Sri Lanka Overview

The world is waking up to Sri Lanka – an island idyll that’s blossoming and booming after a 26-year civil war and the Boxing Day Tsunami. Its archaeological wonders of Buddhist temples and ancient kingdoms are appearing on magazine front covers again. Rainforests and national parks traipsed by elephants and leopards have jumped to the top of conservationists’ wish lists. Surfers are celebrating and honeymooners swooning. It is no longer just a place to tag onto the end of a trip to India. Travel responsibly, and you can help drive tourism in the right direction. Read our Sri Lanka travel guide to find out how.

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Best time to go to Sri Lanka

Just to confuse those of you working out when to visit Sri Lanka, there are two monsoons. Heading to the south-west beaches? Stay clear of the south-west monsoon from May to July. Sunbathing is at its best between December and April… although with climate change and all, May is often lovely. The north-east, however – which is just opening up to tourism – has a monsoon from October to January. And the rest of the year? It’s the tropics; showers happen. Find out more about the best time to go to Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka temperature and rainfall chart

Map & highlights

The city of Kandy – just north of center – wakes to a dawn chorus of monkey howls. It’s a good starting point for trips to the psychedelic murals of Dambulla Cave Temple and the high-rise Sigiriya Rock Fortress. Galle perches at the end of the coastal trainline. Most visitors stick to the ivory walls of the ex-Portuguese walled center, but don’t neglect the silk shops and beloved cricket ground beyond. Yala National Park is also in the south; expert guides can point you in the direction of the elusive leopards (and not-so-elusive elephants). Few tourists venture to Northern Sri Lanka, with its pristine beaches and ancient, under-visited cities.
Dambulla

1. Dambulla

Home to largest cave complex in Sri Lanka with, at one time, eighty caves packed into a giant rock which stands 160m over the town. Now five main caves packed with statues of Buddha, kings & also Hindu gods. Bit of a climb to get up there, but worth it for views across plains to Sigiriya. Visit the caves in reverse order for ‘stunning’ to ‘gobsmacking’ experience.
Galle

2. Galle

Accessible by coastal train from Colombo its hub is the historic fort, founded in the 16th century by the Portuguese and now a maze of places to shop, eat, stay in funky little hotels or hang out and enjoy the cool, coastal café vibe. So badly hit by the tsunami, it is still refurbishing bits and pieces, but this fort town is strong and here to stay. Not surprisingly, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Kandy

3. Kandy

Sweet as. Ruled by the Kings of Kandy since 15th Century until it fell to the British in 1815, this still feels like its own kingdom. Majestic and revered, many come simply on pilgrimage to the Temple of the Tooth, a sacred tooth belonging to the Buddha, and main reason for its UNESCO World Heritage status. Also a natural haven with cooling hill country all around, mostly tea plantations, as well as jungle keeping it real. And accessible by train.
The North

4. The North

Northern Sri Lanka is open for business, its natural and cultural beauty having survived many years of war which, thankfully, ended in 2009. Previously inaccessible treats include the beaches north of Trincomalee, great ancient city of Anuradhapura and Wilpattu National Park. A beautiful way to discover Northern Sri Lanka is by train between Anuradhapura and Jaffna. Also, the sun shines in the north when monsoon hits the south. It’s so not grim up north.
Sigiriya

5. Sigiriya

Cultural and natural wonders in close contact with ancient ruins on top of the 200m ‘Lion’ Rock. Follow in footsteps of many up the 1200 steps to find ancient palaces and gorgeous gardens. Bring water, as you can’t buy it inside. Don’t miss Pidurangala Rock with superb views back to the Lion Rock and beyond. Lovely eco lodges and treehouses in this area too.

Cultural attractions

Guidebooks have concocted the ‘Cultural Triangle’ – a circuit with three temple-laden cities (Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy) at its corners, and Sigiriya rock fortress and the Dambulla Caves in the middle. But often, the cultural attractions in Sri Lanka are as simple as eating banana-leaf lamprais elbow-to elbow with office workers at a Galle bus station or jittering along unmade beach roads on a tuk tuk. Experiencing the serenity of Sri Lankan Buddhism and yoga are cultural draws, too; the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic is said to house one of Buddha’s gnashers. You can also visit towering roadside Hindu temples and Catholic cathedrals.

Wildlife

Wildlife vacations in Sri Lanka introduce you to a stronghold of the Asian elephant, which roams free in Udawalawe and Yala. Yala National Park is also home to the slippery leopard. Langur monkeys are more likely to seek you out; hold on to your lunch at the tourist spots. Elsewhere, the forests chirrup with over 400 species of birds, monitor lizards snooze under sunloungers, and out in the choppy Indian Ocean goliath blue whales sail by. Sadly, Sri Lanka is also a gauntlet of elephant rides and dubious turtle sanctuaries, so travel with a responsible company to see the best of wildlife in Sri Lanka.

Family vacations

You’ll see Sri Lanka with a renewed sense of wonder when you travel with kids. There’s near-guaranteed wildlife viewing in the elephant-friendly national parks. The trains are safe and easy to navigate, especially when you travel with a tour company that specialises in family vacations to Sri Lanka. You could wind up chugging through jungle and across mountain passes to Ella, where you can wander through tea plantations to Little Adam’s Peak. Back on the coast, pancake-flat beaches – and, in fact, any patch of green – double as cricket pitches when the schools let out; extra fielders are always welcome.

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Tourist and Masai

More about Sri Lanka

Cycling

You’ll need to leave your Lycra and Tour de Force mindset at home on a Sri Lanka cycling vacation. It’s steady business, sometimes because you’re meandering from coconut stalls and spice markets to jungle Buddhist temples and mirrored rice paddies. Other times, you might be slowing down because you’re toiling your way into the pinstriped Hill Country – scenic and cool, but a near-constant climb. This is slow travel at its best, forcing you to look around. Our cycling in Sri Lanka travel guide goes into the ins and outs of freewheeling around the island.

Sri Lanka & the Maldives

Look at a map, and you’ll see that Sri Lanka and the Maldives are tantalisingly close. And although there’s just a 1.5-hour flight between Male and Colombo, the two countries offer very different travel experiences. You can join the honeymooners and scuba divers staking out a castaway island in the Maldives or hop on a dhoni cruise that takes you to lived-on islands away from the insular hotels. Sri Lanka might only have the one island, but it’s a diverse capsule of sand-swept seaside cities and misty mountain villages, of leopard jungle and elephant grasslands, and of Hindu and Buddhist temples.

Types of vacations

Small group vacations are one of the best introductions to Sri Lanka – or to a corner that you haven’t yet explored. Some guide you around the whole island over a couple of weeks, while others take on a theme: cycling, food or yoga. If you’re a solo traveler, you’ll always have someone to catch up with over a glass of arrack after a day’s exploring. Wildlife tours seek out elephants, leopards, flashy magpies and shy sloth bears. Traveling with the kids? Whether you’re taking tots or teens, family vacations match you up with accommodation and modes of transport that suit your needs.
[Cultural attractions: Sander Don] [Wildlife: Yves Alarie] [Family vacations: Egle Sidaraviciute] [Cycling : Amila Tennakoon] [Sri Lanka & the Maldives: Jailam Rashad] [Types of vacations: Anton Lecock]
Photo credits: [Page banner: chuvipro] [Cultural attractions: Sander Don] [Wildlife: Yves Alarie] [Family vacations: Egle Sidaraviciute] [Cycling : Amila Tennakoon] [Sri Lanka & the Maldives: Jailam Rashad] [Types of vacations: Anton Lecock]
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