Roughly the size of Ireland, Sri Lanka may be diminutive, but it packs an awful lot in between its palm-fringed shores. This teardrop-shaped island has no fewer than 22 national parks where you can feast your eyes on wild elephants, mugger crocodiles, and if you’re very lucky, maybe even an elusive leopard. There’s mysterious ruined cities, dramatically-placed religious monuments and ancient painted caves to discover. Lowland jungles, far-reaching plains, lush tea plantations and sublime stargazing spots call out to be explored. The country’s utter abundance of delicious dishes could fill a whole itinerary by itself.
With so much to squeeze into a trip, you’ll need to schedule in some downtime or you may wind up needing a holiday to recover from your holiday. A day or two on the beach will be just what you need. Poised above the equator in the balmy waters of the Indian Ocean, the Cinnamon Isle has endless swathes of lovely strands on which to relax. Read on for our lowdown on Sri Lanka’s best beaches and make sure you pencil in time to lounge on its sands.
This remote village is located on the island’s southeast coast, near to the Yala National Park. This makes it a perfect option if you start suffering from animal fatigue (think castle fatigue but furrier). With waves roll in all the way from the Antarctic, Arugam has earned something of an international reputation in the surfing world. This conclusively puts it on the list of Sri Lanka's best beaches. The surf season runs from April to October and you can rent boards right on the beach if you don’t have your own. If you’re not into surfing, swim in the well-protected inner bay, explore the mangrove lagoons and soak up the chilled-out atmosphere.
Sunset as seen from Elephant Rock near Arugam Bay © Shanti Hesse / Shutterstock
The southern end of Bentota beach is home to a nice collection of small scale luxury hotels marking it out as a stylish alternative to the west coast’s louder resorts. Just south of the train station, you’ll find a broad swathe of sand in front of thick thickets of palms. It’s one of the most winsome beaches on the island. At Bentota’s northern end, you’ll find Paradise Island. This thin spit of land separates the Indian Ocean and the tranquil waters of the Bentota Lagoon. Behind the lagoon, the Bentota Ganga river provides the perfect conditions for jet skiing, speedboating, water skiing and windsurfing. The Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery is also nearby.
Golden sands and palm trees at Bentota Beach © EvgeniiSakaliu / Shutterstock
This laid-back beachside village sits in the south of the island near to the Dutch Fort and port city of Galle. Mirissa's fine stretch of sand backed by verdant coconut palms and world class blue whale watching make this pretty little bay one of Sri Lanka's best beaches, if not one of the country's most appealing places. It’s lively after dark with a thriving bar scene that glows with charming strings of fairy lights.
The pretty little bay of Mirissa near Galle © inigolai-Photography / Shutterstock
Hikkaduwa is another south coast beach that’s especially popular with backpackers. It’s an energetic spot, featuring plenty of restaurants, bars and shops. Each July, Hikkaduwa hosts Beach Fest, a five-day music festival that draws international DJs and revellers galore. The surf is another attraction that brings people to this shore, with the season running from November to April. You'll also be able to experience outstanding snorkelling at the Coral Sanctuary just a couple of hundred metres offshore. A word of advice, it’s illegal to take coral and shells out of the country.
Picture perfect Hikkaduwa on the south coast © Thomas Dekiere / Shutterstock
Five kilometres southeast of Galle and neighbouring Hikkaduwa, Unawatuna is a little quieter but still has a buzzy atmosphere. While its selection of restaurants and bars mean that it’s sadly lost the sleepy charm it once enjoyed, it’s small enough to have retained an intimate atmosphere. The beach arranges itself in a graceful horseshoe shape that’s only about one kilometre from end to end. The strand was seriously depleted by the 2004 tsunami but has since been plumped up with sand scooped from the seabed. Thanks to offshore rocks that break up the waves, the water at Unawatuna is safe for swimming year-round.
An aerial view down over Unawatuna Beach © aksenovden / Shutterstock
Kalpitya is a beautiful windswept peninsula in the northwest. Lined with spotless beaches, it's bounded on either side by the sea and the Puttalam Lagoon. There’s miles and miles of secluded beach to enjoy, but it’s worth remembering that no matter how private it might feel, nudity and topless sunbathing are illegal in Sri Lanka. Kalpitya offers eco lodges and amazing kitesurfing opportunities as well as superb dolphin watching. You may even spot the occasional pod of sperm whale too. The Barr Reef Sanctuary coral system has the highest level of biodiversity of any coral reef around India.
ALT: Sri Lanka's Best Beaches: A dolphin watching boat on the white sands at Kalpitya
A dolphin watching boat on the white sands at Kalpitya © shutterlk / Shutterstock.
See Sri Lanka's best beaches on a Rough Guides tailor-made trip to the Pearl of the Indian Ocean.