I’ve spent months and months in Sri Lanka over the past four years, and have made down south Sri Lanka my second home. It’s one of the most beautiful places to visit in Sri Lanka, and though it can get crazy crowded during the peak season it’s not hard to get off the beaten track if you know where to go. I hope to be able to share my experience on how to plan your time in Sri Lanka’s deep south as well as some insider tips!
The southern coast of Sri Lanka is one of the best kept secrets in Asia, though that secret is quickly being revealed as more and more people flock to Ceylon for its tropical beaches, incredible wildlife, rich culture and ancient heritage landmarks. Need more convincing? Read this article on 10 reasons why you need to visit Sri Lanka right now!
Many people either start or end their Sri Lanka itinerary in the south, and it is a wonderful part of the country to explore if you only have 2 or 3 weeks in Sri Lanka. Although this region is home to some of the best beaches in Sri Lanka, the south coast has a lot to offer beyond its sandy coastline – here are a few things to add to your itinerary!
Planning a trip to Sri Lanka? Check out all of my Sri Lanka travel tips and guides here, or head on over here for a 2 week Sri lanka itinerary!
Helpful things to know before you go to Sri Lanka
- The currency is the Sri Lankan Rupee (different from the Indian Rupee), and the exchange rate varies from approximately 165-180 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.
- Local SIM cards and data packages can be purchased at the airport once you arrive, but you may need to provide your passport in order to register the number. Data is cheap and 3G is fairly stable throughout Sri Lanka.
- The best way to travel around Sri Lanka is by car, especially if you are short on time. Most hotels can help you to book a private car and driver to your next destination, but if you are traveling along the southern coast of Sri Lanka your best bet is to simply hop into a tuk tuk or bus from one town to the next. It’s also possible to rent a scooter in Sri Lanka (ask your hotel as there aren’t scooter rental shops everywhere like in Bali or Laos) but unless you are very confident on a scooter – the roads can be extremely hectic with insane bus drivers, and scooters are not allowed on the highway in Sri Lanka.
- 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 are walking around or visiting a temple. Do not walk through local towns and villages in your swimsuit or skimpy clothes, it is considered very disrespectful. More tips on what NOT to do in Sri Lanka over here.
- 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 fairly chilly, but in general the temperature along the south of Sri Lanka is high between 25-32 degrees Celsius.
- The best time to visit south Sri Lanka is widely considered to be December to February as the weather tends to be less rainy. However, don’t let the “rainy season” stop you from visiting southern Sri Lanka in the other months – the sea may be slightly rougher, but there are plenty of protected bays to swim in, there are consistent reef breaks to surf at, it tends to rain at night and is sunny during the day, and the entire coastline is a lot less crowded from March to September!
- There are a plethora of hotel options suiting every budget, but prices tend to be higher than in countries such as India, Thailand, Cambodia or Vietnam. I 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.
How to get to south Sri Lanka
The Southern Province in Sri Lanka is extremely accessible by car or public transportation. There’s no hard and fast rule but most people consider “down south Sri Lanka” to start from about Unawatuna in the southeast to Tangalle/Hambantota in the southwest.
From Colombo, the drive will take anywhere between 2-4 hours, you can take an express highway bus to Matara or you can take a coastal train that stops in Galle or Matara. A one-way airport transfer to or from the southern coast should cost you anywhere from 10,000 to 19,000 Rupees (approximately US$55-105) depending on where you are staying. I’ve used ACE Cabs in the past to schedule airport pick-ups and drop-offs, and they are responsive over e-mail though their rates can be somewhat confusing – ask for the final rate that includes all highway tolls.
It is also not uncommon for the airport drop off to be slightly cheaper than the airport pick up (as the driver doesn’t need to park and wait with a name board). If you are ending your Sri Lanka trip in the south, it takes about 4 hours by car from Ella to Matara. Once you are in south Sri Lanka, it is relatively easy to travel between towns by car, tuk tuk or bus.
Where to stay in south Sri Lanka
The main tourist towns in south Sri Lanka are Weligama, Mirissa, Galle, Unawatuna and Tangalle. But the beauty of the coast is that there are a plethora of smaller towns and quiet bays for you to stay in, away from the rest of the tourist crowds. Here are some of my favorite hotels in down south Sri Lanka, or you can check out the full list of some of the best boutique hotels in southern Sri Lanka here.
As it is easy to travel between towns and beaches in southern Sri Lanka, if you only have a few days I would recommend picking 1-2 hotels and venturing out for day trips instead of changing hotels frequently.
Talalla Retreat is one of the original and best beach hotels in Sri Lanka. It is conveniently located near the southernmost point of Sri Lanka so you can travel east or west for day trips. The rooms, while basic, are comfortable and the rates are reasonable given it offers a pool as well as easy beach access. The hotel also hosts daily Yoga classes and surf lessons for anyone hoping to try their hand at catching a wave. I recommend staying at one of the deluxe villa rooms to experience open-air luxury, just be prepared for the occasional visit from a monkey! The hotel is almost always fully booked through Christmas and New Year’s, so make sure you plan accordingly if you’re visiting during that time. Click here to book your stay at Talalla Retreat!
If you prefer even more privacy, head to Zephyr, a boutique 4-room beachfront villa down the road from Talalla Retreat. As there are only 4 rooms at Zephyr you really get to unwind and relax – make sure you book ahead as they do fill up fast. The on-site restaurant serves up some of the best food and cocktails in southern Sri Lanka, and the service is top notch. In the afternoon, go for a swim in the ocean or a dip in Zephyr’s private pool. The rooms at Zephyr are spacious and airy, and are also equipped with air conditioning units for those extra steamy Sri Lankan afternoons. Click here to book your stay at Zephyr Talalla!
Looking to add a touch of luxury to your Sri Lanka trip? Book a stay at Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle, a 5-star property offering beautiful rooms, beach access, incredible dining facilities and wonderful hospitality. Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle is a fantastic place to relax and rejuvenate and is also a great base for day trips around the southern coast or a safari in Yala National Park or Udawalawe National Park, though it is on the eastern end of the south coast so it will take at least 2 hours to travel to Galle or Unawatuna. Click here to read my full review of the property, or click here to book your stay at Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle!
Shangri-La’s Hambantota Resort & Spa is probably one of the best beach resorts in Sri Lanka. It is also the largest resort in country at nearly 60 hectares (or 150 acres). Aside from the incredible rooms, the hotel offers a plethora of facilities and activities including a trapeze, trampolines, fitness centre, 18-hole golf course, Ayurveda spa, children’s playroom and cultural artisan village. As it is on the eastern end of the southern coast I would recommend staying here for 2-4 nights and enjoying the resort life, before moving closer to Talalla, Weligama and Mirissa to explore more of the coastline. Click here to read my full review of the property or click here to book your stay at Shangri-La’s Hambantota Resort & Spa!
For even more options, click here for highly rated hotels in Sri Lanka’s south coast. Make sure you read the reviews and check the proximity to the beach. You’ll also want to ask what the dining options are in and around the hotel and whether it is easy to catch a tuk tuk to get around. If you are visiting south Sri Lanka during the peak season from December to February and especially over Christmas or New Year’s, make sure you book early because hotels get booked up quickly.
The best things to do in southern Sri Lanka
1. Surf, surf, surf
Surfing is one of the best activities to add to your Sri Lanka itinerary, and there are plenty of breaks to suit surfers of all levels. The surf season in south Sri Lanka runs from about October to March when the ocean is glassy, the wind is more offshore and the swell is solid. You can still surf during the other season, but the ocean can be more dumpy and the waves can be inconsistent. The south coast is home to some of the best surf spots in Sri Lanka and there are a number of surf breaks to suit all levels. The water is warm and you don’t need to wear a wet suit, there are plenty of board rental shops, the water is shark-free and there are plenty of uncrowded breaks.
If you are looking to learn to surf, there are a number of surf schools in Sri Lanka that are based around this coast – I recommend Talalla Surf which is one of the longest-running and most professional surf camps in Sri Lanka. Their week-long programs run from Sunday to Friday evening/Saturday morning and they limit their group sizes to 5-6 people.
Photo credit: Talalla Surf & Yoga
If you are looking to go free surfing (i.e. for the occasional surf not with a dedicated surf camp or program), then you have a number of Sri Lanka surf spots to choose from. I recommend checking out Hiriketiya Beach or Weligama Beach for beginner-level surf and one-off surf lessons or board rentals. S.K. Town, Kabalana or Lazy Left’s are great for intermediate-to-advanced surfers. Advanced surfers looking for reef breaks should head to Ram’s, Polhena or Madiha. Expect to pay approximately 400 LKR to rent a board for 2 hours – that’s just over US$2 – a steal! If you’re serious about surfing I would recommend joining a surf camp in Sri Lanka to check out secret Sri Lanka surf spots.
2. Check out Dondra lighthouse
Dondra Head Lighthouse is the tallest lighthouse in Sri Lanka and sits on the southernmost point of the island. It is 49 metres tall and was constructed in the late 1800s. You used to be able to climb to the top for a small fee, but last I heard it was closed to the public. Still, it is a beautiful lighthouse and an easy stop if you are headed to Gandara Temple or Matara city.
3. Visit the Buddhist temples
Sri Lanka is a predominantly Buddhist country, and there are a number of stunning temple complexes along the south coast. Gandara Temple is a popular one to visit and there are a number of beautiful murals to check out, though it is also home to 2 chained-up elephants that are used for festival processions which is a sad sight to see.
I recommend heading to Paravi Duwa in Matara instead, a “floating” temple connected to the mainland by a short foot bridge. You can also head to Mulgirigala Rock Temple near Tangalle – the complex dates back almost 2,000 years and you must climb up nearly 200 metres of steps to get to the top. The Japanese Peace Pagoda perched high up on a hill between Unawatuna and Galle is also unmissable.
4. Whale watching in Mirissa
Photo credit: Vladyslav Danilin / Shutterstock
Whale watching is one of the most popular things to do in Mirissa, but there are a few serious caveats if you are looking to go on a whale watching tour in Sri Lanka. It is well-known that most tour operators chase and corner the whales and that the tours can go on and on for anywhere from 4 to 10 hours on a boat. As is the case with wildlife tours, sightings are not guaranteed and if you are prone to sea sickness (like I am) this is probably not the best option for you.
That being said, if whale watching in Sri Lanka is high on your list of things to do I have heard good things about Raja & the Whales, a local tour company that claims to offer responsible and ethical tours that do not harass the whales. You can read more reviews here and do some additional due diligence.
If you’re headed to Mirissa, make sure you check out Parrot Rock, a small rocky outcrop off the main beach. It’s a great place to go to watch the sunset!
5. Go on a wildlife safari
Going on a wildlife safari is one of the most unique things to do in south Sri Lanka. If you are visiting Sri Lanka’s south coast then I recommend that you plan a visit to Udawalawe National Park or Yala National Park. Udawalawe National Park is home to hundreds of wild Asian elephants and is one of the best places to see elephants in Sri Lanka, and Yala National Park has one of the highest densities of leopards in the world. If you are visiting either national park, there are some important do’s and don’ts that you should know before your trip.
As tourism grows in Sri Lanka, as does the number of safari jeeps in these parks. Many safari operators can drive irresponsibly, cornering and chasing wild animals to ensure that their guests have successful animal sightings – but this is extremely distressing for the wildlife and not safe for passengers either. I have personally witnessed several jeep-on-jeep accidents in Yala National Park. Please encourage your guide and driver not to chase the animals and keep a safe distance away rather than driving up close.
If you are headed to Udawalawe National Park make sure you also stop by the Elephant Transit Home, an ethical elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka that minimizes human-elephant interaction and releases elephants back into the wild once they turn 5 years old.
6. Tour a tea plantation
The 200-acre estate offers free tours through their plantation as well as factory, and you can learn about how they grow and produce the famous Virgin White tea, a brew made from the tiniest and newest leaves.
7. Spot sea turtles (in the wild)
Sri Lanka’s south coast is home to several “sea turtle sanctuaries”. But here’s the truth: the standards of care for wild turtles are not yet well regulated in Sri Lanka, and many places try to pass as a legitimate ethical facility just by sticking the word, “sanctuary”, in their name.
What often happens is that eggs are dug up from the beach and sold to these facilities, and once the turtles hatch tourists are charged a fee to hold and release the baby turtles. Some of the “sanctuaries” that claim to be “more ethical” often still allow you to hold their adult turtles. There are many problems with interrupting the natural hatching process and touching wildlife – do your due diligence before you support one of these places, and read reviews from other tourists before you go. Here is a good article to read on sea turtle hatcheries in Sri Lanka and also this paper from 2017 which states the following:
“The contribution of turtle hatcheries towards conservation of sea turtles is highly debated, and the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) in Sri Lanka holds the view that management practices of the hatcheries are not conducive to the conservation of sea turtles. The prime motive of the current hatcheries in operation is profit, relying on tourists for their viability.”
I decided to visit one “turtle conservation project” in Koggala so that I could verify the reviews and provide a first-hand account of what really goes on at these turtle sanctuaries in southern Sri Lanka. We paid 500 Rupees per person as an entrance fee, and was given a quick tour of the single-room facility. The guide introduced the various turtle species and showed us a few of the resident turtles – he claimed that the turtles that live long-term at the facility are all injured and could not survive in the wild, and that any turtles that have recovered from injuries are released back into the ocean. There were a few turtles that had lost limbs due to accidents, and while the water in their tanks looked clean, the concrete tanks are extremely small.
What truly bothered me was a few red flags – there is clear signage saying not to touch the turtles, yet the guide (and other tourists) constantly picked up the turtles or touched their shells. He even tried to put turtles in our hands a few times and we declined. Next, the guide had told us that hatchlings are only released during the evening to increase their chance of survival when the predators are not around. However, when we asked at the reception area we were told that hatchlings are released throughout the day, and that it would cost 1500 Rupees to release 1 baby turtle.
Finally, although we had paid a 500 Rupee entrance fee each (approximately US$3, which is cheap as chips and I’m happy to pay it if it goes towards the operation of a legitimate sanctuary), it wasn’t long before the guide asked us for a tip. Given the research results and lack of transparency as well as mixed messages from the facility, I can not recommend that you visit a turtle hatchery in Sri Lanka – at least not until more oversight and regulations are in place.
The good news is, many places along the coast (such as Anantara Tangalle) put up cages to keep the eggs safe until they hatch, and you often don’t need to pay a fee to go see them as all beaches in Sri Lanka are public. There are also a number of wild sea turtles in Unawatuna bay and Hikkaduwa that come in daily as they are frequently fed by tourists (sigh). I would encourage you not to touch wildlife and simply observe them from a distance.
8. Visit Galle Fort
Galle Fort is one of the most famous places in Sri Lanka and a great day trip destination. Spend a day wandering through the fort and walking along the walls dating back to the 16th century.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a good place to pick up souvenirs for friends and family, and is also home to the beautiful Galle Fort Lighthouse surrounded by palm trees. If you have more time in the region, stay overnight in the fort at one of the restored heritage buildings – we loved the Fort Printers. There are also several excellent day spas in Galle Fort: I recommend Spa Ceylon for an incredible full-body massage.
9. Practice Yoga
Though Yoga in Sri Lanka is not as ubiquitous as in other places like Bali or India, there are a growing number of yoga retreats in Sri Lanka that you can join. Alternatively, many places along Sri Lanka’s south coast offer drop-in Yoga classes at approximately US$15 a pop.
10. Go beach hopping
Exploring the sandy coastline is one of the best things to do in south Sri Lanka. There is no shortage of beautiful beaches in Sri Lanka, and the entire southern coastline is just beach after each after beach. However, don’t just stick to the famous beaches in Sri Lanka like Mirissa or Weligama as they tend to get crowded, especially during the peak season. Some of the best beaches in south Sri Lanka are undeveloped and it’s not uncommon to have an entire stretch to yourself.
I recommend checking out Talalla Beach, Polhena Beach (it even has a few rock pools), Pehembiya Beach (one of the best beaches in Sri Lanka IMHO) or Kadolana Beach. If you’re after a beach with lots of restaurants and facilities, head to the horseshoe-shaped Hiriketiya Beach, which used to be a quiet paradise 4 years ago, but is now a fairly well-known beach in down south Sri Lanka.
A new beach club, Sugar Beach, has also opened in Talpe, about 20 minutes away from Galle. This sophisticated beach-chic space has everything you’d need for a relaxing day – food, great drinks, beach access, deck chairs and a pool.
You may also have heard about “Jungle Beach” in Unawatuna, as it is hyped up to be a secret beach in Sri Lanka. My personal recommendation would be to skip it as it gets pretty busy and is very small – it’s not as “secret” as you may be led to believe. You’re better off heading further away from Galle to some of the less crowded beaches.
Though beaches in Sri Lanka are generally clean, there is an increasing amount of trash – why not take part in a beach clean or pick up some rubbish? Some hotels will offer a bag for you to pick up trash, and many places also organize beach cleans a few times throughout the year. Here is a community that organizes beach cleans in Sri Lanka – check out their Instagram for upcoming meet-ups, or simply do your own small part.
11. See the Sri Lankan stilt fishermen
The stilt fishermen in Sri Lanka are one of the most iconic symbols of southern Sri Lanka. Once upon a time, the tradition was passed from father to son, but as time went by more people shifted to fishing boats because it was easier to fish that way. These days, you rarely see any true Sri Lankan stilt fishermen – most are there simply for the photo opportunity. Still, it’s a unique cultural tradition to witness, and I still encourage you to check out one of the stilt fishermen spots in southern Sri Lanka.
There are a few dotted along the coast from Koggala through Ahangama and Midigama, and there are often at least a handful of fishermen at each spot during the peak season from December to February. You will have to pay to take photos (which kills the magic a little) – anywhere from 500-1500 Rupees is standard. If you’re lucky, you can very occasionally see real stilt fishermen around Polhena, Madiha or Talpe.
Ready to book your stay in southern Sri Lanka? Here are some of the best boutique hotels in the area, or click here to see more options in Sri Lanka’s southern coast!
Where to eat in south Sri Lanka
Looking for a great meal in southern Sri Lanka? Here are a few of my favorite places to grab a bite.
Sugar in Galle Fort: Consistently fantastic grub within the fort, and service is always on point. They have a number of Western and Sri Lankan menu options – the pumpkin soup with garlic chips is incredibly tasty!
Zephyr on Talalla Beach: Zephyr is a small boutique hotel on Talalla Beach. As we live a 5-minute drive away, we regularly go for sunset cocktails and dinner. The food is stunning – try the Thai green curry, battered fried prawns and sesame crusted tuna.
Cape Weligama Hotel in Weligama: Cape Weligama is one of the best luxury hotels in Sri Lanka, and one night there will set you back nearly US$800. The good news is, their restaurants and bars are open to outside guests (but make sure you call ahead), and the cocktails and alcoholic beverages are very reasonably priced. They serve the most incredible food, and is one of my favorite places to go for sunset drinks and a delicious meal.
Under the Mango Tree Hotel in Dickwella: For something a little big more laid back, head to UTMT Hotel. We love the string hoppers here and they make a mean mango margarita.
Verse Collective in Dickwella: Verse is a beachfront hostel/restaurant run by two South Africans. The coffee is on point, and the menu just keeps getting better. If you’re craving some avocado on toast or a tasty wrap this is the place to be.
Salt House in Dickwella: Salt House is a great place to go for lunch or a casual dinner. The coffee is strong, and the fish burger is delicious. Salt House also offers drop-in Yoga classes by the bay if you’re looking to practice some asanas.
Grove Cafe in Hiriketiya: Grove is the new kid on the block and has a fantastic breakfast and lunch menu. Try the rosti or B.L.A.T (bacon, lettuce, avocado, tomato) sandwich, or dive straight into the fish tacos.
The Doctor’s House in Polhena: The Doctor’s House is a seriously fun place to hang out for sunset cocktails and a chilled-out dinner. TDH serves up a mean pizza with their on-site pizza oven, and also has an amazing happy hour.
Ready to visit Sri Lanka’s deep south? Check out all of my Sri Lanka travel tips and guides here, or head on over here for a 2 week Sri lanka itinerary!
Click here to check out highly rated hotels in Sri Lanka’s south coast.
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