What’s your thing? – beach? wildlife? ancient civilization? jungle? mountain? natural wonders? hiking? photography? food? friendly people? UNESCO sites? This gem has experienced an incredible rise in tourism over the past decade or so – and with very good reason. Located in the Indian Ocean, barely 100 miles from the equator, the idyllic tropical island offers everything you could wish for in a holiday destination. Its all here. You’ll never want to leave!
My list is based on a trip in 2012 (9 years! I can’t believe it!). I’ve lost all photos from this period so pals Jimmy and Paula have bailed me out – I’ve offered them 50% of my royalties or a pint each after Covid – wisely, they’ve opted for the pint!!. (Our trips didn’t exactly overlap so I’m adding in a few stock photos).
I know its the cliché but yes – we’re talking long white sandy beaches, turquoise water of the Indian Ocean, coconut palms, sunsets, beach restaurants with amazing seafood… you get the picture!
Its a great country for surfing and a good spot for beginners to get a few lessons. There are opportunities for diving and snorkelling. You can watch turtles laying eggs on the beach….
Yes, some beaches are quite developed but you can also find places where you practically have the whole beach to yourself. You can rent a bike and go from beach to beach or, pick one spot, throw down the towel, and while away an hour – or a day – or a week…..
Keep your eyes peeled for the famous stilt fisherman. The extraordinary sight of these men perched in the ocean on their wooden rods is a highlight of your visit. This traditional method of fishing is still practiced here but has also become a bit of a tourist trap – watch out for men posing as fishermen and family members collecting ‘donations’ for the privilege of a photo. You will spot the real thing in quieter places away from tourist centres
This won’t be your favourite place on the island but, as the gateway to the Central Highlands and the Cultural Triangle, its on every tour itinerary.
The last capital of the ancient kings of Sri Lanka, today Kandy is the second largest city in Sri Lanka. The centrepiece is the lovely lake but the most important sight is the Temple of the Tooth which is one of the most visited attractions in the country. Part of the royal palace complex, the Temple houses Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist relic – the left eyetooth of the Buddha. Brought from India during the 4th century, it is believed that whoever possesses the tooth is the rightful ruler of the country.
We were very lucky that our visit coincided (coincidently) with part of the spectacular Esala Perahera Festival. This 10 day event in the month of Esala (July / August) pays homage to the Sacred Tooth Relic and nightly parades of dancers, drummers and elephants are wonderful spectacles.
The Peradeniya Royals Botanic Gardens is worth a visit. With more than 4000 different plant species to admire, it offers a place to relax and escape from the busy streets.
Movie buffs may like to know that Kandy was a chief location in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
The Sacred City of Kandy is one of eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka.
The other cultural sites are:
The ancient city of Polonnaruwa
The ancient city of Sigiriya
The Golden Temple of Dambulla
The old town of Galle and its fortifications
The sacred city of Anuradhapura
The natural sites are
Sinharaja Forest Reserve
The Central Highlands.
3. The Cultural Triangle
The Cultural Triangle is a treasure trove of ancient cities, monuments and temples and you should try to visit at least one ancient site on your travels.
The beautiful Ancient City of Polonnaruwa was the capital of Sri Lanka for three centuries. Once a thriving religious and commercial centre, today its packed with ancient temples and ruins – what was once a seven storey Royal Palace must surely have been one of the first sky scrapers back in the late 1100s!
This is a wonderful place to rent a bike for exploring.
Anuradhapura ruled the island for 1,300 years. Today, the ancient city is full of bell-shaped stupas, vast temples and incredible palaces. Rather spread out, this is another ideal spot for hopping on a bike.
Centre to the city is Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi:
About 2,600 years ago, the Buddha sat leaning against a fig tree in Bodhgaya, India. It was at this moment that he is said to have achieved enlightenment. In doing so, the tree also gained a venerated status. It became known as the Bodhi tree, and pilgrims came to see it even within the Buddha’s lifetime. In 236BC, a Buddhist nun brought a branch of the tree to Sri Lanka and it was planted here in the Royal Park in Anuradhapura. The Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, as it became known, has since been cared for by Buddhist monks and dedicated kings. It is still revered today with thousands of devotees coming to make vows and offerings. It is considered the oldest human-planted tree in the world with a known planting date!
Dambulla is where you head for the Rock Temples. Here at this UNESCO World Heritage Site, you will find five caves with about 150 Buddha images. and impressive wall mural. At the base of the mountain is the modern Golden Temple with a large (rather garish!) golden buddha
Sigiriya is very much part of the Cultural Triangle, but, as the most visited attraction in the country, it deserves to stand alone. This giant rock, reaching almost 200 metres out of the surrounding jungle will not disappoint. The challenging hike is worth the effort not alone for the incredible views but for the UNESCO World Heritage site on top.
Once the capital of Sri Lanka, the king’s palace once stood on top of the rock. On the way up to the fortress ruins, you pass the giant stone claw at Lion’s Gate and ancient frescoes painted on the side of the mountain. Great stuff!
The walled city of Galle, in the south of the country, offers a great insight into Sri Lanka’s colonial history and is a must on any visit to the island. It owes its existence to the Europeans, first the Portuguese in the 16th century, followed by the Dutch who were responsible for the city’s main attraction – a fortress surrounded on three sides by the Indian Ocean. The narrow streets are a joy to explore. Unlike anything else on the island, they offer up Dutch colonial buildings, shops, churches, galleries, museums, coffee shops, restaurants and boutique hotels. The old part of Galle is home to quite an artist and writer colony – actually more than one third of the population of this UNESCO World Heritage Site are expats.
6. The Central Highlands – and Tea!
With rolling green fields and cooler temperatures, the central highlands are quite unlike the rest of the island – but still stunning! Make sure to include a visit to the hill towns, where you can visit a tea plantation and enjoy some incredible views.
Tea was first planted by the British on the island in the 19th century and Nuwara Eliya is the country’s tea capital. The town was actually founded by the British to escape the heat. Known as ‘Little England’ we’re talking red phone boxes, rose gardens and Victorian architecture – I’ll even admit to enjoying afternoon tea on the lawns of the Grand Hotel on my birthday!!
Ella is one of those places where people are tempted to stay longer than intended. The village is a great hiking base and even those who are not in to walking manage to tear themselves away from the cafes and make their way to Little Adam’s Peak for sunset.
The train route between Kandy and Ella is considered one of the most beautiful in the world. Its a great way to see the country.
NINE ARCH BRIDGE
Watching the train coming across this bridge is a spectacle indeed. Commissioned just before World War 1, the story goes that the steel and metal supplies for its construction were reassigned for military purposes so the bridge was constructed entirely of rock, brick and cement.
Hopefully you will have time to visit the Hortons Plain National Park for a 9km looped walk to World’s End. The views over the surrounding mountains are spectacular and the trail is accessible to most.
If you’ve had enough of the beach (!) and need a challenge then you can join the pilgrims climbing Sri Lanka’s highest peak. You want to be at the top for dawn and need to allow anything up to 4 hours for the 5000+ steps. There is a choice of lit paths and plenty of food and tea vendors along the way.
At the top, you’ll find a large boulder with an imprint resembling a footprint. This has significance for many religions – to Buddhists, it’s the footprint of Buddha, for Muslims and Christians, it’s the footprint of Adam (thus the site’s Western name) and to Hindus, it was created by the deity Shiva.
History in a nutshell!
The first inhabitants arrive around 500 BC.
The island’s people come to be known as the Sinhalese.
The first great civilization to develop is at Anuradhapura, ruling from 200 BC to 1000 AD.
This is followed by Polonnaruwa until 1200.
Buddhism comes to Sri Lanka in the mid-third century BC.
By the 1300s the Tamils have arrived from India and are settling in the north of the island – the Sinhalese move southwest.
The Portuguese arrive in 1505. They settle along the coast but by 1619 they control most of the island.
The Dutch take over in 1658
The British arrive in 1796. They make the island a British colony and call it Ceylon.
Ceylon gains independence in 1948.
It begins to adopt communism and make ties with the Soviet Union.
In 1972 it adopts a new constitution and becomes a republic. The name of the country is changed to Sri Lanka.
The Sinhalese dominate the country’s government. The Tamils want to set up a separate Tamil homeland in the northeast.
In the 1980s fighting breaks out between Tamil groups and the Sri Lankan government.
The civil war lasts until 2009 when government troops take control of the rebels’ last base and kill the remaining leaders.
Sri Lanka has an abundance of national parks teeming with animals and offers a wonderful opportunity for a safari experience. The parks vary so do a bit of research – decide on what you want to see and how it fits in to your itinerary. Yala is the most popular – here you’ve a chance to spot 44 varieties of mammal and 215 bird species. It has the world’s greatest concentration of leopards. But it is also very busy with streams of jeeps pouring into the park for early morning sightings. Other parks are better for wild elephants and lesser known sites offer up plenty of gems without the hordes of visitors. You can also opt for a Whale or Dolphin Safari when visiting the coast.
Sri Lanka is the stomping ground for about 7,500 wild elephants . The national parks offer the best chance to see these magnificent creatures roaming free. The Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage is another very popular tourist attraction. As well as taking in orphaned animals, it runs a nursery and a captive breeding centre. Here, visitors can watch the babies being cared for and fed with bottles. They can help feed the adults and watch them get their daily bath in the river.
There are many captive elephants in Sri Lanka, either kept as pets or for exploitation in the tourist trade. You can make your own mind up about riding one but you know its not good for their backs and these beautiful animals should never be in chains.
Ah – the food! As a committed carnivore, this was the one time in my life I might have been converted! Our trip began in Kandy and at our half board lodgings we were presented each evening with a feast of curries and side dishes. Interestingly enough, my least favourite were those with chicken or meat – the veggie options were amazing and everything was made with the freshest of ingredients.
Sri Lanka food boosts many influences – its proximity to India and its colonial past as well as ancient tradition. As we continued on our travels, we sampled great fried snacks and seafood of course – well, you are surrounded by ocean!! Just imagine fish curries and grilled prawns…. yum!
Sri Lankan food is known to be relatively spicy, but there’s no problem asking for little or no spice in your meal.
This may seem a rather strange inclusion if you’ve visited Sri Lanka but odds are you might be here for a night at the beginning or end of your trip, depending on your flights. Your instinct is to skip it altogether but don’t write it off completely – if you do find yourself here for a day, your best bet is to hire a tuk-tuk for a few hours (they are everywhere!!) and let the driver take you around the highlights. You’ll enjoy the narrow streets, colonial size buildings, ancient temples and street food. If you still have time, there are plenty of museums to enjoy, or head for the Colombo Lotus Tower for some great views.
Where is Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka is an island country located in the Indian Ocean, a mere 55km from southern India.
The main gateway to the country is Bandaranaike International Airport, 30km north of Colombo. The island is well served by major Asian airlines. There are direct flights from London but routes generally connect in the Middle East or Southeast Asia.
Visitors must apply for a tourist visa. The easiest option is via the official ETA website prior to departure. The double entry visa is valid for 30 days and costs $35 ($20 for SAARC countries). Make sure to visit the official site – do not apply through a travel agent.
You will also need the following upon arrival:
*Proof of departure date.
*Minimum 6 months left on passport.
*Proof of Cholera / Yellow Fever vaccination if travelling from infected area.
The North – I haven’t included the North in my Top 10 because we didn’t visit this part of the country. However, more and more travellers are discovering Jaffna and the far north since the end of the civil war (2009).
The West Coast – The capital Colombo, beaches.
The South – Galle, beaches, national parks.
Kandy and the Highlands – Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Ella, tea plantations, Adam’s Peak.
The East Coast – beaches, surfing.
Cultural Triangle – Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura, Dambulla.
The two official languages are Sinhala and Tamil. English is taught in schools and spoken by many Sri Lankans .
What do you call people from Sri Lanka?
Sinhalese are the majority ethnic group in Sri Lanka, Tamils are the significant minority. If you know the ethnicity of the person to whom you are speaking, you can refer to them as either Sri Lankan or their ethnic group. If you get it wrong, you will probably offend them, so just call them Sri Lankan – its the safe option.
Getting around the island is easy enough but can be time consuming.
Buses serve most of the island and are frequent and cheap. Most Sri Lankans have English and there’s always someone to help you find the right bus. You’ll need small change for the fare. Be warned that they can get very crowded.
Tuk tuks are more expensive than buses and prices vary, depending on the distance and your negotiating skills! Its probably the best option for sightseeing in towns or heading for the bus or train with your luggage.
Uber is available in Colombo but the service is sporadic..
The rail network services the main areas of the island and is worth experiencing even once. Some routes, like the Kandy- Ella line, are breathtaking. For the more popular routes, its advisable to purchase your tickets in advance
Public transport is not for everyone – especially if Sri Lanka is a new destination for you. Its very easy to organise a car and driver – you can arrange it through your hotel, through a travel agent or directly with a driver. You can make arrangements for daytrips, one-way trip to your next destination or having a driver for your full vacation who doubles as a guide.
We used a combination of transport options – from major centres like Kandy, it was easy to get a bus and good fun. But for journeys that meant 2 or more buses, it was just so much easier to get a driver. Sometimes we arranged it through our accommodation but more often than not it was someone who’s services we used around town. Everyone knows a driver!! If they can’t take you themselves then their bother-in-law or cousin can!!!
Who should go?
I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t like Sri Lanka! (unless you hate flying!)
Budget Travellers ✔
Luxury Travellers ✔
Water sport fanatics ✔
Sun worshipers ✔ (although it would be mad to go there and spend all your time on the beach!).
When to go
First – the good news – Sri Lanka is a year round destination.
This beautiful island enjoys not one but two main monsoon seasons as well as another shorter one!!
The monsoons affect different parts of the island at different times of the year.
It would actually take a full blog to outline all the options. But to summarise…..
You basically have two choices:
Decide on what you WANT to see in Sri Lanka and choose the best time of year for that particular trip.
Pick your travel dates and then visit what’s ‘in-season’.
Either way – you need to do your research before you decide anything.
Of course, there is no exact start and end date and the monsoon season can vary a bit from year to year.
The most popular time to visit Sri Lanka is November > March when the weather is good on the west and south coast.
Sri Lanka’s currency is the Sri Lankan Rupee (one rupee =100 cent).
Some larger hotels will accept payment in USD or Euros, but you are usually better off paying for goods and services in the local currency.
You’ll find plenty of money exchange booths at the airport – day or night. They will take any form of currency and give you Rupees in exchange.
The Sri Lankan Rupee cannot be exchanged outside the country so make sure to change any remaining cash at the airport before you leave.
Notes come in 10, 20, 50, 100, 500, 1000, 2000, 5000 rupee denominations.
Get rid of larger bills whenever you can – hotels, restaurants, day trips, etc. Its common for shops to have very little change so build up a stash of smaller denominations.
Coins come in denominations of 1,2, 5 and 10 rupees.
ATMs are pretty widely accessible in the main tourist areas and are easy to use. However, try not too let your cash reserve run too low as they can’t always be relied upon.
Some bank ATMs charge foreigners a fee.
Cards are accepted at major hotels and some restaurants but you’ll find that the country pretty much runs on cash – most restaurants, guest houses and drivers operate only in cash.
Internet and Phone Access
You can purchase a sim card (sometimes there’s a free promotion) and data when you reach the airport in Colombo – there are a number of companies in Arrivals. To top up on your travels, just drop in to any convenience store.
Wifi is available in almost all main tourist areas and is fairly fast in major urban centres. Don’t depend on it in remote guesthouses though.
What to bring
Sunscreen is really expensive. Bring your own. And lot’s of it.
Pack for heat and humidity but add something warmer for hill country.
Have something that covers legs and shoulders if planning on visiting religious sites.
Health and Safety
Local tap water is not generally safe for drinking.
If you bring a water purification system, you can fill up directly from the tap. Otherwise, use bottled water – make sure to check expiration date.
Recommended vaccinations will vary, depending on your home country.
The island is free from malaria but you still must be very vigilant about mosquito bites – mosquito borne Dengue Fever is an ongoing issue in the country and there is no vaccination. Many hotels have mosquito nets in the bedrooms and you can minimise the risk by covering up (especially at sunrise and sunset) and using plenty of repellent with DEET.
Rabies virus exists here so be vigilant around animals – especially dogs and monkeys.
Use common sense when buying food and drinks:
Follow the crowd – eat at places popular with the locals.
Do not drink tap water.
Watch out for salads, fruit, etc. that have been washed under the tap.
Make sure food is well cooked.
If you can’t afford travel insurance you can’t afford to travel
There’s accommodation to suit everyone here, from luxury to backpacking. Most visitors will opt for a multi base trip. Many budget travellers are happy to leave their options open and book as they go but if you are using hotels then it may be better to plan ahead.
Don’t be too amorous in public!
Ask permission before you take someone’s photo.
Be prepared to haggle in markets – its expected.
Admission costs to attractions can be relatively high here so make sure to budget for such expenses.
Develop a taste for beer before you travel – wine (when you can actually get it) is very pricey.
Be prepared for ‘hidden charges’ – the price quoted on hotel sites may, or may not, include various taxes. Be prepared to add anything up to 30% on your bill – it could be called VAT, service charge, city tax or a combination of all three.