waterfall set dramatically among the tea plantations.

We left the hotel by the back door and suddenly found ourselves in a sea of green. Bulbous tea bushes – perfectly shaped – shimmered in the early morning light. Pickers in light shirts and tightly curled turbans, loomed out of the spray and mist, picking the tea ready for its journey to the nearby Blue Fields Tea Factory.

We followed the tea to the factory where we found three hundred staff sorting, selecting, and drying leaves in an antiquated building, reminiscent of an imperial past. We learnt about black tea, green tea and white tea. About orange pekoe, broken orange pekoe, flowery orange pekoe and, flowery broken orange pekoe fanning extra special. Who knew tea could be so complicated?


It had been a long drive from Colombo to Habarana. Scenes of palm trees framing rice fields appeared outside the car window. We went through small villages where local life was unfolding on the highway. Women carried children on their hips as they shopped at local markets. Men sat on milk crates smoking.

Our driver told us we were stopping for lunch and we were excited to explore one of these small villages a bit more, check out some local food and explore local Sri Lankan life.

Instead, we stopped at a large tin shed by the highway with plastic chairs arranged on a concrete floor. Basically, someone’s garage. Our driver ordered for us, but really there was only one choice for the recent arrivals to Sri Lanka – rice and curry veg.

While it wasn’t a cute Sri Lankan village, our first taste of this dish will forever remain in my memory as a classic Sri Lankan experience. Our rice and curry veg comprised 2 dollops of fragrant curry, dahl, sambal, curried pineapple and rice. The ubiquitous Sri Lankan dish delivered in a garage with the hum of the highway reverberating around us, was a perfect, if surprising top thing to do in Sri Lanka.

But Sri Lanka offers so many more culinary flavours than just rice and curry, try this read to capture the essence of the country in 50 cooking dishes.


To see the list of places we found captivated us so much that they made our top things to do in Sri Lanka, click on the icon to the left of the title on the map.

How to use this map / Click on the top left of the map to display the list of locations, then click on the locations to display further information. Click on the top right corner of the map to open a larger version in a new tab or the star to save to your Google Maps.  


Firstly, if we have inspired you to visit Sri Lanka, we might inspire you to visit other places. All our best photos and the stories of our travels are on our Instagram. Follow us here.

Secondly, if these top experiences have inspired you to see the country for yourself, our complete itinerary has all the information needed to collect all our favourite things to do in Sri Lanka in 10 days. If you need more convincing, here’s some more reading

Kandy to Ella Train

Cycling Polonnaruwa

Experiencing the Kandy Cultural Show


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