Even on our honeymoon, we couldn’t just pick a relaxing vacation. Travel for us has always been about seeking adventure, meeting locals, taking in all the smells and sights, and feeling like we’re getting off the beaten path. Sri Lanka was becoming a hip destination by the time my husband and I married in 2017. I remember seeing Instagram smothered in images of young travelers hanging out of train windows, vistas over Sigiriya Rock, palm trees that seemed to spill straight into the ocean, and elephant safaris. It was attractive, but I knew our Sri Lanka vacation would offer us even more than what meets the eye.

By Emily Taylor, all photos by Emily Sierra Photography

A monk stares at the ocean among palm trees near Mirissa Beach Sri Lanka

Within our first week in Sri Lanka, we just felt we were chasing the tourist track: Galle, Mirissa Beach and Ella. Don’t get me wrong, these places are all very beautiful–we just felt that we were missing the heartbeat of the country. We shifted our sails, and found some other wonderful destinations around the country.

Coastal roads north of Jaffna in Sri Lanka

To the east coast: Trincomalee & Uppuveli

This part of the country has definitely seen a surge in attention over the years, but somehow maintains way fewer tourists than other beach destinations in Sri Lanka. Lucky for us, and always recommended to other travelers, we hit this area in the off-season. Not only were hotel rates cheaper, but it was just sleepy–in a wonderful way. We lounged on the beach (okay, I relax sometimes), and got to meet local fisherman there. We helped the men pull in their fishing nets and witnessed hundreds of small fish leap around on the beach as they brought in their daily catch.

Fisherman on the beach in Uppuveli near Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

A Sri Lanka vacation in the capital: Colombo

Typically I’m not a fan of cities, but Colombo has a distinct charm and diversity. We loved wandering the streets, sampling local snack staples like kottu, rotty, and hoppers. For our main meals, we sat down for rice and curry, eating with our hands as the locals do. At dusk, we strolled along Galle Face Green and saw families of different ethnicities and religious backgrounds spending time with one another, eating street food, flying kites, playing soccer, and swimming in the ocean. Colombo simply felt real, we could really feel its pulse.

Flying a kite at sunset on Galle Face Green in Colombo, Sri Lanka

Assortment of rice and curry in Sri Lanka

To the north: Jaffna

Now we really felt like we were off the beaten path. Nobody mentioned Jaffna to us when we researched this trip, but somehow we became intrigued while on the ground. As we traveled by train into the country’s northernmost major city, the culture shifted also. Tamil culture in the north is vibrant: through the food, the people and the architecture. In many ways, Jaffna feels like a world away from the rest of Sri Lanka. We explored the surrounding region on motorbike and bicycle, witnessing parts of the city still recovering from the end of the region’s civil war in 2009. We were welcomed into temples (sans camera) and followed local customs. Similar to Colombo, Jaffna just felt like a real city that welcomed travelers to view their culture and nothing more. There were no over-the-top tourist attractions, and that alone made it more intriguing to us.

View over Jaffna at sunset in Sri Lanka

War torn sectors of Jaffna, Sri Lanka

If you’re ready to get off the beaten track in Sri Lanka, I recommend reading beyond what you first see on Instagram. We did this during our honeymoon, and it made all the difference.

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