Sri Lanka, Haputale, tea plantation

Sri Lanka, Asia's Emerging Travel Hotspot

Natural beauty and fascinating history are pushing the island nation into the spotlight.

It wasn’t long ago that the idea of Sri Lanka as a popular tourist destination would have seemed unlikely. The country’s bloody, 25-year-long civil war only ended in 2009. But since then, travelers have started flocking to its laid-back beaches and tropical jungles. And Sri Lanka has more to offer than pristine nature. The tiny island nation claims eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, from sacred Buddhist temples to decaying colonial fortresses. Here, the top spots to visit before the crowds do.

COSMOPOLITAN COLOMBO Alex Saberi COSMOPOLITAN COLOMBO Thanks to its fast-transforming skyline and the trendy cafes that have sprung up since the checkpoints came down in 2009, Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital, is no longer a place travelers skip on their way to the beaches. Tuk tuk, the popular three-wheeler vehicle, is still the best way to explore the charming city.

Seema Malaka Temple, South Beira Lake, Colombo
Lunch in restaurant in Sri Lanka
Peter Stuckings helovi SACRED ANURADHAPURA Peter Stuckings SACRED ANURADHAPURA Anuradhapura, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is famous for its well-preserved ruins of Sri Lankan civilization. It was the capital for the Anuradhapura Kingdom ruled by the Sinhalese, who also introduced Buddhism to the country around 300 B.C. SUN-KISSED BEACHES John Alexander SUN-KISSED BEACHES With 800 miles of tropical coastline, the country offers some of the most beautiful beaches where golden sands, mouth-watering seafood, and spectacular views are guaranteed. Travelers can find more developed resorts on the west and south coast, while the east coast features mostly quiet towns with unspoiled beaches.

Places To Visit - Sri Lanka
Galle coast view from Dutch fort
EyesWideOpen/Getty Images Dhammika Heenpella / Images of Sri Lanka LUSH CENTRAL HIGHLANDS chain45154 LUSH CENTRAL HIGHLANDS Sri Lanka's mountainous highlands are a world away from its blistering coasts, and the best way to explore the scenic region filled with tea gardens is by rail. COLONIAL GALLE John Crux Photography COLONIAL GALLE From the Galle Fort to the Dutch Reformed Church, the historic city of Galle offers visitors a glimpse into Sri Lanka's colonial past and its strategic position in the South Asian spice trade. Situated on the island's southwestern tip, the city became prominent after the Portuguese established it as a major trading port in the 16th century. It was later fortified extensively by the Dutch, who controlled it from 1640 to 1796. STILT FISHING IN MATARA Matt Porteous STILT FISHING IN MATARA Stilt fishing is a traditional (and photo-friendly) fishing method that's still practiced today. Skilled fishermen perch on a vertical pole tied with a crossbar, which allows them to dangle fishing rods into the water below and observe them without causing a disturbance. The best place to see genuine fishermen (as opposed to those posing for tips from tourists) is Matara, a small city on Sri Lanka’s southern coast. WHALE WATCHING IN MIRISSA pilesasmiles WHALE WATCHING IN MIRISSA The coast of Mirissa, just 20 miles southeast of Galle, offers one of the best locations for whale watching in Sri Lanka, if not the entire world. Travelers have the best chance at sighting a blue whale, the largest animal known to have existed, in December and January. THE HOLY CITY OF KANDY Matthew Williams-Ellis / robertharding THE HOLY CITY OF KANDY Situated in the hills of central Sri Lanka, the ancient city of Kandy is home to the Temple of the Tooth Relic, where a tooth of the Buddha is housed.
Dunsinane waterfall in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka, Gal Oya National Park, Grey heron (Ardea cinerea) flying over Senanayake Samudraya Lake
SamanWeeratunga Christian Goupi ELEPHANT GATHERING IN MINNERIYA NATIONAL PARK Jochen Schlenker / robertharding ELEPHANT GATHERING IN MINNERIYA NATIONAL PARK Sri Lanka is home to some 7,000 wild Asian elephants. During dry season in Minneriya National Park, visitors come in truck loads to witness the spectacle of the elephants migrating to a reservoir in the park, where the large mammals feed and bathe.

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