Sri Lanka, the island country off the southern tip of India, is beginning to get some of the attention it deserves. As a relatively small island, Sri Lanka is dwarfed by the nearby Indian subcontinent. But with 3,000 years of cultural development, there’s a lot to explore. Sri Lanka more than holds its own as an exciting destination in South Asia.
Sri Lanka is blessed with what is considered the highest density of biodiversity in Asia. The island is a dream come true for lovers of flora and fauna, both above and below the water. Beaches, mountains, old ruins, and famous temples compete for time on trips that always feel too short there.
Planning Your Trip
- Best Time to Visit: Sri Lanka’s climate is affected by two separate monsoon seasons. The best (though busiest) time to visit Colombo, Galle, and beaches in the south is during dry season from December to March.
- Languages: Sinhala and Tamil are the two official languages of Sri Lanka. Sinhala is the most commonly used language. English is widely spoken for business.
- Currency: The Sri Lankan rupee (LKR) is the official currency. Prices are often written with the abbreviation “Rs.” before the amount (e.g., Rs. 500, Rs. 2000, etc).
- Getting Around: For short distances, tuk-tuks (known locally as “three-wheelers”) are ubiquitous in Sri Lanka. Like elsewhere, they are not equipped with meters; you’ll need to negotiate the fare with a fast-talking driver. Although traffic can be frustrating, official taxis with meters are the easiest option for getting around. The most popular local ridesharing app is PickMe; you can use it to safely book tuk-tuks as well. Public buses are inexpensive but tend to be overcrowded.
- Travel Tip: Sri Lanka’s golden-colored king coconuts are a real treat and can help prevent dehydration. Water from king coconuts is sweeter than usual, and there’s a lot more of it! The older, bitter king coconuts get peddled by beach sellers to tourists. Buy yours directly from shops to enjoy the best quality.
Things to Do
Along with enjoying the beautiful sea and sand, taking advantage of Sri Lanka’s unique biodiversity is a must. Wildlife safaris and tours of tea plantations are fun options. Treks and boat rides to cinnamon farms with eagle spotting along the way are available in the island interior. If the heat is too oppressive, book one of the trains with glass observation cars for tourists. The most popular route runs from Colombo to Kandy. Book ahead: Seats sell out in advance during high season (December to March).
Sri Lanka’s long colonial history has left behind a lot of interesting architecture and attractions, especially in Colombo. The southern city of Galle is another pleasant place for strolling among historic buildings and sampling street food.
What about those iconic stilt fishermen seen on postcards? The few remaining are more about tourism than tradition.
- Go snorkeling to see turtles and barracudas at Jungle Beach.
- See the Temple of the Tooth (Gautama Buddha’s left canine tooth) in Kandy.
- Take a scenic train ride (either in an observation car or simply a third-class car with open-air windows).
What to Eat and Drink
Unsurprisingly, a lot of dishes in Sri Lanka use coconut as a key ingredient, and most are served with rice or roti (flatbread). Spicy sambal and flavorful chutneys frequently accompany meals. Rice and curry is the default, go-to meal on the island; many locals consume it once, if not twice, daily.
Sri Lanka may seem too good to be true for seafood lovers. Grilled tuna, red snapper, barracuda, and crab are usually at the top of menus in tourist restaurants, and they’re surprisingly cheap. Vegetarians will be delighted with the jackfruit curries (polos maluwa and kiri kos maluwa), daal (parippu), and Mallung, a healthy side dish of shredded greens.
As you would come to expect in South Asia, street food is inexpensive, delicious, and easy to find in Sri Lanka.
See our article on 12 dishes you should try while in Sri Lanka.
Where to Stay
From backpacking to honeymooning, the accommodation options in Sri Lanka span all budgets. The nicest places tend to be restored colonial mansions given a second life as beautiful places to stay. Some of these properties date back more than 200 years and come with immaculately landscaped grounds to wander.
Of course, if you prefer something more updated, Colombo has plenty of modern properties, including five-star chains such as Hilton and Shangri-la. Attached or adjacent casinos can be found in Colombo. The nicest hotels are clustered in the Fort neighborhood (Colombo 1) and near the waterfront by Galle Face Green.
Small boutique properties and family-run guesthouses are more the norm in Kandy. Beaches such as Unawatuna have a mix of upscale resorts (near the water) and cheaper guesthouses (dotted along side roads). The old, tried-and-true rule of budget travel applies: The closer to the water, the higher the price for accommodation.
Flying into Bandaranaike International Airport (airport code: CMB) is the only way to get to Sri Lanka aside from arriving via cruise ship. Sri Lanka’s primary international airport goes by a variety of names. For practicality, saying “Colombo International Airport” works fine; locals frequently say “Katunayake Airport” (named after the suburb) when talking about the same.
The airport is located about 20 miles north of the city center. Due to frequently heavy traffic, a taxi from the airport to the Fort neighborhood of Colombo takes a little over an hour. The airport handled nearly 10 million international passenger movements in 2019.
Before going to Sri Lanka, you will need to apply for an Electronic Travel Authorization via the government website. Upon arrival, you’ll swap your ETA for a visa to be permitted entry into Sri Lanka. The ETA system is typically efficient; a 30-day visa costs $35 payable online. In an effort to promote tourism, ETA fees were suspended for certain nationalities in 2019—check the official site.
Culture and Customs
With a majority of the population adhering to Theravada Buddhism, Sri Lanka diverges from the rest of South Asia. Theravada is the same school of Buddhism primarily observed in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and Myanmar. Laws regarding religion are devoutly enforced in Sri Lanka. Tourists are not exempt and have even been deported for not covering Buddhism-themed tattoos. Avoid wearing any clothing that depicts religious themes, and follow proper dress code when visiting the Buddhist temples.
Article 365 of the Sri Lankan Penal Code, a draconian statute dating back to British rule, states that homosexuality is to be punished with a prison sentence of no less than 10 years. Although the law is no longer enforced, recent efforts to have it removed from the books have failed. LGBTQ travel is safe in Sri Lanka, but be aware of the law and its continued support by a conservative community.
Tipping isn’t expected in Sri Lanka; however, there are times when you’ll want to give a small tip for exceptional service. Do so by giving cash (10 percent is fair) directly to the staff. The 10-percent service charge already added to the ticket in restaurants (and any gratuity you pay by credit card) may get pocketed by the owner.
Money Saving Tips
- The way to save the most money when traveling to Sri Lanka is to visit during the summer months rather than peak dry season (January to March). Days will be a mix of dry and rainy, but you’ll avoid hotel prices at their highest when beaches are at full capacity.
- A taxi for the hour-long trip from the airport to Colombo costs around $20. Public buses depart from opposite of the Arrivals terminal. Bus fares to the city cost less than $2, but buses often fill up and space for luggage is competitive.
- You’ll be persistently hounded by tuk-tuk (“three-wheeler”) drivers offering rides. Official taxis with meters are usually cheaper and more comfortable for the distance covered. That said, you should still take at least one tuk-tuk ride just for the experience. Agree on the fare before getting inside.
- If time and patience are abundant, train travel is a cheap, memorable way to cover long distances. Also, going by rail is scenic and allows opportunities for meeting a lot of locals. Trains during peak times become so overcrowded that passengers hang from the doors!
- Sri Lanka has a culture of haggling. Expect to do some good-natured bargaining when making souvenir purchases. Even if you think a price is already inexpensive, haggling anyway puts some back pressure on tourism-related inflation and cultural mutation. You may also be able to negotiate better rates at guesthouses outside of high season.
- Any item or service purchased on the beach will cost more than you’ll pay in shops just off the beach.