Culture and nature in Sri Lanka’s northwest

Visiting Sri Lanka has been on our bucket list for many years. I recently went through our travel documents again and it turns out we started researching this trip already in 2018! Due to some unexpected practical/timing issues (we had to renew our passports, which took much longer than expected), we weren’t able to go in 2019, but by the end of that year, nearly everything was booked for 2020. And we all know what happened next…

Last year (2023) we finally made it to one of the most spectacular islands in the world. We stayed there for a bit over 3 weeks, but that is not nearly enough to experience everything Sri Lanka has to offer. We even had to make some tough choices to fit our time limitations and budget (including the beaches of Nilaveli, a snorkeling trip at Pigeon Island and a few superb temples). But in the end we were able to include all our personal highlights in an epic road trip from north to south.

What makes Sri Lanka such a perfect travel destination is its versatility: the list of cultural sights, nature/wildlife experiences and fun activities, as well as culinary delights and unique places to stay, is simply endless. Especially in the north, centuries-old archaeological sites seem to lurk behind every corner in the road.

In this post we would like to take you to the area between Negombo, Wilpattu and Anuradhapura. This is the first region we visited during our stay in Sri Lanka and maybe the most “complete”, in the sense that it provided both nature, culture and relaxation.


After two long flights with an early morning stopover in Dubai, we were in need of some well-deserved rest and a bit of peace and quiet. That is just what we found at our first hotel near Negombo: Ging Oya Lodge in Waikkal. We were alone there for most of the time (it seems that after the economical crisis and COVID, tourism still hadn’t fully recovered in Sri Lanka), so we could fully enjoy the silence, the excellent pool, the delicious food (even a “light snack” turned out to be a copious feast) and some first encounters with local wildlife (including palm squirrels, a few reptiles and many birds). One of the most unexpected sights, however, was the local “toddy tapper” collecting palm sap from the tree tops: a real daredevil!

Stork-Billed Kingfisher
The Toddy tapper.

Ging Oya Lodge offers free kayaks, so we spent an afternoon on the Gin Oya, paddling until we reached the (dirty and tiny) beach in the west. We spotted lots of beautiful birds and really loved our time on the water.

Paddling on the Gin Oya

Yapahuwa Rock Fortress

We had arranged for a driver to take us to Wilpattu National Park, where we would do a full-day safari the next day (for Febe’s birthday). It wasn’t just a short transfer, since we specifically asked for a considerable detour to Yapahuwa Rock Fortress.

On our way towards Yapahuwa, we stumbled upon the ruins of Panduwasnuwara, an ancient (12th-century) capital. We could see a Bodhighara and a small dagoba from the road and asked our driver to stop. We did not explore the entire archaeological site (simply no time) but only took a few photos of the structures closest to the road. It just shows how culturally rich this country really is.

A stupa of Panduwasnuwara

Once the capital of the country (in the 13th century), not much is left of Yapahuwa these days. Its ornamental stairway, which once lead to the Temple of the Tooth (where the Sacred Tooth Relic was kept), is now its biggest showpiece. It is a steep climb to get to the top of the stairs, passing Yapahuwa’s iconic lion sculptures.

Conquering the stairs of Yapahuwa
Ornamental Stairway
The lion and the traveler
View from the top

From there, another steep climb will take you to the summit of Yapahuwa rock. The path and its steps are sometimes a bit worn, so you need to be careful. On the top of the rock, you are rewarded with a wonderful 360° view of Yapahuwa’s surroundings.

Slippery when wet
On top of the world

When you get back down, you can wander through the remains of the palace. There is also a lovely cave temple here, with a seated Buddha and some exquisite 13th-century frescoes.

The seated Buddha

Wilpattu National Park

Wilpattu was the first national park we visited, but it also turned out to be the best safari experience we had in Sri Lanka. Our hotel, Wild Wadi Wilpattu, was situated in Eluwankulam, just south of the park. Again, we were the only visitors at that time and were pampered & spoiled with all the help we would need (and more) ànd the most exquisite birthday dinner we ever had (Febe turned 13 that day – and they even invited some local people to play music and sing for us).

Birthday dinner

Our hotel had also arranged our full day (6am to 6pm) safari in Wilpattu. We entered the park through the Eluwankulama Gate (which is not the main gate, but on a full day you get to see most of the park anyway). Quite a spectacular entrance, since we had to drive through a crossing in the river. After paying the entrance fee (LKR 28117.5 for the car, the driver and the three of us for a full day) we entered to explore this vast and relatively quiet national park. It turned out most people only visit Yala NP because you have a higher chance for spotting leopards there and because Wilpattu is a much larger park, so the density of animals is supposed to be lower. Wilpattu is also much more forested, which makes it more difficult to spot animals. That said, Wilpattu is also much greener (it simply is a much more beautiful park) and we spotted a lot of wildlife here, so no complaints whatsoever.

Entering the park
On the road
Spotted Deer
Monkeys on the road

If you ask us, we would say that Wilpattu is a must-do. Have yourself a full day at your disposal and you’ll have the best Sri Lankan safari experience here. We did spot a leopard here (albeit from quite a distance), which we didn’t in Yala. So in the end it’s all about luck and once you’ve put all expectations aside and just go with the flow of the adventure, you will see that there is much more to discover here than only leopards and sloth bears (which we didn’t see btw). Also: don’t focus on mammals only, and you will notice that there are so many beautiful birds and reptiles to be discovered as well. We had lunch near one of the lakes (where we saw a monitor lizard and marsh crocodiles).

The leopard – not the best shot
Crested Serpent Eagle
Green Bee-eater
Malabar Pied Hornbill
Garden Lizard
Land Monitor
Peek a Boo
Marsh Crocodile

We did see one elephant in the morning, but during the last hours of our visit, our driver took us to a part of the park where he knew the elephants would resurface after their afternoon rest. And he was right! We enjoyed watching the elephants grazing and wandering about in the golden sunlight of the late afternoon. We also had a close and unexpected encounter with an elephant cow and her baby, which was a bit scary for us and for the elephant family.

Asian elephants close to sunset

Wilpattu is a hidden gem and this was definitely one of the most memorable days of our visit to Sri Lanka.


As I already said, the north of Sri Lanka combines the best of nature with the best of culture. After Wilpattu, we drove to the Sacred City of Anuradhapura, a UNESCO world heritage site since 1982. We stayed at the excellent Hotel Heladiv, which offers spacious rooms, a nice little swimming pool, a beautiful garden and some very delicious dinner options.

We booked a full-day tuk tuk tour with mr. Kumara, a.k.a. Siri. There are many great guides that can take you through the city, but Siri is definitely one we can fully recommend. The full tour (including Mihintale and all entrance fees) cost us $115 (for 3pp), which is really cheap for a full-day experience. He first took us to the temple and Buddhism education center of Sarananda Maha Pirivena, where he told us the story of Siddhartha Gautama and how Buddhism was established in Sri Lanka. His elaborate presentation also included a beautiful, mesmerizing song, which he performed with all his heart. We also visited the impressive Buddha statue here.

In the tuk tuk with Siri
Never turn your back to the Buddha

We started our tour with a visit to the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, a holy tree believed to originate from a branch of the fig tree under which Buddha attained Enlightenment. It is therefore also considered the oldest tree ever to be planted by humans. The tree is the beating heart of Anuradhapura. We visited the temple and made an offering of lotus flowers here.

The holy Bodhi Tree
Offerings at the temple

We then walked up to the impressive Ruwanweliseya stupa. Since Anuradhapura is a sacred city, we always had to walk barefoot or wear only our socks. This expression of respect (which also includes long trousers, so be prepared to get sweaty) also resulted in painfully burned feet. The white Ruwanweliseya stupa is still one of the world’s tallest ancient monuments. The building is surrounded by a frieze made of sculpted elephants.

Ruwanweliseya Stupa with a frieze of elephants
Ruwanweliseya Stupa

The Jetavanarama stupa (3rd century AD) is included in the Guinness Book of Records as “Largest ancient stupa”: the largest stupa of the ancient world that is. When it was built by King Mahasena, it was the 3rd largest building in the world after the pyramids of Gizeh. It currently isn’t the tallest stupa anymore, but it still is the largest (broadest). It has a warm, reddish-brown colour, because it is made of bricks. Maybe the most beautiful dagoba of Anuradhapura, but also the most painful one (for your feet). Next to the dagoba, you will find a small but interesting museum and the remains of an ancient monastery.

In the museum
Walking towards the Jetavanarama stupa
A Buddha statue at the Jetavanarama stupa
Truly an impressive monument

The Abhayagiri Monastery (1st century BC) is one of the most extensive ruins in the world and is actually a complex of several monastic buildings. The most interesting points of interest of this site are:

  • the Twin Ponds or Kuttam Pokuna
  • Eth Pokuna, the “Elephant Pond”
  • the Abhayagiri Vihāra Dagoba, with some interesting bas-reliefs. Surrounded by Buddha statues.
  • the Samadhi Buddha, one of the finest Buddha statues in Sri Lanka
  • Remains of the Jewel Palace or Ratnaprasada. The beautifully carved guard stone depicting the Cobra King is noteworthy.
  • Sri Lanka’s finest carved moonstone, with depictions of many animals.
Kuttam Pokuna
Eth Pokuna
The beautiful Abhayagiri Vihāra Dagoba
A Buddha statue near the Abhayagiri Vihāra Dagoba
The Samadhi Buddha
Toque macaque family
Exploring the remains of the monastery
The moonstone
Guard stone of the Ratnaprasada
Gana (dwarfs) holding up the steps

We stopped here for lunch. The ladies of the little street food shack close to the Ratnaprasada made us some delicious banana and coconut roti.

With our tuk tuk we also passed by the oldest stupa of Sri Lanka: Thuparama stupa (3rd century BC).

Thuparama stupa

Our last stop in Anuradhapura was the peculiar rock temple complex of Isurumuniya Vihara, set around a lovely lotus pond.

View from the top


A visit to Anuradhapura is not complete without visiting the sacred site of Mihintale as well. This is where Buddhism was introduced to king Devanampiya Tissa in the 3rd century BC. The complex is located only 13km east of Anuradhapura, so it can be easily reached with a tuktuk.

On the way to Mihintale, we stopped at an old (and very elaborate) banyan fig tree and a secluded pond, again with ancient ruins at its shores (Kaludiya Pokuna).

Kaludiya Pokuna
Ruins at Kaludiya Pokuna

To reach the site of Mihintale, you need to survive a stairway consisting of a strenuous 750 steps, again to be taken on bare feet. When you finally reach the top, you’ll see the central Ambasthale Dagoba (with a statue of the king) in front of you. But if you want to get a closer look of the Buddha statue or enjoy the views from either the viewpoint or the Mahaseya Dagoba, you’ll need to do some more climbing. The steps that lead towards the viewpoint are so worn out that this climb is truly hazardous and should be done with caution. But the views are definitely worth the effort.

The Ambasthale Dagoba and viewpoint
Posing in front of the Mihintale Buddha
Enjoying the view

We stayed at Mihintale until sunset. Watching the sun setting over the vast expanse of the Mihintale landscape was just an amazing experience and the best end of this day one could wish.

Mihintale at sunset

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