Its rich, 2000-year-old history, diverse and verdant landscapes and eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites are a natural endorsement of what this island has to offer. But Sri Lanka’s true charm lies in its laidback lifestyle, and the villages that allow you to wander freely without hassle. Here, you’re guaranteed to find adventure, relaxation and the perfect cup of tea.
OUR TIPS FOR A 14-DAY TRIP FOR LESS THAN US$4249 ex Australia
NEGOMBO – ONE NIGHT
Situated just 10 kilometres from Bandaranaike International Airport, the beach town of Negombo is a relaxed first stop in Sri Lanka in comparison to the chaotic and congested streets of the country’s capital, Colombo. But its appeal goes beyond its proximity to the airport; there’s a wide, golden beach, a generous selection of hotels and restaurants with a lively evening buzz, and a historically rich town centre chock full of colonial influences, like the Dutch Fort.
KANDY – TWO NIGHTS
A vivid city built into the hills with a lake at its centre is bound to be striking, and Kandy does not disappoint. Dragon’s breath clings to the sloping forests, giving the city an almost magical quality.
Kandy is the last capital from the era of ancient kings and awash in historic and cultural sights such as the famous Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. Each night, the crowds flock to the temple, home to one of Buddha’s teeth, to witness the precious tooth being taken from its golden case and put on display.
From here, the tea plantations of Nuwara Eliya are just a day trip away. Powering through the rolling hills of southern Sri Lanka, the train journey to the misty green terraces is every bit as satisfying as the first sip of delicately flavoured brew.
TRINCOMALEE – THREE NIGHTS
Break up the journey from Kandy to Trincomalee with a stop at Sigiriya, a dramatic and ancient 200-metre-high fortress. Its moniker translates to Lion’s Rock, a nod to the immense lion sculpture carved into its north wall (today, its paws are the only remaining vestiges). Climb to the top where you can explore the ruins of an ancient civilisation and take in panoramic views before continuing east to Trincomalee.
This crumbling harbour town is one of the oldest settlements in Sri Lanka but has only recently found its way onto the tourist trail. There’s plenty of history to discover here among its Buddhist ruins and colonial bricks.
Nearby Uppuveli and Nilaveli offer simple beach-side relaxation, while the coral-covered beaches of Pigeon Island are located just one kilometre off the coast of Nilaveli and are one of only two marine national parks in Sri Lanka. Snorkel along the ocean floor where you’ll see an underwater carnival of eels, colourful fish, turtles, rays and blacktip sharks.
ARUGAM BAY – TWO NIGHTS
Arugam is a small bay revered as one of Sri Lanka’s best surf spots, but even those that aren’t interested in taking on the waves are delighted by the bright fishing nets and battered shacks serving up fresh seafood.
The waves are most consistent here between May and September. Surfers visiting outside those months are better off heading for the country’s south.
YALA – ONE NIGHT
No trip to Sri Lanka would be complete without a safari through Yala National Park in search of the elusive leopards that slink through its undergrowth. The 130,000-hectare national park, the second largest in the country, is home to the world’s biggest concentration of the wild cats, plus hundreds of bird species and 44 varieties of mammal, including the mighty elephant.
Ditch the expensive hotels for one of the tree houses or tented camps in the park surroundings for a really wild experience under the stars.
DIKWELLA – TWO NIGHTS
Dikwella is known for its relaxing beach-side vibe, but there’s more to do than just lounging by the coast.
About six kilometres northeast of town is the Hummanaya blowhole, which is touted as the second largest blowhole in the world and is most spectacular during the monsoon season when it can shoot up to 18 metres high.
There’s also the 50-metre high Buddha, taking in the views from his seat at Wewurukannala Vihara, near Beliatta. You’ll find more Buddha statues inside the ancient complex of Buddhist cave temples hewn into the immense rock of Mulkirigala.
Meanwhile, along the coast at Matara (a short tuk tuk ride away), a shack rents
out boards to a handful of mostly foreign surfers. Thanks to the country’s two monsoon seasons, the best time to surf the southern beaches is between November and March.
GALLE – TWO NIGHTS
Soak up the laidback vibes of the historic old town of Galle. Built in 1663 by the Dutch, the Fort gives the colonial city its historical kudos, but the cute cafes, quirky art galleries and charming boutiques imbue it with character. It’s little wonder that writers, photographers and designers have long gravitated to this spot overlooking the sparkling Indian Ocean.
Just half an hour out of town at Habaraduwa, you can check out the Sea Turtle Hatchery where baby turtles are hatched in incubators and then released into the ocean, along with those that have recovered after being injured by fishing nets. So far the hatchery has released more than 500,000 turtles into the ocean.
COLOMBO – ONE NIGHT
It’s all too easy to overlook the capital and just nip straight to the airport with sand still between your toes, but Colombo still deserves a look in.
Once known as the ‘garden city of the East’, the sprawling city remains surprisingly green. Take in the tree-lined streets of area Colombo 7 by tuk tuk, or climb into an autorickshaw to check out the historic Fort and the dilapidated madness and multicultural wonder of Pettah Bazaar. It’s also a great option for foodies keen to visit the city’s tastiest street food stalls and indulge in those final few rotis and hoppers.
Despite the city evolving and modernising, its colonial architecture still retains its character, connecting its past with its present.
Known as the “Tear of India”, Sri Lanka is often compared to its closest neighbour. People describe it as a similar destination to India, just a little less chaotic.
When it comes to cuisine, Sri Lanka’s fiery curries, served with sweet relishes and sour pickles, feature distinct flavours unique to this region. And in place of India’s Hindu temples and elaborate palaces and mosques, the island nation is dotted with rock fortresses and colossal golden Buddhas. While both countries have many things in common, Sri Lanka has a uniqueness of its own.
The unit of currency is the Sri Lankan Rupee.
WHEN TO GO
Although Sri Lanka is warm all year round, its climate has two different monsoon seasons, which affect parts of the island at different times of year. The good news is no matter the time of the year you visit, there will be somewhere on the island to spread your towel. Those affected the most by monsoon seasons are the surfers. Consistent waves along the east coast are produced during May to September, while southern beaches such as Weligama and Hikkaduwa are best visited between November and March.
If you’re after an encounter with elephants, be sure to do your research when choosing your experience. A number of Sri Lankan tourist attractions have come under fire for the treatment of the animals. Instead of visiting zoos or elephant orphanages, opt to see the creatures in their natural habitats at one of the national parks instead.
SriLankan Airlines fly to Colombo
Once there, bus travel is the cheapest option for getting around. Allow around
US$2.50 per day.
Amagi Aria, Negombo. One night, approx US$98, including breakfast
Earls Regency Hotel, Kandy. Two nights, US$150 per night, including breakfast
Jungle Beach Resort, Trincomalee. Three nights, US$150 per night, including breakfast
The Spice Trail, Arugam. Two nights, US$64-168 per night (depending on season), including breakfast
Yala Dream Park, Yala. One night, approx US$72 per night, including breakfast
Underneath the Mango Tree, Dikwella. Two nights, approx US$310 per night half board
Mango House, Galle. Two nights, US$79 per night, including breakfast
Cinnamon Lakeside, Colombo. One night, from US$130 per night, including breakfast
Budget around US$44 per day for lunch and dinner in mid-scale restaurants.
For more tips on what to see and do in Sri Lanka, visit the country’s tourism website.