Sri Lanka travel guide & tips
What to expect in Sri Lanka
There are few places on earth that can rival Sri Lanka, not just for its natural splendour and culture, but for its sheer variety of landscapes and eco-systems. Paradise beaches, primary rainforest and elephant-trodden savannahs can all be found on this incredible island which, amazingly, is just one-quarter of the size of the UK. As you may have guessed, we’re pretty big fans of Sri Lanka and can’t wait to inspire you to discover more.
Read our guide to learn more and get inspired about your holiday to this magical isle.
4 Sri Lanka highlights:
- Leopard spotting in Wilpattu National Park – With one of the highest concentrations of leopards in the world, it’s the best spot to find them, alongside other large wildlife.
- Look for dolphins in Mirissa – for more wildlife joy, head to Mirissa for an amazing opportunity to spot fun-loving dolphins.
- Winter sun on the south coast – If you’re after some sunshine during our bleak winter, head to the south. Trincomalee on the east coast also boasts some wonderful snorkelling spots.
- Colonial tea at Nuwara Eliya – Of course, you wouldn’t want to miss out on an opportunity to try your hand at Ceylon tea picking and head up into the hills of this picturesque region.
Sri Lanka Essential Information
Best time to go
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Sri Lanka enjoys a tropical climate and has two monsoons; the southwest monsoon from mid-May to late-September and the northeast monsoon, between October and November.
Sinhala & Tamil
Sinhala and Tamil are the two main languages in Sri Lanka, but other languages are spoken here too. A very high standard of English is spoken widely across the country.
We recommend using your discretion when tipping for services in hotels, restaurants and your guides or drivers. It is normal in Sri Lanka to tip and doing so usually serves to make up an employee’s salary.
Fly direct, daily
You can fly direct to Colombo, Sri Lanka everyday from London. Indirect flights are usually more affordable, with a stop in Qatar.
Sri Lankan Currency
Sri Lankan Rupee
The Sri Lankan rupee comes in denominations up to 5,000, so it’s worth carrying change for those smaller purchases. You can exchange money in almost every hotel, however we suggest exchanging your money in an authorised bank to avoid higher rates.
Sri Lankan Language & Culture
Sri Lanka is a country of unique and diverse culture, with a fascinating and, at times, turbulent history. The country’s cuisine and music have been significantly influenced by Southern India and Sri Lanka’s colonial history is evidenced in its tea industries, as well as the popular sport of cricket.
Sri Lankan culture is also heavily influenced by the heritage of Theravada Buddhism and has one of the oldest living Buddhist traditions in the world. Here, about 70% of the islanders practise Theravada Buddhism and over 15 thousand monks devote their lives to serving and preaching Buddha’s teachings. The influence and deference to Buddha can be seen in the numerous ancient temples and statues, some of which are spectacularly carved into the mountainside.
What language is spoken in Sri Lanka?
The native language of Sri Lanka is Sinhala and it is spoken by around 70% of the population, with the remainder favouring the Singaporean language of Tamil. English is a second language in Sri Lanka and is widely used for official and commercial purposes, but locals are often keen to test their English out on you.
Wildlife in Sri Lanka
As you might have already guessed, Sri Lanka is an Eden for wildlife and wildlife-lovers alike. The island may be small, but the animals are big. Sri Lanka is one of the best places in the world to see wild elephants, with over 5,800 Asian elephants roaming the green pastures of the Minneriya, Kaudulla, Wilpattu, Yala and Udawalawa national parks.
In addition to these iconic gentle giants, Sri Lanka boasts the largest concentration of leopards in the world, and you can see them along with sloth bears and water buffalo in Wilpattu National Park. Scores of rare amphibians also live in the lowland rainforests, along with the rare Red Slender Loris, Purple-faced Langur and a cacophony of exotic birdlife, including several species that can only be found in Sri Lanka, such as the Sri Lanka Junglefowl and the Crimson-fronted Barbet. The ocean surrounding Sri Lanka is also abundant in marine life; home to blue whales, sperm whales and dolphins, to name a few.
There are many national parks in Sri Lanka, including Yala, Udawalawe, Wilpattu and Minneriya. You can also go to Sinharaja rainforest or see the whales in Mirissa and the dolphins in Kalpitiya – you’ll be spoilt for choice!
Being an island, Sri Lanka naturally has no shortage of glorious coastline. Be it lazing on golden sand with turquoise waters tickling your toes, strolling down a deserted stretch of paradise or windsurfing, yachting or scuba diving, whatever your beach dreams, Sri Lanka can make it come true.
After your flight touches down in the capital city of Colombo, we recommend all golden sand lovers to make a quick beeline for the modest little beach town of Negombo, just a 20-minute drive from the airport and recline on its truly stunning castaway-style coast. For those seeking the sea more than the beach, the crystal clear calm waters of Trincomalee’s palm-fringed beaches are perfect for swimming. For the most immersive beach experience of all, spend a couple of nights living the life of Riley in a charming wooden cabana on the paradise coastline of Tangalle, with spectacular views across the sparkling Indian Ocean.
The best beaches in our winter time are on the south coast: Unawatuna, Tangalle and Mirissa. In our summertime, head for the east coast to Trincomalee.
Cities in Sri Lanka
For an island so rich in mountains, savannahs, rainforest, rice paddies and plateaus, it seems impossible for there to be space for one city, yet alone several. But once again Sri Lanka rises to the challenge and can boast cityscapes just as unique, varied and spectacular as its natural landscapes.
The capital of Sri Lanka is Colombo which started life as a port town on east-west trade routes and was ruled first by the Portuguese, then the Dutch and then the British; a changing heritage reflected in its charming mismatch architecture that ranges from colonial buildings to shopping malls. Although not known as Sri Lanka’s most beautiful or most historic city, Colombo has its own unique hodge-podge charm and, just like its detective namesake, it is certainly not to be underestimated.
Now if we are talking about beautiful cities, then Kandy is arguably the ‘Creme De La Creme’, gorgeously set on a plateau surrounded by jungle-clad mountains and with the scenic Kandy Lake at its heart. Kandy is also known for its colourful markets, extensive botanical gardens and sacred ‘Temple of the Tooth’ Buddhist site, where a tooth believed to hail from Buddha himself is reverently homed.
Moving on to the historic, the ancient city of Anuradhapura is a former capital of Sri Lanka and one of the oldest continuously-inhabited cities in the world. The city is full of fascinating ancient ruins including huge bell-shaped stupas, built from sun-dried bricks, as well as palaces, temples and reservoirs. Anuradhapura is also famous for being the home of the sacred Bodhi Tree which is believed to have been propagated from the original Bodhi tree under which the Buddha discovered Enlightenment.
Take a peek at our favourite Sri Lanka itineraries
From 16 days / 15 nights (flexible)
Sri Lanka, Colombo - Negombo - Ancient Cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa - Ella - Yala National Park - Colombo - Maldives
From 15 days / 14 nights (flexible)
Sri Lanka, Colombo - Negombo - Wilpattu National Park - Ancient Capitals of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa - Outskirts of Kandy - Ella - Sinharaja Rainforest - Mirissa - Colombo
Food & Drink in Sri Lanka
Go to the places where the locals go; if there’s a queue, that’s a positive sign. If you like curry, you’re in the right place!
A melting pot of cuisine is one of the many benefits of a varied culture, and Sri Lanka has great food by the plateful! A dish not to be missed is the Sri Lankan Hopper which is a thin, crepe-like batter infused with coconut milk and spices that is then formed into a bowl shape to hold fried eggs. It’s a truly versatile dish that’s served as breakfast, a midday snack or even as a hangover cure! If you are looking for a more gourmet treat and love crab, then the ‘ Ministry of Crab’, opened by two former cricket players in a beautiful old Dutch hospital in Colombo, is a must. The restaurant serves sweet, succulent and spicy Sri Lankan crab and was recently voted one of Asia’s top 50 restaurants.
What do you need after a heavy meal? A cup of tea! Fortunately, you are in the homeland of arguably the best tea in the world – Ceylon Tea. Ceylon tea was first produced in 1867 by British-born James Taylor on his Tea Estate of Loolecondera on the hilly outskirts of Kandy. This delicate and aromatic tea is now one of Sri Lanka’s top exports and over 25 different grades of Ceylon tea are produced at plantations across the island.
With such beautiful natural scenery and characterful cities, travel in Sri Lanka is always a pleasure and never a chore. Sri Lanka is particularly famous for its breathtaking railway journeys and is heralded by railway enthusiasts as one of the best places in the world to catch the train.
The very first steam trains in Sri Lanka were built in 1864 during the colonial period to transport tea, and the railway covers a wide network of routes across the island. The trains and stations themselves have a glorious ‘olde worlde’ charm and glamour that makes you feel a million miles away from rush hour in central London. There are three categories of class on Sri Lanka trains;
- First class is the most luxurious with air conditioning and access to an observation deck, television monitors and a flushable w/c.
- Second class has spacious seating and toilet facilities.
- Third class offers the cheapest and most authentic travel experience, but tickets are not reserved so seats are not guaranteed.
Convenience aside, what really makes the Sri Lanka railways spectacular are the eye-wateringly beautiful views out the window as the train rumbles its way through majestic peaks, past billowing waterfalls and over lush rolling green hills dotted with tea plantations.
Must-do railway journey?
The spectacular train journey from Nuwara Eliya to Ella which weaves through the rolling green tea hills of Sri Lanka’s southern hill country, in and out of mountain tunnels and through low-lying clouds before descending to Ella Truly one of the most spectacular in Sri Lanka.
Know before you go
Where is Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka is an island off the south-east coast of India, west of the Bay of Bengal and north-east of the Maldives.
What is the Climate of Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka generally enjoys a sunny and dry climate, with the exception of the two monsoon seasons which bring rain to the west and south-west coasts from May to November and showers to the north east from October to December. Temperatures are fairly constant year-round, with coastal regions hitting temperatures of 25-30°C and the highlands typically reaching 15-18°C.
When is the best time to visit Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka is that rare and precious thing – a genuine year-round holiday destination. You just need to know which side of the island to focus on in any given month. December to March is peak season for visitors, as the highlands are lush and green from the monsoon season and the beaches on the south and west coasts are bathed in sunshine. May to July is also a great time to travel, as the beaches on the east coast of the island are toasty and of course travelling off-season always has the added benefit of being cheaper and drawing less crowds. You do run the risk of being caught up in a few monsoon rains, but they are usually short and sharp. We think of tropical monsoons as an awe-inspiring feat of nature to behold, so it would be a shame to miss out on them completely!
What is the Currency of Sri Lanka?
The Sri Lankan rupee is a closed currency which means it can only be purchased once you arrive in Sri Lanka; however, money can be easily exchanged at bureaus, banks, ATMs and even on arrival in Colombo Airport. The exchange rate is approximately £1 = 205 rupees. Typically lunch in Sri Lanka costs around 900 rupees (£5.00), dinner around about 1300 rupees (£7.00) and a cocktail at just 500 rupees (about £2.75).