Sri Lanka Holiday Planning Guide
Shaped like a teardrop and located just below the southern tip of India, lush Sri Lanka boasts some of the greatest biodiversity in the world. Unless you time your Sri Lanka holiday for monsoon season, you can expect bright blue skies and plenty of sunshine, perfect for exploring tropical forests, historic temples, colonial forts, and many other buildings dating back to Dutch rule. Popular things to do in Sri Lanka include swimming, sailing, and surfing, though a growing number of visitors come here just to eat their way around the country. Greatly influenced by nearby India, the national cuisine also features many elements of European cooking--a result of the Dutch and Portuguese colonial years. Of course, a trip to Sri Lanka would not be complete without a cup of its world-famous Ceylon tea.
Places to Visit in Sri Lanka
Regions of Sri LankaCentral Province
: Featuring some of the highlights of Sri Lanka tourism, including the former royal capital of Kandy and the impressive rock fort of Sigiriya, hilly Central Province attracts visitors with its historical sites, pleasant climate, and abundance of tea plantations.Southern Province
: Known for its long stretches of tourist-friendly coastline, as well as its elephant safari parks and the colonial port of Galle, Southern Province serves as a memorable addition to any Sri Lanka itinerary.Western Province
: Densely populated and packed with beach resorts, Sri Lanka's Western Province is best known for containing the nation's largest city, but also offers a rich array of religious and cultural attractions.
Cities in Sri LankaColombo
: The entry and exit port for most Sri Lanka holidays, chaotic Colombo blends traditional, colonial, and modern architecture across its congested, six-million-strong sprawl.Kandy
: Blessed with a pleasant year-round climate, the World Heritage Site of Kandy sits in the cradle of central Sri Lanka's hill country and attracts visitors with its famous temple and picturesque central lake.Galle
: At the country's southwestern tip, the former Dutch port of Galle revels in lazy beach vibes, with its colonial-era fortress and world-famous test cricket ground considered two of the best attractions in Sri Lanka.Nuwara Eliya
: You won't find anywhere better to escape Sri Lanka's oppressive heat than Nuwara Eliya, the heart of the country's tea production and outdoor tourism industry, surrounded by green hills and waterfalls.
Popular Sri Lanka Tourist AttractionsTemple of the Tooth (Sri Dalada Maligawa)
: Legend has it that one of the Buddha's teeth rests in the vaults of this World Heritage Site, whose ornate adornments, manicured gardens, and lakeside position make it one of the most aesthetically pleasing attractions in Sri Lanka.Adam's Peak
: Rise early to climb the thousands steps leading to this sacred peak--one of Sri Lanka's most important pilgrimage sites--where you can enjoy panoramic views and an incredible triangular shadow cast over the valley at sunrise.Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage
: This orphanage allows you to get up close and personal with rescued elephants living in a semi-natural environment.The Golden Temple
: With an elaborate facade carved into the side of a rock and a giant golden Buddha statue, this cave temple and World Heritage Site features 157 religious statues and countless murals adorning its walls.Royal Botanical Gardens
: An expansive park blooming with colorful, fragrant flowers and boasting several hidden gardens, this botanical complex thoroughly earns its reputation as one of the highlights of tourism in Sri Lanka.Kandy Lake
: Few man-made lakes in the world possess such royal grandeur as this 19 hectare (47 acre) body of water, built in 1807 and serving as a perch for some of the city's best attractions. Sigiriya World Heritage Site
: No Sri Lanka vacation is complete without a visit to this ancient fortress carved into a striking, stand-alone rock, which served as a royal palace for King Kasyapa in the 5th century CE.Little Adam's Peak
: Embark on a light, 45-minute hike to the top of this accessible but scenic summit and you'll be rewarded with panoramic views over Ella and the surrounding tea plantations.Yala National Park
: Spot elephants, wild boar, buffalo, and perhaps even an elusive leopard as you take a safari around this southern national park, one of the icons of Sri Lanka tourism.Galle Fort
: Dutch colonists built this impressive fort--now a World Heritage Site--in the 16th century, but nowadays it's primarily the selection of small independent shops and the views over the Indian Ocean that attract tourists here.
Planning a Sri Lanka Vacation with Kids
Places to Visit in Sri Lanka with Kids
When taking the kids on a trip to Sri Lanka, it's best to stick to the well-trodden tourist path to avoid difficult and uncomfortable conditions. Western Province
offers the best tourist infrastructure in terms of accommodations, restaurants, and roads. Southern Province
and Central Province
are not far behind and serve as suitable alternatives.
Coastal destinations like Galle
offer the little ones a great chance to splash around in warm waters. You can escape to more temperate cities, such as Kandy
or Nuwara Eliya
if the heat gets too much for the kids.
Unfortunately, after several decades of civil war, much of the country's north and east remains impoverished, difficult to access, and ill equipped to cater to kids.
Things to Do in Sri Lanka with Kids
Many of the best child-friendly attractions in Sri Lanka revolve around nature, with the country's native wildlife taking center stage.
Take the little ones to Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage
for a chance to interact with, touch, and wash the majestic elephants. For an opportunity to see elephants--plus a wide range of other animals--in the wild, head to Yala National Park
and let the kids take control of the camera.
Sporty toddlers and teens will love Sri Lanka's obsession with cricket--ask to join in a street game with the locals, or head to one of the country's many stadiums to catch a professional match.
Tips for a Family Vacation in Sri Lanka
While using the local public transport adds an element of adventure to any Sri Lanka vacation, you might want to give overcrowded trains and erratic buses a miss if traveling as a family.
Instead, look to hire a driver--for an affordable price, you can find a chauffeur to navigate the country's chaotic traffic and keep your family safe.
Access to a private car also gives you the flexibility to easily get to attractions difficult to reach with public transport, such as Sigiriya World Heritage Site
and Yala National Park
Consider eating at tourist-friendly restaurants that offer Western options if your child has trouble dealing with spicy foods, and don't forget to pack plenty of sunscreen and insect repellent when planning a family holiday in Sri Lanka.
Dining and Shopping on Holiday in Sri Lanka
Cuisine of Sri Lanka
Fragrant, flavorsome, and hot--traditional Sri Lankan food is famously delicious, but not for the faint of heart, or those with sensitive stomachs.
National dishes typically feature lentils, rice, chili, aromatic spices, and a diverse range of other ingredients combined to create tasty curries and deep fried snacks.
In coastal areas, such as Galle
, you can taste the most typical Sri Lankan specialties--curries made using fish and various seafood.
No visit to Sri Lanka is complete without trying egg hoppers--a breakfast consisting of a thin, bowl-shaped pancake containing a fried egg--or string hoppers, a noodle-like dish often combined with a coconut-infused curry.
Shopping in Sri Lanka
One of the most satisfying aspects of a Sri Lanka vacation is the opportunity to enjoy the smells, taste the local specialties, and haggle as you shop in open-air markets.
Visit flea markets, such as Pettah
in Colombo, and you'll find a colorful range of Sri Lankan specialty items, such as silks shawls, saris, and sarongs.
If you're looking for Western-style goods, head to Odel
, Colombo's best-known department store, where you can find big-name brands at reasonable prices.
A Sri Lanka holiday also offers a great opportunity to buy tailored suits and precious stones--especially locally mined sapphires--at a fraction of the price offered by Western retailers.
Know Before You Go on a Trip to Sri Lanka
Interesting Facts About Sri Lanka
● Until 1972, the island nation was known as Ceylon
● Despite its relatively small size and population, Sri Lanka exports more tea than any other country in the world
● Sri Lanka was the first democracy to elect a female head of state--Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1960
● Sri Lankan cricketer Muttiah Muralitharan holds the world record for test wickets, with 800--nearly 100 more than his nearest rival
Things You Should NOT Do in Sri Lanka
As a foreign visitor, you'll be greeted warmly by locals on your trip to Sri Lanka, which makes it all the more important to understand and respect what is and isn't acceptable in the local culture.
The country remains socially conservative, with traditional gender roles very much the norm, so make sure you address members of the opposite sex with respect and modesty.
By the same token, it's important to dress appropriately. T-shirts and shorts are fine, but revealing swimwear for women and tank tops for men can attract unwanted attention.
You should avoid discussing politics and the civil war--which only ended in 2009--during your Sri Lanka vacation, as the conflict remains a fresh and painful memory in many people's minds.
Holidays & Festivals in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka's mix of Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, and Hindu faiths means that different communities celebrate different religious festivals, combining for a remarkable 25 public holidays per year.
The most common of these are Buddhist "poyas" (full moon days), on which believers make donations to their local temple and spend the day concentrating on their faith.
If you head to Northern Province
on your Sri Lanka holiday, you'll meet large communities of Hindu Tamils, who celebrate several religious festivals in January and February.
Globally recognized festivals, such as Easter and Ramadan, are celebrated by the country's Christian and Muslim minorities respectively.
Useful Sri Lanka Travel Tips
Common Greetings in Sri Lanka
In keeping with the country's air of social modesty, greetings between people of different genders and ages should always be respectful.
During your visit to Sri Lanka, you shouldn't hug or offer a kiss on the cheek to someone you've just met. Instead, a polite handshake and a friendly smile will suffice. Placing your hands together in a prayer-like position and bowing your head also serves as a respectful way to introduce yourself.
Try saying "ayubowan" (hello) in Sinhala, the most widely spoken language in the country's south and central regions.
Climate of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka's tropical climate ensures the weather stays hot and humid across the country throughout the year. Western Province
and Southern Province
experience by far the most rainfall in the country, with the majority of precipitation falling in the monsoon season between May and September.
Yearly average temperatures hover above 30 C (86 F) in the hotter, drier Northern Province
, while the cooler hill country around Nuwara Eliya
enjoys a much more temperate year-round average of 16 C (61 F).
For a comprehensive Sri Lanka itinerary focusing on the tourist-friendly areas in the southwest, you'll get optimal conditions between December and March.
Transportation in Sri Lanka
Most of Sri Lanka's public transport network centers around Colombo
, with an abundance of flights, buses, and trains originating from the largest city.
The country's poorly maintained road network means that getting around by bus on a Sri Lanka holiday takes far longer than you'd expect from looking at a map, and the often erratic driving of the locals creates some hairy moments along the way.
Trains serve as a scenic and cost-effective way to get between cities, but can be horrendously slow, hot, and overcrowded. You'll have a far more comfortable and flexible Sri Lanka vacation if you forego public transportation and instead hire a driver to take you from place to place.
Tipping in Sri Lanka
As there's no ingrained set of rules or fixed expectations from locals, you can tip at your own discretion during your trip to Sri Lanka.
If you're particularly happy with a meal or the service from a taxi driver, round up to the nearest 50 or 100 rupees to show your appreciation. Private drivers or guides who deal regularly with tourists usually expect tips of around 500 rupees per day. It's also polite to offer a small tip to hotel staff.