The complete country guide to travel Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka, the pearl of Asia

We can honestly say: Sri Lanka has it all. A country that knows how to amaze you with the things it has to offer. Numerous national parks where leopards, elephants and deer live together, surrounded by more than 400 different bird species. Stunning white beaches with a perfect amount of palm trees and a gorgeous blue sea. Historical cities where you can visit temples that are more than 2000 years old and rock formations that were once called palaces. Add some delicious (but spicy) food and welcoming people, and you have a perfect destination for the time of your life. Welcome to Sri Lanka, the pearl of Asia!

beach near mirissa sri lanka

Sri Lanka is encircled with beautiful white sand beaches

The different regions in Sri Lanka

On a high level, Sri Lanka can be divided into 6 interesting regions. The west coast with the capital Colombo and the fishing village Negombo. The north with Mannar island and the Jaffna peninsula. The historical region in the center of Sri Lanka, with cities like Dambulla, Anuradhapura and Polunnaruwa, the hill cities with Kandy, Ella and Nuwara Eliya. And finally, the east coast, the perfect spot for surfing and the southern region, ideal for snorkeling at the Galle region and spotting blue whales in Mirissa.

regions of sri lanka to visit

Overview of the six interesting regions of Sri Lanka

Itineraries

When you are heading to Sri Lanka, you will quickly realize you will have to make decisions on the things you want to see and the things you have to leave out. Below, you can find different itineraries through Sri Lanka. Depending on your own preferences, we are sure you can adapt one of these itineraries to your own taste.

Four weeks in Sri Lanka

This is the itinerary we followed when visiting Sri Lanka. Keep in mind that we had our own transportation method (a rented tuktuk) and had about 4 weeks to discover the country. We also decided to skip most of the historical region as we already visited a lot of ruins in Cambodia,  China, Laos and Vietnam.

The highlights in two weeks

If you only have limited time for your visit to Sri Lanka, we have an alternative 14 days itinerary where you can see the most important sights of Sri Lanka.

Two weeks off the beaten path

If you are however looking for a more off the beaten itinerary for 14 – 21 days we recommend to visit the North of Sri Lanka.

Top things to do

  • Take the world’s most scenic train route through the tea plantations between Kandy and Ella.
  • Sip some tea and explore the hill country by doing some hikes like Ella rock and Lipton’s seat.
  • Take a safari in one of the many national parks and see hordes of elephants and a leopard hiding in the bushes.
  • Laze on a pristine beach in the South of Sri Lanka and go whale watching in Mirissa.
  • Visit some ruins in an ancient city and top it off with Sigiriya rock.

wild elephant on the road in sri lanka

One of the many elephants we saw during our time in Sri Lanka

tail of blue whale in mirissa

One of the blue whales we saw during a whale watching at Mirissa

Off the beaten track

  • Discover Sri Lanka by riding your own tuktuk.
  • Visit the Jaffna peninsula and get to know the history of Sri Lanka.
  • Touch the baobab trees in Mannar.
baobab tree in mannar sri lanka

Touching a baobab tree for the first time

Visa

For entering Sri Lanka, you need a visa. You can easily apply for ETA online via their official website. The cost for a visa online is 35 USD. You can also choose for a visa on arrival, but this will cost you 40 USD. These visa are valid for a stay of 30 days in Sri Lanka.

Travel costs

The currency in Sri Lanka is the Sri Lanka rupee (150 LKR = 1 USD). In a lot of shops and hotels, credit cards are accepted. As in most Asian countries, there is a fee for withdrawing cash. We found out that HNB has a fixed fee (200 LKR) and you can withdraw up to 200 000 LKR.

Traveling Sri Lanka can be relatively budget friendly. Our daily budget in Sri Lanka was 45 USD a day for two persons. In our travel costs of Sri Lanka, you can find a detailed overview of our costs.

As a budget traveler expect to pay:

  • 10-15 USD for a private room for two persons
  • 2-4 USD for a delicious local dinner
  • 10-15 USD a day for renting a tuktuk

Be aware that entrance fees in Sri Lanka can easily add up, as these are relatively high. Expect to pay around 30 USD per person to enter a national park (without the fee for a safari), 40 USD to visit Sigiriya rock and Pollonaruwa, 10 USD for the cave temple in Dambulla, …

view from pidurangala over sigiriya

Because climbing Sigiriya was expensive, we decided to climb Pidurangala rock, offering us a view over Sigirya rock

Accommodation

Since peace has returned, tourists discover Sri Lanka as a perfect holiday spot. Luckily, the country has a decent offer of accommodations, although dorms are less easy to find. We discovered that there is not a lot of difference when booking via a booking website or just passing by. Make sure that you discuss the price before you enter the room. We experienced that some owners suddenly use extra service costs, tourist taxes and strange conversion rates. When you book via a booking website, make sure you read all the additional costs that are mentioned (most of the time 10% service costs).

Transport / getting around

There are a lot of transportation methods available when traveling around Sri Lanka. The choice goes from extremely cheap to extremely expensive. Below you can find a summary of different transport options.

Train

Probably one of the cheapest ways to discover the country. The Sri Lanka Government Railway serves all important tourists destinations and a train ticket is extremely cheap. And traveling by train will allow you to take the scenic slow train between Kandy and Ella. Second-class cabins charge around 1.50-4 USD. However, seats sometimes run out and then your only option is to stand or sit on the ground.

tea plantations near ella in sri lanka

When taking the slow train form Kandy to Ella, you pass these beautiful tea plantations

Bus

The Sri Lanka Central Transport Board maintains an island-wide network of bus services. All the important towns in Sri Lanka have a bus station where you can book tickets in advance. Tickets are also sometimes sold on board. They charge only a few dollars for a several hours drive, but we did hear a lot of stories about over packed buses and dangerous chauffeurs.

Hiring a car

It is not atypical to rent a car with or without a driver, but this option turns out to be very expensive. Expect to pay around 50 USD a day for a car with a driver. The driver sleeps most of the time in the car or the hotel you are staying has sleeping quarters for the driver. This type of transport is mostly booked via travel agencies.

Hiring your own tuktuk

This is our preferred method of transportation as it offers you a lot of freedom and comfort. In Negombo, it is very easy to rent your own tuktuk. A lot of tour operators in Lewis place offer tuktuks for rent and you can easily negotiate about the price. One of the advantages of renting a tuktuk is that you can drive through or next to certain national parks. That way, you are able to spot a lot of wildlife without having to take a safari. We will write a more detailed guide for renting a tuktuk soon.

tuktuk transport in sri lanka

We loved hitting the roads with our own tuktuk

Be careful when taking a tuktuk from a taxi driver. Make sure you discuss the price upfront so you don’t end up with a surprisingly high bill.

Food

After a couple of months in Southeast Asia, we were looking forward to a more Indian inspired cuisine. And the Sri Lankan food does not disappoint.

If you really want a taste of Sri Lanka, you have to try one of their amazing curries. They can be quite spicy but they are delicious. About everything can be used for a curry: meat, fish or vegetables. Cooked in coconut milk and seasoned with chilies, peppers, onions and another huge amount of spices.

Another traditional dish in Sri Lanka is kottu: stir-fried shredded roti with vegetables. And also the hoppers and dosas are delicious! For an in-between snack, you have a lot of choice between vegetable roti, samosas and vegetable rolls.

If you’re getting thirsty from the spicy food, try a king coconut or one of the many fruit juices. Not to forget Sri Lanka is also the home of Ceylon tea, the best tea in the world. If you are fancying something more strongly, you can get a Lion beer or arrack, a distilled spirit from coconut.

ceylon tea at ella

Sipping Ceylon tea and eating chocolate cake

Internet

The first days, internet in Sri Lanka was a big mystery to us. A lot of hotels claim they have internet, but it took hours to load a simple webpage as google. We did find out that as soon as we mentioned the bad internet to the owner, they immediately fixed it and we suddenly had high speed internet. Apparently, most of the hotels have small band internet. If you mention you need the internet, they activate a better internet package or top up their data package.

Mobile data in Sri Lanka is very cheap. Dialog is the best provider and gives you the best speeds. A prepaid SIM card only costs 400 LKR. Just charge your card with a couple of dollars and you have mobile data during your entire stay in Sri Lanka. Almost every shop with a sign of Dialog offers this SIM card. You only need your passport and 400 LKR and the shop employee will fix everything for you.

Health

First of all we always advice you to contact your general physician or medical doctor for precautions and medical advice. This section is only a way to inform you about possible medical precautions you can take and can never replace a consultation with a doctor.

Although there are cases of infectious diseases in Sri Lanka, the most frequent issues are an upset stomach. Hygiene standards can be troublesome in Sri Lankan kitchens and cause the most problems. This being said, in the following sections we describe the biggest health concerns you can encounter and prepare for.

Tap water

Don’t drink water from the tap, always buy bottled water. The government takes providing drinkable water to Sri Lankan people very serious. Look for the small “SLSI logo” which is proof that the bottle of water meets the government’s health standards.

Recommended vaccinations

Make sure you contact a medical doctor for an up to date status of your vaccinations. The following vaccinations are recommended by the official US Centers for Disease Control (CDC):

  • Adult diphtheria and tetanus Single booster recommended if none in the previous 10 years.
  • Hepatitis A
  • Hepatitis B
  • Japanese encephalitis: Recommended for rural travel, people who will be doing outdoor activities or for anyone staying longer than 30 days.
  • Polio
  • Rabies: three injections in total. Keep in mind that even you are vaccinated you ALWAYS need to go to a hospital for a treatment if you get bitten by a dog, monkey, etc. As there are many stray / homeless dogs roaming in the streets of Sri Lanka this can be one of the biggest health risks when travelling to Sri Lanka. This vaccination was a no-brainer for us.
  • Typhoid

Mosquitoes

According to the CDC Sri Lanka is free of malaria cases since 2012. This means you don’t have to take anti-malaria medication as prevention.

Dengue on the other hand is on the rise. There is a vaccination on the way, but for now using mosquito repellent and sleeping under a mosquito net is recommended. Same precautions apply to Japanese encephalitis. For more information it is always a good idea to check this website.

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