Sri Lanka: 10 tips for first-time visitors

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Chloe Cann
1/15/2021

Sri Lanka’s heady mix of beautiful landscapes, incredibly friendly locals and British colonial heritage make it a beguiling destination. With turbulent years behind Sri Lanka, 2021 is the perfect time to visit. Here are ten Sri Lanka travel tips to help first-time visitors.

1. Prepare to go slow

Although infrastructure is improving and transport options are plentiful, getting around this modestly sized country, with its tightly winding roads and engine-testing inclines, can feel a little trying at times.

The Hill Country is particularly notorious for eating away time. Whether travelling by bus, tuk-tuk or train, expect to inch from one tea plantation to the next at speeds of around 12-15 miles per hour. For many travellers, hiring a car and driver will be a good alternative. Rough Guides can connect you with a local expert in Sri Lanka to organise everything from a private driver to excursions, accommodation and more.

A tuk-tuk approaching Galle Fort, Sri Lanka © eFesenko/Shutterstock

2. Go to relax, not to rave

Outside of Colombo, and a few beach resorts, hostels with dorm rooms tend to be thin on the ground. Family-run guesthouses are much more common. This makes it easy to meet locals but harder for solo travellers hoping to make friends on the road.

As an emerging honeymoon hotspot, Sri Lanka also attracts a lot of couples. Those looking for nightlife to rival Bangkok’s Khao San Road will leave unfulfilled: beach bars pepper Arugam Bay on the east coast and Hikkaduwa on the west, but these are mellow affairs and many shut down out of season.

With the ancient traditions of Ayurveda medicine being very much alive and lived in Sri Lanka, it is also the ideal destination to leave your stressful life behind, join a retreat and enter a state of bliss - through meditations, yoga and Ayurvedic treatments.

3. Treat yourself

If you've got Sri Lankan rupees to spare there are plenty of new luxury hotels and resorts where you can spend them. International names such as Aman have already set up shop on the island, and Shangri-La operates two hotels on the island, one in Colombo and one in Hambantota. But it’s the home-grown, luxury hotel mini-chains that you ought to keep your eye on. Uga Escapes, with for example the Chena Huts in Yala, and Resplendent Ceylon with properties such as Cape Weligama are just two examples of burgeoning local brands that offer more than just copy-and-paste properties.

Vallipuram Alvar temple near Jaffna, Sri Lanka © Saiko3p/Shutterstock

4. Go north to get away from the crowds

Formerly off-limits, the country's Northern Province is prime territory for those who want to roam off the beaten path. Once a Tamil Tiger stronghold, it was one of the last areas on the island to reopen to tourists, and has yet to succumb to the same wave of hotels, resorts and other developments – or to receive the same flurry of foreign visitors.

If you’re after deserted golden beaches, remote temples and colonial port towns – go north. The sample itinerary 'Jaffna and Western Sri Lanka', created by local expert Hazan, is a good sample of what to explore from Jaffna and surroundings. Best of all it is, as all our sample itineraries, 100% customisable to fit your preferences. Simply click 'modify this itinerary' to connect with Hazan directly.

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5. Focus on food

Sri Lankan food is delicious, so make the most of it while you’re there. However, knowing where and when to find the good stuff may prove a harder task than you anticipated. Bowl-shaped hoppers (savoury rice flour crêpes) are a highlight, though they are typically only served first thing in the morning or late afternoon. Rice and curry is a lunchtime affair, while kottu rotty (chopped flatbread stir-fried with eggs and vegetables) is only available in the evening.

Those familiar with Asia will be surprised at the lack of street food stalls; instead, some of the best food can be found in the kitchens of small guesthouses.

Upon landing in Colombo, spend a night in the capital (see next point) and join a small group tour to get a first taste of the delicious cuisine. A local guide will explain all different options and flavours to you.

Traditional Sri Lankan breakfast with egg hoppers © BlueOrange Studio/Shutterstock

6. Consider Colombo

With jazz clubs, rooftop bars, boutique stores and internationally acclaimed restaurants, Colombo can no longer be considered a mere gateway city. And though there are a number of sights to see, the capital is also a great place to simply settle in and get a sense of what local life is like.

Watch families fly kites on Galle Face Green at sunset. Then cheer for the national cricket team at the R Premadasa Stadium, or observe grandmothers swathed in vivid saris bargain with stallholders at Pettah Market. Get around in Tuktuks, walk through markets and grab some delicious street food on the way (see point 5!) - a private hidden gems tour through Colombo will not only allow you to discover the capital, but also introduce you to the Sri Lankan way of living.

7. Plan around the seasons

While the monsoon rains might not dampen your enthusiasm for exploring, bear in mind that experiences can vary wildly depending on the season. If you’re desperate to climb Adam’s Peak, for example, then visit during pilgrimage season (December–May).

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Outside of these months it’s still possible to hike to the summit, but the myriad tea shops that line the path will be closed. You’ll also tackle the peak with a handful of tourists instead of hundreds of local devotees, meaning much of the atmosphere and camaraderie among climbers is lost.

Adam's Peak in Sri Lanka © Melinda Nagy/Shutterstock

8. Get active

Sri Lanka might be known for its stupas, beaches and tea plantations, but it’s also crammed with adrenaline-packed activities. Why not try surfing in Arugam Bay, hiking the Knuckles Mountain Range or white-water rafting in Kelaniya Ganga, Kitulgala. Cycling holidays are also becoming increasingly popular. Why not mix it all and create your own adventure tour in Sri Lanka? Hiking, trekking, cycling - all included in Frank's Adventure Lovers sample itinerary. Or simply take a day tour biking in Colombo's countryside.

9. Make the most of your money

By western standards, Sri Lanka is still a cheap destination, but prices are rising. For everyday items such as tea and toothpaste, head to the supermarkets in big cities where you can rest assured that you’re not paying over the odds. In the corner shops of smaller cities simply check the packaging, which has the price printed next to the letters "Rs." (meaning rupees).

Tea pickers in Sri Lanka © Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock

10. Understand the culture

At its closest point, only 18 miles of water separate Sri Lanka and India – but there’s a world of difference between the two. The pace of life in Sri Lanka feels much less frantic than that of its neighbour. This makes Sri Lanka the ideal choice for those intrigued, yet intimidated, by India.

Few locals bat an eyelid at western visitors and while covering up is always appreciated (and necessary at places of worship), wearing shorts and vests is unlikely to attract much attention.

Top image: Tea pickers in Sri Lanka © Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock

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