Lay of the Land
Colombo: Most will treat the commercial capital and largest city of Sri Lanka as a fly-over, but many should consider spending a night here at the beginning of a trip to settle into the new time zone and the heat. While Colombo is not an attractive city and seems to be always clogged with traffic, there are a few nice shops and good restaurants worth exploring. The best hotel in town is the intimate Uga Residence, while the terrific Wallawwa, a twenty-minute drive from the airport, is highly recommend for the beginning or ending of a touring-heavy itinerary.
Galle Fort: Located at the southwestern tip of Sri Lanka, this port town is famous for its historic Dutch (and some British) architecture, including stone ramparts surrounding a quaint village. Today, Galle Fort is predominantly Arab and holds such hotels as Amangalla and Fort Bazaar. It’s pretty touristy, but makes a nice entry into Sri Lanka thanks to its small shops, local restaurants and very scenic location on the Indian Ocean. Most people end their Sri Lanka trip in Galle but starting an itinerary here also makes sense.
Southern Coast: Palm-fringed, hot and with expansive views of the Indian Ocean, the southern coast is one of the most developed tourist areas in Sri Lanka and has most the high-end resorts: Cape Weligama, Amanwella and the Anantara, as well as such boutique gems as The Owl and the Pussycat. However, know that the sea down there can be extremely rough, so none of the hotels actually have great swimming beaches. A well-known beach here is Mirissa, which has a photogenic white-sand cove but very little in terms of amenities (most happy are the backpackers who come in droves).
Hill/Tea Country: This is the former stronghold of the British who turned Sri Lanka into one of the world’s biggest tea producers. There is not one single town that holds it together: famous areas are around Nuwara Eliya (pronounced Nurelia), Ella (backpacker’s paradise) and Hatton, home to acclaimed country hotel Tea Trails. It’s not easy to get to: roads are windy and often single-lane, so driving here takes time, but it’s absolutely worth it. (Cinnamon Air also has scheduled flights into Nuwara Eliya.) The region is a photographer’s dream, and the high elevation means temperatures are cooler than in the rest of this tropical island.
Cultural Triangle: This is the home of Sri Lanka’s most well-known sights, including Sigiriya Rock Fortress; the ancients cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa; and the Dambulla Rock Temple. Its southern tip is made up of Kandy, the last royal capital of Sri Lanka before the British took over. Kandy is meaningful to Sri Lankans as it has the temple that houses Buddha’s tooth. It has a gem of a hotel (Kandy House), and most will spend a night here en route to or from the Cultural Triangle.
East Coast: The east coast, which was firmly off limits during the civil war and hard-hit during the tsunami, is slowly being revitalized. Running from south to north, the most well-known areas are Arugam Bay, a world-famous surf spot in the southeast; Batticaloa, with its sizeable lagoon; and Trincomalee, a bustling town. The latter is the gateway to the East Coast’s next generation of resort areas around the sleepy seaside towns of Nilaveli and Kuchaveli (home of Jungle Beach Resort).
When to Go
Generally speaking, high seasons runs from December through February, and the shoulder months of November and March are also lovely.
But it’s tricky. The island has two monsoon and two inter-monsoon seasons, so no matter how you plot an itinerary, chances are it will rain at some point. That said, monsoons in Sri Lanka mostly mean a heavy rain in the morning and evening, and nice weather in between, so it doesn’t interfere too much with sight-seeing. Heat is another story: parts of the island are very humid and hot, especially the “dry zone” home to most of the cultural sights (Cultural Triangle).
During high season, the main sights (which are still limited to a circuit that most everyone follows) can be mobbed, so to escape the crowds, it’s best to come in April or May. However, the heat can be extreme during this time.
Ultimately what month you plan a trip should depend greatly on how you’re pulling together your itinerary and what your personal pain-points are; contact Indagare’s Bookings Team to speak to our Sri Lanka specialists.
There are no non-stop flights from the U.S. to Sri Lanka. The easiest way to get there from the East Coast is to fly to Dubai, Doha or Abu Dhabi and connect to the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo from there. From these Middle Eastern cities, the flight to Colombo takes about 4h30min.
U.S. visitors require a visa, which can be obtained upon arrival at Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport or in advance online. The latter is preferable, as it’s an easy application process that simplifies your arrival. Fill in the online form, pay $30 and you will be sent an approval notice via email. Print this form to have as back-up but don’t panic if you forget it: Colombo’s immigration officers can also access the so-called ETAs on their computer.
Hiring a car and driver is crucial for a successful trip. Self-driving is legal, but traffic is on the left (a leftover from the British), many roads are meandering country lanes (some unpaved and one-ways), and cars share the streets with tuktuks, motorbikes, bicycles and occasional animals like water buffalo, cows or even elephants. In short, self-driving adds an unnecessary amount of stress that can easily be avoided by having a driver.
- Cash is king in Sri Lanka, and large bills are often not accepted. Most useful are 1,000 and 100 rupee bills.
- Sri Lanka has more national holidays than any other country in the world, including a monthly full-moon (poya) day when all businesses shut.
- When touring in the Cultural Triangle, bring an extra sarong or wrap: Buddhist temples require you to cover your shoulders and knees before entering. You also have to remove your shoes, so a pair of socks is a good idea to avoid the often scorching-hot stones in front of the temples or around the stupas, especially in Anuradhapura.
- Assume that most everyone is paid super low wages, especially at your hotels, so tip generously.
- Bring a more thoughtfully stocked medical/toiletry kit than you normally would: outside of Colombo, even some basic things (tampons, for example) are difficult to find.
- Try to pack light as there are weigh limit on luggage on domestic flights. All hotels offer laundry service; at Tea Trails, it is even included in the rate.
- Sri Lanka is an extremely friendly place but it’s important to be respectful of the locals’ privacy when it comes to taking photographs, especially of children, the tea pickers in Hill Country and the stilt fishermen of the southern coast. Always ask before snapping away.