Discover Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is a country that has been patiently waiting in the shadows of other Southeast Asian countries, but now is its time to shine!
Situated southwest of India, this tropical paradise is a treasure trove of natural wonders, cultural heritage, and warm hospitality. Prepare to be enthralled by its 22 national parks, iconic train rides, lush green landscapes adorned with hiking trails and tea plantations, archaeological ruins, pristine white sand beaches, and thrilling surf breaks.
We’ve created this ultimate guide to Sri Lanka to share with you everything that this diverse country has to offer. Decided that Sri Lanka is a place you want to visit?
Delve into our eight detailed guides that offer insights into the best activities and must-see attractions the country has to offer.
Is Sri Lanka worth visiting?
Often referred to as ‘Little Africa’, Sri Lanka encapsulates numerous countries within its shorelines.
The expansive national parks full of elephants make you feel like you’re in Africa, whilst the temples could be found somewhere else in Asia. Everywhere you’ll find influences from India scattered amongst this vibrant concoction, traces of colonisation by the British.
What makes Sri Lanka like no other country are the warm smiles and genuine hospitality of the locals who are renowned for their friendliness.
And of course, as you explore Sri Lanka, don’t miss the opportunity to tantalise your taste buds with a wide variety of Indian-inspired dishes with a Sri Lankan twist.
Is Sri Lanka safe?
Sri Lanka has been through a tumultuous few years with the Easter terrorist attacks in 2019 and the political protests in the summer of 2022, but these situations have stabilised and the country is getting itself back on its feet.
In terms of day-to-day travel, Sri Lanka is one of the safest countries in Asia, being home to some of the friendliest people you will ever meet. Of course, like in all countries, practise common sense and caution with your belongings.
Best destinations in Sri Lanka
Top 3 places to visit in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is a diverse country offering lots of different opportunities and adventures depending on where you go.
As hard as it is to pick, here are our top three places to visit in Sri Lanka:
Kandy — the cultural heart of Sri Lanka
Kandy is said to be one of the cultural hearts of Sri Lanka for many reasons. It was the last capital of the ancient kings of Sri Lanka and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s also home to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, which houses a sacred tooth relic of Lord Buddha.
If that doesn’t sound fun enough, there are plenty of opportunities to immerse yourself in nature, including hiking the world-renowned Sigiriya Rock.
Ella — a jungle town with bridges, waterfalls and hiking
Ella is home to so many of Sri Lanka’s famous attractions — Nine Arches Bridge, Small Adam’s Peak, and rolling tea plantations. It’s also the start (or the end) of the unforgettable 7-hour train journey that runs between Kandy and Ella.
It’s a destination that you can’t miss out on your Sri Lankan itinerary. When you’re not exploring, Ella is a wonderful little town to chill in, with its many cafes and restaurants.
Find out how to make the iconic train journey between Kandy and Ella.
Mirissa — home to some of Sri Lanka’s best beaches
Sri Lanka has a bit of everything, and Mirissa is the place to go to explore some of the best beaches the country has to offer. With its palm tree-lined white-sand shores and turquoise waters, Mirissa is what we like to call ‘picture perfect’. It’s also home to the popular Instagram spot, Coconut Tree Hill. You’ll know it when you see it!
Aside from lounging on the beach and exploring the quaint town, Mirissa is quite the spot to catch a wave. Or, if you’re visiting between November and April, there’s a chance of catching a glimpse of the blue whales that pass by Mirissa’s coast.
When is the best time to visit Sri Lanka?
For a relatively small country, the weather in Sri Lanka really varies depending on where you are. The country has two monsoons: the Yala (southwest between April-September) and the Maha (northeast between November to March). Fortunately, this means that all year round you can find a pocket of sunshine somewhere on the island.
In general, December to April is considered the best time to visit Sri Lanka weatherwise, but we’ll break it down by area:
South and south-west Sri Lanka
This includes popular spots like Colombo, Galle, Weligama, Mirissa, Tangalle and Yala National Park. The best time to visit these places is between November to April. During this time, you’ll see almost no rainfall, sunny skies and average temperatures that rarely drop below 30 °C.
While the rest of the country is experiencing the monsoon season, the east coast is a ray of sunshine between April and September. On the east coast, you’ll find places like Arugam Bay and Trincomalee.
Between October to January, the monsoon hits, so expect a significant amount of rainfall.
Even if you’re visiting Sri Lanka during the rainy season, it’s unlikely that you’ll experience rain all day long. Instead, downpours tend to be intense but thankfully, short. A plus side of the rain is that you’ll find fewer tourists and lower prices throughout Sri Lanka.
How to get around in Sri Lanka
Something we all love to hear, Sri Lanka is a pretty easy country to get around. It’s relatively small and has good transport infrastructure.
Here are the best ways to get around in Sri Lanka:
Taking the train in Sri Lanka isn’t just about getting from A to B; it’s a memorable experience! Especially the famous train ride from Kandy to Ella which showcases some of the best that Sri Lanka has to offer. An 8-hour train ride will never go so quickly in your life.
There’s also a coastal route that passes through popular destinations such as Negombo, Colombo, Hikkaduwa, Galle and Weligama.
Sri Lanka’s train network is pretty well-developed, efficient and affordable. Plus more routes are now becoming available to book online in advance, which makes it even easier.
You’ll find plenty of taxis roaming the streets of Sri Lanka, waiting for their next passenger, so it’s never heard to flag one down. If you hate the negotiating part or the possibility of overpaying, then you can use Uber and PickMe — the two most popular taxi-hailing apps in Sri Lanka.
As distances between popular destinations in Sri Lanka usually aren’t too far from each other, you can also use Uber or PickMe if you prefer something more private.
If there’s a group of you, getting an Uber or PickMe between cities can be a convenient, more comfortable and affordable way to get around. We got an Uber between Negombo and Kandy, and the driver ended up buying us lunch at the most delicious place along the way.
Buses are the most affordable mode of transportation in Sri Lanka, with an extensive network covering the entire country.
Two types of buses are available: government-run red buses (CTB or SLTB) and private buses operated by smaller companies. While there is no significant difference, government bus drivers are considered slightly safer.
There are also different standards of bus:
- Normal — red name board above the windscreen, no air conditioning and can get very crowded. You’re not guaranteed a seat.
- Semi luxury — 1.5 times the normal fare, blue name board, still no air conditioning, slightly quicker with fewer stops, more comfortable seats. Still, no guarantee that you actually get a seat.
- Luxury — 2 times the normal fare, green name board, air conditioning, guaranteed a seat, significantly faster.
- Super luxury — 3 times the normal fare, purple name board, air conditioning, better seats. Only cover long-distance journeys.
Tuk-tuks will be your go-to way to get around once you’re in a destination. They’ll be zipping around all over the place and are a cheap way to get around, although not the most comfortable.
Make sure to agree on a price before getting in.
Sri Lanka has domestic airports in major cities like Colombo, Kandy, Jaffna and Trincomalee. If you’re short on time this can be an option, but keep in mind that taking a short-haul flight can be up to ten times more polluting than taking a more environmentally-friendly option like the bus.
Entry requirements and visa for Sri Lanka
Unless you’re from the Maldives, Seychelles or Singapore, chances are you’re going to need a visa to enter Sri Lanka. Luckily, the visa process is pretty smooth and can be obtained in the form of an electronic travel authorization (ETA).
Around 170 different countries can apply for the ETA, but you can double-check if you’ve made the list by checking here.
The Sri Lanka ETA processing time is around 3 days and can be applied for here. The visa costs $50 and lasts for 30 days.
You can also obtain a visa on arrival, however, this can often be a lengthy process.
To apply for both options, your passport must be valid for at least 6 months from the date of arrival in Sri Lanka.
Proof of exit
Checking proof of onward travel out of Sri Lanka is pretty sporadic. Sometimes they’ll ask, other times they won’t.
If you don’t want to take your chances but don’t know when you want to leave Sri Lanka, there’s a way around it.
‘Rent’ a plane ticket for $12. Best Onward Travel book a real plane ticket for you that is valid for 48 hours. It’s 100% legal and safe.
Must-try food and drink in Sri Lanka
We think that Sri Lankan food is some of the best in the world. It’s a mindblowing blend of flavours, spices and passion.
Here are some food and drink that you shouldn’t leave Sri Lanka without trying:
- Kottu Roti — is a popular street food in Sri Lanka that is essentially made by cooking together a bunch of leftover food. We promise it sounds better than that. It’s actually made by stir-frying chopped roti bread with vegetables, egg, and a choice of meat or seafood.
- Dhal Curry — also a lentil curry is a traditional Sri Lanka side dish that you’ll find perfectly compliments whatever curry you’ve ordered. Sri Lankans love dhal and will sometimes eat it two or three times a day. It’s made from red lentils which are cooked in coconut milk, onions and an array of spices.
- Hoppers — are a recognisable sight associated with Sri Lanka. They’re bowl-shaped pancakes made from fermented rice flour and coconut milk. These light and crispy pancakes can be enjoyed plain or with a variety of toppings, such as egg, honey, or coconut sambal (a spicy coconut relish).
- A cup of tea — Sri Lanka is one of the best tea producers in the world, so where better to try a cup of tea than directly from the source? You’ve probably heard of Ceylon tea before. Well, that comes from the Sri Lankan highlands.
Essential travel tips for Sri Lanka
Here’s a selection of the best tips and pieces of information that may make your trip to Sri Lanka that bit easier:
Paying with Sri Lankan Rupees in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka uses the Sri Lankan Rupee (Rs or LKR). As of June 2023, $1 was equivalent to around 308 LKR.
Debit and credit cards are accepted in a lot of places across Sri Lanka now, however, it’s always good to have cash on you just in case. Plus, markets and street vendors are likely to only accept cash.
Most ATMs in Sri Lanka will charge you a withdrawal fee between Rs.200-400.
The last time I was in Sri Lanka (2019) the Bank of Ceylon was a free ATM for certain cards.
Buying a sim card in Sri Lanka
There’s free Wi-Fi all over Sri Lanka — in cafes, restaurants and hotels, but there will probably be times that you want to have internet access whilst on the go. Getting a local sim card is a great way to solve this problem.
And great news, buying a sim card and data in Sri Lanka is extremely cheap. You can get an unlimited data plan with Mobitel for less than $5! Other mobile providers that are almost as cheap are Dialog and Airtel.
We recommend buying your sim card directly from the mobile provider’s store. Avoid buying it at the airport where prices are usually higher. You’re paying for the convenience.
Remember to bring your passport with you when buying your sim card as you may be asked for it.
Sinhala language cheat sheet
Sri Lanka has two official languages — Sinhala and Tamil. Sinhala is mainly spoken in the south, west and central parts of the island, whilst Tamil is predominantly spoken in the north and east of the country.
During your time in Sri Lanka, you’ll mainly hear Sinhala as 70% of the population are Sinhalese.
It’s always good to know a few essential words before travelling to a place, so here are a few to get you started:
- Hello – Ayubowan
- Thank you (very much) – Bohoma istouti
- Please – Karunakara
- Sorry – Samaāva
- Beer – Baiyara
The perfect packing list for Sri Lanka
If you’re travelling to Sri Lanka during the dry season, then you’re probably going to be blessed with sunny days and hot weather. That being said, it’s always good to have a jumper on you for chillier weather, for example in Tea Country where you’ll be on higher ground.
Obviously, if you’re visiting during the rainy season, bring a coat!
A good pair of trainers or hiking boots are also good to bring along as there are a few hikes that you can embark on — Little Adam’s Peak, Adam’s Peak and Sigiriya Rock to name a few.
Aside from the essential travel gear, here are some that have become permanent fixtures on our packing list:
- Reusable water bottle – they’re better for the environment and can save you money on water.
- A portable charger – there’s probably going to be a time when your phone’s battery is on red, at a time that you desperately need it.
- An adaptor – Sri Lanka uses plugs D and G. A universal travel adaptor is a great buy if you’re travelling between different continents.
For a comprehensive packing list, check out our ultimate packing list for Asia.
Our favourite places to stay in Sri Lanka
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
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
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Kate is a writer, (ex)Management Consultant and avid traveller. She recently returned from a 2-year career break exploring the world and decided corporate life wasn’t for her. She’ll soon be testing life as a digital nomad. She’s visited over 40 countries and fell in love with Latin America in particular. Her travelling has inspired a passion for yoga, salsa, hiking and Spanish.