From the moment we landed in Sri Lanka, my inbox started filling up with messages asking about where we were going (& in what order), what sites we were seeing, if the country was safe or if we had packaged along anti-malarial pills, and basic pleas for any/all tips and tricks we might be able to share. After leaving Sri Lanka, that kind of urgency for info made complete sense. There really are not that many American tourists that make their way here, and although there are a lot of very helpful itineraries and suggestion pages for the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean,” they’re often written with comparisons to European countries I know many Sri-Lanka-headed Americans probably have not gotten to yet (this beach is just like X beach in Greece offseason, this town feels like X town in Spain in the summer, you get what I mean).
I want this list to be as helpful as humanly possible, so I’ve segmented it into specific areas of “concern” for anyone planning a trip. If you’re wondering about one thing only, you can skip around and find a quick answer.
Obviously, we were only there for three weeks, so we don’t know absolutely everything (not even close), but we can speak to what worked for us and what didn’t, the vibe of the country and its genuinely kind people, the kind of infrastructure that makes travel super easy or super not-so-easy, and the food (such. good. food.). This isn’t sponsored or anything, so there doesn’t have to be an inkling of concern over whether or not our opinions have been swayed by a free room (spoiler alert: they never are, we’re always honest).
I also know that people like to travel in about a million different ways. Some like to immerse themselves, some like to rough it, some like to know exactly where they’re heading next, some like to leave things open-ended. Remember, I’m framing all of our suggestions from my twenty-five year old female married American well-traveled mind. This means I probably won’t suggest that couch surfing app (as a girl, that’s just not something I would ever do, but I get why guys love it), and will probably list out a lot of slightly neurotic concerns that were put to bed while we were there (I’m kind of a worrier). Regardless, I’ll make a note of it if I think a traveler after something different would want to do something different in any area we talk about. Here we go !
On Getting Here
If you’re coming to Sri Lanka from Europe (and especially the U.S.) your flight is going to be a long one. You’ll fly into Colombo, grab your bags, and immediately be met with different people coming up to you and offering to coordinate a taxi. They have noticed that you look like a tourist, and are on the attack (not in a violent way, they just want you to choose their taxi company). They will have you pre-pay in the airport for the distance you’re going, give you a receipt, and send you off with your driver. If you want to avoid this mayhem, you can coordinate the driver with wherever you’ve chosen to stay that first night. Just because of how long getting here can be, we definitely suggest staying in or near Colombo for your first night. When we talk about transportation in country you’ll realize why…
Movenpick Colombo and Shangri-La Colombo are two great (high-end) options, we’ve heard amazing things about Tintagel Colombo just outside the city, or Negombo which isn’t too far away either and adds the perk of getting you out of the madness of Colombo and closer to the natural scenery you’re probably after.
On Transportation in Country
Once you’ve plotted your itinerary, the next biggest concern for people is typically transportation. I have one simple answer and one simple suggestion: the driving is mayhem and you’re going to want to hire a driver. We used Holidays by Splendour, and even though I wasn’t sure about shelling out the money to do this (at first), it was the number one thing we did we would absolutely never not do if we were to return, and it’s honestly pennies compared to what you would pay for a private driver for weeks at a time in America. Our driver, Malith, became a good friend. He hiked with us, taught us a lot about the culture on long drives, seemed to be buddies with absolutely everyone around the country, would stop and grab lunch with us if needed, and was probably one of the safest drivers I’ve ever driven with. Please do yourself a favor and if you’re traveling with friends across long distances and are used to European or American style travel and less familiar with travel through areas like southeast Asia, bite the bullet and get a driver. There are cows and tuk-tuks and elephants and pedestrians and very few rules when it comes to driving here. You’re not as good as you think you are.
When you just want to pop over from here to there within a town or city, you’re going to want to go with tuk-tuks, because they’re cheap and they’re fun! It costs all of three dollars to take you across town to a beach and back. Tuk-tuks also are surprisingly good over rough, bumpy streets. We took one up to the beginning of a hiking trail basically through a pot hole ridden jungle path, and the driver was completely unfazed.
On Vaccines / Getting Sick
Sri Lanka was one of the first countries that was able to almost completely eradicate malaria, even though it was once a big issue here. Porter and I didn’t get any vaccines before leaving, but were both up to date on the run-of-the-mill ones in America (like, Tetanus and MMB). I know that because Sri Lanka is super far away and a tropical climate, a lot of people think you’ll need about a half dozen shots. Check out this list if you want to cross-check what you’re up to date on or what you feel is necessary. I felt totally safe and fine just being up to date on the usual ones.
Every single one of our friends who has been to India has gotten really, really stomach sick while there, so I was definitely fearing the probability that this would happen to me (I have a weak stomach) or Porter, just because Sri Lanka is so close. I really shouldn’t have worried. The food in Sri Lanka is so incredibly clean and local, pretty typically gluten-free (a whole lot of rice) and vegan (coconut cream is often used instead of dairy) that I honestly had more upset stomachs when we were in Europe. I also remember when I went to Ecuador being told to be careful not to swallow too much tap water when brushing my teeth in the first couple of days as my body got acclimated. I haven’t read any sort of suggestions for this kind of thing in Sri Lanka and definitely don’t think something like that would be necessary. The food is amazing and the number of tourists that get stomach sick here are about 90 percent fewer than in the country just above it.
Now for the fun part: suggestions on what you should eat. So weird, but pumpkin is a primary ingredient because it grows in Sri Lanka, so have a lot of soups and pumpkin sides. They’re amazing and usually have coconut and cinnamon too, and I’m going to try to recreate some of those recipes at home soon. Also, you have to try jackfruit, which is prepared about a million different ways and is local to the island. It’s kind of hearty and is used as a meat replacement a lot and every bit of the fruit and tree is used in a different way to make tools and bowls and about a million different dishes. Every kind of curry under the sun is available here and probably worth trying, but the spice is no joke, and if they say it’s spicy, they mean it (Porter learned this the hard way a couple of times). The food is amazing, and you can eat a ton of it without feeling uncomfortably stuffed the next day (again, I think this is because it’s mostly all gluten free).
On What To Pack
Hot weather and a laid back atmosphere means you aren’t going to have to pack a lot of “fancy” stuff. I wore casual light dresses during the day and slightly nicer dresses or sets for dinner in the evening. It’s very hot, so constantly being in and out of the water, throwing a cover-up dress on was just the easiest during the day. Definitely bring strong sunscreen (some SPF’s can be hard to find), avoid packing stuff that isn’t breathable in humidity (like denim), and be conscious of the fact that if you’re visiting Buddhist sites, your knees and shoulders are going to have to be covered.
About nine years ago now, a civil war that had lasted a quarter of a century in Sri Lanka came to an end. The country wasn’t a safe place to be for tourists during that war, and my primary concern before heading there was if any sections of the country still had tension or if there were unclaimed land mines anywhere (we’re photographers, so we tend to wander into a lot of rural fields). Nothing about Sri Lanka indicates that it was so recently a place ridden with struggles and violence. Developmentally, the infrastructure is behind what it possibly could have been without the war, but the people there in no way carry the kind of deflated energy of a people who have just been through a really rough period of time. We talked about this with a lot of locals, and the gist of what they said was always a “we’ve moved on from that” mentality, which I imagine is what most people would want to do after such a drawn out violent time.
I felt completely safe in Sri Lanka. From the cities to the most rural areas, everyone greets one another with a smile and a warm hello, or a bow and praying hands. Everyone is quick to help one another (or lost tourists) with directions and loves to stop for a chat about where you come from and the beauty of their island nation. Something I also loved about this country was the number of parents and children joyfully hanging out together everywhere. It was like every street you passed by or walked down there was a dad playing a game with his son, or a mom making her baby laugh. This is a joy-infused country, and you’re going to be too busy smiling to worry about the extremely unlikely possibility of something bad happening.
On Where to Travel Before or After
I’ve gotten a few questions about where good places to head to before or after Sri Lanka are, because a lot of people who are coming to this section of the world want to stopover in at least one other country while they’re here. The Maldives are definitely the closest (only an hour flight), but Singapore isn’t far either (four hour flight). I would definitely suggest either of those! If you’re looking to break up the flight home (if home is Europe or the U.S.) Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Doha are halfway points to Europe definitely worth checking out! India is obviously right next door, as well, but is such a huge country that you may just want to explore some cities in the south.
On Where To Go & In What Order
Our itinerary went: Colombo, Kandy, Sigiriya, Ella, Yala, Galle, Lake Koggala, back to Colombo. It was a little all over the place because of when we were working with different hotels, but we got to see a whole lot. The itinerary I’m going to outline is going to be what we’d do the next time around, based off of what we’ve learned.
Fly into Colombo, spend two nights getting acclimated to the time difference somewhere close by but outside of the city, probably just north in Negombo. From there, I would head to the rural sections of Kandy, where tea plantations and rolling hills are the norm for at least three nights. We stayed at Santani Wellness Resort and, for me, it was the highlight of the trip. Here you really start to feel like you’re in the heart of an untouched distant land and get to meet and interact with the locals involved in world of tea (which, of course, Sri Lanka is known for!).
Next we’d make the drive from Kandy to Ella (or train if that’s on your list) and spend a night or two wandering around the rural sections of Ella to different rice paddies and eating lots of local food. We stayed at Jetwing Kaduruketha, and it was a perfect base to explore from (the Jetwing group has hotels all over the country and is an awesome middle-budget option, food was so cheap and delicious, too). From there, we’d head to Arugam Bay or maybe Mirissa. This time around, we went to Galle, and to be totally honest, we weren’t wild about it. It’s close to Colombo and has a huge stretch of coast and lots of hotels and restaurants, so it’s very very popular with tourists. Port and I both aren’t super crazy about places that already feel “discovered” and tend to like quieter spots, so once we saw it once we wouldn’t go back. Too crowded, too many people everywhere, locals trying to sell you stuff on the beach, etc. Galle just wasn’t our vibe. Arugam Bay, from what we’ve read is totally different, a lot quieter, empty beaches, incredible surf, and a more laid back atmosphere. I would probably want to stay at The Hideway, but they have surf lodges for as little as 16 USD a night. Mirissa is another coastal town that’s supposedly slower-paced with almost as many great food spots as Galle. Triple O Six and Mandara both look like great options.
From there, we’d head to Yala, the national park that (in our opinion) takes the cake over every other. Here you can see leopards, elephants, water buffalo, sloth bears (look them up, they’re adorable), deer, and about a million different neon bird species in all of three hours. We really preferred Yala to Sigiriya because of the volume of safari cars in the park at any given time, and also because the guides seemed to be a lot more knowledgeable and talkative when it came to talking about the animals. Even still, we suggest going on the earliest safaris possible (leaving around 5 am) for the kind of sacredness that being the only ones out in the park brings. It’s so worth the wake up. We stayed at Wild Coast Tented Lodge. It is undeniably incredibly expensive, but staying there was honestly a once in a lifetime experience. For sure worth considering for an extremely special occasion, like a honeymoon.
Lastly, we’d head to Lake Koggala, which is so stunning, riddled with monkeys and water monitors (or baby Komodo dragons, as I called them) and close enough to Colombo that you can stay there before you fly out. We stayed at Hotel Tri and, again, totally beautiful but expensive. Any lakeside hotel in this area is going to be beautiful. The haze on the water in the morning, and the local fisherman that make their way out onto it in handmade canoes at dawn is a visual I’m never going to forget.
On The Train to Ella
The number one thing tourists seem to do when they get to Sri Lanka is take the train from Kandy to Ella. It’s a gorgeous vintage-looking train ride through the hill country that lasts about six hours. Porter and I chose not to do this just based on our own travel comforts. We were already doing a lot of long drives while we were in Sri Lanka (about four five hour drives), and while the train is known for being a really cool experience, it’s also a super touristy one, a super crowded one, and a super hot, sticky one. Friends who have done it have told us that those quintessential pictures you see of someone leaning out the window or sitting by the steps aboard last all of two minutes because then it’s someone else’s turn to get a photo. We weren’t digging the idea of that, so we skipped it.
On How Long To Stay
Two and half weeks is a good amount of time to see everything in the itinerary we listed above, but if you’re a little more fast-paced you could definitely do it in two. If you like to have “down days” between hectic ones, I would definitely stretch closer to three weeks if possible, but fortunately a lot of activities in Sri Lanka (like safaris) are so relaxing that they’re kind of like a down day.
I hope this was helpful. if you have anymore questions the sites we most often use for authentic travel info are The Telegraph and Lonely Planet. Also Rome2Rio saves us every time on accurately telling us how to get from any Point A to any Point B. It’s probably the most indispensable website we use when planning (other than Google).
If you’re heading to Sri Lanka, have an amazing time! If I can promise anything, it’s that the soul of the people there combined with the landscapes will make it a vibrant, unforgettable experience.
Anna Lisa & Porter