The weather in Sri Lanka is rather complicated for such a small country, due to the fact that the island is affected by two separate monsoons. On the bright side, this means that there is usually good weather somewhere on the island at most times of the year.
When thinking about the best time to travel to Sri Lanka, it’s worth bearing in mind that the basic weather pattern in Sri Lanka, as described below, can vary significantly from year to year. It's also a fact that global warming has disrupted these already complex weather patterns.
Unsurprisingly, the rainfall pattern will probably be one of the most important factors in your decision of when to go to Sri Lanka.
The main southwest (“Yala”) monsoon brings rain to the west and southwest coasts and the hill country from April or May to September and is wettest from April to June.
The less severe northeast (“Maha”) monsoon hits the east coast from November to March and is wettest from November to December.
There’s also a inter-monsoonal period of unsettled weather preceding the Maha monsoon in October and November. During this time heavy rainfall and thunderstorms can occur anywhere across the island.
The country’s position close to the Equator means that at least the temperature in Sri Lanka remains fairly constant year-round. Coastal and lowland areas enjoy average daytime temperatures of around 26–30°C. During the hottest part of the day, they can often climb up well into the 30°Cs. Temperatures decrease with altitude, reducing to a temperate 18–22°C in Kandy. In Nuwara Eliya and the highest parts of the island, on average it's a pleasantly mild 14–17°C. Nights in the hills can be quite chilly, with temperatures sometimes falling close to freezing. Humidity is often another high everywhere. It can rise to a sweltering 90% at times in the southwest, and averages 60 to 80% across the rest of the island.
In a nutshell, the variations in the weather patterns mean that the best time to visit Sri Lanka is intertwined with where on the island you want to go:
If you’re heading to the west, or south coasts and the hill country, then you’re best off going between December and March.
If you’re intending to make your way to the east coast and the north you’ll find the best time of year to visit Sri Lankais from April or May to September.
The north of the island and the eastern coast are pretty wet at this time of year. So it’s not the best time to visit Jaffna, coastal Trincomalee or historic Batticaloa, or go surfing at Arugam Bay. Catch some waves instead at Weligama on the south coast, or chill out on splendid beaches at Unawatuna Bay and Mirissa. It’s also a good time for whale watching off the southern coast. Visit the atmospheric colonial fort town of Galle, particularly lively during the Galle Literary Festival in late January or early February. It’s also a good time to visit Kandy and the hill country, such as Horton Plains National Park, and climb Adam’s Peak. Christmas is a busy time so be sure to book ahead.
March is still lovely weather in the south and southwest but by April there are signs of the monsoon. It’s still a good time for whale watching though off the south coast. Head to the lesser visited north Sri Lanka, such as the vibrant city of Jaffna, the eastern coast and the Cultural Triangle.
The south gets very humid in May, so for cooler temperatures head for the hill country. The most important Buddhist festival in May is
Vesak Poya – celebrating the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha.
The hill country is pleasant, with cooler temperatures, although you can’t rule out the odd rain shower. It’s the ideal time to get outdoors in the north – on the Jaffna Peninsula and nearby smattering of islands, and discover Tamil culture in Jaffna. The lovely beaches on the east coast also beckon. Don’t miss the Kandy’s Esala Poya Perahera – Sri Lanka’s most extravagant festival, in July or August.
The northern and eastern sides of the island still experience favourable weather conditions in September. October to November falls between the main monsoons and the weather becomes a little unpredictable across the island – wherever you are, there's a chance of showers.
We’ve put together an average temperature and rainfall chart. This should give you a rough idea of what to expect of the weather in Sri Lanka in any given month. We’ve looked at three different areas across the country to give an overall picture and help you to decide when is the best time to visit Sri Lanka. We've focused on Colombo, the capital, on the west coast of the island; Nuwara Eliya in the tea country hills of central Sri Lanka; and Trincomalee on the northeast coast.
With no fewer than 25 public holidays, and four major religions – each with its own roster of festivals – the calendar is pretty chocker. You may want to include one or more of these festivals in your itinerary – or perhaps ensure the dates of your trip fall between them, as things can seem to grind to a halt during these events.
Virtually all the festivals are religious in nature and follow the lunar calendar, (an extra month is added every two or three years into the Buddhist lunar calendar to keep the solar and lunar calendars in alignment). As a result, most festival dates vary somewhat from year to year. Muslim festivals also follow a lunar calendar but without the corrective months, so the dates of these festivals gradually move backwards.
The island’s most important Buddhist festivals are traditionally celebrated with enormous peraheras, or parades, with scores of fabulously accoutred elephants accompanied by drummers and dancers. People often travel on poya days, so transport and accommodation tend to be busy; there’s also (in theory) a ban on the sale of alcohol, although tourist hotels and guesthouses will usually serve you.
Sri Lanka’s main Hindu festivals rival the island’s Buddhist celebrations in colour – in addition to the ones listed below, there are numerous other local temple festivals particularly in the north. Sri Lanka’s Muslim festivals are more modest affairs, generally involving only the Muslim community itself, with special prayers at the mosque. The three main celebrations (all of which are public holidays) are the Milad un-Nabi, celebrating the Prophet’s birthday; Id ul-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan; and Id ul-Allah, marking the beginning of pilgrimages to Mecca.
Duruthu Poya Marks the first of the Buddha’s three legendary visits to Sri Lanka, and celebrated with a spectacular perahera (parade) at the Raja Maha Vihara in the Colombo suburb of Kelaniya. The Duruthu poya also marks the beginning of the three-month pilgrimage season to Adam’s Peak.
Thai Pongol Hindu festival, honouring the sun god Surya, Indra (the bringer of rains) and the cow, in no particular order. It’s marked by ceremonies at Hindu temples, after which the first grains of the new paddy harvest are ceremonially cooked in milk in a special pot – the direction in which the liquid spills when it boils over is thought to indicate good or bad luck in the coming year. (Jan 14/15)
Galle Literary Festival Eminent local and international wordsmiths and culture vultures descend on Galle. (late Jan/early Feb)
Navam Poya Commemorates the Buddha’s announcement, at the age of 80, of his own impending death, celebrated with a major perahera at the Gangaramaya temple in Colombo. Although this dates only from 1979, it has become one of the island’s biggest festivals, featuring a procession of some fifty elephants.
Independence Day Celebrates Sri Lanka’s independence on February 4, 1948, with parades, dances and games.
Maha Sivarathri Hindu festival dedicated to Shiva, during which devotees perform a one-day fast and an all-night vigil. (Feb/March)
Medin Poya Marks the Buddha’s first visit to his father’s palace following his enlightenment.
Good Friday An Easter Passion play is performed on the island of Duwa, near Negombo. (March/April)
Galle/Jaffna Music Festival Three-day music festival held in Galle and Jaffna on alternate years and featuring an impressive line-up of local and international folk musicians, dancers and other performers.
Bak Poya Celebrates the Buddha’s second visit to Sri Lanka.
Sinhalese and Tamil New Year Coinciding with the start of the southwest monsoon and the end of the harvest season, the Buddhist and Hindu New Year is a family festival during which presents are exchanged and the traditional kiribath (rice cooked with milk and cut into diamond shapes) is prepared. Businesses close, rituals are performed, new clothes are worn and horoscopes are cast. April 13 is New Year’s Eve; April 14 is New Year’s Day.
Labour Day The traditional May Day bank holiday. (May 1)
Vesak Poya The most important of the Buddhist poyas, this is a threefold celebration commemorating the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death, all of which are traditionally thought to have happened on the day of the Vesak Poya. In addition, the last of the Buddha’s three alleged visits to Sri Lanka is claimed to have been on a Vesak poya day. Lamps are lit in front of houses, and pandals (platforms decorated with scenes from the life of the Buddha) are erected throughout the country. Buses and cars are decorated with streamers, and free food (from rice and curry to Vesak sweetmeats) is distributed in roadside booths (dansal). Meanwhile, devout Buddhists visit temples, meditate and fast. The day after the Vesak Poya is also a public holiday. Vesak also marks the end of the Adam’s Peak pilgrimage season. The sale of alcohol, meat and fish in public restaurants is prohibited for a six-day period around the poya day, though hotels and guesthouses may be able to circumvent this when serving their own guests.
Poson Poya Second only in importance to Vesak, Poson Poya commemorates the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka by Mahinda, marked by mass pilgrimages to Anuradhapura, while thousands of white-robed pilgrims climb to the summit of Mihintale.
Esala Poya Celebrates the Buddha’s first sermon and the arrival of the Tooth Relic in Sri Lanka. The lunar month of Esala is the season of festivals, most notably the great Esala Perahera in Kandy, Sri Lanka’s most extravagant festival. There are also festivals at Kataragama, Dondra and Bellanwila (a southern Colombo suburb) and a big seven-day celebration at Unawatuna, during which thousands descend on the village and beach.
Kataragama Festival Festival at Kataragama during which Hindu devotees fire-walk and indulge in various forms of ritual self-mutilation, piercing their skin with hooks and weights, and driving skewers through their cheeks and tongues.
Hikkaduwa Beach Festival Three-day beach bash with international DJs. (July/Aug)
Vel Colombo’s most important Hindu festival, dedicated to Skanda/Kataragama and featuring two exuberant processions during which the god’s chariot and vel (spear) are carried across the city from the Pettah to temples in Wellawatta and Bambalapitiya. (July/Aug)
Nikini Poya Marks the retreat of the Bhikkhus following the Buddha’s death, commemorated by a period of fasting and of retreat for the monastic communities.
Binara Poya Commemorates the Buddha’s journey to heaven to preach to his mother and other deities.
Dussehra Also known as Durga Puja, this Hindu festival honours Durga and also commemorates the day of Rama’s victory over Ravana. (Sept/Oct)
Vap Poya Marks the Buddha’s return to earth and the end of the Buddhist period of fasting.
Deepavali The Hindu Festival of Lights (equivalent to North India’s Diwali), commemorating the return from exile of Rama, hero of the Ramayana (holy scripture), with the lighting of lamps in Tamil households, symbolic of the triumph of good over evil, and the wearing of new clothes. (late Oct/early Nov)
World Spice Food Festival Ten days of culinary events at assorted venues around Colombo. (late Oct/early Nov)
Il Poya Commemorates the Buddha’s ordination of sixty disciples.
Unduvap Poya Celebrates the arrival of the Bo tree sapling in Anuradhapura, brought by Ashoka’s daughter, Sangamitta.
Christmas (25 Dec)
Christian New Year’s Eve (31 Dec)