Sri Lanka has a huge amount packed into a small island: long beaches, ancient cities and temples, and national parks filled with elephants, leopards, bears and more. Sri Lanka is a great holiday destination if you want to combine travelling with a beach holiday.
Sri Lanka is increasing in popularity for tourists and the whole of the country is now accessible to tourists following the end of the Civil War in 2009.
Our travel experts can help you plan and book the perfect bespoke Sri Lanka holiday. All of our itineraries are 100% tailor-made so we will find the best places for you to stay and make sure every part of the trip matches your specific needs.
Beach Holidays in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has lots of options for beach holidays, ranging from small isolated beaches with a single hotel, to larger resorts with a mixture of luxury and more basic accommodation.
Sri Lanka South West Coast Beach Holidays
The south-west coast between Tangalle and Bentota is the most popular and most developed area in Sri Lanka for beach holidays. If you plan to visit Sri Lanka just for a beach holiday then this is the area to stay – it also has the advantage of being close to the airport.
The area is good for diving, with many places able to organise trips. There are also whales, turtle farms and some good beaches for surfing.
Galle / Habaraduwa Beach Holidays
Galle, and the nearby town of Habaraduwa, is surrounded by lots of beaches with a range of accommodation including lots of luxury beach resorts.
Aside from the long, palm fringed beaches (which you will find all along the south-west coast) the area is popular for its proximity to Galle (see section on Galle city below) and its turtle farms and whale watching.
Along the coast there are lots of bars and restaurants, as well as watersports. This area is probably the most developed and liveliest in the south-west and is ideal if you are looking for some nightlife.
Tangalle Beach Holidays
Further east along the coast from Galle is the town of Tangalle. The area around Tangalle is less developed than Galle, however, new luxury resorts have been opening. Fishing remains one of the main industries in the area and it is famous for its unique style where the fishermen sit on top of a wooden pole embedded in the sea floor.
Although the area is becoming more popular as a beach destination, it is much quieter than the areas around Galle.
Bentota Beach Holidays
Bentota is halfway between Galle and Colombo, making it a great place to either start or finish your holiday as it is the closest beach resort to the airport. There a number of luxury resorts in the area, but the town has not yet been taken over by tourists.
Visitors benefit from access to both the sea and the Bentota lagoon. The area is particularly good for water sports with lots of waterskiing, windsurfing and surfing.
Sri Lanka West Coast Beach Holidays
North of Colombo on the west coast there are a few beach holiday options. These are generally not as good as elsewhere in Sri Lanka, but are a good option for a few days if you are travelling around the island.
Negombo Beach Holidays
Negombo is only a few kilometres from the airport, so makes a good first or last stop on your trip around Sri Lanka.
There are hotels along the beach in Negombo itself or others to the north of the city that are more isolated. The beaches are long and safe for swimming, and there are some good dive sites nearby.
Negombo is a lively city with good nightlife, some interesting colonial architecture and a very busy fish market.
Kalpitiya Beach Holidays
Kalipitiya is much lower key than other beach resorts in Sri Lanka. Located in the north-west the area has only recently started to develop as a location for beach holidays. There are several luxury options (although all are unusual in their own way), and at only 2 hours’ drive from the airport, Kalpitiya is a good option if you are looking for a less visited location for a luxury beach holiday in Sri Lanka.
The area is great for kitesurfing, as well as whale and dolphin watching.
Sri Lanka East Coast Beach Holidays
Much of the east coast has only been accessible to tourists since the civil war ended so is less developed than the south-west, however, it has some of the best beaches on the island and several new luxury resorts have been built. So if you are looking for a quieter holiday in Sri Lanka this may be a better option than the South-West coast.
Arugam Bay Beach Holidays
Arugam Bay is at the south-east point of the island and has the best surfing on the island. Renting a board is easy, and there are lots of surf schools for those who want to give it a go. The town primarily caters to backpackers but there is some more upmarket accommodation. As expected for a backpacker town there is good nightlife.
Kumana National Park is very close to Arugam Bay and can easily be done as a day trip.
Batticaloa and Passikudah Beach Holidays
Batticaloa is halfway up the east coast of Sri Lanka. Most of the beach resorts in the area are on Passikudah Beach to the north of the city. The beach at Passikudah slopes very gently down into the sea – you can walk out a long way and still be able to stand comfortably. The water is so clear that as you walk out you won’t need snorkelling equipment to see the colourful marine life. Take a boat further out and you have a good chance of being able to spot dolphins.
From Passikudah the colonial fort city of Batticaloa is only 30 minutes’ drive away, and the ancient city of Polonnaruwa just over an hour away.
Trincomalee Beach Holidays
The consensus amongst Sri Lankans is that the best beaches on the island are around the northeastern city of Trincomalee. Most of the beach resorts are at Uppuveli or Nilaveli. The beaches are great for sunbathing, snorkelling and surfing. There are good dive sites nearby as well.
Trincomalee itself is worth a visit. The city was highly sought after by the Portuguese, Dutch and British due to its deep port. The Portuguese Fort is a testament to how important Trincomalee was to the colonial powers. The most popular site in Trincomalee is the Koneswaram Temple – originally built over 2000 years ago this Hindu temple has been destroyed and rebuilt several times and is one of the holiest sites in Sri Lanka for Hindus.
Cities and Cultural Sites
Sri Lanka has been inhabited for hundreds of thousands of years, with its first real kingdom – based at Anuradhapura – beginning around 2500 years ago. For the following 2000 years the capital moved around a lot as kingdoms fell due to internal and external attacks. Around 500 years ago Portugal began to colonise the island, followed by the Dutch and British. Sri Lanka gained partial independence from Britain in 1948, before becoming a full republic in 1972. This history – combined with its religious diversity – makes Sri Lanka a very interesting destination with lots to see.
South West Sri Lanka
Colombo is the capital of Sri Lanka and its largest city. Its location near the airport makes it a good place to spend a few days at the beginning or end of your holiday. The city has a modern commercial feel, but there are areas and sites of cultural interest.
The fort area contains lots of colonial buildings and hotels, including the Old Dutch Hospital that now houses several good bars and restaurants. Along from the fort is Galle Face Green, a long open stretch by the sea that is popular with kite flyers and is a good area for a walk.
There are a number of lakes in the city. Bere Lake has a small, peaceful island in the centre that you can reach by a small footbridge. At the edge of the lake is the Seema Malaka Temple, and nearby is the Gangaramaya Temple – one of the most important in Colombo.
There are a few museums in Colombo – the best is the National Museum, which covers Sri Lankan history in a lot of detail, and is the best museum of its type in the country.
Colombo is a lively city with lots of bars and restaurants. The Old Dutch hospital is a good place to start (and the Ministry of Crab in particular) but there are plenty of others spread out around the city, covering a variety of cuisines.
Galle was initially occupied by the Portuguese when they first began colonising the island. The Dutch took over and built most of what is seen in Galle today, including the fort, before the British gained control.
Galle is a very well preserved fortified colonial city. Just walking around the old town stopping in the many bars, cafes and restaurants is much of the attraction. There are also lots of shops selling jewellery and clothes. At sunset everyone heads to the ramparts of the fort, which overlook the sea and provide a great spot to watch the sun go down.
Aside from the fort there are churches and temples that are worth visiting, as well as the impressive lighthouse.
The bars and restaurants are lively at night – especially at the Old Dutch Hospital.
There are lots of beaches nearby with beach resorts, or there are plenty of hotels in the centre of the old town. Galle is one of the most popular destinations on a Sri Lanka holiday for its mixture of culture and beach.
The Hill Country occupies the south-central part of Sri Lanka and has been very important over the years both as the seat of power and for growing Sri Lanka’s primary export – tea. The area is now popular with visitors for its history and trekking opporunities, and has a range of destinations from the cultural capital – Kandy – to the colonial town of Nuwara Eliya.
Kandy was the capital of Sri Lanka until the early 19th Century when the whole island became a British colony. Its location in the mountains explains why it took so much longer to be reached by colonial powers than the coastal cities. Today, Kandy is still the cultural capital.
The main attraction is the Sacred City, and at its heart is The Temple of the Tooth. The temple is around 300 years old and is made from wood with an impressive golden roof. The Sacred City, which includes other temples and a Royal Palace, sits next to a large lake that has a path all the way round.
The city centre has lots of shops and is a good place to buy jewellery as it is better value than other big cities. There are also some colonial buildings in the centre, some of which have been converted into bars and restaurants.
If you are interested in understanding the history and culture of the island, then visiting Kandy is a must for any Sri Lanka holiday.
Nuwara Eliya is a small Colonial Hill Station around 2 hours’ drive from Kandy. The town is surrounded by quiet tea plantations and was used by the British as an escape from the heat.
Built in the 19th Century, Nuwara Eliya has been nicknamed ‘Little England’ due to its architecture and surrounding golf clubs.
Outside of the town there is great trekking through tea plantations and past waterfalls. Horton Plains and World’s End are accessible from the town, which make it popular with visitors interested in seeing some of Sri Lanka’s most dramatic scenery.
Ella is a small hill town towards the west of the hill country. There are great views from the town through Ella Gap, which is a break in the mountains that allows you to see down to the flat land heading towards the coast.
The town itself appears to mainly cater to tourists and has a backpacker feel – there are lots of bars and restaurants with live music. The main attraction is the trekking outside of the town – with lots of waterfalls and tea plantations.
The cultural triangle in north-central Sri Lanka is the ancient heart of the country. The area was the location of several kingdoms stretching back 2,500 years and today has lots of amazing archaeological sites that rival Angkor Wat and Bagan. If you are interested in the history of Sri Lanka, and particularly the ancient history, then a few days spent in the cultural triangle on your Sri Lanka holiday will be very rewarding.
Anuradhapura was the capital of Sri Lanka from the 4th Century BC. Today, there are many archaeological sites spread around the area, including both on the open plains and hidden amongst the forest. In addition to the temples and palaces there are large man-made water tanks, which are very impressive considering their age.
The most important site at Anuradhapura is the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi (Sacred Bodhi Tree), which is believed to have grown from a cutting of the Bodhi tree under which Buddha gained enlightenment. The site is still used for pilgrimage – in contrast to any of the sites at Polonnaruwa – and seeing thousands of pilgrims wearing white heading to the shrine is part of the experience.
In the forest a couple of kilometres away is the huge Abhayagiri Vihara monastery. The Stupa at the centre is over 100m high and is surrounded by many other ancient buildings and ruins.
Cycling around Anuradhapura is a great way to see it, or you can hire a tuk-tuk for the day. If you just want to see a few sites around the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi then you can walk between those easily.
Sigiriya and Dambulla
Sigiriya Rock is Sri Lanka’s most famous site and a must-see on any holiday to Sri Lanka. On top of the 200m sheer-faced rock is a 1500-year-old Palace Complex – with several (now ruined) buildings and pools. The view from the top is amazing, but the most incredible part is how the palace was built – something we still don’t know the answer to. The builders somehow managed to carry enough materials to build a palace complex up a sheer cliff face.
Today the climb is easier as they have installed steps. It takes from 20 minutes to an hour depending on how busy it is and your fitness, but there are plenty of places to rest, and plenty of monkeys to take your mind off the climb.
The ancient gardens at the foot of the rock are beautifully landscaped and are worth walking around either before or after climbing the rock.
Near to Sigiriya is the town of Dambulla. Dambulla is famous for its ancient cave system, which has been lived in and used as a shrine since at least the 1st Century BC. There are 80 caves in total, of which 5 are filled with statues of Buddha (and a few kings). There is a huge 50m reclining Buddha in one of the caves.
Polonnaruwa took over from Anuradhapura as the capital of Sri Lanka. The archaeological site is more compact than Anuradhapura and the palaces and stupas are better preserved, however, unlike Anuradhapura, it is not a pilgrimage destination.
The Sacred Quadrangle contains many ruins packed into a small area and is the highlight of most people’s trip to Polonnaruwa.
As with Anuradhapura, the best way to see the sites is by bike, cycling between the main sites as well as exploring the surrounding jungle and stumbling upon hidden stupas.
North Sri Lanka
Until recently northern Sri Lanka has been out of bounds to tourists due to the civil war. Visitors can now access the east coast (including Trincomalee and Batticaloa) as well as the north of the island, although the infrastructure is not as good as it is in the south.
Jaffna is the main city in the north, and sits right at the top of the island. Jaffna is not a common part of most visitor’s holiday itineraries but this is likely to change as infrastructure improves.
The city itself has some interesting sites – including Hindu temples and a colonial fort. But the main reason that people visit is to see a different side to the island – Jaffna is predominantly Hindu (compared to the Buddhist south).
Sri Lanka Safari and National Parks
Although a small island, Sri Lanka has some of the best national parks in Asia and Sri Lanka safari holidays can be a great way to see stunning scenery and rare wildlife. The country has 22 national parks, with a history of wildlife reserves that stretches back 2300 years. There is lots of wildlife to be seen in Sri Lanka – elephants, leopards and sloth bears are particular highlights.
Yala National Park Safari
Yala is the most popular national park for a safari whilst on holiday in Sri Lanka. This is partly due to its convenient location on the south coast, and partly because it is the best place to spot leopards. Yala has one of the highest densities of leopards in the world. However, they are shy so it can be hard to spot them – the best time is at dawn or dusk.
In addition to leopards, there are lots of elephants at Yala. Sloth bears, buffalo, crocodiles and monkeys all live in the park, as do many species of bird.
Udawalawe National Park Safari
Udawalawe is just south of the hill country, making it a convenient location if you heading from Galle to the hill country (or vice versa). The park is the best in Sri Lanka for elephants, and is also very good for birds. It can be hard to spot much other wildlife (apart from the ever-present monkeys) but visitors sometimes see leopards, crocodiles and sloth bears.
Horton Plains is a plateau at the south of the hill country best known for the view from World’s End – a stunning 800m drop off to the villages and tea plantations below. You will need to walk several kilometres to World’s End as they don’t allow vehicles in the national park, and to have the best chance of seeing the views you will need to get there early in the morning before the mist descends.
Wilpattu National Park Safari
Wilpattu is the best park in Sri Lanka to see slowth bears. The park is also home to barking deer and visitors can occasionally see leopards.
The park is near to Anuradhapura and can be done as a day trip if you are spending time at the archaeological site.
Minneriya National Park Safari
Minneriya is most notable for the large congregation of elephants the arrive at the reservoir in the park between August and October. Outside of these months your chances of spotting elephants is lower, but the park can still be worth a visit for its diverse scenery.
Minneriya is close to Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya and can be done as a day trip from either.
Gal Oya Safari
Gal Oya is a less visited national park towards the east coast. The park has a large reservoir that is great for spotting elephants, crocodiles and birds and there are occasional leopard spottings as well. You can do the safari in a jeep or on a boat.
Sri Lanka is a small country with lots to see and do so there are lots of options depending on how much time you have and what you are interested in.
Sri Lanka Beach and Safari Holiday
If you want a beach holiday with something a bit different then staying at a resort on the south coast between Galle and Tangalle is a great option as it means you can easily visit Yala National Park for a day safari. If you stay closer to Galle then you can easily explore the well preserved old town as well.
South Sri Lanka and the Hill Country
If you want a bit of everything – culture, trekking, safari and beaches – in a relatively short amount of time on your Sri Lanka holiday then this could be a good option. Start in Colombo or Negombo (due to their proximity to the airport) and head up to the cultural capital of Kandy for a couple of days. From Kandy head to Ella or Nuwara Eliya for trekking through tea plantations. From there you can either head south to the coast between Galle and Tangalle (with the option of a safari at Uda Walawe or Yala), or head east to the surfers’ paradise of Arugam Bay.
The Best of Sri Lanka
If you have a few weeks then you can take in most of the sites. Starting from Negombo (with a couple of days on the beach to ease you in) head to the cultural triangle to see Anuradhapura, Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa. From here continue to head north to the Tamil city of Jaffna right at the north of the island. Making your way back down the east coast, you can stop at Trincomalee for some of the best beaches on the island, before heading to Gal Oya for a safari. From Gal Oya head into the hill country, first stopping at the cultural capital of Kandy, before trekking in Nuwara Eliya. From Nuwara Eliya head down to the south-west coast to finish your holiday in a luxury beach resort.
Where to Stay in Sri Lanka
There are luxury resorts in Sri Lanka, but the country is growing in popularity as a holiday destination, and the infrastructure is trying to catch up. There is more demand for 4 and 5-star hotels than there is capacity at the moment, so booking a few months in advance is really important.
The luxury accommodation comes in a mixture of luxury beach resorts, safari lodges and hill or tea plantation retreats.
When to Go to Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is a good destination any time of year, but the best places to go vary – especially if you are planning a beach holiday.
The south and south-west are best between December and April. Outside of these months the sea is rougher and the weather is less predictable. From May to November the east coast has good weather, so if you are there in those months and want some beach time Trincomalee or Batticaloa are the best options.
Getting Around Sri Lanka
Hiring a car with a driver is the best way to travel around and relatively cheap. Hiring a car is possible but the driving can be chaotic so is not advised if you are not used to it. Buses and trains are very cheap but are not always reliable, and are usually extremely busy. That said, a short train journey through the hill country is a great experience.
Getting to Sri Lanka
There are direct flights to Sri Lanka from London with Sri Lankan Airways, or plenty of other options that involve a brief stopover.
Visas and Vaccinations
A visa is required for UK Passport holders to visit Sri Lanka for a holiday. Whilst visas are available on arrival, it is better to get them online before you depart to avoid any unnecessary delays. More information can be found here: Sri Lanka Visas Information.Sri Lanka is considered a low-risk area for Malaria. No vaccines are required, but there are several you may want to consider – you can find out more here: Sri Lanka Travel Health Information.