Sri Lanka Travel Guide
With a tropical climate, miles of beaches and culture and history at every turn, Sri Lanka is a holidaymaker's dream destination.
What you'll find in this guide:
Getting to Sri Lanka
Getting around Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka's 8 UNESCO Sites
Top things to do in Sri Lanka
Language 101 Sri Lanka
Money in Sri Lanka
What to eat in Sri Lanka
Animals you can see in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is roughly the same size as Ireland and sits to the south-east of India. The island boasts impressive safaris, the best cup of tea you'll ever taste, 8 UNESCO World Heritage sites and warm and wonderful weather.
Compared to the rest of South Asia, Sri Lanka ranks highest on the UN's Human Development Index, which essentially means that the quality of life is good - the majority of the population have access to both healthcare and education.
With the history of tea-growing in Sri Lanka it's not surprising that almost 5% of the population work in the billion-dollar tea industry. Ceylon tea is arguably the most familiar from Sri Lanka and is named after the country itself, which changed its name to Sri Lanka in 1972 when it became a republic.
Perhaps more surprisingly, even though cricket is the most popular sport played in Sri Lanka, volleyball is their official national sport.
Sri Lankan Rupees LKR
Tamil and Sinhala
Type D and G
Money in Sri Lanka
The currency in Sri Lanka is the Sri Lankan rupee, which is a closed currency, meaning that you'll have to change up your money when you get here. Bear in mind Irish and Scottish notes are not accepted.
Change can be hard to come by outside of major cities and towns, so make sure that you carry enough of the smaller denominations, especially if you're shopping at local markets.
In fact make sure you've got enough cash in general – credit cards aren't widely accepted outside of major hotels and local shops, and a lot of restaurants only accept cash.
Credit cards and ATMs
If you do plan on using a credit card it's a good idea to make sure you've told your bank beforehand.
ATMs are a common sight, but it's a good idea to stick to ones in banks or exchange bureaus. These often have better exchange rates for foreign cards and the service fee for using an ATM is slightly cheaper here.
Is haggling acceptable in Sri Lanka?
When it comes to buying things in Sri Lanka, the vendors don't so much have a 'correct price' but more of a 'best price' approach. Of course it's up to you but vendors expect a bit of haggling so if you're up for negotiation, give it a try!
Do you need to tip in Sri Lanka?
Culturally it's not expected but if you're feeling generous or received particularly good service, then by all means go ahead. Here's a rough guide:
- Housekeeping - LKR 100 per day (50p)
- Porters - LKR 50, more if your luggage is large or awkward (25p)
- Barman - LKR 100 when you leave (50p)
- Restaurants - LKR 100 - 200 if a service charge hasn't been added (50p - £1)
- Drivers and tour guides - LKR 500 per day (£2.30-ish)
- Taxis - Not expected, but round up if you want
- Temples and attractions - donations are welcome when when entry is free, LKR 500 is a good benchmark (roughly £2.30)
How much did we spend on our trip to Sri Lanka?
Here's a breakdown of what we spent during our trip:
- Direct return flights with Sri Lankan Airways - £468 per person
- Holiday Extras worldwide travel insurance, standard cover - £16 per person
- 3 hours at No1 Lounge Heathrow, with Holiday Extras - £34 per person
- x1 guesthouse room in Dambulla - £40 per night
- Street food in Kandy - LKR 145 (about 66p)
- Entrance to Cave Temple, Dambulla - LKR 1500 (about £7)
- Elephant safari at Uda Walawe National Park - LKR 17,000 (about £77)
- 1.5 ltr bottled water, sealed - LKR 95 (43p-ish)
- Donations, when visiting free religious sites - about LKR 500 (about £2.50)
- Authentic Sri Lankan curry - LKR 400 (that's £1.80!)
Leaving the country with Sri Lankan rupees
It's illegal to take more than 5000 rupees out of the country at one time, which only works out to be around £24, so change your money back at the airport before you leave. And if you're thinking of spending any remaining currency in Duty Free, think again. Only dollars, pounds and euros are accepted so be sure to change up any left over money before going through security. There's only one Bureau de Change when you're airside so do it as early as possible.Top
What language do they speak in Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka has not one, but two official languages to get your head around – Sinhala, which is spoken by roughly three quarters of the population, and Tamil, which is spoken by a large chunk of the remainder.
Using Google Translate in Sri Lanka
The good news is that both languages are available on Google Translate – the bad news is that only Tamil is available to download and use offline, meaning that you'll need to use your phone data to translate any Sinhalese.
Fortunately, English is widely spoken and will be used in most public or commercial environments, meaning that going to a bus station or restaurant shouldn't be too tricky.
If you do want to give the language a go here are some useful phrases to help you get by:
- Yes – Ow
- No – Naa
- Hello/good day – Ayubowan
- Thank you – Istuti
- Thank you very much – Bohoma istuti
- Please – Karunakerara
- OK/very good – Hari hondai
- I don't understand – Mata terinneh neh
- Please stop here – Metana nawaththanna
- Where is the station? – Stesemeta eka ko?
- What is this? – Mekeh mokadeh?
- How much (is this)? – (Meeka) kiyadha?
- Do you speak English? Ingirisi dannevada?
- Hello – Vanakkam
- Goodbye – Poyvituvarukiren (then they reply Poyvituvarungal)
- Yes – Amam
- No – Illai
- Thank you – Nandri
- What is your name? – Ungal peyar yenna?
- My name is (name) Yen peyar (name)
- What is this/that? – Idu/Adu yenna?
- What is the price? – Yenna vilai?
- I don't understand – Puriyadu
Getting to Sri Lanka
Can you fly direct ti Sri Lanka from the UK?
The only direct flights to Sri Lanka are with Sri Lankan Airlines and these depart from London Heathrow - the average flight time is around 11 hours.
You can fly to Sri Lanka with other airlines, such as Qatar and Etihad - but these will usually have 1 stopover in their home cities (e.g Dubai or Hamad).
The main airport for Sri Lanka is the Bandaranaike International Airport and this is found just north of the capital Colombo. Prices start from around £500-600 return all year round.
Do I need a visa for Sri lanka?
Yes. To enter Sri Lanka, you'll need to apply for a visa. You can do it when you arrive, but it's easier to do it online beforehand to save yourself a lot of bother. Plus, after more than 10 hours in the air it avoids the headache of admin!
What vaccinations do I need for Sri Lanka?
You'll need to make sure you're up to date with certain vaccinations including tetanus. There are also other recommended vaccines like typhoid or Hepatitis B. For more information check with your GP at least 6 weeks before you travel or visit www.fitfortravel.nhs.uk.Top
Getting around Sri Lanka
Be prepared before you go and have realistic expectations about what transport in Sri Lanka is like. What you may not get in efficiency, you get back in heaps of character and experience.
In a nutshell, buses are the standard means of travel, trains are good for long-distance travel, cars are for saving time and tuk-tuks are for those short journeys here and there.
Buses are a standard and fairly reliable mode of transport, albeit a little uncomfortable! The public Sri Lanka Transport Board buses are usually red and surprisingly more enjoyable since the driver isn't compelled to fill it right to the brim like the private white buses. Take anything described as luxury or express with a very generous pinch of salt!
Regardless of bus type, expect to pay between 50 – 100 rupees for around an hour's travel and bear in mind that express buses will probably expect the full route fare, regardless of where you want to get off.
Top tips for travelling by bus in Sri Lanka
- You'll need to have cash to hand to buy your tickets - you can buy at the booth or on the bus
- Timetables only really apply to longer routes or less-popular services. Short or popular routes tend to leave when the bus is full.
- Reserving a seat is pretty much unheard of, so if it's empty, sit down.
- Most signs and timetables do have English versions but where they're in Sinhalese, look for information booths or ask a member of staff.
- Allow plenty of time to get where you need to go!
Trains are an option for travelling long distances, though they're surprisingly slow. That being said, the views are fabulous! They are pretty basic but are certainly something you should experience.
Carriages and ticket types are divided into three classes. There's not a huge difference between 2nd and 3rd, but the seats in 2nd do have a little more padding, the carriages have fans and are less crowded.
Fares are really cheap. The iconic Ella – Kandy route is LKR 1000 (around £4), travelling 1st class. Tickets can only be purchased on the day of travel. Travelling 1st Class won't make a huge dent in even the most stringent of budgets, but don't expect luxury.
When we went the trip took over 6 hours and the surprisingly cheap upgrade was well-worth it for a slightly more comfortable journey with air-conditioning. Though, 'air-conditioning' on the train meant being able to open the windows. We also drove through a storm at one point and our carriage leaked. But it was worth it for the views!
As for cars, hiring a driver to chauffeur you about Sri Lanka is surprisingly affordable and a lot less stressful – plus it's a massive timesaver, which is always a bonus.
The roads themselves are in relatively good condition, which is refreshing. You just have to watch out for the other crazy drivers, suicidal wildlife and throngs of people that make driving a little hair-raising at times.
We used Red Cabs, who are based near Galle. They were super flexible and met us for several trips throughout our cross-country expedition, including Colombo – Unawatuna, which was LKR 9000 (roughly £35).
For a bit more of an adventure you could always haggle for a tuk-tuk (or rickshaw, depending on what you call them) which are ideal for short journeys.
Top tips for travelling by Tuk Tuk in Sri Lanka
- Always agree your price with the driver BEFORE setting off.
- Be prepared to barter a price - you don't have to accept their first offer.
- Be firm about where you want to go
- If you're offered detours or 'quick stops' it's often a bid to get some more money out of you, so don't be fooled.
Sri Lanka Airport Transfers
Book your cheap airport transfer from Sri Lanka Colombo Airport through Holiday Extras and from only £2.86, with FREE cancellations*.
Sri Lanka Car Hire
Get your Sri Lanka car hire straight from the airport and make the most of the freedom having a car gives you as you explore the island.
Top things to do in Sri Lanka
If you like breakfast with a view or taking time to explore waterfalls and stunning vista points, then Ella is a real gem. If you want monkeys straight off the tree and on your balcony, then you're not going to go wrong here either.
No visit to Ella would be complete without admiring the beautifully built Nine Arches Bridge - this feat of engineering was built using just stone and cement. We took a leisurely stroll along the tracks and were politely greeted by fellow travellers and locals alike.
If you want to avoid the crowds at Sigiriya, head to Pidurangala Rock instead. It's less well-known and offers stunning vistas of the main attraction. It's significantly cheaper at LKR 500, rather than LKR 7,500 at Sigiriya. Go around 4.30pm and make it for sunset. Wear sensible footwear and be prepared for lots of climbing!
Here you'll find guest houses, restaurants, gift shops, yoga retreats and places that host Sri Lankan cooking classes. There's nothing better than strolling across the soft sand and dipping your toes in the warm waters of the ocean while you look out to the horizon.
If you fancy a walk, head to the west of the beach to see a huge Buddha statue and a lovely lookout point to top up your Instagram feed. There's some important info about Buddhist customs coming up, so you don't end up being an obnoxious tourist.
Sri Lanka's 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites
For a relatively small island Sri Lanka certainly punches above it's weight for UNESCO World Hertiage Sites - boasting a whopping 8 different sites.
Ancient City of Polonnaruwa
Polonnaruwa is divided in to two parts - the new and the old - and it's the old town which is made up of the ancient ruins of the royal city. The site itself is absolutely massive, so hire a tuk-tuk driver to take you from place to place or do your bit for the environment and hire a bike.
Ancient City of Sigiriya
Sigriya is ancient rock fortress carved from the bedrock of a mountain - and it is also known as Lion Rock due to the massive pair of paws that were carved into the rock as the gateway to the palace at the top. One of Sri Lanka's most popular tourist sites, you can climb the 1,202 steps to the top of this outcrop to reacht the fortress at the top.
The Ancient City of Sigiriya can be found near another UNESCO site, Drambulla, so it makes it convenient to visit both whilst you are in the area.
Sacred City of Anuradhapura
The largest of the ancient sites of Sri Lanka, Anuradhapura is the site of the Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba and impressive white dome like structure guarded by over 300 elephant statues.
It is also the home of a holy fig tree - believed to be a descendant of the tree under which the founder of Buddhism was enlightened.
Old Town of Galle and its Fortifications
The fort was initially built by the Portuguese in 1588 when they colonised the island. Some years later, it was taken by the Sinhalese, only for the Dutch come in 1640 and pinch it back from them. The Dutch went on to build churches, organise sewage systems, establish a port for trade and make further fortifications to the fort. Come 1796 and enter the British, who took not only the fort but pretty much the entire island and kept it until the mid-twentieth century.
Today you can have a walk about the ruins, admire the panoramic views of the ocean and check out the nearby town for shops and restaurants.
Our tip: You can get around the site pretty quickly, so go early and don't expect to be out all day if you're staying nearby. Spend the rest of the day at the beach.
Sacred City of Kandy
Kandy is a great place to visit - it's busy and has plenty going on in terms of food and culture. The city has some interesting history surrounding its most famous temple, which certainly makes a stopover worth it.
Sri Dalada Maligawa or The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic is a sacred temple that houses a tooth that belonged to the Buddha. Legend says that the Buddha died in India, 543 BC and after the cremation of his body, one of his disciples retrieved his left canine tooth and gave it the King. Over the years, people believed that those in possession of the tooth had divine right to rule the land. The tooth was eventually smuggled to Sri Lanka and had many homes until it came here to Kandy, the former capital.
You won't actually see the tooth when you go but the entire place gets crowded, so expect both tourists and worshippers. Make sure you wear clothes that cover your legs and your shoulders, and remove your shoes.
Sinharaja Forest Reserve
Sinharaja is the countries largest remaining tropical rainforest and it is an important biodiversity hotspots. It's believed around 60% of the tree here are endemic to Sri Lanka and it's also home to around 50% of Sri Lanka's endemic animal species.
If you're lucky you may spot: leopard, Indian elephants, purple-faced Langur, the Sri Lanka wood pigeon, green-billed Coucal, Sri Lanka white-headed starling, Sri Lanka blue magpie, ashy-headed babbler and Sri Lanka broad-billed roller.
Rangiri Dambulla Cave Temple
Added to the list in 1991 The Golden Temple of Dambulla is not just one temple it is in fact a series of cave temples which are filled with around 150 Buddha statues.
Be warned it can be a hot 15-minute walk up to the temples from the entrance - but luckily you'll likely be distracted by the many monkeys that hang out along the paths.
Top tips for respecting Buddhist customs in Sri Lanka
- Posing for pictures with the Buddha is frowned upon because it's custom never to have your back to him, so bear this in mind when taking photos. That's not a 'never take photos' just be mindful about your angles.
- Cover any tattoos of the Buddha - The mistreatment of Buddhist images and artefacts is a serious offence and claiming ignorance doesn't fly here. Tourists have been convicted for their disrespect and British nationals have even been refused entry to Sri Lanka or faced deportation for having visible tattoos of Buddha.
- If you've been to countries like Thailand, you'll have been told to never point your feet in the direction of Buddha. This is only loosely observed here, though you might occasionally see people sitting in front of Buddhas with their legs neatly tucked under them – so try to be respectful.
- As with all temples, Buddhist (or Hindu), guests must be appropriately dressed – take off your shoes and any headgear and make sure that legs and shoulders are covered. If in doubt, do what the locals do.
Central Highlands of Sri Lanka
Another biodiversity hotspot the central highlands are made up of the Peak Wilderness Protected Area, the Horton Plains National Park and the Knuckles Conservation Forest. These areas are recognised as being the most undisturbed submontane and montane rain forests in Sri Lanka - and you'll find a number of endemic species of flora and fauna.Top
What to eat in Sri Lanka
You'd be forgiven for assuming that Sri Lankan food is a staple of rice and curry, because, well, it is. But really, it's more than that – it's a fusion of local produce, imports from neighbouring India, and colonial influence from the Dutch, the British and the Portuguese.
A key feature of Sri Lankan food is its versatility. The core spices and ingredients that make up Sri Lanka curry are always the same; coconut shavings and/or milk, turmeric, chilli, curry leaves and/or powder, garlic and cumin. But they're used in a variety of different ways that mean no two dishes are ever the same.
Buddhism and Hinduism have heavily influenced the cooking style here, meaning that you'll find a lot of veggie dishes. Beef isn't as common as chicken or fish, which is extremely popular. Expect jackfruit, which vegans have been raving about since everyone else clocked onto avocados.
King coconuts are as refreshing as they are popular. While fresh fruit juices and smoothies are also widely available. The fruit is genuinely delicious, so make sure when ordering fresh juices that they're not topped up with water (unless it's bottled).
In Sri Lanka it's customary to eat with your fingers, but knives and forks are widely available. Custom states you eat with your right hand, but it's not taboo if you're a lefty - just tuck in.
Another thing we liked – without sounding like a typical Brits abroad – Sri Lanka is one of the only countries outside of home where you should definitely drink the tea because it's exceptional.
Lastly, bear in mind that alcohol and meat are not usually available on religious holidays and that you can be fined if you ignore instructions about not drinking or smoking in certain public areas.
What wildlife can you see in Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka has an amazing amount of endemic species as is common with island nations - it's one of the world's top spots for biodiversity. In our opinion, Sri Lanka has one of the best safari experiences outside of Africa - Uda Walawe National Park alone has around 210 different species.
Here are some of the top animals to spot on your holiday:
- Elephants - many people travel to Sri Lanka to get up close with the elephants and though there are a number of sanctuary's you can see them at if you want to spot them in the wild you need to head to Udawalawe or Minneriya National Park. Tours can be easily arranged through your hotel, but we did ours at the park when we arrived on the day. It cost us LKR 4000 (about £15) to hire a driver and his jeep, and then an additional LKR 13000 (that's roughly £50) per person to enter the national park. We did this privately so you might be able to save money by going with a tour.
- Leopards - these are incredibly shy and elusive animals so don't be disappointed if you don't manage to spot one. The leopards in Sri Lanka don't have the same level of competition as they do in Africa, so they are much bigger - if you want to try see one then head to Yala National park.
- Turtles - there are 5 different species of turtle in Sri Lanka - Leatherback, Olive Ridley, Loggerhead, Hawksbill and Green. There are a number of conservation projects to help ensure their survival.
- Sloth Bears - not to be confused with Sloths, Sloth Bears are a bear species that are unique to the Indian subcontinent. They eat mostly termites and fruit and if you visit at the right time of year you might be lucky enough to see them carrying a cub on their back.