The Ultimate Travel Guide To Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a small island in the Indian Ocean off the south-east tip of India, with tropical and warm climate. It`s a country that has EVERYTHING; beautiful beaches, high mountains (over 2000 m), tropical forests and lots of animals like wild elephants, leopards, sea turtles (see the video from our sea turtle rescue mission!), dolphins and whales.

The island is encircled by beaches, and from space, it looks outlined in white! Pretty cool! You can rarely travel anywhere along the coast without bumping upon a stunning stretch of sand, and many of them deserted! Sri Lanka is ideal for water sport like diving, snorkelling, kiting and surfing.

Inland you can stretch your legs taking hikes among tea plantations high up in the mountains above 2000 m. The culture of Sri Lanka is influenced by India, Portuguese, the Netherlands and of course the United Kingdom (was a British colony until 1948). Unesco has recognised eight World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka, pretty impressive for a relatively small island!

On our journey through Sri Lanka, we visited these places:  Colombo – Galle – Unawatuna – Mirissa – Tangalla – Yala National ParkElla – Kandy – Sigiriya – PolonnaruwaKalpitiyaNegombo

Here we will give you all the travel information and tips you need to know before visiting Sri Lanka! We used the Lonely Planet`s Sri Lanka book, which was great! We heard from other travelers that the maps are better in the Rough Guide. You can buy both books at Amazon:

 

Lonely_planet_sri_lanka_medium      rough_guide_sri_lanka_medium

Our Ultimate Travel Guide To Sri Lanka

1. What Are The Must-See Places In Sri Lanka?
2. What Are The Must-Do Things In Sri Lanka?
3. What`s Cool About Sri Lanka?
4. What`s NOT So Cool About Sri Lanka?
5. What`s The Cost Like In Sri Lanka?
6. How To Get Around Sri Lanka?
7. How Is The People Of Sri Lanka Like?
8. What Languages Do They Speak In Sri Lanka?
9. Do I Need A Visa To Sri Lanka?
10. What Are The Entry Requirements To Sri Lanka?
11. Are There Any Health Issues When Travelling In Sri Lanka?
12. How Is Phone And Internet Coverage In Sri Lanka?
13. When Is It Best To Visit Sri Lanka?
14. Is It Safe To Visit Sri Lanka?

1. What Are The Must-See Places In Sri Lanka?

Here are our top must-see places in Sri Lanka:

  • The beaches on the South Coast: Unawatuna, Mirissa, and Tangalla. They are the most stunning golden soft beaches you can ever imagine! Of these three beaches, we liked Tangalla Beach the most.
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Maria is running at the fabulous Tangalla Beach.

  • Galle – Wander around the beautiful and charming ancient fort city Galle that has a European vibe to it.
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The beautiful city Galle.

  • Yala National Park – Going to Safari in Sri Lanka to see wild elephants, leopards, crocodiles and lots of colourful birds is a MUST!
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A wild elephant in Yala National Park.

  • Ella – Visit the small and sleepy mountain village Ella, surrounded by lush and green tea plantations as far as your eyes can see.
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Maria is enjoying the fantastic view from our hotel room in Ella.

  • Polonnaruwa – Cycling around the ancient ruins of the old capital Polonnaruwa, was a highlight of our trip to Sri Lanka.
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Cycling through the ancient city of Polonnaruwa.

Have a look at our suggested two week Sri Lanka itinerary for more details about where to go and how to get around the island.

2. What Are The Must-Do Things In Sri Lanka?

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Hiking in Ella.

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The famous and stunning Sigiriya rock.

  • Surfing – The surfing is great in Sri Lanka! Both on the west coast, south, and east coast the waves are fantastic for surfing.
  • Dolphin Safari – Once you are in Sri Lanka, going on a dolphin watching trip is almost mandatory.
  • Kite Surfing – We went kite surfing in Kalpitiya (on the North West coast), and it was incredible!

  • Whale safari – We did not go on a whale safari because we have seen so many whales back home in Norway, but Sri Lanka is one of the best places in the world to spot large whales.
  • Diving/ snorkelling – The diving/ snorkelling is awesome in Sri Lanka. We went snorkelling outside of Kalpitiya, and loved it! The reefs are some of the world`s biggest, full of colourful fish.
  • Eating rice and curry – The national dish rice and curry is something you get served everywhere, and it is super good! So tasty and full of flavour! The Sri Lankan know how to use spices.
  • Tea Plantations – Walking through the tea plantations and visit a tea factory is a must-do. It makes you appreciate your next cup of delicious Sri Lankan tea.
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A tea picker in Ella.

3. What`s Cool About Sri Lanka?

  • Off the beaten tracks It is easy to avoid the herd of tourists. If you head up North (for instance to Jaffna) or to the East Coast, you will not find many tourists.
  • The lovely people The people of Sri Lanka are great! So lovely, kind and welcoming.
  • The delicious food The Sri Lankan food is fantastic! Their rice and curry dish is especially tasty and full of flavor.
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Delicious Sri Lankan rice and curry.

  • The perfect climate Sri Lanka has a sub-tropic climate, making it a nice warm country to visit.
  • The great beaches You will find some of the world`s most stunning beaches in Sri Lanka! And many of them you have all to yourself.
  • Wildlife and nature Even though Sri Lanka is a small island, it has a great wildlife. You can spot animals as wild elephants, crocodiles, leopards, sea turtles, whales, dolphins and lots of beautiful birds.
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Sea turtle at Tangalla Beach.

  • Everything is within a short distance The best of it all, is that Sri Lanka is a small island, which makes it easy to travel around and see a lot within a short time. This country has EVERYTHING!

4. What`s NOT So Cool About Sri Lanka?

We don`t have much to say about Sri Lanka on the cons list.

  • Increasing prices One thing that is not so good regarding a travellers budget are the increasing prices in Sri Lanka. Just a few years back, the accommodation, transport and entrance fees to sights and temples were much cheaper than today. Sri Lanka is more expensive than other Asian countries we have been to, for instance, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, and Cambodia.
  • Tourists have to pay WAY more than the locals at sights. Another thing is that foreigners have to pay much more than the locals to enter sites and temples in Sri Lanka. It can sometimes be frustrating having to pay many times that of the locals, but there is nothing you can do about it. Just be aware that entrance fees eat up much of your budget while traveling in Sri Lanka.

5.How Much Does It Cost To Travel In Sri Lanka?

The prices are increasing in Sri Lanka, although it is still an affordable country to travel in, and has still not reached European or USA prices.

  • Entrance Fees: Entrance fees (for tourists) will be your biggest expenses, at an average of 25 US$ per person. Locals pay 35 cents for many sites while visitors will pay 40 US$ and upwards! Yep, it feels a bit unfair sometimes. 
  • Accommodations: As for rooms, you can find accommodations at all price levels, from luxury boutique hotels to more backpacker-like guest houses. You won`t find good accommodation value in Sri Lanka, as you will in for instance Thailand. You will have to pay a lot more for the same standard as in Thailand. We paid everything between 20 – 90 US$ for our accommodation, but we did not live in dorms, always in a double room with bathroom. Some places we stayed, the accommodation also included food (breakfast, lunch, and dinner), like the one at Kalpitiya. You can find guest houses from around 15 US$, and hotels from around 40 US$. It all depends on what kind of standard you like; you get what you pay for.
  • Food: Food is still of great value, and is delicious! You can find food in all price ranges. The cheapest is, of course, street food (1-3 US$), and up. The most pricey dinner we had was around 17 US$, in a nice restaurant in Ravana Heights Hotel in Ella. Bare in mind, though, that when ordering rice and curry, it takes a loooooooong time to make, so you will have to wait a while (maybe an hour or so) to get your food. Like one of the restaurant, chefs said to us: “We don`t make fast food, we make fresh food.” So true, and well worth the wait!
  • Alcohol: Alcohol is very cheap in Sri Lanka. You will get the local Lion beer for around 2 US$ in restaurants while imported beers are a bit more expensive. Cocktails will cost you about 4-6 US$.
  • Tipping: As for tipping, a 10 % service fee will automatically be added to your food and hotel bills. The tip usually goes into the pocket of the hotel owner, so an additional 10 % is expected for waiters, drivers, and tour guides.

6. How To Get Around In Sri Lanka?

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Sri Lanka is a small island, so traveling around is pretty easy. It is quite well-connected by buses and trains that make for fun transport around the country. Read about the beautiful train trip we took from Ella to KandyTaking buses and trains are cheap, even first class on trains is quite inexpensive.

Tuk-tuks and taxis are easy to find and are a quick and comfortable way to get between places, although much more expensive than bus and train. For instance, will a taxi from the South Coast (for example Tangalla) to Ella cost around 70 US$, while the bus will be less than 5 US$.

7. What are The People Of Sri Lanka Like?

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Most of the people living in Sri Lanka are Buddhist (70%) while 8% are Islam, 7 % Hindu and 6% Christian. The people of Sri Lanka are genuine, friendly, kind and polite. They are very interested in foreigners, smiling and waving, and as a traveler, it is easy to get in touch with the locals. Even the children, not speaking English very well, want to talk to foreigners asking where you are from, what`s your name and so on. You feel welcomed by the Sri Lankan people, and it is easy to make friends.

One thing about Sri Lankan is that they do this head nod or shake, which made us a little puzzled at the start. Does it mean yes, OK, or no?! It is a lot about this head shake in travel blogs and magazines, so it is apparently well-known, especially in India. Well, the head shake is also in Sri Lanka. And everyone does it, from small kids to grown-ups. I think it is an acknowledgment to what you said or of your presence. Whatever it means, it is a strange and funny head nod that we haven`t seen anywhere else in Asia or in the West.

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The backpackers we met in Sri Lanka were often older and more mature than the typical backpacker you meet in other Asian countries. There are more families with kids and not so many full-moon-party-18-year-olds as there are in for instance Thailand. Also, the Russians have started to come to Sri Lanka, mainly to the beaches in the South, like Unawatuna. We met quite a few.

8. What Languages Do They Speak In Sri Lanka?

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The 22 million people living in Sri Lanka (2012) speak different languages:

  • Sinhala 74% (official and national)
  • Tamil 18% (national)
  • Other 8%

English is spoken fluently by about 10%. There is no problem traveling around Sri Lanka speaking only English. Street signs and menus (at touristy restaurants) are in both Sinhala and English.

9. Do I Need A Visa To Sri Lanka?

Everybody that wants to visit Sri Lanka MUST, as of 1st of January 2012, apply for a visa. The only exceptions are citizens of The Republic of Singapore, The Republic of Maldives and The Republic of Seychelles. But don`t worry, it is simple, the only thing you have to do is to apply for an online “ETA Tourist Visa” before entering Sri Lanka. The online visa is valid for 30 days from the date of arrival and can be extended for up to six months. The cost of the visa is 15 US$ for SAARC countries (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal and Pakistan) and 45 US$ for others (January 2013).

It is quite easy to get Visa extensions for up to 90 days. Extensions are available at the Department of Immigration (011-532 9300; www.immigration.gov.lk; 41 Ananda Rajakaruna Mw, Col 10; 9am-4.30pm Mon-Fri), in Punchi Borella, Colombo. The last payments are received at 3:30 p.m. The department sets the cost in US dollars, but you pay in rupees. You get a visa extension for three months, and you can apply for your extension almost as soon as you arrive in Sri Lanka (the 30-day visa given upon entry is included in the three months). You can extend for an additional 3 months after your first extension. So altogether you can get a maximum of six months visa to Sri Lanka.

10. What Are The Entry Requirements To Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka is a very easy country to visit, and there are not many entry requirements, only that you apply for an online “ETA Tourist Visa” before entering. It is very easy and quick to apply for the online visa. There are either no requirements for vaccinations.

The only think you will need when entering Sri Lanka, in addition to the online visa, is at least one blank page in your passport which must be valid for at least six months from the date of entry.

11. Are There Any Health Issues When Travelling In Sri Lanka?

There are no significant health concerns or risks when traveling in Sri Lanka. The biggest risk is probably diarrhea, as in most Asian countries, but we did not have any of that during our five weeks eating anything everywhere. There is a slight risk of getting Dengue Fever and Malaria, so wear mosquito repellent and sleep under a mosquito net (most guest houses have nets over the beds where there are mosquitoes).

Do however bring a small medical kit. I did get a jellyfish sting on my leg in Unawatuna, which was bloody painful, so some gel to put on a jellyfish sting can be a good thing to bring to the beach. And do bring sunscreen! You can buy sun screen in Sri Lanka, but not everywhere, and they might not have the sun protection factor (SPF) that you want.

Travel Insurance

Of course, never go without a valid travel insurance!  Travel insurance might seem expensive, but it is nothing compared to what medical help can cost if you need it. This is the one thing you don't want to skimp on, so get a good one.

We have been using World Nomads on most on our travels, and we have needed it too!  Their insurance is flexible, extendable while travelling, and covers a lot of action sports and activities that other companies refuse to cover. So be smart, get insurance!


12. How Is The Phone And Internet Coverage In Sri Lanka?

Most hotels, guest houses, and restaurants in Sri Lanka are offering free Wi-fi. In some places the internet can be terribly slow, but it`s enough for checking emails and Facebook and so on.

Phone SIM cards are easy to buy, for under 5 US$. Having a local SIM card with a local number is great, you get cheap local rates, and it is convenient for calling accommodations to book a room, and taxis/ tuk-tuk. For the SIM card to work, your phone has to be “unlocked.”

13. When To Visit Sri Lanka?

December to March is the best time to visit Sri Lanka´s West Coast, South Coast and the Hill Country (dry season).

April to September is the best time to visit the Ancient Cities and the East Coast. 

High season for visiting Sri Lanka is December – March, shoulder season is April and September – November, while low season is May – August.

We visited Sri Lanka in high season; February – March.

July – August is the time of the 10-day festival ´Kandy Esala Perahera´, honouring the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha (in Kandy). It is also the time for the ´Kataragama Festival´ in the South of Sri Lanka. During these festivals, you should book accommodation well in advance.

14. Is It Safe To Visit Sri Lanka?

Yes, it is safe to visit Sri Lanka. For several years, the country was off the tourist map, due to the twenty-six-year-long civil war, which ended in 2009.

The traffic in Sri Lanka is a bit crazy! Especially the buses drive very fast, so watch out while walking by the roads.

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Facts:

  • Population: 22 million (2012)
  • Capital: Colombo
  • Land Area: 65 600 km²
  • Language: Sinhala 74% (official and national), Tamil 18% (national), other 8%; English is commonly used in government and spoken competently by about 10%
  • Religion: Buddhist 70%, Islam 8%, Hindu 7%, Christian 6%
  • Currency: Sri Lanka rupee
  • Time zone: UTC+5:30
  • Drives on: Left

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