Sri Lanka has become Asia’s it-destination of late, but with its embarrassment of cultural riches and diverse landscapes, where exactly should you begin your explorations? There really is something for everyone in this most charming of countries – and the following fabulous destinations are proof of exactly that.
Historic Galle is one of the jewels in Sri Lanka’s crown. Founded in the 16th century by the Portuguese, large sections of the city walls, known as Galle Fort, remain intact to this day. The charming, car-free streets are packed with well-preserved colonial buildings that reflect Galle’s Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial roots, with quaint museums, churches and mosques seemingly at every turn. A city where everything runs at a more relaxed pace, Galle has laidback charm aplenty.
Equally charming is The Owl And The Pussycat Hotel, inspired by Edward Lear’s famous poem. With just 17 plush-yet-unpretentious rooms, you could be mistaken for feeling like you’re at a particularly well-to-do friend’s private pad – if it wasn’t for the top-notch service, of course. Offering airy rooms and suites that overlook the sea, the contemporary décor includes bright pops of colour and quirky touches such as hanging chairs on the breezy private terraces. The ocean-edge pool is perfect for unwinding after a hard day of exploring Galle on foot, while the “beach shack” bar is the ideal location to sip a perfectly mixed sundowner or two.
High in central Sri Lanka’s hill country, you’ll find the lush city of Kandy. Ringed by dense rainforest and rolling tea plantations, Kandy is a relaxed and culturally rich destination, with highlights including the city-centre Bogambara Lake, and the famous Sri Dalada Maligawa, or Temple of the Tooth, said to contain a tooth of the Lord Buddha himself.
Dating back to 1804, The Kandy House has a fascinating history. Built by the last Chief Minister of the Kandyan Kingdom, the manor house was decried as an example of “defiant decadence” due to its use of roof tiles – at that time an extravagance reserved exclusively for the royal family. These days it boasts luxury of a different nature, with nine beautifully restored bedrooms, a truly spectacular infinity pool that overlooks the surrounding paddy fields, and an on-site Ayurvedic masseur, whose massages will result in the best night’s sleep of your life.
Culture vultures look no further; the whole city of Anuradhapura is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with ruins of magnificent palaces, ancient temples and breath-taking monuments ready and waiting for you to explore. Said to have been built around a cutting from Buddha’s “tree of enlightenment”, Anuradhapura boasts architectural and archaeological wonders pretty much everywhere you look – including the Royal Pleasure Gardens, Isurumuniya Vihara rock temple and dozens of iconic brick dagobas.
After all that sightseeing, put your feet up in style at Ulagalla Resort. This heavenly hideaway is set amidst 58 acres of greenery, with serene lily ponds, sparkling reservoirs and even some resident peacocks all contributing to its divine charms. Calling Ulagalla’s pool villas spacious doesn’t quite do them justice – these really are mini palaces to call your own, each with a private terrace, plunge pool or Jacuzzi and drop-dead spectacular views – and the resort’s amazing open-air spa sanctuary is definitely the icing on the cake.
A water sports hotspot, Weligama is blessed with excellent surf, picture-postcard beaches and pristine waters, making it an ideal stay for those who can’t resist a little sand between their toes. But there’s more to Weligama than its beaches – the Kushtaraja Gala is a large and well-preserved sculpture, believed to date back to around the 8th century. The statue is believed to depict either a king or a Bodhisattva, and is an important pilgrimage site for many Mahayanist Buddhist believers.
Equally tribute-worthy is Cape Weligama, a luxurious resort that occupies 12 acres of clifftop land, rising dramatically some 40 metres above the Indian Ocean. Designed by renowned Thai architect Lek Bunnag, the resort offers the largest luxury villas in Sri Lanka, with all 39 private retreats featuring their own steam room, walk-in-wardrobe and sweeping sea views from the spacious terraces. The larger properties also boast their own private infinity pool, bar and extensive sundeck… which begs the question, why would anyone ever leave?
High-altitude Ella is the best base from which to explore Sri Lanka’s famous tea plantations. Offering a cooler climate than the coastal regions, and with awe-inspiring views, Ella offers plenty to delight active travellers. Experience an unforgettable sunrise from atop Ella Rock, or scale Little Adam’s Peak to truly appreciate the scale and grandeur of Sri Lanka’s mountainous centre.
Unwind after your exertions at 98 Acres Resort & Spa. As the name suggests, this boutique property is nestled deep within extensive tea plantations, offering total seclusion and tranquillity. Accommodation comes in the form of individual chalets, where contemporary touches – such as polished concrete floors – sit side-by-side with furnishings made from recycled railway sleepers and traditional stone showers. Watch swooping performances by the estate’s native bird population every morning from the comfort of your private balcony – with a freshly brewed pot of tea, of course.
If you’re looking for beach bliss, Tangalle is the place for you; located on Sri Lanka’s south-eastern coast, shimmering golden sands, warm inviting seas and swaying palm trees are the order of the day here. Nevertheless, a trip to the nearby Mulkirigala Rock Temple – an imposing 205 metre-high rock that houses a series of ancient Buddhist cave temples – is worth tearing yourself away from those sun-soaked shores for.
Boasting luxurious beach vibes galore, Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle is set in its own bay, nestled amidst a lush coconut plantation. Whether you opt for a room or private villa, you’re guaranteed space to spare, with balconies that deliver glorious views over the Indian Ocean. Travelling with the whole brood? Drop the kids off at the excellent children’s club before enjoying a sundowner to remember at clifftop restaurant Il Mare or indulging in some authentic Sri Lankan spa pampering. For a truly memorable experience, visit between April to September, when the local turtle population at neighbouring Rekawa Beach wander ashore to lay their eggs.
You’ll probably have seen pictures of Dambulla without realising – its spectacular cave temple is nothing short of iconic, with the UNESCO World Heritage badge to prove it. Towering 160 metres above its surrounding plains, it’s one of the largest and best-preserved complexes of its kind, featuring five magical cave sanctuaries filled with intricately-detailed Buddhist murals and statues – many dating back to the 1st century BC.
Whilst many guidebooks claim that the temple is the only part of Dambulla worth exploring, a stay at the majestic Kalundewa Retreat will soon convince you otherwise. Spread over 100 acres of rolling greenery, this enchanting escape is all about going back to your roots; the retreat’s rooms offer the ultimate in eco-luxe seclusion and serenity, with lush paddy-field panoramas and a soundtrack of birds chirping in the trees. The tree-lined outdoor pool is also seriously wow-worthy, whilst most of the restaurant’s produce is grown at the retreat’s vegetable and herb garden.