Sri Lanka sits like a pearl in the Indian Ocean, waiting for you to unveil her astonishing landscapes and rich culture and connect with her gracious, smiling people. From pristine beaches to soaring mountain ranges, verdant green tea plantations to ancient cities and national parks teeming with elephants, Sri Lanka is sure to please the curious traveler.
Many people ask the question: “Is Sri Lanka safe for travel?” Sri Lanka is largely safe to travel to, but as with all travel destinations, it is wise to check your country’s travel advisories.
To give some background, in 2009 Sri Lanka emerged from a 26-year brutal civil war between its Sinhalese and Tamil communities. Slowly tourism returned and blossomed such that Sri Lanka has become a much talked-about and enviable destination. Unfortunately, the Sri Lankan government has had to call a state of emergency in the last few years, as of the deadly terrorist attack of April 2019. But once again, tourism is on the rise.
The best way to get to Sri Lanka is to fly. Flights run regularly to Sri Lanka’s international airport, Bandaranaike International Airport in Katunayake, just north of Colombo.
Sri Lanka Travel Tip: It is mandatory to apply for a 30-day tourist visa, which costs $20 USD, before arriving in Sri Lanka. You will be asked to present the visa upon arrival.
7 Things To See And Do In Sri Lanka
You could spend months exploring Sri Lanka. What follows is a tantalizing taste of what this island has to offer.
1. Enjoy The Pristine Beaches
The island of Sri Lanka is fringed with enticing beaches. A visit to Sri Lanka is not complete without some precious time spent on a golden sand beach.
Mirissa Beach on the south coast is a sandy, expansive delight. Enjoy swimming, surfing, or relaxing under the palm trees. Mirissa is the whale watching capital of Sri Lanka, so hop on a boat tour during the whale season, which runs from November to April.
Arugam Bay on the east coast of Sri Lanka is a surfers’ paradise. Head to the palm-fringed beach to rejuvenate, catch a giant wave, or watch the fishermen tend to their nets. The small, laid-back town is the perfect location to unwind and experience daily life in Sri Lanka.
2. Go On Safari In A National Park
Visiting one of Sri Lanka’s national parks is the ideal way to see elephants, leopards, buffalo, various species of monkeys, and stunning tropical birds. Taking a jeep safari is the only way to visit the parks. The national park entrance fee should be included with your safari. Safari rates vary depending on the length of the trip and whether there is a driver or a driver and a tracker.
Yala National Park: The possibility of seeing a leopard is a big draw for this national park. Elephants, various monkey types, deer, crocodiles, and hundreds of bird species make a day-long safari here unforgettable.
Udawalawe National Park: This national park brims with natural flora and fauna. Seeing elephants and monkeys is a sure bet.
Minneriya National Park: In August, the annual gathering of the elephants in Minneriya National Park is a sight to behold. From 200 to 500 elephants make their way to Minneriya to feast on the fresh grass.
3. Take A Stunning Sri Lankan Train Ride
The seven-hour train journey from Kandy to Ella is said to be one of the most stunning in the world. Drink up the unbelievable views of endless mountainscapes, pine forests, and terraced tea plantations in all shades of verdant green.
Trains in Sri Lanka are crowded, so there is a good possibility you will end up standing. Book ahead and reserve a seat in the first-class observation car. You can’t reserve seats online, but this site explains how to reserve seats.
If you are not up for this lengthy train journey, shorter parts of the route are also enchanting.
4. Wander Through A Verdant Tea Plantation
Walk through a terraced tea plantation and watch the hard work of the people picking leaves from the bushes and gathering them into baskets which are then weighed. You are guaranteed to appreciate every cup of tea that you drink in the future.
5. Cycle Through The Ancient City Of Polonnaruwa
About 800 years ago, Polonnaruwa was a thriving royal city. Rent a bicycle and cycle through this UNESCO World Heritage Site, past ruins of the ancient royal palace, the marketplace and Buddhas. Stand in awe of Gal Vihara, the temple with four Buddhas, two sitting, one standing, and the most famous enormous reclining Buddha carved into the granite rock face.
6. Climb Sigiriya
Sigiriya, one of the eight World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka, is an ancient palace and rock fortress that stands about 650 feet high. Famous for its pre-Christian frescoes, the lion that greets you part way up, the oldest landscaped gardens in the world, and the long climb to get to the top, Sigiriya is one of the most popular destinations in the country. There are 1,200 steps to the top of the rock and it can get very hot and crowded. Bring water.
Tip: Nearby are the Dambulla Caves with ancient cave paintings that are well worth a visit.
7. Experience The Hill Town Of Ella
Ella claims to be everyone’s favorite hill town in Sri Lanka. Hike Little Adam’s Peak for gorgeous views, find the Nine Arch Bridge to watch the trains pass by, and visit the 2,000-year-old Dowa Temple just outside of town.
What To Eat In Sri Lanka
What makes Sri Lankan cuisine so delicious? It’s the flavors and aromas of hand-roasted, ground spices. It’s the care and attention paid to creating each dish for the table banquet. Eating in Sri Lanka is a feast for the senses.
Rice And Curry
Rice and curry are the mainstays of Sri Lankan cuisine. At mealtime, the table is reminiscent of an actual banquet covered with bowls of various curries and sauces to devour. The flavors and levels of heat vary widely but common curries are vegetable, jackfruit, fish, and chicken. The sauces, created from coconut milk infused with spices, are divine.
Don’t be surprised to see a variety of sambols on the dinner table. Each sambol with its unique flavor is meant to be stirred into the curry to add a bit of flavor and/or heat. My favorite is the coconut sambol (pol sambol) with freshly grated coconut, chilies, and Maldive fish.
When you see appa or appam on the menu, it’s hoppers. Think of a crepe in the shape of a bowl. Crispy at the outside edges, the crepe is softer at the base of the bowl. Hoppers are served at breakfast to dip into your dal (lentils) and curry. Egg hoppers are served with an egg cooked into the base of the bowl.
Hoppers can also be a dessert served with curd (fresh buffalo yogurt) and honey.
String hoppers are also served alongside curries for dipping. Made from rice flour, these hoppers resemble little nests of noodles.
Sri Lankans mostly eat with their hands, so if you eat in a local restaurant, watch and learn. No one will mind if you ask for cutlery, but dipping hoppers into dal and eating with your fingers is quite the experience. There is always a sink for washing your hands.
Where To Stay In Sri Lanka
I was traveling through Sri Lanka on a budget and found that local guesthouses, though not by any means luxurious, were adequate. The food, served so proudly, was always outstanding. That being said, there are none that stood out as exceptional.
Listed below are four hotels highly recommended by friends who have stayed in them.
Saman Villas, a four-star boutique hotel near Galle, boasts amazing views over the Indian Ocean, stunning beaches, exquisite food, and outstanding service.
Mamma Shanti, located near Ella, provides the most memorable of experiences. A chance to slow down right in the midst of nature, breathe, and practice yoga, if you choose to.
Pepper Jungle House
Pepper Jungle House is a three-bedroom, private jungle villa located near Galle. Enjoy the serenity and deluxe views (monkeys included) while only a short distance from Galle and stunning beaches.
Madulkelle Tea and Eco Lodge
Madulkelle Tea and Eco Lodge is tucked away on a tea plantation with astonishing views of the Knuckles Mountain Range. This lodge also provides an unforgettable experience.
Sri Lanka is the trip of a lifetime. The locals will tell you that the heartbeat of the country is found in Kandy. I was told by a bus driver, “Kandy is the people’s heart.” Make your way to Kandy and visit the Temple of the Tooth, which is believed to house one of Buddha’s teeth.
Sri Lanka will leave its mark on you with unforgettable moments and experiences that will linger in your soul for years to come.
Sri Lanka made it on our list of 27 top under-the-radar destinations for 2020. Consider the others, too!