There’s a lot to discover in Sri Lanka. This small island nation to the south of India is jam-packed with ancient ruins, verdant jungles, sunny beaches, incredible food, and friendly people, so you can see why it’s constantly becoming more popular as an alternative to the usual tourist destinations. In some ways, Sri Lanka bridges the gap between India and Southeast Asia, as it shares a lot of the appeal of both destinations. However, it’s also very much its own place, one with a lot of cultural (not to mention culinary) flavour to discover. It’s fast-becoming one of the coolest spots to head to on an Asian vacation, so beat the crowds and plan a Sri Lanka vacation for your near future.
A brief overview
You’ll find Sri Lanka just to the southeast of India, located in the Indian Ocean. People have lived on the island for at least 3,000 years and archaeological evidence points to at least 125,000 years of pre-historic activity on the island. So when we say that Sri Lanka has been around for a while, we mean a while.
After centuries of rule by various Buddhist and Hindu kingdoms, the island became a significant trade stop during the Middle Ages and was colonized by the British in 1815. It existed under the name Ceylon under British rule for over a century until 1972, when the country gained independence and promptly erupted into civil war which lasted until 2009. Today, Sri Lanka is finally stable and ready to show off its incredible island and culture to the world.
When to go
There are three distinct travel seasons for a Sri Lanka vacation. The high season is between December and March, when the beaches in the south and west are crowded with foreigners escaping cold temperatures back home. This period coincides with monsoon season that drenches the north and east in rain from October through January.
The shoulder season comes in April and again from September to November. These are the best times to experience the island nation’s great weather for a reasonable price. It might not be the most popular time of year to head on a trip to Sri Lanka, but it’s arguably the best.
The low season comes from May to August, when the wet season drenches the south and west of the island. You’ll find prices in Sri Lanka most affordable during this time period, but you’ll have to contend with many of the most popular spots in the country being a little soggy.
Where to start
You can situate yourself in most spots of the country and have a grand ol’ time. However, there are a few large cities that are particularly good to start with when on a Sri Lanka vacation.
The capital city, Colombo, is a natural starting point on your journey across the island as it is home to the main international airport. Once known as the “Garden City of the East,” Colombo hasn’t quite regained that lauded status but it is hard at work at reestablishing itself as a meeting point between East and West. Truth is, Colombo is sprawling even by western standards, but there is a lot of culture to discover here. Aside from local cultural influences, Colombo passed between the Portuguese, Dutch, and British, so it bears imprints of all these colonial powers. The city centre has a lot of charming colonial architecture, while the bustling markets and malls are great places to go for last-minute souvenirs before your return flight. You’ll also find attractive beach resorts accessible to the north and south, in Negombo and Kalutara.
On the southwest coast, you’ll find Galle, which used to be a Dutch trading port during the colonial era. Today, Galle is a sleepy town that’s perfect for travellers who want a break from the bustle of typical backpacker havens and tourist hotspots. There isn’t much of a nightlife here, but there is a lot of history and sophistication. The old Portuguese Fort is the chief attraction in town, but the city centre as a whole has all manner of mosques, churches, and colonial mansions that outshine the buildings to be found in most comparable towns in South and Southeast Asia.
If you want a taste for ordinary life in Sri Lanka, head to Kandy, which bridges the gap between historical capital and bustling modern city. The climate is wet and warm, which is typical for the island, but it’s also gorgeous come rain or shine as it sits alongside picturesque Kandy Lake. In the summer, the city erupts with festivals such as the Kandy Esala Perahera, which takes place in July and early August. The Esala Perahera centres on Kandy’s chief attraction: the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, which houses a tooth of the Buddha himself.
What to do
There’s a lot to occupy you as you explore Sri Lanka, but few attractions hold as much sway as its historical sites. The northern city of Anuradhapura is the nation’s former capital city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, full of Buddhist ruins from the period of the Anuradhapura Kingdom (377BC to 1017AD). You can survey the archaeological sites and marvel at the remnants of Sri Lanka’s past. In Polonnaruwa, you can explore another slice of Sri Lankan history: the Kingdom of Polonnaruwa, which reigned over the country from the 11th to early 14th centuries. Polonnaruwa is remarkable for its hundreds of temple ruins and tombs spread over the landscape, the most spectacular of which is the Quadrangle, an ancient Buddhist structure that sits at the heart of the ruins.
In Kataragama, you can delve even deeper into the country’s religious tradition by witnessing the pilgrimage that attracts thousands of religious visitors every year during the summer. Pilgrims travel by foot from the north to the south over the course of two months, passing into Kataragama Temple during the final leg of the journey. Probably the most significant ancient site on the island is Sigiriya. Rising out of the jungle, this massive rock is defined by it steep walls and plateau crowned by ruins. The ancient Kingdom of Kassapa built a series of fortifications on top of the rock, with palace or fortress ruins remaining to this day. When you visit Sigiriya, you can climb the zigzagging staircases up the rock to reach the summit and explore the ruins for yourself. The views from the plateau are remarkable, but the sight of the rock from the ground, jutting out of the green earth, is a marvel in itself.
If you aren’t a history buff, you’ll still find a lot to occupy you on a Sri Lanka vacation. The country is famous for its beaches, whether that’s the stretch around Colombo in Negombo and Kalutara, or Unawatuna, near the town of Galle. The jungles are also incredible, none more so than Yala National Park in the country’s southeast. As the nation’s most famous nature reserve, Yala National Park is home to over 1,200 square-kilometres of plains, forests, and lagoons where you can spot monkeys, elephants, buffalo, and all manner of fascinating plants and flowers. The humid and warm climate of Sri Lanka makes it an island abounding with natural diversity, and there are few better spots to better appreciate this diversity than Yala National Park.
What to eat
If you like spicy food, you’re in for a treat in Sri Lanka. If you’ve never had Sri Lankan food before, you’re excused for thinking it’s similar to Indian cuisine. As Sri Lanka is geographically close to India, it makes sense that influences have carried over between the cuisines. However, it is very much its own cuisine, with an incredible blend of flavours and potent spices waiting for you to enjoy.
Like many South and Southeast Asian foods, Sri Lankan food relies heavily on rice and curry. In fact, main dishes are often called simply that: “rice and curry.” Aside from rice and the cardamom and curry spices that are essential for flavouring, coconut and local fruits and veggies are the other staples present in almost every meal. The common meat used is often seafood like crab or fish, pork, chicken, or even lamb and goat.
Like in many cultures, Sri Lankans enjoy three meals a day. Breakfasts are eaten shortly after sunrise and consist of fresh fruit and hoppers, which are essentially round crepes made from rice and coconut. Lunch is the main meal of the day and eaten between noon and 2:30pm. It consists of rice and curry, usually made with large chunks of whatever meat is available on hand. The rice and curry is always accompanied by side dishes such as lentil crisps, dhal, coconut sambal, onion relish, and sour lime pickles. In the evening, people enjoy a dinner consisting of smaller dishes such as spicy seafood curry or fried rice. Dinner is eaten between 7 and 9pm.
Other popular dishes include dosas (thin pancakes served with spicy veggies), biryanis, and roti. If you’re truly wanting to enjoy unique Sri Lankan dishes, order sour fish curry or kale mallung (which is a tabbouleh-like dish composed of chopped greens, coconut, and onion). No matter your tastes, food will be a definite highlight of your Sri Lanka vacation.
How to get around
Since Sri Lanka is small, it’s relatively easy to get around. That being said, transit infrastructure is not up to par with European or East Asian countries. Buses and trains are your cheapest and most convenient options to get around the country. Public transit can be crowded, especially on buses, but it’s an authentic experience and very cheap (if you’ve ever wanted to stand during a bus trip, here’s your chance). Buses are quicker than trains, but generally more hectic. Public transportation is more crowded than private options, but private buses are more comfortable and generally faster. However, they are at least twice the cost of public transportation.
You can also rent a car or hire a car and driver to get around the country on your own schedule or do a self-drive. However, road conditions can be a little dangerous and road rules are different than in the west. If you’re dead-set on travelling by car, it’s smarter to hire a car and driver than to drive yourself. Not only are cars and drivers affordable to most foreign travellers, but hiring one also lets you get to know a local as you tour the country. You can also rent bikes and cycle around cities as an easy way to get around locally. Historical sites like Anuradhapura and Sigiriya are your best spots for biking.
Sri Lanka has too long been associated with civil war and strife. However, the country has turned a corner and is fast emerging as one of the hotspots of Asian travel. A Sri Lanka vacation promises the opportunity to explore fascinating historical ruins, venture through lush jungles, relax on white-sand beaches, and enjoy delicious and spicy food. It’s a small nation with a lot of flavour to discover on your next vacation.