This blog is going to give you all you need to know about travel in Sri Lanka! We have visited several times and each time we visit, we discover something new. More importantly… with each visit we fell further in love with the country, the people, the food and the culture!
Things to Know About Sri Lanka
Where to start, what to see, best places to stay and length of time you’ll need, are the questions you’ll be wondering before you travel to Sri Lanka. That’s where this travel blog can help… so sit down, grab a cup of tea (you’ll be drinking plenty of that in Sri Lanka by the way) and read on!
Getting Around Sri Lanka
Things have changed a lot in Sri Lanka in terms of transport and getting around over the years we have visited. New highways from Colombo to the southern areas, has made access faster and much easier. Originally travelling between destinations would require the full day, especially after factoring in the traffic congestion. Recently however, we have certainly seen improvements.
If you want my recommendation on getting around, I would suggest you find a driver. This might be for a week to take you to the towns and places that you want to visit. Then take a week to base yourself in another destination and make use of the super easy, cheap and ever fun, tuk tuk rides!
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As you make your way through the airport in Colombo, there is certainly no shortage of money exchangers to get your Sri Lanka Rupees (LKR). This is a super easy way to change your own currency into LKR. Of course, you can always find an ATM along your travels when you need to withdraw more. But just keep in mind this can be challenging depending on where you are at the time.
Safety in Sri Lanka
We have always felt safe in Sri Lanka. But as always when you are a visitor to a new place, it is important to keep your wits about you. Be respectful and don’t go doing anything reckless and you’ll have a fantastic time here.
Sri Lanka, as all similar travel destinations have touts that want to walk with you, show you around, sell you something. They are opportunists, trying to make a few rupees from you and so long as you politely but firmly say no thank you, they will leave you be.
Keep smaller denominations handy in case you need it. And don’t flash wads of rupees or dollars around when paying for something. We often travel with two wallets, one for smaller change and the second with more should we need it.
Visas are $30 USD and give you 30 days entry. You can apply for an extension while you are in the country, if you have a suitable reason to stay longer.
You can apply for a visa online, but be aware of online visa scams. There are some very clever websites that have been set up to look very legit. They will take your $30 and leave you without a visa.
With the formalities out of the way, let’s get into the good part of the blog… below are the list of our favourite places, to get you planning your perfect Sri Lanka travel holiday.
*This post may have affiliate links, which means I may receive a small commission if you choose to purchase through links I provide (at no extra cost to you).
Coastal Areas of Sri Lanka
Bentota & Aluthgama
This is one of my favourite base destinations for the West and South of Sri Lanka. There is loads to do and see, and there are a number of day trips to nearby towns in close proximity.
Where to Stay
I’ll start by recommending a place to stay, click this link to see where we regularly stay. When you see how perfect this villa is, there is no wondering why we have returned here each time we visit Sri Lanka. This villa is good for two people, or a family, or fantastic for a small family gathering. We have visited here under each of these categories, and every time got the privacy, the independence and the pure relaxation that we were looking for.
Dining, whether it be breakfast, lunch or dinner we take outside in the covered outdoor patio. And the outdoor cooking area is always our favourite place to prepare dinner. The pool is perfect, the bedrooms comfortable and the garden is simply gorgeous. And from here everything is more or less a tuk tuk ride away.
During a world pandemic it is the perfect place to stay, as you’ll have the pool and facilities all to yourself!
What to Do in and Around Bentota & Aluthgama
- Fishing, diving and water-sports can be arranged from the river. Stroll along the road that runs parallel to the river to find a few providers. Note that diving from Hikkaduwa is probably best.
- Take a river tour to see the monks living on a tiny island. This boat tour also includes a visit to a small cinnamon farm and wildlife watching as you make your way through mangrove tunnels. And if you are keen, there are a few fish farms along the way, if you’d like to stop to have your feet sucked at by alarmingly large river fish.
- Turtle hatcheries and research projects are dotted along the coast. They invite tourists in for releasing baby turtles into the ocean and to see the rehabilitation of injured turtles. I’m not sure exactly what I make of these, it’s difficult to say for sure whether these places have a genuine purpose. So I’ll let you be the judge 🙂
- The beaches in Bentota are beautiful, the long white sandy beach is the perfect place to walk in the evenings to catch the sunset. The swimming here is amazing, just watch out for strong rip tides. There are also a number of large luxury hotels along this stretch of beach to enjoy a Sri Lankan Lion beer, should you choose.
- The fresh vegetable market is a treat. Collect your favourites for a homely cooked dinner. Mangosteens are a regular favourite of ours, if you haven’t tried one, keep a look out!
- Sri Lanka is the home of Ayurvedic Massage and there are a number of places in Bentota offering this type of treatment. It is certainly a unique experience, and one I would recommend you try if only once in your life.
- The fresh fish market is another spectacular place to collect dinner. Get there early in the morning by tuk tuk. Wander along beside the colourful fishing boats and figure out what kind of fish you’ll have for dinner. Take your time, don’t get overwhelmed by the number of people and the lack of tourists and enjoy the experience.
Where to Eat
A great place for sundowners, along the river edge is Pier88 River Bar. It’s a little bit more expensive but won’t break the bank and is well worth the visit.
Think Sri Lankan masks! This is the town to find out about the culture of mask carving and legend. Ambalangoda is a small town on the main highway, and a visit won’t take long. The mask shops here, have an attached museum to help you understand more about the significance of masks within Sri Lankan tradition.
Popular amongst backpackers and tourists, Hikkaduwa has a busy and somewhat alternative vibe. If you come here it will be for beach, snorkelling and diving. The snorkelling is accessible just off the beach.
The reef is not exceptional quality, the coral is a little hammered, but for a morning or afternoon on the ocean it is worth a trip out to look.
Again I’ll stress the importance of taking care for rip tides and strong currents. On a return from a dive, our boat rescued a snorkeller who was in a very bad way.
You could stay here, but I definitely preferred Bentota as a base with a day trip to Hikkaduwa.
Galle is great for a day trip. There is plenty to do and see in this large town, but everything is very central and easy to navigate. Trendy little cafes and shops are in abundance and provide travellers of every kind, an opportunity to please.
The old town within the Fort walls is great to walk around. Make your way along the raised walls which overlook the ocean, this area presents a hive of local activity to watch or get involved in. But beware of the scammers around here and let them know you have no interest in their stories.
If you like precious stones, then this is the place to do it! They are very cheap!!! Also worth a visit is the Historical Mansion Museum on Leyn Baan Street. Here you will see artefacts, relics and antiques on display but some also for sale. There are also displays related to the mining of gem stones and even a lady demonstrating the art of lace making.
Getting to Galle is easy. The railway that runs along the southern coastal road is a fantastic way to get around this part of the island. Visit the local station to get the timetable. Then plan a trip to Galle from towns such as Bentota, Mirissa or anywhere in between. This is a very relaxed way to get about, cheap and stress free, so long as you are not travelling during peak hours.
Now Unawatuna is cute! We’ve visited a few times and it is one of my favourite beaches in Sri Lanka. This small bay has backpacker style accomodation directly on the beach. There is plenty to choose from, we tend to turn up and see what we prefer when we get there. Look for hammocks, grab yourself a coconut and note that the dress code is bikinis and bare feet!
Try Skinny Tom’s Deli for a really good coffee and a breakfast hopper! Their dining concept is Sri Lankan western fusion.
Further south from Unawatuna are the fascinating stilt fisherman near Koggola. Pulling up on the side of the road, you’ll see these stilts permanently erected in the bay. A few fisherman will be out there doing there thing… poised carefully upon their stilt and whipping fish out of the sea.
We have stopped in here twice, and on both occasions a guy will appear asking for some cash. Just be prepared and keep some change handy. Watching these guys is pretty fascinating. How they maintain perfect balance out there for a long period of time, is certainly a skill worthy of a photo or two. And in return, equally worthy of a few rupees.
I have to come clean and say we have not been to Mirissa. We have wanted to visit each time, but just never made it here. But I hear extremely good things about it. The beach is beautiful, the snorkelling fantastic, and this is a great place to relax and unwind with less tourists than some of the other beaches mentioned above. Mirissa is also well known for whale watching tours, if you visit between the months of November and April.
Beyond Mirissa – Dikwella
Not far beyond the main coast road is a small and rather intriguing temple. There is a large Buddha and a temple full of colour to walk through, but there is also a third area. I’d advise if you have young children, that this is not the place for them. Let me tell you why!
A seperate exhibit within the Wewurukannala Vihara temple, depicts through very gruesome paintings and life-size models, what happens to Buddhists who break the rules. I will not go into the gory details, but will say this, the end is not pretty and a torturous afterlife awaits!
Yala National Park
Further around the South coast towards the lower east side of Sri Lanka is the Yala National Park. Did you know that you can safari in Sri Lanka! Neither did I until I did my homework. The best time to plan your visit is between February and July, when the area is lush and green. This time of year brings the animals to water holes.
At Yala you can see elephants, buffalo, crocodiles, birds of all varieties, deer. But the most widely prized animal of the park is the leopard. Book ahead, board the safari truck early in the day and you’ll be in for a treat.
The park is well worth a visit if you’re down for some safari action. It’s not Africa, but it almost feels like you could be there. Click here to secure your guided tour at Yala.
Central Sri Lanka
The hill country of Sri Lanka is a very special place indeed. From Colombo there is a bit of a drive, but the countryside is beautiful and very different compared to the coastal area. The bush is lush and green and it feels as though you are ascending into the clouds.
Centred around a large lake there are many places to stay. I would recommend looking at Airbnb for accomodation perched high in the hills. The views are spectacular and there is nothing quite like looking out at the exceptional view with a coffee in your hand.
Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic
This temple sits along the lake front and is said to hold a relic tooth of Buddha himself. Many worshippers make the pilgrimage to this temple to make offerings throughout the year. It is also very busy with tourists, but it is important to remember to wear respectful clothing should you choose to visit.
Peradeniya or Royal Botanic Gardens
Whether you love all things botanical or not… these gardens are exceptional. And depending on how extreme you are on the botany enthusiast spectrum will indicate if you will need the full day to take it all in, or if a couple of hours should suffice.
This 60 hectares of garden is a very impressive sight, from spices, to orchids, giant trees to bamboo forests this garden really does have it all. Complete with a cafe, it would be easy to loose track of time and spend a day here.
From Kandy, there are several day trips you can take depending on your preferences and time available.
Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage – Kegalle
On the Road Between Colombo and Kandy is the Pinnewala elephant orphanage. It is very popular with tourists, so expect lots of people!
As you enter the orphanage there is a walk around the sanctuary and an introduction explaining how the elephants came to be there. And twice a day, the elephants are walked in a large herd to the river to bathe. At the scheduled times the elephants walk excitedly through the streets in anticipation of their favourite time of day. This a pretty extraordinary experience, and probably the best part of the visit.
As the tourists watch on, the elephants playfully cross the river to cover themselves in mud. Then when their time is up, the orphanage staff send out the signal and if my magic they make the return and begin the walk back.
Adam’s Peak – Sri Pada
At the time of our visit to this part of Sri Lanka we had a one-year old in tow. Needless to say, I didn’t fancy walking to the summit, some 5000-6000 steps with a little one on my back.
SO… check this review on Adam’s Peak and I’ll think you’ll agree it looks like a pretty good 5 to 7 hour adventure. I will point out that I have long wanted to make this trek, and will keep it on my list for when I return.
The land of tea! You see, I told you we’d get to talk tea. And if I’m to be honest, the lonely planet had me at chocolate cake (but I’ll get to that below)! Here in Nuwara Eliya you will be high in the mountains, looking out on rows upon rows of neat little tea bushes, lining the hillsides. It’s beautiful.
From Kandy, you’ll expect a 3 hour drive to get there. So it is a long drive to consider if you have kids. But don’t let that put you off. The drive is gorgeous, there are photo opportunities galore, and plenty of road side shops for fruit along the way to break up the journey. And when you get there, well you can have a cup of tea and chocolate cake of course.
Just before you reach the town of Nuwara Eliya is the Labookellie Tea Factory. They will offer a tour around the factory where the tea is processed. Then take you out to see the tea plantation and help you get a better understanding of how the leaves go from the bush into your teapot. Before you leave, visit the shop to load up on tea, then find a seat outside to enjoy a cuppa and cake.
This is another beauty that was on my list, but which we never got to. A small village high in the hills, surrounded by further tea plantations is Ella. Lush, green and gorgeous. A great destination to get off the tourist trail a bit and unwind, and spend time taking in the countryside. Go to Ella if you are looking for waterfalls, hikes and more tea plantations!
Possible as another day trip from Kandy is the infamous Sigiriya or Lion Rock. The drive will take about 2 1/2 hours each way and the Dambulla temple and caves are along the way. So pack some lunch, load up the car and get day tripping!
Pulling up to the carpark, you’ll quickly spot Sigiriya rock. Walk the long straight path leading towards the start of the hike and you’ll see it is a busy place. This hike is beginner level, nothing extreme. I did it with a baby strapped to my back and managed just fine. The last part is a little steeper as you climb the stairs to the summit.
Spots of interest along the way include the frescoes painted on the rock walls. The excavated lions paws just before you begin the climb to the very top. And the views… the lookout from the top provides a super 360 degree panorama.
Guides are available if you are looking for a better understanding of the history and significance of Sigiriya. Or we always recommend the Lonely Planet if you prefer to do it yourself.
Dambulla Temple and Caves
I’m just going to put it out there, that the large Buddha to the entrance of the temple and caves, sort of paints an inaccurate first impression for visitors. This large structure looms garishly, but after you enter the caves you’ll quickly realise the scene is quite different.
A reclining buddha with intricately painted feet, is surrounded by similarly decorated cave walls. This place is serene and beautiful. It was absolutely one of my favourite temples in Sri Lanka.
Now to be very honest, we’ve not spent a lot of time in Colombo. We tend to prefer being away from busy cities when on holiday.
If you are planning to stay a few nights in Colombo, then I recommend that you check out this Sri Lanka travel blog. This family visited with their young kids and have highlighted five things to do with kids in Colombo.
We would love to here about your favourite places to visit in Sri Lanka. Would you prefer to visit the hill country or the beaches or both? Drop your comments below.
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