How to Plan a trip to Sri Lanka

How to Plan a trip to Sri Lanka

By Candice SongUpdated Sep. 24, 2021

Sri Lanka is the hidden gem of Asia with the cultural diversity of India, the stunning beaches like Trincomalee and beautiful heritage sites like the Sigiriya Rock Fortress.

Recently listed as one of the top places to visit in the world by the Lonely Planet, this up-and-coming destination is expected to start getting busier in the coming years. But for now, Sri Lanka is still relatively undiscovered and is one of the best places to go if you are looking for authentic travel and unique experiences.

We recommend visiting Sri Lanka for around 10 days to get the most out of your travel experience there. On a 10 day journey, travelers can experience major cities like Colombo and Kandy while also exploring UNESCO World Heritage sites like the Galle Fort and Yala National Park.

Keep reading to learn more about how to plan your trip to Sri Lanka.

4 Reasons to Visit Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a rising star in the travel world and there are many reasons behind why this small country is earning so much love from its visitors.

1. Wildlife and Biodiversity

Sri Lanka is one of the top places for biodiversity in the world. If you want to visit a country full of national parks where you have the chance to see rare animals such as spotted leopards and wild elephants, then this is the place. At Yala National Park, visitors can catch a glimpse of wild leopards and at Uda Walawe travelers can spot wild elephants.

Besides an incredible amount of wildlife, Sri Lanka is also full of untouched natural beauty from white-sand beaches to dense jungles and rolling hills. Our favorite way to experience the beauty of this country is to relax in tea country at Nurwara Eliya, take a train from Kandy through the tea plantations, or trek up Adam’s Peak.

2. Cultural Heritage and Monuments

Sri Lanka is full of incredible monuments and contains 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Explore ancient Sri Lanka by visiting the ruins of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa or climb the stairs to see the palace at Sigiriya.

Experience the colonial heritage of the country by visiting Galle, the 17th-century Dutch fort or explore the country"s Buddhist history at the Sacred Temple of the Tooth in Kandy.

3. Picturesque Beaches

Sri Lanka is ringed by beautiful white sand beaches most of which are unspoiled by tourism. This is the perfect place for travelers who want a beach vacation without the crowds. Some of the best beaches to visit in the country include Bentota, Untawatuna, ad Mirissa.

With white sand, leaning palm trees, clean water, and a vibrant ocean ecosystem there is no better place to relax than on a beach in Sri Lanka. We aren"t exaggerating when we say that almost every beach in the country looks like it came from a postcard. Mount Lavinia beach is a great place to visit for diving and snorkeling.

4. Relatively Undiscovered and Unique

If you"re planning a trip to Asia, then you are probably the type of person that likes to try new things and is willing to be different. While Asia is still an exotic and unique destination, some places like Thailand and Vietnam are getting popular and crowded creating a situation where the travel experience there is less authentic. This isn"t the case in Sri Lanka.

While some of Sri Lanka"s cities and beaches have been developed for tourism, the country still offers an abundance of untouched beaches and natural areas to explore. This can be seen in the large amount of land that has been turned into national parks and heritage sites.

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Major Differences Between Sri Lanka and India

Because Sri Lanka and India are so close geographically and culturally, they are often unfairly grouped into the same category by travelers. The truth is that although the two countries have many similarities, they provide very different travel experiences.

Below are some of the major travel differences between Sri Lanka and India.

1. Sri Lanka is an Island

While this is a widely known fact, being an island gives Sri Lanka many travel advantages. The first is that it is smaller and easier for travelers to explore the entire country whereas most travelers find it difficult to see all of India in one trip. 

Sri Lanka also offers a higher concentration of cultural sites in one area whereas in India the sites are often spread out and more difficult to reach.

In Sri Lanka, the most popular travel routes for 10-day trips include visits to Colombo, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, and Galle. Visitors who are interested in ancient monuments can also add on a few days to visit the Sigiriya Rock Fortress and its nearby ruins.

2. Sri Lanka is Cleaner and Less Crowded

 Because India has a high population, when visiting it is common to experience crowded historic sites, pollution, and lack of adequate resources. In India, you’ll find a few beautiful beaches such as those in Goa and Kerala but in other areas of the country they are often a little dirty.

These issues aren"t problems in Sri Lanka where they not only have a much smaller population but also take pride in protecting their natural resources and keeping their country clean. Sri Lanka has an abundance of beautiful clean beaches and well cared for national parks.

3. India is More Hindu while Sri Lanka is more Buddhist and Christian

India is primarily and Hindu and Muslim country and its monuments such as the Taj Mahal and numerous forts will tell the stories of those empires.

In Sri Lanka, visitors will find more historic sites from the Buddhist and Christian faiths such as the Temple of Tooth in Kandy and Adam"s Peak, the location where the first man, Adam, is said to have gone after leaving the garden of Eden.

4. Sri Lanka has more Beautiful Beaches

Because Sri Lanka is an island, it is full of incredible beaches and has plenty of options for beach holidays no matter the season. Sri Lanka"s beaches are also clean and free of pollution unlike many of India"s beaches. In Sri Lanka, oceanside areas are teeming with wildlife, such as sea turtles, that live and nest near the shore.

The West Coast of the island has the beaches that are the most developed for tourism. These beaches have modern resorts, hotels, and guesthouses and stretch from Negombo in the north all the way to Bentota.

The south coast is the best place to go if you are looking for a more serene and peaceful experience. Here you’ll find beaches like Mirissa Beach and Galle which are near colonial towns or surrounded by national parks.

Best Time to Visit Sri Lanka

The weather patterns of Sri Lanka are influenced not only by its location in the Indian Ocean but also by its two monsoon seasons that affect different sides of the island. Because of the country’s complicated weather patterns, the best time to visit Sri Lanka depends on where you want to go.

Because Sri Lanka is located near the equator, the temperature tends to stay around 26 to 30°C all year round. Temperatures are colder at night, especially in the hilly regions where they can get close to freezing. Humidity in Sri Lanka stays high year-round and is typically between 60 and 80%. The high levels of humidity can be uncomfortable for European and North American travelers. 

If you are visiting the most popular regions of the country such as the west, the south coasts, or the hills then the best time to visit Sri Lanka is from December to March. This area of Sri Lanka includes places like Colombo, Kandy, the major beaches, and the tea country.

From December to March, the Maha monsoon hits the northeastern part of the country but leaves the rest dry. Sri Lanka experiences its lowest temperatures in January in February with an average of around 22 °C (72 °F).

If you want to see the east coast or northern regions of the island then May to September is the best time to visit. This part of the country includes famous spots such as the ancient city of Jaffna, the beautiful Trincomalee beach, and Sigiriya Rock Fortress. During these months, the Yala monsoon brings heavy rains to the west and south but leaves the northern sections dry.

During this time, the country experiences an average temperature of around 28°C (82°F).

Travelers should avoid October and November because this is the inter-monsoonal period when heavy rains can take place anywhere on the island.

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Top 5 Places to go in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has so many places to go, that it can be difficult to choose the best route for your holiday. The following destinations are our tried and tested favorites.

Most travelers will start in Colombo which is where the country’s main international airport is located.

1. Kandy

Kandy is the country"s second-largest city after Colombo and one of its top destinations. The reasons why we love Kandy include its interesting history and cultural heritage, the beautiful rolling hills, and its role as the gateway to the hill stations.

Kandy is often called the City of Kings because its protected location helped the city fight off European colonizers and preserve Sri Lankan culture until 1815 when it fell to British rule.

Kandy is home to famous attractions such as the Temple of Tooth, the most important Buddhist shrine in the world that is home to one of the real teeth of Buddha. It is also just a beautiful city were you can experience bustling markets, vibrant gardens, and colonial architecture all with the Kandy Lake as a backdrop. 

2. Colombo

Colombo is the capital city of Sri Lanka and the place where most travelers will begin their journey. While Colombo is a bustling metropolis with shiny skyscrapers and big international hotels, there is still a lot of history and culture to experience here. We especially love the red-brick colonial buildings and large street food scene.

Colombo is the best place to experience the multi-cultural side of Sri Lanka. Here you can find ancient churches, mosques, and temples located on the same streets and the overflowing market sectors such as those in Pettah. 

3. Yala National Park

Sri Lanka is full of world-class nature reserves among which Yala National Park is one of our favorites for its large variety of wildlife and high concentration of wild leopards. If you want to take a safari in Sri Lanka to see these elusive cats, then there is no better place than Yala.

The park has five main zones two of which are open to the public and can be explored in a safari jeep. An experienced guide will lead you through the forests and rugged terrain looking for elephants, buffalo, monkeys, and big cats. 

Currently, visitors cannot spend the night inside the park, but there are plenty of accommodation options including luxury tents available in the surrounding area.

4. Nuwara Eliya

Nuwara Eliya is Sri Lanka"s most famous hill station and sits at an elevation of around 1800 meters in the shadow of Pidurutalagala, the country"s tallest mountain. Nuwara Eliya is sometimes called “Little England” because during colonial times its cool weather made it a popular vacation spot for the British.

Nuwara Eliya is most famous for its sprawling tea plantations and beautiful green scenery. Here you can visit the impressive St. Clair"s Falls, hike the Moon Plains, relax in a colonial-era hotel, and tour scenic tea estates.

5. Galle

Galle is a historic city full of beautiful colonial buildings and winding lanes. Much of the city is located inside the Fort which is a walled structure surrounded by the ocean on three sides. Inside this UNESCO World Heritage Site, visitors will find ancient mosques next to elegant colonial mansions and museums.

One amazing fact about the Fort in Galle is that it is still in use. The Fort contains residences, schools, offices, and companies where people work and spend their time. 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.

Top 5 Things to do in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has something for everyone whether it’s climbing up to the Sigiriya Rock Fortress or taking in the natural beauty of tea plantations and rainforests.

1. Climb Sigiriya Rock Fortress

Often called the Eighth Wonder of the World, Sigiriya Rock Fortress looks like something out of a fairytale. This ancient fort sits atop a large rock that juts up from the surrounding plains and farms. Before climbing the 700 steps it takes to summit the rock, visitors are greeted with two giant lion"s paws carved into the stone.

Once on top, spend time exploring the ruins of the fort built by King Kashyapa around 480 AD and take in the views of the surrounding landscape.

Sigiriya is also conveniently located in Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle which is full of ancient heritage sites that are all located close to one another. One such site is Polonnaruwa, the ancient capital city of Sri Lanka full of temple ruins and ancient Buddhist temples.

2. Take in the Wildlife

Sri Lanka is one of the world"s 34 main hotspots for biodiversity and is full of great wildlife reserves and national parks. This country has always been ahead of everyone else when it comes to respecting nature. The world"s first wildlife sanctuary was created in Sri Lanka in the 300 BC and the protection of the natural environment has been important to the people ever since.

Taking a safari in one of the 14 national parks is a great way to experience the country"s natural side. We love Yala National Park for its high numbers of wild leopards and Uda Walawe National Park for its ethical elephant sanctuary and number of wild elephants.

3. Visit Cultural Heritage Sites

Sri Lanka is full of heritage sites. In the sacred city of Kandy, travelers can explore the Temple of the Tooth which is said to contain a real tooth of the Buddha. Buddhists believe that whoever has control of this tooth has power over the entire Buddhist religion and population.

Anuradhapura is the ancient capital of Ceylon and was built in the 3rd century BC. The ruins of this ancient city were once surrounded by dense jungle, but are now accessible for travelers who want to explore its palaces and monuments.

Adam"s Peak is a mountain standing at over 2000 meters tall located in central Sri Lanka. This beautiful summit is famous for its Sri Pada or "sacred footprint", a large rock formation considered holy in many religions. For Hindus, the footprint belongs to Hanuman or Shiva. Muslims and Christians believe that it is the footprint of Adam, the first man.

4. Spend Time at Tea Plantations 

One of the most beautiful destinations in Sri Lanka is the central highlands or Tea Country. This area is located at a slightly higher elevation and offers comfortable weather and lush green vegetation. Many travelers choose to travel to the tea plantations on one of Sri Lanka’s iconic trains to take in as much of the beautiful scenery as possible. 

Nuwara Eliya is one of the most famous towns in the central highlands and is full of plantations where the tea is picked by hand and processed in house. At the plantations, travelers can learn about the tea making process and try some for themselves.

5. Relax on the Beach

As an island, Sri Lanka is surrounding by beaches. Whether you are looking for a beach full of resorts and restaurants or a quiet spot that is off the beaten track, you can find it here. We particularly love the beaches on the eastern and southern side of the island because many have calm and clear waters and are sheltered by bays.

Trincomalee is a beautiful gold-sand beach that is a popular spot for whale and dolphin watching. While there, make sure to check out the local temples and old Dutch fort. 

Bentota is a coastal town near Galle that offers great hotels and five-star resorts. It is also close to the Kodgoda Turtle Hatchery and offers plenty of options for entertainment and watersports. 

Festivals of Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, there is always a festival being celebrated somewhere whether it is by Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, or Muslims. While many of the festivals celebrated on this island such as Holi, Diwali, and Christmas can be found in other parts of the world. There are also quite a few festivals that are unique to only this country. 

One of the most famous festivals in the country is Kandy"s Escala Peraherawhich takes place over 10 days from late July to early August. This festival is a celebration of the sacred tooth of Buddha that is held at the Temple of Tooth. The festivities include nightly parades of drummers, dancers, acrobats, and elephants.

In Colombo, the biggest festival is Vel. Vel takes place every year in July and is the celebration of the silver chariot of the god Skanda which is paraded through the city. 

Across Sri Lanka every full moon is celebrated as Pova. The most important pova takes place in May and is called Vesak Pova. This is the date of the birth and death of Buddha and is celebrated with religious rituals and illuminated stages that depict the life of Siddhartha Gautama.

Sri Lankan Food

Food in Sri Lanka includes healthy ingredients such as fresh vegetables and seafood that are cooked together with a mixture of spices to make fiery and delicious dishes. Sri Lankan cuisine is known for its liberal use of spicy chili powder and its heat is comparable to Thai food. 

If you are a spicy food lover, then Sri Lanka is your heaven. If you aren"t a fan of spice, then don"t worry too much because it is easy for travelers to order dishes that are less spicy or made for tourists who often have a lower heat tolerance than locals.

Most Sri Lankan meals consist of a curry or gravy dish that is served with a side of rice or bread. Sri Lanka is especially famous for its fresh seafood dishes and hoppers (a pancake-like snack). Make sure to also try kottu rotty, lamprias, pittu, and abundance of tropical fruits while you"re there!

How to Travel to Sri Lanka

The only way to reach Sri Lanka is to travel by air. The country"s main international airport is the Bandaranaike International Airport which is located around 0 minutes from Colombo.

There aren"t any nonstop flights from North America to Sri Lanka. For travelers coming from this region, it will be necessary to catch a direct flight with at least one layover. There is one nonstop flight from London to Colombo which is operated by SriLankan Airlines. Emirates, Qatar Airways, and Etihad all offer direct flights from London to Sri Lanka with a layover in the Gulf region.

From North America, the easiest way to reach Sri Lanka is often to fly to London then catch another flight from Heathrow. It is also possible to reach Sri Lanka from North America by first flying to Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, or the Chinese cities of Shanghai and Guangzhou and then catching a nonstop flight from there. 

From most destinations in North America, reaching Sri Lanka will require traveling for at least 20 hours. 

There are direct flights to Sri Lanka from Australia. There are nonstop flights available from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Perth operated by Air Asia, SriLankan Airlines, and Emirates. Direct flights from Australia to Colombo normally take around 12 hours.

How to Get Around Sri Lanka

Once you"ve landed in Colombo, traveling across this island country is relatively easy and convenient. In general, we recommend traveling by private car. Private cars offer travelers the convenience of being able to go where they want to go in comfort and without unnecessary stops.

Many travelers want to take a rickshaw or train at least once during their trip. Rickshaws are best taken over very short distances and are fun to ride through market streets in Kandy or Colombo. 

Sri Lankan trains are quite slow and dated but offer beautiful views of the countryside. For the best views, we recommend taking the train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya.

By Bus

Sri Lanka has a very connected bus system. It is possible to travel the entire country and reach even the most remote places via bus. The downside of traveling via public bus is that the journey is often uncomfortable and many travelers feel unsafe with frantic driving of the bus drivers.

Riding a bus in Sri Lanka often includes drivers either slamming on the gas or breaks and taking risky turns. Many travelers describe their bus experiences as stressful and nauseating which is why we do not recommend this mode of transport.

By Rickshaw

Taking a rickshaw is a great way to travel over short distances in the city. Riding in one of these tiny vehicles is definitely an experience and a good way to see the city, but we recommend only taking them when you have plenty of time to reach your destination.

Rickshaws often don"t have meters so it is necessary to haggle for the price before agreeing to take one. Be prepared for your driver to weave in and out of traffic and drive pretty fast for such a small vehicle. 

By Train

Traveling by train is the most scenic way to traverse Sri Lanka. It"s a good idea to take one train during your journey if you have enough time. The train system in the country is quite dated and traveling by this method will take much longer than by private car or bus. 

Even so, it is sometimes nice to just relax and take in the views. Because trains are such a slow method of transportation, we recommend taking the line from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya because the journey is only around 4 hours and offers splendid views of the tea plantations. 

By Private Car

Going by private car is often the most comfortable and convenient way to travel from place to place in Sri Lanka. It is also relatively affordable and allows you to travel on your own schedule.

Recently, the country has made major improvements to its road and highway systems making travel by car a quick and convenient way to get around.

Cost of a Private Tailor-Made Tour

Private tailor-made tours offer travelers a way to explore Sri Lanka and see what they want to see without worrying too much about the details. Private tours include the cost of travel via a private car and driver, accommodation, private guides, and two meals a day for the entire trip.

On average, a 10-day private tour of Sri Lanka will cost around USD 3500. Trips that include safaris or luxury resort accommodation may cost more.

How to Get a Visa

Most visitors (except for nationals of Singapore, Maldives, and Seychelles) will need to apply for a visa in order to enter Sri Lanka. The good news is applying for a Sri Lankan tourist visa is easily done online and is very affordable.

At least 3 days before arriving in Sri Lanka, travelers will need to fill out the online ETA application form at www.eta.gov.lk and pay for the visa fee with a valid credit card. The fee is typically between 15 and 35 USD depending on nationality.

If you make a mistake on your visa form, such as filling in the wrong passport number or misspelling your name you can easily fix the error by contacting the 24-hour customer service. If your visa is denied, your money will be refunded in full.

Once you have received your approved ETA, it is necessary to print it out and bring it with you to show to customs upon arrival.

It is also possible for people from North America and many countries in Europe to apply for a Visa on Arrival to Sri Lanka, but this is not recommended as it requires a long wait at immigration and more hassle.

Sri Lanka Travel and Safety Tips

Sri Lanka is a relatively safe place to visit, but it’s still an good idea to keep the following tips in mind during your travels.

  • Like in many other Asian countries, travelers in Sri Lanka should not drink the tap water. Stick to bottled water and try to avoid any food items that could include tap water such as raw vegetables and ice at street stalls.
  • Sri Lanka is a relatively safe country, but there is a possibility of pickpockets in crowded areas. Make sure to store your valuables safely and keep an eye on your belongings at all times.
  • One of the biggest dangers of visiting Sri Lanka is the traffic patterns that are much different than those in Europe or North America. Always be careful when walking near or crossing a street. In Sri Lanka, pedestrians DO NOT have the right of way.
  • It is important to be safe when swimming. Some beaches in Sri Lanka have problems with strong currents and rip tides and many don"t have lifeguards. It"s a good idea to ask your hotel staff or guide about how to stay safe while swimming.

Visit Sri Lanka with Asia Highlights

Want to explore the ancient ruins and beautiful culture of Sri Lanka? At Asia Highlights we can plan your dream Sri Lanka trip complete with a tailor-made itinerary, private guide, and 24-hour customer service.

Why Travel with Asia Highlights

  • Tailor-made experience: All of your ideas/needs will be carefully considered to create your ideal trip.
  • Worry-free planning: Every step of your trip, you will be looked after by your 1:1 travel consultant based in Asia.
  • No-risk booking: We refund as much as we can and adapt flexibly to unexpected changes.

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