Some countries, such as Sri Lanka, have a history and culture that goes back very far. When you travel around the island, you see that history popping up everywhere in the ruins of palaces and temples, as well as in the traditions that are passed on from generation to generation. It's those things that make your trip so valuable. These are the highlights of Sri Lanka.
1. Discover the cultural heritage
Sri Lanka is an island in the Indian Ocean, just below the great tip of India. Finds have been made that show that the island was already inhabited in prehistoric times, but especially the last 2600 years form the basis of Sri Lanka as we know it today.
In the 6th century BC, the Singhal, the ancestors of today's Sinhalese, emigrated from India to Sri Lanka. They founded the kingdom of Anuradhapura there and later, when Anuradhapura perished, the kingdom of Polonnaruwa. In the 11th century, the Tamils emigrated from India to northern Sri Lanka, where they started a kingdom around Jaffna.
The remnants of those kingdoms and of other city-states are still visible in Sri Lanka. What was once rich and powerful kingdoms are now crumbling ruins, half is overgrown by the jungle and inhabited by monkeys. You can visit those ruins and it is not difficult at all to imagine what they must have looked like during their heyday.
The kingdom of Anuradhapura was founded in the 5th century BC by King Pandukabhaya. Anuradhapura became the capital of Sri Lanka. The kingdom grew and prospered for centuries until the city was abandoned after an invasion in the 10th century. What remains is an immense complex of palaces, stupas and temples, which you can still visit. The site is rightfully protected by UNESCO as the ruins are not only breathtakingly beautiful but also give you a glimpse into Sri Lanka's past. You must have visited Anuradhapura to really understand Sri Lankan culture.
After the fall of Anuradhapura, King Parakramabahu I founded the kingdom of Polonnaruwa. Polonnaruwa became the new capital of Sri Lanka and, like Anuradhapura, grew into a city full of palaces and temples. Polonnaruwa lasted for several centuries, after which the city was abandoned and fell into ruins. This complex is also very large, so it is best to take a few days to visit it completely. The site of the royal palace with its water gardens, the Gal Vihara temple with its reclining Buddha, and the Vatadage stupa are especially beautiful.
King Kashyapa must have had a certain flair for drama, for in the 5th century he built his palace Sigiriya on an inhospitable rock 180 meters above ground level. The palace was very ingeniously built and with its rooms, halls and gardens with ponds, it was very comfortable. Numerous frescoes adorned the walls. Unfortunately, the king was only able to enjoy his fort for a few years before he died and Buddhist monks moved in. In the 14th century, Sigiriya was definitively abandoned. You can visit Sigiriya by climbing the imposing stairs, which start between two carved lion's feet and thus gave the rock its nickname 'Lion's Rock'.
2. See the remnants of the colonial past
Its convenient location along trade routes and its natural wealth made Sri Lanka an attractive snack for colonizing Europeans. In the 16th century, the Portuguese came ashore, in the 17th century the Dutch and in the 19th century Sri Lanka became a British colony. The result of that colonization can still be seen today in architecture and culture. Especially in large cities you will find a series of colonial buildings, but you will also find a certain influence from the colonizing countries in small cultural aspects and even dishes.
In the city of Negombo, on the west coast, you will find some interesting remnants of Sri Lanka's colonial past. The Dutch built a canal there, as the Dutch often do. The so-called Dutch Canal still cuts right through the city and is mainly used by fishermen in colorful boats. But the so-called Dutch Fort, which was first a Portuguese fort before the Dutch destroyed and rebuilt it, is also worth a visit. As you walk through Negombo, keep an eye out for the architecture of the larger houses, which often have a colonial accent.
The popular Galle Fort, in the south of Sri Lanka, has a similar history to the Dutch Fort of Negombo: built by the Portuguese and later rebuilt and fortified by the Dutch, Galle Fort has a typical pentagonal shape with fortified points. Within the walls of Galle Fort you will find houses and churches in an atmospheric Dutch colonial style.
The commercial capital Colombo also did not escape the influence of its settlers. The capital is sometimes described as a perfect mix between west and east. The British in particular left their mark on the city with impressive buildings such as the building of the Galle Face Hotel, but the Dutch also had their influence, which you can still see most in the Old Dutch Hospital.
Although the Sri Lankans, like all colonized peoples, suffered a lot during their occupation, the influence of the colonizing countries adds to the general atmosphere of the country. It is a reminder of the past and a motivation to do better in the future. Many colonial buildings, such as country houses and plantations, are still in use as hotels or government buildings, but modern hotels also often have an atmosphere that feels a bit colonial. It makes you feel like an explorer wandering through the ancient world.
3. Visit the religious heritage
Religion plays a big role in Sri Lanka. Three-quarters of Sri Lankans are Buddhists, the rest is Hindu, Muslim or Christian. Although Buddhism is most visible in the streets, in the form of colourful open temples and large Buddha statues on mountain tops, the other religions are also represented in churches and mosques. Most of the temples, churches and mosques, in addition to the characteristics of their respective religions, also have a certain Sri Lankan style. A great mix.
Driving through Negombo, you will see a series of churches in colonial styles, with crosses and effigies in neon lighting. Open-air services are held in the usually large gardens around the churches: people kneel on the grass while the priest preaches through a megaphone. A special sight, very different from the more modest church services of the west.
The most visited religious building in Sri Lanka has to be the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy. This temple complex is an invaluable shrine to Buddhists worldwide as the Buddha's fang is kept here. But non-believers are also allowed to visit the temple. The temple complex includes the Sanctuary of the Tooth, where people lay purple lotuses and other flowers, a museum and a meditation hall. In the corridors you will meet monks in orange robes who pray at the stupas. The whole thing is overwhelming. Something you have to see to really understand.
The Kokkadicholai Thaanthonreeswarar Hindu Temple, on the east coast of Sri Lanka, is one of the most important Hindu temples in Sri Lanka. The temple is dedicated to Shiva and is said to date from the 4th century. The entrance gate is high and covered with religious effigies. It is dim inside. Light falls through openings and windows and plays with the smoke of incense that burns everywhere. People sit in the corners of the temple and in the back are small livestock. The whole is overwhelmingly colourful, mystical and above all very human.
In the heart of the Pettah shopping district in Colombo is the Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque, nicknamed the Red Mosque. The 1908 mosque is one of the city's most notable buildings. You won't see the middle-eastern architectural style with red and white stripes anywhere else in Colombo. The narrow shopping streets packed with people, tuk-tuks and stalls around the mosque only add more atmosphere to the whole.
4. Relax on the golden beaches of the azure sea
You can safely call Sri Lanka paradise. Inland you will find magnificent fauna and flora, such as palm groves, elephants and wild cheetahs, but the coast is even more beautiful. Golden sandy beaches with swaying palm trees lead you to an azure sea that is bursting with life, such as whales, sea turtles and countless colorful fish.
In fact, everywhere on the Sri Lankan coast you are in the right place. Either you enjoy the wild nature or the wonderful bustle of coastal towns full of restaurants and hotels. But there are some places that stand out. Pasikudah, on the east coast, is one such place. Because the beach gently merges into the ocean, you can walk more than 50 meters into the sea before it gets deeper. In the low water you can snorkel and with a bit of luck you can see sea turtles.
Mirissa, in the south of the island, is a well-known seaside resort. The coast is a bit rougher here, with rocky outcrops and small, jagged coves, but there are still plenty of golden sandy beaches to be found. Mirissa is especially popular with surfers who enjoy the rolling waves, and with tourists who are drawn to the nightlife of the coastal towns. But nature lovers also flock to the south coast to see wild sea turtles and even whales.
5. Find the coolness of the mountains
In the interior of Sri Lanka it is often a bit cooler than on the coast. Especially in the mountains. The cool, mountainous climate is ideal for growing tea, so the mountain flanks are often covered with rows of terraces full of tea plants. In between, workers with baskets on their heads pick tea on red dirt roads. But even where no tea is grown, you will find plenty to see and experience. Sri Lanka has a large number of caves, many of which you can visit. Not to mention the famous train rides through the mountains, the viewpoints and the towns in the valleys.
The most famous mountain town is Nuwara Eliya, nicknamed Little England. The British settled in Nuwara Eliya centuries ago because of the cooler climate and because tea thrives in this area. They built country houses and plantations in that typical English style and they are still there. Often there is a cooling downpour, after which the mountains steam or the clouds hang low above the valleys and the mountain tops, which makes the whole wonderfully mysterious.
The city of Kandy is located in a valley surrounded by mountains, where narrow streets wind up in hairpin bends. Many hotels are located outside the city in the mountains, overlooking the centre of Kandy. This gives you as a traveller the chance to enjoy the busy city, with its street vendors and temples and busy shopping streets, while you can retire to a hotel in the quiet mountains in the evening.
6. Taste the Sri Lankan cuisine
Everyone who has already travelled to Sri Lanka agrees: you should really travel to the country just to taste all those delicious dishes. Sri Lankan cuisine, like all cuisines worldwide, is primarily based on the products that can be found there. Rice, coconut, vegetables and fruit and fresh fish and shellfish. But Sri Lankan cuisine also has some influence from its occupiers and from other Asian countries. The whole thing is finger-licking good.
The basis of Sri Lankan cuisine is rice and curries. You often get a bowl of rice on the table with a number of curries in separate bowls. So you choose what you want to eat. Curries are made with all kinds of ingredients, from meat, fish, poultry and shellfish to simple curries of vegetables and even fruit. Sometimes they can be spicy to even hot, but you will always find one to your taste. Try the dhal curry of lentils, which is served with every meal, and the smoky, sweet aubergine curry.
Although you can usually eat very well in good hotels in Sri Lanka, it pays to look for the small restaurants and food stalls. You will often find fruit stalls along the road, where you can buy fruit and delicious juices, or those coconuts with a straw in it. Be sure to stop by bakeries, where you can buy pasta and pastries, filled with vegetables and meat or fish, which are called 'short eats': small snacks that you can eat right away.
Desserts are made with coconut, fruits and nuts and with the famous Sri Lankan cinnamon. Many desserts are sticky and deliciously sweet. Be sure to taste watalappan, a steamed coconut milk pudding with spices such as cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, topped with a little syrup. Delicious!
7. Meet the sweetest people
Sri Lanka is currently sometimes in the news because an economic crisis has erupted. That crisis is the result of a series of circumstances, such as natural disasters, the pandemic and the war between Russia and Ukraine. All of those conditions affect the country, and that influence is only exacerbated by the fact that tourists are now staying away. After all, Sri Lanka gets a lot of income from tourism.
Despite the unrest, tourists remain very welcome in the country. And although a little vigilance can't hurt, a trip to Sri Lanka is an absolute must. Especially now that there are fewer tourists, it is blissfully quiet. Moreover, the people there are so resilient and they welcome you with open arms. Often they want to talk to you and want to know where you are from. That interest may feel a bit intense, but it is genuine.
When visiting Sri Lanka, don't just choose to book at big chains, but eat at local restaurants and bakeries, take tuk-tuks and give tips. This way you support the people who really need it.