The Ultimate Travel Guide to Sri Lanka

Discover Destinations When to Travel How to get around Visa Packing list Places to stay

Discover Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka, often referred to as “Little Africa”, is an island southwest of India. The country is home to 22 National Parks, world-famous train rides, green landscapes scattered with hill peaks and tea plantages, archaeological ruins, white sand beaches and surf breaks.

While it is a popular backpack destination in Asia, it will offer a different experience than other Southeast Asian countries. Due to its close proximity to India, it will be more similar to Indian culture, but much easier to travel than India.

Locals will welcome you with generous smiles and the Sri Lankan kitchen offers a wide variety of Indian dishes (warning: can be spicy!).

While there is still some unrest with the government, this country is generally safe to travel and you will be welcomed with warm smiles. The people of Sri Lanka are known to be extremely friendly, the food is delicious, and the prices are fair for travellers on any budget.

Be aware that you are expected to dress somewhat conservatively in this country, particularly when visiting historic or religious sights. Sri Lanka is not as liberated as many other countries throughout Asia.

Top destinations to visit in Sri Lanka

Thanks to its small size, Sri Lanka is a fairly easy country to travel. Buses, trains and taxis can take you almost anywhere you need to go.

The majority of travellers fly into Colombo, the Capital City of Sri Lanka. While Colombo doesn’t have a  lot to offer for tourists, it’s easy to book onward travel from here to other destinations within the country.

To provide some extra help with planning your trip, I share our top three favourite destinations in Sri Lanka; Ella, Unawatuna, and Arugam Bay:

1. Visiting the hill town Ella by taking the train from Kandy to Ella is our number one pick for Sri Lanka. The train ride will provide you with the most stunning sights in Sri Lanka, through tea plantages, green nature and rural villages. Once you’ve arrived in Ella, spend your days viewing the Nine Arch Bridge, hiking the Adam peak and Ella rock, and exploring waterfalls. Ella also offers a bit more of a social scene for travellers that you may not find in many other areas of the country. See our route on Kandy to Ella to view a step-by-step guide.

2. Unawatuna is our second pick for Sri Lanka. Soaking up the sun and enjoying the beaches of beautiful Unawatuna is a great base to start your Sri Lankan adventure. From here you can easy visit the nearby Galle Fort for historic and religious sights and learn how to cook Sri Lankan dishes with a cooking course. There is also an abundance of excellent shopping and amazing food to be tried in this area.

3. When you’re ready to relax, chill on the beach or surf, we suggest making your way to Arugam Bay. This small beach town is famous for surfing and soaking up the sun. The town consists of just one main road that runs parallel to the coastline. This beach town is home to just a few hundred people and the chill atmosphere and stunning sights will have you completely relaxed like you are truly on vacation. See our Arugam Bay page for the exact details on how to get there and the top things to do. PRO TIP: During the northeast monsoon, from November to March, Arugam Bay can experience heavy rainfall. When you are travelling during this period, we suggest visiting Dickwella as an alternative. This is an upcoming beach town in the Southcoast, offering similar laid-back vibes as Arugam Bay.

Always dreamed of seeing leopards? Then make your way to Yala National Park! This park sprawls across 378 square miles and is home to approximately 30 wild leopards and over 300 wild elephants. If you look closely, you can also find water buffalo, lizards, snakes and many different types of birds. To travel here read “How to travel from Colombo to Yala” to find your best options.

TIP: Check out our 3-week travel itinerary to Sri Lanka!

All our favourite destinations in Sri Lanka

What to do in Sri Lanka?

Go on a safari in one of Sri Lankan’s national parks

A trip to Yala National Park will give you the opportunity to see wild leopards, while a visit to Udawalawe National Park or Wasgamuwa National Park will offer you countless elephant sightings. If you’re interested in seeing the elusive sloth bear, we suggest visiting the Wilpattu National Park. All the National Parks will offer beautiful sights, landscapes and an abundance of wild animals.

Visit tea plantages and chase waterfalls

While Sri Lanka’s infamous beaches have been an attraction for travellers, the rest of the island offers an abundance of heritage and culture to be absorbed. The central highlands are blanketed with emerald tea plantations and beautiful waterfalls. The country is home to 103 rivers which have created over 50 natural waterfalls, the highest being the Bambarakanda Falls, with a height of 263 metres (863 ft).

While exploring Sri Lanka, you will find ruins from ancient kingdoms, hidden rock caves, and ancient sacred temples. Sri Lanka is home to countless wild elephants and has plenty of ethical elephant sanctuaries to visit for an up-close and personal experience.

Sri Lanka’s coastline is 1,585 km long, offering stunning, sandy beaches alongside clear blue waters.

When to travel to Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is an island in the Indian Ocean southwest of the Bay of Bengal. The country is separated from the mainland portion and the entire island is just 432 km long and 224 km wide with over 1,500 km of coastline. Thanks to its small size, you can easily explore this beautiful country during a 3-week holiday.

Thanks to its tropical climate, temperatures in Sri Lanka remain around 27°–29°C year-round, meaning you can visit at any time. The island is affected by two separate Monsoon seasons, meaning you’ll need to decide where you want to go and when to avoid the rain.

During the months of April to September, the country experiences the southwest (“Yala”) monsoon with the wettest months from April to June. The best places to visit during these months will be destinations on the east coast (Arugam Bay) and Northern destinations like Sigiriya and Jaffna.

Around the end of September, the monsoon will shift to the east coast and mark the start of the northeast (“Maha”) monsoon. The wettest months for this season will be from November to December, making places like Arugam Bay almost inaccessible to visit. At this time of the year, better spend your time in the countryside, the west coast or the laid-back beach towns like Dickwella and Unawatuna on the south coast.

How to get around Sri Lanka

Train travel is highly recommended throughout Sri Lanka. Not only will train travel offer the most scenic views, but it’s also often the fastest, cheapest and most comfortable way to travel. You can relax and take the stunning sights of the rolling hills, towering cliffs and beautiful nature the country has to offer.

Traveling by bus is another good option although the roads are quite windy and narrow, if you tend to suffer from motion sickness, this may not be the best option for you. Also, many of the long-distance buses are quite dated and old, they may not have the comforts you are accustomed to.

Due to the country’s small size, there are not many operating airports in Sri Lanka. This means there is a lack of domestic flights and any flights you find will be expensive. Taking the train or bus will save you plenty of money and save the environment. Flying short distances is harmful to the environment compared to ground transportation.

PRO TIP: We highly suggest taking the train ride from Kandy to Ella. This is the most famous route in Sri Lanka and the views are incredible! Have your camera or go-pro ready because this is a ride that is not to be missed!

Visa Sri Lanka

Good news! Getting a tourist visa for Sri Lanka is quite simple because most travellers will be able to apply online through the government website and receive their ETA (Electronic Travel Authorization) immediately. Simply enter your personal information and pay the fee on the government application website. This option is available to travellers from all countries. If you are not able to apply for an ETA online, you can apply at a nearby Sri Lankan Overseas Immigration office.

Update: Sri Lanka is offering this ETA for 48 countries free of charge till April 30, 2020. This scheme is implemented to rebuild the tourism industry after the Easter bombings in 2019.

To obtain a tourist visa with double entry, the cost is $20 for nationalities included in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries, for all other countries, the cost is $35. The visa is valid for 30 days, meaning you can enter the country anytime with the 30 days permitted.

If you choose to visit a Sri Lankan Overseas Mission in person, you can apply for a 90-day visa with single or double entry, the cost is also $35 USD.

While showing my ETA on the phone worked out well for me, I recommend carrying a printed version of the visa when you arrive in Sri Lanka because they might not accept the digital one. Also, they asked me which country I was visiting next and what date I would leave the country. Simply answering their question allowed me to pass the border, but remember they have the right to ask you to show proof of departure (onward ticket leaving Sri Lanka) and proof of sufficient funds for your stay.

To apply for your tourist visa to Sri Lanka, follow this link: Official Sri Lanka ETA.

Packing list for Sri Lanka

How to make sure you packed everything you will need for your trip? Short answer: Impossible. There is no such thing as a perfect packing list.

Luckily there are 2 little steps that we can share with you to become an awesome packer:

Step 1: Put all the clothes you want to take with you on your bed.

Step 2: Pack half of them.

If you follow the steps above, you will be one of the top 1% packers in the world. Packing around heavy bags is not enjoyable when travelling so we suggest packing a lot less than you think you will need.

Often, after a few days of travel, you will realize you have too much stuff and begin to throw things away that you are not using daily. Also, keep in mind that shopping is cheap in Sri Lanka, and almost all amenities can be bought as needed.

I do suggest packing sunblock because it can be quite expensive in Sri Lanka.

To see the complete packing list visit our page in which we share our ideal packing list.

Favourite accommodations

Shady Edge – Unawatuna

Located just 300m from Dalawella Beach and 700m from Mihiripenna Beach this is an excellent location. Each room comes with a beautiful garden view from your private balcony. The rooms are extremely clean and the beds are comfortable. Breakfast is included with your stay.

  • Excellent location
  • Breakfast included
  • Clean and comfortable beds
  • Private balcony

Private rooms start at $15 per night

Check availability & reviews

Will Guest Homestay – Ella

An exceptional homestay with stunning mountain views. You will feel right at home here with the friendly and welcoming staff. Bike and car rentals are available on-site and breakfast is included with your stay. The rooms are clean and comfortable, and the views are absolutely breathtaking. You won’t want to check out of this homestay!

  • Breathtaking mountain views
  • Breakfast included
  • Clean and comfortable
  • Extremely friendly and helpful staff

Private room starts at $23 per night

Check availability & reviews

Sajee Nature Cottage – Sigiriya

Located in the middle of the jungle, within walking distance to shops, restaurants, and the famous Sigiriya Rock, this is the perfect location for your stay in Sigiriya. Breakfast is included with your stay, there is wifi throughout the accommodations, and the cottages are extremely clean and comfortable.

  • Jungle surroundings
  • Extremely clean
  • Breakfast included
  • Friendly staff

Rooms start at $38 per night

Check availability & reviews

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