Out of the vast array of popular Asian backpacker destinations, historically, we’d rarely hear of Sri Lanka in the mix. Yet, this picturesque island’s secrets are beginning to be discovered and as a result, it is fast becoming a new favourite hot spot amongst travellers around the world.
In comparison to many other backpacker destinations, Sri Lanka is largely untouched by tourism, retaining the perfect elements to achieve a truly authentic and culture rich travel experience.
Once you’ve visited Sri Lanka, you’ll instantly understand this attraction and charm. Not only does the country boast a wealth of scenic landscapes, breath-taking temples, diverse wildlife and idyllic beaches; it is also an extremely affordable place to visit on a budget. Moreover, uncovering Sri Lanka is easy, thanks to the well-connected – albeit slightly overcrowded – public transport networks.
With all this, plus relatively low crime rates, peaceful and friendly locals, widely spoken English and year round tropical weather – it’s a wonder how this gem has remained so understated for so long.
To ensure you make the most of your first trip to Sri Lanka and uncover only the very best on offer in this magical country, here are some of the must see locations for backpackers in Sri Lanka.
A picturesque town located in the mountains, Ella can be accessed by train or bus from Colombo. With inexpensive hostels and hilltop guesthouses, it’s become a popular choice for backpackers. If you love nothing more than a relaxing hike in stunning surroundings, this is the place to be. A trek into the nearby wilderness will take you through lush green tea plantations, magical waterfalls and an abundance of flora and fauna.
Located in southern Sri Lanka, Unawatuna town is renowned for its stunning palm-fringed beaches which give way to crystal clear coral reefs. There are a wealth of beach-side hostels to choose from and plenty of restaurants along the seafront, to enjoy the local cuisine. The town is relaxed and the beaches serene, making this a popular spot for backpackers.
For those of you seeking to immerse yourself in Sri Lankan culture, the large town of Dambulla is the place for you. Located in the central region, Dambulla is home to one of the largest and best-preserved cave temples in the country – also known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla. A further 80 other caves can be found in the surrounding areas, these were once inhabited by prehistoric Sri Lankans. Many over the caves boast grand statues and elaborate murals of Buddha, gods, goddesses and kings. Dambulla is easily accessed by train from Colombo.
Located near Dambulla, Sigiriya is a must see for anyone who appreciates raw, awe-inspiring natural beauty. Also known as Lion’s rock – due to the enormous pair of lion’s paws carved in the rock – this striking rock column features vertical walls soaring some 200 metres above the surrounding landscape. After navigating the steep and rather hair-raising staircases, you’ll reach the flat-topped summit. Here you’ll glimpse ancient ruins of King Kasyapa’s palace and jaw-dropping panoramic views.
If you thought Sri Lanka was all peace and quiet, then Hikkaduwa will be a pleasant surprise! This little beach-side town, on the south coast of the island, is one of the liveliest places you’ll find in Sri Lanka – attracting party seeking backpackers from far and wide. In the day time, you can enjoy the pristine beaches and a snorkel or surf in the warm waters – in fact it’s the second best surfing spot on the island. As night falls, enjoy the beach bars, restaurants and dancing opportunities.
If you’re a backpacker who appreciates the wonders of the ocean and its alluring inhabitants, then you must make time for a quick visit to Mirissa, the largest fishing port on the southern coast of the island. This is the best spot in the whole of Sri Lanka to watch wales and dolphins. But not just any whales – only the biggest whale on the planet, the Blue whale! The waters surrounding Mirissa are rich in plankton which is the Blue whales favourite food. However, be sure to visit in whale watching season which is between November and May, at other times the monsoons make the water to rough for boat trips.
Located in the central highlands, Kandy is a favoured spot for backpackers. The city is best known for the Temple of the Tooth – which houses the relic of the tooth of the Buddha. Kandy is a World Heritage Site and well worth the trip to uncover some of Sri Lanka’s ancient Buddhist cultural heritage. There are also many other attractions in the surrounding areas – tea plantations, forests trails, temples, botanical garden and coffee shops.
This towering mountain ascends to around 2,250 metres and is located in central Sri Lanka. The mountain is accessible via 6 trails, although the Nallathanni and Palabaddala routes are the most popular amongst them. At the summit is a rock formation known as Sri Pada meaning “sacred footprint” – thought to be the footprint of Buddha.
Yala National Park
For the animal loving backpackers, you can’t miss Sri Lanka’s most famous national park. Yala’s vast landscape of forest, grassland and lagoons is home to elephants, leopards, buffaloes, monkeys, crocodiles and many tropical bird species. To get the most from what the park has to offer, you can book a guided jeep safari.