The little island of Sri Lanka, which is located south of India, is home to an astounding array of tourist attractions. The Indian Ocean encircles the coastline, which has charming beaches that are surprisingly undeveloped. Meanwhile, the mainland presents an impressive array of landscapes, spanning from lowland rainforests rich in animals to the foggy slopes of the hills covered in tea plantations.
Table of Contents
- Exploring Sri Lanka cultural traingle
- Visiting temples in Sri Lanka
- Sri Lanka travel information
- Places to Visit in Sri Lanka
- Coast of Sri Lanka’s west
- The cultural triangular of Sri Lanka
- The north and the east
- Top 8 national parks and reserves in Sri Lanka:
- Best time to travel to Sri Lanka
- Festivals in Sri Lanka
- How to get to Sri Lanka
- Travelling to Sri Lanka from Europe
- Travelling to Sri Lanka from the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand
- Travelling to Sri Lanka from Asia
- Getting around Sri Lanka
- Getting around by bus
- Getting around by train
- Getting around by plane
- Getting around by car
- Getting around by rickshaw
- 10 best places in Sri Lanka
- Sri Lanka travel itineraries
- First time in the south
- Discover our other itineraries.
- How safe is Sri Lanka?
- Other issues of safety
- Entry requirements
- Costs and money
- Worth noting:
- Food and drink in Sri Lanka
- Seven different foods to try in Sri Lanka:
- Drink in Sri Lanka
- Shopping in Sri Lanka
- Sri Lankan Buddhism
In addition, there are a tonne of man-made attractions in Sri Lanka. With more than two millennia of history preserved, the northern plains are still dotted with large religious monuments and abandoned cities that attest to the astounding accomplishments of the early Sinhalese civilization.
Visiting temples in Sri Lanka
The splendours of this ancient Buddhist civilization serve as a source of pride for the country, and Sri Lanka’s distinction comes from its historical position as the world’s oldest centre of Theravada Buddhism. However, Sri Lanka is home to more people than simply Buddhists. Rules and regulations to follow when visitng a Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka.
Due to its location at one of the most significant staging sites for Indian Ocean commerce, it was exposed to an exceptionally broad spectrum of influences. Generations of Portuguese, Dutch, British, Arab, and Malay immigrants quietly changed the country’s food, architecture, and culture. In the meantime, the long-established Tamil community in the north has developed a thriving Hindu culture that is mostly Indian in origin rather than Sinhala.
In recent times, the tropical island has gained increased attention from enthusiastic travellers, yet Sri Lankan tourism is still somewhat low-key. Sri Lanka’s remarkable uniqueness, which is reflected in its varied landscapes and unique culture, is contributing to its rise to prominence as a travel destination.
Sri Lanka travel information
- Dimensions and location: Slightly smaller than Ireland and slightly larger than the US state of West Virginia, Sri Lanka lies a few degrees north of the Equator.
- Money: rupees of Sri Lanka (LKR).
- Politics: Ceylon, Sri Lanka’s colonial name, was abandoned in 1972 after the country gained independence from Britain in 1948. Since gaining independence, the nation has maintained a functioning democracy and elected the first female prime minister in history in 1960.
- Religions: A variety of ethnic and religious groupings make up Sri Lanka’s population. The two major groups are the generally Hindu Tamils and the primarily Buddhist Sinhalese; there are also sizable populations of Christians and Muslims.
- Languages: The three officially recognised languages are English, Tamil, and Sinhala.
- Health: The average lifespan of a Sri Lankan is 77 years. However, it also has among the highest rates of suicide and snakebite fatalities worldwide.
- Education: Approximately 93% of Sri Lankans are literate.
- Exports: Clothes and tea are the nation’s top exports. Coconuts, rubber, and valuable gemstones are also significant.
Places to Visit in Sri Lanka
All of it is in Sri Lanka. Hike through the hill country to beautiful tea estates, track leopards in lush rainforests, and watch whales off palm-fringed beaches. By visiting Buddhist temples, scaling colonial forts, and savouring the very flavorful food, you can gain an understanding of the island’s culture. Choosing where to travel in Sri Lanka can be difficult due to the abundance of attractions, but you can cram a lot into a single trip due to its small size.
We’ve travelled the entire island to find the top destinations in Sri Lanka, from well-known spots to lesser-known ones.
Coast of Sri Lanka’s west
Currently, the international airport outside Colombo, the capital and by far the largest city of Sri Lanka, is the starting point for all visitors. It’s a vast city whose diverse neighbourhoods provide an engaging overview of Sri Lanka’s many cultures and complex past.
Numerous resort hotels still support the nation’s tourism industry, so many tourists make a beeline for one of the west coast beaches. The package holiday resorts of Negombo and Beruwala, the more fashionable Bentota, and the former hippy hangout of Hikkaduwa are among the places to visit.
You may find more pristine landscapes to the north of Colombo in the Kalpitiya peninsula and in the adjacent Wilpattu National Park, which is home to sloth bears, elephants, and leopards.Sri Lanka’s southern coast
Beyond Hikkaduwa, the south coast is significantly less developed. The magnificent ancient Dutch city of Galle, Sri Lanka’s most beautiful colonial town, serves as the region’s entry point. There’s a stretch of excellent beaches beyond. These comprise the ever-growing settlement of Unawatuna, the more sedate coastal areas of Weligama, Mirissa, and Tangalla, and the bustling provincial capital of Matara, which is home to more Dutch ruins. Tissamaharama, located to the east, is a handy starting point for seeing the remarkable Yala and Bundala national parks as well as the intriguing Kataragama temple town.Tea plantations, which the British first brought to the island and are still a significant part of its economy, are all over the lush highlands of the hill country, which are inland from Colombo. The second-largest city in Sri Lanka and the Sinhalese cultural centre is Kandy, which serves as the region’s symbolic centre. The renowned Temple of the Tooth and the spectacular Esala Perahera, Sri Lanka’s most flamboyant festival, are symbols of its vibrant traditions.
The historic British town of Nuwara Eliya, located south of this location and near the island’s highest point, is the hub of the nation’s tea production and a handy starting place for trips to the breathtaking Horton Plains National Park. Ella, Haputale, and Bandarawela are a series of towns and villages along the southern edge of the hill region that offer a charming blend of old-world British colonial charm, fantastic treks, and breathtaking views. Another of the island’s main pilgrimage sites is the towering top of Adam’s Peak, which is located close to the southwest edge of the hill region. The best place to begin a trip to the elephant-rich Uda Walawe National Park and the unique tropical rainforest of Sinharaja is Ratnapura, the southern gem-mining hub.
The highland terrain plunges into the parched plains of the northern dry zone north of Kandy. The first great civilization in Sri Lanka flourished in this region, known as the Cultural Triangle, and its remarkable scattering of abandoned palaces, temples, and dagobas still vividly evokes memories of this magnificent past. The most famous of them are the amazing cave temples of Dambulla, the hilltop shrines and dagobas of Mihintale, the amazing rock citadel of Sigiriya, and the fascinating abandoned cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa.
Minneriya National Park, one of Sri Lanka’s most well-known and fascinating natural reserves, is located in the area and acts as a passage for the hundreds of elephants that travel annually between different parks.
The north and the east
Trincomalee, a charming but war-torn city, is the gateway to the east. With the exception of the tranquil communities of Nilaveli and Uppuveli, located just north of Trinco, and the surfing hub of Arugam Bay, located at the southernmost point of the east coast, the vast expanse of unspoiled coastline in the east is still largely underdeveloped. That will probably change, though, since a massive new resort is being built at Passekudah.
After years of civil strife, the north of Sri Lanka is gradually becoming more popular if you’re looking for places to go that are even less frequented. A growing number of tourists are travelling to the fascinating city of Jaffna, and an exciting alternative is to take a side excursion to the isolated Mannar, which is nearer India than Colombo.Sri Lanka’s national parks and reserves
National parks and reserves occupy about fifteen percent of the island. They are spread throughout a variety of topographies, home to an abundance of animals, and many are located in breathtakingly beautiful places. Due to its immense biodiversity, Sri Lanka is becoming more and more popular for ecotourism, with wonderful eco-lodges and hotels popping up all the time.
Top 8 national parks and reserves in Sri Lanka:
- Yala, south of the island, bordering the Indian Ocean, is home to a host of wildlife, including crocodiles, elephants, and the highest density of leopards in the world.
- Horton Plains: stunning scenery of grasslands and cloud forest at a height of over 2,000 metres in the central highlands The cliffs at World’s End plunge dramatically to the lowlands below.
- Uda Walawe: Just south of Horton Plains, elephants are the main attraction (home to around 600). Other wildlife includes buffaloes, spotted and sambhur deer, crocodiles, macaques, and langur monkeys.
- Bundala, just south of Yala, is a good alternative for escaping the crowds. It doesn’t hathe samethe range of wildlife as Yala, but it is a delight for birdwatchers. It is also home to elephants, crocodiles, turtles, and other fauna.
- Minneriya has an unusually wide range of wildlife considering its size. Elephants are the main attraction (highly visible at certain times of the year during migration between various parks; numbers peak in August and September when they come to drink from the reservoir). Other wildlife includes macaque and purple-faced langur monkeys, sloth bears, and notoriously hard-to-spot leopards—only around 20 in all.
- Kaudulla is also part of the migration route for elephants. The best time to visit is between August and December; numbers peak in September and October (around 200 people gather to drink from the lake, the Kaudulla Tank).
- Wilpattu, the largest in Sri Lanka, closed for several years during the civil war. Poaching has reduced wildlife numbers, although the situation is gradually improving. More peaceful than the more famous parks, such as Yala. Once famous for its leopards and sloth bears, but harder to spot these days.
- Sinharaja Forest Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed pocket of undisturbed tropical rainforest, is home to a fantastic array of jungle wildlife.
Best time to travel to Sri Lanka
The weather in Sri Lanka
Since there are two distinct monsoons that affect the climate, you can typically avoid the rain when visiting Sri Lanka because it will probably be dry somewhere on the island. The east is a mirror image of the west: when the southwest (“Yala”) monsoon hits the west and southwest, from April or May to September, the sun is shining in the east and northeast and vice versa. However, the northeast (“maha”) monsoon is generally lighter. In October and November, just before the Maha monsoon, there is unsettled weather across the island. This means you might get caught in a downpour or thunderstorm, wherever you are.
Bear in mind that there are variations in the general weather pattern, which means no two years are likely to be quite the same. But it’s a pretty safe bet that temperatures will be more or less constant. You can rely on an average temperature of 26–30˚(often higher) on the coast and the lowlands, dropping the higher up you go. So if you’re heading to Kandy, you can expect temperatures of 18˚–22˚, but only 14–16˚ in the hill country, such as Nuwara Eliya. And temperatures in the hills can drop to almost freezing at night, so make sure you pack extra layers.
Broadly speaking, in terms of the weather, the best time to visit the west and southwest of Sri Lanka, including the hill country, is from December to March. If your itinerary is geared more towards the eastern side of the island, you’ll get the best conditions from around April or May to September.
Festivals in Sri Lanka
When you visit Sri Lanka, chances are there will be a festival in full swing, or preparations for one will be underway. With four major religions coexisting on the island, each with its own calendar of festivals, as well as many public holidays, these events can be hard to avoid. You might be planning your itinerary to avoid the biggies that seem to bring the island to a standstill, or you might want to be in the thick of it—to experience the real essence of Sri Lanka.
- Sinhalese and Tamil New Year is very much a family festival that marks the Lunar New Year (usually in April). Businesses are closed as the island enjoys festivities, games, and traditional foods.
- Vesak Poya is an important Buddhist festival in May celebrating the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha. Homes hang colourful lanterns outside, and pandals (panels depicting scenes from the life of Buddha) are displayed all over Sri Lanka.
- Kandy Esala Poya Perahera – Sri Lanka’s most extravagant festival, celebrating the Buddha’s first sermon and the arrival of the Tooth Relic in Sri Lanka, lasting ten days. Kandy comes alive with colourful, spectacular processions of elephants, drummers, dancers, and acrobats. Dates vary according to the lunar calendar, but usually late July or August.
How to get to Sri Lanka
Unless you arrive on a cruise ship, the only way to travel to Sri Lanka is to fly into Bandaranaike International Airport (BMI) at Katunayake, just north of Colombo. The best way to bag a good deal on the cost of a flight is to book as far ahead as possible, but fares tend to be pretty constant year-round.
Travelling to Sri Lanka from Europe
SriLankan Airlines offers direct flights from the UK (London Heathrow); there are also indirect flights available travelling via the Gulf and India. Likewise, if you’re travelling to Sri Lanka from Ireland, you can fly indirect from Dublin to Sri Lanka via cities in the Gulf; the other option is to make your way to Heathrow for a direct flight.
Travelling to Sri Lanka from the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand
If flying to Sri Lanka from the US, you’ll have to make at least one stop; if coming from the east coast, there are several one-stop options from New York, Boston, and Toronto via the Gulf. Routes from the west coast go via east or southeast Asia, as well as via the Gulf.
If you are coming from Australia, direct flights are only available from Melbourne; otherwise, you’re looking at a one-stop option. You can also take a one-stop flight from New Zealand.
Travelling to Sri Lanka from Asia
Carriers operating from other South and Southeast Asian nations serve Sri Lanka well. There are also direct connections to many places in the Gulf.
Getting around Sri Lanka
Getting around Sri Lanka is, on the whole, much quicker and easier than is used to be, with the long-overdue upgrade on the highway and improvements on the railway.
That said, away from the motorways and main train lines, the going can be slow and, if travelling by bus, rather uncomfortable.
Getting around by bus
As a rule of thumb, buses are generally faster than trains for travelling around Sri Lanka and a cheap way to get around. It’s the main means of transport, getting into those hard-to-reach corners of the island, although it can be a bit of a rough ride, with drivers careering around corners and the older buses giving a bit of a bone-shaking experience.
Getting around by train
Going by train is more relaxed and can be a great way to take in the landscape, especially on the intercity services on the hill-country route from Colombo to Kandy and Badulla. These have a special carriage, or observation car, with large panoramic windows offering 360-degree views.
Improvements have been made to the rail network across the island, and intercity lines have comfortable air-conditioned carriages. But getting around the hill country is still painfully slow.
Getting around by plane
Domestic air services provide a superfast alternative to long journeys by road or rail and are memorable in their own right, with frequently beautiful views of the island from above.
Getting around by car
You can drive yourself, but it’s definitely not the most relaxing way to get around Sri Lanka.
Although roads are generally in reasonable condition, the myriad hazards they present—crowds of pedestrians, erratic cyclists, crazed bus drivers, and suicidal dogs, to name just a few—plus the very idiosyncratic set of road rules followed by Sri Lankan drivers make driving a challenge in many parts of the island.
For the greatest flexibility and least expense, you could hire a car with a driver. Bear in mind that many drivers work on commission from hotels, restaurants, and the like, which means they may be quite insistent on taking you to places where they get a payoff. Going with a reputable company is best because they pay drivers a decent wage so that they’re not reliant on commission.
Getting around by rickshaw
Rickshaws are a convenient and fun way to travel short distances in Sri Lanka, although journeys can be rather hair-raising in the way they dodge in and out of fast-moving traffic. Make sure you set a fare with the driver before you set off.
10 best places in Sri Lanka
- Sinharaja: this unique tract of undisturbed tropical rainforest is a botanical treasure trove of global significance, with UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Sinharaja is just how you imagine a jungle to be: intense humidity, the cacophonous sounds of animals and insects, dense foliage, and huge trees.
- Yala National Park: Yala National Park is Sri Lanka’s most rewarding wildlife reserve, with marvellous scenery and abundant wildlife. You’ll most likely see elephants, and chances are you’ll catch sight of a leopard, as the park claims a higher concentration of these wild cats than anywhere in the world. Other animals with the wow factor include crocodiles, macaques, and langur monkeys. For birdwatchers, Yala is exceptional; if you visit from October to March, you’ll see thousands of birds ending their migration from the north.
- Mirissa’s picturesque harbour is the jumping-off point for exhilarating boat trips to see one of Sri Lanka’s biggest attractions: whales watching tour. If you go on an excursion between December and April, you’ll almost certainly see one of these magnificent creatures, and you may see both sperm whales and blue whales, as well as spinner dolphins.
- Galle: The old Dutch quarter of Galle is Sri Lanka’s most perfectly preserved colonial townscape. Known as the fort, its time-warped streets are lined with historic Dutch colonial villas hidden behind formidable ramparts. Enjoy the laid-back ambience by taking a stroll around the atmospheric streets and walls.
- Arugam Bay: The east coast’s most appealing and easy-going beach hangout is Arugam Bay. Quirky cabanas, mangrove-fringed lagoons, and world-class surfing are all on offer, and it’s a great jumping-off point for excursions into the stunning surrounding countryside.
- Sigiriya: The spectacular rock outcrop of Sigiriya (“Lion Rock”) was the site of Sri Lanka’s most remarkable royal capital and palace, complete with ornate water gardens, paintings of celestial nymphs, and 1300-year-old graffiti. Getting to the top of Sigiriya Rock entails a pretty stiff climb and requires a decent head for heights in places.
- The Pettah, Colombo: Colombo’s absorbing bazaar district is stuffed full of every conceivable type of merchandise, with each street concentrating on particular goods, from colourful fabrics to jewellery, mobile phones to Ayurvedic herbs. Navigating the busy streets of Pettah can only be done slowly, and the constant hubbub of crowds, vendors, and porters bustling their way through can feel like an overstimulation of the senses. But this is all part of the unique experience—there’s nowhere else in Sri Lanka quite like it.
- Rock temples, Dambulla: The enchanting series of caves at Dambulla hold a treasure trove of Sinhalese Buddhist art, with shrines, superb murals, and over a hundred Buddha statues. The caves are situated within the Cultural Triangle, making for an ideal visit on the way to or from Sigiriya.
- Adam’s Peak: The ascent to the top of Adam’s Peak, one of the island’s most spectacular mountains, to see the Sacred Footprint is a classic Sri Lankan pilgrimage. Buddhists believe it is the footprint of Buddha; Hindus claim it is Shiva’s; and the Muslim version says it came from Adam. Make the journey at night for a chance to see spectacular views at dawn from the top. And if you go during the pilgrimage season between December and May, the route is illuminated and little tea shops are open through the night. The climb is a strenuous one, so some refreshment may just give you the energy to make it to the top.
- Jaffna and the Islands: Jaffna is unlike anywhere else in Sri Lanka. This lively town in the north offers insight into Sri Lankan Tamil culture and reveals much of its colonial and civil war past. Combine a visit with a trip to the islands off the tip of the Jaffna Peninsula. Kayts, Karaitivu, Nainativy, and Delft include secluded beaches, colonial forts, and remote Hindu temples.
Sri Lanka travel itineraries
Creating an itinerary for your visit to Sri Lanka will depend on what’s on your list of things to see and do. From relaxing beach holidays to activity-packed wildlife adventures, it’s possible to cover everything on your wishlist.
The Sri Lanka Grand Tour (14 days) is ideal if you have two to three weeks to visit the main attractions as well as some of the lesser-visited sights. Our wildlife and nature itinerary covers some of the best natural attractions in Sri Lanka. It can be squeezed into a week, although a fortnight would give you more time to explore and even give you time to visit some of the places listed in the Grand Tour itinerary. The Buddhism and Beaches itinerary leans away from the obvious crowd-pleasers and combines religion with culture and wildlife.
Below is a suggested itinerary covering some of the best places in the southern Sri Lanka, ideal for first-time travellers with just a week to ten days to explore.
First time in the south
Days 1–3: Galle
All flights arrive at Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. We recommend you head straight to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Galle. The wonderfully preserved colonial town reveals Dutch and Portuguese influences from the 18th century and provides a good dose of culture to start your trip.
Days 3–5: Mirissa
Once you’ve wandered the markets and cafes in Galle, travel to picturesque Mirissa. You can easily spend two days swimming and relaxing on the beach. Whale-watching is a highlight and is considered the best spot to see whales and dolphins in Sri Lanka.
Days 5–7: Talalla
Talalla’s unspoiled beach is popular with surfers. If waves aren’t your thing, you could take part in yoga sessions or simply notch up some more chill-out time on its creamy-coloured sands.
Days 7–10: Yala National Park
Go on safari in Yala National Park. The guided jeep tours give you the chance to appreciate some of Sri Lanka’s most beautiful wildlife, from magnificent elephants to the more elusive leopards.
Discover our other itineraries.
From family-run guesthouses to budget hotels and luxury accommodation, boutique hotels in old colonial buildings, and eco lodges, when you’re looking at where to stay in Sri Lanka, you should be able to find accommodation to suit your budget.
Prices in coastal areas tend to vary according to the seasons, especially along the west coast (usually by between 25 and 50 percent) from November 1 through mid- or late-April.
Get further information on accommodation: types of accommodation, room rates, how to find a room, and the best places to stay in Sri Lanka (eco-lodges and hotels).
How safe is Sri Lanka?
Following the terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka in April 2019, the governments of the UK, US, and Australia have downgraded their travel warnings. Tourists are no longer being advised not to travel to Sri Lanka, although the British Foreign Office warns visitors to “remain vigilant”. Many other countries have also relaxed travel restrictions to Sri Lanka. Check your government’s advice before you travel.
Other issues of safety
Taking sensible precautions against theft is always a good idea, although it’s worth mentioning that petty theft in Sri Lanka is lower than in other Asian countries as well as most European and American cities, and muggings and violence against foreigners are rare. Simple measures to protect against theft include: using safes in hotels and guesthouses for your valuables; avoiding dark beaches at night (especially for women travellers). Also keep a copy of important information, such as passports and insurance details.
The most common cause of accidental death in Sri Lanka is traffic-related, followed by drowning. Currents can be seriously strong, the water can suddenly be deep, and there are no lifeguards on the beaches. Always check local advice before going into the water.
Wildlife doesn’t usually pose a great threat. However, there are crocodiles in Sri Lanka, so keep away from areas with crocodile-inhabited waters, and if you are bitten by a snake, seek medical help immediately. Wear sturdy footwear, socks, and long trousers if walking through heavy undergrowth.
Unless you’re from the Maldives or Singapore, you’ll need a visa (ETA) to visit Sri Lanka. You can buy a visa valid for 30 days in advance online; a 90-day visa can be obtained by post or by visiting the nearest embassy or consulate. Your passport must be valid for six months after you arrive. Always check with your local embassy or consulate for the most up-to-date information regarding entry requirements before travelling. Foreign embassies and consulates are virtually all based in Colombo.
Costs and money
Sri Lanka is not as cheap as some other countries in South and Southeast Asia, but if you go for budget options with accommodation and eating out and use buses and trains rather than hiring a car and driver, it can still be inexpensive. If you opt for luxury accommodation and a driver for your stay, it’s possible to spend around $500 a day.
Various government taxes are sometimes added on to hotel and restaurant charges, so best check beforehand what’s included.
Tourist prices apply for admission to various attractions; for example, the entrance fee to a national park or site within the Cultural Triangle may cost you around $25, but for a local, it costs around 25 cents or free entry, respectively.
It’s worth bargaining for everything, from a rickshaw ride to a room in a guesthouse, as prices aren’t usually fixed, but be courteous when haggling; a few rupees here and there will make a big difference to a local living on a handful of dollars a day.
Tipping is a way of life in Sri Lanka.
Read more on costs and money: daily costs, bargaining, tipping etiquette, tourist prices, etc.
- Hygiene standards in Sri Lanka are reasonable, medical care is decent, and Sri Lanka was officially declared free of malaria by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2016 (there’s no guarantee the disease won’t reappear, so check with WHO before travel). Nevertheless, it is a tropical country with the usual tropical diseases. Make sure you have travel insurance to cover against illness or injury (as well as theft and loss).
- Simple health precautions to take include:
- Be up to date with the following vaccinations: diphtheria, tetanus, and hepatitis A. Other jabs you might consider are tuberculosis, meningitis, and typhoid.
- Avoid drinking tap water. Although chlorinated and generally safe, unfamiliar microorganisms can lead to upset stomachs. Also, avoid ice.
- Stick to hot food that has been freshly prepared; avoid salads (likely washed in tap water) and food that has been sitting out for some time.
- If you have diarrhoea, chances are it’s food- or drink-related and will only last a few days. Stay hydrated and take oral rehydration tablets if the problem is severe. Get medical help if you have diarrhoea that persists for longer than five days, if there is blood in your stools, or if you have a fever—possible symptoms of giardiasis or amoebic dysentery.
- Try to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes; they can carry diseases such as dengue fever and Japanese encephalitis.
- Wear light-coloured clothing that covers you, and sleep under a net. Repellents in spray form, mosquito coils, as well as plug-in devices, are available.
- Use sunscreen and wear a sun hat and sunglasses to protect against harmful rays and possible heatstroke.
If bitten by a snake, get medical attention immediately. Wear proper shoes or boots, socks, and long trousers if walking through heavy undergrowth.
Read more on health in Sri Lanka: information on vaccinations, health care in Sri Lanka, water and food, diarrhoea, dysentery and giardiasis, mosquitoes and tropical diseases, marine hazards, hepatitis, rabies, other diseases, dangerous animals, and insects.
Food and drink in Sri Lanka
Reflecting its geographical position, local traditions combined with a colonial imprint, as well as locally grown tropical fruit and fresh seafood, cuisine in Sri Lanka is a culinary delight. Nuanced flavours are a result of a wealth of spices, featured in everything from curries to sambols and chutneys, while coconut, in its myriad forms, appears in the majority of dishes.
Seven different foods to try in Sri Lanka:
- Rice and curry: The staple food in Sri Lanka is akin to the curries of South India and South Asia. Often includes “Maldive fish” (a strong-flavoured pinch of sun-dried tuna). Meat or fish curry served with dahl is standard; various side dishes include curried pineapple, curries of sweet potato, garlic, and jackfruit. Pol sambol (coconut sambol) is a common accompaniment—a combination of onion, chilli powder, Maldive fish, and salt.
- Kottu rotty: A classic street food ubiquitous on the island Essentially chopped rrotty(or roti), a fine, doughy pancake, stir-fried with vegetables, meat, or egg.
- Hopper (appa) Small, bowl-shaped pancakes (traditionally made from a batter containing coconut milk and palm toddy), with various ingredients in the middle, such as fried egg (egg hopper). Often eaten at breakfast with dahl or curry
- String hoppers (idiappa), nests of steamed rice vermicelli noodles, are also usually eaten at breakfast with dahl or curry.
- Pittu: A combination of flour and grated coconut, steamed in a cylindrical bamboo mould, resembles coarse couscous. It can be sweet (served with ghee and sugar) or savoury, such as with mutton curry.
- Lamprais rice is baked in a plantain leaf; accompaniments include chicken or a boiled egg, plus some vegetables and pickles.
- Vadai (wadai) is a popular street food made of spicy doughnuts made of deep-fried lentils. A familiar sound is the hawker’s cry of “vadai-vadai-vadai!”, on trains and buses.
Drink in Sri Lanka
Water, soft drinks, tea and coffee
It’s best to avoid tap water. The usual soft drinks are available, such as Coca-Cola and the like; firm favourites are locally produced ginger beer and cream soda; and coconut water is widely available.
Coffee has always played second fiddle to tea, although most tea served in Sri Lanka is surprisingly bland, considering it’s the national drink.
Lager and arrack are the island’s staple forms of alcohol, with Lion Lager being the most common brand. Arrack has a very high alcohol content and is produced by distilling toddy, a drink made by fermenting the sap from the flower of the coconut and sold informally in villages around the country.
Read more about drinking in Sri Lanka: soft drinks, alcoholic drinks, tea, coffee, buying drinks, and where to drink.
Although Sri Lanka has a history of fine craftsmanship, you’ll find much of the arts and crafts on offer are just mass produced and shoddily made. However, there are exceptions, especially in Colombo, where you can find quality goods ranging from books to tea and clothing. The general rule of thumb is that the more informal the retail outlet, the more scope there is for haggling. So you’ll likely get a better bargain with a hawker on the beach than with an established shop, although asking if there’s a “special price” might get you a better price. Note that buying coral or any other marine product is illegal (it contributes directly to the destruction of the island’s fragile ocean environment). Also, you’ll need a licence to export antiques (anything over fifty years old).Here are some of the traditional crafts and other items you’ll find in Sri Lanka.
- Painted masks Originally designed to be worn during kolam dances or exorcism ceremonies, it is now on sale wherever there are tourists. The centre of mask production is Ambalangoda, where a number of large shops sell a wide range of designs, some of which are of heirloom quality.
- Elephant carvings Ranging from small wooden creatures to the elegant stone carvings sold at many in Colombo
- Batiks were introduced by the Dutch from Indonesia and are widespread in Sri Lanka.
- Gems and jewellery Uncut gems are available in the gem-mining centre of Ratnapura, but watch out for fakes. Gem and jewellery shops are widespread; the main concentrations are in Negombo, Galle, and Colombo. For silver and gold jewellery, try Sea Street in Colombo’s Pettah District.
- Metalwork has long been produced in the Kandy area, although intricately embossed metal objects such as dishes, trays, candlesticks, and other objects can be found throughout Sri Lanka.
- Leatherwork Good-quality hats, boots, bags, etc.
- Lacquerware is a specialty of the Matale region.
- Wooden models of tuktuks Most commonly found in Negombo, but also available in Colombo and elsewhere.
- Lace Galle is the centre of lacework
- Buddha figurines Wood or stone Buddha carvings of varying standards are common
- Carrom boards A kind of hybrid of pool, marbles, and draughts (checkers) was played throughout Sri Lanka.
- Tea and spices The main local brand is Dilmah; the Tea Tang range has first-rate specialty teas, including rare connoisseur varieties. Unblended (single estate) high-grown teas are in a different league from the heavily blended variety common in Europe and the US.
The best (and cheapest) place to buy tea is in a local supermarket; supermarkets have a good selection, including unblended single-estate teas. The specialist Mlesna tea shop chain has branches in Colombo, Kandy, Bandarawela, and at the airport, although they concentrate on more touristy offerings, including boxed tea sets, flavoured teas, and the like.
No animal is as closely identified with Sri Lanka as the elephant, and few other countries offer such a wide range of opportunities to see them both in captivity and in the wild. The kings of Anuradhapura used them to pound down the foundations of their city’s huge religious monuments, while the rulers of Kandy employed them to execute prisoners by trampling them to death.
During the Dutch era, they helped tow barges and move heavy artillery, and under the British, they were set to clearing land for tea plantations. Even today, trained elephants are used to move heavy objects in places inaccessible to machinery. Elephants also play an integral role in many of the island’s religious festivals and remain revered creatures; killing an elephant was formerly a capital offence, while the death of the great Maligawa Tusker Raja in 1998 prompted the government to declare a national day of mourning.
Sri Lankan Buddhism
Buddhism runs deep in Sri Lanka. The island was one of the first places to convert to the religion in 247 BC and has remained unswervingly faithful in the two thousand years since. As such, Sri Lanka is often claimed to be the world’s oldest Buddhist country, and Buddhism continues to permeate the practical life and spiritual beliefs of the majority of the island’s Sinhalese population.
Buddhist temples can be found everywhere, often decorated with superb shrines, statues, and murals, while the sight of Sri Lanka’s orange-robed monks is one of the island’s enduring visual images. Buddhist places of pilgrimage – the Temple of the Tooth at Kandy, the revered “footprint” of the Buddha at Adam’s Peak, and the Sri Maha Bodhi at Anuradhapura – also play a vital role in sustaining the faith, while the national calendar is punctuated with religious holidays and festivals ranging from the monthly full-moon poya days through to more elaborate annual celebrations, often taking the form of enormous processions (peraheras), during which locals parade through the streets.