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Things to do in Sri Lanka

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The top 405 attractions in Sri Lanka

Of Cultural Interest in Sigiriya
Sigiriya is an ancient palace-fort complex located on top of a massive rock which towers over the humid jungles near Dambullah, Sri Lanka. The caves found throughout the rock were originally used by ascetic monks as far back as 3,000 years ago, but the site didn't take on its role as palace-fort until the reign of the flamboyant King Kasyapa in the 5th century. The site itself is really divided into three sections: the lower gardens, the middle landing (where you'll find the famous Lion's Gate), and the palace located at the very top of the rock itself. As you make the sweaty and, at time, vertigo-inducing hike to the top, you'll pass by manicured gardens studded with ancient pools, caves containing the famous Sigiriya Frescoes, the imposing Lion's Gate, and an endless amount of small side trails leading to unknown caves, hidden relics, and stunning lookout points. To reach the very top of the citadel, you need to climb a series of steep metal stairs that have been bolted directly to the sheer rock face. Once you arrive, though you'll be greeted by absolutely breathtaking views of the surrounding jungle and the lower gardens. As far as the ruins themselves go, only the foundations are still standing so it's difficult to get a good idea of what the fort-palace was like a millennium ago. Still, the entire complex is beautiful and should definitely rank at the top of your to-do list in Sri Lanka.
Temples in Galla
Yatagala Raja Maha Viharaya
The Yatagala Raja Maha Viharaya is an amazing temple just a few miles from the colonial city of Galle on Sri Lanka’s southern coast. We did a full-morning day trip to Koggala Lake and the Yatagala Temple, something which I’d highly recommend. Just ask your hotel to contact a reputable tuk-tuk driver and you can negotiate the price from there (it won’t be too much). Yatagala Raja Maha Viharaya is the kind of temple that you’ll more commonly find in the jungles near Dambulla and Kandy: cave temples adorned with intricately-painted frescoes, pathways winding around massive boulders to reveal hidden shrines, huge reclining Buddhas, and absolute tranquility. Seriously…we were the only people there aside from the temple workers and we couldn’t understand why it wasn't more popular with tourists. As I mentioned, the entire temple grounds are built around a mass of large boulders which conceal dozens of small, hidden caves. For over 1,500 years, monks have made these caves their temples and homes, and it’s really an amazing feeling to explore the pathways and cave temples without a soul around. It feels like you're in some kind of Indiana Jones movie. I couldn’t recommend it more. It’s by far the best day-trip from Galle.
Unusual Places in Pinnawela
Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage
On my trip to Sri Lanka, we went to visit an orphanage for elephants. It opened in about 1975 and was a place designed for injured elephants or those in need of help. We watched as they bathed and played in a river and it was really impressive to see so many animals playing together. It is not to be missed.
Bus Stations in Ampara
Ampara Station
The bus station of Ampara is located in the town center It is a very hectic place, as are the majority of the country s´ stations, but it is easy to find. When you take a bus, generally they give you a ticket you have to keep when you get off, and sometimes there is a control point, since the buses are public, to ensure the ticket has been used. It was the first time we were checked. The good thing is that there are buses in Ampara are heated, they are called Intercity Bus, and there is one for Kandy and one for Colombo. They leave approximately every hour, and they stop unless they are large buses. They are small, comfortable and there are not usually people standing in the hallway. It took five hours to go to Kandy and we stopped to eat, and we took the Rs 350 if I remember correctly. Then there are buses to Pottuvil and other coastal towns. Some go to Matara and Wellawaya on the south coast.
Of Cultural Interest in Anuradhapura
Sri Maha Bodhi
This temple is located at the end of the Avenue of the Sacred Tree. To enter you have to pass a security checkpoint with a metal detector, and they record your personal information. I was really surprised at the high level of security. Inside, you have to remove your shoes and cover your knees and back. The temple is a place of pilgrimage for all Buddhists of Sri Lanka since the famous sacred tree is located inside. Brought from India, this is a branch of the tree from which, 2000 years ago, Buddha reached enlightenment. The temple is quite simple. There are several chapels with images of Buddha and people come to leave fresh flowers next to these. The people, though very poor, always find a little something to leave in the temple. There are generally more people there early in the morning and on the weekend. A tuk tuk can take you there, but only to the security checkpoint.
Historical Monuments in Galla
Of Cultural Interest in Sigiriya
Sigiriya Frescoes
The Sigiriya Frescoes (alternately known as the Sigiriya Ladies or Sigiriya Damsels) are a set of ancient frescoes located in a small cave about 100 meters up the towering Sigiriya rock. They're considered one of the top attractions of Sigiriya itself and are the most important (and in fact only) non-religious paintings which have survived from antiquity in Sri Lanka. Apparently, the ostentatious King Kaspaya decided on Sigiriya as his palace in the 1st century BC and, as a testament to his grandeur, actually white-washed the entire rock and added a 40-meter wide band of paintings decorating the entire western side of the Rock. After more than a millennium exposed to the elements, the nineteen Sigiriya Frescoes are all that we have left of this once magnificent palatial complex. The identity of the women is still unknown, but most scholars agree that they are either representations of women from King Kaspaya's apparently bountiful harem, or are depictions of celestial beings known as "apsaras." They're unique in Sri Lanka and are reminiscent of frescoes in the older Ajanta Caves in India. Given India's proximity and historical influence, there was probably some artistic cross-pollination. The cave is located about half way up Sigiriya rock and you need to climb a panic-inducing spiral staircase bolted to the face of the rock (the structural integrity of the stairs inevitable passes through your mind, especially when you're sandwiched about half way up it with dozens of other tourists!). Once inside the cave, you finally find the frescoes: beautiful, sensual, created with graceful curving lines and warm colors. The stylized poses, idealized breasts, and unique facial expressions show off an artistic delicacy rarely found in the ancient world and which still manages to capture your attention even after 1,600 years. In short: they're beautiful. If you're planning a visit to Sigiriya, you can't miss them for the world. Try to get to the site right when it opens so you can get up to the fresco cave before the tour bus crowds arrive.
Historical Monuments in Dambulla
Golden Temple of Dambullah
The Golden Temple of Dambulla is an impressive temple complex in Dambulla, Sri Lanka most famous for the spectacular and Dambulla Cave Temples World Heritage Site. First, let's get the logistics out of the way: the temple itself is located in the outskirts of Dambulla so to get there you should probably take a tuk-tuk from your hotel (it's a quick and cheap trip). At the entrance, you'll see a truly bizarre museum whose entrance is the mouth of a wild-eyed face complete with teeth and everything. The museum (which we skipped) is topped by a towering golden Buddha. You can access the seated golden deity by the side steps to get a closer look and enjoy the mischievous monkeys scavenging around the fruit and flowers left as offerings. Afterwards, its a short but sweaty hike up the hill to get to the entrance to the incredible Dambulla Cave Temples. I've written about the individual caves in detail, so I'll just summarize by saying that the Dambulla Cave Temples are one of the most amazing and impacting places I've ever seen. The complex was built by King Valagamba of Anuradhapura after he sought shelter here during a Tamil invasion and, as a token of gratitude, created a monastery on the site in the 1st century BC. The complex features five caves, hundreds of rock-hewn Buddhas, and some of the most intricate and amazing frescoes found anywhere on Earth. In fact, my wife and I both agreed that the second cave, known as the Cave of the Great Kings, was the favorite thing we saw during our two week tour of Sri Lanka. Seriously...the Dambulla Cave Temples deserve to be ranked among the ancient wonders of the world, and when Sri Lanka's war-tainted image eventually fades away, they will be. If you can, visit them soon so you can enjoy their majesty in peace, as we did, before they get overrun with crowds.
Historical Monuments in Polonnaruwa
Historical Monuments in Dambulla
Cave of the Great Kings (Maharaja Lena)
The Cave of the Great Kings (also known as the Maharaja Vihara) is the second and most spectacular of the caves at the Dambulla Cave Temple, or Golden Temple, complex in Dambulla, Sri Lanka. Legend has it that the cave was originally built in the 1st century BC by the King Vittagamini Abhaya (thus the name), but the majority of its fine and famous frescoes were added in the 1700's at the behest of the kings of Kandy. The cave is over 50 meters long and contains over 55 separate Buddha statues as well as representations of Hindu deities Saman, Vishnu, and Ganesha, a common occurrence in the melting pot which is Sinhalese Buddhism. Rather than drone on about the history and technical aspects of the cave, I just want to focus on the frescoes, which are one of the most incredible things I've seen in all my travels. The entire cave ceiling is covered in ornate and detailed frescoes outlining everything from the Buddha's birth to his temptation by demons to his attainment of enlightenment, and every nook and cranny in between is filled with beautiful geometric designs. The frescoes are remarkably well-preserved and still retain their eye-popping colors (so, no flash photography, please). When I entered the Cave of the Great Kings, I was literally floored. It's sensory overload. In fact, my wife and I actually went back to the second cave after visiting all the others in a vain attempt to actually soak it all in during one visit! From the seated Buddhas lining the back wall, to the statues of the Great Kings and the sacred spring (which is rumored to never have dried, not even in the worst droughts), there is just so much incredible detail to see. Seriously, it is by far one of the most amazing places I've ever visited and you can't visit Sri Lanka without seeing it.
Beaches in Galla
Beaches in Ampara
Arugam Bay
Arugam Bay is one of the most beautiful beaches in Sri Lanka. When we went in August it was high season, mainly for surfing which is the major attraction of the city. Surfers come here for two or three months, usually between April and September. The accommodation is very cheap, just 5 euros a night for a log cabin right on the beach but if you stay a few weeks the price is even cheaper. The only problem is getting there. You have to go through Pottuvil, Ampara or Wellawaya which takes ages. The distances are short but the roads are terrible. Once you arrive, you forget everything and just relax by the incredibly blue sea and sandy beach. Paradise. For those ve do not surf you can sail, dive, or just swim in the sea. The area was severely affected by the Tsunami and many hotels and buildings were destroyed, the remains of which you can still see.
Historical Monuments in Sigiriya
The Legs of the Lion
The name Sigiriya means rock Lion. To symbolize this, toward the top where the ancient capital of Sri Lanka was built, there is a gate called the Lion's Gate. The gate consists of two stunning lion paws, marking the beginning on the old road and the start of the climb. Before that, there are metal stairs to climb that have been installed next to the rock. After the stairs, the road becomes the real road, which all officers used to pass through. The rock is flattened in front of the entrance, and there are some remains of buildings, which was probably a type of checkpoint. When you get to this point, you have to climb about 20 minute more.
Beaches in Galla
Unawatuna Beach
Unawatuna Beach is probably the most famous beach near the city of Galle in the south of Sri Lanka. However, given its popularity among international tourists, it is definitely not one of the most beautiful beaches in Sri Lanka (you’ll have to head further out of civilization for those). The once-pristine shores are now lined with tourist-oriented cafes, hostels, and restaurants, many still in varying levels of disrepair after the devastating tsunami of 2004. That being said, it’s a fun and convenient place for a day at the beach if you’re staying in Galle. Again, don’t come looking for untouched coral reefs and privacy. But, if you’re looking for soft sand, clear blue waters, and plenty of deck chairs where you can have a cold beer in the sun, Unawatuna is actually a great place. The beach itself isn’t all that big so it’s probably best to try and go in the off-season (we went in November and it was perfect). To get there, you can take a tuk-tuk from Galle Fort for the equivalent of around $5.00 or less. The town of Unawatuna has kind of a beach-hippy vibe like you can find in some of the Thai islands, with lots of little bungalows, reggae bars, and shops selling handicrafts.
Villages in Negombo
Negombo is a fishing village. The actual fishing port is to the south, a bit away from the tourist area. It´s worth a visit, especially early in the morning when the boats return to sell fish at the market. Next to the harbor is a sheltered place where they auction the goods and each of the men are shouting their price in a seemingly organized manner. They spend the rest of the day on the boat, doing maintenance work or taking tourists on an excursions in the sea. The boats go out fishing at three in the morning to get back for the market at eight. If you're staying in a guest house you can buy fish and eat it that night for dinner.
Historical Monuments in Dambulla
Great New Monastery (Maha Alut Vihara)
The Great New Monastery (known locally as the Maha Alut Vihara) is the third cave temple of the spectacular Dambulla Cave Temple, or Golden Temple, complex. It's slightly less spectacular than the Cave of the Great Kings, but then again topping the incredible second cave would be an incredible feat. The cave temple was built by King Kirti Sri Rajasinghe of Kandy in the 1700's and there's actually a statue of the king himself on left once you enterthe temple. The Great New Monastery, however, is most famous for its massive reclining Buddha with its hand tucked under its cheek, a symbol of the Buddha as he approached death. The entire cave contains over 50 separate Buddha statues, some of them seated and others standing, as well as intricate and colorful frescoes on the cave ceiling which run the gamut from complex geometric designs to scenes from the Buddha's life and his process of attaining enlightenment. Even though its one of the more modern additions to the Dambulla Cave Temple complex, it's still spectacular and almost overwhelmingly beautiful when you first enter. You might have already gotten you fill of cave temples in Sri Lanka, but take your time to explore the space and check out all the small details in the frescoes. It's worth it.
Cities in Polonnaruwa
The northern Sri Lanka city of Polonnaruwa is most famous because it was the capital from the XI to the XIII centuries. Some of the ruins are now part of a UNESCO world heritage site. To get there, there are a few direct buses from Kandy, or you can take any bus heading north, changing in Habanara. The buses are not air-conditioned, and some go directly to Anhuradapura to reach the old capitals. There are a half dozen low-budget hostels. We stayed in the Manel, which is fine, but all are worth it. You can stay for 5-10 euros in a clean and decent place. Polonnaruwa is next to a lake, we were there in the dry season and we didn't feel like swimming. The new city, which is mostly tourist oriented, has been built next to the ruins. Most people understand some English.
Villages in Dambulla
Dambulla is a quiet and pretty nice spot that isn't far from central Sri Lanka. You can use it as a base to explore the region and its magnificent ancient sites. For example the Dambulla Caves Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage, are right on the edge of town. Or the rock of Sigiriya, about an hour from here, which was one of the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka of the kingdom, and has been completely built upon an ancient rock. Dambulla has a pleasant climate throughout the year, with the rainy season from October. The coolest months are February and March. You can stay in guest houses for 5 euros and eat for less than two euros. To reach Dambulla, you can leave Kandy and take a bus towards Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa. These two cities are great historical stops, so I recommend that you make them your next stop along your visit.