It's been named the top country to visit in 2019 . . . but why? Eli Orzessek finds out what all the fuss is about.

1 Explore Kandy

Set on a plateau surrounded by mountains, the beautiful old city of Kandy was the last capital of the ancient kings of Sri Lanka. It's well worth exploring, with plenty of historic and natural sites to roam around. The Temple of the Tooth is a beautiful Buddhist temple in the city, visited daily by monks. For a panoramic view of Kandy, climb the stairs at the back of the Bahiravokanda Vihara Buddha, one of the country's largest Buddha statues. Or take a walk around the iconic Kandy Lake, which is next to the Temple of the Tooth — it's the perfect place to relax and meditate.

2 Climb Sigiriya Rock
This 200m rock fortress, dual-listed by Unesco for its natural and cultural factors, is regarded as the world's oldest landscaped garden. It is in the heart of the island, between Dambulla and Habarane, where visitors can climb 1200 inbuilt steps to reach the ruins of an ancient palace at the top. It is known as Lion Rock and Buddhist monastic settlements were first established here in the 3rd century. In 477, King Kashyapa developed Sigiriya into a complex city and fortress. For more history, visit the museum at the bottom before you climb.

Gold reclining buddha at the Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy, Sri Lanka. Photo / Getty Images
Gold reclining buddha at the Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy, Sri Lanka. Photo / Getty Images

3 See elephants roaming free

Sri Lanka is a great destination to see elephants roaming in the wild. Although there are "elephant orphanages" around the country, not all are ethical — and there are plenty of places where you can see herds of these majestic beasts roaming free. Kaudulla National Park is Sri Lanka's newest national park, 200km north-east of Colombo — and is home to more than 200 elephants. Nearby Minneriya National Park is famous for an event called The Gathering, where hundreds of elephants travel during the dry season to an ancient reservoir.

4 Trek through a tea plantation
For a throwback to the country's colonial past, head to Nuwara Eliya. Described as the "Little England" of Sri Lanka, it's where Sir Thomas Lipton launched his tea empire, due to the rugged mountainous terrain that provided the perfect environment for tea-growing. Visit Lipton's Seat, where Sir Thomas would sit and watch over his estate and see the pickers at work. You can also tour the tea estates and purchase samples to take home. To complete the experience, stop in for high tea at the Grand Hotel Nuwara Eliya.

5 Go surfing
Sri Lanka is regarded as a surfer's paradise for good reason — the island boasts plenty of awesome surf breaks. On the east coast, Arugam Bay is regarded by many as the country's best place to surf, with a mellow vibe and waves for surfers of all abilities. The surf capital of the south-west coast is Hikkaduwa Reef, with bars and huts lining the beach — it's also a great place to observe traditional Sri Lankan stilt fishing. If you're not a surfer, there are still plenty of opportunities to simply relax with a cocktail on the beach.

6 Hike to the Diyaluma Falls
If you hike to the top of the Diyaluma Falls, there's a refreshing reward when you reach the top. Up there, you'll find natural rock pools that are perfect for a dip — there's nothing like relaxing in them while water from the falls pounds down in the background. The falls are about an hour from Ella by tuk-tuk, car or motorbike — then it's up to you whether you choose the two-hour or 40-minute hike. Elephants are active in this area, so you'll need a local guide to go with you.

7 Take an epic train journey
One of the world's most beautiful train journeys runs between Kandy and Ella, with a stop in Nuwara Eliya. The full journey takes about seven hours and traverses green tea plantations and hilltop railway stations. The train can get crowded, but it's a great opportunity to mix with the locals. If you want to guarantee a seat, you'll need to book a first-class ticket in advance, but travelling in second and third class is the best place to meet people — and you can hang out of the doors to admire the incredible views.

Rail journey between Ella and Kandy, Sri Lanka. Photo / Getty Images
Rail journey between Ella and Kandy, Sri Lanka. Photo / Getty Images

8 Take in sunset from a rope swing

It's easy to see why this rope swing became an overnight Instagram sensation. After being discovered by social-media influencers, the palm tree swing at Dalawella beach is the perfect vantage point to take in a beautiful sunset — and score some sweet shots that are sure to make all your friends jealous. Dalawella beach is near the town of Unawatuna and you'll find the famous swing outside the Dream Cabana Homestead.


9 Take a road trip
Whereas it's generally recommended you hire a van and driver to get around Sri Lanka, the roads of the southern coast are easier to navigate, so you can rent a car yourself and embark on a beachy road trip with no restraints. Start in Colombo and wind around to Arugam Bay, stopping at beach towns like Hikkaduwa, Welligama and Yala. There's no better way to chase the swells.

10 Go on safari
For an immersive wildlife experience, go on safari in one of Sri Lanka's 14 national parks. If you're keen to spot a leopard, Yala, the country's first national park, is the place to be. Yala claims to have one of the world's highest densities of the big cats — and as it's the top predator on the island, they swagger around confidently, making for some amazing photos. Yala National Park is very popular but for a quieter experience, head to the smaller Udawalawe National Park. It has a greater density of animals, particularly Sri Lankan elephants.