Planning a trip to Sri Lanka? Sri Lanka is ranked as a top country to travel in 2019 by Lonely Planet. That’s a reason strong enough to plan for this teeny weeny beautiful South Asian Island in 2019.
Sri Lanka travel is relatively cheap when compared to other South Asian countries. It can be a bit messy though with dusty and crowded streets, and cram-full public transportation but the vivid beauty of the tear-drop island makes up for it.
There are things we didn’t know before visiting Sri Lanka but you should. Here’s our Sri Lanka travel guide to help you craft a perfect trip to Sri Lanka.
INTRODUCTION TO SRI LANKA
Golden Beaches, Exciting Wildlife, Natural Beauty, Great Food, Ancient Cities, Rich Culture and Heritage, Awe-inspiring highlands, Warm and lovely people; Sri Lanka is a tiny island with endless possibilities.
Official Name: Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka
Former Name: Ceylon
Capital City: Colombo
Languages: Sinhala, Tamil, and English
Religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity
Festivals and Religious Ceremonies: Duruthu (January Full Moon), Avurudu (Sinhalese New Year), Vesak Day, Poson, Deepavali, and Poya Day (Full Moon of each month).
Currency: Sri Lankan Rupee
Dialing Code: +94
Time Zone: GMT + 5:30
VISA FOR SRI LANKA
Barring the nationals of The Republic of Singapore, The Republic of Maldives and The Republic of Seychelles; the citizens of all other countries need a visa to Sri Lanka.
The visa process for Sri Lanka is quite easy. You can apply online for the Sri Lanka Tourist Visa. Make sure your passport is valid for 6 months from the date of arrival and contains at least one blank page before you apply for the ETA.
They issue an ETA (Electronic Travel Authorization) which is valid for 30 days (double entry) from the date of arrival. It can be further extended for up to 6 months. You can contact the Department of Immigration for the visa extension.
The visa cost is USD 20 for SAARC countries and USD 35 for other countries. Children of any country under 12 years of age are exempted from ETA processing fee.
Visa on arrival facility is also available on additional cost. You can contact ETA issuing authority at the airport, fill in the ETA application form and pay the ETA processing fee (USD 25 for SAARC Nations and USD 40 for other countries) to get the visa. You can pay the fee by credit/debit cards or cash in USD only.
Keep the copy of ETA approval, a passport, a confirmed return ticket, and the proof of sufficient funds for the stay in Sri Lanka before you proceed for immigration counter at the airport. They may ask for the documents.
TRAVEL INSURANCE FOR SRI LANKA
We never venture out without strong travel insurance. You never know when you need one. Life’s uncertain so is travel. Travel Insurance makes traveling safe and enjoyable. I can’t emphasize enough how vital travel insurance is while traveling overseas.
We use and recommend World Nomads. It’s flexible, covers the trip essentials and can be extended. The best part is that you can buy and claim World Nomads insurance online from anywhere and anytime.
WHAT TO PACK FOR SRI LANKA
Sri Lanka remains hot and humid on the coast and a bit chilly on the highlands. You need a mix of light, comfortable cotton and warm clothes.
Before you pack anything else, keep your passport, air tickets, hotel booking record, smartphone, cash, credit card, and debit card in a sling. Everything else can be shopped or arranged but it’s disastrous to forget the passport, tickets, and cards 🙂
Pack cotton or linen pjs, capris, shorts, or pants to pair with cotton tops, t-shirts, or tank-tops. Don’t forget to pack bikini (swimwear) for warm beach days.
I personally love Bamboo Tribe clothing as they are amazingly soft, smooth, comfortable, easy on the skin and most importantly, eco-friendly. They have a range of clothing for men and women.
Make sure you pack a decent dress that covers you appropriately and a scarf to cover your head for the temple visits. I love this scarf with a hidden zipper pocket to store your belongings like a passport or cash safely.
Keep a light-weight sweater, cardigan, sweater or jacket, full-sleeve top or t-shirt, and denim or full lower for the cooler evenings and a visit to the hill country. This woolen shrug looks cool yet makes you feel warm 🙂
Other essential items include mosquito repellant, insect bite cream (especially if you plan to hike with kids), lip balm, sunscreen lotion, sunglasses, hat, rain gear, medical kit with basic medical supplies, and a hand sanitizer. I never forget to pack energy bars. They make great rather handy and essential travel snacks.
We never leave home without our trusted Lonely Planet Guide. It helped us a lot during our Sri Lanka odyssey.
BEST TIME TO VISIT SRI LANKA
It’s tricky. The best time to visit depends upon the region you want to visit.
Sri Lanka has two monsoon seasons, May to September (Yala Monsoon Season) for the west and southwest coasts and October to February (Maha Monsoon Season) for the east coast, north, and the ancient cities.
December to March (dry season) is the best time to visit the west coast, south coast, and highlands. April to September (dry season) is the best time to visit the east coast, the ancient cities (the cultural triangle), and the north.
The temperatures remain constant ranging from 25-30 degree Celsius in the coastal area and 14-19 degree Celsius in the highlands.
Peak (Busy) Season: December-March
Shoulder Season: April and September-November
Low Season: May-August
Note: If you are planning to visit around July and August, check for the dates of Sri Lanka’s oldest and largest cultural festival, Kandy Esala Perahara. The festival is organized by the Temple of the Tooth Relic to honor of the Tooth Relic and Pattini (goddess), Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama (gods). The Kandy Esala Perahara 2019 is scheduled from July 7th, 2019 to July 17th, 2019.
HOLIDAYS IN SRI LANKA
Sri Lanka has a crazy number of holidays as there are diverse ethnicities and each one celebrates its festivals.
Most of the touristic places, restaurants, and markets remain closed on public holidays, so it’s important to know about the upcoming holidays before you plan your trip to Sri Lanka.
Check the list of Public Holidays in Sri Lanka in 2019 before you start finalizing your travel dates.
SRI LANKAN DESTINATIONS
If you have been reading my blogs, you must be aware that I always suggest classifying the city or country into its regions or areas or neighborhoods to explore the places of interest with ease.
Here’s the areawise list of places in Sri Lanka and the map of Sri Lanka to help you choose the places that interest you the most.
East Coast Sri Lanka
The East Coast is a quaint, peaceful, and authentic region as compared to the south and west region. Most tourists visit Trincomalee on the east coast for the whale watching tours.
- Kumana National Park
- Kumana National Park
- Arugam Bay
- Pigeon Island
Kandy and the Hill Country
The mist, clouds, rolling hills, tea gardens, and cool temperatures define the Kandy and the Hill Country region of Sri Lanka.
- Nuwara Eliya
- Horton Plains
- Sinharaja Reserve
- Udawalawe National Park
- Adam’s Peak
South Coast Sri Lanka
It’s the most charming region and a hotspot of water sports.
- Yala National Park
West Coast and Colombo
This is the most populated, busiest, loud and developed region of Sri Lanka. It also is the point of entry/arrival for travelers from all around the world.
- Wilpattu National Park
The Cultural Triangle
The Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka echoes the golden past of Sinhalese civilization.
- Panduwas Nuwara
- Ridi Vihara
- Minneriya National Park
- Kaudulla National Park
- Wasgomuwa National Park
Jaffna and the North
Inhabited by the Tamil migrants, the northern part seems far-off and isolated. The region was regulated by the LTTE for a long time, two decades I guess and is emerging slowly from the confinement and civil war.
The north of Sri Lanka offers compelling opportunities for travelers who love to discover and explore, not just travel.
- Jaffna Peninsula
- Kilinochchi (erstwhile capital of the LTTE)
Check out our Sri Lanka itinerary to know how we picked the places to visit in Sri Lanka from all its beautiful regions.
BEST PLACES TO VISIT IN SRI LANKA
Mostly, tourists explore south Sri Lanka. North of Sri Lanka is a bit off from the rest of Sri Lanka. Tourism is picking up slowly and steadily. The region is still recovering from the decades of war and destruction.
South and North of Sri Lanka are like chalk and cheese. There’s a stark difference between them. If you are a real traveler, exploring the Jaffna and the rest of the north would certainly be one of a kind of experience for you.
Our recommendations of the most beautiful places to visit in Sri Lanka are:
The beautifully preserved ruins of Sigiriya and Dambulla make up for one of the most dramatic experiences in Sri Lanka.
Galle still has a strong Dutch and Portuguese influence from the past. The coastal town has European vibes. It feels different than the rest of Sri Lanka. Galle Fort is the most important point of interest in Galle.
Mirissa is best known for surfing and whale-watching. Don’t miss the Parrot Rock on the Mirissa Beach. A little walk away from Mirissa beach takes you to the coconut farm on a hillock that offers amazing views over Mirissa.
With its strategic lakeside (Tissa Wewa) location, Tissa makes a great base for exploring Bundala and Yala National Parks.
Yala National Park
Yala National Park in Sri Lanka promises a fair chance to spot the leopard in the wild. It’s better to hire a guide to increase your chances of Leopard Sightings. The park also has quite a few tusked elephants.
The crumbling ruins of Anuradhapura tell a story of Sri Lanka’s glorious past. The Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba (huge stupa made of brick) is the high-point of a visit to the ancient city of Anuradhapura.
Polonnaruwa is another beautiful ancient city of Sri Lanka. The archeological park houses the ancient architecture – royal palace, sacred quadrangle, temples, statues, and stupas (dagobas). A visit to the Archeological Museum can be a great introduction to the ancient city.
Another beach town with ample options for surfing, snorkeling, and seafood. A great place to relax for a day or two.
Sri Lanka’s second largest town, Kandy is chaotic yet beautiful. The Sacred Temple of Tooth Relic, a Buddhist temple is the main reason people visit Kandy. The view of Kandy Lake from Arthur’s Seat is unmissable when in Kandy.
Known as the Little England of Sri Lanka, Nuwara Eliya is a beautiful hill country with colonial vibes. Explore the lush tea gardens, dine at a restaurant looking at the beautiful Ramboda Falls, hike to the World’s End, relax by the famous Gregory lake – whatever you do, remember to bring woolens for the chilly hill country.
A tiny hill-country village has a surprisingly huge list of things to do. From hiking up the little Adam’s peak and Ella Rock, walking along the world-famous Nine Arch Bridge, drinking in the views of tea gardens from the Lipton’s Seat to chasing the beautiful waterfalls of Diyaluma and Ravana Falls – Ella is a must-have experience in Sri Lanka.
Arugam Bay is a beach town on the east coast of Sri Lanka. A must visit if you are a sun, sand, and surf person.
Trincomalee is again a quiet beach town on the east coast of Sri Lanka. East coast of Sri Lanka is much relaxed and peaceful as compared to the south coast of Sri Lanka. Nilaveli beach, Pigeon Island and Fort Frederik are some of the best places to visit in Trincomalee. Like Mirissa, it’s also famous for whale-watching though the seasons differ. The whale watching tours are available from November to April in Mirissa and from March to August in Trincomalee.
Tangalle is a comparatively low-key yet stunning beach destination on Sri Lanka’s south coast. There are some amazing places like Kalametiya Bird Sanctuary, Mulkirigala, Wewurukannala, Rekawa, Ussangoda, Hoo-Maniya Blowhole around Tangalle which makes a trip to Tangalle worth it.
Located on the northern tip of Sri Lanka, Jaffna is well away from the other parts of Sri Lanka. The region was caught in the civil war between LTTE and SLA from 1983 to 2009. It’s still recovering. For travelers who look for an authentic and immersive travel experience, Jaffna is a place to be.
Jaffna Fort, Nallur Kandiswamy, Delft Island, Jaffna Public Library, Jaffana Clock Tower, Keerimalai and Kankesanthurai Beach, the little towns of Vanni, Madhu, and Kilinochchi; Jaffna has plenty of things up its sleeve for real travelers.
GETTING TO SRI LANKA
Bandaranaike International Airport in Katunayake next to Negombo, 30 km north of Colombo, is Sri Lanka’s primary international airport. With growing tourism, Sri Lanka receives tourists from all around the world.
Sri Lankan Airlines is the major air carrier which has a sizeable network to Asia and the Middle East. Sri Lanka is well served by other major carriers like Air India, Thai Airways, Singapore Airlines, British Airways, Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways, Turkish Airlines including budget air carriers like Air Asia and Indigo.
Sri Lankan Airlines and Air India have direct flights from New Delhi. It takes around 4 hours and the prices are competitive too.
Looking for awesome deals on flights? Fly for Less with Skyscanner.
GETTING AROUND SRI LANKA
Getting around Sri Lanka can be tiring because of narrow and crowded roads, and unmanaged traffic. Tuk-tuks run extensively and stop anywhere without paying any heed to road safety rules.
Though one must at least once experience tuk-tuk travel when in Sri Lanka. There are few small group tuk-tuk tours available where a local guide makes you travel like a local in a tuk-tuk.
Buses and trains make up the public transportation system in Sri Lanka. Traveling by bus or train is cheap but frustrating because of the chaotic crowds. Private Buses are a better option than the Central Transport Board buses.
The most scenic train ride in Sri Lanka from Kandy to Ella is worth experiencing. It’s thought to be one of the most scenic rail routes in the world. Book tickets in advance to get a seat in first class. Second and third class compartments are horribly packed to travel with kids.
One can hire a bicycle to explore Sri Lanka. There are a few bike tours available too.
Hiring a car with a driver is the best option to discover Sri Lanka with family. I’d not recommend self-drive car hire because driving and parking are a pain in the island country. Also, the prices are more or less same whether you rent a car or hire a car with a driver. We hired a car with a driver which gave us a chance to sit comfortably at the backseat and experience the outdoors at leisure while the driver handled the unruly roads.
The rates are calculated per km with additional fuel charges. Expect to pay 50 to 60 USD a day on an average. You don’t need to offer lunch or dinner to the driver though can offer tea once in a while.
Drivers openly ask for a tip in Sri Lanka. Be aware, they tend to deter from visiting the places in your list and take you to the places where they earn a commission. This happened to us. It’s better to tell the driver upfront to drive to places only in your itinerary.
Make sure to hire a car with a driver from a reputed company. You can also book a cab or taxi using Uber or Pickme apps.
WHERE TO STAY IN SRI LANKA
As family travelers, we always look out for the resorts or hotels that are ready to go that extra mile to serve families traveling with young kids. We stayed at some amazing family-friendly properties in Sri Lanka which we can recommend to families without even thinking twice.
The name says everything. Taj overlooks the Samudra (Indian Ocean), offers comfortable and classy rooms plus the hospitality is matchless. The hotel is located in Kollupitiya, one of the most culturally diverse neighborhoods in Sri Lanka that presents some authentic Sri Lankan experience for kids. Taj Samudra is hands down one of the best hotels in Sri Lanka to stay with kids.
Check the availability and prices here.
Worlds away from all the hustle and bustle of the city of Kandy, Eco Lodges offers a peaceful, comfortable and healthy stay.
Check the availability and rates here.
Perfect Location. Perfect Rooms. Perfect Hospitality. Perfect for Families. The Heritage Galle Fort is everything you could ask for and more. This has to be our top pick in Galle. Book and know it for yourself!
Check the availability and rates here.
Queenswood is one of the best family-friendly stay options in Nuwara Eliya. The price is on a higher side but you get the value for money.
Check the availability and the rates here.
Riverside Camping is for those who love living close to nature. You’d absolutely enjoy your stay here after the thrilling safari in the wild at Udawalawe National Park.
Check the availability and the rates here.
The hotel yields amazing reviews from fellow travelers and is rated best for a stay with kids in Sigiriya.
Check the availability and the rates here.
Elephant Stables is a wonderful and unique hotel in Dambulla that offers great value for money. The quiet location overlooking stunning forest views add to the charm.
Check the availability and the rates here.
WHAT TO EAT IN SRI LANKA
Sri Lanka has loads of options for travelers who are foodies to indulge in.
It’s made from a flat and crispy bread, godamba roti. The roti is stir-fried, finely chopped, spiced, sauced, and mixed with the chosen ingredients viz. vegetables, cheese, chicken or egg.
Pol Sambol (Coconut Sambol/Thengkai Sambol)
Pol Sambol is a side dish for every Sri Lankan main dish under the sun. The chutney (relish or sauce) is prepared from grated coconut, chili powder, red onions, lime extract, salt, and Maldive fish.
Parippu (Dal Curry)
It’s a staple dish in Sri Lankan household. Boiled masoor dal (split red lentils) is sauteed with onion, tomatoes, green chilies, cumin seeds, fenugreek, mustard seeds, curry leaves, salt, and fresh coconut milk. Parippu is served with roti or paratha.
Ceylon Tea with Jaggery
I loved the combination of Sri Lankan tea with kithul palm jaggery. Take a sip of tea and bite in the piece of delish Sri Lankan jaggery; the traditional way of relishing tea in Sri Lanka.
String Hoppers (Idiyappam)
String Hoppers, a steamed rice noodles, or call it Sri Lankan Pancake, is Sri Lanka’s favored breakfast dish or sometimes serve as a perfect choice for light dinner.
Polos (Jackfruit Curry)
It’s a curry made from young unripened green jackfruit. The jackfruit is chunked, boiled and cooked with garlic, ginger, curry leaf stems, pandan leaves, curry powder, chili powder, mustard seeds, and coconut milk.
Wambatu Moju (Eggplant Pickle)
Brinjal is wedged, deep-fried, and soused with sugar, salt, onions, vinegar, mustard seeds, chili powder, turmeric, and green chilies to make juicy Wambatu Pickle.
Kiribath (Sri Lankan Milk Rice)
It’s rice cooked with coconut milk. Kiribath is usually served with lunu miris, a spicy chili onion sambol (sauce).
It’s a sweet-dish, pudding to be precise, made from jaggery (kithul or hakuru), coconut milk, cardamoms, eggs, and nutmeg. The flowers from coconut trees are extracted to collect kithul nectar which is air-dried to crystalline brown sugar. Kithul serves as a natural sweetener in Sri Lanka.
Wood Apple (Bael Fruit)
It’s a fruit that you’ll find everywhere in Sri Lanka. I honestly didn’t like the weird appearance and strong freakish smell of Wood Apple. But don’t let the look or smell fool you, it tastes good actually and is healthy too. If you are still not convinced to taste one, let me tell you it helps you lose weight pretty fast 😉
The outer covering is a bit hard so takes time to cut open.
Gotu Kola Sambol (Pennywort Salad)
Lovers of Green Vegetables like me would love this dish to the core. Asiatic Pennywort or Gotu Kola, a medicinal herb in Southeast Asia, is finely sliced, mixed with grated coconut, red onions, tomatoes, and seasoned with spices and lemon extract.
Ulundu Vadai (Medu Vada or Urad Dal Vada)
I’m sure you must have tasted Medu Vada, if you’ve ever traveled to South India. It’s the same crunchy deep-fried fritters made from dal (black gram).
It’s an orange colored coconut you’ll find widely on the streets of Sri Lanka. Don’t forget to sample one. It’s sweet and saves you from the harsh tropical Sri Lankan weather.
Spicy Sri Lankan Smosa
Samosas (fried triangle shaped salty pastries filled with potatoes, and veggies) are must-try in Sri Lanka. They are best enjoyed with a hot cup of tea.
SHOPPING IN SRI LANKA
Sri Lanka’s artisans are brilliant at traditional crafts made from materials like ebony, stone, ivory, wood, batik, lacquer, and lace. It’s vital to know if you are buying the right stuff (traditional vs modern or copied craft item) and from the right place.
Do all your traditional souvenirs shopping from Colombo and Negombo. Kala Pola Art Market, Lakpahana and Laksala in Colombo are perfect shopping destinations for the art lovers. I’d also recommend visiting Colombo’s Pettah Market for a true Sri Lanka shopping experience.
The best place to buy Sri Lankan tea would be local supermarkets like Cargills. Avoid buying tea from tea gardens and factories as they sell it on ridiculously high prices.
Read our Sri Lanka Shopping Guide to know more.
SRI LANKA TRAVEL BUDGET
Sri Lanka is a pretty affordable country to visit. As an Indian, I found transportation, accommodation, and food insanely cheap. Indian Rupee is stronger than the Sri Lanka Rupee. It’s always great to travel to countries where your currency is stronger than the currency of the country you are visiting.
Average Daily Cost of Accommodation in Sri Lanka
Budget accommodation costs around $8 to $20 (LKR 3500-5000) while the mid-range costs between $25 to $40 (LKR 4500-7000) and the luxury stay costs $60 plus (LKR 10000+).
Average Daily Cost of Food in Sri Lanka
The street/fast food costs $1 to $2 (LKR 100-400) and they have quite a delish variety of local fast food items. If you choose to Casual dine, the food per person can cost you somewhere around $6 to $10 (LKR 1000-2000) while the Fine dining could cost you $15 plus (LKR 2500+). The beer is quite affordable. Lion Beer (0.7-liter bottle), their famous local beer costs $1.85 to $3 (LKR 300-500). All the food prices are per person.
Average Daily Cost of Transporation in Sri Lanka
Tuk-Tuk isn’t as cheap as it’s said to be. Plus you need to haggle a lot with the tuk-tuk drivers before you settle on a price. Usually, they charge $0.21/km to $0.28/km (LKR 40/km-50/km).
A single trip train journey ticket ranges from $1 to $12 (LKR 175-2200) depending upon the class and route.
Buses are the cheapest way to get around Sri Lanka. The prices range from $0.070 to $6 (LKR 12-965) for a one-way trip. Lowest prices are for getting around within a city and the highest prices are for traveling from one city to another.
Hiring a car with a driver is the most convenient way to get around Sri Lanka. The charges are $50/day to $60/day (LKR 9000/day-10000/day).
SRI LANKA TRAVEL TIPS
- Don’t let the tuk-tuk drivers scam you. They quote the unreasonable amount of money from the tourists. Check the fare for the desired destination from the locals before hiring a tuk-tuk. It’s always better to get a tuk-tuk with a meter as it saves you from getting conned.
- Avoid tap water. Stick to bottled water.
- Keep cash at all times. ATMs in Sri Lanka aren’t reliable. Travelers face issues withdrawing money on foreign cards. Also, many local shops, as well as tuk-tuk drivers, don’t accept cards.
- Sri Lanka isn’t as cheap as portrayed. The entry tickets to the tourist destinations in Sri Lanka or souvenirs are ridiculously overpriced.
- Sri Lankan law finds it disrespectful to use the symbol of Buddha as a body tattoo. Respect their culture and laws. Hide it, if you have one.
- Dress appropriately especially when visiting the religious sites. Cover your shoulders and legs before you enter the religious places.
- Make sure you shop for souvenirs (handicrafts and gems) from authentic government certified shopping stores.
- Buy a local sim card for Sri Lanka with internet data. International networks rarely work. A local Dialog sim card is the best option for all your network and data needs. It has cost-effective prepaid plans for tourist. You’d need a photo ID to buy a sim card. You can collect the 4G sim card at the airport arrivals or even get it delivered to your hotel.
- Sri Lanka has a standard voltage of 230 V and a standard frequency of 50Hz. D, M, and G type of power sockets work everywhere in Sri Lanka.
- The public toilets in Sri Lanka aren’t hygienic. Keep a Peesafe Tiolet Seat Sanitizer to avoid being caught by infections.
- Sri Lanka demands slow travel. The island might be small but packs a lot to see and do. Don’t rush. Take your time to savor the history, wildlife, beaches, and mountains of Sri Lanka.
Hope our travel guide to Sri Lanka helps you plan a perfect trip. If you found this guide helpful, please let us know in the comments section. A little appreciation goes a long way 🙂
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