What are the attractions that are most popular with visitors to Sri Lanka, apart from the beaches? We conducted an informal survey among tourists and tourist drivers and discovered these are the top five attractions visitors love. We think you will too.
1. The Temple of the Tooth
Probably the most popular attraction for visitors is the Temple of the Tooth (known as Sri Dalada Maligawa) in the old hill kingdom city of Kandy (116km form Colombo). This houses the Sacred Tooth of Lord Buddha, an object of veneration to Buddhists, and of respectful curiosity to tourists.
A notice at the entrance to the garden in which the Temple stands, requests visitors to “refrain from wearing head dresses, mini-skirts, short trousers, sleeveless jackets, so to maintain the sanctity of the holy place.” There is an admission fee and all visitors must remove their footwear.
Tradition states that the tooth was taken from the ashes after the cremation of Gauthama Buddha at Kusinara in India in 543BC. It was eventually smuggled to Sri Lanka in the 4th century AD. It was lodged in many places as a symbol of nationhood until coming to rest in Kandy in 1592.
The main shrine of the temple is on the first floor and its doors are opened during puja (offering) times (06.30; 10.00 & 18.30 daily) providing a glimpse of the sacred casket. You don’t actually see the tooth but a visit to the shrine is a soul-stirring experience whatever your faith.
2. Peradeniya Botanical Gardens
No visit to Kandy is complete without seeing the Royal Botanical Gardens, some 6km south of the town on the Colombo Road. Its origins go back to the 18th century when it was a royal residence and park. It became a formal botanical garden under a British governor in 1821 and the first tea seedlings grown in the then Ceylon were planted there in 1824, fifty years before tea became a viable commercial crop.
The gardens consist of nearly 61ha (150 acres) dedicated to the flora of Sri Lanka with an arboretum and herbarium and, especially popular with tourists, an Orchid House with an amazing collection of rare orchids. The entire area of the gardens is embraced by the Maheweli River, adding to its stunning beauty. It is open daily (08.00-18.00) to stroll around at leisure or take a buggy; an admission fee is charged.
3. Elephant Orphanage
At Pinnawela (85km from Colombo via Kegalle), easily reached on the drive to or from Kandy, this orphanage remains unique since it was set up in 1975 to provide shelter and care for young elephants that had been abandoned or orphaned. There are now over 60 elephants, some of them being founder members who act as family for the newly arrived orphans.
Hugely popular with visitors, the best time to drop in is at feeding time (09.15, 13.15 & 17.00) or for the ritual bathing (10.00-12.00; 14.00-16.00) when the elephants troop off in an eager herd down a lane opposite the park to the Maha Oya (river). An admission fee is charged.
4. Round Trip Tour
Book it in advance of your visit or arrange a tour yourself with a licensed guide and a taxi or mini-van from your hotel for what is known locally as the “round trip tour.” This takes you on a tour to destinations of your choice (or leave it to your guide to advise) on a trip around the island.
As well as visiting the three attractions listed above, the typical tour would take in the ancient ruins of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa and include “the eighth wonder of the world,” the Sigiriya Lion Rock. Once a royal citadel, this gigantic mushroom-shaped rock protrudes 183m into the sky and rewards anyone who climbs it with paintings of beauties as frescoes on the rock wall and a breathtaking view from the top. If you base yourself at Habarana you’ll be able to see elephants and wildlife at Minneriya, one of the island’s 16 National Parks.
For contrast let the tour take you southwards to the hill country around Nuwara Eliya to see the magnificent forest scenery patch-worked with vegetable plantations and hills clad with crew-cropped tea bushes. You can see gem mining too, at Ratnapura, or take the tour to the East Coast to visit Fort Frederick and the beaches north and south of Trincomalee.
5. Galle Fort
Galle Fort (116km south of Colombo) is fascinating even if you’re not interested in the country’s colonial occupation by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British, all of whom had a hand in the Fort’s construction. Its massive ramparts loom over the southern harbour town of Galle and it is remarkable as, even though it is Number 200 on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites, it is a thriving residential area… and entrance is free.
Its attraction for tourists looking beyond the history in its colonial and art deco houses (numbering 470 in all) is its boutique stores selling souvenirs for the sophisticated, and its charming little cafés. Galle Fort has been gentrified in recent years but this has rescued it from decay, preserving its buildings and ambience, adapted to pleasing the modern tourist.