Traveling to Sri Lanka for the first time? Read on for essential Sri Lanka travel tips and advice to help you plan a perfect trip!
To quote Condé Nast Traveler, “Sri Lanka Is Ready for Its Close-Up” after spending decades under the radar! Since my first trip to Sri Lanka in 2015, I have been back every 2-3 months and it is now my second home where I spend about half the year. It feels like Sri Lanka’s reputation as the up-and-coming destination in Asia has truly blossomed over the past 2 years, and if for some reason you still 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 that raged within its borders ended relatively recently (2009) and dominated headlines around the world. The reality is, there is a lot that people don’t know about Sri Lanka – here are 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 visiting Sri Lanka
Planning a trip to Sri Lanka in 2023? Read this first!
Latest update as of June 2023: Planning a trip to Sri Lanka now will require more thought and planning – do your due diligence but everyone is working hard to make sure the country is ready to welcome tourists once again. Here are some travel tips for anyone contemplating a Sri Lanka trip in 2023:
💉 If you are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated you will no longer need to quarantine on arrival in Sri Lanka, and as of December 7th no pre-arrival PCR or RAT tests are required for inbound passengers. The health declaration is no longer required, and the insurance is no longer mandatory but can be purchased on arrival. In other words – all pandemic-related restrictions for entering Sri Lanka have been removed.
💻 The Sri Lanka e-visa system is still up and running but buggy – if it declines your payment try another card. Sri Lanka was offering extended 180 day e-visas, up from 30 days, but this option is no longer available as of the end of June. Now you will need to apply for a 30 day visa and extend it online or in person.
💵 Due to the currency devaluation you will notice that prices for goods and services have gone up – however, the dollar-amounts remain approximately the same. As a tourist, you can exchange foreign currency at the airport upon landing so that you have some cash in hand.
🥥 Local supermarkets are full of fresh produce – albeit more expensive now. Roadside market stalls also have lots of fresh fruit and vegetables on offer. Imported products are rare, and if you find them they are also more expensive than before. Restaurants in the south coast of Sri Lanka are slowly but surely reopening for the upcoming peak season.
💡 Recently we have had twice-daily 1-1.5 hour long scheduled power cuts in the south coast, typically in the afternoons and early evenings. They have been manageable but consider bringing a rechargeable USB lamp for the outages. Large hotel chains should have generators to provide uninterrupted power supply, but smaller boutique hotels and guesthouses may not have consistent access to diesel to run their generators. The power cuts may increase in length over the coming months – it fluctuates and no one is able to say for certain how long next week’s power cuts will be.
⛽️ There are no fuel lines but limited supply still, the QR code system for fuel rationing appears to be working for now and tourists can purchase a rechargeable fuel pass which we haven’t tried yet. Tuk tuks, buses and trains are still running.
💊 The economic crisis has led to a shortage in medicine, cooking gas and petrol/diesel. We brought along lots of medication just in case, but have had no issues purchasing standard over the counter meds like Panadol. Visitors who have certain medical supply needs should plan accordingly as it may not be possible to purchase required medication in Sri Lanka. Hospitals are open and we have not had long waits at private hospitals to see a GP.
🚫 Most countries have lifted travel advisories against traveling to Sri Lanka. However, it is prudent to check directly with your country’s foreign office on their advice, and ensure that your travel insurance is valid. The political tensions have eased, but public demonstrations may continue to take place from time to time in major cities.
More information and updates here, but long story short I highly recommend that you read through all of the materials carefully as there are a number of restrictions in place that you should be aware of before traveling to Sri Lanka, and the regulations change quickly (sometimes faster than they can even update the website). Snap lockdowns, curfews, interprovincial travel restrictions and last-minute closure of tourist sites may be implemented.
The situation and rules may change quickly and without warning. You should consider whether it is appropriate for you to travel internationally at this time and have a back-up plan for if you test positive and require medical treatment, or if your country changes their inbound passenger regulations.
Read the full article here: Is It Safe to Travel to Sri Lanka Right Now? All Your Questions Answered About Sri Lanka Travel Safety (2023)
1. It is time consuming to travel around Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is only about 430 KM tall and 220 KM wide (about the same size as Tasmania in Australia or Lithuania), and while it may only look like a speck on the world map but it can take you hours and hours to travel from A to B as the roads can be extremely busy, especially along the coastal belts. Expect to wait for herds of cows and buffalo to cross the road, the occasional monkey and stray dog belting through traffic, crazy bus drivers who are constantly at risk of head-on collisions and sometimes even a stubborn elephant in the middle of the road.
For example, while it might not look like a long distance, it takes approximately 3 hours to travel from Colombo to the southernmost point of Sri Lanka (around 160 KMs) if you take the Southern Expressway, and it could take you up to 5 hours if you take the scenic, coastal route. The good news is that highways are being built left, right and center to improve road connectivity around the country, but you will still have to drive through narrow streets in smaller cities and sleepy towns to get to freeway entrances. According to the IMF, Sri Lanka has some of the slowest roads in the world – the average speed is just 50 KM/hour.
First timers to Sri Lanka often make the mistake of packing too many places into a 1 or 2 week itinerary without factoring in extensive travel time. My best advice to someone planning a trip to Sri Lanka would be to select just a handful of the top highlights of Sri Lanka so that you don’t spend all of your time seeing the country from a car window. The fastest and most efficient way to travel around Sri Lanka is to book a private car and driver from point-to-point (you can do this easily via your hotel), but do not expect the prices to be dirt cheap as fuel prices are not significant lower than elsewhere in the world, and the standard of living and wages is fairly high.
You can shop around between different transportation providers but a 3-4 hour one-way car ride can cost anywhere from US$100 to $140. Hiring a car and driving around yourself is common in Sri Lanka and oftentimes the police may ask you to present a special license that has to be acquired in Colombo (and different from an International Driver’s Permit) – without the proper credentials your travel insurance may not cover any expenses in the event of an accident. You could probably find car rental places in Colombo, but your best bet is to hire a driver or take a train to traverse the country.
Train travel is popular in Sri Lanka as it is cheap and reliable(ish), with routes that connect most popular tourist destinations in Sri Lanka. However, not every train has first or even second class carriages, and while seats can be reserved in person at a train station up to 45 days before the trip or online using this new Sri Lanka train booking website you should know that scenic routes fill up FAST. Here is one of my best tips for visiting Sri Lanka: don’t have your heart set on riding in first class on a train in Sri Lanka, because the action and best views are often from the second and third class carriages!
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
Don’t let its size fool you…Sri Lanka has every single type of traveler covered: explore tea country in the highlands of the Central Province; chase waterfalls; hike stunning mountain ranges; discover UNESCO world heritage sites like Sigiriya and the ancient cities of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura; lounge on world-class beaches; go on a wildlife safari in one of Sri Lanka’s many national parks like Yala or Udawalawe to see leopards and Asian elephants in their natural habitat; dive among crumbling 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 and you’ll be yearning to go back time and time again to explore more of the country.
Read on for some of the top destinations to visit in Sri Lanka, read my express 1 week Sri Lanka itinerary for first-time visitors or head on over to read my extended 2 week itinerary to the Pearl of the Indian Ocean!
3. Sri Lanka is a safe country to travel to…
But there are a few things you should know regarding safety and security before traveling to Sri Lanka. Yes, the country went through a 20 year civil war, but for the most part, life has since returned to some semblance of normality after the end of the war in 2009. Sri Lanka has made international news headlines a few times since the end of the war: a 10-day state of emergency was declared in March 2018 due to violent unrest between the Buddhist and Muslim communities in Kandy; political unrest and protests took place in late 2018; and hotels and churches in Colombo, Batticaloa and Negombo were attacked on Easter Sunday in 2019.
Most recently in 2022, the country has undergone a massive economic crisis resulting in a shortage of fuel, medicine and food. The currency was devalued overnight, and many Sri Lankan people have taken to the streets to protest for their livelihoods. The majority of the protests were peaceful – however some deteriorated into violence and snap curfews have been implemented (and may continue to be implemented). Here’s my take: over 2 million people are dependent on the tourism industry. As a small tourism business owner in Sri Lanka, it has been an uphill battle – first the devastating bombings, then the pandemic hit.
Is tourism the solution? It isn’t going to fix things overnight, no. But it is a short-term lifeline to many small businesses around the island. As of 2023, you will likely experience inconveniences during your trip to Sri Lanka. It won’t feel the same as when you are visiting in “normal” times. So, “is it still safe to visit Sri Lanka?”
Ultimately, the decision to travel to and around Sri Lanka is yours, and may require a change in mindset and expectations. Everyone’s comfort level with risk is different. Be understanding of the situation in Sri Lanka – many people rely heavily on tourism dollars and will welcome you with open arms. It may not be the right destination for every traveler at this very moment. However, I do encourage you to check with your country’s foreign office on the latest travel advisory status; contact your travel insurance provider to enquire about coverage; and stay informed by keeping a close eye on the news – the BBC, Reuters and Associated Press tend to be reliable and timely news sources.
Just as you would for any other country that you travel to, exercise a reasonable amount of caution and be aware of your surroundings. It may also be prudent to avoid large, crowded gatherings and places of worship during major religious holidays such as the Sinhalese New Year or Tamil New Year (mid-April), Vesak Day to celebrate Buddha’s birthday (first full moon in May), Easter or Christmas.
It also makes sense not to flash money around and leave expensive jewelry and electronics in your hotel room or at home, and keep a close eye on your personal belongings when you head out. 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.
One of the most important things to know about Sri Lanka is that Sri Lanka is unlike some other Asian countries in the sense that it is still relatively modest, despite being a popular beach destination in the region. 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!
Looking for more tips on what NOT to do in Sri Lanka? Click here for 15 things to avoid doing in Sri lanka!
Another thing you should also know about visiting Sri Lanka is that every full moon is a public holiday in Sri Lanka (also referred to as “Poya”) and hard liquor consumption is fairly high during this time. Though places (including 5-star hotels) do not sell alcohol on Poya day, many people stock up from their local liquor shop ahead of time. The preferred drink of choice tends to be 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 on beaches or in town during Poya.
Traveling to Sri Lanka as a solo female traveler? I have personally experienced verbal harassment and lewd comments from men in Sri Lanka, but would not recommend engaging or responding – if you are a solo female traveler in Sri Lanka, just keep walking, avoid eye contact and try not to be alone late at night. You should try to arrange the majority of your local and intercity transportation via your hotel, and always keep friends and family at home up-to-date with your whereabouts and how to get in touch with you. Sri Lanka’s tourist police are very responsive and any incidents should be reported to them promptly – dial 1912 to get in touch with them, or 119 to reach emergency services.
Looking for more top tips for solo female travel in Sri Lanka? Here is everything I can share from my years of travel to this gorgeous island.
4. Traveling around Sri Lanka is affordable…
…but not necessarily as cheap as other Southeast/South Asian countries, especially if you are staying in boutique or luxury accommodation. The currency is the Sri Lankan Rupee (different from the Indian Rupee), and the exchange rate usually varies from approximately US$1/Euro to 175-185 LKR (now closer to 305-330 due to the post-pandemic economic downturn and consequent devaluing of its currency). 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 (as well as the cost of living) 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! On a budget? Not to worry – you can eat at local restaurants and indulge in all of the street food and fresh produce.
It is also not uncommon for a 3-star hotel to set you back US$80-120 a night, but budget options are available. I’m passionate about promoting unique and boutique travel experiences, and personally look for comfort, beautiful decor and warm hospitality when I travel. Not sure where to stay during your visit? 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 in my humble opinion.
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. We like to joke that the most accurate way to forecast the weather in Sri Lanka is by looking out the window. People love to say that you shouldn’t visit Sri Lanka during “rainy season”, but it’s a bit of a sham in my opinion – don’t let people talk you out of visiting southern Sri Lanka from June to September as it tends to be much quieter and crowd-free. Check out my guide to Sri Lanka’s south coast for more insider tips!
For your reference, the peak season for the southern province is from around November to January (be mentally prepared for significant crowds if you are visiting Sri Lanka in December around Christmas or New Year’s Eve), and the peak season for the east coast (including Arugam Bay) is from around June to August. You can visit the central highlands and destinations like Ella all year round, but it typically tends to receive most of its rainfall between September and November.
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 have traveled through Nuwara Eliya, Kandy and Ella in the past, the temperature often drops to 14-17 degrees Celsius (57-62 Fahrenheit) 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
- Hondayi = very good
- Kiyeda? = how much?
7. It is relatively uncrowded…for now
Unlike other popular tropical destinations, parts of Sri Lanka have remained relatively pure, untouched and unspoiled. It’s never too difficult to find a quiet stretch of the beach or stray off the beaten track. In particular, the north and east coasts of Sri Lanka are often left off the “classic” Sri Lanka tourist itinerary, and many gems are just waiting to be discovered there.
Even along the popular south coast of Sri Lanka you’re never too far away from an undeveloped strip of golden beach or hidden boutique hotel away from the crowds. You just have to venture beyond the obvious tourist-heavy destinations.
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 huge party scene
Sri Lanka, especially in areas outside of Colombo, is fairly laid back and chill – there aren’t many places to go for a fancy night out and there are not a whole lot of upscale clubs and bars. Lounging on an empty beach is one of the best things to do in Sri Lanka – it’s definitely more of a beer & sunset place rather than a “full moon party” shots and fist pumping scene, if that makes sense!
That being said, there are a handful of places where you can head to for a guaranteed good time – ping pong competitions, open mic nights, live music, banging cocktails – you just have to know where to go.
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!
If you are hoping to fly your drone in Sri Lanka, you will need to register it with the Civil Aviation Authority in advance or else risk being fined by the police and your drone confiscated. Any drone that has a camera will need to be registered via the official website here, and approval takes approximately 10 working days.
First-time visitors to Sri Lanka should also know that 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: the “going rate” is 500-1000 LKR, especially if the fishermen are already positioned on the stilts.
However, Sri Lanka’s photo-friendliness is a double-edged sword. I have never seen so many Instagrammers rush from Instagram spot to Instagram spot, sometimes even engaging in irresponsible and unethical experiences just to get that money shot. To make the most of your stay in Sri Lanka, I truly recommend not treating it like an Instagram backdrop, asking permission before you take portrait photos of people, and being mindful of your time in the country.
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.
Most places will also sell western dishes, and the cost of eating out in Sri Lanka will depend on where you eat; as you can imagine, it will be more expensive to dine at a big hotel rather than a small beachfront shack. 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 and usually valid for 30 days. My advice is to apply a week before your trip, it usually takes 24-48 hours for the visa approval to come through. Many travelers (myself included) have experienced payment issues when applying for a Sri Lanka e-visa – you may have to try a few different credit cards before it eventually goes through.
Alternatively, you can obtain a Sri Lankan visa on arrival at the airport and it costs US$60 in cash (the price has increased from US$40 as of 1 December 2022). The caveat is that there are only a handful of counters and you could end up waiting in line for a long while during the peak travel season, so you’re best off applying for the visa online.
You can also extend your e-visa online – do not overstay your visa in Sri Lanka as you will have to pay a penalty on your way out. There are also local services and travel agencies in major cities like Matara (Aitken Spence, for example) that can extend your Sri Lanka visa on your behalf for a fee.
You should also submit your arrival form online via this website to save some time, as paper forms may not be handed out on flights anymore.
12. Sunscreen is pricey and hard to find in local shops!
It can be hard to find high quality sunscreen (anything over SPF 30 is impossible to find) in local shops and supermarkets, and shops that do stock sunscreen can charge exorbitant prices. Reef-safe sunscreen is also somewhat of a rarity. If you’re traveling to the beaches along the south or east coast of Sri Lanka, come prepared and bring your own. Otherwise, you can pick some up (at a mark up) from The Box surf shop in Madiha (near Matara), Urban Island in Colombo or The Bite coffee shop in Arugam Bay. While I’m at it, ladies: bring tampons or your menstrual cup as they are more difficult to come by here.
Looking for even more Sri Lanka travel tips and destination guides? I’ve got you covered!
- Wondering what NOT to do in Sri Lanka? Here are some common Sri Lanka travel mistakes you’ll want to avoid
- Start your Sri Lanka travel planning here with a list of some of the top destinations in Sri Lanka
- And get inspired with this classic 2 weeks in Sri Lanka itinerary
- Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle is unmissable – here are 7 places you can’t miss
- Colombo is the transportation gateway to the rest of Sri Lanka. Here is my Colombo city guide
- Did you know? Sri Lanka is one of the best places in the world to see elephants in the wild. Here is where to see elephants in Sri Lanka
- I’ve loved experiencing boutique and luxury hotels around the island. Here are some of my favorite hotels in Sri Lanka
What are some other things about Sri Lanka that you think travelers should know? Did you find these Sri Lanka travel tips helpful? Join the Sri Lanka Travel Inspiration Facebook group for even more tips, recommendations and advice!
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