Exuberant. Proud. Enduring.
Historically known as Serendib, “The Island of Serendipity,” Sri Lanka is a jewel box of sophisticated accommodations, unique cultural attractions and stunning natural experiences—luxury Asia travel at its finest. Sri Lanka has a robust and ancient culture all its own and sports a huge number of well-preserved ancient ruins dating back to the 2nd century BC, eight UNESCO World Heritage sites (a staggering number for a country the size of New Jersey) and colonial heritage from three different European civilizations (British, Dutch and Portuguese). The natural environment is an equally compelling reason to include Sri Lanka on your trip to Asia—pristine beaches, one of Asia’s most dense and diverse concentrations of wildlife and a climate that permits year-round tourism (one simply visits different areas depending on the monsoon cycle).
THE CULTURAL TRIANGLE
Hidden away in the dense jungle in the island’s heartland, the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Dambulla, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya are the crown jewels of ancient Sri Lanka. Elaborate cave paintings, shrines, citadels and statues tell tales of Sri Lanka’s rich past and will dazzle even the most worldly Asia traveler.
Sri Lanka’s contemporary political and cultural capital and gateway to the island is a bustling, chaotic wonderland of government buildings, museums, markets and portside activity. While not as picturesque as other Sri Lankan locales, it’s not hard to be entranced by the buzz and optimism found in Colombo’s colorful markets and multi-ethnic neighborhoods.
The island’s cultural cradle, it is here that many of Sri Lanka’s legends, traditions and folklore were born, and continue to flourish. No visit to Kandy is complete without a stop at this iconic dagoba said to contain a tooth of the Buddha. Join the boisterous crowd of locals as they queue to glimpse the relic with a rambunctious, chaotic quality that differentiates Sri Lankan Buddhism from the more contemplative branches of the religion.
The landscape transforms from steamy tropical jungle to deep green tea fields as you head into Sri Lanka’s hill country. Once popular with the island’s colonists as a place to escape the heat, the region still feels like a secret retreat. Lodging at a working tea plantation is a great way to soak up the local culture and a leisurely walk through the green rolling hills, strewn with waterfalls, is always a delight.
This 17th-century port city built by the Portuguese and Dutch is the finest example of a fortified city built by Europeans in South Asia, showcasing the melding of European architectural styles and South Asian traditions. Whether on one of our Small Group Tours of Asia or a Custom Journey all your own, a wander around the atmospheric, narrow lanes of the oldest part of town will transport you back hundreds of years.
Travel expert recommendations
Most travelers to Sri Lanka focus on the country’s history and culture. But equally amazing, though often overlooked, is its wildlife. Yala National Park is the island’s best known National Park, famed for its wild leopards and convenient accommodations, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Wilpattu National Park (substantially larger and less often visited than Yala) is also home to leopards, while Gal Oya National Park offers private boat safaris in search of wild elephant populations that swim between its network of islands.
A visit to Jaffna is a must for any serious student of Sri Lankan history. Still rebounding from Sri Lanka’s 30-year conflict, Jaffna’s tourism infrastructure is less developed than in the south. However, those willing to sacrifice a few creature comforts will be richly rewarded with a glimpse of colorful Hindu Tamil culture strongly tied to the neighboring Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and some of the best cuisine on the island (the crab curry is out of this world).
The pristine beaches that line Sri Lanka’s little-developed east coast are just out of the way enough to feel like an undiscovered paradise. Trincomalee, formerly the dividing line between the north and the south during 30 years of civil strife, is still hardly a mecca of luxury Asia travel. But now the sleepy town has just enough amenities to be an ATJ favorite for adding some beach and snorkeling time to any visit to Sri Lanka.
In the 1860s Sri Lanka was the world’s biggest coffee producer. It was only after a deadly disease struck the coffee plantations that the British colonists converted them to grow tea.
Sri Lanka is the only country in the world where you can see the world’s largest land mammal, the elephant, and the largest marine mammal, the blue whale, in a single day.
Sri Lanka produces 80-90% percent of the world’s supply of cinnamon.
Sri Lanka was the first country in the world to democratically elect a female head of state. Sirimavo Bandaranaike first served as Prime Minister from 1960-1965, and then again from 1970–1977 and 1994–2000.
Cuisine & Recipe
Nothing elevates a good meal like a great story to go along with it. This recipe below is the favorite of ATJ Travel Specialist Jen Boyd from the book Hidden Kitchens of Sri Lanka by Bree Hutchins. She first came across the book on her coffee table during a stay at Ceylon Tea Trails in the Sri Lankan hill country. She fell in love with the compilation of incredible family recipes, beautiful photos and stories of the author’s travels through the diverse home kitchens of Sri Lanka. However, when she inquired at the hotel, she found out that the book was no longer in production. But, with a little help from her friends (our trusty partners in Sri Lanka), Jen was able to track down a copy of the book to bring home with her to Colorado and keep her curry-making skills honed. Thus, the dish below, adapted from one of Jen’s favorite recipes from the book, tastes of not only vibrant spices but also of true Sri Lankan hospitality at its finest.
Brinjal Moju (serves 4 as a side dish)
6 long, thin eggplants (sometimes called Japanese eggplants)
1 ½ tsp. ground turmeric
2 sprigs fresh curry leaves (available at Indian groceries)
2 cups coconut oil
6 small shallots, thinly sliced
3 thin green chilies, quartered
1 tsp. black mustard seeds
1 clove of garlic
1 tsp. chili powder
2 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. coconut vinegar (or rice vinegar)
⅓ cup coconut cream
Slice the eggplants in quarters lengthwise. Place the eggplant in a bowl with 1 tsp. turmeric and 1 tsp. salt and toss well. Roughly chop the curry leaves and add to the bowl, toss and set aside.
Heat the coconut oil in a small wok or deep frying pan until it reaches 315℉. As the oil is heating, mix the sliced shallots with a pinch of salt.
When the oil is hot, fry the shallots until deep golden brown (about 3 minutes). Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
Fry the chilis until golden brown (1-2 minutes), remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
Fry the eggplant and curry leaves in two batches until golden brown (3-4 minutes). Remove each batch with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
In a mortar and pestle, roughly grind the mustard seeds. Add the garlic clove and continue grinding until a paste is formed. Mix in the chili powder, ½ tsp. turmeric, ½ tsp. salt and sugar.
In a heavy saucepan, combine the fried eggplant, chilis and shallots with the spice mixture, vinegar and coconut cream. Cover and cook on low heat until the sauce is thick (about 5 minutes).
For dinner, serve with a hearty curry and rice. Or, for lighter meal, just accompany with rice.
Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka
No one sees the world quite like John Gimlette. In Elephant Complex, he ventures into Sri Lanka, a country only now emerging from twenty-six years of civil war. Beginning in the exuberant capital, Colombo, Gimlette ventures out in all directions: to the dry zones where the island’s 5,800 wild elephants congregate around ancient reservoirs; through cinnamon country with its Portuguese forts; to the “Bible Belt” of Buddhism; then up into Kandy, the country’s eccentric, aristocratic Shangri-la. In the course of his journey, Gimlette meets farmers, war heroes, cricketers, terrorists, a former president, survivors of great massacres—and perhaps some of their perpetrators. That’s to say nothing of the island’s beguiling fauna: elephants, crocodiles, snakes, storks, and the greatest concentration of leopards on Earth. Here is a land of beauty and devastation, a place at once heavenly and hellish—all brought to vibrant, fascinating life on the page. John Gimlette is a regular contributor to The Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, and Condé Nast Traveller. When not traveling, he practices law in London.