11 of the Most Instagrammable Places in Sri Lanka

Apr 14, 2018

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With deserted tropical beaches, exotic beasts roaming its primordial jungles, ruins of ancient civilizations dating back more than 2,000 years, and a vibrant mix of religions and cultures, Sri Lanka has become one of the world’s most intriguing destinations. It is that much more compelling when you consider the country suffered through decades-long civil war and the massive destruction and loss of life from the 2004 tsunami. However, Sri Lanka’s resilience, dynamism and sheer beauty, not to mention the warmth of its people, all guarantee that this alluring island nation will be on must-hit lists for jet-setters and budget travelers alike for many years to come.

With great airfare deals to and from the capital of Colombo, you might find yourself there sooner than you think. This list will help you decide what destinations to explore and share on your Instagram feed.

1. Adam’s Peak

The significance of this dramatic, conical peak towering 7,000 feet over the southern hill country depends on who you are and what you believe. A rock formation with a shrine near the summit is a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists, who call it Sri Pada, or the “sacred footprint” of the Buddha. Hindus believe Shiva walked here, while it was Adam according to Christian and Islamic tradition. One thing everyone can agree on, though, is just how breathtaking the views from the six main trails leading from the town of Hatton to the peak itself are. If you come between the full moons of December and April, you will likely find yourself hiking with groups of pilgrims, many of whom make the ascent at night to witness sunrise on the eastern face.

2. Kandy

Sri Lanka’s second-largest city is the former royal capital of Kandy, which served as the seat of the Sinhalese monarchy from the 16th century to 1815, when the British conquered them. The old city is anchored by picturesque man-made Bogambara Lake, which is fringed by a frilly, lace-like white wall. Buddhist pilgrims from all over the world come to worship at the sacred Temple of the Tooth in the former palace complex. Though the exterior is fairly plain, the richly decorated interior houses a relic said to contain one of the Buddha’s teeth. The city also hosts the Buddhist full-moon festival of Esala Poya in July, when artists and performers from across the country come to take part in parades featuring fire dancers, costumed elephants and virtuosic musical performances.

3. Yala National Park

Yala National Park along Sri Lanka’s southeastern coast is the country’s second-largest but most-visited national park thanks to its leopard population, not to mention sloth bears, elephants and even rare pangolins. In short, there are some phenomenal wildlife photography opportunities as well as stunning landscapes, such as rugged Elephant Rock. The area is also home to some of Sri Lanka’s most luxurious lodges, including Chena Huts and Wild Coast Tented Lodge. Yala is getting more crowded by the day, so if you’re looking for a more secluded safari experience, you might consider a visit to Gal Oya or Wilpattu National Park instead.

4. Sigiriya

Sigiriya, or the Lion Rock, is one of Sri Lanka’s most unmistakable landmarks. Originally constructed in the fifth century by King Kasyapa, the former fortress and pleasure palace is a marvel of ancient engineering perched atop a 180-meter-high granite rock with sheer drops on nearly all sides. After Kasyapa’s death, the site served as a Buddhist monastery for nearly a millennium before being abandoned. Today, tourists can wander the former gardens and through the Lion’s Gate, of which only the enormous clawed feet remain. The vertiginous climb to the top along the western face passes through galleries with colorful frescoes said to depict Kasyapa’s concubines as scantily clad (or in some cases not clad at all) celestial dancers. At the summit, visitors can tour the former palace buildings and enjoy uninterrupted views over the surrounding countryside.

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5. Dambulla

Dambulla is home to a large complex of cave temples holding a huge collection of more than 157 statues, paintings and murals telling the story of the Buddha’s life. The five sanctuaries here have drawn monks and pilgrims for more than 2,000 years to their otherworldly depths. The first Cave of the Divine King contains a 14-meter reclining Buddha statue while the second Cave of Great Kings is the largest and has some spectacular rock paintings.

6. Your Plate

Like the many cultures that inhabit Sri Lanka, the country’s cuisine is a vibrant, colorful mix of flavors and ingredients that draw from Southeast Asia, India and the Middle East. Throughout its history, the island was prized for the bounty of spices that grow here, including vanilla, cinnamon and pepper. Sri Lanka was a major destination on ancient ocean trade routes, contributing to the diversity of both its people and its cuisine. A typical Sri Lankan dish, such as a savory fish curry, might contain upwards of 30 ingredients including coconut milk, tomato, cumin, curry leaf, pandan leaf, black pepper, sea salt, turmeric, clove, cinnamon, fenugreek, cardamom, chili powder and garlic. You are likely to find other pops of color from lotus root, red beets, yellow dhal and bright green bitter gourds on the table at any given meal as well. So don’t forget to take your camera along with you to breakfast, lunch or dinner as you find foodspiration right on your own plate.

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7. The Southern Beaches

Sri Lanka is quickly becoming a premier surf destination thanks to the variety of breaks for everyone from beginners to experts along its rugged southern and eastern coasts. There are sure to be fabulous frames of surfers shooting the curl at many of them. However, the image everyone wants to capture while in Sri Lanka is of the iconic stilt fisherman sitting just offshore, patiently waiting for the catch of the day. You are likely to see these solitary silhouettes along the southern coast at beaches from Koggala and Weligama to Mirissa, where you can also take cruises out to see dolphins and migrating humpback and blue whales from November-April and July-September.

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8. Nuwara Eliya and the Tea Plantations

Tea has been at the heart of the island’s economy for centuries — this was where Sir Thomas Lipton built his empire. It continues to be one of Sri Lanka’s major exports, with plantations carpeting a large portion of the interior, and visitors can hike among the terraced hillsides where the coveted leaves are grown, visiting century-old tea factories like Storefield to learn about the tea-making process and strolling the manicured mountain town of Nuawa Eliya, which is known as “Little England” thanks to its collection of colonial buildings.

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9. Anuradhapura

The ruins of Anuradhapura sprawl across 16 square miles and date back more than 2,000 years. They encompass ancient cities, palaces and monastic complexes, where you could easily spend days wandering among both towering monuments and the excavated remains of humble homes. To be honest, there are several Instagram-worthy spots in one awe-inspiring location. Built in the third century, the massive Jetavana stupa (or dagoba as it’s known here) towers 400 feet high. It was one of the tallest buildings of the ancient world, rivaling the pyramids at Giza. The so-called Elephant Pond is a huge cistern that is more than 500 feet long, 170 feet wide and 30 feet deep and provides water for the monasteries of Abhayagiri. The Sri Maha Bodhi Temple, meanwhile, has a massive Bodhi tree said to have been grafted from a cut of the one under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment.

10. The Train Tracks

Sri Lanka’s train system is a ramshackle remnant of the colonial period with tracks that weave their way through some of the country’s most postcard-worthy scenery. Daytrippers should take the two-hour journey from Colombo to Kandy, whose curves around scenic bends are worthy of coffee-table books. For those with more time, the must-shoot spot is the nine-arched Demodara Bridge near the tea station town of Ella in the central highlands, from which you can also journey by tuk tuk or hiking to the bridge. The graceful, curved structure was built in the early 20th century by the British and is 80 feet- high and nearly 300 feet long. For something new, the Queen of Jaffna train has begun operating again between Colombo and Jaffna in the north, which was once the territory of the Tamil resistance.

11. Galle Fort

The coastal city of Galle, a two-hour drive south of Colombo along a modern highway, is a layered palimpsest of history and cultures. Founded by Portuguese explorers in the 16th century, it first fell into the hands of the Dutch, then the English in subsequent centuries. That history is evident in the 400-year-old buildings that house the luxury Amangalla hotel, which once served as the Dutch colonial headquarters before becoming barracks for British soldiers and was then converted into the landmark New Oriental Hotel in 1865.

Today, the cobbled streets of the old Galle Fort are a warren of unique hotels, colonial churches, art galleries, boutiques selling handicrafts and antiques, and restaurants serving traditional Sri Lankan dishes. A walk along the massive ramparts presents myriad photo-snapping opportunities of everything from families frolicking in the waves to a towering lighthouse to colorful mosques. You might even be lucky enough to catch a cricket match taking place in the grassy Galle International Stadium, which must be one of the prettiest cricket grounds in the world.

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Feature photo of Sigiria Rock by Oktay Ortakcioglu / Getty Images

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