A guide to things to do in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka might be small in size, but think of this as more of an opportunity to reach all four corners of the island. You can spend mornings along the beach and afternoons at a floating market, early evenings watching for elephants on the horizon and nights sipping cocktails at your hotel. There’s no shortage of ways to connect with culture, wildlife and gorgeously-green terrain on your holiday to Sri Lanka. The locals will help you dive in.

Grab a souvenir at the Pettah Floating Market

The Pettah Floating Market is found in the little village of Pettah in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo. It’s composed of 92 stalls located on Bastian Mawatha, many of which are found on boats on the Beira Lake. Here, you can find local produce, handmade items from the area and much more. This means you can pick up everything from electronics to jewellery and clothing while enjoying some pretty lovely views of the blue-green water.

It’s a top spot to grab a bite as well, as a number of the vendors dish up light meals to enjoy as you stroll.

Spot an elephant at Udawalawe National Park

The Udawalawe National Park covers a whopping 308 square kilometres and was created as a wild animal sanctuary after the nearby Udawalawe Reservoir was constructed. You can book a guide in advance and join a tour group where you’re taken around by 4×4 on an authentic safari. Booking a guide once you reach the gates of the park is also an option but it’s often more costly.

Once inside, depending on where you go – and sheer luck, sometimes – you’ll encounter any number of wild animals. The park is renowned for its Sri Lankan elephant population which tallies up to around 250, including calves that were previously abandoned and now re-homed. Animals like the Sri Lankan leopard, wild boars and water buffalo also call this sweeping park home.

Spread out on Bentota Beach

This beach belongs to the coastal town of Bentota. It’s backed by a line of hotels, bars and restaurants, which are then backed on the other side by the Bentota River, which eventually leads to the ocean.

As far as beaches go, Bentota is largely untouched otherwise – there aren’t any sunbeds or umbrellas up for rent, so you’ll have to bring a towel for lounging. A couple of vendors wander around the shore, but not enough to be a bother. Keep an eye out for flags warning of strong currents or undertows – if a red flag is showing, a leisurely walk along these soft, rust-coloured sands is your next best option.

Cuddle a turtle at the Turtle Hatchery Hikkaduwa

After receiving injuries or struggling in the wild, these little turtles have been scooped up and brought to Hikkaduwa’s turtle hatchery, where the owner himself cares for them until they’re ready to return to the wild. At the hatchery, you’ll be able to handle turtles of all shapes, sizes and species. If you arrive at the right time, you might even be able to help release some of the turtles back into the ocean. This is one of a number of turtle hatcheries all along the southwest coast of Sri Lanka.

Snorkel at Hikkaduwa Beach

Hikkaduwa Beach is postcard gorgeous, with red-orange sand and palm trees at the back. There are also restaurants, bars and watersport facilities nearby. Parts of the coral reef along this coastline are still intact, though much of it was destroyed in a tsunami in 2004. Even so, many turtles are known to frequent these waters, making it a great place to snorkel and scuba dive on your Sri Lanka holidays.

Feel the peace at Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple

The Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple is a quirky spot in Colombo whose unique decor attracts tourists from all over the world. And you don’t have to be worshipping to feel the tranquility here. If you’re trying to conjure up images of this temple, think of a garage sale – the walls are stacked high with knick-knacks donated by devout visitors, rows and rows of Buddha statues and colourful murals.

Whale watching in Sri Lanka

As well as being home to the world’s largest land mammal – the elephant – Sri Lanka is also one of the best places in the world to spot the to the planet’s largest creature – the Blue Whale – along with many smaller whales and dolphins.

Sri Lanka’s whale watching triangle is made up of three sites across the country that provide the best opportunities for spotting these huge sea mammals. With Mirissa in the south being perhaps the most reliable place in the world for seeing Blue Whales, Trincomalee to the east and Kalpitiya in the northwest are also big contenders.

Situated within the International Whaling Commission’s protected zone in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka is well set up for boat tours that take you a short distance off its coast. Many tours are conducted by English speaking guides and you should check before you go that yours is approved by the Department of Wildlife – most are to ensure the well-being of the creatures.