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Sri Lanka Travel Guide

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Updated: 1st September 2021

Sri Lanka not only surprised me (in a good way), but it was also a country I very quickly fell in love with.  There is so much to pack in here, every couple of hours you feel like you have arrived in a new country. If you want the headlines, I’ve written up the ten best things to do in Sri Lanka.

From the lush green tea fields of the hill country to the much warmer and blissfully peaceful beaches of the south with old forts, wildlife safaris and rich traditions thrown in, don’t underestimate how much time you need to explore the country formerly known as Ceylon.

I hope this in-depth Sri Lanka travel guide will help you plan an incredible adventure to this Island that is slowly gearing up for a tourism invasion.

Elephant Safari Sri Lanka
Witness an elephant migration in Sri Lanka

What to see in Sri Lanka

You need at least two weeks to explore Sri Lanka properly – the transport and infrastructure here, although developing, is still not the best, making getting around Sri Lanka a fun adventure. My personal favourites were taking the Kandy to Ella train, seeing Elephants in the wild on Safari and exploring the beautiful hill country. The beaches can’t be missed on the south coast, and you are sure to discover one that is nearly empty.

My personal favourites were taking the Kandy to Ella train, seeing Elephants in the wild on Safari and exploring the beautiful hill country. The beaches can’t be missed on the south coast, and you are sure to discover one that is nearly empty to spend the day killing time on.

Canteloupe Aqua Sri Lanka Best Hotels
Not a bad bathroom…

The top attractions in Sri Lanka

Empty beaches on the coast
While beaches nearer to Galle and Unawatuna are quite developed, drive along the coast towards Mirissa and Matara, and you can have a whole stretch of sand to yourself.

The Historic Triangle
The most famous of Sri Lanka’s UNESCO sites are all within easy access to each other and offer some impressive architecture and ruins to explore (see more below).

Wildlife Safaris
You are truly spoilt for choice when it comes to wildlife in Sri Lanka. Yala National Park, home to Leopards, Monkeys, Elephants and more, offers a safari experience cheaper than African counterparts, whilst Whale sea safaris are a must-do in Season.

Exploring Tea Fields
The hill towns, especially around Ella and Nuwara Eliya, are home to many tea plantations. Visit factories, go on tastings and take in the breathtaking green vistas.

Visit Adams Peak
This trek isn’t for the faint-hearted, but the views are well worth the early morning rise to take this sacred summit.

Sri Lanka UNESCO List

There are eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka – find a detailed summary of them below.

Ancient Polonnaruwa
The second capital of Sri Lanka offers some impressive ruins and archaeological sites, with many similar UNESCO attractions in the country; those short on time could opt only to see one or two.

Golden Temple of Dambulla
These five intricate rock temples, behind the large Golden Buddha of Dambulla, are easily reached from Sigiriya. In the dark light, it is a struggle to make out how beautiful the artwork truly is.

Dambulla Caves Inside Sri Lanka
Inside the Dambulla Cave Temples, one of Sri Lanka’s UNESCO attractions

Historic Anuradhapura
The heart of Sri Lanka for many years; if you only visit one UNESCO site in Sri Lanka, this will likely be it. Impressive collections of buildings and history collide here and offer a glimpse into history over 1000 years old.

Old Town Galle
This Dutch and Portuguese fort town is worth a day to explore and wander around. The small streets offer up churches, cute cafes and some fine dining options, whilst the new town Galle has the main train station in the south.

Central Highlands
With rolling green tea fields, colder temperatures and mountains in the clouds, the central highlands are a complete contradiction to the rest of the island.

Citadel of Sigiriya
The Lions Rock, with the relatively destroyed ruins of the citadel on top, not only offers incredible views but gives a fascinating insight into historic construction methods, especially given how the water used to be pumped up to the top. Sigiriya and the Dambulla caves can be easily combined.

Sri Lanka Sigiriya
Climbing the Lions Rock, Sigiriya

City of Kandy
Home to the temple of the Tooth, this off-beat city surrounded by hills didn’t really capture my inspiration, but the temple is one of the most visited attractions in the country.

Sinharaja Forest
A lesser visited Sri Lanka UNESCO attraction, the Sinharaja Forest is a biodiverse national park located not far from Galle, one of the last remaining rainforests in the country.

Read more details about Sri Lanka’s UNESCO attractions here.

Unique places to visit in Sri Lanka

The Kandy to Ella Train
This train journey has quickly become a popular tourist attraction, and with only a few journeys a day, touts have sadly latched on to buying out many tickets in advance and selling at a premium.

SriLankaTrain
Train rides in Sri Lanka

Minneriya Elephant migration
This national park hosts one of the most impressive Elephant gatherings I have ever seen. With around 300 elephants departing the dry north between May to September, this national park becomes a must-do Safari.

Stilt Fishermen of the South
The traditional method of fishing in Sri Lanka involves balancing on a wooden rod in the ocean to get your catch. Nowadays, it has become much more of a tourist attraction with men posing and wives collecting ‘donations’. I kept driving past these shows and found a lonely spot further along the coast where a couple of fishermen with no watchers were still practising this beautiful method.

Stilt Fishermen Sunset Sri Lanka
Stilt Fishermen in the South

Submarine Yard
In the north of Sri Lanka, the remains of this secret military tourist base for the Tamil Tigers have recently surfaced as one of the odd ‘tourist attractions’.

Where to stay in Sri Lanka

As with much of Asia, Agoda actually has a good selection of properties that aren’t available on other websites, so it might be worth taking a look at alongside the normal search engine you use.

Sri Lanka is a relatively small country, and one to two nights is usually plenty in most locations. If you are doing a Safari or visiting a UNESCO site, there isn’t always that much more to do. I’ve hand-picked a couple of my favourite places below.

Canteloupe Aqua Sri Lanka Best Hotels

Cantaloupe Aqua
South Coast

Situated on the nearly empty and pristine beach of Habaraduwa, with palm trees and ample relaxation, the pool is literally on the beach, as are many of the boutique rooms. It’s a good base to explore Unawatuna or even Galle Fort.

Best Accommodation Sri Lanka

98 Acres Resort
Ella

Photos can’t do this place justice. Surrounded by acres of tea fields and with stunning views across little Adams Peak, these stilt-perched huts are one of the most relaxing escapes in the whole country.

Ozo Sri Lanka Best Hotels

Radisson Hotel Kandy
Kandy

Kandy is a funny little town, and somewhere you might want to give an extra day, so taking a hotel with facilities and a rooftop pool isn’t a bad call. This modern hotel, perched above the city, isn’t traditional but is a good option for unwinding.

Getting to Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has one main airport between Colombo and Negombo – it’s a pretty old place and one of the only places I have ever seen washing machines and hoovers for sale in the arrival area.

Getting around Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a bit of a nightmare for public transport. The buses and trains between Colombo, Galle and further on to Matara are pretty good, but the buses are usually faster. There are also domestic internal flights that can connect you with some of the harder-to-reach parts of the island.

The Kandy to Ella train is a must-do. Although it takes seven hours to do the whole journey.

For most buses in the more remote parts, it is best to ask local shops for where/when they operate as timetables can be pretty flexible. Sometimes, you may opt to go for the private driver route for certain legs, which is what I did to get from Ella down to Mirissa to save time – the cost is not that big.

Old Town Galle Lighthouse
Old Town Galle Lighthouse

Sri Lanka visas and safety

Sri Lanka is a genuinely safe place to travel, and you will be met with more intrigue, especially as a solo traveller, than any threats. That said, here are a few basic tips to help your trip run smoothly.

Bottled water is readily available, and you should never consume the tap water. Always make sure the seal on the bottle is secure before drinking it.

Sri Lanka has a mix of religions, with the main belief system being Theravada Buddhists, with Hindus, Muslims and Roman Catholics making up most of the rest of the population. Certain pockets of the country are focused more on one of the minority regions, so be mindful of any local events that may be taking place due to the religious calendar.

The 25-year civil war is still evident in some parts of Sri Lanka and is something to always be mindful of in your actions and behaviour whilst travelling around Sri Lanka.

Dengue Fever is a risk factor here, so wearing deet/using repellent coils at night is recommended. Malaria tablets won’t stop the chance of this, so be sure to take precautions.

Women should take greater care if offered drinks; spiking has been reported, as has verbal sexual advances. In such a lovely and welcoming country, it can be easy to let your guard down but be mindful at all times.

Only use ATMs if possible in the bigger cities when actually connected to a bank building; card fraud has been on the rise.

If visiting the north of the island, which was closed off for some time, you no longer need a special permit. Military activities are obviously present here, so filming and photography of sensitive sites is strongly advised against. In parts of the country, there is still a risk of minefields, so ask locals and stay on marked paths. More information on the safety aspects of different regions can be found here.

When visiting temples, be mindful of the standard etiquette. Shoes should be removed, shoulders and legs covered, and any headgear such as hats removed. Having your back to a Buddha is disrespectful, even for a photo, so keep this in mind. It should also be noted that visible Buddha tattoos should be covered at all times anywhere in the country.

Travel Insurance

No matter where you are travelling, travel insurance is essential. Trust me, I have been mugged and lost all my gear and nearly my health – no matter how much you think something won’t go wrong, it is not worth the risk.

I personally use Insure and Go as I find their premiums fantastic. However, it is a mainly UK company. Another popular option that plenty of my frequent traveller friends use and recommend is World Nomads. Whoever you decide to book with, do it!

Visas and Travel Warnings

To find out the Visa Requirements and current travel advisories for Indonesia relevant to your home country, follow the links here to the official government websites.

UNITED KINGDOM | USA | AUSTRALIA | CANADA

For all other nationalities, please add your nationality in the box before ‘Citizen’ and hit enter to search…

Sri Lanka travel costs *Out of Date*

Sri Lanka is a relatively small island, but the costs will vary depending on whether you are on the developed coast or places such as Ella or have ventured off into the less chartered territory. As such, please take the cost prices as a rough guide based only on my personal experience.

Food: Meal for 1 Budget – 320Rs | Meal for 1 Upscale – 900Rs

Accommodation:  Double Room Budget – 1600Rs | Double Room Middle – 3800Rs | Double Room Luxury – 7000Rs  +

Taxi (1 Mile) – 80Rs | 1 Beer – 260Rs | 1ltr Water – 60Rs  | Petrol/Gas 1ltr – 130Rs

Exchanging Sri Lanka Rupee

Always shop around when exchanging currency, especially when you are already abroad. If using an ATM, be sure it has not been altered, and aim to arrange an emergency credit card as a backup before you set off on a trip.

If you are looking to exchange money before your travel, then Travelex is a pretty huge international brand with either cash offices or various pre-paid card options. I keep their Cash Passport with me alongside my current account for its ease of re-loading and an emergency backup.

Tours of Sri Lanka

While arranging tours once you arrive in Sri Lanka can sometimes prove a challenge outside of big cities, it is by no means impossible, and there are plenty of local operators for you to track down. I arranged most of my tours, such as tea fields and Safari, on arrival to a destination by chatting to local rickshaws or taxi drivers. That said, tourism is hotting up in Sri Lanka, and in peak times, supply and demand may not match each other, so forward planning may well be the best option.

Here are a few tours you might want to book in advance so you don’t miss out on the best things in Sri Lanka.

Whale watching from Galle | From $62.50

Take a six-hour tour along the coast (in season) to spot Humpbacks, Blue and Killer whales alongside Dolphins.

Sigiriya and Dambulla from Kandy | From $30

With a transfer from Kandy, see the famous citadel on top of Sigiriya and the beautifully intricate Dambulla caves.

8-Day Sri Lanka tour | From $699

Make the most of your visit to Sri Lanka and take in all the famous sights of the country with a private driver.

Yala National Park from Galle | From $150

With transfers from Galle, enjoy a Jeep safari ride with elephants, leopards, monkeys, and so much more in this national park.

The Languages of Sri Lanka: Tamil & Sinhala

Sri Lanka has a few regional dialects and languages, as well as two main ones that are classed as the official language. Learning the basics here, though, will likely get you by through, and English is widely spoken.

Here are a few quick phrases to get you going. Check out my favourite language apps on the link below to delve deeper.

Tamil

Hello: Vanakkam | Goodbye: Poyvituvarukiren

Yes: Amam | No: Illai | Thank You: Nandri

One: onru | Two: irandu | Three: munru

How Much?: yenna vilai? | Do you have?: Vendum

Sinhala

Hello/Good Day: Ayubowan | Yes: Ow | No: Naa

Please: Karunakerara | Thank You: Istuti

One: eka | Two: deka | Three: tuna | Yes: satu | No: dua

How Much?: kiyadha? | Do you speak English?: Singhala danna naa

Sri Lanka weather & climate

The weather in Sri Lanka is a mixed bag – with a usual temperature of 28c year-round, people expect a hot and sunny climate.

However, the hill country is much colder, so packing for two seasons is essential. It also has two monsoon seasons, affecting different parts of the island at different times, so planning your itinerary first, before when to visit, might be advisable.

When to Visit Sri Lanka

Peak Season: As a rule of thumb December to the end of March is classed as peak season, it is dry and therfore all the treks in the hill country can usually be done.

Shoulder Season: April and September, in my opinion, are the best times to visit as the visitor numbers decrease. But the weather is usually generally good throughout.

Off Season: During May to August, the monsoon season hits the beaches of the south coast, but the North and East still remain pretty dry – as you can see, the peak season and best time to visit will vary depending on what you want to do.

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