Sri Lanka is an island of tea plantations, rich culture, ancient temples, astonishing wildlife and postcard-like beaches; in other words, it has it all!
Sri Lanka is one of the most exciting and enticing holiday destinations in the world. Whether you are wowed by landscape, wildlife, culture, or simply seek adventure – Sri Lanka could be the perfect destination for you. It is home to an action packed festival calendar, pristine beaches, scenic landscapes, tranquil temples and an abundance of wildlife. It will wow even the most adventurous traveller, and impress the most fervent of photographers. This level of diversity and abundance of adventure can not be found anywhere else in such a small space. Do something different on your next holiday. Let Sri Lanka blow you away…
Sri Lanka boasts breathtaking landscapes and a rich history. Now a top destination in South Asia for sun, swimming, and surfing, it has become a hot bucket-list destination amongst adventurers, thrill seekers, holiday-goers, photographers and chill-on-the-beachers alike. The once relatively unexplored east and north east of the island is now thriving with visitors and the south coast, badly effected by the tsunami of 2004, is more beautiful and buzzing-with-life than ever. As an island with so much variety, exploring with a multi-location itinerary means you really get to do it justice.
Here are the top 12 things to do when in Sri Lanka:
We have put together a showstopper multi-location itinerary for Sri Lanka. Explore the hidden gems of this beautiful country, either on our example tour, or a completely bespoke adventure. The island is your oyster!LEARN MORE ABOUT OUR TRIPS TO SRI LANKA
“It was my most active holiday yet, from exploring Sigiriya’s natural beauty, the charm of Kandy, or the beaches surrounding the stunning Galle Fort – there was so much to experience.” Brent Bell
The history of Sri Lanka dates back over 2500 years, and the island’s culture has been appropriately influenced. It now mixes modern and traditional aspects and is well-known for its regional diversity. In 1972, the name Ceylon was discarded by the national constitution replaced with the name of Sri Lanka. In Sinhala, the language of the majority, Sri means “blessed” and Lanka is the name of the island.
The culture of Sri Lanka has been influenced significantly from within the country by Buddhism and Hinduism. This is as well as the influence from outside the country; from India and other kingdoms in the south east. Sri Lanka is the home to two main ethnic groups: the Sinhalese (centred in the ancient cities of Kandy and Anuradhapura) and the Tamil (centred in the city of Jaffna). The Tamils in the north and east have a culture that is unique to them and heavily influenced by Hindhuism. The majority Sinhalese live in most areas of the country and are heavily influenced by Buddhism. However in more urban areas you are likely to see a melting pot of religions, practices, rituals and so the boundaries blend.
More recent influences have been from Europe, notably the Portuguese and the Dutch leaving their mark in Galle, and of course the British, who had full control of the island by 1815. Independence was gained in 1948. The ancient archaeological sites at Anuradhapura, Sigiriya, Dambulla and Polonnaruwa in the Cultural Triangle are examples of how advanced Sri Lanka was back then. The most sacred site is the well known Temple of the Tooth at the former capital, Kandy, where the tooth still remains to this day and is venerated. The colourful Esela perahera sets off from this site during summer.
Sri Lanka has one of the busiest festival calendars in the world! With four major religions on the island and 25 public holidays throughout the year, there is always a celebration to be experienced. Most of the festivals are religious in nature and abide by the lunar calendar, with every full moon signalling the start of a new month (every two or three years an extra month is added to keep the solar and lunar calendars in alignment). Traditionally, the island’s most important Buddhist festivals are celebrated with enormous peraheras, or parades, with decorated elephants, drummers and dancers. Perahera means procession in Sinhalese.
The full moon poya day that coincides with Vesak in the month of May is a very important religious celebration in Sri Lanka. Buddhists celebrate the nativity, enlightenment and passing away of Lord Buddha with many celebrations. Sri Lankans of every religion crowd the roads to enjoy Vesak decorations including white paper lanterns that are lit up at night. Many set up makeshift alm houses that line the roads offering every food item from beverages, dessert to main meals – for free! If you happen to be driving down the road on poya day, its not uncommon to be flagged down and treated to some snacks and drinks by the locals!
Another huge Poya celebration in Sri Lanka is the Esala Poya Perahera in Kandy. Esala Poya is the day that celebrates the arrival of the Buddha Tooth Relic to the famous Temple of the Tooth. Families visit the many Temples situated around the island to offer flowers and pay homage to Lord Buddha, who preached many valuable sermons about the ideal way of life for all living beings. The whole island joins in with the celebrations, but nothing quite compares with the week-long celebrations in Kandy during Esala Poya. It really is an unforgettable spectacle, and we can take you there! Speak to us about combining a night celebrating the Esala Poya Perahera into your Sri Lanka itinerary.
Nestled just southeast of the southernmost tip of India, the tropical island of Sri Lanka is commonly called the ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean’. Covering approximately 25,332 square miles, it is home to incredibly diverse and beautiful landscapes. It consists mostly of flat to rolling coastal plains, gently rising into the foothills of a mountainous south-central region. These are arguably one of the most beautiful mountainous areas of the world. The highest point is Pidurutalagala, reaching 2,524 metres (8,281 ft) above sea level. Ecologically, it is divided into a wet zone that stretches across the south, west and central regions, and a dry zone that ranges from the north to the southeast.
Nothing encapsulates the scenic diversity of Sri Lanka as much as a journey by road or rail from the coast to the hill regions. Pass through dense rainforest (about 40% of the landmass is heavily forested), rolling hills, sprawling savannah, colonial towns, tea plantations, and vast plains. The journeys in Sri Lanka really are spectacles in themselves!
Did you know? There is evidence of a natural land bridge connecting Sri Lanka with India at this point, and indeed this vanished causeway, only a few meters below sea level, is still known as Adam’s Bridge.
“I am amazed at the vast array of geographic topography in Sri Lanka as well as the beauty each one possesses. It would be difficult for me to identify a favourite since all were distinct and wonderful in their own right!”
Sri Lanka is famous for its beautiful beaches. Whether you prefer to brave the waves or watch others do it while you sip a cold coconut drink, the beaches in Sri Lanka have never been more inviting. With nearly 1600km of palm fringed coastline, you’ll never get tired of spending time on the pristine shorelines of the island. And because monsoon season hits the island from one side at a time, taking a dip in the Indian Ocean is possible all year round. From November to March the South Western coast is sunny and calm, and from April to October the place to be is in the East. Sri Lanka’s interior definitely has a lot to offer, but the heat and humidity are sure to have you running back toward the coastal areas — especially the nice beaches in the south.
And no matter what you are looking to do on the beach, the great thing about Sri Lanka is there is a stretch of sandy shore perfect for just about anyone and any activity. Go kite-surfing on the windy shores of Kalpitiya, party on the West Coast of Hikkaduwa, admire dolphins and whales in Mirissa, surf the waves of Aragum bay, relax on the pristine sands of Batticoloa, swim with sharks in the turqouise waters of Trincomalee – the list goes on! And these are just the well-known ones. There are countless hidden beaches that you won’t find in the guidebooks. We can take you to them on our bespoke tours.LEARN MORE ABOUT OUR TRIPS TO SRI LANKA
Leopards, elephants, whales, birdlife in abundance – Sri Lanka is a wildlife lover’s paradise. It is known for being one of the best places in Asia for seeing wildlife. Wherever you are on the island, there’s usually a national park or forest reserve to visit close by – but the wildlife isn’t limited to the parks. You are often likely to see an elephant crossing the road in Udawalawe or large bats flying above your head in the city of Colombo – keep your eyes peeled!
The national parks themselves make up 10 per cent of the island and are home to many species of resident and migratory birds and smaller mammals, as well as herds of elephant and solitary leopards. Home to the finest wild animals in South Asia, the small island of Sri Lanka is also one of the best all-round wildlife destinations in the world for a mix of big game, marine life and varied landscapes. The island’s isolation from the mainland and wide range of altitudes, along with heavy rainfall from the two monsoons, have given Sri Lanka a variation in climate and biodiversity normally found only across an entire continent. Furthermore, Sri Lanka is the easiest place in the world to see the blue whale, the largest animal to have ever lived on earth.
Did you know? The Sri Lankan elephant is a symbol of national heritage and of prosperity, both for its long association with wealth and royalty and for its association with Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god of wealth.
“Sri Lanka is such a varied destination that really surpassed my expectations when it came to the variety of adventure, culture – and amazing food! I really wanted to see the elephants and get close to nature – the elephant safari was my fave!”
With recipes and spices brought to the island over the centuries by Indians, Arabs, Malays, Portuguese, Dutch and English, Sri Lanka boasts a fascinating culinary heritage. Fused together with local produce, including fruit, such as coconut and jackfruit, seafood and an arsenal of spices, Sri Lankan cooking delivers an abundance of incredible dishes. The island’s signature dish is the famous rice and curry, the staple food of almost every Sri Lankan man, woman and child, served up in just about every café and restaurant across the land.
Eating with your hands is customary when in Sri Lanka; the locals say that using cutlery means you can’t properly enjoy the flavours and textures of food. Nonetheless, Sri Lankans are extremely accommodating and tourists are almost always provided with cutlery by default. Here are some classic dishes we would recommend having a taste of on your visit to Sri Lanka:
As you’d expect from an island in the Indian Ocean, seafood plays an important role in Sri Lankan cuisine. Fish ambul thiyal (sour fish curry) is one of the most beloved varieties of the many different fish curries available.
Over the traffic and noise at a Sri Lankan market, you’ll likely hear the clanking of metal on metal and know kottu isn’t far away. Kottu is Sri Lanka’s hamburger – everybody’s favourite go-to fast food when craving something tasty and greasy. It resembles fried rice, except instead of rice, it’s made with a type of roti known as godamba roti (a flat, crispy bread).
Hoppers are the Sri Lankan answer to the pancake. The batter is made from a slightly fermented concoction of rice flour, coconut milk, sometimes coconut water and a hint of sugar. There is also another food called string hoppers, which normally eaten for breakfast or dinner with curries. Unlike the runny batter used for the normal hoppers, string hoppers are made from a much thicker dough. The dough is squeezed through a string hopper maker, like a pasta press, to create thin strands of noodles, which are steamed.
In a country in which the coconut is of supreme importance, there’s one Sri Lankan side dish that pays fitting tribute. Pol sambol, which might also be called fresh coconut relish, is a simple blend of finely grated coconut, red onions, dried whole chilies or chili powder, lime juice, salt and Maldive fish (if available). The ingredients are diced or ground, then combined in a bowl. In Sri Lanka, pol sambol is used as a garnish or side dish for everything and anything.
Sinhala is the ‘national’ language of Sri Lanka. Sinhala is the native language of the Sinhalese people, who total approximately 16 million, constituting approximately 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s population. An additional 4 million speak Sinhalese as a second language. The oldest record of the Sinhala language dates back to the 6th century BCE in the form of inscriptions on pottery. Modern Sinhala is thought to have developed in the 12th century CE.
Here are some handy phrases in Sinhala:
Tamil is Sri Lanka’s other official language, spoken by about five million people in Sri Lanka, which is about 15 percent of the population. Meanwhile, English is still almost universally spoken by educated people of all communities, and is the language with which Sri Lanka communicates with the outside world. Despite being the language of the former colonial power, English is also politically neutral. Most of the people you are likely to encounter in shops, hotels, restaurants and when travelling on public transport are likely to speak enough English for you to get by. Taxi drivers usually speak some English, and bus and railway personnel are usually quite fluent. Out in the country side, English may be less widely spoken, though it is rare to find yourself completely unable to communicate.
The three main languages in Sri Lanka – Sinhalese, Tamil and English
The official and only currency of Sri Lanka is the rupee (LKR). Wait until you arrive in Sri Lanka to get the bulk of your money changed. Money exchange offices in Sri Lanka can change British Pounds or any other currency into rupees. You can bring up to LKR 5,000 to Sri Lanka from abroad, which is approximately £25, or you can bring up to the British Pound equivalent of USD $5,000.
You can either 1) get your money changed at exchange offices or 2) withdraw money from an ATM. There are exchange offices at Colombo and Hambantota airports, open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, that actually offer rates that compete with what you can get on the street. So either get your cash changed here, or in licensed money changers such as jewellers and designated exchange offices. It is important to note that the rate may change depending on the denominations you want to change. For example, you may be able to get a better rate exchanging £50 notes compared to multiples of £10. If you can, avoid changing money at your hotel. Hotels usually offer a worse rate than banks and dedicated money changers, and a commission may also be applied to the transaction.
The second option is to withdraw cash from an ATM. Cash withdrawals are subject to the Visa or Mastercard foreign exchange rate. The downside is the charge for using an international ATM. A local ATM operator fee and international ATM fee will apply (some banks don’t charge a fee). Make sure you check to see whether the ATM takes your card. The Visa and Mastercard logo should be displayed on the front of the machine. We would recommend using any of these banks:
“Booking through Follow Alice made our 12 day trip to Sri Lanka feel like a relaxing three weeks. Our friendly tour guide plus driver quickly felt like new friends who wanted us to have the best possible experience of this amazing, many-faceted island.” Cathy Hicks
The climate is tropical and warm, due to the moderating effects of ocean winds, which makes Sri Lanka such a popular beach holiday destination. For a small country, Sri Lanka’s climate can be rather complicated, and there is a lot of confusion around when the best time to visit is. This is due to the fact that the island is affected by two separate monsoons, though this also means that there is usually good weather somewhere on the island, at most times of the year. Sri Lanka is therefore a perfect year-round destination. And though the weather doesn’t run like clockwork here, there will rarely be weather so dramatic that it will stand in the way of a brilliant holiday with plenty of warm weather and sunshine. In practical terms and as a rough guide, the best time to visit the west and south coasts and hill country is from December to March, while the best weather on the east coast is from April/May to September.
Sri Lanka’s position close to the equator means that temperatures remain fairly constant year-round. Coastal and lowland areas enjoy average daytime temperatures of around 26–30°C (often climbing up well into the 30°Cs during the hottest part of the day). Temperatures decrease with altitude, reducing to a temperate 18–22°C in Kandy, and a pleasantly mild 14–17°C in Nuwara Eliya and the highest parts of the island. Nights in the hill country can be quite chilly, with temperatures sometimes falling close to freezing. Humidity is high everywhere, rising to a sweltering ninety percent at times in the southwest, and averaging sixty to eighty percent across the rest of the island.
Private car with driver
Hiring a private car and driver is one of the most popular ways to see Sri Lanka, and can be done so at a very reasonable price. You can hire a car for the length or your stay, or even hire one for the day through an app such as PickMe. Our Sri Lanka small group adventures give you the opportunity to explore this exotic island in a private AC vehicle, driver and dedicated tour manager. You travel with like-minded travellers whilst retaining an intimate and personalised feel, and having your own private vehicle means you can stop where you like and go at your own pace.
Sri Lankan taxis are common in all sizeable towns. Only some are metered (mostly in Colombo), but over longer distances their prices are comparable to those of three-wheelers, and they provide more comfort and security. You can count on most taxi rides costing around Rs 60 to 100 per kilometre. Hotels and restaurants can usually get you a ride for a modest cost. In Colombo you can count on taxis dispatched via apps such as Uber or PickMe.
Three-wheelers, known in other parts of Asia as tuk-tuks, bajajs or autorickshaws, are waiting on nearly every corner. A general rule of thumb is to only get in tuk-tuks that are metered, but this is easier in the cities. You may need to bargain in some areas and agree on the fare before you get in. Three-wheelers and taxis waiting outside hotels and tourist sights expect higher-than-usual fares. Walk a few hundred metres to get a better deal or find one with a meter. You can also order tuk-tuks on the mobile app PickMe.
Local buses go to most places, including villages outside main towns, for fares from Rs 10 to 50. There are two kinds of public buses in Sri Lanka: government (SLTB), red coloured, and private, which currently have all kinds of colours.
These are not only superior to buses in comfort and luggage options, but also a tourist attraction in themselves. The Colombo-Kandy-Nuwara Eliya-Badulla line contains the three most scenic stretches of the country and is a highlight of any Sri Lankan tour. Be sure to get yourself a seat by the window and get your camera ready!
Sri Lanka is a remarkably safe place to travel in, and violent crime against foreigners is virtually unheard of. The only thing to be wary of, as with any new place, are scams and touting, which are common in a few places. Following the end of the civil war in May 2009, the entire island is now at peace for the first time in almost thirty years and almost all travel restrictions have been lifted, with the exception of a few remote areas in the north which remain out of bounds.
The vast majority of Sri Lankans who approach you will be perfectly honest, and simply keen to have a chat. At its simplest, you’ll encounter low-level hassle from people who want you to visit their shop, stay in their guesthouse or be your guide (or, alternatively, who want to take you to a shop or guesthouse where they’ll receive commission). For more up to date travel advice, speak to us or visit the gov.uk website.
In order to enter Sri Lanka, you will need to purchase your ETA (Electronic Travel Authorisation) Visa before travelling. Head over to the visa issuing website and grab yourself one – don’t worry – it doesn’t take long at all. You will need to fill out the relevant details in the form, including your payment information, and press the submit button. Once this is all completed, you will receive an email containing your ETA visa. This tourist visa will give you 30 days to explore ‘the pearl of the Indian ocean’. Print off the visa, or you can also show the immigration officer the visa on your phone at the airport.
Our bespoke trips to Sri Lanka take you through the best of the country without being stationary at one place. Our tours take you to not just the big tourists destinations like Kandy, Galle and Ella but also to lesser known but equally fascinating places such as Kalpitiya, Deniyaya or Knuckles. In fact except our bespoke tours are all about these lesser known places that bring you face to face with the heart and soul of Sri Lanka. Be prepared to embrace a wealth of new experiences. There will be new landscapes every day and an incredible variety of wildlife and adventure.LEARN MORE ABOUT OUR TRIPS TO SRI LANKA
“Based on our suggested destinations, Follow Alice planned a practical route to follow and I feel we got to see pretty much everything. They suggested amazing accommodation to suit our budget and taste. When one or two along the route proved unsuitable, then they were quick to organise a better alternative… The advantage of having your own guide and car is that you can stop whenever you want, adjust your plan for a later start if you want to chill out at the hotel and be much more spontaneous within the framework of your itinerary. If you see a nice place you can stop for lunch or just pick up a samosa snack”.
Leading the tour will be Dinesh, our local hero and a bilingual English and Sinhalese-speaking local leader. Born and raised in Sri Lanka, Dinesh has exceptional knowledge about the culture and people of the island. Wherever you travel, you’ll be in safe hands with him.
“I cannot speak highly enough about the Follow Alice team who created one of the best trips I have had. Over a couple of emails, my itinerary was carefully created based on my interests and tastes, with much flexibility on their behalf.”
Our guide was respectful, honest, funny, kind and knew the island like the back of his hand. I got the royal treatment where ever we went. All the details were perfect and, and on a couple of occasions he changed plans because he “knew I wouldn’t like the plans that had been made”. He couldn’t have been more correct! His sixth sense was a great guide. And, the addition of the Perahera in Kandy was magical. He made my journey wonderful, smooth and pleasant.