Many of the best beaches in Sri Lanka are located along the southwestern coast where blue water, surfing waves, and even 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!
When to Go: Unusual for an island of its size, Sri Lanka is split by the monsoon season. You can literally take a bus from the rainy side of the island to the "dry" side. The dry (peak) season for the beaches on this list is roughly from November to March.
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Albeit the most touristy of beaches, there is a reason: Unawatuna is considered by many to be the best of the beaches in Sri Lanka.
With a name that rolls off the tongue like 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 underwater hazards make Unawatuna a great family choice in Sri Lanka.
The real appeal of Unawatuna is in part because of the layout and 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 of the other beaches in Sri Lanka that don't enjoy the same ideal setup. The narrow road through Unawatuna is lined with small shops, cafes, guesthouses, and eateries.
Albeit developed, Unawatuna is an excellent choice as a base in the south. You can walk — or grab a tuk-tuk — to Jungle Beach, 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 on hectic, overcrowded public transportation to ply the busy coastal highway (A2). Taking the Southern Expressway (E01) is less scenic but saves only a little time. Alternatively, you can hire a car and driver.
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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 as an alternative to Unawatuna 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" on far 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 surfing 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 highway. If you aren't in a hurry, a more memorable option is to take the train from Colombo Fort to Weligama then grab quick transport from Weligama to Mirissa.
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Located north of Galle and Unawatuna, Hikkaduwa is a wide, sandy beach with enough chairs to accommodate the horde of Russian visitors expected during peak seasons.
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 beach 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 brown sand is clean. The town couldn't really be considered "charming," but you'll have plenty of room on the spacious beach.
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 try out their fins for the first time.
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 Hikkaduwa Station just north of the beach.
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More quiet, serene, and a favorite for surfing beginners, Weligama is a smaller alternative to the busier beaches located north. Directly 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 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.
Tip: The iconic stilt/stick fishermen made famous by travel photographers are largely gone. Nearly all of the "fishermen" now days are actors there to impress tourists. Don't be disappointed to discover they don't catch much beyond tourists' tips which are demanded.Continue to 5 of 5 below.
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Hiriketiya and Dickwella Beach
As each of the popular beaches in Sri Lanka became more and more popular, Hiriketiya stepped up as the quiet, go-to bay. Unfortunately, the picturesque, horseshoe-shaped bay is just a little too small to accommodate all the people seeking paradise outside of Unawatuna. You may not even be able to find a seat by lunchtime on most days.
Although Dickwella Beach — one bay over — is way longer and less crowded, it lacks some of the charm and draw of tiny Hiriketiya. Regardless, the two make a formidable team. If you find Hiriketiya too busy, Dickwella beach is a 30-minute walk (7-minute tuk-tuk) west. Both are worth a visit.
Get There: Both beaches are located on the southern tip of Sri Lanka. Continue on the A3 coastal highway past Weligama. You'll first come to Dickwella Beach, then five minutes later, Hiriketiya.