It’s the destination of the moment, packed with things for families to do and see. This Sri Lanka itinerary includes the famous elephant gathering in the Minneriya national park, exploring ancient cities and temples in the Sri Lanka cultural triangle and a train ride to the hill country tea plantations. Read on for our best places to visit in Sri Lanka with family.
- Ancient cities
- Tea plantations
- Cultural festivals
- Wildlife safaris
- Fresh seafood and spicy curries
An island country off the southern most tip of India, Sri Lanka has a rich cultural history as well as beautiful beaches and abundant wildlife. The tropical climate brings sunshine year-round whilst there’s cooler air in the tea plantations of the Central Province. Fiona and family describe their visit as part of a two-centre holiday with Ladakh.
Who went: Fiona, Christopher, Ellie 15 and Will 12 in July 2015
Where: a Sri Lanka tour, following a one week trip to Ladakh.
Pin this post to Pinterest to save and share
Why Sri Lanka Fiona: July is one of the best months to visit Ladakh but it’s also the rainy season in much of the rest of India. So for an add-on we looked at the map and came up with Sri Lanka. The flight from Delhi to Columbo is around three and a half hours so not too long for a two-centre trip.
7 of the best places to visit in Sri Lanka with family
Fiona and family began their visit in the Sri Lanka cultural triangle, an area of ancient monuments north of Columbo. After this they visited Kandy then took a train to the tea plantations in the hill country to the south. Will has picked his seven favourite places to visit in Sri Lanka from their family trip.
In the Sri Lanka Cultural Triangle
The arid rocky inland area north of Kandy, known as the cultural triangle is a treasure box of ancient monuments, Buddhist temples and ruined royal cities. To appeal to the whole family the trip combined several UNESCO sites with a guided bike tour, a visit to an elephant sanctuary and an evening safari in the Minneriya National Park.
The Millennium Elephant Foundation
Will says: my favourite part of the whole trip was our visit to the Millennium Elephant Foundation in Kegalle. Unlike some tourist elephant experiences, the MEF in an NGO which works to promote the welfare of domesticated elephants in Sri Lanka.
Some elephants live at the MEF and we had the chance to wash them in a nearby river, using coconut husks to scoop up the water. The elephants seemed to enjoy this and spurted water out of their trunks. It was quite an experience to stand in the river as an elephant lay down in the cool water in front of us. You do have to be slightly careful where you stand – and ask yourself what would happen now if the elephant rolled over!
After this we gave the elephants their lunch. Their trunks reached out eagerly for the bananas and other fruit which they took from our hands. It was lovely to see the elephants enjoying themselves whilst we learnt about the hardships that some of them had been rescued from.
Polonnaruwa ruins: cycling around an ancient desert city
Will: After the MEF we pushed on to our hotel, the Vil Uyana, near the famous Sigiriya rock fortress. This hotel is amazing as it stands in an area of wetland, surrounded by nature. The villas are open, apart from the bedrooms and living area, so there were frogs in the shower and bats flying around at night.
The next morning we woke early and set out with our guide to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa to take a bike tour.
Polonnaruwa was a capital city in the 10th century but now it’s an archaeological park.
Our guide more or less followed a bike path which took in all the main sights, and he pointed things out to us and explained what we were seeing along the way. It was quite crowded around the main attractions but much quieter at some of the further-away ruins.
It was very hot there. Polonnaruwa is a really large site so definitely worth using the bikes – walking looked even more hot. We tried to find shade wherever we could but we were still baking by the end. It’s important to keep shoulders and knees covered as some of the buildings are temples, but long shorts were perfect. We spent a couple of hours there in all.
Minneriya National Park Elephant Gathering
Will: That evening we climbed into a safari truck and ventured out to see the Minneriya National Park elephant gathering. It was an amazing thing to see the sun set behind countless herds of elephants.
There were probably 300 elephants altogether and they’re very noisy! We were quite low to the ground so it was hard to see all of them but we were very close at some points.
M&F says: the Minneriya National Park elephant gathering is an annual event that has been going on for centuries. During the dry season Asian elephants from all over the North Central Province are drawn to Minneriya in search of fresh grass and water. The Minneriya tank or reservoir was built in the 3rd century AD, it’s a reliable source of water and each year as the level drops during the drought fresh grass grows along its banks.
During the heat of the day the elephants shelter in the forests surrounding the reservoir. Then, as the sun goes down up to 300 elephants at a time emerge to eat, drink and socialise, playing in the water in the cool of the evening.
August and September, in the height of the dry season, are said to be the best times to see the Minneriya National Park elephant gathering.
Climbing the Sigiriya Rock Fortress
Will: The next morning we woke early to climb the great Sigiriya granite rock while it was still cool. We set off through the ancient terraced gardens and up onto the metal steps that lead to the top.
It’s around 200m high with 1200 steps to climb and it took us about 45 minutes. Halfway up is a lion-shaped gateway to an ancient palace.
On the sides of the rock we could see paintings that date back to the 5th century. Visitors are allowed to photograph some of the murals but not others – and there are police up there to make sure you don’t!
When we reached the flat summit we found the ruins of the fortress and palace of an ancient king of Sri Lanka. We explored and took in the amazing views. It was definitely worth starting the climb early because it was getting hot by the time we came down.
After a quick lunch we headed by car to Kandy, about two hours away.
Dambulla Cave Temple: exploring the cave paintings
Will: On the way to Kandy we stopped off to see the Dambulla Buddhist Caves.
There have been Buddhist temples here since the 11th century. At the entrance is a monastery with a massive golden Buddha. Inside, the ancient cave temples extend quite a long way into the rock.
It’s dark with just enough lighting to be able to see the golden Buddha statues and painted murals. The cave paintings show what life was like for the monks who worshipped there many centuries ago.
Kandy: a night at the Parade of the Tooth
Will: We reached the Kandy House Hotel at around 3 o’clock. After a brief swim in the pool we headed out into the bustling streets of Kandy for The Parade of the Tooth.
Every year a replica of the Buddha’s left upper canine is paraded in a massive celebration through Kandy. Our guide gave us tickets for seats set up outside a restaurant so we could see the parade quite easily.
It was very crowded and noisy with street vendors everywhere. We saw about 50 elephants in the parade as well as fire dancers, jugglers and musicians. It’s a huge spectacle and really good fun!
Train to the Sri Lankan Tea Plantations
The following morning we boarded a train to Hatton which is deep in the Tea Hills. We had seats in a first class carriage which was a good idea but still quite hot. But the other carriages were exactly how I’d imagined a Sri Lankan train to be with people hanging out of the windows and jumping on and off.
The train doesn’t move very quickly and the journey took around two and a half hours. Our carriage had big windows and really good views. We passed small towns, people working in fields of tea and children waving at the train. We felt the temperature cool as we moved higher and in fact we all fell asleep and nearly missed our stop!
A stay in the Sri Lankan tea plantations
It was only a short car ride from the station to our hotel, the Ceylon Tea Trails. We stayed there for a few days, enjoying the cooler air, walking in the tea plantations and swimming in the pool.
While we were there I really enjoyed a visit to the Dilmah tea factory. We started outside in the plantation where we saw the tea plants and learnt how the leaves are picked.
Then we went into the factory where machines sort the leaves, wash them, grind them up and roast them.
We basically followed the production phases right up to packaging. At the end we got to taste some different varieties with a ‘tea connoisseur’.
After we’d had a walk around the tea plantations someone asked if we’d picked up any leeches. We thought we hadn’t – but then he spotted one on Ellie’s leg and pulled it off quickly. After that we were a bit more wary of leeches!
It was much cooler in the mornings and evenings up in the tea country, but that was lovely after the boiling weather in the cultural triangle.
Best and Worst Moments
Will: It was all amazing apart from the train journeys from Kandy to the tea plantations and the return to Colombo when we flew home. They were both long and hot – there’s a way to skip this bit via seaplane, which would be awesome! Apart from that it was all good and we had a really friendly and nice guide.
Fiona: The tea plantations were the most magical and special part of the trip, no one should go to Sri Lanka without seeing this amazing region. It was also lovely to have a bit of a rest there after a busy two weeks. I also enjoyed Vil Uyana Hotel in Sigiriya as it felt like we were really close to the wildlife, though sometimes it felt too close when we found frogs in the shower!
Places to Visit on a Sri Lanka Family Trip
✈ Fiona and family flew to Columbo from Delhi. There is a direct flight from London Heathrow to Columbo with Sri Lankan Airways which takes 10.5 hours.
🛌 They stayed in four hotels:
The Wallawwa, Kotugoda – convenient for Columbo
Vil Uyana, Sigiriya – back to nature luxury in the cultural triangle region
Kandy House, Kandy – on the outskirts of the historic city
Ceylon Tea Trails Hotel, Hatton – colonial planters’ bungalows in tea country
📞 Their trip was custom-made and co-ordinated by Scott Dunn
All photos by Fiona and family are all rights reserved. Photos may not be reproduced without prior written permission.