You’ve got ancient ruins flanked by pristine secluded beaches, national cuisine that seems to merge all the best elements from India and South-East Asia, not to mention eight breathtaking UNESCO World Heritage Sites squeezed into a single country. Its little wonder Sri Lanka has been dubbed ‘unmissable’ by many. Welcome to our Sri Lanka travel guide.
Here’s our guide to experiencing the best of Sri Lanka whether you’re a first time visitor or a seasoned traveller.
Top Things To Do In Sri Lanka
The 26-year Sri Lankan civil war (which ended in 2009) had previously kept tourists at arms-length but the conflicts of the past have been well and truly left there; clearing the way for the country to come into its own as a traveller’s Nirvana. The Easter bombings of 2019 undoubtedly left its mark, but Australians were quick to return to Sri Lanka. Eager to support the country’s people and to revisit a much-loved holiday destination.
Starting with the Kandy to Ella train, which is arguably one of the most beautiful (and most Instagrammed) journeys you’ll ever experience. A $AUD1.50 ticket will have you settling in for a five-hour trip winding through mountain ranges, rustic villages and tea plantations as far as the eye can see. You’ll quickly see why photographers flock to this scenic stretch of rail.
If you have mini-travellers in tow then they’ll love getting up close and personal with the wildlife at Kaudulla Wildlife Park. Here you’ll ride in an open-top Jeep cruising carefully past herds of relaxed elephants and occasional family groups of macaque monkeys.
As mentioned, there are eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites to see in Sri Lanka, including 4 ancient must-see cities (Kandy, Sigiriya, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa). To top it all off you’ve got a warm and friendly local community eager to show each one off to you.
Best Places To Go In Sri Lanka
There is a lot to cover in Sri Lanka so it pays to be practical when it comes to seeing the sights. Many travellers start by trekking to the centre of the country to tick off the ‘Cultural Triangle’, that includes the cities of Kandy and Anurhadapura and the cave temples in Polonnaruwa.
Most flights land in the capital of Colombo, from there you can take a three-hour train journey to Kandy, home of the Sri Dalada Maligawa (more commonly known as the Temple of The Tooth). This is a city that wears its history on its sleeve with countless ancient temples and monuments clustered together in a relatively small area.
Sun-seekers will drool over the azure blue waters and white sands at Unawatuna Beach in the south of the island near Galle. This is where most of the luxury resorts make camp but it’s for good reason. Here the waters are calm and are relatively safe from dangerous reefs or urchins and there is a direct road to the city centre which makes it easily accessible.
Best Time To Visit
Like many countries close to the equator Sri Lanka’s weather is fairly constant, sitting around 25-30 degrees Celsius year-round (and about 15-18 degrees Celsius in the highlands).
There are, however, two main monsoon seasons to be aware of: in the south-western areas of Sri Lanka (near the cities of Colombo and Galle) monsoon season hits between May and September, shifting to the dry season from December to March.
The north-eastern parts of the country (closer to Trincomalee) runs from October to January and then eases around May to September.
Tours & Deals
Experience Travel Group are one of the leaders in the market when it comes to curating tours that delve deeper into the culture of Sri Lanka, no matter how intrepid you may be. Their Sigiriya and Village Farm Experience is designed to place you in the heart of traditional community life. You’ll spend a day with local farmers and their families, help out on the land and learn their unique agricultural practices.
If you prefer to see as much of the country as possible then Intrepid offers Cycle Sri Lanka tours which take travellers past untouched coastline, hypnotic rolling tea fields and through bustling ancient towns.
Where To Stay In Sri Lanka
Luxury Resorts & Villas
From historic plantation homes such as Ceylon Tea Trails to the palatial zen beauty of the Amanwella resort on the shores of Tangalle, Sri Lanka certainly doesn’t come up short when it comes to luxury escape options.
If you like your resorts infused with a level of colonial largesse then be sure to book the Luxury Royal Tented Suite at the Elephant Stables Resort in Kandy.
Sri Lanka is a country of contrasts and it’s the same with their hotels. If you’re on a low to medium budget this place has you covered. In Colombo the Grand Oriental Hotel is exactly how you’d imagine; ornate, historic and completely authentic. Even better? Rooms start at $US50 per night.
On the other end of the price scale, there’s Residence by Uga Escapes, situated close to Park Street Mews (Colombo’s home of fine dining). This restored 19th-century mansion used to house Indian maharajas and British nobility but today it’s one of the city’s most beautiful resorts.
If it’s a nature stay you’re after then look no further than The Elephant Safari Hotel, nestled in the Udawalawe jungles. You’ll stay in charmingly rustic thatched-roof cottages complete with open-air bathrooms and sleep a stone’s throw from Katharagama Temple and the nearby national park for, you guessed it, elephant spotting.
What To Eat In Sri Lanka
Spice lovers should prepare to enter street food heaven. Much like South Indian cuisine, Sri Lankan fare utilises an abundance of spices in every dish, but there’s so much more to it than rice and roti. Ask for a plate of fish curry (fish ambul thiyal) as soon as you land to see what we mean. For something that sounds so simple this dish explodes with flavours of coconut, chilli, turmeric and cinnamon, and being a national staple, it will usually only set you back the princely sum of $AUD1 per serve at street vendors.
While stalking the market stalls you’ll likely see many vendors dishing up plates piled high with Kottu, an ultra-filling ‘fried rice’ made from shredded roti bread fried with a selection of meats and vegetables. It’s usually served with a rich curry sauce and arguably the best thing for a hangover since ‘hair of the dog’.
Cultural Experiences in Sri Lanka
Tea trails, elephant safaris, intrepid train journeys, Sri Lanka doesn’t scrimp on their offering of unique things to do. But those in search of the more spiritual side of the country will love visiting Anuradhapura, a UNESCO World Heritage listed city dotted with intricate temples and shrines.
You’re also guaranteed to enjoy the views from the Adam’s Peak hike near Dalhousie. Many Muslims and Christians believe the peak to be a sacred site where Adam took his first steps after being exiled from the Garden of Eden. Religious or not, the five-to-seven-hour walk starts at midnight and promises spectacular views from the top at sunrise.