Sri Lanka, officially the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, is an independent island in the Indian Ocean, to the southwest of the Bay of Bengal.
Together with India, Nepal, and the Maldives, Sri Lanka is considered to be part of South Asia. India is the closest country to Sri Lanka with the shortest distance between the borders of India and Sri Lanka being about 18 miles long, which is almost the distance that can be covered in a rowboat.
|Name of the country||The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (since 1948)||Abbreviation||Sri Lanka|
|Capital||Colombo (commercial), Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte (administrative)||Continent||Southern Asia|
|Population||21.67 million (2018). Source: the World Bank||Area||65,610 sq. km. (25,332 sq. miles)|
|Major language||Burmese, minority languages||Major religions||Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity|
|Major cities||Sinhala, Tamil, English||Currency||Sri Lankan rupee (approx. 1 USD = 181 LKR, February 2020)|
|President||Gotabaya Rajapaksa||Famous figures||Mahinda Rajapaksa (the sixth president of Sri Lanka); Michael Ondaatje (novelist)|
|Time Zone||GMT+5:30||International call code||+94|
Shape and Size of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is a teardrop-shaped island, which is easy to see on a map. That"s why it is also called the teardrop of the Indian Ocean.
Sri Lanka occupies 25,330 square miles, making it only slightly larger than the US state of West Virginia. But more than 21.6 million people live in Sri Lanka, which is 10 times the population of West Virginia.
Sri Lanka is a mere island but has a precious amalgam of culture, history, architecture, cuisine, and nature’s bounty. That’s why Sri Lanka has achieved “so much with so little” — abundant tourism resources including UNESCO World Heritage Sites (eight of them) are packed into such a small area.
Landscape of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has an irregular surface with low-lying coastal plains running inland from the northern and eastern shores. The central and southern areas slope into the hills and mountain ranges of the highlands. The highest peak is Pidurutalagala, which reaches an altitude of 2,524 meters (8,281 feet). The lowest point is at sea level.
Ecologically, the country is divided into a wet zone that stretches across the south, west, and central regions, and a dry zone that stretches from the north to the southeast.
If you travel either from the north to south or east to west of Sri Lanka, you will observe many different landscapes within a couple of days, passing through dense rain forest, stirring hills, boundless savannah, colonial towns, lush tea plantations, vast plains, and scenic beaches.
Sri Lanka has no shortage of beautiful awe-inspiring spots, wildlife, and historic and cultural attractions, each of which is more picture-perfect than the next. They range from soulful Buddhist monasteries and temples to exotic and impeccable spots that are rarely explored.
Main Cities in Sri Lanka
The country comprises nine provinces (from south to north): Southern (provincial capital Galle), Sabaragamuwa (Ratnapura), Western (Colombo), Uva (Badulla), Eastern (Trincomalee), Central (Kandy), North Western (Kurunegala), North Central (Anuradhapura), and Northern (Jaffna). The main cities are dotted in Western and Central provinces.
Kandy is a major city in Sri Lanka that’s located in Central Province. It was the last capital of the ancient kings" era of Sri Lanka and called the sacred city of Lankadeepa. As it was conquered by the British around 1815, you can still see the living traditions of this era.
Kandy is home to famous attractions, such as the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (Sri Dalada Maligawa), which is the most important Buddhist shrine in the world, housing one of the real teeth of the Buddha. It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988.
Except for historical and cultural sites, it is also just a beautiful city with colorful vegetation, beautiful hills, clear lakes, and awe-inspiring waterfalls.
You may have heard that the city is renowned for the great Kandy Esala Perahera festival (held annually in July/August) but its vibrant cultural lifestyle and attractions more than justify a visit at any time of year.
Colombo is the financial and commercial capital of Sri Lanka and the place where most travelers will begin their Sri Lankan adventures.
In this charming city, you will find not only a comfortable blend of East and West but also a mixture of the past and present. Just walking or taking a tuk tuk around the streets of Colombo is a unique experience by itself that will offer you a taste of the hustle and bustle of city life.
Activities range from visiting colorful temples and laying on the beach to going shopping, drinking Ceylon tea, visiting the local markets, and falling in love with the pretty colonial buildings.
Colombo offers a rich selection of accommodation, from rustic beachfront cottages to lavish colonial mansions and stunning hotels.
It’s also a paradise for foodies and shoppers with tons of delicious street food to eat, exquisite boutiques that feature international brands, and charming shops that offer colorful local art, textured fabrics, and fragrant flavored teas.
Anuradhapura is one of the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka, famous for its well-preserved ruins of an ancient Sinhala civilization. It was the third capital of the kingdom of Rajarata, following the kingdoms of Tambapanni and Upatissa Nuwara.
The historic city of Anuradhapura is one of eight World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Along with the ruins of Polonnaruwa, the rock citadel of Sigiriya, and the sacred city of Kandy, they comprise the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka.
This region shouldn’t be skipped, especially if it’s your first time in Sri Lanka. The culture and heritage have been preserved fairly impeccably and it is an amazing exhibit of the rich history of Sri Lanka.
4. Nuwara Eliya
Nuwara Eliya means "city of light". It is located at an altitude of 1,868 meters (6,129 feet), which is the highest point in Sri Lanka, and is regarded as the garden city of Asia. It features emerald green tea leaves, cascading waterfalls, and quaint colonial buildings that make you feel like you are in England. That’s why Nuwara Eliya is sometimes called “Little England”.
Nuwara Eliya is most famous for its breathtaking views of valleys, meadows, mountains, and greenery. There, you can visit the lovely Victoria Park and impressive St. Clair"s Falls, hike in Horton Plains National Park to see the World"s End, enjoy a relaxing walk or boat ride around Gregory Lake, and visit one of the tea plantations and factories to taste the best local tea and learn about the process of making tea.
Galle is the capital city of Southern Province in Sri Lanka. For hundreds of years, it was an important trading post and a busy maritime port where trade between the East and West thrived. Its rich history of invasions and occupations has left a cultural texture that’s unique, colorful, and one of a kind.
The city consists of an old part and a new part — and both are worthy of exploration. Galle Fort in the old town is a living monument to its history and it is within its walls that travelers and locals alike are most enthralled.
Galle Fort was originally built by the Dutch in 1663. Although it looks old on the facade, it is still a working community with administrative offices, courts, cafés, companies, shops, restaurants, hotels, and so on. While tourism is slowly taking over as the city"s main business, everyday life in the fort makes the experience more authentic and interesting for travelers.
Visiting Sri Lanka
There are so many incredible things to do in Sri Lanka, making it well-suited to all kinds of travelers. For your first visit to Sri Lanka, 8 days is usually sufficient to explore its beauty and essential sites.
Most visitors to Sri Lanka start their journey by arriving in Colombo, then drive to the closest town from the airport – Negombo – and spend the night there. Negombo is a bustling beach town that boasts a long stretch of beautiful beach.
Next, you can venture back in time and explore the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka — Sigiriya (1 day), Polonnaruwa (1 day), and Kandy (2 days). After that, take a train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya — it’s considered to be one of the most beautiful train trips in the world.
This train ride is about 4 hours long and takes you through stunning landscapes of lush green tea plantations and mountain views. Spend 1 or 2 nights in Nuwara Eliya to enjoy the beautiful green scenery and experience its tea culture.
Then head to Bentota. It offers a pristine beachside experience in southwestern Sri Lanka and most travelers prefer to spend at least 2 nights there to relax. You will also have the chance to visit a turtle hatchery where you can see different species of turtles and discover how the locals protect them.
Finally, treat yourself to the capital city, Colombo, for 2 days before flying back home.
See our guide on planning a first-time trip to Sri Lanka.
Getting to Sri Lanka
The most popular gateway city for Sri Lanka is Colombo, accessible by flight from eastern or southeastern Asian countries, such as China (Hong Kong, Shanghai, or Guangzhou), Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur), Singapore, or Thailand (Bangkok).
There are regular nonstop flights with SriLankan Airlines to various places in India, including Delhi and Mumbai, the Maldives, and the Seychelles. There are no direct flights to Sri Lanka from the US, the UK, Canada, or Europe. The airfare varies with the season and you may find cheap flights in the shoulder months of May and November.
Tourist visas for Sri Lanka can be obtained via the online platform from the official government website (www.eta.gov.lk) or one of the Sri Lankan diplomatic missions. Citizens of the Maldives, the Seychelles, and Singapore may obtain a visa on arrival to Sri Lanka at any port of entry without charge. Read more about applying for a Sri Lanka visa.
See more information on How to Get to Sri Lanka.
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