Although there are many beaches around the island, the best beaches in Sri Lanka are located in the south where blue water, surfing waves, and migrating whales can be enjoyed.
After 26 years of civil war that ended in 2009, and recovery from the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Sri Lanka has become a top destination in South Asia for sun, swimming, and surfing.
Whether you prefer to brave the waves or watch others do it while you sip a cold coconut drink, the beaches in Sri Lanka have never been more inviting.
Sri Lanka's interior definitely has a lot to offer, but the heat and humidity are sure to have you running back toward the coastal areas — especially the nice beaches in the south — to take advantage!
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Albeit very touristed, Unawatuna is considered by many to be the best of the beaches in Sri Lanka.
With a name that evokes the famous hakuna matana (no worries) phrase, Unawatuna was destined to become the default destination for travelers on short vacations.
Unawatuna can be walked from end to end in under 15 minutes; the small bay keeps waves relatively tranquil. Although not the best place for serious surfing on the island, calm swimming and the soft, sloping sand without hazards make Unawatuna a great family choice in Sri Lanka.
The real appeal of Unawatuna is the accessibility; a small access road parallels the beach and keeps people off of the busy main highway. Braving the busy road is a drawback to some other beaches in Sri Lanka that don't enjoy the same ideal setup. The narrow road through "town" is lined with small shops, cafes, guesthouses, and eateries.
With calm water and the isolated Jungle Beach just a short walk away for snorkeling, Unawatuna is an excellent choice as a base. You can walk — or grab a tuk-tuk — to an enjoyable snorkeling spot frequented by turtles and an array of exotic birds.
Get There: Unawatuna is approximately 90 miles south of Colombo. Plan on spending more than three hours of hectic, overcrowded transit along the busy main highway if you take public transportation. Alternatively, you can hire a car and driver.
Tip: Unusual for an island of its size, Sri Lanka is split by the monsoon season. You can literally take a bus from the rainy part of the island to the "dry" side. The dry — and peak — season for the beaches on this list is roughly from end of October until March.
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Far quieter than Unawatuna and a little more budget traveler friendly, Mirissa is farther south of Unawatuna and Weligama.
Mirissa has always been popular with surfers and budget travelers. The small village is located along a long strip of brown sand dotted with guesthouses and beach restaurants. It's popularity caused a surge of growth and development.
Mirissa is the right place to try out a few bigger waves but still enjoy the protection of shallow water and an on-duty lifeguard. The "surfer's corner" at the right side of the beach is rocky, challenging, and should only be attempted by experienced surfers. The rest of the beach, however, is fair game for newbies.
You'll generally find good seafood in Mirissa; prices for accommodation on the beach are comparable to Unawatuna. As usual, rooms a little away from the sand are much cheaper.
Mirissa is a popular place to go on whale-watching excursions during the migratory period between December and March. Excursions can be booked at any of the various agents. Dolphins can also sometimes be seen.
A rock island accessible by wading provides a unique photo opportunity in Mirissa. Climb the stairs and get a nice view of the beach from a different perspective.
Get There: Mirissa can be reached by jumping on one of the public buses bound for Matara along the main road.
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Located north of Galle and Unawatuna around 2.5 hours from Colombo, Hikkaduwa is a wide, sandy beach with enough chairs to accommodate the horde of Russian visitors expected during peak season.
Fortunately, many of those chairs typically stay vacant (unless a surf competition is in progress) as a majority of tourists fly past on the main highway to Unawatuna, Mirissa, and other destinations.
Hikkaduwa is strung out along the main (A2) highway, meaning that you'll need to walk or maybe cross the busy road whenever you leave the beach. The beach and town are long; don't expect a cozy bay or small-beach feel, but the sand is clean.
With medium-sized waves and fewer underwater hazards to avoid, Hikkaduwa is a popular place for beginners to take surfing lessons from one of the many schools on the beach. The small turtle sanctuary is a good place to learn about the plight of sea turtles and see adorable baby turtles — of course!
Get There: Get to Hikkaduwa by flagging any bus heading southbound along A2 to Galle or Matara. A taxi from Colombo will take around 2.5 hours. You can also take the slow-but-enjoyable train from Colombo to the small station just north of Hikkaduwa.
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Quiet, serene, and a favorite for surfing beginners, Weligama is a smaller alternative to the busier beaches located more north. And right next to Weligama is Midigama — a tranquil strip that surely will one day end up as developed as the other beaches.
Most visitors simply drive through, come to take surfing lessons, or stop to photograph some of Sri Lanka's famous stick fishermen. The famous Taprobane House is perched on a tiny island along the way.
You'll find several boutique hotels dotted throughout Weligama and many more surf "camps" along the main road. Fishing boats outnumber visitors during the low season; catch-of-the-day seafood is cheap and readily available.
Most interesting of the things to see in Weligama is Taprobane Island — a tiny rock island with an immaculate villa built by Count de Maunay after he was exiled from France. Several famous authors, composers, and performers have owned the dream house since. The villa can be rented if you want to know what having your very own island feels like, but be warned: it isn't cheap!
Get There: Get to Weligama in the south by grabbing any bus passing between Colombo or Galle to Matara. They gleefully terrorize the main road at high speed 24 hours per day. For a more scenic experience, take one of the three daily trains from Colombo to Weligama.