18 Things to Know Before Visiting Sri Lanka

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Sri Lanka is easily one of my favourite countries in the world. I have been there twice, and I look forward to visiting Sri Lanka again. Packed with culture, a rich history, incredible wildlife, lush nature, stunning beaches, and incredibly friendly locals, this country with a difficult, violent past is one of Asia’s gems. You may think its proximity to India may make it quite similar – I thought the same before my first trip to Sri Lanka – yet, as soon as you get there, you will understand that it is not quite like it. 

This is, quite simply, a unique country – one that you should be visiting as soon as possible.

If you are visiting Sri Lanka soon, and are looking for useful information and things to know before you go, you are in the right place. Here, I will share some useful tips that will help you plan your trip to Sri Lanka and make the most of the country once there.

Best yoga retreats in Sri Lanka

What You Must Know Before Visiting Sri Lanka

1) Sri Lanka has 2 monsoon seasons

You may be wondering what the best time for visiting Sri Lanka is. Let me tell you: this is the trickiest question ever! Indeed, Sri Lanka has two different monsoon seasons, and if you are not accustomed to them it is honestly hard to sort them out.

In theory, the northeast monsoon goes from December to March; and the southwest monsoon from June to October. To make a long story short, you can expect rain in Sri Lanka throughout the year – which is what makes it so lush and green. 

The good news is that rain doesn’t usually last all day (except that one time I was in Galle, but this is a different story), and no matter when you go, you can expect beautiful, sunny and warm days and lots and lots of sun – and perfect beach weather. 

This is to say that any time is a good time to visit Sri Lanka! To argue this case a bit more, let me tell you about my experience. 

For my first trip to Sri Lanka, I traveled between the end of August and mid-September, which is when the southwest monsoon is supposed to occur. Days were mostly sunny and warm, there were a couple of showers during the night, and just once or twice it rained during the day. 

The second time I visited Sri Lanka was between October and November, and just as well there were mostly sunny days, with showers mostly happening in the late afternoon. 

Peak season in the southern province is from November to January, which the largest crowds going in December for Christmas and New Year’s. Peak season on the east coast is from June to August.

Another useful thing to know before you visit Sri Lanka is that there actually are a few different climates. Though most of the country is quite warm throughout the year, the Hill Country, where Ella, Nuwara Eliya, and Kandy are located, is colder, so your itinerary is taking you there make sure to bring a warmer jacket and long pants- You can expect night temperatures to go down to 17° C (62° F) and even as cold as 13° C (55° F).

2) There is only one international airport

Well actually, technically there are two. One is Bandaranaike International Airport, located at about 30 km north of Colombo, the main city in Sri Lanka (not the capital, btw!) and actually closer to Negombo. The other is Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, and is close to Hambantota, in the south of the country.

The vast majority of people visiting Sri Lanka actually fly into Bandaranaike International Airport, since the choice of flights is much wider. Something worth bearing in mind when planning your trip!

3) It’s a small country, but it takes a while to explore

Public transportation in Sri Lanka works quite well and all cities and even the most remote villages are well connected. Buses and trains may be old, slow, and crowded but they are fun to use (though train travel is significantly more scenic); they are truly dirt cheap and they are more reliable than you’d imagine.

The best and most comfortable way to move around Sri Lanka is actually by private car – you can rent a car with a driver to cover the longest distances, but don’t expect it to be cheap: a 3-4 hour drive can easily cost you $150 USD.

Foreign travelers need a special driving license to rent a car when visiting Sri Lanka: other than a valid driving license, an International Driving Permit is needed. Considering that driving in Sri Lanka is quite hectic, you are better off just renting a car with a driver.

One thing to keep in mind is that traveling around Sri Lanka can be really slow. Roads are narrow and the mountain chain at its center means lots of windy turns that will make your stomach churn. Add the odd cow or dog on the road, monkeys jumping here and there, and even elephant crossing (I have seen those too) and you get the idea – even short distances will take you a while. 

My recommendation is not to pack your itinerary, because you may end up spending your time just moving from place to place. 

Within cities, and in their immediate surroundings, you can move around by tuk-tuk. Make sure to always haggle the prices a bit. Apparently, there is a meter system for tuk tuks that locals know, but in case of doubt just agree on a price before you hop on.

4) You need a visa for Sri Lanka

Visa on arrivals are available in Sri Lanka, and cost the equivalent of $40 USD. Getting one is actually easy but time-consuming as there are only a couple of counters at the airport, and you may end up stuck in line for a while. It is much better and faster to actually apply to get a visa online. Tourist and Business ETA allow a maximum stay of 30 days and a double entry in the country.

Make sure to check whether you actually need to pay for your Sri Lanka visa, as the country has waived the fee for many countries. You still have to apply to get through customs, but you won’t have to pay.

5) A guided trip to Sri Lanka may be a good idea

An independent trip to Sri Lanka is certainly a lot of fun, and since public transportation is cheap and works well, you may as well do it. If you are not a fan of planning, or you have limited time in the country, you may want to leave the organization to the experts and just worry about having fun, and visit Sri Lanka on a guided tour.

Alternatively, you can opt to hire guides for the day – this is especially worth doing in historic locations like Kandy or Sigiriya.

6) Sri Lanka can be expensive

If you think your trip to Sri Lanka will be dirt cheap, you’ll be in for a surprise. Sri Lanka is not expensive, but it certainly isn’t as cheap as other places in Asia such as India and Vietnam, especially when it comes to accommodation: luxury resorts and boutique hotels can be quite expensive, and although there are budget accommodation options, you should be prepared for prices that are a bit more expensive than those of other Asian countries.

The Sri Lankan Rupee (LKR) is the official currency of the country and the one accepted at all tourist attractions in Sri Lanka. At the time of writing, the exchange rate is as follows:

  • $1 USD = LKR 306
  • €1 Euro = LKR 335
  • £1 GBP = LKR 393

There are ATMs and currency exchange in all cities, and much less in the smaller villages. Keep in mind that some cards don’t work, so having two different ones belonging to two different circuits may be a good idea.

Only the best hotels in the country – like the famous Cinnamon Hotels chain – take payments with credit cards. Otherwise, cash is king.

Safari in Sri Lanka

7) It’s a great wildlife destination

Sri Lanka is an incredible wildlife destination, so make sure to factor in enough time for a safari or two during your trip to Sri Lanka. 

National parks such as Kaudulla and Minneriya are known for the biggest elephant gatherings; Mirissa and Trincomalee, depending on the season, are great places to spot whales and dolphins. Yala National Park has the highest concentration of leopards in Asia (though to be fair spotting them is incredibly hard). Monkeys, crocodiles and colorful birds are easy to see anywhere in the country. 

8) And still relatively undiscovered

Contrary to other countries in Asia, Sri Lanka is hardly crowded with tourists. You may occasionally visit a place where you have to get in line to get in – that was my experience at the Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy, where however most people waiting to visit were actually locals! 

Needless to say, some places in Sri Lanka get more tourists than others. For example, Ella is now a big backpacker hub; Galle is the most popular tourist destination; Mirissa is great for whale watching, while Arugam Bay and Weligama are popular in the surfers community. Having said that, you’ll hardly have to fight for a spot at the beach!

Backpacking Sri Lanka

9) There is lots to see and do in Sri Lanka

For as mall as it is, Sri Lanka is packed with interesting sights and things to do, and one trip to Sri Lanka is certainly not enough to visit all of it – I have been twice, and I have barely scratched the surface! 

What’s best, is that when visiting Sri Lanka you really have an incredible range of things to do. You can spend your days surfing or being lazy at the beach; practicing yoga in a retreat; exploring archeological sites such as Sigiriya and Buddhist and Hindu temples – make sure not to miss Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Dambulla; hiking the mountains around Ella; visiting waterfalls; going on a safari or whale watching; tasting tea; visiting the villages and much much more. 

trip to Sri Lanka

10) It’s a safe country

Sri Lanka is often perceived as a dangerous country. Yes, the country gone through 20 years of civil war – but this stopped in 2009. A state of emergency was declared in March 2018 following clashes between Buddhist and Muslim communities in Kandy. Though the saddest news in recent years was a series of terrorist attacks against hotels and churches in Colombo, Batticaloa and Negombo on Easter Sunday in 2019. 

Government travel advisory are often quite alarmist, and while you should definitely consult them, I believe that the decision whether or not to visit Sri Lanka is ultimately yours. Sure enough, when visiting Sri Lanka you will quickly realize its reputation of being an unsafe place is undeserved.

My experience there during my first and second trip to Sri Lanka has been absolutely fantastic, and I never felt unsafe – though I know that verbal harassment against female travelers can occur. Having said so, I definitely recommend to keep a low profile (but you will hear me say this for pretty much any place in the world); don’t flash expensive jewelry and take with you just enough cash as you may need for the day.

Another thing you may want to watch out for is “Poya” – the full moon, which in Sri Lanka is always a public holiday. Although alcohol consumption in Sri Lanka is hardly an issue, and during Poya shops can’t sell alcohol, you will see many locals stock up the day before, and some may drink excessively and become quite loud. 

Sri Lanka police can be reached at 1912 and the number for emergencies is 119.

Scams against tourists in Sri Lanka aren’t common, but you may occasionally come across very persistent tuk-tuk drivers or tourist guides in sites that want to take you around. A polite but firm “no thank you! is always the best way to deal with them.

tips for learning a language

11) You are better off dressing modestly

From this point of view, Sri Lanka is more similar to India than to other Asian countries and people tend to be quite conservative. A quick walk down the street and you will immediately notice that despite the heat both men and women are fully dressed, covering their shoulders, chest and legs – and you are better off doing the same, especially if you intend to visit Buddhist temples. Wearing short and tank tops is ok if you are at a beach destination, but by all means don’t walk down the street in a bikini!

12) The Wi-Fi situation in Sri Lanka

Decent internet is available at most hotels and guest houses, though the speed is decent at best and the most isolated places won’t offer any. In fact, some places are so isolated that there no phone reception at all.

You can buy local SIM cards with data plans for very convenient prices as soon as you land – there is a place at the airport where you can literally get it in under five minutes. It’s a good way to stay online and to use Google Maps to calculate distances and traveling times (especially when having to haggle with tuk tuk drivers).

13) Shopping in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka isn’t exactly shopping paradise (aside for Galle!), yet the local markets are fun to explore and they have a good variety of things to buy. Spices and pure coconut oil can be found for very cheap prices. Shop owners often try to push the awful elephant pants, while there are much nicer clothes to buy.

Haggling prices at markets is a must! 

14) People in Sri Lanka are friendly

One of the biggest perks of visiting Sri Lanka is meeting the locals. People are always friendly, kind and generally helpful, and although they may not speak English fluently (the main languages are Sinhalese and Tamil), you will find that most do know at least some, especially in the most popular tourist destinations, and they certainly do their best to make themselves understood. 

Having said so, you may want to familiarize with a few sentences before your trip to Sri Lanka:

  • Ayubowan = literally means “may you live long” but it’s just used to say hello.
  • Istuti = thank you
  • Kohomadha = how are you?
  • Kiyeda? = how much?
  • Hari, or hari hari = Ok

14) Responsible travel in Sri Lanka

The use of animals in tourist attractions in Sri Lanka is unfortunately still quite common, and tourism is impacting Sri Lanka wildlife. I saw dancing monkeys in Anuradhapura; charmed snakes in Galle, and people riding chained elephants near Sigiriya. Please avoid taking part in such activities: guides, owners of guest houses and tuk-tuk drivers may try to sell “elephant safaris” but a firm no is the only way to answer.

Opt for an ethical holiday instead – this Guardian article is an interesting read on the topic.

There are lots of stray animals in Sri Lanka – cats, but especially dogs. You can support one of the local organizations that fend for the animals and help in their sterilization. There are a few of them that take donations. One of them, Embark, has a lovely shop in Galle where you can buy clothes and souvenirs and all profits go to the care of animals.

food in Sri Lanka

15) Food in Sri Lanka is delicious

One of the unmissable things to do when visiting Sri Lanka is trying all the delicious fruit. Honestly, you could forego all meals and just gorge on fresh mango, bananas, papaya, pineapple, and so on. Except, food is delicious and you will want to try it. Curry is the most typical meal, and you will have it in just a million ways. Street food is easily found anywhere and is perfect for a quick meal or a snack.

The most common meat is chicken, and on the coast you can find lots of fish and seafood too. Beef is virtually impossible to come by, as well as pork – I think I have only seen it at some luxury resort. On the other hand, there are plenty of excellent vegetarian and even vegan options available. 

The one thing you need to know before visiting Sri Lanka is that there aren’t many restaurants – not in the way we think of them in Europe or North America, at least. There are a few in big cities like Colombo, Negombo, Kandy and in Galle and Ella, which are the most popular tourist destinations. Other than that, chances are you will have to eat at your hotel or at the guest house – where host families will dish out a meal of massive proportions for a very reasonable price.

16) But tap water is not safe to drink

Don’t ever dare to think tap water during your trip to Sri Lanka – it’s not safe to drink. If you want to avoid buying plastic bottles, make sure to carry a Lifestraw Bottle with a filter. 

17) It’s not really a party destination

Sri Lanka isn’t exactly a party destination so don’t go there if you expect to find wild nightlife, parties, and the like.

Keep in mind that some locals do drink (except during Poya, that is). The drink of choice is typically arrack (a spirit distilled from coconut flower sap). Beer is available, but not so good to be honest.

1 thought on “18 Things to Know Before Visiting Sri Lanka”

  1. I just read your article about the 18 things to know before visiting Sri Lanka, and I wanted to say thank you for writing such an interesting and informative piece. I was especially impressed by your tip number 15, which is about food in Sri Lanka. I think this is a great way to experience the diversity and richness of Sri Lankan cuisine, which is influenced by various ethnic groups, religions, and regions. I would recommend some of the best dishes to try in Sri Lanka, such as hoppers, kottu roti, rice and curry, and pol sambol. I think these are delicious and satisfying options that will make your taste buds happy.

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