Anuradhapura was the capital of 113 kings of Sri Lanka and thrived from 378 BC to 988 AD. The British revived the city in 1872, and a new city of Anuradhapura was built alongside the old in 1957. The old city is given the status of a “Holy City” and it is a popular destination for Buddhist pilgrims from all over the Island.
Two World Heritage Sites are located here and many places of historical and archaeological interest can be visited. With the advent of Buddhism to Sri Lanka, the kings built a number of magnificent and colossal places of worship which have been beautifully restored: The Ruwanweliseya (the tallest and the largest ‘Dagoba” in the world), Thuparamaya, Jethawanaramaya, Abhayagiriya and Mirisawetiya are among them. The 1,600 stone columns of the Brazen Palace (2nd century BC) are all that is left of a multi-storied residence for monks. Legend has it that a branch of the Bo tree under which Prince Gautama attained enlightenment and became Buddha, was brought to Sri Lanka more than 2,000 years ago by a daughter of King Asoka of India. This sacred Bo Tree is the centre of Buddhist worship in Anuradhapura and it is encircled by a golden fence. It is the oldest historically documented tree in the world. A 'Samadhi' (seated in deep meditation) Buddha statue (4th century AD) is at the centre of a large park, the “Mahamevna” built in the time of the ancient kings and it is one of the most famous statues in the Buddhist world. The Isurumuniya rock temple (3rd century BC) is well-known for its rock carvings.
Lovely Arugam Bay is the east coast’s most traveller-friendly destination. It’s basically a single laid-back strip of beach accommodation. From April to October it has the best surfing waves in Sri Lanka and hundreds of surfers descend on it in season for international surfing competitions which are held there. The place is close to the Kumana Bird sanctuary which also has elephants and other wildlife.
Another beach resort area on the south western coast, not too far from Colombo, BENTOTA offers a further clutch of tourist hotels which are more up-market. A lagoon and a river add to the scenic beauty of the place and provide much scope for water sports such as skiing and water jet scooters.
Colombo was never the capital of Sri Lanka under the Sinhala kings. With the advent of the maritime Western colonialists such as the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British the importance of its port grew. The British made it the capital in 1865. The city has changed rapidly as all cities do and skyscrapers now dot its skyline. Thankfully some beautiful vestiges of the colonial era still remain, e.g. Buildings erected by the Dutch and British and a 100-year old clock tower. The Pettah throbs with a myriad shops where one can look for bargains. Historic temples and churches, the Town Hall and the adjacent park, the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall and the Nelum Pokuna Hall for the Performing Arts (the last two being outright gifts from the People’s Republic of China) are must-see places of interest. Colombo has everything for everyone, including an excellent 18-hole Golf Course.
The origin of the Dambulla Rock Temple dates back to King Walagamba in the 1st century B.C. It is a World Heritage Site - a complex of five caves with over 2000 sq. metres of painted walls and ceilings.. They contain over 150 statues of the Buddha of which the largest is the reclining figure of the Buddha carved out of rock and spanning 14 metres. A most interesting place to visit, involving a short climb along a path lined by monkeys who prance about hoping for handouts.
The old port of Galle, about 115 kms from Colombo, and reachable in an hour from Colombo on the new Southern Expressway, has a long history. Since the times of the Arab traders, it was an important stop on the silk route where they exchanged silks for spices and gems. Other maritime nations followed; the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British. The Fort built by the Dutch lasts to this day, once again another UNESCO World Heritage site. Galle is a quaint town and a leisurely stroll through the ramparts of the fortress transports one back to another era. The Fort contains a veritable treasure trove of places to visit: The newly-renovated International Cricket Stadium, the Dutch Museum, the Maritime Museum, the Dutch Groote Kerk (Great Church), old mansions with intricate lattice work unique to Dutch architecture, a lighthouse 18 metres tall, and the oldest inn in Sri Lanka, the New Oriental Hotel which is a great place to stay.
Galle is also a hunting ground for antique hunters and some interesting curios can be purchased here. The cosmopolitan nature of the city attracts many tourists also because it is close to the popular beaches of Hikkaduwa, Unawatuna, and Koggala. The annual Galle Literary Festival is an event which attracts the literati of both international and local fam e as well as cognoscenti who flock to the beautiful city for a week’s literary pursuits.
Hambantota, located in the deep south of the Island along the eastern coast is undergoing a number of major development projects such as the construction of a new sea port, international airport and an international cricket stadium hosting games for the 2012 ICC Twenty20 Cricket World Cup. The city also hosted the first South Asian Beach Games in 2011. It lies close to some of the biggest wildlife sanctuaries of the country and boasts of some of the most beautiful and unspoilt beaches with the best surf in Sri Lanka. The sacred city of Kataragama is not far away. Hambantota is famous for its salterns, vast salt pans that collect sea-water which is evaporated by the hot sun to produce residual salt.
Hikkaduwa on the south western coast of Sri Lanka has developed entirely on tourism because of its pristine beaches and the coral reefs. Surfing and snorkeling are popular pastimes here and instructors are available for those who want to try out these adventures. Hotels of all sizes have sprung up along the beach and a number of seafood restaurants salivate the taste-buds. The market place flaunts colourful masks, batik dresses and shirts and other colourful beach-wear. The beach-side cabanas, the restaurants and the hotels have given rise to a vibrant night-life. Glass-bottomed boats can be rented to view the corals reefs and tropical fish. Turtle sanctuaries have been set up in the area to protect these endangered species. The annual Hikkaduwa Beach Fest is fast catching on as a yearly festival of music and dance and is held in the month of August when tourists can truly let their hair down.
Horton Plains is beautiful – it is highlands of Sri Lanka at its pastoral best. In 1833 two British Army officers found this splendid plateau, located about 2,000 metres above sea level, and named it “Horton Plains” in honour of the then British Governor of Ceylon, Sir Robert Horton. The place became a hunting ground for the British occupiers and later two inns were constructed by two Englishmen: James Anderson’s “Anderson Lodge” and Thomas Farr’s “Farr Inn.” The plains are an expanse of 32 square kilometers of virgin beauty, misty grassland dotted with flowering rhododendron bushes ice-cold rivulets brimming with carp and trout. The plains are now a Nature Reserve (soon to be announced as a World Heritage Site) home to the occasional leopard, wild boar and sambhur. The Jungle Fowl and the Yellow-eared Bulbul lead the parade of over 20 endemic and exquisite bird species which can be sighted here. The Belihuloya stream that passes through cascades down making the Baker’s Falls which is another magnificent site. The renowned “World’s End” to the south of the plain, is an escarpment with a sheer drop of about a thousand metres. The view from the World’s End of the surrounding hills and the flat land upto the Southern coast is simply breathtaking and considered to be the finest in Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankans refer to Kandy as “Maha Nuwara” – the great city. In the times of the kings it was known as “Senkadagala”. It was the last capital of the Sinhala kings and fell to the British conquerors in 1815. Nestling in the central hills, about 112 kms from Colombo, Kandy is a must-see place for all visitors. With a beautiful lake in its midst on the banks of which is the World Heritage site of the Temple of the Tooth, Kandy is a bustling city. The Temple enshrines a tooth, the holiest relic of the Buddha in Sri Lanka, which according to legend was brought in 312 AD by a royal couple from India. Every August the “Esala Perahera” takes place in Kandy, the grandest religious and cultural pageant in the Island. This continues for 8 days – a fascinating spectacle of dancers, drummers and elephants.
Kataragama lies adjacent to the Yala National Park and is a pilgrimage town visited by Buddhist and Hindu pilgrims from both Sri Lanka and South India. The temple dedicated to the god "Skandha" also known as Kataragama god is located there, together with the ancient Kiri Vehera, a Buddhist dagoba. The town is 228 km from Colombo. The god worshipped there is believed to be very powerful and m,any seek his favours by making the pilgrimage. Consequently Kataragama and towns in its vicinity such as Tissamaharama have developed fast and afford many interesting places for accommodation overnight.
Matara lies on the Southern coast of the Island. It has an ancient port that was visited by European and Middle Eastern traders in the early days. The Nilwala River empties to the sea here and an old Dutch Fort lies between the sea and the river. A few vestiges of the Dutch occupation are still visible in the town which is a typical Sri Lankan hub-town catering to governmental administrative needs of the district. The old "Rest House" , the first inn of Matara from days gone by, has been refurbished and is located on the beach close to the Dutch Fort and is a splendid place to sip a chilled beer and watch the waves break on the sandy beach.
“The Mountain of Mahinda” is venerated as the place where King Tissa was first converted to Buddhism around 306 BC, by Mahinda, a son of King Asoka of India, and thus Buddhism took root in Sri Lanka. The serenity of the place is captivating. The mountain top is reached by a grand stairway of 1,840 steps made out of granite slabs 15' wide. When that ends in an area dotted with shrines, the rock on which Mahinda is said to have been standing is reached by a more difficult stairway. The panoramic view from the top is fascinating. The mountain comes alive in June when devotees flock there on the Full Moon day to celebrate the beginning of Buddhism in the Island.
The Minneriya area has been developed with a large lake for agriculture and produces a huge portion of the country’s rice. The National Park located there, the extent of which is about 8,889 hectares, is home to a vast array of wildlife: About 160 species of birds, 9 amphibians, 25 reptile species, 26 fish species and more than 78 butterfly species have been found in this area. Wild elephants are more easily seen at Minneriya than at other nature reserves.
NEGOMBO lies on the sea-coast about 10 kms to the North of the Colombo International airport. Its beautiful beaches and the string of tourist hotels alongside beckon the visitor. Many go to Negombo straight from the airport to relax on its beaches or stay there as a last stop prior to flying back home. The Negombo area is the heartland of Catholics in Sri Lanka as illustrated by the large number of churches and wayside shrines. The Portuguese missionaries converted the mostly fisherfolk of Negombo, and the people took on Portuguese names such as Fernando, Silva and Perera which continue as surnames to this day. The Dutch too made a Fort there and built a canal through Negombo which stretches from Colombo to Puttalam to transport merchandise. The ocean and the large lagoon contributed to making Negombo one of the most important fishing ports and fisheries still dominate the local economy. The lagoon is famous for shrimps, lobsters and crabs. The catamaran-type fishing boats of Negombo with their billowing sails are an unforgettable sight when the fleet returns home.
Beginning from the tallest mountain in Sri Lanka, Pidurutalagala (about 2,600 metres) the landscape of the hill country around Nuwara Eliya spreads through hills and valleys and ravines. It is the most popular hill resort in the Island because of its salubrious climate. Ever since a British Governor built a holiday home here in 1828, the place took on the appearance of a quaint old English village with houses in the same style built by British tea-planters. Place names such as Victoria Park, Lake Gregory, Baker’s Falls, St. Clare’s Falls, etc. all evoke the British legacy. The Grand Hotel and the Golf Club with its 18-hole course, one of the finest in Asia, draw the visitor with their old world charm. The road to Nuwara Eliya runs through manicured tea gardens and majestic hills with cascading waterfalls, and is a most scenic drive. This is the heart of the famed tea plantations which produce the finest teas in the world.
Peradeniya lies on the road to Kandy, about 3 kms before reaching the city. It is famous for a large botanical garden, 147 acres in extent, on the banks of the Mahaweli River, which is the longest in Sri Lanka. Carefully nurtured in British times the well-tended garden provides an amazing variety of trees, plants and flowers. On the opposite side of the garden is the prestigious University of Peradeniya, an architectural marvel laid out in an undulating valley. This was established in the early 1950’s and contains student accommodation halls in addition to the learning / teaching / sports facilities.
The Elephant Orphanage at Pinnawala is one of the biggest tourist attractions of Sri Lanka. It was established in 1975 as a place to accommodate baby elephants either abandoned or which had strayed from their herds, and to nurse sick elephants found in the jungles. A river nearby provides enough space and water for elephants to engage in their favourite pastime of frolicking in the water. The number of inmates has grown over the years and the Orphanage has been successful in scientific captive breeding programmes. The story of Pinnawala has attracted zoologists from all over the world keen on study of elephants. Its elephants have been the focus of a million cameras and TV programmes.
Yet another world heritage site. King Vijayabahu is said to be the the creator of this 2nd capital of Sri Lanka in the 11th century AD. More well-known is King Parakramabahu who developed the city, landscaped it and built several lakes to catch the rainwater for irrigation. One lake is so large that it is known as the Parakrama “Samudra” (Sea) A statue 12’ tall stands by the banks of this lake and it is commonly believed that it represents King Parakramabahu. More archaeological sites welcome the visitor: The ruins of the Royal Palace, the Gal Viharaya where four splendid statues of the Buddha in 'Upright', 'Sedentary' and 'Recumbent' postures carved out of rock, the Audience Hall and the Lotus Bath, There are also monuments of famous places of worship such as the Shiva Temple, the Lankathilaka, the Vatadage, the Galpotha, the Kiri Vehera and the remains of a former Temple of the Tooth Relic. The Polonnaruwa Rest House located on the eastern shore of the Parakrama Samudra is a delightful place to relax after a sight-seeing tour of the city.
Another world heritage site. King Kashyapa (477-495 AD) built this impregnable fortress on a solitary rock rising about 200 metres from the scrub jungle. The rock was the innermost stronghold of a 70 hectare fortified town. A moat, rampart, and extensive gardens including the renowned water gardens ring the base of the rock. Remains of Kashyapa palace atop the rock covers an area of about 3 acres. The name Sigiriya means the Lion’s Rock, so called perhaps because the steep climb to the top begins between two huge lion’s paws carved from the rock. Midway through the ascent you would see the world-renowned frescoes of the ”Heavenly Maidens” of Sigiriya, which are on a sheltered face of the rock approached by a spiral stairway. These magnificent frescoes were painted 1,500 years ago on plaster using earth pigments.
This major city on the North Eastern coast of Sri Lanka will take about 6 to 7 hours by road, a distance of 257 kms from Colombo, unless you decide to fly. It is within a stone’s throw of breathtaking beaches in Nilaveli and Uppuveli; the light blue water is not deep for almost a kilometer from the beach and provides almost swimming-pool like safety for swimming and snorkeling. Several star class hotels in the area offer luxurious comfort to visitors.
Trincomalee has a natural deep water harbour and it was used by all the maritime nations which invaded Sri Lanka. The Sami Rock which is above 120 metres above sea level is a sacred place to Hindus as the famous Thiru Koneswaram Temple is located there. Also well worth a visit are the 7 hot springs of Kinniya, situated adjacent to each other and have different temperatures in each one. Both local and foreign tourists visit these natural hot springs for a spa-type bath. Even though Trincomalee is far away from Colombo, its great beaches, amazing sites, and the excellent hotels will make it a trip worthwhile.
A safari tour of the Udawalawe National Park is a rewarding trip for wildlife enthusiasts. The park is home to the bear, the leopard, the deer and the sambhur, and is well-known for its elephant population. The area of this park is 30,821 hectares and it nestles between the Udawalawe reservoir and the Walawe River. Dawn and dusk are the best times to see the elephants as they march to water-holes.
Originally a hunting ground for the British Colonialists, the vast sprawling area of about 130,000 hectares was declared a Game Preserve. It is undoubtedly the most popular wildlife sanctuary in Sri Lanka. Herds of deer and elephants abound, sightings of bear and leopard are often reported. The sambhur and wild boar are common sightings, together with varieties of birds, esp. the peacock.