Sri Lanka travel guide evolves either around northern Sri Lanka or southern Sri Lanka most of the time because it would be a daunting task to cover both northern and southern parts of the country in one trip unless it is about 30 days long. There is so much to see and to do on both routes, you need 7 days to 14 days on each circuit…
Sri Lanka Travel Guide
Visiting Sri Lanka is an amazing experience for most visitors of Sri Lanka not for the travellers today but also for the travellers, who explore the island in the past. That’s why the ancient seafarers called the island “serendipity”. Most travellers fall in love with this tropical island: the verdant landscape, the delicious food; the crumbling, overgrown ruins; the abundant wildlife; and (especially) the welcoming locals who took hospitality to the next level.
Travelling in Sri Lanka be difficult, especially if you choose public transport such as buses and trains, usually, they are overcrowded, slow and behind the schedule most time. Driving pattern on chaotic Sri Lankan roads is different in many ways, compared to other countries. For instance, the lanes are a mere suggestion for Sri Lankan drivers.
There are three languages are spoken on the island Sinhalese, Tamil and English and English widely spoken in Sri Lanka, and therefore if you know English, as a traveller life going to be very easy for you.
But there is a certain thing that you need to know before visiting Sri Lanka thereby you can stop being a victim of various scams, overspending and missing beautiful places and important tourist attractions. In this Sri lanak travel guide we talk about some of them.
Here is the guide to visiting Sri Lanka:
Table of Contents
- Facts you Need to Know
- How Much Does it Cost?
- What to See and Do in Sri Lanka
- Where to Stay in Sri Lanka
- Where to Eat in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka Travel Guide: 17 Things to Know for Your Visit
Travel Tip 1: Don’t drink running water – You shouldn’t be drinking the running water in Sri Lanka, stick to mineral water all the time. Sri Lanka is a tropical island, therefore, it is warm and humid, it is essential to take plenty of fluid into the system to prevent dehydration. You can get hold of mineral everywhere on the island and it is cheap too. It might cost you around $2 per day on a few plastic bottles. However, most hotels are now providing drinking water on a complimentary basis for their customers, you will get at least 1 litre of mineral water per day.
Travel Tip 2: Eating local food– It might be difficult to find non- Sri Lankan food options outside of popular tourist areas such as Sigiriya, Kandy, Bentota, Galle. However many international food chains maintain thriving food outlets and they could be a bit overpriced. If you can stick to Sri Lankan food you save a lot of money but on the other side, they bit spicy. Sri Lanka offers non-spicy food specialities as well, be careful when you choose your food. Sri Lankan food is a lot similar to Indian food but spicier. The mixed seafood platter is one thing you should never miss because it comes with many varieties of fresh seafood and delicious. The best place to sample a seafood plate is Hikkaduwa, where you find hundreds of beach-kissing restaurant with fresh seafood.
- Kandy, Pinnawala elephant orphanage, tooth relic temple, royal botanical garden, Water rafting, jeep safari at Udawalawe national park, Boat tour at Madu river estuary, Bentota beach
- Duration-4 Days
- Places- Kandy, Udawalawe, Kitulgala, Bentota, Colombo
- Transport-Private vehicle
- Accommodation 4-star hotel
- Meals-Breakfast and Dinner
Special Price US$ 690, save $60, Regular Price US$750
Sri Lanka Travel Tip 3: More about food– Food, local food is cheap and tasty, most of they are very cheap in Sri Lanka! A whole portion of rice and curry cost around $2 per person, and the menu includes many vegetables, with fish, chicken, egg or meat, take a portion you will be full, most of the time you are not able to empty the plate. Cooked Rice is not spicy however some curry can be spicy and mixed with chill and pepper, so ask the waiter what is spicy and what is not. And always ask for non-spicier curry varieties.
Travel Guide Tip 4: Consuming alcohol in Sri Lanka– Alcohol is mostly restricted hotels and wine stores, the wine stores are not selling any wine sometimes but they have a good stock of all varieties Arrack and other sprits. You will find a couple of wine stores in cities, but outside of the city is difficult to spot them. There is not much nightlife in Sri Lanka except Colombo; even in Colombo, it is restricted to few places. A few nightlife opportunities available in resort areas such as Bentota and Hikkaduwa, but it would be a modest one. Expect your nights to be tame.
Travel Guide Tip 5: Avoid Tuk Tuk – tuk tuk can be very handy to travel on the island on short distance tours, but with caution. Don’t trap in a tuk tuk scam and negotiate the price before you get into the vehicle. Be clear with the rice before starting the trip. Usually, a tuk tuk will cost you around $20 for a day but it did not agree on the price at the start, the driver might charge you 2-3 times more than the regular price.
Sri Lanka Travel Guide Travel Tip 6: Take the airport bus – Travelling bus airport bus is easy, fast and cheap too because the airport bus using the highway. You can reach Colombo in 30 minutes from the airport and vice-a-versa. Buses are plying at regular intervals between 2 places.
There will be direct highway buses to other destination on the southern and western coast of Sri Lanka very soon. Because with the opening of outer circular of the southern expressway on 7th November 2019, now travellers can directly drive to any resort in western and southern Sri Lanka.
Travel Tip 7: Travel by train: Travelling by train is cheap but they are behind the schedule most of the time. But the upcountry railway journey, especially the train trip between Ell and Nuwara Eliya considered being one of the most scenic train journeys in the world and it is a highlight for the more travellers. Getting around the train is cheap.
Some typical routes: Colombo to Jaffna is 150-445 rupees ($1-3 USD), Jaffna to Anuradhapura is 150-295 rupees ($1-2 USD), Kandy to Nuwara Eliya is 85-280 rupees ($0.60-1.90 USD), and Colombo to Galle is 150-295 rupees ($1-2 USD).
Travel Tip 8: Book your train in advance: That’s the best I can give you as a local, with regards to the train journey in Sri Lanka. The train is crowded most of the time and not easy to get a seat unless you get into the train at the starting place. If you make the upcountry train journey this rule is extremely important because of a lot of travellers (local and foreign) book this train trip other than the regular passengers.
The seats can be obtained on the day of the trip at the station, however, subject to the availability, but it is highly unlikely to happen. Having a seat in the 2nd or 1st class compartment allows you to have a comfortable ride and most importantly you can enjoy the spellbinding scenery, without any disturbances. Otherwise, you have to travel in fully packed 3rd class compartments while rubbing shoulders with your neighbours.
If you need a seat contact Seerendipity tours and they will arrange your seat at a very nominal fee. In case you serve a tour with them they will arrange the train seats without nay additional fee.
Travel Tip 9: Hiking at Sigiriya: Visiting Sigiriya is in the bucket list of most travellers because Sigiriya is the most important tourist attraction in the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka. However, you have to start the upward journey early Morning (at 0700 pm) or late afternoon (at 03.00 pm) in order to avoid the scorching heat. If you get late in the morning, you may have to stay in the queue for a long time due to the large concentration of visitors. And it can happen if you start the journey in the afternoon too. Therefore try to make it early morning, earlier the better.
Travel Tip 10: Buy the ticket for all sites: If you are heading to other historical places such as Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa purchase the ticket at the ticket counter. The entrance ticket will cost $25 per person and it is mandatory. Entrance tickets are not checked most of the time if you have purchased them, but if you enter the site without purchasing the tickets, the officers from the archaeological department ask for your ticket.
Travel Tip 11: Bring flip-flops to temples: Visiting a temple is mandatory on Sri Lanka trips because most UNESCO world heritage sites are religious sites and Cultural triangle of Sri Lanka is purely religious site. Taking off shoes, taking off head covers, hiding your legs up to the knee and having an attire to hide your shoulder is mandatory when you visit a temple. You’ll have to take your socks and shoes off before visiting temples, even if they are outdoors, so bring flip-flops to keep your socks clean!
Travel Tip 12: Accommodations: the variety of accommodation is vast and the prices differs a lot. Cheap dormitory type of accommodation cost around $5 per night and the rates increases as the star rating of the property getting higher. The average 3-star hotel would cost around $60 per night with breakfast and a 5-star hotel cost around $100 with breakfast, however, demand is crucial factory when it comes to deciding the rates. The room rates are high from November to April and December and January are the most expensive months.
Travel Tip 13: Day trips: If you base in the west coast (like most travellers), you can make day trips to most tourist attractions on the island, because most places are within easy reach of west and south coast beaches. Most hotels organize day trips to their guests and tour operators too.
Travel Tip 14: Say no to Beach Boys: Beach boys better known as touts are every on the island, especially in the beach areas. Touts can be a trouble if you do not handle carefully and they can be helpful in some cases but you should negotiate carefully with them. Usually, touts are well organized and working as gangs in the resort areas.
In one resort there can be only one gang and outsiders are not allowed to operate in that particular resort. Only the members of the particular gang can talk to the foreigner in the resort. Most of the times, individual beach boys are assigned to the guests who arrive at the resort. Therefore, whether you know or not there is one young guy always dedicated to serving you! These beach boys offer various services such as tours and excursion, accommodation, meals and take their commission upon selling it to the customers. Basically same what the tour operators do, it is their main income and it is their full-time job.
If you book a tour with a local tour operator you are in the safe hand until you finish it, because they have professional staff and most importantly they are legally allowed to carry such businesses. On the other hand, Sri Lanak tourist board regulate all tour operators and has set the minimum standard when they carry out their services.
Travel companies have their permanent office in Colombo allowing you to reach them anytime during the trip. But with regards to the beach boys lack of credibility is a huge shortcoming. They have no legal backing to carry out services and therefore you are helpless if a difficult situation arises on the trip. If you are lucky you will finish the tour with beautiful memories otherwise it can be a total mess in the hands of touts.
Travel tip 15: mosquito: Mosquito repellent is always handy when you travel around the island. The mosquitos occur all parts of the island and can disturb you at any time of teh day. Applying some mosquito repellent make sure that you keep them away from you. During the rainy season, you will meet them often mainly in teh cities. However, the mosquito population is minimal in the beach resorts. However, the hotels provide mosquito nets and mosquito coils on demand without any extra charge.
Travel Tip 16: Money exchange: Even though you can use hard currency such as USD and Euro everywhere on the island it is strongly advised to keep some local Currency (Sri Lankan Rupees) in the hand. Ther are many instances that you need to make payment with around 25 rupees ($ 0.2 USD) for instance the payment for shopkeepers at the temple. rather than paying a $1.00 being able to pay him by local currency helps you to save money.
The money changers are available in all major cities and every corner in the tourist resort areas. Banks also provide the money changing facilities but they have a complicated, lengthy process requiring you to fill a few formulas. And can take up to around 30 minutes or more. In teh hand of private moneychangers the life easy, it required only a few minutes nor formula to fill up. Usually, their exchange rate is similar to the bank rate or better.
Travel Tip 17: Tourist Visa: The travellers from most countries are not required to pay teh visa fee from August 2019. Earlier it was mandatory to obtain pay $30 USD before entering the country for all travellers around the world except few countries such as Maldives and Singapore. The government of Sri Lanka relax visa formalities and remove visa fee in order to encourage the foreigners to visit the island. Visa fee is waived off for Below countries.
Austria, Australia, Belgium, Bulgarian, Canada, Cambodia, China, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Iceland, Ireland Israel, Italy
Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Malta, Netherland, New Zealand, Norway, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Romanis, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Ukraine, United Kingdon, USA
Visiting Sri Lanka: How Much Does it Cost?
Sri Lanka is a cheap country to visit; Sri Lanka is one of the cheapest long haul holiday destinations in the world, for most travellers. Sri Lanka is a very affordable holiday destination compared to most other Asian countries such as the Maldives, Thailand Singapore and Malaysia. Even when you are a splurge, like to have a luxury tour, while staying in 5-star hotels and eating in a high-end restaurant, a tour of you 10 days would not exceed $2000 (all-inclusive prices) for a couple, on a private tour.
If you are on a tight budget and try to keep the cost at the lowest ebb, you can restrict the budget to around $20 per day, fulfilling all daily requirement of your tour, however with basic facilities. The food is very cheap in Sri Lanka, a full course local menu cost around $3 per person, and however, you have to dine in local restaurants.
Sri Lankan food not only cheap but also delicious, you may find is a bit spicy at the beginning, but however, you get used to it, no reason to grocery shop and cook your own meals. Food is cheap even in tourist board registered restaurant that caters especially to foreign travellers; a full course buffet lunch or dinner (included starter, soup, main course, dessert, and tea/coffee) would cost around $7 per person.
One exception is foreign liquor, which is overpriced most of the time and it could be cheaper at your home town if you come from the UK. However local liquor is more affordable, all spirits can be categorized under expensive commodities.
The entrance ticket to cultural sites, botanical gardens and the national park are very expensive and that rip-off your wallet. However, travellers cannot skip most of those places because they are important tourist attractions. The prices of entrance tickets to the most important sites are as below.
- Highlights- Yala national park, Galle fort, pinnawala elephant orphanage, Spice garden, Tooth relic temple, Tea factory and plantation, Bentota beach, Galle, Madu River Estuary, Sea Turtle Conservation Center
- Duration-8 Days
Places- Yala, Galle, Kandy, Mirissa, Bentota, Colombo, Nuwara Eliya
- Transport-Private vehicle
- Accommodation 4-star hotel
- Meals-Breakfast and Dinner
Special Price US$ 690, save $100, Regular Price US$790
Sri Lanka Travel Guide on entrance ticket prices:
- Sigiriya: $35.00 USD
- Anuradhapura: $25.00 USD
- Polonnaruwa: $25.00 USD
- Dambulla: $10.00 USD
- Pinnawala elephant orphanage: $14.00 USD
- Tooth relic temple: $10.00 USD
- Royal botanical gardens: $10.00 USD
- Yala national park: $50.00 USD (inclusive jeep hire)
- Minneriya national park: $50.00 USD (inclusive jeep hire)
- Whale watching: $ 70.00 USD
- National Museum: $5.00 USD
Here is a list of prices to help you get an idea of costs in Sri Lanka:
- Airport taxi – $15.00
- Train from Jaffna to Anuradhapura 190 km– $4.00 (taxi $50)
- Bottle of water – $0.40
- Bus from Anuradhapura to Dambulla 65 km– $4.00 (taxi $40)
- Tuk-tuk from Dambulla to Sigiriya 15 km– $10.00 (taxi $20)
- Kottu chicken (and water) – $0.50
- Lunch 2 – $2.00
- Tuk-tuk – $ 15.00
- Bus from Dambulla to Kandy 73 km – $01.40 (taxi 25)
- Dosai dinner in Kandy – $1.50
- Train to Nuwara Eliya, second class – $2.00
- Beer – $2.50
- Bus to Tissamaharama (Tissa) 250 km– $2.00
- Bus to Galle 126 km– $2.50
- Western lunch in Galle (burger and fries) – $8.00
- Anuradhapura historical city
- Polonnaruwa historical city
- Sigiriya Rock
- Dambulla golden cave temple
- The tooth relic temple
- Entire ground transportation an air-conditioned and modern vehicle
- All entrance fees
- English speaking tour guide
- 3 nights accommodation with daily breakfast and dinner
Sketch of the program
- Day 1 Colombo-Anuradhapura-Dambulla-Habarana
- Day 2 Sigiriya-Polonnaruwa
- Day 3 Habarana-Kandy
- Day 4 Kandy-Colombo
What to See and Do in Sri Lanka: Itineraries by Region
Where should you go in Sri Lanka? Everywhere – if time permits you too! Usually, most travellers consider western and southern Sri Lanka as the venue for the holiday because it offers pristine beaches. However other parts of the island are also equally important, there are many other interesting activities and things to see on the other parts of the island such as mountains, national parks, rainforests, and historical monuments.
Most travellers mistakenly think that Sri Lanka is a flat land without considerable geographical upheavals (mountains and peaks), however, it is a huge misunderstanding. The mountains of Sri Lanka rise up to 2245 meter above sea-level (highest mountain Pidurutalagala) and there hundreds other mountains in lesser height. Therefore Sri Lanka offers many places to see and activities to engage in, usually more than the visitors imagine.
Historical cities in the cultural triangle such as Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya offer amazing ruins. Kandy and other mountain resorts offer trekking sites, mountains, waterfalls, rivers and places for caving. Kandy is the cultural city with a large number of temples and part of Kandy show the British colonial influence.
Nuwara Eliya popular for healing climate and sits 1800 meters above sea level is a perfect destination for hiking, Tissanaharama is the gateway to Yala national park (which has elephants and leopards), Galle is the home to best preserved Dutch built Fort in Asia. Ella is becoming a hotspot for nature exploration and offers dozens of unspoiled sites for trekking and hiking. East coast of Sri Lanka pristine beaches is perfect places for leisure holidays, white beaches on south-east Sri Lanka such as Arugam Bay rank among the best surfing spots in the world.
Most Sri Lanka tour packages evolve either around northern Sri Lanka or southern Sri Lanka because it would be a daunting task to cover both northern and southern parts of the country in one shot. There is so much to see and to do on both routes, you need 7 days to 2 weeks on each circuit. However, if you wish to encompass entire island into one tour, you have to plan a tour that lasts at least one month.
Suggested Sri Lanka Itineraries
Southern Route (From 7 to 10 days): Colombo – Hikkaduwa – Galle – Mirissa – Tangalle – Tissa – Ella – Nuwara Eliya – Kandy – Colombo
Northern Route (From 10 to 14 days): Colombo – Ella – Nuwara Eliya – Kandy – Sigiriya – Anuradhapura – Trincomalee – Jaffna – Colombo
North and South (From 21 to 30 days): Colombo – Jaffna – Trincomalee – Anuradhapura – Sigiriya – Kandy – Nuwara Eliya – Ella – Tissa – Tangalle – Mirissa – Galle – Hikkaduwa – Colombo
If you have one month for the trip, you can explore the southern portion of the island (Colombo, Galle, Tissamaharama, Nuwara Eliya and Kandy) as well as the northern portion of Sri Lanka (Anuradhapura, Jaffna, Trincomalee). Sometimes you can easily add some relaxing either on the east coast of the west coast.
With 2 weeks tour, you can leisurely explore either Northern Sri Lanka or southern Sri Lanka while adding few leisure days on the beach.
It is important to know that once you’ve done the major sightseeing and activities in a city, you have to rush to the next base. For example, Tissamaharama is the gateway to the Yala wildlife reserve. Usually, the jeep safari starts at Yala early morning (05.00 am) or afternoon (02.00 pm), in order to avoid the heat and to increase the chances of spotting animals, therefore you need spend only a half-day in Tissamaharama (unless you plan to do the full day safari). There is not much else to do in the town.
Things are pretty much the same as in other cities. Tick a few boxes and then move on. Galle is a tourist attraction and can be done in a day tour from Colombo or any other beach resort on the west coast. However, if you look for a place for a beach holiday, it is a good choice, Galle offers some fantastic, isolated beaches for relaxing beach stays such as Unawatuna, Hikkaduwa Koggala and Ahangama. Sigiriya and Dambulla can be done in two nights (though I added an extra night because I liked the family I was staying with). Nuwara Eliya, Ella, Kandy, Arugam Bay, Trincomalee – those places have more activities and are worth spending a long time in.
Where to Stay in Sri Lanka
For accommodation, the opportunities are plenty, however, it is recommended to finalize the places before arriving on the island, especially during the peak holiday seasons from November to April. It could be difficult to find a place to sleep at the last moment during the peak holiday season.
Where to Eat in Sri Lanka
Restaurants are plentiful in most places, where tourist hang around. There is a large number of restaurants in beach resort areas as well as in Ella, Kandy, Sigiriya, Colombo, Galle and Nuwara Eliya.
Sri Lanka is quite easy to visit compared to most other countries in the world, and with a few tips, you can travel there with ease. Sri Lanka is a budget-friendly country, even if you go nuts on the attractions and tours. A private tour with meals, sightseeing tours and comfortable accommodation, you would spend about $100 USD per day. You can handover the entire tour to a local travel agent and they do plan everything from A to Z, you just have to give your feedback.
Looking at the map of Sri Lanka, you might say, “Oh, it’s not that big. I bet I can cover a lot of ground in a short period of time.” You could, but you won’t “see” much. It will be too much of a blur. There is a lot to see and do in Sri Lanka and it takes a while to travel around. Don’t rush your trip. Sri Lanka may be small but it packs a powerful punch. Take your time to see.