The thing you notice about Sri Lanka is how green it is. As you barrel along one of the country’s pristine highways, palm plantations explode from seemingly endless grasslands. Up in the highlands, the tea fields blanket the landscape in emerald.

While there’s beauty in every direction, the headlines haven’t been so pretty in the past few years. There’s been civil unrest in the capital Colombo stemming from the country’s worst economic crisis since gaining independence from Britain in 1948. Sri Lanka is only just starting along the road to recovery, and tourism could bring the country back from the brink.

Go coastal

On par with anything you’ll find in Bali or Thailand, Sri Lanka’s best beaches lie south of Colombo, and surf towns like Unawatuna, Mirissa and Hiriketiya become hotspots from December to March during the southern dry season. Famously, it’s where the jungle meets the sea – swaying palms stud golden sands, and the breaks are primed for beginner surfers if you pick the right spot. Whether you’re after seafood from a beachfront vendor or a killer cocktail at one of Asia’s 50 best bars, you’ll find it in this part of the world.

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Scale Sigiriya

Most countries this size have a couple of world heritage sites at best. Sri Lanka has a whopping eight. The king of them is Sigiriya, an ancient rock fortress looming high above the Central Province on a towering plateau. Like an Indiana Jones set piece, two gigantic lion paws guard the steps to the summit. The ascent is a workout, but the payoff is a smashing 360-degree view of the surrounding gardens and the countryside. It’s so breathtaking you’ll almost forget to take that selfie.

See Buddha’s tooth

The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic is a Buddhist temple in Kandy said to house the left canine tooth of Gautama Buddha himself. It’s sunrise when Broadsheet visits Sri Lanka’s holiest site and we jostle with hundreds of devotees bearing lotus flowers. We’re ushered single file to a viewing area – the sound of ceremonial drums booming in the background – where we catch a glimpse of the tooth’s resting place adorned in silver, bronze and gold. Blink and you’ll miss this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Railway to heaven

Australia has the Ghan. Switzerland the Glacier Express. Sri Lanka has a local train line to rival the most scenic rail journeys in the world – and it’ll only set you back a couple of bucks. Winding its way between Kandy to Ella (a cool little backpacker town in the Central Highlands), the roughly three-hour trip packs in soaring mountain ranges, ancient forests and verdant valleys. Banish any ideas of stuffy, crowded carriages. This one’s plenty comfy if you book ahead.

Tea time

Sipped black and spiked with sugar, Ceylon tea is Sri Lanka’s biggest export. That means you’re never too far from a cup of the good stuff. Head to the highlands of Bandarawela and visit a fairtrade plantation, where you can hike through the tea fields, see manufacturing in action and taste green, white and black Ceylon teas. With a view of mist-shrouded fields blanketing the landscape, we guarantee it’ll be the best cuppa you’ve ever had.

Go on safari

The Yala National Park wildlife sanctuary in Sri Lanka’s south-east is more than 20 times bigger than Colombo. It’s home to the native sloth bear, who’s dwindling numbers make it one of the world’s most endangered animals. Only hundreds are left in the wild, but there’s a fair chance you’ll see one of these eccentric creatures on a 4WD safari through the park. You’ll also get up close with elephants, wildebeest, native birds and – if you visit at night and you’re incredibly lucky – leopards prowling the savanna.

Eat absolutely everything

Dosas bursting with spiced veg. Egg hoppers filled with punchy sambols. Deep-fried kavum cakes sweetened with treacle. Sustainable operator Intrepid Travel runs a popular food tour of the southern half of the country (including everything in this guide) across 12 action-packed days. Hit the streets in search of short eats, visit a family home for a hopper-making masterclass, and sample regional dishes like kottu roti, lamprais and a crab curry we can’t stop thinking about.

The writer visited Sri Lanka as a guest of Intrepid Travel.

This story is part of The Travel Issue: Wish You Were Here.