TRAVEL GUIDE TO SRI LANKA

Last updated on 07-JAN-2021


CONTENT -  Formalities / Travel Itineraries / Places To See / Basics / Accommodation / Getting Around / Food / Cultural Sense & Safety / Shopping / Budget Tips 


Sri Lanka, a hidden gem in Indian ocean, is according to me, a highly underrated travel destination. This small island of 65K km2 of land has something interesting to offer to all kinds of travellers - Rich culture, historical monuments, pristine beaches, abundant nature and plenty of trekking options. Want to learn more about what the country has to offer? Let us get started on planning your trip to Sri Lanka. 


Gangaramya Temple, Colombo

Formalities 

 

Sri Lanka offers e-visa to many countries. Travellers can stay up to 30 days with this visa. Apply for your e-visa on the Government Website and book your flight to the country’s capital, Colombo. 



Travel Itineraries 

 

Ideally, at least a month would be required to explore whole of Sri Lanka. But if you have less time in hand, you can choose your travel plan from the below options. 


5-6 Days (Rapid) – Do the Cultural triangle - Colombo, Anuradhapura,  Dambulla, Sigirya, Polonnaruwa, Kandy.


10-12 Days  (Moderate) – Add the hill stations like Nuwara Eliya, Ella, Horton Plains and Galle to your trip.


22-25 Days (Relaxed) – Explore also the less travelled paths like Jaffna, Kalpitya, Taliamannar, Adam’s peak, Budurgala, Mirisa and Matara and the East Coast. 



Places To See And Things To Do 

 

Sigiriya 

THE CAPITAL


Colombo – The capital city of Sri Lanka is a neat blend of modern architecture, bygone colonial days and traditional Srilankan culture. On one hand, you take a cultural tour of the city by visiting Gangaramya temple that houses hundreds of Bronze idols of Buddha and the lake temple of Seema Malakaya, on the other hand, you can relax in one of the fancy cafés of central district overlooking the newly built skyscrapers. Ensure to shop or eat at the Old Colombo Dutch hospital that now houses high-end shops and restaurants.  If you are in Colombo on a Sunday morning, then do not miss a visit to the Viharamahadevi park. Every Sunday morning, the local artists gather on the street outside the park to exhibit their work. Those with a sweet tooth, visit Hondahitha Meekiri to taste some delicious Meekiri (Yogurt made from buffalo milk, topped with treackle). 


CENTRAL SRI LANKA 


Anuradhapura – The ancient sacred city of Anuradhapura is a wonder in itself. Collect your day pass at the archeoelogy museum and enjoy a full day of exploration of this vast ancient city filled with Stupas, Viharas and ruins of an ancient kingdom.  Isurumuniya Vihara, Sanda Hiru Seya (Moon Sun Stupa)Mirisavatiya Dagoba, Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba, Jetavanarama Dagoba, Thuparama DagobaLankarama Stupa, Abhayagiri Stupa and Kuttam Pokuna or Twin ponds are only some of the interesting places to visit in this incredible town. Do not miss witnessing the daily rituals at the famous Bodhi tree. 


Mihintale – Being a popular religious site, Mihintale welcomes a huge crowd of devotees throughout the year. It is situated around 17km from Anuradhapura. Start your tour at the archaeology museum at the base of the hill.  On top of the hill are several interesting Dagobas (Stupas) and sites such as Kantaka Chetiya, Monk’s refectory, relic house, Ambasthale Dagoba, Mahaseya Dagoba, Sela Chetiya rock with Buddha footprint and Mahinda’s Cave. 


Avukana – Located 50km from Anuradhapura, Avukana is famous for its 12m tall rock carving of Buddha in Ashiva mudra. On your way back, stop to relax at the Balalu Wewa reservoir. 


Dambulla – This religious town is known for its Golden temple. Thousands of devotees visit Dambulla during Buddha Poornima in December when a major event takes place at the temple. Dambulla cave temple, painting conservation and research centre and painting museum are among the other places to visit here.  


Sigiriya – Sigiriya is located just 18km from Dambulla and can be reached easily by a local bus. This is a place you cannot miss when traveling in Sri Lanka. This ancient rock fortress houses the ruins of a palace at its summit. 


Polonnaruwa – Most people travelling to Sigiriya and Dambulla tend to ignore Polonnaruwa. However, I feel that it is one of the most beautiful places I have been to in Sri Lanka. The ancient capital of south Indian Chola dynasty, Plonnaruwa is filled with ruins from a fascinating past. There are both Sinhalese and Chola influence in the architecture.  Hire a bicycle and explore the various monuments around this vast area in about half a day. Royal palace, Audience hall, Bathing Pool, Shiva Devales, Vatadage, Thuparama Gedige, Hatadge, Latha Mandapaya, Gal Pota, Satmahal PrasadaLankatilakakiri Vihara , Rankot Vihara and  the beautiful Gal vihara are some of the historic sites to visit here. 


Adam’s Peak – Also known as Sri Pada (2243 m/ 7359 ft), it is the 5th tallest mountain in Sri Lanka. Reach Dalhousie to begin your trek up this holy mountain that is often filled with devotees and trekking enthusiasts. A midnight trek is often a thing here as people like to view the sunrise from the summit. Depending on your fitness level, it may take you around 3-4 hours to reach the peak. 


Kandy – Kandy is the cultural capital of Sri Lanka. Visit the famous temple of tooth relic which is believed to contain the tooth of Buddha. Next to the temple is a museum that records some interesting history related to the temple and Kandy in general. In the evening, relax by the Kandy lake and after sunset, head straight to watch one of the Kandyan dance shows in town.


Nuwara Eliya – Stay at this beautiful hill station covered with tea plantations. Visit a tea factory and learn about the various types of tea. 


Ella – Ella is one of the most popular destinations among foreign travellers. It is a little town nestled in the hilly region of central Sri Lanka. Ravana cave, Ravana falls and Uva Halpewaththa tea factory are some of the places to visit here. But most often, travellers like to relax in one of the cafés in town.


Budurugala – This magnificent ancient temple (Budurugala Raja Maha Viharaya) is situated 5 kilometres from Wellawaya. You can ride a scooter from Ella to reach here. The site is situated deep in a jungle and consists of 7 humongous rock cut statues. 


Horton Plains – If you love mountains and wildlife, then you should not miss a trip to the Horton Plains. Take a 9.5 km long trail around the plains to witness the most beautiful landscapes of Sri Lanka. At World’s end view point, view the clouds meet the mountains; explore the waterfalls and get close to the friendly Sambar deers. You can also trek the island’s second tallest peak – Kirigalpoththa.


Isurumuniya Vihara, Anuradhapura

NORTHERN SRI LANKA 

 

Jaffna Peninsula – The city of Jaffna is remerging from the days of troubled past during civil unrest and transforming itself into a popular tourist destination. While you can explore the Jaffna fort, public library, the clock tower, Nallur Kandaswamy temple and other popular monuments in the city, take a scenic drive or a bike ride to explore the peninsula. At  Kurikadduwana, hop on a ferry to reach Nagdeepa island that houses a Buddhist and Hindu temple. Make sure to also visit the Keerimalai springs, historic sites of Kantarodai, Maviddapuram Kanthaswamy Kovil, Naguleshwaram Shiva temple and Pedro point. 


Kalpitya – Enjoy the beautiful beaches of Kalpitya and hire a boat to spot the dolphins. 

 

Thalaimanar – This small beach town is popular for its mythological significance. According to the Indian epic Ramayana, it was here that Lord Rama and his army reached after building the Rama sethu bridge (Between Rameswaram in India and Thaliamanar in Sri Lanka). You can hire a boat to reach closer to Rama sethu or as they call it today, the Adam’s bridge. 


SOUTHERN SRI LANKA

 

Galle – Explore the Portuguese architecture within the Galle fort and spend the evening by the lighthouse. Galle is a perfect place to relax or go cycling by the beach. 

 

Amablangoda – The small town of Amablangoda is situated 35km from Galle. It is popular for its painted wooden masks. You can also visit one of the neighbouring villages to see how they are made. 

 

Brief Gardens – Brief Gardens (70km from Galle) was the residence of renowned Sri Lankan artist Bevis Bawa. Today, it has been converted into a museum. The residence is popular for its beautifully designed gardens and peaceful setting. It is one of the most beautiful houses I have ever visited. To reach here, take a local bus to Alluthagama (From Galle or Colombo) and then hire a tuk -tuk up to the residence. 

 

Mirissa & Matara – Two small coastal towns popular for its beautiful beaches and adventure activites. Mirissa is particularly popular for its whale and dolphin watching and Scuba diving. 

 

World' End, Horton Plains

The EASTERN COAST

 

Most travellers tend to ignore the east coast but it hides some secluded beaches and small beach towns. Visit Trincomalee and Batticaloa to enjoy the pristine beach life.  



The Basics 

 

Few things you probably look for as soon as you land, are some local currencies and a SIM card. Make sure to carry Dollars and Euros with you as only these two currencies are exchanged here. You can also use the ATM that is available at every nook and corner of the country. 

 

To prevent carrying a lot of money, I would recommend you to withdraw cash every three days. Except for Ohiya and Horton plains, almost everywhere else you shall find an ATM. 

 

As far as the SIM card goes, you can pick the network called Dialogue. It has a very good connectivity across the country. You can either choose the tourist plan available at the airport (LKR 1000) or step out of the airport and buy a SIM at a local shop. You can get a SIM card with descent amount of call and data facility for around LKR 300 (Plus recharge as you go along). 



Accommodation 

 

There is absolutely no need to book your accommodation in advance while travelling in Sri Lanka. You can reach the town you have decided to stay at and look for options. The only place where I had trouble finding accommodation is Ella. On a weekend, it can get extremely busy here. Everywhere else, there is no shortage of guesthouses. 

 

A room can cost you anywhere from LKR 1500 to 3000 depending on which town you are at. It may be hard to find a hostel in every town as they are limited to cities and popular destinations such as Colombo, Galle and Kandy. Therefore, you will find yourselves in a homestay or guesthouse run by locals. Which is amazing, as you get to interact with the locals. 

 

Here are some of my recommendations - 

 

Anuradhapura - French Garden or London Palace.


Jaffna - Theressa inn or Saras.


Dambulla – There are plenty of options near the Golden temple.


Kandy - Clock Inn Hostel.


Ohiya - Hill Safari Eco Lodge. (Needs Prior booking)


Ella – I stayed at Lal’s un-named guest house (Contact# +94 766013778). He lives about 6km from the main town and will offer you a free ride whenever you want to go there.  Sita’s heaven is also a nice family run guesthouse. 


Galle - If you do not find a place inside the fort then there are several cheaper options in the town.


Colombo - Cityrest Inn Hostel.


Seema Malakaya Lake Temple, Colombo


Getting Around 

 

Sri Lanka is well connected by road. There are plenty of buses plying to any given destination. And it is the cheapest and easiest way to travel. You will have two options – Government buses or Private buses. The red buses are run by the Government and the striped white ones are private owned. Normally, the bus stations for Private and Government buses are adjacent to one another. The prices are the same in both types of buses but I found the Government buses to be faster and reliable. Private buses delay the journey by waiting for customers and some of the conductors misguide you by saying that there is no direct bus to a destination.

 

There are a few interesting train routes that one must not miss while traveling across Sri Lanka. For example, the train from Anuradhapura to Jaffna and the one from Kandy/Ella to Ohiya is amazing. 

 

You can also hire a Tuk-Tuk for short rides within a given city. While Colombo has meter system that records rate depending on the distance travelled, all other towns work on a fixed or negotiable rate basis. Make sure to check the price before boarding the Tuk-Tuk and negotiate if necessary. (Negotiation tip - In India a 2 km ride can cost you around Rs 30 which is LKR 60).

 

In most of the tourist towns like Anuradhapura, Ella, Jaffna and Galle, you can hire a scooter at the guesthouse for around LKR 1000 or 1500 per day. You can plan a few long day trips from your base town. 

 

Most guesthouses also have bicycles for rent (LKR 200-400 per day) and that is a great way to explore ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. 



Food

 

Sri Lanka is heaven for fish lovers. All kinds of meat are available as well. However, as a vegetarian, I focus more on the vegetarian options. Except in Jaffna, you will not find a pure vegetarian restaurant in the country. But most of the restaurants have Vegetarian meals or dishes. 


Try Iddiyapam (Rice noodles), Aapam (rice Pancake) or Bread and Dal for breakfast.  

 

Most of the places serve rice with a few vegetarian or meat-based curries for Lunch and dinner. All tourist places have oriental and occidental food. If you want to pack some food for your travel, checkout the local bakeries for buns, puffs and pastries. 

 

You will also find tea stalls almost everywhere. They are often very sweet so make sure to instruct them on sweetness while ordering. 

 

Make sure to try Meekiri, a delicacy specially seen being sold near Matara. You will also find them in some sweet stalls of Colombo.  

 


Cultural Sense & Safety

 

I found Sri Lanka to be a safe place to travel. People are super nice, specially to tourists. They have great regards for Indians as we share a common history. It is surprising that in most places, I did not even have to lock my bicycle. I walked the deserted streets of Galle or Jaffna late at night and found it to be extremely safe.

 

Sri Lankans are extremely religious. Make sure to maintain the dress code while entering the Buddhist temples. Cover your knees and shoulders. You can also choose to dress in white while visiting a temple as a sign of respect. 


Kandyan Dance, Kandy


What To Buy And Where?

 

You cannot travel to Sri Lanka and return without a few packs of Ceylon tea. Make sure to buy them from the local grocery stores and not the expensive packaging targeted at tourists. You can also buy various flavours of tea from the Tea factories of Ella or Nuwara Elliya. Dilmah Tea is one my favorites. 

 

For artefacts, visit the small stores of Amabalangoda that sell painted wooden masks and other handicrafts. Most tourist places also sell impressive rock cut Buddha statues. I found a huge collection of those at Anuradhapura. 

 

Sri Lanka is also famous for cinnamon and the town of Kandy is popular for Gem stones. 



Budget  And Travel Tips 

 

An approximate daily expense is listed below. All costs are in Sri Lankan Rupee (LKR). 



Sri Lanka is not a very expensive country. However, it isn't inexpensive either. The expenses might be similar to that of India. Here are some tips that can help you reduce your expenses. 


Share A Room – Since most places in Sri Lanka have guest houses that rent an entire room, it is advisable to share the room with a co-traveller. So make friends on road to split your bills. 

 

Entry fee – Since all Buddhist temples, historical monuments have an entry fee for foreigners you may want to carefully pick the monuments you want to visit. Horton plains and other natural heritage sites have huge fee for non-citizens. So, make sure to plan how you want to spend your money. Places like Anuradhapura and Poluawanrur have daily passes available for LKR 3500. With the pass you can visit most of the monuments in the site. Passes are available at the museums of respective town. 

 

SAARC Nation Discounts – Visitors belonging to SAARC Nations (India being one of them) can avail 50% discount on entry fee. Make sure to carry your passport when you step out.  

 

Buy From Local Stores – Most tourist sites offer Ceylon tea and Cinnamon with impressive packages for a very high price. I would highly recommend that you walk into a local grocery store and collect your Ceylon tea, Cinnamon and other spices for a price that locals buy in. 

 

Use Public Transport – Avoid taking taxies and try buses or trains. Public transport in Sri Lanka is amazing and you will have no problem traveling around the island.


Negotiate - You will have to negotiate everywhere - With the tug-tuk drivers, street vendors and sometimes also at guesthouses. So, hone your negotiation skills before you travel. 

 

 

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