Sri Lanka is a friendly, affordable country rich with wildlife and cultural treasures. It’s becoming more popular and so now is the time to go. This Sri Lanka travel guide will give you both practical tips and inspiration to help you design your own perfect itinerary.
Top 10 Things to Do in Sri Lanka
- Climb Sigiriya rock to tour the ancient capital of Sri Lanka.
- Tour the palaces of Polonnaruwa.
- Explore the Buddhist Temple caves at Dambulla.
- Tour the temple in Kandy that holds the Buddha’s tooth relic.
- Take the train through tea country from Kandy to Ella. And then go hiking in Ella.
- Visit the Galle Fort.
- See elephants everywhere but especially in Udawalawe.
- See migratory birds and monkeys in Kaudulla and Minneryia national parks.
- Go on a photographic hunt for leopards in Yala national park.
- Chill on the beaches in Negombo, Marissa, Trincomalee or Arugam Bay.
Plan your own perfect Sri Lanka vacation with these helpful articles:
Sri Lanka Travel Guide: Top Tips
Getting There and Around
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 places 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 than spend 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.
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Practical Planning Tips
- Getting currency
Some of the major banks in Colombo don’t accept foreign debit cards, so don’t wait until you get downtown or to a small countryside village before looking for an ATM. 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.
Splurge on some affordable luxury with these Sri Lanka hotels
6 Indispensable Items to Pack for Sri Lanka
- Get the Lonely Planet guide to Sri Lanka.
- Get a good quality mirrorless camera for getting those wildlife shots. I use the Olympus OM-D with three lenses.
- The Gerber Dime multi-tool. It’s just like your favorite Swiss Army knife, but the lack of blade makes it TSA-friendly.
- GoToob toiletry bottles, they hold a LOT and they never leak.
- Convertible pants or travel capris. The temples ask that you respect their traditions so cover your shoulders and wear short/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 #7- 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, wildlife safaris 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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