12 Things You Should Know Before Visiting Sri Lanka

To quote Condé Nast Traveler, Sri Lanka Is Ready for Its Close-Up! Since my first trip to Sri Lanka in 2015, I have been back every 2-3 months and it almost feels like a second home now. It feels like Sri Lanka’s reputation as the up-and-coming destination in Asia has truly blossomed over the past 18 months and if for some reason you need convincing, here are 10 excellent reasons why now is the time to see Ceylon.

There are some common misconceptions about Sri Lanka as the civil war ended relatively recently (2009) but also some cool facts that you might not know about this country. If you’re planning a visit, here are 12 things to know before going to Sri Lanka!

Looking for more Sri Lanka travel tips and destination guides? Click here for everything you need to help plan your trip to Sri lanka!

12 things you should know before traveling to Sri Lanka

1. It is time consuming to travel around Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is only about 430 KM tall and 220 KM wide, but it can take you hours and hours to travel from place to place as the roads can be extremely busy. Expect to wait for cows to cross the road, the occasional monkey appearing out of nowhere, crazy bus drivers and sometimes even a stubborn elephant in the middle of the road.

For example, it takes approximately 3 hours to travel from Colombo to the southernmost point of Sri Lanka (around 160 KMs). The good news is that highways are being built left, right and center but you will still have to drive through narrow streets in smaller cities to get to freeway entrances.

The fastest way to get around Sri Lanka is to book a private car and driver from point-to-point, but do not expect the prices to be dirt cheap, a 3-4 hour car ride can cost anywhere from US$100 to $140. Hiring a car and driving around yourself is not really a thing in Sri Lanka; you can probably find car rental places in Colombo, but your best bet is to take a train or hire a driver.

Train travel is popular in Sri Lanka as it is cheap and reliable(ish), but not every train has first or even second class carriages. Seats can be reserved in person at a train station up to 45 days before the trip and scenic routes fill up FAST.

Traveling by train in Sri Lanka is an incredibly cost-effective and picturesque way to get around, and many people believe it’s an integral part of the overall Ceylon travel experience. Click here to read more tips on train travel through tea country in Sri Lanka!

Traveling around by bus is also dirt cheap, but not highly recommended because they drive like absolute mad men! If you are traveling a short distance (under an hour) then a tuk tuk, or 3 wheeler, is the way to go. Riding in a tuk tuk is an experience in and of itself – just make sure you agree on a price with the driver before the ride.

2. For a small island, there are a ton of things to see and do in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has every single type of traveler covered: explore tea country in the Central Province, chase waterfalls, hike stunning mountain ranges, discover UNESCO world heritage sites like Sigiriya and the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, lounge on world-class beaches, go on a wildlife safari in one of Sri Lanka’s many national parks like Yala or Udawalawe, dive among shipwrecks, surf uncrowded waves, visit temples and so on…you get the gist! Because of the time it takes to travel between places, don’t be surprised if you don’t cover a lot of ground – 2-3 weeks is not nearly enough time to experience all of what Sri Lanka has to offer!

Planning a trip to Sri Lanka? Click here for my 2 week itinerary to the Pearl of the Indian Ocean!
Sri Lanka Ravana Falls_small
Mirissa Sri Lanka_small
Sri Lanka Sigiriya Rock_small

3. Sri Lanka is a safe country to travel to

Yes, the country went through a 20 year civil war, but life has since returned to normal after the end of the war in 2009. Sri Lankan people are famous for their hospitality, and violent crimes towards tourists are virtually unheard of. I have met some of the kindest and most welcoming people in Sri Lanka! Just as you would for any other country that you travel to, exercise a reasonable amount of caution and keep an eye on your personal belongings when you head out. Don’t flash money around and leave expensive jewelry and electronics in your hotel room or at home.

Sri Lanka is unlike some other Asian countries in the sense that it is still relatively modest. The primary religion is Buddhism so be mindful of your attire when you visit temples (cover your shoulders and wear pants) or walk around town. Let me put it this way: shorts and tank tops are fine, but I would not recommend that you drive shirtless on a scooter or walk around in a bikini. Some tourists are even being stopped by police in the street and told to cover up!

Every full moon is a public holiday in Sri Lanka (AKA “Poya”) and hard liquor consumption is fairly high in Sri Lanka. The preferred drink of choice is arrack (most often distilled from coconut flower sap) which is high in alcohol content – it is not uncommon for groups of men to get intoxicated and rowdy during Poya. I have personally experienced verbal harassment and lewd comments from men in Sri Lanka, but would not recommend engaging – if you are a solo female traveler, just keep walking and try not to be alone late at night.

4. Traveling around Sri Lanka is affordable, but not as cheap as other Southeast/South Asian countries

The currency is the Sri Lankan Rupee (different from the Indian Rupee), and the exchange rate varies from approximately 135-150 LKR: 1 USD. There are plenty of places to exchange money in Sri Lanka, and there are also ATMs in cities like Colombo and Galle where you can withdraw money.

In my experience, accommodation prices tend to be higher in Sri Lanka when compared with countries like India, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Laos and so on. Luxury properties like Shangri-La’s Hambantota Resort, Anantara Tangalle, Anantara Kalutara and Madulkelle Tea & Eco Lodge are popping up like daisies across the country and a 5-star or boutique hotel can cost anywhere from US$300 to 1000 a night – seriously! It is also not uncommon for a 3-star hotel to set you back US$80-120 a night, but budget options are available, just be prepared for slightly higher rates than countries like India.

I’m passionate about promoting unique and boutique travel experiences, and personally look for comfort, beautiful decor and warm hospitality when I travel. Click here for some of the best boutique and luxury hotels to stay at in Sri Lanka!

Planning a trip to Sri Lanka? Click here for more accommodation options! If your dates or plans might change, the majority of the hotels listed on Booking.com allow you to cancel your booking for free! Just make sure you know what the deadline is for cancelling with no penalty.

5. Sri Lanka has 2 monsoon seasons and a number of different climates throughout the country

I’m often asked, “when is the best time to visit Sri Lanka?” Sri Lanka is a tropical country so expect lots of blissful sunshine and blue skies practically year-round. If we’re being technical, the island has 2 monsoon seasons: the northeast monsoon (December to March), and the southwest monsoon (June to October); however, you can visit Sri Lanka anytime during the year IMHO. While there are “rainy seasons”, it is nowhere near as unbearable as rainy season in Laos or Thailand, often it will pour in the evening and the sun will be out the next day.

You should also know that Sri Lanka has a few different climates so you may need to bring a sweatshirt or two if you’re visiting hill country as it can get very chilly. When we traveled through Nuwara Eliya, Kandy and Ella, the temperature dropped to 14-17 degrees Celsius (57-62 F) in the mornings and evenings – not quite what you expect from a tropical island!

6. Many Sri Lankans can communicate in English

Sinhalese and Tamil are the two primary languages spoken in Sri Lanka, but I’ve personally found that many people also speak or understand basic English. Most people who work in, or live around, major tourist destination cities like Galle, Mirissa, Weligama, Unawatuna, Colombo and Kandy will be able to communicate in conversational English.

Here are some useful phrases you should know before you go:

  • Ayubowan = may you live long, a formal way of greeting someone. You can also just say “hello” or “hi”
  • Istuti = thank you
  • Kohomadha = how are you?
  • Hari = okay, got it, fine (you often say this twice – “hari hari”)
  • Lassanai = beautiful

7. It is relatively uncrowded…for now

Unlike other popular tropical destinations, Sri Lanka remains relatively pure, untouched and unspoiled. Yes, there are massive tourist destinations and slightly shady beach parties, but you won’t find anywhere like Kuta, Patpong or Patong in Sri Lanka. With tourism rates projected to explode over the next few years, now is the perfect time to visit!

8. Don’t expect a big party scene

Sri Lanka, especially in areas outside of Colombo, is laid back and chill – there aren’t many places to go for a fancy night out and there are not a whole lot of clubs and bars. It’s definitely more of a beer & sunset place rather than a shots & fist pumping scene, if that makes sense!

More: There are tons of great accommodation options in Sri Lanka (and places with beachfront or poolside bars, wink wink) – click here for more hotel options and current prices!

9. Sri Lanka is a photographer’s dream come true

Sri Lanka is incredibly photogenic and avid photographers will have the opportunity to snap stunning shots of the landscape and people. You will need to bring an extra SD card or upgrade your cloud storage! Some photo opps, like the famous stilt fishermen, will cost you and unfortunately not many people still fish this way as it’s easier to charge tourists for a picture. Tip: Don’t pay over 500 LKR, especially if the fishermen are already positioned on the stilts.

10. There is an abundance of fresh produce and seafood

Local Sri Lankan food is often described as a milder version of Indian food (even though there are so many different types of Indian cuisine). Quintessential Sri Lankan meals consist of colourful curries, rice and roti, string hoppers (steamed rice noodles), kottu (a carb-heavy diced roti dish, often served with veggies, eggs or chicken), tons of fresh seafood from the Indian Ocean and an abundance of wonderful tropical fruit. Red meat dishes can be found at most hotels but it is not served often.

11. You will need a visa to travel to Sri Lanka

Most visitors will need to apply for a Sri Lanka tourist visa (except for nationals of Singapore, Maldives and Seychelles) but this is easily done online for a fee. My recommendation is to apply a week or 2 before your trip, it usually takes 24-48 hours for the visa approval to come through.

12. Sunscreen is pricey and hard to find!

It is hard to find high quality sunscreen (anything over SPF 30 is impossible to find)  in local shops, and shops that do stock sunscreen charge exorbitant prices. If you’re traveling to the beaches along the south or east coast of Sri Lanka, bring your own. While I’m at it, ladies: bring tampons.

Ready to book your trip to Sri Lanka? Click here for more accommodation options!

What are some other things about Sri Lanka that you think travelers should know? Did you find these Sri Lanka travel tips helpful? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

For more Sri Lanka travel tips and destination guides, head on over here!

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Yogawinetravel.com: 12 Things You Should Know Before Visiting Sri Lanka

Yogawinetravel.com: 12 Things You Should Know Before Visiting Sri Lanka

Yogawinetravel.com: 12 Things You Should Know Before Visiting Sri Lanka

Yogawinetravel.com: 12 Things You Should Know Before Visiting Sri Lanka

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73 Discussion to this post

  1. Lucy says:

    Sri Lanka has been on my bucket list for quite some time now; more so after reading this! Love the pic with the elephant in the road xx

    • Flo says:

      It was a funny experience because we managed to swerve around it (carefully), but a bus was just stuck waiting for the elephant to cross!

  2. Tasha says:

    I’m visiting Sri Lanka this year so I found reading your post very helpful and it’s made me even more excited! How far in advance would you recommend booking a train from Kandy to Ella when you’re there?

    • Flo says:

      Are you visiting during peak season for tea country/the south? (October to about February) – if so, you can book up to 45 days in advance and I’d recommend that you book ASAP! You can also consider taking the route less traveled from Nuwara Eliya up to Kandy – it’s a little less crowded/touristy.

  3. Leigh says:

    This is a super helpful list – I had no idea that there was so much to do in Sri Lanka besides beaches! I would love to visit someday.

  4. I am totally fascinated by Sri Lanka. My Uncle is from there and has told me so many stories about growing up there as a kid. He was very lucky to be part of a wealthy family so he got to explore most of the country as a kid. This is a great post Florence, full of lots of interesting and useful info. I’ll be keeping it saved for when I visit someday.

    • Flo says:

      It’s a seriously amazing country, Jen! If you do plan a trip over, feel free to check out some of my other articles on Ceylon 🙂

  5. I’d never thought about visiting, but it’s beautiful!

  6. Lynn says:

    This is so wonderfully informative! I’m raring to go to Sri Lanka now – it sounds like my ideal place to chill out for a bit, ha ha. Definitely bookmarking for future reference!

    • Flo says:

      Thanks so much for checking this out Lynn! You can chill out or go on an active adventure – that’s the beauty, Sri Lanka has it all!

  7. Kelly says:

    Sti Lanka has totally not been on my radar but it sounds lovely. Good to know you should bring sunscreen and that it takes a long time to get anywhere, even thoughthe island is small. Glad there is a lot to see and do and would love to see it before it becomes too popular. Thanks!

  8. Julia Dent says:

    This is so helpful! And it definitely looks like a photographer’s dream there! 🙂

  9. Lorena says:

    This is a great read! It’s on my list and definitely come in handy when I am to go there. Thanks

  10. Jean says:

    This is a great guide. So much I never considered when I think about visiting Sri Lanka. I wouldn’t mind stopping and watching an elephant cross the road.

  11. Photos from Sri Lanka were enough to stir my wanderlust for Sri Lanka but a wonderful introduction and useful tips from a post like yours might be the final push to get me to really plan one for this country! Thanks for sharing these information! After this, I’ll be more equipped to manage expectations and preparations better =)

    • Flo says:

      That’s so great to hear! Feel free to get in touch if you have any questions, I have another dozen or so articles on Sri Lanka as well 🙂

  12. I find it amazing to think that now a days, in such an accelerated worl, we still have chill countries like this! It is great to see people who still keep their own culture and life style without much external influences. The idea of finding an elephant in the middle of the roas sonds totally insane to me! But to be honest, I eas expecting Sri Lanka to be cheaper!

  13. Nam says:

    Love it Flo! I might just be meeting up with friends in Sri Lanka in October (they’re from the UK) and if it works out I’ll devour your blog posts and then ask for recommendation Ma!

  14. We were just talking to someone from Sri Lanka last night and saying how we wanted to visit. These tips are really helpful for getting a realistic idea about traveling there. It does look so pretty; I hope we can make it before it gets too crazy.

  15. Kulani says:

    This is a great post! As a native Sri Lankan who’s entertained 50+ foreigners in our island, your points are super helpful   So glad you enjoyed my paradise island!

  16. Beautiful pics in your post! I agree that travelling around Sri Lanka takes far more time than one might think – I visited 18 months ago and we were caught off guard by how long it takes to get around – 2 weeks proved insufficient to see much of the country :-). I did however enjoy the crazy bus rides but even more the wonderfully scenic train routes.

    My main fear is that mass development is making serious inroads (you mention the construction of highways everywhere you look) and already a couple of years ago the mega-resorts were setting in :-(. I really hope that the beautiful nature and environmental impact is taken into more consideration for future development here and that travellers chose small places to stay vs large all inclusive resorts.

    • Flo says:

      I agree, Ellie! There is now a monstrous property being built in Weligama bay and it just sticks out like a sore thumb 🙁 I’m also hoping there can be more transparency around some of the animal attractions like Pinnawala Elephant “Orphanage” and the sea turtle hatcheries in Sri Lanka.

  17. Alice Chen says:

    I love that elephant crossing the road! HAHA! Why do you go to Sri Lanka so often?

  18. I have to visit Sri Lanka soon before it gets too many tourists. I’m surprised to hear that it’s more expensive than other Asian places. Good to know. Your pics are sooo beautiful. Pinning this for when I go. Love the phrases too. Hari-Hari!

  19. C-Ludik says:

    Beautiful pictures in your post ! It definitely looks like a photographer’s dream there 🙂 So far I never thought about visiting Sri Lanka but it seems an amazing country with a lot to do besides beaches…

  20. Penny says:

    I’ve been planning on taking a trip to Sri Lanka. Not sure how long I want too spend there but it is definitely on our to do list. This post definitely does help me figure out how to plan my trip. The train reminded me of India. Definitely going to go through your prior posts.

  21. Everyone I know who’s been to Sri Lanka has such amazing things to say! I definitely need to go 🙂

    Some of the points you make about the country remind me of traveling in Guatemala. It’s such a small country but it takes ages to get from one place to the other over the rugged mountain roads. Also the fact that there is so much varied geography and so much to do/see! I’m sure I’d love Sri Lanka. Moving it up on my list!

  22. This was a very useful article as we are planning to go to Sri Lanka in November / December. Taking a scenic train sounds wonderful so knowing that the seats fill up quickly is critical. We’ll send you a PM when we start planning in earnest to tap into your detailed knowledge.

  23. Cat says:

    Sri Lanka has been on my radar since last year when I was researching places to go. In the end we opted for Bali because of the transportation and distance. It is just so much further for us to get to from Canada. But it is such a beautiful country (and not yet so touristy!). Next year, I would like to spend more time in Asia and will have to make a stop in Sri Lanka! Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

  24. Flo you’ve listed of 12 very important key points about Sri Lanka so I salute you. It really is incredible how much the tiny little island nation packs inside their little shores. Of course it’s a photographer’s paradise but I do one thing that I’m going to Sri Lanka for whenever I finally make it, and that’s snorkeling with Blue Whales!!!

    • Flo says:

      I hear you have to venture far out to spot them! I also hear there are some tour operators that are more responsible than others – some drive the boats too close to the whales and harass them. Look into “Raja and the whales”!

  25. Ivy says:

    I’m always down for fresh produce and fruits so Sri Lanka sounds like my kinda place. You had me hooked from all your IG pics anyway 😛 I’m surprised that it costs THAT much for a private car/hr. I thought it’d be around the same as Bali or the Philippines but wow, what a big difference. And what is up with sunny destinations selling expensive sunscreen!? They always seem to jack the price up when we need it the most!

  26. Julie says:

    Great article on Sri Lanka! Its definitely on my list of places to visit. I’m surprised how its more expensive than Thailand/Vietnam/Laos etc. I would think it would be more on par. Those fresh fruits sound and look delicious! I love getting tropical fruits abroad!

  27. Cassandra says:

    Wow, elephants in the middle of the road?! That’s seriously something you do not see everyday hahaha at least not in Washington, DC! I wish I could have gone to the Yoga Retreat in Sri Lanka with you!! It looked amazing, and being able to finally meet in person would have been so cool! Also loved the popular phrases that you translated for us – hoping I do make it to Sri Lanka sometime in the near future!

  28. Haylee says:

    I so badly want to visit Sri Lanka, and hoping i’ll make it there in the next few years. Looks so beautiful – as do your pictures! Saving this post for when I start planning my trip 🙂

  29. Petra says:

    Good article and nice pictures!
    I planned a 21 day holiday in August this year to Sri Lanka. I booked the hotels in advance at booking.com. I hired a private driver with car ( inluding gas, insurances and average 150 km per day) for 7500 LKR/ $50 a day. ( 1-3 people, 4-6 costs 9000 LKR/ $61) When a hotel have no free drivershome we have to pay 1500 LKR/ $9 more for hotel and breakfast. Very cheap hotels have no free drivershome. Now we have to pay for 7 nights $9 dollar more. I think the price to hire a driver for 1 day is much more expensive.
    What are your experencies with safaris in National Parks ( prices, busy and what did you see)? Thanks

  30. Clara says:

    We’re going to Sri Lanka in June, but we never imagined that there were so many exciting things to see…we’re only staying 4 days. 🙁
    What do you think are the “must see” things possible to see in such few time?

    • Flo says:

      Hi Clara, definitely don’t skip Sigiriya Rock/Dambulla. From there you can also do a day trip safari to Minneriya National Park. You may also want to spend a day or 1 night in Galle Fort!

      • Sano says:

        Hi lemme know if you happen to come. Can help you sort out a place to stay and help you visit some nice places. 🙂 X

  31. Sano says:

    Hi Flo

    It’s such a lovely description about my country and it is hilarious the way you have described the crazy bus drivers! ?? still thats the exact truth and i dont see any better words to have described them.

    And i think the tuk drivers charge extremely unfair higher prices for foreigners , including all the road side shops and what not.i know its unfair and whoever comes to sri lanks should actually have a basic ideas about the country. I think your description gives a nice idea to everyone including how they should take care of themselves. Glad you have enjoyed. Hope you would come again. 🙂 Xx

  32. Matthias says:

    Good guide and nice photography. Sri Lanka sure is a beautiful island.

  33. Larissa says:

    Very helpful article – thank you, can’t wait to visit Sri Lanka for the first time next week! A beer and sunset kinda place sounds perfect to me. 🙂

  34. Rajat says:

    I haven’t visited there. But have studied a lot in school books.
    These photographs are amazing…

  35. Krisinda says:

    Enjoyed reading your tips! We are visiting Sri Lanka next July. I’m trying to book a private driver for our trip… what company/companies would you recommend?

    • Flo says:

      Hi there! You’ll love Sri Lanka. I’ve tried booking with ACE in the past and they are responsive. However, it is also possible to just get your hotel to organize a 1-way transfer between places very easily, so you don’t HAVE to have the same driver accompany you throughout your trip.

  36. Mishelle says:

    I´ll go to Sri Lanka in few weeks so I really need this tips, especially about sunscreen! I´ll buy a little more!

    Mishelle // voyagecompass.com

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