In antiquity, Sri Lanka was known to travelers by a variety of names. According to the Mahavamsa, the legendary Prince Vijaya named the land Tambapanni (‘copper-red hands’ or ‘copper-red earth’), because his followers’ hands were reddened by the red soil of the area. In Hindu mythology, such as the Ramayana, the island was referred to as Lankā (‘Island’). The Tamil term Eelam (Tamil: ஈழம், romanized: īḻam), was used to designate the whole island in Sangam literature. The island was known under Chola rule as Mummudi Cholamandalam (‘realm of the three crowned Cholas’).
Ancient Greek geographers called it Taprobanā (Ancient Greek: Ταπροβανᾶ) or Taprobanē (Ταπροβανῆ) from the word Tambapanni. The Persians and Arabs referred to it as Sarandīb (the origin of the word “serendipity“) from Sanskrit Siṃhaladvīpaḥ. Ceilão, the name given to Sri Lanka by the Portuguese Empire when it arrived in 1505, was transliterated into English as Ceylon. As a British crown colony, the island was known as Ceylon; it achieved independence as Ceylon in 1948.
You might say Sri Lanka has been hiding in plain sight. Scores of travelers have passed overhead on their way to someplace else, but years of uncertainty kept Sri Lanka off many itineraries.
Now, however, all that has changed. The country is moving forward quickly as more and more people discover its myriad charms. Lying between the more trodden parts of India and Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka’s history, culture, and natural beauty are undeniably alluring. It’s the place you haven’t been to yet, that you should.
Few places have as many Unesco World Heritage Sites (eight) packed into such a small area. Sri Lanka’s 2000-plus years of culture can be discovered at ancient sites where legendary temples boast beautiful details even as they shelter in caves or perch on prominent peaks. More recent are evocative colonial fortresses, from Galle to Trincomalee.
Across the island, that thing that goes bump in the night might be an elephant heading to a favorite waterhole. Safari tours of Sri Lanka’s pleasantly relaxed national parks encounter leopards, water buffaloes, all manner of birds and a passel of primates.
Distances are short: see the sacred home of the world’s oldest living human-planted tree in the morning (Anuradhapura) and stand awestruck by the sight of hundreds of elephants gathering in the afternoon (Minneriya). Discover a favorite beach, meditate in a 2000-year-old temple, exchange smiles while strolling a mellow village, marvel at birds and wildflowers, try to keep count of the little dishes that come with your rice and curry. Wander past colonial gems in Colombo, then hit some epic surf.
Sri Lanka is spectacular, affordable and still often uncrowded. Now is the best time to discover it.
When you’re ready to escape the tropical climate of the coast and lowlands, head for the hills, with their temperate, achingly green charms. Verdant tea plantations and rainforested peaks beckon walkers, trekkers and those who just want to see them from a spectacular train ride.
And then there are the beaches. Dazzlingly white and often untrodden, they ring the island so that no matter where you go, you’ll be near a sandy gem. Should you beat the inevitable languor, you can surf and dive world-class sites without world-class crowds. And you’re always just a short hop from something utterly new.
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