Ahhhhhh family holidays. They are often the biggest highlight – and investment – of the year, so you’ll agree that getting them right is very important.
There are many considerations when booking a family holiday: including diverse interests, varying attention spans, finite patience for travelling around and changeable tolerances for unusual food. Personally, when travelling, if my life as a parent is not only made easier but, the experience is enjoyable and memorable (in a good way) and the everyday details are taken care of, then it’s actually a holiday. If I can make memories of a lifetime thanks to a range of meaningful travel experiences, that is the pinnacle of a family trip.
Amazingly, a family holiday in Sri Lanka can offer all of this and genuinely has something for everyone. It is an island gem nestled off the South Eastern coast of India which features stunning beaches along a crystalline sea, diverse wildlife, fascinating history and culture, adventurous experiences, and super friendly locals. It’s easy and safe to travel here. There is a great range of accommodation, English is widely spoken and value for money is good.
So far, so family.
Being a little smaller in size than Ireland, means you can cover a lot of ground in Sri Lanka during a relatively short period of time and that you don’t spend too many hours getting from A to B thus avoiding the relentless “are we nearly there yet?” again, this is great for a family holiday in Sri Lanka as it means you can do loads in say, two weeks.
What’s Sri Lanka like?
Sri Lanka experiences a warm and tropical climate for much of the year. Even peak heat doesn’t reach the child-unfriendly temperatures of thirty-five degrees plus, and, while it can be humid; it is entirely manageable, especially as most accommodation offers a swimming pool and aircon.
There are two monsoon seasons to be aware of – the south-western monsoon brings rain between May and September and the north-eastern monsoon brings wind and rain between October and January. So what does this mean? Family translation – you can still travel here all year round and you’ll have a fab time. There may just be a couple of areas to avoid during your trip but the good news is, much of the country is especially great during the traditional summer holidays across July and August.
Direct flight time from the UK is around ten and a half hours and time zone is nearly six hours ahead. You fly into close to the capital, Colombo, on the west coast, although the airport is forty-five minutes north of the city.
Due to the questionable road infrastructure and safety/insurance issues for non-natives, most transport is via private drivers. Wonderful! A family chauffeur – no arguing over directions or dodgy driving tactics. Drivers can be arranged as part of your Sri Lankan family holiday, so you can travel in safe comfort from the moment you land.
As Sri Lanka is such a great family destination, we were simply not able to narrow it down to our top ten. So, here are a whopping 15 hot-spots instead, we hope you enjoy them!
1 – Negombo
Instead of spending your first night in the busy capital of Columbo, a good option is to head to nearby Negombo.
It’s close to the airport, so an initial transfer is short. The beach has a lovely local feel, where you’ll see the residents hanging out, swimming or playing the national sport of cricket. The town itself has a Dutch colonial history and a lively bazaar. You can watch the fisherman bring in their catch to the fish market and even join them in the Negombo lagoon for a spot of fishing yourself. A tour of the canals can offer a more ‘behind the scenes’ view of Sri Lankan life here.
2 – Sigiriya
From here, you can travel inland towards the Central Province and cultural triangle of Sri Lanka. Sigiriya is the mighty mythical ‘Lion’s Rock’ fortress among an elaborate and large garden featuring waterfalls.
Kids will love the climb to the 200m high peak via the winding staircases (some parents may not!). Halfway up there is a gateway in the form of a gigantic lion presumably part of the protection King Kassapa, who built the fort wanted and needed after he murdered his father and entombed him in a wall so he could take the throne. Nice guy. Hopefully, it won’t give the kids any similar ideas. It’s best to do the climb it early in the morning or just before sunset to keep out of the midday heat, but it is shaded most of the way up and probably takes around a couple of hours to reach the top.
3 – National Parks Aplenty
As you continue to travel inland towards Sri Lanka’s other cultural treasures, our lovely Sri Lanka Travel Specialists can arrange a wild elephants jeep safari in either Kaudulla or Minneriya National Park. Here you can experience the mesmerising joy of the beautiful Sri Lankan elephants, often in large numbers; a wonderful and authentic family experience.
4 – Polonnaruwa
You are then close to Polonnaruwa, one of the most impressive archaeological destinations in Sri Lanka and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Some eight hundred years ago it was the thriving commercial and religious centre of the country. It now has a number of amazing sites to visit that can be enjoyed on foot, by tuk-tuk, or by bicycle, which if you’re all up to it as a family, is a really enjoyable way to see this ancient city. There is much to see.
The huge rock carved figures at Gal Vihara, for example, reflect the incredible craftsmanship from nearly a thousand years ago.
Top tip: wear clothes that cover your knees and shoulders (especially women), since some of the ruins of the Ancient City are sacred. Guards will prevent entry if you are not appropriately dressed.
5 – Dambulla Golden Cave Temple
As you’re in the cultural zone and if your children are of an age where they will be into a bit more history (and what child doesn’t love a cave?) then it’s definitely worth spending a bit of time at Dambulla Golden Cave Temple; yet another World Heritage Site. This is an amazing and incredibly well-preserved complex featuring; eighty caves, rock towers over 150m tall, endless statues of Buddhas, Gods, Godesses, Royalty and murals that cover over two thousand square metres. A gory fact for the kids is that as prehistoric natives would have lived here, the burial sites here feature human skeletons that are nearly three thousand years old. Yeeeeuch. Monkeys often greet you up along the climb adding to the glorious photographic opportunities. Again, as this is a scared site, don’t forget to cover up to go inside – knees and shoulders!
6 – Teincomalee
Moving away from the cultural centre it’s probably time to enjoy some of what Eastern Sri Lanka has to offer and to kick back a bit. Trincomalee (Trinco) is eastern Sri Lanka’s major town and is a port set on a peninsula. Fort Frederick was built by the Portuguese in the seventeenth century. Within its grounds, the grand Koneswaram Temple stands on Swami Rock cliff, a popular vantage point for blue-whale watching. The holy complex contains ornate shrines and a massive statue of Shiva. Nearby Gokana Temple offers panoramic views over the city and the coastline. Trincomalee went through difficult times during the civil war, which ended in 2009 and has recently started to regain more attention from tourists. This means it is still relatively quiet yet it’s fabulous for families who want to enjoy the leisurely beach life alongside some fantastic marine activities. From Trinco you can surf, snorkel, scuba dive, go fishing and whale watching. Sri Lanka is a great destination to learn or improve surfing and lessons for both children and adults are inexpensive and offered by locals who understand the nuances of each beach, tides and currents.
Nilaveli and Uppuveli beaches get a special mention here as the sand is superfine and white, the ocean is crystal clear and there are notably fewer undercurrents than some of the other beautiful beaches that make it ideal for swimming. Nilaveli, around 15km north of Trinco, is often described as one of the best beaches in Sri Lanka because of its unspoiled landscape.
Families and kids will love roaming the super soft sandy shores in search of shells and crabs. If you’re looking for something to do beyond lounging on the beach, check out nearby Pigeon Island National Marine Park, that is home to many species of vegetation, coral and reef fish contributing to Nilaveli’s rich biodiversity, ideal for snorkeling enthusiasts. Uppuveli is a bit closer to Trinco and offers a similar quality of beach although probably more tourists, restaurants and accommodation choices. You can also hire paddleboards and kayaks and has sunbeds and shelter from the sun and you can buy alcohol (not always unimportant for parents!)
7 – Kandy
To continue the balance between beach and culture, a few hours private transfer back inland can take you all to Kandy; the biggest city in Sri Lanka after the capital Colombo. It is positioned on a plateau surrounded by mountainous tea plantations and rainforests.
Bogambara Lake, created in 1807 by the last ruler of the kingdom of Kandy, lies at the heart of the city and walking around it is a beautiful ritual that offers some tranquility and wildlife spotting among an otherwise busy city. Within the lake complex you will find the famous Temple of the Tooth (Sri Dalada Maligawa) shrine, so called as it apparently houses one of Buddah’s original teeth taken from the ashes after his cremation in India, around two and half thousand years ago. At certain times you will find “puja” (offerings or prayers) including Kandyan drummers followed by a ceremonial opening of the room where the tooth is kept so people can revere it – FYI you don’t get to see the tooth – it’s kept under high security.
It is considered a rite of karmic passage pilgrimage for many Sri Lankans, which I think is a good enough reason to visit, as well as sounding as if it is something from an Indiana Jones movie, you’ve seen Temple of Doom right?
Just outside of the city is the charming Peradeniya Botanic Garden. Once reserved exclusively for Kandyan Royalty, it’s sixty hectares is now open to the public, allowing you to enjoy its stunning array of orchids, beautiful trees, spice garden and expansive lawns. You can easily lose a couple of hours here if you have kids young enough to be happy to play amongst the flora and fauna, or make it a picnic destination for older kids.
8 – Feasts all round
Food, which is always a big deal on holidays. Of course for families with different taste buds and unwillingness to try new things, it can be challenging. You want to experience cultural cuisine, but you also want to like it! And feel sated.
There are many uniquely Sri Lankan foods that you can try;
- Egg hoppers (like pancakes)
- Various roti
- Fresh coconut sambol
- Banana leaf lamprais
- Fresh buffalo curd
- Gotu kola mallung (salad)
- Aubergine pickle
- Jack fruit
- Wood apple juice
Sri Lankan breakfasts are usually superb, yet non-controversial – great for fussier kids. You will also find short eats; various pastries, filled breads and fried snacks. Some are absolutely delicious, some are weird and some just not good, but all worth a try! These are also great for snacks and lunch on the hoof when you are out and about.
Ultimately Sri Lanka is, like India – although using different techniques and spices – home of the curry. And on the coast, it’s fish and lots of it. As with any destinations that have tourists, some restaurants will always err on the side of predictable tourist menus – and sometimes that’s OK as you actually want something straightforward and, possibly, recognisably Western.
For those who enjoy the whole foodie experience though, time on a native homestay where you shop and cook fresh local ingredients, learning Sri Lankan curry making techniques and of course, then enjoying the fruits of your labour, can be an insightful and enjoyable experience for all the family.
From my own parenting food woes, I know that many children relish the chance to eat food they have prepared or been involved with making. They do at least seem far more willing to try it. Start them cooking young I say!
9 – Digana
Escaping the city you can head out to Digana. While only an hour away from Kandy, the vibe couldn’t be more different. You leave behind the hustle and bustle and take a journey among winding roads that become tracks, as the scenery becomes forests and paddy fields.
Life is simple here and it’s a great opportunity to see what rural life is like in Sri Lanka. From a walk among the farming land, to visiting a local school or just kicking back among the forest. The hills here are some of the wildest and least spoilt in Sri Lanka, with huge, though still largely unexplored, trekking and wildlife-spotting possibilities, plus the Mahaweli River and the Victoria Reservoir and its huge dam – this lovely spot shows you yet another side of this diverse island.
10 – Ella
Beautiful Ella is another jewel in Sri Lanka’s crown. Not least because of the iconic train journey to get there. The first railways were built by the British in the 1900’s initially, to transport tea and coffee from the Hill Country to Colombo for shipping. From Kandy, it takes around seven hours to Ella and you can choose from different classes (quality) of carriages in which to travel, from first class sleepers to very basic third class. I guess it depends if you and your family are more comfortable with those geared towards tourists or locals and really, there’s no shame in choosing comfort over an ‘authentic experience’ especially when you have younger kids.
The trains themselves and scenery from the train is just a photographers dream. The emerald sea of tea bush fields dotted with traditionally dressed tea pickers is like something out of National Geographic. It is such moments that make magical memories.
11 – Adam’s Peak
Ella is the gateway to Adam’s Peak, also known as Sri Pada. At over 2000m high, Sri Lanka’s fifth tallest mountain, offers a climb that is a mix of trekking and LOTS of crumbling stone steps. It’s pretty challenging. While you don’t need to be a ‘climber’ to do this, it gets harder as you get further up and coming down with jelly legs can be even worse, so while both young children and the very elderly can be seen doing the climb, I’d personally suggest this is definitely one for the bigger kids.
It takes most people two to four hours to summit based on fitness, crowds, and stops at the various tea shops, and half that to come back down. Many start the climb in the middle of the night in order to reach the summit by sunrise. The views from the top are, literally, out of this world, as is the sense of achievement for getting there! There’s a reason Buddha put his foot here, or Shiva, or Adam, so the (varied) story goes. For Sri Lankans, Adam’s Peak is an important pilgrimage site. For that reason it’s often best avoided on public or religious holidays and full moons.
12 – Galle Fort
Heading to the South Coast, Galle Fort is a (yet another!) UNESCO World Heritage site where winding streets offer a blended cultural feel among cafes and architecture that reflects the history of the Portuguese and Dutch colonies. In addition to the fort and related buildings, you can see Meera Mosque and the Clock Tower. The city is the capital of the south and definitely worth exploring.
From Galle, you can also access Sinharaja Rain Forest, a world heritage and bio diversity hotspot, one of the few virgin rain forests left in the world, that showcases a staggering array of flora and fauna. It’s less than two hours from Galle and is perfect for families to connect with nature and provide an understanding of how precious such remaining ecosystems are.
13 – Mirissa Beach
Mirissa Beach on the south coast, is not called magnificent for nothing. This amazing spot has that powdery white sand that the tropical dreams are made of. The water and shore is safe for kids of all ages to enjoy and the shady palms offer respite from the sun should your younger people need it.
Mirissa offers something for all kinds of families including a great range of restaurants that line the beach and fabulous water based activities including surfing, scuba diving, paddle boarding, snorkeling, deep sea fishing, sailing and sea kayaking, plus amazing trips from the harbour out to Taprobane island to watch whales and dolphins. Sri Lanka is one of the few places in the world where you can see the world’s largest marine mammal, the majestic blue whale. Sea trips and whale and dolphin sightings here are usually best from November to April. So Christmas/Easter with Trinco better for summer.
14 – Rekawa Turtle Conservation Project
Just up from Tangalle on the south coast is Rekawa, a turtle watching conservation project, dedicated to providing a safe and secure nesting environment on one of Sri Lanka’s most important turtle beaches.
I’m always cautious of ‘conservation tourism’ especially wildlife, but if it is ethical observation of a ritual that contributes to the survival of a species, not their exploitation, then it’s worth supporting and that is most definitely the Rickshaw way. Observing these creatures and helping them stay safe and wild is often one of the highlights for families visiting Sri Lanka. It’s a pretty unique experience! In some instances and with very careful handling, children can hold the baby turtles
15 – Yala National Park
In the country’s southeastern corner is the stunning Yala National Park. Home to nearly fifty different types of mammals, including stunning leopards, rare sloth bears, crocodiles, deer, peacocks and elephants, not to mention hundreds of species of birds.
You can enjoy a real family adventure here as you go on safari in jeeps across the park. The beauty is that, unlike Africa, it doesn’t take you seven hours to get to where you are going! You can access a wonderful diversity of wildlife easily, in safaris that are just a few hours long. There are also options to stay in tented accommodation (comfy beds and private bathrooms!) to immerse the family in among the wilderness, safely of course.
En route to Yala, it’s definitely worth stopping to visit the orphans at the Elephant Transit Home (ETH). They are best seen from the viewing platforms at the three feeding times during the day. The ETH is less than half an hour’s drive from the entrance to Udawalwe National Park, which has one of the highest densities of wild elephants anywhere in Sri Lanka and is where the orphans spend the rest of the time, out of view of people, in preparation for their return to the wild when they are about four years old.