See fishermen perching on stilts and feel the tingle of chilli on your tongue, or stroll beneath swaying palms and smell the sweet jasmine. Lie back on the palm-fringed southern beaches and taste delicious fish curry with coconut sambol, or journey to the untouched east to surf the breaks and pad barefoot across empty sands. Safari down the rivers to spot monkeys and monitor lizards, enter the national parks capture Sri Lankan elephants on camera, and trek into the lush interior where the ancient Sigiriya palace sits atop a mighty rock.
Touchdown at the beach town of Negombo and venture into the old quarter for your first taste of spicy kottu. Dutch, Portuguese and British colonialists have all made their mark on the city’s architecture, while its local fish markets and colourful wooden catamarans are full of Sri Lankan charm. To explore further, cruise down the Dutch canal or kitesurf along the coast.
An hour south, the capital city of Colombo is home to colourful markets and sobering urban slums. Tuk-tuk through the streets or take tea in a colonial house, visit the Cinnamon Gardens and the bazaars of Pettah, fly a kite at Galle Face Green and catch a Sri Lankan cricket match, or shop for jewels in downtown Colombo.
South coast Sri Lanka boasts the country’s dreamiest beaches – look forward to palm fringed hideaways and sparkly sands. The town of Bentota is picture perfect, and you can windsurf across tropical waters, stay in a smart hotel or head off on a river safari. Further south, the city of Galle is within striking distance of several sandy stretches, so you could explore the Dutch quarter and fly a kite from the bastions, then spend the afternoon swimming off the crescent beach at Unawatuna.
When you reach Mirissa on the island’s southern tip, stick a straw in a coconut and swing in a hammock or hop on a boat and search for blue whales. Yala National Park sits around the corner on the southeast coast – come here for dunes and lagoons, spotted leopards and magical sunsets.
Travel by train through the Central Highlands, passing dense forests and plunging ravines, botanical gardens and bathing elephants. Stop at the city of Kandy (the capital of Sri Lankan culture) and experience a Kandyman dance show. Pay your respects at the Temple of the Tooth and dodge the touts as you shop for handicrafts.
Head north to the ancient palace of Sigiriya or travel south to the colonial hill station of Nuwara Eliya, where you can absorb the English vibes as you stroll through rose gardens, take tea in a country house and shelter from the drizzle. Venture east to the stunning scenery of Ella village, or lace up your hiking boots, head into the highlands and find Lord Buddha’s footprint on Adam’s Peak.
East coast Sri Lanka is wonderfully rugged and relatively untouched. Dealt an unlucky hand between the 80s and early 2000’s, ethnic clashes and the 2004 Tsunami placed these sandy shores largely off-limits. With stability re-established and tourism bouncing back, now is the time to visit, while it’s uncrowded and unspoilt.
Most visitors make a beeline for Arugam Bay, where the relaxed vibe and legendary surf scene are at their best best during the May to September dry season. Jungle and deserted beaches lie to the south, where you can look for roaming elephants and snoozing crocodiles, or visit the mangrove swamps of Yala East National Park. To experience more of the east, head north to the colonial city of Batticaloa, the ancient settlement of Trincomalee and the empty beaches at Uppuveli.