Travelzoo Guidebook: Sri Lanka

May 9, 2024

We’ve all had that friend who returned from their Sri Lanka travels, enviably sun-kissed, and undoubtedly more relaxed than when they left, sharing a magical account of what was quite possibly the best holiday of their lives. And while we all enjoy travel in our own way, here at Travelzoo, our Deal Experts can vouch for the fact that Sri Lanka won’t disappoint. It’s a land of friendly faces and boasts balmy weather practically all year round – plus it offers a jam-packed itinerary filled with pristine beaches, fascinating wildlife, robust tea culture, and mystical temples. If you want to get in on the action, here are our top tips and recommendations for an awesome stay.

Getting there

Sri Lanka is nicknamed “teardrop of India” for a reason – it is located just south of its big sister, India, surrounded by the blue waters of the Indian Ocean. On the logistical side, there are several daily direct flights out of Australia to Colombo, and you can apply for a Sri Lankan visa online, making it an easy destination to travel to.

Once you’ve touched down, buses are Sri Lanka’s main mode of transport but you may be inclined to hire your own car for convenience. Trains are certainly a busier way to travel around, but we highly recommend it for a more scenic view, particularly if you’re travelling between Kandy and Ella. If you’re travelling short distances, tuk-tuks are a budget-friendly option, but remember to negotiate your fare with the driver before you get in.

Travelzoo tip: If you’re considering travelling between Sri Lanka and the Maldives, in terms of proximity, the two locations are fairly close together on the map – it will take you just 90 minutes to fly from Colombo to Malé International Airport. Depending on where you’re headed, Colombo can also be a good place to stop over before catching a connecting flight elsewhere in the world, as flights from Colombo are generally cheaper.

What to do, eat and drink

Sri Lanka’s vast natural beauty speaks for itself, and the island nation promises visitors some of the most magnificent scenery you’ll ever encounter. If you’re looking for endless stunning beaches, you’ve come to the right place. On the south coast, golden beaches stretch as far as the eye can see – an ideal playground for those who love sunbathing, water sports or a dip in the ocean. Head to the tranquil turquoise waters of the iconic Mirissa Beach, or for a livelier atmosphere, check out Unawatuna Beach. On the east coast, Arugam Bay beckon surfers from around the world with its world-class waves. 

Alternatively, Hikkaduwa Beach just two hours’ drive south of Colombo is a popular option with its shallow waters and colourful marine life – be sure to visit the Hikkaduwa Turtle Hatchery, a quick tuk-tuk ride from Hikkaduwa town. If remote beaches are more your thing, Kalpitiya in the western region of Puttalam District is a real hidden gem; or you can hop on over to Tangalle Beach on the southeastern coast to escape the crowds.

Considered to be one of the world’s “biodiversity hot spots”, Sri Lanka has an incredible 123 species of mammals, some of which are rare and endangered. Off-shore, whale or dolphin-watching are popular activities, while on land, visitors flock to see the monkeys, leopards, sloth bears and, of course, elephants.

Sri Lanka is famous for its elephant safaris, offering some of the world’s best vantage points for elephant spotting, including Uda Walawe National Park, Minneriya National Park and Kaudulla National Park. When it comes to animal encounters, there are parks and tour operators that have more ethical practices in place, so we encourage you to do your homework before you go in order to support responsible tourism.

When it comes to exploring the past, history buffs will love immersing themselves in the country’s ancient culture and rich traditions. You’ll discover well-preserved ruins at several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, such as the sacred cities of Kandy and Anuradhapura, the cave temples of Dambulla, and the imposing fortress of Sigiriya. There are many notable Buddhist stupas dotted across the country; these incredible architectural structures house historical relics and intricate carvings that make for a fascinating history lesson.

When it’s time to take a break from sightseeing, you’re in luck, as Sri Lanka is renowned for its fragrant food which features aromatic spices, fresh seafood, and tropical fruits (think coconut and jackfruit). Whether you’re up for a fiery curry, the sweetness of pol sambol (a popular coconut-infused side dish), or the many delights of Sri Lankan street food, such as hoppers (pancakes), roti (flat, crispy bread), and kottu (a meat curry dish), you’ll want to lick your plate clean at the end of the meal!

And if you’re a keen tea drinker, listen up – as one of the biggest tea-producing nations on the planet, Sri Lanka is the place to be if your heart’s desire is to explore the origins of this popular brew. You’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to lush tea gardens and tea plantations. Why not sip your way across the country and go on a tea factory tour, or even a tea estate vacation (where you can spend the night in world-class accommodation, surrounded by tea fields)?

When to visit

As it is situated in the tropics, Sri Lanka is impacted by monsoons, so you’ll want to plan your trip accordingly. From May to September, the south and west coasts of the country are affected, so for those planning to visit Negombo, Colombo, Pinnawala, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Ella, or Galle are advised to go between December and March (which is typically also high season, so be warned). If you’re heading east to the likes of Sigiriya or Trincomalee, the best time to travel is April to November if you want to avoid the rainy monsoon season from October to January. Of course, visiting during the rainy "off-seasons" has its perks of fewer crowds and significantly cheaper hotel rates.

With temperatures generally lower in the hills than on the coast, make sure you’re prepared and pack a jumper for those cooler evenings and early starts. On the subject of clothing, make sure you dress respectfully when visiting temples or other religious sites (no exposed legs, upper arms or shoulders). You will also need to remove your shoes and headwear before entering any temple or mosque, even if you’re visiting ancient ruins.

10 fun facts

  • Sri Lanka was formerly known as Ceylon until 1972 when it became the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. On that note, Sri Lanka is one of the world's largest exporters of tea (Ceylon, in particular) which is enjoyed internationally. And despite its Scottish roots, Lipton Tea was actually first grown in Sri Lanka.
  • The country is just slightly larger than the US state of West Virginia, covering an area of 25,332 miles². Still, it boasts remarkable biodiversity and is home to incredible species of flora and fauna, some of which are found nowhere else on Earth.
  • There are an impressive eight UNESCO World Heritage sites for you to discover, including the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, and the ancient cities of Polonnaruwa – one of Sri Lanka’s best archaeological relic sites – Sigiriya (with its 200m high granite Lion Rock being the star attraction), Anuradhapura (featuring well-preserved ruins of an ancient Sinhala civilization), the Old Town of Galle and its fortifications, the Sinharaja Forest Reserve, the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka, and the revered Rangiri Dambulla Cave Temple.
  • This is where you’ll find the world's oldest human-planted tree (as opposed to natural seedling) – the sacred fig or bo-tree is 2,300 years old and is located in Anuradhapura, one of the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka.
  • Most of the island nation’s electricity is supplied through hydropower plants that are powered by the over 100 waterfalls across the country.
  • The national flag – popularly known as the Lion Flag – is one of the oldest in the world, dating back to 486 BC, when Sri Lanka’s first king, Vijaya, arrived from India with what would become the country’s first flag. There have been many different versions over time, but the lion emblem has always remained.
  • Sri Lanka made history when it was the first country in the world to elect a female prime minister. Sirimavo Bandaranaike was voted in as the nation’s head of government in 1960.
  • The national dish is rice and curry, often eaten from a banana leaf. But what you may not know is that the meal is always – without exception – referred to as rice and curry (not curry and rice), as rice is the most important part of the local cuisine.
  • Many sports enthusiasts might think that cricket is the national sport of Sri Lanka. And even though it is the most popular sport, volleyball is in fact the national sport, being introduced for the first time back in 1916.
  • Once a month there is a public holiday to celebrate the full moon. Every full moon day is called Poya, and this is a religious holiday that is celebrated across the island through festivals, parades, special lanterns, and fasting rituals.


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