Get the best advice on how to travel to Sri Lanka with practical tips and inspiration from Wayfaring Views and other Sri Lanka travel blogs.
This Sri Lanka travel guide is designed to save you time. The average person looks at 20-30 online resources before committing to booking a trip. Who has time for that what with work obligations, family life and binge-watching Orange is the New Black on Netflix? This guide will help you cut to the chase with travel tips, itinerary ideas and links to my own content as well as curated links to other Sri Lanka travel blogs.
Sri Lanka is a friendly, affordable country rich with wildlife and cultural treasures. It’s becoming more popular, so now is the time to go.
17 Things to Do From Top Sri Lanka Travel Blogs
When you travel in Sri Lanka, of course you should visit their best tourist spots. However, a “best of” list is subjective, and it will vary based upon your personal interests. The “best of” list below is broken down into different interest areas so that your can narrow in on what will make the best itinerary for you.
Top Cultural Sites
Sri Lanka is a small country and yet is boasts eight UNESCO world heritage sites that are remarkably well preserved. Visiting them is an excellent lesson in the ongoing Buddhist influence in the country.
Start with my Sri Lanka travel blog piece spotlighting the top seven cultural sites in Sri Lanka.
- Climb Sigiriya rock to tour the ancient capital of Sri Lanka. This fortress was built in 477 BC and has epic views of the whole valley.
- Tour the palaces of Polonnaruwa. Polonnaruwa became the second capital of Sri Lanka in 1070 AD and the huge palace complex is known for its unique granite carvings. Get the Polonnaruwa guide from Finding Beyond.
- Explore the Buddhist Temple caves at Dambulla. The caves were originally built in 89 BC and they are still in use today as an active temple. They have remarkable ceiling frescoes and hand-hewn caves with Buddha statues. Visit Dambulla caves with the Time Travel Turtle.
- Tour the temple in Kandy that holds the Buddha’s tooth relic. The relic is a very revered site for Buddhist Sri Lankans. Visit the Sacred city of Kandy by the Conversant Traveller.
- See Galle Fort. Galle Fort is located just north of Marissa and is a colonial town built in the 1500’s by the Portuguese. Spend a day in Galle with Wandermust Family.
Top Wildlife Sites
Safaris aren’t just for Africa anymore. The wildlife in Sri Lanka is varied and plentiful. Many people travel to Sri Lanka to see the elephants but it’s a also a great place to spot crocs, loris, wild buffalo, spotted deer, birds and marine mammals.
Start with my overview of the top 5 best places to spot wildlife.
- See elephants everywhere but especially in Udawalawe. They have a large wild population of elephants and also a rehabilitation center for injured and orphaned animals. Go on a Elephant safari in Udawalawe from Yoga Wine Travel.
- See migratory birds and monkeys in Kaudulla and Minneryia national parks. The elephants migrate between these two parks and you can also find a very healthy population of migratory birds, sloths and bear monkeys. Go on a Kaudulla safari with Justin Plus Lauren.
- Go on a photographic hunt for leopards in Yala national park. Yala has the highest concentration of leopards in Sri Lanka. They are elusive, but a good driver and guide should help you bag one. Get tips for spotting leopards from Atlas & Boots.
Top Places to Hike in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka’s hilly tea country offers challenging hikes with rewarding views.
- Ella Rock (in Ella of course) is a five hour round trip hike that takes you through the local countryside and up to a peak with infinite green views of the local mountains. Read the Ella Rock itinerary from Finding Beyond.
- Climb Adam’s Peak. Buddhists believe that the top of the mountain is the Buddha’s footprint and the climb attracts both religious pilgrims and tourists interested in the killer sunrise views. Learn more about Adam’s Peak from Miss Tourist.
Best Beaches in Sri Lanka
- Go whale watching in Marissa. Marissa has beautiful relaxing beaches and between December and April, you can see Rissos, common and bottle nose dolphins along with blue, sperm and fin whales. Find a secret Marissa beach with Television of Nomads.
- Go surfing in Arugam Bay. Arugam Bay is on the east coast and offers world class surfing between April and October. Get the guide to Arugam Bay from Jones Around the World.
- Get powder white sand beaches in Trincomalee. Trincomalee is also on the eastern coast and has whale watching in the opposite season from Marissa. Find things to do there from Atlas and Boots.
- Check out beaches on Negombo and Pasikuda with Travel Mad Mum.
Off the Beaten Path
- Visit Jaffna. Jaffna is the capital of Sri Lanka’s northern province. It was cut off during their civil war but is now looking forward to its future. Get the guide from Global Help Swap.
- Follow Jess from How Dare She as she bravely rides a scooter all round Sri Lanka.
- 21 cool and unusual things to do in Sri Lanka from Atlas Obscura.
- Spend some time in Colombo. Even though it’s the capital city, many visitors skip it and go directly into the countryside. Check out this list of things to do there from Migrationology.
- Go beyond Disney and consider bringing the whole family. Adventure Together makes a great case for bringing your kids to Sri Lanka.
- Or go low and slow with this four week itinerary from Pip and the City, which includes some beach towns that usually get overlooked.
Get even more ideas from these travel Sri Lanka blogs on Pinterest.
Sri Lanka Travel Guide Tips & Tricks
Travel to Sri Lanka and Getting Around Once There
Flying to Sri Lanka
Fares to Sri Lanka from the US, Canada and the UK typically run $1,000-1,400. However, you should set an alert using Skyscanner in order to find something cheaper. Tickets from London, New York and San Francisco often have a one-stop layover in one of the locations noted below. AND- if you are flying their national airline (such as Singapore Air or Emirates) they will often spot you a free or heavily discounted hotel night to entice to you to do a stopover. If you choose to do that, I’ve indicated an accompanying itinerary or city guide from fellow travel bloggers.
- Abu Dhabi: Abu Dhabi layover guide from Travelettes.
- Dubai: Things to do in Dubai from Arzo Travels and 10 things to do in Dubai from Tales of Travelling Sisters.
- Doha: 24 hour layover in Doha from Page Traveller.
- Singapore: 3 day itinerary for Singapore and unusual things to do in Singapore from yours truly.
- Hong Kong: 48 hours in Hong Kong from To Europe & Beyond.
Getting Around While There
When you travel to Sri Lanka, you have quite a few options for how to get around and you can do so at any budget level.
- Get a driver/guide
You could rent a car. But traffic in Sri Lanka requires a take no prisoners, white-knuckle attitude. So I suggest using a driver. Using a driver rather than the bus means that you have better control of your schedule and you can develop rapport with just one guide rather than hiring a new one every time to you get to a new town. Our private driver was flexible, knowledgeable and safe. If you would like a referral, please comment below with your email or use my contact page to email me and I’ll put you in touch with him.
- Trains & Buses
Public transportation is a cheap and fairly easy way to transport yourself to the major tourist destinations. A long distance first class train ticket is only $4-5 dollars and buses are even cheaper. But beware that once you are in a tourist area, such as Sigiriya, you are going to need to hire tuk tuks, taxis or bikes to get you around to the major sites.
- Taking Tuk Tuks
Most of the tuk tuks in Colombo are metered so don’t get into one that isn’t. However, the driver’s pad their fares by conveniently forgetting how to get to the major tourist sites. Use your phone to map where you are going and give the driver specific directions. Outside of the major cities, the tuk tuks aren’t usually metered so ask your hotel for guidance on fares.
- Airport transfers
A cab from the airport into Colombo costs about $20. You can often pre-arrange a pick-up with your Colombo hotel. If you are staying in Negombo, expect to pay half that much.
- Be aware of distances
Sri Lanka is not a huge country. But it can still take 2-4 hours to drive between each of the major tourist sites and national parks. If you only have a week, you can’t do everything. Better to pare down your itinerary and go deep rather than spending all of your time driving the Sri Lankan countryside.
- Don’t forget your visa
The government requires you to purchase an advance visa. It’s only $30, you can easily apply online and the visa comes to your email almost immediately.
Riding the Iconic Train from Kandy to Ella
My friend George and I are train nerds and so we insisted that our group do the train ride. The five to seven hour ride rattles through Sri Lanka’s stunning tea growing region. A lot of the Sri Lanka travel blogs have very confusing and contradictory information regarding how best to take the train. I’m cutting through the clutter and here are a few tips for figuring out how to do it.
Where to Get on and Off
Most people get on in Kandy although you can do it in the opposite direction if that works better for your itinerary. The Kandy train station is thirty minutes outside of town so you’ll need to catch a tuk-tuk or cab and give yourself plenty of time to get there. Most people get off at either Nanu-Oya (and spend time in the Nuwara Eliya tea growing area) or they stay on for a few hours longer and get off at Ella (for hiking). If you only do the segment to Nanu-Oya, you will miss the prettiest part of ride. The last section has the classic tea terraces and the iconic Nine Arches Bridge, seen in the pic above.
Which Class of Service to Ride
- Normal first class
These are reserved seats with air conditioning and cushioned chairs. The windows do open but if you are in this car, the best way to get that “hanging off the train shot” is to go to the section between this car and second class. Check out the pic in my sidebar “about” section, that’s me hanging out the window in Sri Lanka. My tour guide didn’t want me to do that but hey, when in Sri Lanka…..
- First class observation car
This is a special tourist observation car with no air-con but with a wide deck and railing for outside viewing. Many blogs refer to either one or the other of these first class options without distinguishing between the two. Both versions require advance reservations which are difficult to figure out, so I suggest that you check this guide.
- Second Class
The second class cars have one reserved car where you can book a seat in advance and they also have unreserved cars where you purchase tickets on the day of. They are wooden benches and a bit worse for the wear but the cars have decent legroom.
- Third Class
The third class seats are purchased the day of and are hard wooden seats that you share with chickens. Or so I’ve heard– I took the swanky seats in first class.
Buying Tickets Online
You can’t–Sri Lankan railways doesn’t sell tickets online. So you will need to either go through your tour provider, use a local Sri Lankan tour agency or go to the Colombo train station to purchase your tickets in advance. Or…just show up at the Kandy train station and take your chances.
Is the Train Crowded?
Much gnashing is made in travel blogs and guides about how crowded it is on this train. Perhaps it is, during high season, but I traveled in the March shoulder season and first class was only 60% full and second class was only 20% full.
Get inspired for your visit with this list of great reads set in Sri Lanka.
Practical Sri Lanka Travel Tips
- Getting currency
Some of the major banks in Colombo don’t accept foreign debit cards, so finding an ATM might be tricky. They have a currency exchange at the airport and any major US bank can order rupees for you in advance of your trip.
- Water quality
Many of the locals, especially in the smaller towns, drink from the tap, but it’s not a good idea for tourists. Bottled water is readily available and most hotels will offer guests a supply.
- Internet Access/SIM cards
Wireless is widely available but pretty crappy. The weak signals have trouble penetrating walls so plan to hang out in your hotel lobby. SIM cards are also widely available and very cheap. For under $10 you can get a card with a reasonable number of minutes and lots of data. Get a card in Colombo or one of the larger towns because you won’t find wireless stores in some of the smaller towns along the tourist trail.
- When to visit
December through March is considered peak season for visitors. It’s also the best time of year to go whale watching in the Marissa area. The southwestern part of the country (Yala, Marissa) experiences a monsoon season from May to September. The Golden Triangle cultural area is fairly dry except for November/December. The northeastern part of the country can experience monsoons from October to January. February to April is the sweet spot. But just go whenever you can, your skin is waterproof.
- Spend a night (or two) in Negombo
Colombo is worth a day or two if you have time in your itinerary. But unless you plan to go sightseeing there, don’t sleep there. Negombo is much closer to the airport and you can do a restful night on your way into or out of the country.
(Some of the links below are affiliate links.)
Lodging in Sri Lanka
Lodging is pretty inexpensive in Sri Lanka, no matter your budget level. You can stay in well-reviewed hostels for $8 (dorm bed) to $23 (private), guesthouses offering private rooms and breakfast for $25-35 and 5-star luxury for $125-200.
If you like the idea of 5-star luxury for less, check out my guide to luxury hotels in Sri Lanka. Otherwise, search for rooms at your preferred price point for the following locations:
- Colombo- check reviews or book on Trip Advisor or Hotels.com
- Negombo- check reviews or book on Trip Advisor or Hotels.com
- Sigiyra- check reviews or book on Trip Advisor or Hotels.com
- Kandy- check reviews or book on Trip Advisor or Hotels.com
- Yala- check reviews or book on Trip Advisor or Hotels.com
- Marissa/Galle- check reviews or book on Trip Advisor or Hotels.com
5 Indispensable Items to Pack for Sri Lanka
- Ensure clean drinking water by taking the Steri-Pen. It uses UV light to kill bacteria and protozoa. Or, purchase the Life Straw filtering water bottle, which filters out the bacteria right through the straw.
- Insect repellent wipes will keep the bugs away but won’t trigger any airport security issues for liquids.
- The Gerber Dime multi-tool. It’s just like your favorite Swiss Army knife, but the lack of blade makes it TSA-friendly.
- Convertible pants or travel capris. The temples ask that you respect their traditions so you need to cover your shoulders and wear shorts/pants/skirts below the knee.
- A bathing suit. It’s hot in Sri Lanka. If your hotel has a pool, you are going to want to use it.
Bonus #6- Don’t forget to consider travel insurance. I have an annual plan with Allianz and it covers cancellation, gear and medical situations.
Sri Lanka is an emerging destination and one well worth seeing. Check out these posts on cultural things to do, great hotels, wildlife safaris, fishing cat conservation and required reading for Sri Lanka. Then use these tips and itinerary suggestions to plan your perfect Sri Lanka vacation. Happy planning and happy trails!
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