Sri Lanka Travel Guide

The ‘Teardrop of India’, is an island of extreme natural and cultural beauty and a popular place for a bit of winter sun. The people are warm and friendly, the food’s very tasty and there’s a wide range of accommodation from luxury resorts through to budget hostels.

Sri Lanka is home to no fewer than seven UNESCO World Heritage sites, so it’s a destination where you can choose between exploring wonderful hill stations, cities and temples or simply kicking back on the island’s stunning beaches.

Getting there and around Sri Lanka

There are plenty of direct flights from the UK to the capital Colombo from London or Manchester.

Once there, the buses are cheap, plentiful and always overcrowded, but they’re not for the fainthearted as the drivers don’t hang around for anyone. The trains are slower but more comfortable. You’ll also find no shortage of taxis and auto-rickshaws, but make sure you agree on a fare before you get in. Ask at your hotel if you need a rough idea of the fare you should be paying. Be aware that there is extensive damage to buildings and other infrastructure along the country’s eastern and southern coasts, and to the south-western coast south of Kalutara following the 2004 tsunami.

Beaches in Sri Lanka

There are hundreds of miles of stunning sandy beaches dotted around the island and the swimming’s good at any number of beaches along the south west coast. Negombo, around 25 miles north of the capital, Colombo, is a nice sandy beach sprinkled with ruins of churches and a fort. Ambalangoda is a sleepy place with a quiet beach, perfect for unwinding. The town’s also famous for mask-carving.

If you enjoy your water sports, then there’s excellent scuba diving, snorkelling and surfing at Hikkaduwa, which is also regarded by many as one of the country’s prettiest beaches. The nearby reef is home to lots of interesting aquatic life, including turtles. Unawatuna’s also very good for snorkelling and sailing, windsurfing and waterskiing can be enjoyed on the Bentota River.

Sightseeing in Sri Lanka

Kandy, the laid-back capital of the hill country, is definitely worth a visit. It’s built around a peaceful lake and set in a picturesque bowl of hills where you’ll find one of the country’s most visited temples. Dalada Maligawa (The Temple Of The Tooth) houses Sri Lanka’s most important relic – the sacred tooth of Buddha. The capital Colombo, a noisy, frenetic, modern city is also worth a short visit. It’s a colourful place where you can really see what makes Sri Lanka tick.

Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa are important ancient cities. Nuwara Eliya was the favourite hill station of the British Raj. A blend of Tudor and Georgian architecture, gabled roofs, immaculate lawns with rose bushes and moss-covered gravestones, its Hill Club is a wonderful place to soak up a bit of the quaint colonial atmosphere.

Family activities in Sri Lanka

For wildlife-loving families, there’s lots to see and do in Sri Lanka. Animal life is everywhere and the island is also an important seasonal home to migrating birds, including flamingoes. Yala West is one of the few Sri Lankan national parks still open to tourists. It covers almost 1,000sq km of scrub, lagoons and rocky outcrops in the country’s south east and is a particularly good place to see elephants.

There are also leopards, bears, deer, crocodiles, wild boar, monkeys, buffalo and wild peacocks. It’s best to hire a jeep and driver in Tissamaharama and be in place near a waterhole at dawn or dusk.

Nearby Bundala National Park is Sri Lanka’s best spot for birdwatching. Yala West is closed in September and usually part of August and October too. At Dehiwala Zoo, there’s an elephant show every afternoon. There’s also the famous Pinnawela elephant orphanage, where you can see the gorgeous baby elephants being fed and watered daily.

Day trips in Sri Lanka

If you tire of the beach then head inland for lots of interesting activities and sights. Hiking fans should try climbing Adam’s Peak or walking across the strange silent plateau of Horton Plains near Nuwara Eliya to see the 700m (2,296ft) drop at World’s End.

Sri Lanka’s classical architecture, sculpture and painting is predominantly Buddhist and Stupas, domed Buddhist shrines, are found all over the countryside. There are several extravagantly large Buddha sculptures, notably at Aukana and Buduruvagala. The spectacular Sigiriya is an impregnable fortress, a monastic retreat, and a rock art gallery. Built in the fifth century to fend off a feared invasion, it is situated atop a 200m (656ft) high rock, with water gardens, fifth-century rock paintings of well-endowed damsels, a couple of enormous stone lion paws and tremendous views.

Eating out in Sri Lanka

Rice and curry are the main staples of the Sri Lankan diet and they’re often accompanied by vegetables, meat and fish. Dishes can be extremely hot and spicy so if you’re not sure what your stomach can withstand, ask for the heat to be turned down slightly. Indian curries such as thali (a whole vegetarian meal served in small dishes on a tray) delicately flavoured biriyani and kool, a boiled, fried and dried-in-the-sun vegetable combo, are also available.

Hoppers are a unique Sri Lankan snack, similar to a pancake, served with egg or honey and yoghurt. Many of the big resort hotels will have an international menu if you’re missing some more familiar food and the seafood found in the coastal town restaurants have excellent fish.

Nightlife in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s not the best destination for those who enjoy a bit of quality nightlife. The cinema, where many English-language films are shown, is very popular and theatres hold regular musical and traditional dance performances in Colombo and Kandy.

Hikkaduwa, the island’s most developed beach resort has a range of good restaurants and pleasant cafe-lined beaches and all in all, this is a place where a cocktail at sunset is about as raucous as it gets in the evening.

Shopping in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is known for its gems and Ratnapura is the centre of the trade. You definitely can get a bargain if you know what you’re doing but you need to be very careful if you’re new to the industry.

You’ll see intricately carved masks all over the country, but Ambalangoda is the best place to buy them. In Colombo don’t miss the pungent Pettah bazaar district where you can marvel at the riot of goods – fruit, vegetables, meat, gems, gold, silver, brass and tin junk. Kandy is an exciting place for shopping with souvenirs in wood, copper, silver, brass, ebony and bronze. You’ll also find ceramics, lacquer work, handlooms, batiks, jewellery and rush and reed.

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