Crammed with fascinating ancient sites, shaded tea plantations and incredible food, it’s easy to see why Sri Lanka tops the list of so many travellers’ must-visit destinations. From palm-fringed beaches and multi-faith pilgrimage towns, whale watching to exploring luscious jungles and colourful art, this tropical island truly packs a punch that makes for a fascinating and unforgettable visit.
Sri Lanka's biodiversity makes it a haven for wildlife in Asia, if not the world. You can spot roaming elephants in Uda Walawe National Park, colourful birds in Sinharaja Forest Reserve and even sloth bears (yes, that's a real thing) as you wander through Wilpattu National Park. And that’s just on land. There’s an abundance of magnificent sea-life here too: it's an island nation after all. There are mugger and saltwater crocodiles; green and leatherback turtles; spinner, Risso and bottlenose dolphins; and, last but certainly not least, whales.
Head out on a whale-watching tour and it's extremely likely you’ll be rewarded with sightings of blue, sperm, Humpback and Bryde’s whales. In fact, Sri Lanka ranks in the top two or three countries in the world to see them.
Wondering why it’s such a prime spot? Aside from the tons of krill around here that the whales feast on, there’s an annual migration of blue and sperm whales between the Bay of the Bengal and the Arabian Sea, via the coast of Sri Lanka. Originally plotted by British marine biologist, Charles Anderson, back in 1999, the migration is now hailed as one of the greatest cetacean migratory routes in the world. Read on to discover the best spots to go whale watching in Sri Lanka.
Stilt fishermen, surfing and rocky coves: southern Sri Lanka is the ultimate beach destination. There’s wildlife aplenty here, from Yala National Park – home to the largest population of leopards anywhere in the world – to nightly turtle watches in the small village of Rekawa. Whether you want to get stuck in with snorkelling or watch the lapping shoreline from a rustic restaurant, the south of Sri Lanka is a perfect place to reconnect with nature.
Mirissa makes for a picturesque stay by the sea, and is arguably the best and most popular area to go whale-watching in Sri Lanka. What makes it a prime spot for whale-watching is its geographic position: this is where the continental shelf is at its narrowest, with ocean depths reaching 1km a few kilometres offshore.
There are plenty of tour operators (mostly at Mirissa Harbour) who offer dolphin- and whale-watching excursions, setting off from Weligama Bay. There are also a few touts who offer tickets at cheaper prices, but it’s important to choose a reliable operator for the most eco- and safety-conscious trip. Some boats cater for eight or so people, others over fifty. Tours start early at 6am, and during the three to four hours you’re out on the water, you’re likely to catch sightings of blue, sperm and possibly even a Humpback whale.
Best time to visit: December–April
The west of Sri Lanka is vastly different to the south, as it is the most noticeably developed area. The main international airport is located here, and this stretch of coast is built for large swathes of visitors. There’s still plenty worth exploring here, from the tranquil wetlands of Muthurajawela to Wilpattu National Park, the largest national park in the country, and it’s also one of the lesser-known spots for whale-watching, too.
The Kalpitiya peninsula, just north of Chilaw, is brimming with beaches, lagoons and historic buildings. Whale sightings have only become more prominent in the past ten years or so, with sperm whales diving down to try their luck at catching a giant squid. If you’re lucky, there’s a chance you might see a magnificent blue whale, too.
The majority of hotels, camps and guesthouses in Kalpitiya can easily arrange whale-watching tours for guests. Most trips start at sunrise and can last up to three hours. The best time to visit is outside of the monsoon season, when the sea should be at its calmest.
Best time to visit: November–March/April
The east of Sri Lanka is flanked with sandy beaches, soothing coastal scenery and a maze of waterways. While it’s generally quieter than near Colombo, there's plenty on offer. Arugam Bay is a world-class hotspot for surfers, and if you keep your eyes peeled in Lahugala National Park, you might even spot a few elephants, too.
Trincomalee may not be as well-developed as the likes of Mirissa and Kalpitiya, but that’s part of its charm. Eight nautical miles from the east of Trincomalee (that's 30mins by boat) you'll be primed for sightings of blue whales – a truly unforgettable experience. If your seafaring legs aren't up to it, head to Swami Rock. This very tall, very steep cliff provides great vantage points from which to try and spot a whale fluke breeching the water, with sweeping down towards the town, across the coast and down to the deep blue waters below.
Just 1km off the coast from the small village of Nilaveli sits Pigeon Island National Park, home to live coral and tropical fish. Local tour operators can arrange snorkelling around here – if you’re lucky, you might find yourself in the company of a turtle, or even a whale.
Best time to visit: March/April–August/September
Top image: Blue whale diving in south of Sri Lanka © Shalom Rufeisen/Shutterstock
Aimee is an in-house Senior Travel Editor at Rough Guides and is the podcast host of The Rough Guide to Everywhere. She is also a freelance travel writer and has written for various online and print publications, including a guidebook to the Isle of Wight. Follow her on Twitter at