The island nation of Sri Lanka is quickly working its way onto many people’s travel bucket lists. In fact, it was ranked as 2019’s best travel destination by Lonely Planet, calling it “a country revived” following the decades of civil conflict that ravaged the nation and its people. Boasting incredible scenery, diverse wildlife, extraordinary cultural monuments, and a friendly population that welcomes travelers with overwhelming hospitality and genuine intrigue, Sri Lanka is much-deserving of its recent boom in popularity.
Despite its growing popularity as a travel destination, there is still a lot about Sri Lanka that might cause people to hesitate booking a plane ticket. After all, it did just come out of a civil war just ten years ago. Although I can’t say enough amazing things about Sri Lanka, it is more than understandable to have a little hesitance about visiting a country that has seemingly just exploded on the travel scene. Here is everything you need to know before visiting Sri Lanka, the crown jewel of the Indian Ocean.
Is Sri Lanka Worth Visiting?
Absolutely. The jewel-shaped island off the coast of India packs a lot of beauty and adventure into its small size. Out of every country I’ve been to, Sri Lanka ranks safely in my top ten. Its vast variety of things to do, ease of travel, cheap prices, and beautiful scenery makes it an unbeatable travel destination that still maintains an off-the-beaten-path feel to it. Sri Lanka is a great destination for any type of traveler, from the budget backpackers to honeymooners and retirees.
Do You Need A Visa To Visit Sri Lanka?
Most countries do not need a proper Visa to enter Sri Lanka but you can check your Visa to Sri Lanka requirements here. And yes, I did just link to Wikipedia now that I don’t have any high school teachers telling me what I can and can’t do. However, most countries also do need pre-approval by the government before being allowed to enter the country. This requires an online application that you should complete at least a week before your trip to Sri Lanka.
The online application requires information like your passport details, flight details, and accommodation details, among other things. There is also a $35 fee that you can pay online along with your application. The application process takes only a few hours to be approved. I printed mine out just in case they would need it at immigration but they didn’t even check or ask for it.
How Much Time Should You Spend In Sri Lanka?
The only answer to this is: as much time as you possibly can. Despite Sri Lanka’s small size, it is so rich in adventure and beauty. I spent three weeks in Sri Lanka, initially planning to spend most of my time between five or six cities at most. It did not take long before I realized just how much the country had to offer and wanted to see as much as I possibly could.
After only seven days in, I had already made my way through five cities. This hectic pace of traveling is far from my usual style of slow travel but Sri Lanka’s small size and reliable public transportation makes it possible to see a lot of the country in a little time. You can even take day trips from city to city, like I did to Polonnaruwa from Sigiriya or to Mihintale from Anuradhapura. In my three weeks in Sri Lanka, I ended up visiting over a dozen places and still was left with dozens more that I regretted not visiting.
Is Sri Lanka Safe To Visit?
Yes. The Civil War ended over a decade ago and the country is very much at peace. The Sri Lankan people are welcoming, hospitable, and very friendly. However, I have heard some things from solo travelers, especially female ones, where they have said that they felt uncomfortable from overly pushy men who might act inappropriately.
The only time you will probably feel unsafe is when you are on a local Sri Lankan bus being driven by a lunatic, which might happen quite often. I still haven’t figured out whether Sri Lankan drivers are terrible drivers or extremely talented.
Fairly Significant Update
Since I started writing this, there have been some devastating terrorist attacks throughout the country. They all happened on April 21st, 2019, targeting churches on Easter and tourist hotspots like five-star hotels. This was one of the worst terror attacks in modern history, and the first major attack to happen in Sri Lanka since the Civil War ended in 2009.
Following the attack, countries have encouraged heightened caution to those traveling to Sri Lanka. I will update this as frequently as I can with any new revelations or new updates regarding the safety of the country.
April 27, 2019 Update
There has not been any major terrorist attacks following the ones on Easter but the situation has not exactly been safe. The U.S. Department of State has recommended that all U.S. citizens that don’t need to be in Sri Lanka should pull out, signaling that the threat of more terrorist attacks is of significant concern. Raids by the Sri Lankan military have revealed the surprising presence of the Islamic State terrorist organization in parts of the country. Explosives are still being found and it is best to stay on the safe side for now.
Is Sri Lanka A Poor Country?
It is a developing country. Parts of the country are still very rural but to call them poor would not be the right word. The way of life is far different than Western countries and some travelers might perceive that to mean the country is poor. Without sugarcoating it, most rural Sri Lankan people do not have anywhere near the luxuries and comforts that most people from Western countries are afforded.
Sri Lanka is definitely not a first-world country but I have yet to encounter any areas of overwhelming poverty like you might find in other developing countries. In fact, Sri Lanka is one of only a handful of South Asian countries that rank highly in the Human Development Index.
Is Sri Lanka Expensive?
The most expensive thing will be the flight. Everything else in Sri Lanka is extremely affordable. As a budget backpacker, I can find decent accommodation for under $10 a night in most places. I’ve also found that I’ve been spoiling myself with private rooms more often on this trip because those are also affordable as well. For a basic one, you can expect to pay at most $20.
As far as food goes, I have yet to pay more than $3 for a local meal. And these portions are as generous as they are delicious. You can get fat portions of street food for less than $1. Bottled water also runs at about $.50 per liter, sometimes more in more touristic places and in restaurants.
Transportation is almost a negligible cost while traveling through Sri Lanka. Most local buses and local trains can get you across the country for under $5 total. Private tuk-tuks might be the most expensive part of transportation, and even those will run you $3 to get you anywhere within a city.
Do They Speak English in Sri Lanka?
In most tourist cities, there will be a lot of fluent English speakers. In smaller, more rural cities, not so much. Less than a quarter of the country’s population speaks English, and most of them will be concentrated in the big cities, business centers, and tourist hubs.
The languages that are widely spoken in Sri Lanka are Sinhala and Tamil. Let’s just get one thing out of the way. Their written language will be impossible to decipher if you have no familiarity with Sinhala or Tamil. That also makes it difficult to use Google translate as a cheat sheet since the alphabets and written letters are completely different. However, there are more languages than just spoken ones, and the universal language of being a confused tourist will get you by just fine. The language barrier has not posed a single issue for me thus far.
What Is Sri Lanka’s Weather Like?
Sri Lanka’s climate varies drastically depending on what part of the country you are in. The mountains can be very cool and temperate. The flatter, farmlands can be excruciatingly hot. Sri Lanka’s heat is also among the hottest I have ever experienced. In hotter areas, I allocated midday to lay in the air conditioning and do absolutely nothing. When monsoon season hits, the rain can be unrelenting. I’ve heard that you might be unable to do anything at all during the rainy season.
You’ll have to check what the weather is like for the time of year that you are going, as well as each individual city that you plan on going to. For example, I am in Nallathariya right now and it is 64 degrees. It was 100 degrees in Polonnaruwa just a few hours away. There’s no one-size-fits-all way to describe Sri Lanka’s weather.
Is Sri Lanka’s Water Safe To Drink?
No. Bottled water is your safest bet.
There are a lot of water refill stations throughout the country but the water just doesn’t taste trustworthy or clean. A lot of the local Sri Lankans use them but even with my stomach of steel, I’ve opted for just buying bottled water and refilling whenever my accommodation has a water cooler.
What Are The Best Places To Go In Sri Lanka?
This quick cheat sheet for Sri Lanka would turn into a dissertation if I were to go into detail about all of the places that you should go to in Sri Lanka, so I’ll try to sum it up and categorize the main tourist destinations as quick as I can. I’ve also linked to more in-depth articles about each place so that you can read up on it yourself if it piques your interest.
The Main Tourist Destinations of Sri Lanka
Best Places To See Mountains and Nature in Sri Lanka
Ella – Sri Lanka’s most Instagram-friendly destination, featuring the Nine Arches Bridge, Ella Rock, Little Adam’s Peak, several stunning waterfalls, and endless tea plantations.
Nuwara Eliya – A town in the mountains a little more than halfway between Kandy and Ella’s iconic train ride. Home to lesser-known hikes that rival Ella in beauty.
Haputale – Another town tucked away in the lush mountains about an hour before Ella, home to the popular hike up to Lipton’s Seat
Sigiriya – A bustling tourist hub in the center of the country, home to Sri Lanka’s most iconic view: Lion Rock at sunrise.
Hatton (Adam’s Peak) – The kickoff point for the grueling pilgrimage that is holy to Sri Lanka’s four religions: Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Tourism.
The Best Beach Towns In Sri Lanka
Arugam Bay – a world-famous surfing destination on the East Coast
Mirissa – Sri Lanka’s hottest nightlife and beach destination
Weligama – a trendy surf town neighboring Mirissa
Trincomalee – one of the most popular beach destinations on the East Coast
Negombo – a chilled out beach town close to the international airport
Talalla – one of the quieter, more local spots on Sri Lanka’s southern coast
Hiriketiya – an up-and-coming surf destination in Sri Lakna’s southern coast
Hikkaduwa – a popular spot for people to see sea turtles on the beach
Bentota – one of Sri Lanka’s most popular and developed beach destinations
The Best Cultural Cities To Visit in Sri Lanka
Polonnaruwa – home to an impressive archaeological complex worthy of a day-trip from Sigiriya/Dambulla
Anuradhapura – a massive archaeological complex and former hub of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, still home to many of Buddhism’s holiest sites in the country
Kandy – the unavoidable tourism hub of central Sri Lanka, home to the Temple of the Tooth and other religious and cultural monuments
Jaffna – a bustling city in the north of Sri Lanka and a big hub of Hindu culture
Galle – a well-preserved colonial town with some of the best aimless wandering Sri Lanka has to offer
Colombo – Sri Lanka’s bustling port-of-entry
The Best National Parks To Visit in Sri Lanka
Yala National Park – the most popular national park to see leopards, as well as elephants, crocodiles, water buffalo, monkeys, and more.
Minneriya National Park / Kadulla National Park – an almost guaranteed chances to see large herds of elephants
Udawalawe National Park – a national park in the south of the country that is home to a lot of elephants
What Is The Best Way To Travel Through Sri Lanka?
By bus or by train is by far the cheapest and most popular form of transportation in Sri Lanka for both tourists and locals. Not only are they extremely affordable, they can also be very scenic and provide very… unique experiences. When you immerse yourself in the local transportation, you will find that it is one of the best ways to get a glimpse into the local life and local culture of Sri Lanka.
Some people also hire private drivers for their entire time in Sri Lanka. That is clearly a much pricier alternative, but like I said, Sri Lanka is a country that attracts all types of travelers. I ain’t got that kind of money but if I did, I’ll admit the convenience factor is very tempting.
If you are traveling with a group, it might also be a good option to split intercity taxis. Following the terror attacks, a few friends and I decided to split a private car straight to the airport from Mirissa to avoid major transportation hubs and Colombo city altogether. It cost less than $60 for a nearly three-hour ride, which came out to less than $20 each for the three of us.
You can also hire a scooter, although I’ve found that Sri Lankan scooter rentals are more expensive than other countries where scooter rental is popular. Most of the ones I’ve seen will run you around $10 per day. If you’re looking to borrow the scooter long-term, you might be able to get a better price on it.
Is Sri Lanka A Good Country For Backpackers?
Absolutely. There are plenty of hostels and budget accommodation options all throughout the country. You will be able to meet fellow travelers pretty easily, although in some lesser-visited cities, you might find yourself to be one of the only other travelers there. However, getting your feet set in somewhere like Kandy, Mirissa, or Ella will help you meet people and make travel buddies pretty easily.
What Is The Drinking Culture Like in Sri Lanka?
For most of the country, it is pretty close to nonexistent if we’re being honest. There is not much of a drinking culture in Sri Lanka at all if that is what you are looking for. The backpackers looking to party will most likely find themselves in a beach town like Mirissa. On the other hand, many cities hosting holy sites, which there are a lot of, will not sell beer or liquor whatsoever.
That’s not to say that you can’t have a good time in Sri Lanka. There is a party culture in the surf towns, with Weligama and Mirissa even being home to some bars that stay open til very early in the morning. A friend of mine even said one of the clubs she went to had people selling MDMA on the dance floor. I didn’t experience that myself but the more touristy beach and surf towns are definitely a sharp contrast to the more cultural places in the north.
What Is The Wi-Fi Situation Like In Sri Lanka?
Not great. Most hotels and hostels will have Wi-Fi that is good enough for the absolute bare minimum. Get a sim card. Sim cards are very cheap. Tourist SIMs you can get at the airport for $7 USD for 10 Gigabytes of data. The cell network is very reliable and aside from national parks, I’ve found that I have signal almost everywhere in the country.
Is Sri Lanka A Good Place For Digital Nomads?
Wi-Fi in the smaller cities is difficult to find. When you find it, it will be far from reliable. Kandy, Mirissa, and Colombo have had the best Wi-Fi that I’ve found so far. If you need extremely fast Wi-Fi speeds for large uploads or frequent video calls, the Wi-Fi in these areas will be unsatisfactory at best.
If your work does not require too much of an online presence, I’ve found that a lot of people find work in Sri Lanka pretty easily. Yoga teachers, hostel volunteers, restaurant works, surf instructors, and other quick gigs can help stretch your money while you travel.
Important Customs and Etiquettes To Be Aware Of
Dress appropriately at temples. Keep your knees and shoulders covered and don’t wear hats and shoes when entering Buddhist holy places. Also, don’t take photos with your back facing important religious figures. Don’t do anything disrespectful, such as posing with Buddhas or doing anything silly at a place where people are clearly worshipping.
The tipping culture in Sri Lanka varies from place to place. I feel like most places do not expect tip but will be more than happy to accept a tip if given. I recommend tipping at restaurants just because most of the food is so cheap anyway.
A lot of seemingly random days will hold significant religious prominence that might serve as a surprise inconvenience. I was in Sri Lanka for Sinhala and Tamil New Year. A lot of restaurants, stores, and supermarkets were closed, and the few that were open were overcrowded because tourists had limited choices. Another thing to note is the significance of the full moon. Some more devout places won’t serve alcohol during the full moon nights, or stay closed altogether.
To Sum It Up…
Sri Lanka is an unbelievably beautiful, diverse, and culturally-rich country. You can go cycling through millennia-old archaeological complexes in the morning and go on an elephant safari in the afternoon. You can hike up a mountain for an epic sunrise then make it to the beach for a surf sesh at sunset. Sri Lanka is unrivaled in how much it packs into such a small size.
It is growing rapidly as a popular tourist destination, so the best time to visit is sooner rather than later. It is still extremely cheap to travel to, and a lot of your adventures still feel very local and very authentic. It is the perfect country for all types of travelers.