1. Sigiriya and Lion’s Rock
A few hours bus or taxi ride from the capital to the east is the ancient cultural heritage site of Sigiriya. The road to the top is an easy hike—200 meters of rock that once served as a king’s palace and continues to house ancient cave paintings, juts up to the sky.
2. The ancient kingdom of Polonnaruwa
From Sigiriya, take the road past Minerya National Park, where you may pass an elephant on the road along the way. You may see more on the road than you do in the park, so head straight to Polonnaruwa—ruins of the Chola Dynasty from the 10th century. Rent a bike for $2 across the street from the site’s gates to explore the ruins; the place is bigger than you think and will take a few hours.
3. Ecotourism in Kitulgala
Between Colombo and the popular Adam’s Peak pilgrimage, find the small riverside town of Kitulgala on the highway along the way—nearly un-noticeable, less the sign for “Adventure Basecamp” by the bus stop. Follow the path to this hotel by the river (which has AC rooms and organizes activities). It’s mostly a locals who come, and a wonderful place to spend a few days rafting, canyoning and jumping off waterfalls. (Trivia tip: Bridge over the River Quai was filmed here.)
4. Adam’s Peak
Take the bus or train to Hatton–a junction to get to Adam’s Peak—a famous peak at 2,243M, said to hold the footprint of the Buddha. Ask for the bus toward this pilgrimage site and get a hotel to catch a few hours of sleep, before starting the trek at 2 a.m. The trek up is almost a continual staircase, but it’s beautiful to see the old and young making the way, sometimes carrying others to the top. The hike takes a couple of hours; prepare to huddle at the crowded peak (under a blanket, if you’re smart) to catch sunrise at the peak.
You can take the train all the way through the high tea plantations to the backpacker alcove of Ella in the high hills. It’s an old backpacker haunt with restaurants, bars and guesthouses that line the streets and an easy place to chill for days.. or even weeks. You can hear music pumping until early hours of the morning. Rent a scooter and explore the nearby cliffs and waterfalls; don’t forget to hike Ella Rock and Little Adam’s Peak.
6. Mirissa and Weligama
Sri Lanka is probably best known for its amazing beaches, and if it’s winter, the southern coast is the way to go. From Colombo, Weligama is only a few hours by taxi or train; if you’re coming from Ella, hire a car as the bus trip can be a grueling 7-8 hours with many stops along the way.
Mirissa has an excellent a mix of nightlife and restaurants (if not a bit touristy); there are also two small surf breaks on the left and right sides of the beach. Restaurants set up tables all the way down to the waves at night, and it’s just a pleasant place to spend a few days. For surfing, however, Weligama is the capital and just a few kilometers down the road. Surf rentals line the entire beach down the street from the Marriott; it does get quiet at night. Rent a scooter to check out some of the other beaches, like Middagama and Unawatuna.
Lesser known are the kite lagoons north of Colombo—Kalpitiya and Kappalady, a couple of hours drive from Colombo (taxi/Uber recommended). The beaches are much quieter, and quite a few outfits lining the peninsula offer kitesurfing courses and accommodations (with more being built). It is worth the trip if you want to windsurf/kitesurf and see consistent winds coming into the forecast (www.winderfinder.com). In the winter season, winds pick up mid-January.