With an impressive colonial history, colourful street life, seven Unesco World Heritage sites, and some of the most charming shopping in south Asia, Sri Lanka is a joy – despite the sometimes noisy traffic.
Established in 1877, the National Museum (Sir Marcus Fernando Mawatha; 94 11 269 7467-8) is the first public museum to be established in Sri Lanka (1877). It hosts artefacts from all over the island that trace the history of Sri Lanka. The library contains more than half a million books, including 4,000 palm leaf manuscripts. Children will enjoy the puppetry section on the first floor. Closed on Fridays.
Adjoining the National Museum, and accessible from Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha, Colombo 7, the National Museum Of Natural History is well represented with sections on botany, geology, fossils and the natural environment, highlighted by the mounted skeleton of an elephant. Closed on Fridays.
Formerly the residence of Count August Carl Van Ranzow, The Dutch Period Museum (Kumara Weediya, Pettah; 94 11 244 8466) dates from the 17th century and outlines colonial days with furniture, ceramics, coins, and armaments in the unique surrounds of a Dutch townhouse.
For the best view of Colombo's contemporary art scene, drop by the Lionel Wendt Centre (18 Guildford Crescent, Cinnamon Gardens; 94 11 269 5794) where arts and crafts exhibitions are scheduled among musical performances and antiques sales.
Pettah is Colombo's bazaar district and also one of the oldest. It is a maze of bustling streets selling a huge variety of merchandise. You can find just about any item you are looking for in Pettah's maze of small streets, with shops hidden in all corners. Shops selling the same kind of items tend to cluster in a particular street. Browsing here is as much fun as actually shopping. The area was once the smartest residential enclave in town.
The Zoological Gardens (Dehiwela; 94 11 2712751) is open from 8.30 am to 6.00 pm daily. Situated 11km from Fort, the zoo has an extensive collection of animals, birds, reptiles, fish and fauna from around the world, as well as from Sri Lanka itself. The aquarium displays more than 500 varieties of aquatic life. The curious should take a walk through the Aviary, Reptilian, and Butterfly Park. There are daily elephant performances at 5.15 pm. Admission: Adults R200, children R100. Note that there is a charge for bringing a camera into the gardens.
Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage is the most popular jumbo attraction in Sri Lanka. The Orphanage (94 35 226 5804) outside of Kegalle on the Colombo-Kandy road has been nurturing elephants since 1975, and is currently home to more than 60. They are fed at 8.00 am, and bathed at 10.00 am and 2.00 pm – both events are highly photogenic.
South of Colombo is the World Heritage-listed fortress town of Galle. Today, Galle has two distinct sides: the old Galle fort, and the new surrounds and environs of Galle itself. The old Galle dates back to the 17th century, and makes for fascinating exploration. The new Galle is the pulsating commercial heart of the city, which allows the old town to survive without losing its charm. Galle is famous for its Dutch fort, lace making, ebony carving and gem polishing.
A number of boutique hotels and restaurants have opened within its walls, as have several upscale boutiques. Nearby beaches at Hikkaduwa, Unawatuna and Weligama are very popular.
Kandy, nestled among the misty hills in the central region of the country, is also a World Heritage City. It is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful cities in the world. As the shrine holding the sacred tooth relic of the Lord Buddha is situated in the heart of the city, it is also the most venerated city in Sri Lanka.
Kataragama Devalaya is one Sri Lanka's holy places where Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims visit on religious pilgrimages. It is a large complex with the Mahadewala (the main Hindu shrine) being the most important site.
Yala National Park, or Ruhuna National Park at Yala, is the country's most popular wild life safari destination. Situated about 300 km from Colombo, this 1,250 sq km park is home to leopards, crocodiles, elephants, deer, sambar, bears, wild bores, wild buffalos, and many varieties of birds ranging from peacocks to migratory birds like flamingos.
Sigiriya Rock, The history of Sigiriya dates back to over 5000 years, to the Mesolithic period. One of Sri Lanka's major attractions and a World Heritage Site, Sigiriya (Lion Rock) came into prominence in the 5th centaury AD. The frescoes of the 'heavenly maidens' halfway up the rock in a sheltered gallery are the only painted renderings of a secular subject in this country. The entire 'mirror wall', which records the poetic outpourings of early visitors to the rock and the colossal plan of the royal palace, water gardens and fortifications, is absolutely fascinating.
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