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Below, compiled by several TA volunteers, the possible trips. Any popular trip not on this list is NOT recommended as a day trip but requires an overnighter. Either because the travel is too long (4+ hours) compared to the time at the location, or because of being an useless tourist trap (Weligama stilt fishing, as a livelihood long extinct) or because the attraction is simply not recommended at midday but closer to dusk or dawn. (All wildlife safaris from west coast, Sigiriya Rock climb).
The trips are given in geographical order, from North to South. And are in 5 groups:
And of course there is some overlap - e.g. for someone in Unuwatuna both part of group 3 is relevant as is the whole group 4.
* Anuradhapura and Mihintale sacred cities
Full of monuments, stupas, old royal palaces. Anuradhapura is one of the old capitals of the country, and hosts the oldest Bo-tree (Buddha’s Enlightenment tree) of the country. All other Bo trees in Sri Lanka are descendants of this 'root tree'.
Mihintale, nearby, is the place where the Lankan king embraced Buddhism which was brought by missionaries from India. It has a magnificent rock temple area with famous stairs. It's a very special temple site for Buddhists as it's where Buddhism was first introduced to Sri Lanka. A flight of 1840, five metres wide, steps made of granite slabs takes you up the mountain side to the temple areas at the top. When you get up there, there are some more steps to the top of the Invitation Rock. It's a beautiful site as well as giving fabulous views all around.
For both of these cities plan carefully: many of the monuments inside are religious and hence must be walked without shoes. Between noon and 3 PM (the usual visit time as the trip from the coast is 3-4 hours) such as a barefoot walk can be painful on sunny days due to the burning hot stone floors. Bringing wear-proof socks might ease the situation.
* Yapahuwa rock fortress
This lies more or less on the coast-monumental cities route, near Maho. It's a much smaller version of Sigiriya (itself out of reach for a day trip from the coast); one climbs only to the top of the old palace/fortress about 30 meters above the paddy field level, not to the top of the nearby rock. A nice sight though and nice stories on how the place rose into importance and then fell into decay, all-in-all worth an hours time at most. Take care with the troupes of monkeys, they can be funny but they can also be a nuisance!
* Boat trip on Negombo ‘Dutch canals’ behind the lagoon on the north side, including lots of wildlife watching. Adjoining are the
* Muthurajawela wetlands, allowing boat and guided walking excursions.
And similar to the Dutch canals,
* Hamilton Canal, a park area with boating along the Negombo lagoon south of Negombo (and to be extended towards Colombo)
* Negombo fish market (early morning is best)
* Wilpattu wildlife park; It has the high standard of Yala park, with a huge variety of wildlife: elephants, sloth bear, deer, wild boar and regular sightings of leopards. Besides, nature is impressive and varied with both dry zone areas (upto sand dunes) and rivers/wetlands. Travel from Marawila is 2.30 hours and from Negombo 3 hours, to the closest entrance which is Eluwankulam (on Puttalam-Mannar road); main entrance is Hunuwilagama (near Nochchiyagama at Puttalam-A'Pura road.) As a day trip it's either a very early departure or a return after dinner time. Safaris are not like the other national parks as with the usual 3-hour halfday safari starting 6 AM or returning 6 PM one sees little; the access road from entrances to the 'most active wildlife' inner area of the park is 25 km sandy road which means 1 hour alone. Hence common safari times are 6 AM to 1-2 PM or 11 AM to 6 PM. Even middle of the day, when in most other parks wildlife hides away from the drinking lakes under the thick foliage, Wilpattu has enough to see as there are lots of roads in the park and enough animals visible near them.
* Dolphin watching from the Kalpitiya area. Seasonal, November to April. See the tips on whale watching for selecting a suitable boat. Some whale watching is also starting up from this area.
* Guruge Nature Park, Ja-Ela (near Negombo)
The local version of a small-to-medium age kiddies park. For local kids upto age 12 hence probably entertaining for Western kids upto age 10. Toy train, boat rides, cultural highlights etc. Well-maintained, hence stays on the list unlike the other local general entertainment park being Kalu-Aggala Water Park which got removed from this list due to horribly bad maintainance standards and far too high tourist entry prices.
* Sathutu Uyana play park, Mattakkuliya suburb (far northwestern side of town near Kelani river mouth) of Colombo. More lunapark-style than Guruge park, with e.g. toy train and a number of rides. Again for local kids upto 12 and Western kids upto a lower age.
2. Suitable from all southwestern coastal places
* Pinawela Elephant Orphanage and nearby Millennium Elephant Foundation. THE places to be (usually visitors choose one of the two) for watching baby elephants, jumbo river bathing, and possibly for assisting in the bathing and elephantback rides. Pinawela is located near Rambukkana and Kegalle, about 2 hours drive east-northeast of Colombo on the route to Kandy.
* Pinawela zoo, a new addition. Has a much wider variety of animals than the orphanages, but the animals are all in cages or larger enclosures and not the 'semi-free' style of the orphanages.
* Kitulgala Whitewater rafting - and other 'wild sports' line ziplining and canyoning
The town is located southeast of Colombo, about 2 hours drive from the edge of the metropole. And also hosts the site where the movie ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’ was shot, with some small souvenirs still visible near the Kitulgala Rest House. There are several companies offering rafting trips lasting a few hours on the Kelani river. Best in a season with more rainfall in the mountains, and also inquire in advance about weekends as often one day a week the river dam closes making rafting impossible. Rainfall does also influence the other activities, canyoning often with inverse patterns (heavy rain is good for rafting but blocks some of the canyoning paths).
* Waterworld Aquarium and Bird park, Kelaniya near Colombo. A recent addition, and impressive (and affordable) for Lankan standards. Including a 10 m glass tunnel under the water so that one can see the fish from almost 360'.
* Gangatillaka Vihara Dagoba near Kalutara river (free entrance). One of the biggest in the country, and full or nicely painted murals.
* Richmond Castle, an old aristocratic mansion near Kalutara South which now exhibits the fin-de-siecle lifestyle of the Lankan upper class. Run as a national heritage museum.
* Pahiyangala Rock Cave, about 2 hours east of Kalutara. This is a pre-historic Rock cave where they found evidence of men living there 37000 years back.
* Kosgulana suspension bridge, not far from Agalawatte and in same area as the cave above. A remote undisturbed area with rubber plantations, and this nice bridge (for pedestrians and other light traffic) showing the river area from another angle.
* Sinharaja Forest
Sinharaja forest reserve is one of the least disturbed and biologically unique lowland rain forest in Sri Lanka. This forest covers an extent of about 11187 hectares from east to west .The length of the forest is about 21km and width from North to South is about 3.7km. It was declared a Man and Biosphere Reserve (MAB) in 1978,as representative of tropical humid evergreen forest Eco system in Sri Lanka and has been recognized by UNESCO as part of it's International Network of Biosphere reserves. It was declared a National wilderness area in 1988 and lately a world heritage site in 1989. It's walking safaris only; expect flora and smaller (insect/reptile/bird) like fauna no bigger animals. Some climbing treks, with upto 200-300 meters ascend on rocky paths, are also in the park. Entrances on the north side (about 2.5 hours from Bentota/Kalutara) and on south side (about 1.5-2 hours from Matara-Galle coast, near Deniyaya). Best to start a trek early morning, due to the wildlife behaviour and the risk of afternoon rains.
* Beruwala Fishing Harbour. Visit around 6am and watch the fishing boats being unloaded
* Kande Vihare Buddhist Temple near Bentota. Sri Lanka's tallest Buddha Statue. The Buddha Statue which is 160½ ft tall is constructed in Bhoomi Sparsha Mudra (Calling the Earth to Witness His Enlightenment).
* Boat trip on Bentota river
* Brief Gardens (about 7 km from Bentota). Brief Gardens is the house and garden of landscape architect Bevis Bawa, developed since 1929. It is a hillside garden with excellent views and many sculptures - both by Bevis himself and other artists. The estate was formerly a rubber plantation.
* Lunuganga Gardens and guesthouse. The old homeplace of Bewis’ brother, Geoffrey Bawa, building architect of landmarks like Kandalama, Heritance Ahungalla and Light House hotels.
* Kosgoda Sea Turtle Conservation Project (there are similar nurseries close to Bentota and further down the south coast). If suggested to release a baby turtle in the wild, only do so close to dusk because of the ever-present predators!
* To mention another turtle farm: just south of Bentota.
* Boat Trip on Madu Ganga, Balapitiya, including a visit to a cinnamon-growing island. This is by far the biggest river delta in Lanka and hence the most interesting boat trip. (Next to Bentota and Balapitiya there are boat trips possible on other rivers/lagoons/lakes, e.g. Kalutara or Mirissa or Koggala lake or the Dodanduwa lagoons behind Hikkaduwa. Also interesting cinnamon plantations are scattered over the whole coastal area.)
* Ariyapala Mask Museum, Ambalangoda
* Batik Factory, Ambalangoda
* Moonstone Mines, Meetiyagoda (southeast of Ambalangoda). This is one of the very few places in the world where blue gleaming moonstones are found. A number of stores and stalls sell jewellery made with these semi-precious stones.
* Hikkaduwa. Glass bottom Boat ride on the coral reef and maybe a swim inside the reef. Good place for lunch break (several good restaurants). Note that, no matter what the boat operators and beach boys tell you, generally the glass bottom boating is NOT a good excursion whenever the sea outside the reefs is rough - which means most of the time from March-April onto December! Just look before committing. The reason for the disappointment in this situation is that the rough sea stirs up the sand also inside and on the reef, and causes very low visibility of the water and hence the coral life.
* Galle. UNESCO declared World Heritage Site the magnificent Dutch fort is the most popular attraction of the town. 300 year old Dutch atmosphere is still very much alive around the fort and amidst its many historical buildings. Good possibilities for shopping in Galle.
* Kanneliya rainforest, about an hour ride from Galle near Kottawa. Much smaller and less spectacular than Sinharaja, but still worth it if one has little time and/or budget available and one is located closer to this than to Sinharaja. Entrance on the Udugama-Nelluwa road. Just a few kms past Udugama. you have to turn right from Udugama-Nelluwa road, and go for a couple of kms on a narrow road (motorable) till the entrance. If you are in this area the visit can be combined with seeing the Dhuwili falls in nelluwa and the waterfalls of Lankagama which are a little bit further up from kanneliya.
* Whale and dolphin watching from Mirissa and Galle. Seasonal, November to April though depending on the weather it could extend into June and there are even odd sightings July-October. Tours start early in the morning (7 AM), so they are much easier to do when staying in the Galle-Unuwatuna-Matara region than from e.g. Wadduwa. Pick a boat with the right size: not too small (no cover against the burning sun and at times fierce sea wind, no toilets) and not too big (esp. large commercial boats, like the ex-Navy ones, are rumoured to disturb the whales and dolphins too much by their engine sounds.) Another way of seeing the whales are the seasonal flights from Koggala airport, look at www.simplifly.com for schedules and (expensive!) prices.
* Rumassala Peace Pagoda near Jungle beach, Unuwatuna-Rumassala. Nice photogenic Japanese-style Buddhist Dagoba, built to help in peacebuilding and offering nice views of Galle Harbour. Several times a month 'drumming pujas' near sunset, open for all to participate.
* (Tandem) skydiving. Now starting up at Koggala Airfield near Galle, other airports supposedly are to follow. Basically possible year round though all will depend on the weather conditions of the day.
* Paramotoring. Now starting up at Bentota, Xmas-April. Planned for May-Sept in Trincomalee. 20 minutes tandem flights with awesome views.
* Tea estates. It's low-country and that means less Ceylon Tea quality than the 'real' hill country tea and without the vistas. But if proximity to the coast, and hence daytrip-able, is your priority and you still want to see the tea picking and making process and maybe buy some, it's possible. Estate areas reachable from the Hikkaduwa-Galle-Matara area are e.g. Neluwa, Morawaka, Deniyaya, Imaduwa, Akuressa and Thawalama; a sample larger estate annex factory is Hundungoda near Koggala-Ahangama. But more to the north (east of Kalutara-Bentota) also within 2-3 hours estates exist; e.g. a few close to Sinharaja, making a combi daytrip possible.
* Elephant riding and bathing. Not as big and impressive as the places in Pinawela and Habarana but still a decent option if people don't want to spend too much time on the road. In Boossa, between Galle and Hikkaduwa.
4. South coast
* Dondra lighthouse near Matara. The southernmost tip of the island and one of the oldest and largest lighthouses of Lanka, with sights upto 25 km on a clear day. Climb and descent (8 floors of steps) will take about 45-60 mins together. Note that formally there is no entry at all by visitors, as all lighthouses come under the Harbour Master who may authorise the official visit. If not, it is at the discretion of the staff at the lighthouse. However at Dondra it is known that staff normally allow tourists for a fee of something between Rs 300-500, but basically that is not really a 'legal' thing to ask money...
* Tangalle/Hummaniya blow hole, between Dickwella and Tangalle. Nice 'geyser' like behaviour of ocean waves pushing them through a narrow hole in the coastal rock. Mostly impressive in June, in other months often not worth the entrance price.
* Snake farm near Weligama. A local house extended to host 15 different species; run by a vet which also studies them and by extracting venom from their teeth helps developing antivenom. More than just-a-zoo as the snakes have their own zookeeper annex snakecharmers.
* Mulkirigala rock temple, north of Beliatta; reachable from Matara or Tangalle by private vehicle or 2 buses. Quite similar to Dambulla Golden (Cave) Temple, impressive architecture, but far more quiet. Entrance is by and large 'voluntary donation' based, and upon receipt of your money they ask for your name and country and then chant a small 'gatha' song through the speakers thanking and blessing you!
* Wewurukannala temple in Dickwella. An impressive temple with the tallest sitting Buddha statue in the Island. Moreover one can climb the stairs inside the statue and have a magnificent view from inside the head.
* Wildlife safaris at Udu Walawe or Yala-1 (Ruhuna) national parks. These could just be reachable for a day trip from a south coast town like Mirissa or Tangalle; they're not from any southwestern town (--> overnighter needed). Safaris are 6-8:30 AM and 3:30 - 6 PM and transfers from Tangalle are about 1.5-2 hours, from Mirissa one hour more; so it's either a very early rise for the tourist or a late-in-the-dark return back to the beach resort. UW is mainly (large herds of) elephants and also has an 'elephant transit home', open all day, which is a much smaller version of Pinawela but with a better ethical reputation as the small ones are prepared for release into the wild later on when they're big. UW has a very impressive photogenic landscape, amongst the best of the island, with a huge lake and a 1 km high mountain backdrop in the distance. Yala has only lone elephants but together with Wilpattu the broadest variety of animals in the island, including the odd sloth bear and leopard. Both parks are open year round except that Yala tends to close 1-2 months during the end of dry season; Yala is best avoided at weekends and public holidays as it tends to get 'safari jeep traffic jams' then.
* Pilgrimage towns with an, impressive to some, architecture and esp. towards sunset also nice pujas. Kataragama is the most famous pilgrim's town of the country, and easy to combine with staying overnight in Tissa (for Yala); also possible as daytrip from e.g. Tangalle. Kataragama also has the 'Weddehitikande' viewpoint hill, offering nice vistas. A tough at least 2 x 1 hour climb for the pilgrim-oriented tourists, others could try to get their hand on a 4WD (used for cargo and for disabled pilgrims) to shuttle them up and down. Situlpahuwa is another famous pilgrims site. It is situated in Yala Block 2 about 1 hour from Tissa or Kataragama; the road towards it is a 'corridor' hence exempt from Yala park entrance tickets. Situlpahuwa has a few nice vistas from rocks on which the temples are built, and also a reputation of - tamed and not so tamed - animals around like Sambur deer and monkeys.
* Hill country tasters. Basically only possible from Tangalle or Hambantota - a 2 x 3 hours trip to Ella and the waterfalls, vistas and midgrowth tea plantations there. Extra benefit could be a small detour to Buduruwagala, an impressive set of Pollanaruwa-like rock-carved temples and statues close to Wellawaya.
* Mirijjawila botanical gardens near Hambantota. The third, biggest and newest botanical garden in the island, next to Peradeniya-Kandy (wet tropical and subtropical flora) and Hakgala-Eliya (cold tropics). The Mirijjawila garden specialises in dry tropical flora.
* Maduwanwela Walawwa at Kolonna, northwest of Embilipitya - hence not that far from e.g. Tangalle. A traditional Srilankan mansion of a regional Elder, preserved quite well and with lots of stories around it to be told!
This area is least developed of the currently offered tourist areas, but has three separate sprawling and developing areas each about 2.5-3 hours apart: Arugam Bay/Pottuvil, Passikudah-Kalkudah and Trincomalee with as beaches China Bay, Uppuveli, Nilaveli and Kuchchaveli. Arugam is for tanning and surfing (and the odd offshore dive and snorkel trip) and the other two are for tanning, swimming, snorkel and scuba. The sights are given here per sub-area, though again there is some overlap possible.
* Boat trips on Pottuvil lagoon. They're best done near sunrise or sunset, as wildlife is best then. Count for a 2 hour trip in a crammed local fishing canoe to reach the far end of the lagoon, where mangrove habitats and with some luck wild elephants can be seen; for the rest lots of things to experience for bird-lovers. The boats moor near the lagoon bridge, walking distance from the north end of the beach (e.g. Stardust); Hilton Guesthouse in the middle beach area organises trips with road shuttle included.
* Safaris to Yala East (Kumana) park. Wildlife here is similar to Yala-1 park but visitor volume is significantly lower. Depart around 5 AM from Arugam for 6 AM park entrance, or be back 7 PM after 6 PM park closure. The towns closer to the park (Panama and Okanda) hardly have jeeps for hire, so most people book the jeep from Arugam - making the trip a bit more expensive than e.g. Yala-1 with jeep hire from Tissa. Also Lahugala park is interesting; a lot smaller than Yala East but also a lot closer to Arugam Bay. Acually it borders the Pottuvil lagoon, the wild elephants visible from there are in this park. The park is mainly known for elephants, and can be discovered by jeep just as the others.
* Dolphin watching. Several places organise boat trips in season (May to September). See the tips on whale watching for selecting a suitable boat.
* Old temples. As mentioned by one of the hotels in the area: Magul Maha Viharaya in Lahugala, Muhudu Maha Viharaya in Pottuvil, Kudumbigala ancient monastery; and the popular Hindu shrines (kovils) at Okanda and Kebiliththa.
* Thoppigala (Baron's Cap in English, Kudumbimalai in Tamil) nature park and scenic rock. The area was a battefield in the civil war but is now restored to what it deserves to be: a lovely impressive hill in the flat plains, surrounded by lush forest. About 1.5 hours southwest of Passikudah, close to Narakamulla village. Don't go there solely for the exhibition centre and small park, those would only appeal to hardcore naturalists or historicians. But as a small scenic climb it can be wonderful. It's around 100 m high so half the climb of Sigiriya, and of course only Cap-shaped so not the huge cube that Sigiriya is. Climbing however is not as well-facilitated as Sigiriya, partly steep stony paths - think more like Siri Pada. Around 20-30 mins climb/descend each way, best is to avoid midday heat. Also nearby are lots of irrigation lakes ('tanks') and tour operators can offer a ride in a small fishing Canoe boat on such a lake, silently admiring the wildlife on the lake banks which normally is chased away when approached by car or on foot.
* Batticaloa singing fish. Neither a real 'day' trip nor something to be taken very seriously, though it's high on the local list of attractions. At dusk and a few hours after that in the lagoons, especially near the big bridge crossing Kallady lagoon and especially at full moon days, a strange high-toned sound has been heard. Probably caused by some fish in combination with the high tide linked to full moon, but scientists that confirmed the sound could not yet determine the cause. Anyhow, lagoon boat rides especially when it becomes dusk always have some atmospheric funny element in them, so who knows...
* Wildlife safari at Maduru Oya or Gal Oya national parks. They are relatively close to the coast, 2 hours from Passikudah, and next to the 3-hour jeep safaris at 6-9 AM and 3-6 PM they also allow for fishing boat trips in the huge lakes; sometimes acting as alternative to the jeep safaris as with the silent boats one can approach herds of elephants much closerby than with the noisy jeeps. Also inside the Maduru Oya park there is a Veddah community.
* Veddah tribal people visit. The Veddahs are the 'aboriginal' inhabitants of Sri Lanka, dating from ages before the Sinhalese (North India) and Tamils (South India) invaded the island. Small pockets of them remain, trying to preserve their rather unique culture as much as possible. One of the most popular places to see them is Dambana, east of Mahiyangana, around 3 hours one way from Passikudah; but see above, Maduru Oya park also has a group. The Dambana tribe has a small museum/exhibition and upon request (and some extra rupees) traditional skills like spearhunting, firemaking and hunting dances are performed for the visitors.
* Trekking in Knuckles mountains, east of Kandy and west of Mahiyangana. About 3:30 hours from Passikudah one way; it's recommended to prebook a guide which knows all about the not-that-well-indicated tracks and the wildlife in the park. Vistas are as impressive as those in the more well known trekking areas in the Hill Country around e.g. Hatton/Adam's Peak, Nuwara Eliya/Horton Plains, Haputale and Ella.
* Wildlife safaris at Habarana. See the story about Udu Walawe and Yala for south coast beach resorts: it's a longish ride (2 x two to three hours) from either Trinco and Passikudah and due to dusk and dawn timings hence an early rise or late return. The three parks here (Minneriya, Kaudulla and Huluru Eco-park) share one big herd of elephants that migrates between them using elephant corridors; August-September is the best time due to the famous 'gathering'. A Habarana trip can be combined with elephantback rides. Other sights in the Cultural Triangle, like Pollonaruwa/Sigiriya/Dambulla, are not really recommended in a daytrip from the coast as on each of them middle of the day is best avoided due to the heat. Wasgamuwa wildlife park has a similar story with its jeep wildlife safaris, it's at least 2 hours from the east coast towns.
* Hot-air balloon rides at Dambulla-Sigiriya. November to April is the season, in other months the atmosphere in that area tends to be unstable on too many days. See the 'south coast' description for the general behaviour, and the topic above on wildlife safaris for the timing problems; the rides are early morning (gather 5.30 AM)!
* Kanniya hot springs. Most popular hot springs of the island, a group of seven springs each with different water medicinal qualities and temperature. One uses a bucket to extract water and then pour over the needed body parts.
* Fort Frederick and Koneswaram Temple. Nice old colonial fort (mostly closed to the public) with a spotted deer population; after passing through the Fort outer walls one reaches the temple. It has impressive architecture, and nextdoor is the 'Lovers Leap' rock formation with nice sea vistas.
* Harbour boat trip. Speedboats can be hired for a 45 to 60 minutes ride. Seeing Lovers Leap from the sea is awful.
* Whale and Dolphin watching. Organised from Chaaya Blue hotel Uppuveli, generally May to August-September. See the tips on whale watching for selecting a suitable boat.
* Paramotoring, see under Bentota
* Thiriyai Temple near Trinco (1 hour each way). The ruins of the most ancient Buddhist Dagaba in Sri Lanka, Girihandu Seyasituated on top of a 212 foot rock, offer stunning 360 degree views of the surrounding countryside.
* Kokkilai lagoon. About 1.30 hours transfer from Trinco. Allows boat rides similar to those in the Negombo canals/marshes. The Kokkilai bird sanctuary is home to the rare and endangered Black-necked Stork as well aslarge numbers of pelicans and hundreds of migratory birds.
6. North (Jaffna Peninsula)
Beach resorts here currently are to be counted with one hand, but the area has quite a few excellent beaches - on mainland and on islands. Season is also longer than East Coast, in April often already fully swimmable sea with shallow water and excellent coral reefs. Resort hotels are in development. Once more hotels are available and also transport (9 hours by road, less by train) from Colombo airport has improved, with e.g. direct domestic flights, this top question will be extended with Jaffna sights - which are quite a few, in culture (temples) and nature!