Last Updated on February 1, 2020 by Natasha Amar
If you’ve traveled around Asia and spent any time in Sri Lanka, you’re likely to have noticed that this beautiful island nation in the Indian Ocean is incredibly easy to travel in compared to its more intense neighbors. After two visits, I know I’d happily go back because there’s just so much to see and do in Sri Lanka, the nature in Sri Lanka is fantastic, the people are friendly, the tourism infrastructure is top-notch, and it’s quite affordable to travel in. Oh, and did I mention the food? The husband wants to return to Sri Lanka just so he can eat his way around the country. And I truly believe that I could eat kothu roti everyday and not tire of it.
While on my first visit, I explored cultural Sri Lanka and the cool Hill Country, hiked World’s End, saw the iconic Sigiriya Rock and took the famous train to Ella, my second trip with Cinnamon Hotels, the biggest hotel chain in Sri Lanka (with excellent resorts around the country), saw me traverse southern Sri Lanka to explore places that I either had not seen before or had seen very briefly.
Our south Sri Lanka itinerary was the perfect mix of nature, adventure, relaxation, beaches, spas and wellness, culture, and markets, and packed with one-of-a-kind experiences of a lifetime such as whale watching in Mirissa and a wildlife safari at Yala National Park. Whether it’s your first, second, or fifth time in Sri Lanka, this south Sri Lanka itinerary will not disappoint. Here’s are cool places to visit in south Sri Lanka and things to do and see.
9 Incredible Things To Do in South Sri Lanka
Visit the Local Fishmarket and Harbour in Beruwala
Located around 60kms south of Colombo, Beruwala should be your first stop if you’ve just arrived in Sri Lanka and want to skip city life in Colombo and head straight for the country’s famously dramatic coastline. In the eighth century, Sri Lanka’s first recorded Muslim community is believed to have been established in Beruwala and it continues to be home to a Muslim population and Kachimalai Mosque, Sri Lanka’s oldest mosque.
While Beruwala is no stranger to resorts, beautiful beaches and activities such as watersports and diving, perhaps what I loved most about the coastal town of Beruwala was exploring roadside fish markets and walking around the fishing harbor. Here, fishermen were at work, selling fish and preparing their boats for the early hours of work next morning, and locals carefully inspecting the catch of the day. Across the harbor, a lighthouse stood on an island, reachable by a ten-minute boat ride, as I learnt from one of the fishermen who spoke fluent Hindi, after having worked in the Gulf countries for many years.
Beruwala’s fish market was a riot of colors- bright blue and yellow boats, silvery skins and bloodied fish under the warm glow of bulbs, of enthusiastic banter and persistent negotiation all with the constant sound of waves crashing in, and of the smell of fish and briny air. More than one friendly fisherman motioned to my camera and asked me to take photos of them and their friends.
We went back home to Cinnamon Bey Beruwala with fresh fish for our gastronomic experience that evening, but more importantly with big smiles, courtesy of the hospitable and chatty locals.
Relax & Rejuvenate at Siddhalepa Ayurveda Resort
While you’re likely to associate the ancient medicinal science of Ayurveda with India where it originated, what you might not know is that Sri Lanka too has an illustrious Ayurveda heritage of its own. In fact, the term Ayurveda translates to ‘the science of life’ and this discipline focuses on holistic wellbeing of the mind and body and the prevention and cure of diseases.
If you’re looking to detox, rejuvenate and relax, then head to the tranquil Siddhalepa Ayurveda Health Resort in Wadduwa, set amid lush, tropical gardens and with its own stretch of beach. Here you can visit or stay for a couple of days (or weeks like many guests do) and experience ayurvedic treatment programs as well as massages and wellness therapies, after a detailed consultation administered by trained therapists and physicists.
Accommodation options include luxurious suites and bungalows, and there’s also a swimming pool onsite. The resort also arranges activities such as yoga, cooking classes, excursions and cultural visits. You can also buy Siddhalepa products such as balms, ointments and teas. I had one of my most memorable meals at the resort’s beachfront restaurant, and that’s hardly surprising given that the resort’s balanced Ayurveda cuisine is award-winning. You can be sure that you’ll definitely enjoy the food if you choose to stay here, but even if not, I recommend dining here during your visit.
Visiting Sri Lanka? Apply online for your Sri Lanka e-visa.
Take a Tour of the Madu Ganga River
The Madu Ganga River is the largest river in Sri Lanka. As the second largest wetland in the country, this estuary ecosystem is home to 25 big and small islands (once totaling 64) and diverse species of animals, bird and marine life. The mangroves of Madu Ganga are believed to have protected the area from widespread destruction during the tsunami of 2004.
You can tour the mangroves and visit a few islands on a river safari around Madu Ganga. The ride takes you past quiet village homes where people are engaged in fishing and agriculture, shops that sell coconuts and bananas rise on stilts above the river alongside prawn and fish farms, and fishermen cast their nets from wooden boats. In the unique ecosystem of the mangroves, you’ll spot different bird species such as egrets and cormorants, monkeys as well as big water monitor lizards.
During our visit, we stepped off at one of the islands where cinnamon is made by a local family. A local woman demonstrated exactly how cinnamon, an important spice in Sri Lankan that isn’t only used in cooking but is also exported, is made. She also showed us how they wove palm fronds together in beautiful patterns to make the roofs of huts. If you plan on buying any cinnamon as a souvenir, it’s a good idea to do so here as it’s probably the freshest you’ll find and available at a good price.
Learn About Mask Making at the Ambalangoda Mask Museum
Sri Lanka’s devil dances are perhaps one of the most interesting and visually captivating cultural traditions in the country. Dancers wear brightly colored masks with exaggerated expressions while performing these dances that are performed at community celebrations and festivals and are based on folklore.
Highly skilled artists spend months expertly crafting these wooden masks by hand. If you want to see this art in action, then stop by at the Ambalangoda Mask Museum. The museum belongs to the Wijesuriya family where the tradition of mask making has been handed down through the generations and still continues.
Tourists can visit the workshop where craftsmen carve the masks in wood and paint them (following directions from scriptures) using naturally sourced and treated colors. A museum upstairs informs visitors about the different stories, traditional mask designs, and tools as well as the family’s heritage of mask making through the years. The interior is covered in mask displays that are sure to make you smile, stare in wonder or give you nightmares. The museum shop is an excellent place to buy intricate and high-quality masks at a fair price.
These masks also make for excellent souvenirs and gifts, with each one having a special significance. If you can’t make it to Ambalangoda or want to buy some in Colombo, check out Lakarcade where I bought mine at a great price.
Enjoy the Beach Life at Hikkaduwa
If you’ve come to Sri Lanka for the beach life (and you totally should!), then head to the coastal town of Hikkaduwa. By the way, Sri Lanka’s south coast is very popular with beach lovers and Hikkaduwa gets the attention of surfers and backpackers. Here’s a guide to surfing in Sri Lanka.
You can also go snorkeling and diving in Hikkaduwa. Visit the Hikkaduwa Turtle Hatchery to see baby turtles being hatched in captivity before they’re released in the wild.
Hikkaduwa suffered under the effect of the tsunami of 2004 with entire villages being wiped out. The Tsunami Museum housed in an old building tells the grim stories of the impact with documented first-person accounts. Here are some more things to do in Hikkaduwa.
Also spending time in the city? Here’s how to spend one day in Colombo.
Wander in the Colonial Town of Galle
Just a half hour’s drive from Hikkaduwa, the colonial town and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Galle, built by the Portuguese and later expanded by the Dutch in the 18th century oozes charm and deserves at least one leisurely day of wandering around. This was my second time in Galle and I think it absolutely must be on your list of places to visit in Sri Lanka.
Begin at the Galle Fort that overlooks the cricket ground and make your way on cobbled streets into the fortified town. You’ll find that there is an unexplainable appeal to its crumbling facades, maze-like alleys, old homes and stately churches.
Wander around the town’s cute boutiques, galleries, cafés and restaurants housed in hidden courtyard gardens. Then, make your way towards the ocean, passing by Meeran Mosque and stroll towards the iconic Galle Lighthouse where you’ll find panoramic views of massive waves from the Indian Ocean crashing onto the coast.
Go Whale-Watching in Mirissa
The opportunity to see the world’s largest mammals (the elephant and the blue whale) is one of the biggest tourism draws in Sri Lanka. I’d never been whale-watching before so when we I had the chance to do so on our south Sri Lanka itinerary, I didn’t know what to expect.
As it turns out, the beach town of Mirissa is wildly popular for whale-watching tours. Most tours leave early in the morning and can last for several hours depending on your luck. Whale sightings are never guaranteed and it’s all about patience. While our boat wasn’t crowded (thanks to being arranged by Cinnamon Hotels), I did see a few other boats that were so crowded, I wouldn’t want to be on them.
Boat crews generally communicate with each other and if there’s a whale sighting, news spreads like wildfire. Then it’s about five to six (or maybe more) boats chasing the whale that makes an appearance every few seconds for about a minute. While it can take hours to spot a whale (it took us over three hours to spot the elusive blue whale), once it happens, it all goes quite quickly.
That said, it felt like an accomplishment to finally spot the squirt of water through the whale’s blowhole (the first sign of appearance) and the quick flip of its tail, even through my tired eyes. If you decide to go whale-watching in Mirissa, be prepared to have a long day, keep your spirits up, and bring plenty of snacks and water (and sea sickness pills).
Relax on the Beaches of Tangalle
We stopped at Tangalle for a leisurely lunch at Anantara Peace Haven and the perfectly palm-fringed beach here truly felt like paradise. Tangalle also seems to be much quieter than other beach towns such as Hikkaduwa and Mirissa, and therefore ideal if you want some downtimes in a wildly beautiful beach paradise.
Experience a Safari at Cinnamon Wild Yala
A safari should be on every Sri Lanka itinerary and Yala National Park in south Sri Lanka, popular for higher chances of leopard sightings, is an excellent choice. My first Asian safari experience was particularly memorable thanks to my stay at Cinnamon Wild Yala.
Cinnamon Wild Yala is a rustic but luxurious safari lodge bordering the national park where wildlife roams freely especially at night. It would be an understatement to say that it was thrilling to sleep in my private villa, with elephants, leopards, peacocks, monkeys and buffaloes roaming around outside.
Other than a nature walk where we spotted fresh leopard paw prints and walked to watch the wild coastline at Yala Beach, we got to experience a day long safari at Yala National Park and the neighboring Lunugumvehera National Park. That was a real highlight of my trip and you can watch the video below.
Where To Stay in South Sri Lanka
Cinnamon Bey Beruwala
Cinnamon Bey Beruwala is a luxurious beachfront resort that offers top-notch accommodation overlooking the sea and the property’s lush gardens. The resort offers no less than eight dining and bar options. Experience a unique gastronomic offering at Rock Salt where you can cook your food at the table on hot lava rock and afterwards, unwind with cocktails at Grain Bar and Lounge.
Cinnamon Hikka Tranz
Cinnamon Hikka Tranz offers the ideal beachfront location to set up base to enjoy the beaches of Hikkaduwa and the town’s famous nightlife for a couple of days. Brightly furnished rooms offer fantastic views of the ocean and a quirky mural at the entrance welcomes guests. Other than a spa and pool, there are six dining options and the resort’s buffet restaurant Tranzfusion offers a wide choice of cuisines (and a particularly good shawarma).
Cinnamon Wild Yala
Fulfill your safari fantasies with an overnight stay at Cinnamon Wild Yala, bordering Yala National Park. Luxurious and comfortable safari style villas stand around the resort grounds and other than three dining options, guests can also choose to experience destination dining in the wild. The resort also offers fantastic experiences such as nature walks and safari and bird watching tours.
I visited south Sri Lanka as a guest of Cinnamon Hotels & Resorts and Sri Lankan Airlines. All opinions, as always, are honest and independent.