Unawatuna is the most popular choice for tourists enjoying the beaches in the southern part of Sri Lanka. Unlike Mirissa and Hikkaduwa, the calm water and smaller waves at Unawatuna aren't great for surfing. But the relative tranquility does make it the best beach for swimming, especially for families.
Unawatuna is a picturesque, horseshoe-shaped bay protected by coral reefs. Adding to the allure, the beach can be covered on foot without needed to dodge buses in a hurry on the busy main road. The relaxed atmosphere lures plenty of Russians and Europeans throughout the year. Things get even busier with Sri Lankans who come from Colombo to enjoy their weekends in the sand.
When to Go
Unawatuna receives the most rain during the summer months. Peak season begins around mid December and prices for accommodation go up significantly in January.
Although you'll still have some rain, November is a good shoulder month to visit before the beach becomes very busy and prices go up.
How to Get to Unawatuna
Unawatuna is a little over three miles south of Galle along the main Route A2 highway. It's a popular destination, so much of the southbound public transportation will take you there. The fastest, most comfortable option is to hire a private car from the airport in Colombo. The drive will take around three hours; negotiate your price before agreeing to go.
Another option is to take the train from Colombo to Galle. Train travel in Sri Lanka is an exciting experience in itself. Once in Galle, you'll be able to grab a tuk-tuk or car to travel the last three miles to Unawatuna.
Although a fleet of tuk-tuks are available, all places in Unawatuna can be reached by walking. Depending on your mood, you can walk along the beach or on the paved access road that parallels the beach.
Walking from one end of Unawatuna to the other takes around 15 – 20 minutes.
Where to Stay in Unawatuna
With plenty of choices, competition is fierce between hotels and guesthouses. Even still, rates climb significantly as Unawatuna gets busier. Prices for accommodation are not fixed and often get made up on the spot. Pricing factors include how many people in your group, how you are dressed, and how long you intend to stay. Longer stays are offered significant discounts, so be sure to mention if you intend to stay a week or longer.
Small guesthouses with gardens line the access road and are often quieter and more accommodating than the beachfront hotels.
Upon first discovery, the choices for fresh seafood on the beach at Unawatuna will make your head spin. But there are some caveats. Although big restaurants proudly display their catches and compete to lure customers in, that doesn't guarantee that seafood is fresh and did not come out of the freezer. You'll need to choose your own fish from the ice to be sure about what you are eating. Even then, the fish you chose may get swapped for an older one once out of eyesight. No one wants to throw a fish out.
Delicious Tuna is ridiculously cheap, as is barracuda. You can hit your annual mercury intake in a week. A tuna steak, fries, and simple salad cost around US $6. Many restaurants add on a 10 percent service charge.
The Kingfisher restaurant — get there by walking southwest on the access road — has consistently earned inclusion on top-restaurants-in-Asia lists for many years. Enjoy your food right on the sand, but reservations are a must during high season.
For cheaper fare in a simpler environment, Jina's Vegetarian Restaurant on the access road is run by a friendly Buddhist chef who cooked in the UK. She puts plenty of love into each offering delivered to your table with a smile.
Shopping in Unawatuna
Unawatuna isn't particularly great for shopping; you'll have far more choices in nearby Galle. The beach access road hosts numerous souvenir shops selling wooden masks, handicrafts, and jewelry shops selling locally mined moonstone items.
Avoid supporting bad habits by not purchasing anything made from turtle shells or marine life.
Things to Do in Unawatuna
Aside from swimming and soaking up the sun with book in hand, there aren't too many things to do in Unawatuna.
The few surf schools along the access road typically drive students to better waves at one of the nearby beaches.
- Snorkeling: The best opportunity for snorkeling near Unawatuna is at the semi-hidden Jungle Beach bay. The walk there from Unawatuna takes around 45 minutes. Humidity is staggering once away from the coast; grab a tuk-tuk or take lots of water along. Cold drinks can be purchased at a simple restaurant there.
- Scuba Diving: Sea Horse Divers located directly on the beach offers PADI scuba courses and day trips for diving. Pricing is usually in euros; pay attention to the offered exchange rate when paying in another currency.
- Boat Rides: Glass-bottom boats take people out to the reefs, however, seeing marine life takes a bit of luck. Prices are based on a full boat rather than per person, so the more people the better.
- Rent a Motorbike: Renting a scooter is the best way to see Galle, the Dutch fort, and surrounding beaches — just remember to drive on the left and to yield to the reckless bus drivers! Prices start around US $5 per day. Remaining fuel is usually siphoned out of the scooters, so you'll need to turn left on the main road and proceed directly to the petrol station on the right just before entering Galle.
Insider Tips for Unawatuna
- Finding ATMs in Unawatuna has always been a challenge. Machines can now be found on the main road, and one is located in the Peacock Hotel. For convenience, bring plenty of cash with you from Galle.
- The yellow king coconut drinks seen everywhere on the beach can be purchased for 40 rupees each in shops; ask them to open the coconut for you. Coconuts sold on the beach go for 150 rupees each and are not always as fresh.
- If sunset cocktails are the plan, you can buy your own alcohol at the bottle shop located on the main road at the northeast corner of Unawatuna. When facing the water, walk left until the end of the beach then cut over to the main road.
- Ignore anyone that approaches you on the access road, particularly tuk-tuk drivers. Numerous people make a living by hunting tourists along the road. Be wary of signing up for one-day driving tours. Instead, book activities through your accommodation.
- Wi-Fi isn't as advertised in many cafes and restaurants. If you really need internet access, try connecting first before committing to a drink or meal. To prevent identity theft, don't do banking or handle anything sensitive at the internet cafes.
- Mosquitoes are a big problem around Unawatuna; you can purchase spray and coils in local shops. Protect yourself, particularly around dusk.