Travel Guide Sri Lanka
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Sri Lanka, an island south of India crams an extraordinary variety of places to visit within its modest size. Lapped up by the Indian Ocean, the coastline is lined with idyllic – and often refreshingly undeveloped – beaches, while the mainland boasts a compelling variety of landscapes ranging from wildlife-rich lowland jungles to the misty highlands of the hills, swathed in tea plantations.
You’ll find plenty of man-made attractions too when you visit Sri Lanka. It boasts more than two thousand years of recorded history, and the remarkable achievements of the early Sinhalese civilization can still be seen in the ruined cities and great religious monuments that litter the northern plains.
The glories of this early Buddhist civilization continue to provide a symbol of national pride, while Sri Lanka’s historic role as the world’s oldest stronghold of Theravada Buddhism lends it a unique cultural identity. But there’s more to Sri Lanka than just Buddhists. Its geographical position at one of the most important staging posts of Indian Ocean trade laid it open to a uniquely wide range of influences. Generations of Arab, Malay, Portuguese, Dutch and British settlers subtly transformed its culture, architecture and cuisine. Meanwhile the long-established Tamil population in the North have established a vibrant Hindu culture that owes more to India than to the Sinhalese south.
The tropical island has become more of a hot-spot to keen travellers in recent years, although tourism in Sri Lanka remains relatively low key. The country’s wonderful individuality – evident in its contrasting landscapes and its distinct culture, is helping to shape Sri Lanka as a top destination.
Sri Lanka has it all. Watch whales off palm-fringed beaches, track leopards in lush rainforests and hike through the hill country to verdant tea plantations. You can get an insight into the island’s culture by exploring Buddhist monuments, clambering over colonial forts and indulging in its intensely flavoured cuisine. With such a wealth of attractions, figuring out where to go in Sri Lanka can be quite a task, although its relatively small size means you can fit a lot into a single trip.
We’ve covered the length and breadth of the island to uncover the best places to go in Sri Lanka – from the popular to those off the beaten track.
All visits to Sri Lanka currently begin at the international airport just outside Colombo, the island’s capital and far and away its largest city. It’s a sprawling metropolis whose contrasting districts offer an absorbing introduction to Sri Lanka’s myriad cultures and multi-layered history.
Many visitors head straight for one of the west coast’s beaches, whose innumerable resort hotels still power the country’s tourist industry. Destinations include the package holiday resorts of Negombo and Beruwala, the more stylish Bentota, and the old hippy hangout of Hikkaduwa.
More unspoilt countryside can be found north of Colombo at the Kalpitiya peninsula and in the vast Wilpattu National Park nearby, home to leopards, elephants and sloth bears.
Beyond Hikkaduwa, the south coast is significantly less developed. Gateway to the region is the marvellous old Dutch city of Galle, Sri Lanka’s finest colonial town. Beyond lies a string of fine beaches. These include the ever-expanding village of Unawatuna and the quieter stretches of coast at Weligama, Mirissa and Tangalla, as well as the lively provincial capital of Matara, boasting further Dutch remains. East of here, Tissamaharama serves as a convenient base for the outstanding Yala and Bundala national parks, and for the fascinating temple town of Kataragama.
Inland from Colombo rise the verdant highlands of the hill country, enveloped in the tea plantations (first introduced by the British) which still play a vital role in the island’s economy. The symbolic heart of the region is Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second city and the cultural capital of the Sinhalese. Its colourful traditions are embodied by the famous Temple of the Tooth and the magnificent Esala Perahera, Sri Lanka’s most colourful festival.
South of here, close to the highest point of the island, lies the old British town of Nuwara Eliya, centre of the country’s tea industry and a convenient base for visits to the spectacular Horton Plains National Park. A string of towns and villages – Ella, Haputale and Bandarawela – along the southern edge of the hill country offer an appealing mixture of magnificent views, wonderful walks and olde-worlde British colonial charm. Close to the hill country’s southwestern edge, the soaring summit of Adam’s Peak is another of the island’s major pilgrimage sites. The gem-mining centre of Ratnapura to the south serves as the best starting point for visits to the elephant-rich Uda Walawe National Park and the rare tropical rainforest of Sinharaja.
North of Kandy, the hill country tumbles down into the arid plains of the northern dry zone. This area, known as the Cultural Triangle, was the location of Sri Lanka’s first great civilization, and its extraordinary scatter of ruined palaces, temples and dagobas still give a compelling sense of this glorious past. Foremost amongst these are the fascinating ruined cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, the marvellous cave temples of Dambulla, the hilltop shrines and dagobas of Mihintale and the extraordinary rock citadel of Sigiriya.
One of Sri Lanka’s most popular and interesting nature reserves, Minneriya National Park, also lies within the region and on the route for the hundreds of elephants that migrate between various parks each year.
Gateway to the east is the characterful, if war-torn, city of Trincomalee. The east’s huge swathe of pristine coastline itself remains almost completely undeveloped, save for the sleepy villages of Nilaveli and Uppuveli, just north of Trinco, and the surfing centre of Arugam Bay, at the east coast’s southern end. But the construction of a huge new resort at Passekudah is likely to change that.
If you’re looking where to visit in Sri Lanka that’s even less visited, the north is slowly emerging after years of civil war. Increasing numbers of visitors are making the long journey to the absorbing city of Jaffna, while a side-trip to remote Mannar, closer to India than Colombo, is another adventurous possibility.
Almost 15 percent of the island is made up of national parks and reserves. They cover diverse terrain, and harbour a wealth of wildlife, while many are situated in areas of outstanding beauty. Sri Lanka’s huge biodiversity is also putting the island on the map for eco-tourism with fantastic eco-lodges and hotels gradually appearing.
Yala – South of the island, bordering the Indian Ocean; home to a host of wildlife, including crocodiles, elephants and the highest density of leopards in the world.
The climate is affected by two separate monsoons, meaning you can usually dodge the rain when you travel to Sri Lanka, as it will probably be dry somewhere on the island. The east is a mirror image of the west: when the southwest (“Yala”) monsoon hits the west and southwest, from April or May to September, the sun is shining in the east and northeast and vice versa. However, the northeast (“maha”) monsoon is generally lighter. In October and November, just before the maha monsoon, there is unsettled weather across the island. This means you might get caught in a downpour or thunderstorm wherever you are.
Bear in mind that there are variations in the general weather pattern, which means no two years are likely to be quite the same. But it’s a pretty safe bet that temperatures will be more or less constant. You can rely on an average temperature of 26–30˚(often higher) on the coast and the lowlands, dropping the higher up you go. So if you’re heading to Kandy, you can expect temperatures of 18˚–22˚, but only 14-16˚ in the hill country, such as Nuwara Eliya. And temperatures in the hills can drop to almost freezing at night, so make sure you pack extra layers.
Broadly speaking, in terms of the weather, the best time to visit the west and southwest of Sri Lanka, including the hill country, is December to March. If your itinerary is geared more towards the eastern side of the island, you’ll get the best conditions from around April or May to September.
Get more information on weather in Sri Lanka, including an average temperature and rainfall chart.
When you visit Sri Lanka chances are there will be a festival in full swing or preparations for one will be underway. With four major religions coexisting on the island, each with its own calendar of festivals, as well as many public holidays, these events can be hard to avoid. You might be planning your itinerary to avoid the biggies, that seem to bring the island to a standstill, or you might want to be in the thick of it – to experience the real essence of Sri Lanka.
Here are just three of the big festivals that take place each year, which are also public holidays:
Get the full calendar of festivals and public holidays in our Sri Lanka travel guide.
Unless you arrive on a cruise ship, the only way to travel to Sri Lanka is to fly into Bandaranaike International Airport (BMI) at Katunayake, just north of Colombo. The best way to bag a good deal on the cost of a flight is to book as far ahead as possible, but fares tend to be pretty constant year-round.
SriLankan airlines offers direct flights from the UK (London Heathrow); there are also indirect flights available travelling via the Gulf and India. Likewise, if you’re travelling to Sri Lanka from Ireland you can fly indirect from Dublin to Sri Lanka via cities in the Gulf – the other option is to make your way to Heathrow for a direct flight.
If flying to Sri Lanka from the US you’ll have to make at least one stop; if coming from the east coast there are several one-stop options from New York, Boston and Toronto via the Gulf. Routes from the west coast go via east or Southeast Asia, as well as via the Gulf.
If you are coming from Australia direct flights are only available from Melbourne, otherwise you’re looking at a one-stop option. You can also take a one-stop flight from New Zealand.
Sri Lanka is well served by carriers operating from other countries in South and Southeast Asia. There are also direct connections to many places in the Gulf.
Get more in-depth information on flights to Sri Lanka.
Getting around Sri Lanka is, on the whole, much quicker and easier than is used to be – with the long-overdue upgrade on the Expressway and improvements on the railway.
That said, away from the motorways and main train lines the going can be slow and, if travelling by bus, rather uncomfortable.
As a rule of thumb, buses are generally faster than trains for travelling around Sri Lanka, and a cheap way to get around. It’s the main means of transport, getting into those hard to reach corners of the island, although it can be a bit of a rough ride, with drivers careering around corners and the older buses giving a bit of a bone shaking experience.
Going by train is more relaxed and can be a great way to take in the landscape, especially on the intercity services on the hill-country route from Colombo to Kandy and Badulla. These have a special carriage, or observation car, with large panoramic windows offering 360-degree views.
Improvements have been made on the rail network across the island and intercity lines have comfortable air-conditioned carriages. But getting around the hill country is still painfully slow.
Domestic air services provide a superfast alternative to long journeys by road or rail and are memorable in their own right, with frequently beautiful views of the island from above.
You can drive yourself, but it’s definitely not the most relaxing way to get around Sri Lanka.
Although roads are generally in reasonable condition, the myriad hazards they present – crowds of pedestrians, erratic cyclists, crazed bus drivers and suicidal dogs, to name just a few – plus the very idiosyncratic set of road rules followed by Sri Lankan drivers, makes driving a challenge in many parts of the island.
For the greatest flexibility and not a great expense you could hire a car with a driver. Bear in mind that many drivers work on commission from hotels, restaurants and the like, which means they may be quite insistent on taking you to places where they get a payoff. Going with a reputable company is best: they pay drivers a decent wage so that they’re not reliant on commission.
Rickshaws are a convenient and fun way to travel short distances in Sri Lanka, although journeys can be rather hair raising, the way they dodge in and out of fast-moving traffic. Make sure you set a fare with the driver before you set off.
Read more on getting around Sri Lanka: in-depth information on flights, buses, cars and trains.
This unique tract of undisturbed tropical rainforest is a botanical treasure trove of global significance, with UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Sinharaja is just how you imagine a jungle to be: intense humidity, the cacophonous sounds of animals and insects, dense foliage and huge trees.
Yala National Park is Sri Lanka’s most rewarding wildlife reserve, with marvellous scenery and abundant wildlife. You’ll most likely see elephants, and chances are you’ll catch sight of a leopard, as the park claims a higher concentration of these wild cats than anywhere in the world. Other animals with the wow factor include crocodiles and macaque and langur monkeys. For birdwatchers Yala is exceptional; if you visit from October to March you’ll see thousands of birds ending their migration from the north.
Mirissa’s picturesque harbour is the jumping-off point for exhilarating boat trips to see one of Sri Lanka’s biggest attractions: blue whales. If you go on an excursion between December to April you’ll almost certainly see one of these magnificent creatures, and you may see both sperm whales and blue whales – as well as spinner dolphins.
The old Dutch quarter of Galle is Sri Lanka’s most perfectly preserved colonial townscape. Known as the fort, its time-warped streets are lined with historic Dutch colonial villas hidden behind formidable ramparts. Enjoy the laid back ambience by taking a stroll around the atmospheric streets and walls.
The east coast’s most appealing and easy-going beach hangout is Arugam Bay. Quirky cabanas, mangrove-fringed lagoons, and world class surfing are all on offer, and it’s a great jumping off point for excursions into the stunning surrounding countryside.
The spectacular rock outcrop of Sigiriya (“Lion Rock”) was the site of Sri Lanka’s most remarkable royal capital and palace, complete with ornate water gardens, paintings of celestial nymphs and 1300-year-old graffiti. Getting to the top of the Sigiriya Rock entails a pretty stiff climb and requires a decent head for heights in places.
Colombo’s absorbing bazaar district is stuffed full of every conceivable type of merchandise with each street concentrating on particular goods, from colourful fabrics to jewellery, mobile phones to Ayurvedic herbs. Navigating the busy streets of the Pettah can only be done slowly, and the constant hubbub of crowds and vendors, and porters bustling their way through can feel like an overstimulation of the senses. But this is all part of the unique experience – there’s nowhere else in Sri Lanka quite like it.
The enchanting series of caves at Dambulla hold a treasure trove of Sinhalese Buddhist art, with shrines, superb murals and over a hundred Buddha statues. The caves are situated within the Cultural Triangle, making an ideal visit on the way to, or from, Sigiriya.
The ascent to the top of Adam’s Peak, one of the island’s most spectacular mountains, to see the Sacred Footprint is the classic Sri Lankan pilgrimage. Buddhists believe it is the footprint of Buddha, Hindus claim it is Shiva’s, while the Muslim version says it came from Adam. Make the journey at night for a chance to see spectacular views at dawn from the top. And if you go during the pilgrimage season between December and May, the route is illuminated and little tea shops are open through the night. The climb is a strenuous one, so some refreshment may just give you the energy to make it to the top.
Jaffna is unlike anywhere else in Sri Lanka. This lively town in the north offers insight into Sri Lankan Tamil culture and reveals much of its colonial and civil war past. Combine a visit with a trip to the islands off the tip of the Jaffna Peninsula. Kayts, Karaitivu, Nainativy and Delft include secluded beaches, colonial forts and remote Hindu temples.
Creating an itinerary for your visit to Sri Lanka will depend on what’s on your list for things to see and do. From relaxing beach holidays to activity-packed wildlife adventures, it’s possible to cover everything on your wishlist.
The Grand tour is ideal if you have two-three weeks to visit the main attractions, as well as some of the lesser-visited sights. Our Wildlife and nature itinerary covers some of the best natural attractions on the island. It can be squeezed into a week, although a fortnight would give you more time to explore and even give you time to visit some of the places listed in the Grand tour itinerary. The Buddhism and beaches itinerary leans away from the obvious crowd pleasers and combines religion with culture and wildlife.
Below is a suggested itinerary covering some of the best places in the south of the island – ideal for first-time travellers with just a week to ten days, to explore.
Days 1 - 3: Galle
All flights arrive at Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. We recommend you head straight to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Galle. The wonderfully preserved colonial town reveals Dutch and Portuguese influences from the 18th century, and provides a good dose of culture to start your trip.
Days 3 - 5: Mirissa
Once you've wandered the markets and cafes in Galle, travel to picturesque Mirissa. You can easily spend two days swimming and relaxing on the beach. Whale-watching is a highlight and considered the best spot to see whales and dolphins in Sri Lanka.
Days 5 - 7: Talalla
Talalla’s unspoiled beach is popular with surfers. If waves aren’t your thing you could take part in yoga sessions – or simply notch up some more chill out time on its creamy-coloured sands.
Days 7 - 10: Yala National Park
Go on safari in Yala National Park. The guided jeep tours give your the chance to appreciate some of Sri Lanka's most beautiful wildlife, from magnificent elephants to the more elusive leopards.
Discover our other itineraries.
From family-run guesthouses to budget hotels and luxury accommodation, boutique hotels in old colonial buildings and eco lodges, when you’re looking at where to stay in Sri Lanka, you should be able to find accommodation to suit your budget.
Prices in coastal areas tend to vary according to the seasons, especially along the west coast, (usually by between 25 and 50 percent) from November 1 through to mid- or late-April.
Get further information on accommodation: types of accommodation, room rates, how to find a room, best places to stay in Sri Lanka (eco-lodges and hotels).
We’ve put together some tips and advice for travelling to Sri Lanka.
Following the terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka in April 2019, governments of the UK, US and Australia have downgraded their travel warnings. Tourists are no longer being advised not to travel to Sri Lanka, although the British Foreign Office warns visitors to “remain vigilant”. Many other countries have also relaxed travel restrictions to Sri Lanka. Check your government’s advice before you travel.
Taking sensible precautions against theft is always a good idea, although it’s worth mentioning that petty theft in Sri Lanka is lower than in other Asian countries as well as most European and American cities, and muggings and violence against foreigners is rare. Simple measures to protect against theft include: using safes in hotels and guesthouses for your valuables; avoiding dark beaches at night (especially women travellers). Also keep a copy of important information, such as passports and insurance details.
The most common cause of accidental death in Sri Lanka is traffic related, followed by drowning. Currents can be seriously strong, water suddenly deep, and there are no lifeguards on the beaches. Always check local advice before going into the water.
Wildlife doesn’t usually pose a great threat. However, there are crocodiles in Sri Lanka, so keep away from areas crocodile inhabited waters, and if you are bitten by a snake, seek medical help immediately. Wear sturdy footwear, socks and long trousers if walking through heavy undergrowth.
Read more on safety in Sri Lanka: swimming safety, avoiding scammers and con artists, reporting a crime, travel advisories.
Unless you’re from the Maldives or Singapore you’ll need a visa (ETA) to visit Sri Lanka. You can buy a visa valid for 30 days in advance online; a 90-day visa can be obtained by post or by visiting the nearest embassy/consulate. Your passport must be valid for six months after you arrive. Always check with your local embassy/consulate for the most up-to-date information regarding entry requirements before travel. Foreign embassies and consulates are virtually all based in Colombo.
Get more information on visa requirements in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka is not as cheap as some other countries in South and Southeast Asia, but if you go for budget options with accommodation and eating out, and use buses and trains, rather than hiring a car and driver, it can still be inexpensive. If you opt for luxury accommodation and a driver for your stay it’s possible to spend around $500 a day.
Hygiene standards in Sri Lanka are reasonable, medical care is decent and Sri Lanka was officially declared free of malaria by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2016 (there’s no guarantee the disease won’t reappear, so check with WHO before travel. Nevertheless, it is a tropical country with the usual tropical diseases. Make sure you have travel insurance to cover against illness or injury (as well as theft and loss).
Simple health precautions to take include:
If bitten by a snake get medical attention immediately. Wear proper shoes or boots, socks and long trousers if walking through heavy undergrowth.
Read more on health in Sri Lanka: information on vaccinations, health care in Sri Lanka, water and food, diarrhoea, dysentery and giardiasis, mosquitos and tropical diseases, marine hazards, hepatitis, rabies, other diseases, dangerous animals and insects.
Reflecting its geographical position, local traditions combined with a colonial imprint, as well as locally grown tropical fruit and fresh seafood, cuisine in Sri Lanka is a culinary delight. Nuanced flavours are a result of a wealth of spices, featuring in everything from curries to sambols and chutneys, while coconut, in myriad forms, appears in the majority of dishes.
Seven different foods to try in Sri Lanka:
Read more on food in Sri Lanka including: where to eat, costs and tipping, specialities, seafood, desserts and sweets.
It’s best to avoid tap water. The usual soft drinks are available, such as Coca-Cola and the like; firm favourites are locally produced ginger beer and cream soda, and coconut water is widely available.
Coffee has always played second fiddle to tea, although most tea served in Sri Lanka is surprisingly bland, considering it’s the national drink.
Lager and arrack are the island’s staple forms of alcohol, Lion Lager being the most common brand. Arrack has a very high alcohol content and is produced by distilling toddy, a drink made by fermenting the sap from the flower of the coconut – sold informally in villages around the country.
Read more about drinking in Sri Lanka: soft drinks, alcoholic drinks, tea, coffee, buying drinks, where to drink.
Although Sri Lanka has a history of fine craftsmanship you’ll find much of the arts and crafts on offer is just mass produced and shoddily made. However, there are exceptions, especially in Colombo, where you can find quality goods – from books to tea and clothing. The general rule of thumb is the more informal the retail outlet the more scope there is for haggling. So you’ll likely get a greater bargain with a hawker on the beach, than an established shop, although asking if there’s a “special price” might get you a better price. Note that buying coral or any other marine product is illegal (it contributes directly to the destruction of the island’s fragile ocean environment). Also, you’ll need a licence to export antiques (anything over fifty years old).Here are some of the traditional crafts and other items you’ll find in Sri Lanka.
The best (and cheapest) place to buy tea is in a local supermarket; Cargills supermarkets have a good selection, including unblended single-estate teas. The specialist Mlesna tea shop chain has branches in Colombo, Kandy, Bandarawela and at the airport, although they concentrate on more touristy offerings including boxed tea sets, flavoured teas and the like.
Top image: Golden Buddha Statue. UNESCO World Heritage Centre in Sri Lanka © Lyubov Timofeyeva/Shutterstock
No animal is as closely identified with Sri Lanka as the elephant – and few other countries offer such a wide range of opportunities to see them both in captivity and in the wild. The kings of Anuradhapura used them to pound down the foundations of their city’s huge religious monuments, while the rulers of Kandy employed them to execute prisoners by trampling them to death. During the Dutch era they helped tow barges and move heavy artillery, and under the British they were set to clearing land for tea plantations – even today, trained elephants are used to move heavy objects in places inaccessible to machinery. Elephants also play an integral role in many of the island’s religious festivals, and remain revered creatures – killing an elephant was formerly a capital offence, while the death of the great Maligawa Tusker Raja in 1998 prompted the government to declare a national day of mourning.
Buddhism runs deep in Sri Lanka. The island was one of the first places to convert to the religion, in 247 BC, and has remained unswervingly faithful in the two thousand years since. As such, Sri Lanka is often claimed to be the world’s oldest Buddhist country, and Buddhism continues to permeate the practical life and spiritual beliefs of the majority of the island’s Sinhalese population.
Buddhist temples can be found everywhere, often decorated with superb shrines, statues and murals, while the sight of Sri Lanka’s orange-robed monks is one of the island’s enduring visual images. Buddhist places of pilgrimage – the Temple of the Tooth at Kandy, the revered “footprint” of the Buddha at Adam’s Peak, and the Sri Maha Bodhi at Anuradhapura – also play a vital role in sustaining the faith, while the national calendar is punctuated with religious holidays and festivals ranging from the monthly full-moon poya days through to more elaborate annual celebrations, often taking the form of enormous processions (peraheras), during which locals parade through the streets.