The four months we spent during our travel in Sri Lanka were incredible, and we recommend the small island as a top travel destination. Before heading to the country formerly known as Ceylon, check our Sri Lanka Travel Tips, with plenty of information for first-time travelers and experienced adventurers alike.
Sri Lanka Travel Tips
See below what we feel first-time visitors to Sri Lanka, and seasoned travelers need to know. Please let us know if you have been to Sri Lanka and feel we missed some critical points! And for those wondering why travel to Sri Lanka, check out our video!
1. Arrival into Sri Lanka
Though Sri Lanka is close to India, there is currently no ferry between the two countries. Unless you are part of a cruise or an organized tour, the only option for traveling to Sri Lanka is to fly into Bandaranaike International Colombo Airport – Sri Lanka (CMB).
2. Colombo Airport – Not in Colombo!
The main airport in Sri Lanka, International Colombo Airport, is not in Colombo but in the city of Negombo, about one hour north of the capital. An important point to remember if you want to book a hotel upon arrival or right before departure. You can go between one or the other by taxi or tuk-tuk.
3. Apply to Your Sri Lanka Travel Visa Online
Most nationalities need to hold a travel visa to Sri Lanka before their arrival. Some are exempt, and others must carry a return or onward ticket. The good news is that Electronic travel authorization (ETA) can easily be obtained, so make sure to book your Sri Lanka visa online before departure.
4. Visa Extension
If you are like us and feel you can’t get enough of Sri Lanka on your current visa, a visa extension is possible at the Department of Immigration in Colombo. The process is somewhat tedious, but the extension can be delivered within the same day if you arrive at the official opening hours (starting at 8:30 am). If you have to stay for the day, check these things to do in Colombo.
5. Many People Speak English
Thanks to a free education policy, the adult literacy rate in Sri Lanka reached 96% (2015), way above the regional average. Sinhalese and Tamil are the main languages in Sri Lanka, but many schools include English as part of their curriculum. Chances are you will always find someone who speaks English to help you.
6. A Developed Bus System
You will find buses going to pretty much whichever destination you want to travel in Sri Lanka. Public buses (Central Transport Board (CTB) buses), as well as private, run most of these main routes, which all depart from Colombo. Buses usually leave early; some are faster than others, depending on their final destinations.
Pay on board. If you have big bags, you may need to pay for an extra seat if the bus doesn’t have a luggage truck.
Traveling in Sri Lanka takes time – plan for a full day or even two days if you want to traverse the island from south to north.
7. Scenic Train Rides
While the train system doesn’t cover the whole island, the railroad is rather handy and works on time. There are three main routes; all start from Colombo: South from Colombo to Matara, and East to the Hill Country (Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Ella, ending in Matala and Badulla). North to Mannar and Jaffna, Batticaloa, and Trincomalee. You can visit the Sri Lanka Railways website for the train schedule. Double-check the train station’s name on Google Maps to ensure spelling and location.
Book First-Class if you want A/C, or reserve a ticket in the 2nd or 3rd class. We did not see much difference between the last two types, both were very busy.
8. Do Your Research
Sri Lanka is a small island but offers an incredibly diverse landscape and varied attractions. While buses and trains will get you to your destination, public transportation is somewhat slow. So do your research before heading to Sri Lanka, and have a rough idea of what you want to see and where. Plan for long travel days, and put your itinerary accordingly so that you don’t spend your vacation just on the road trying to reach the places you wish to visit. Our upcoming travel guide to Sri Lanka will also include the places to travel in Sri Lanka, among other things to do on the tropical island, and the best time to travel in Sri Lanka.
9. Great for Wildlife Watching
With over 100 protected areas and parks like Yala National Park, Udawalawe National Park, Wasgamuwa National Park, and Wilpattu National Park, Sri Lanka is a fantastic place to observe elephants, sloth bears, leopards in their natural environments. Birdwatching is also popular in several of these parks, in addition to Mannar Marine National Park. So plenty of opportunities to see animals in Sri Lanka in their natural habitats!
10. Water Paradise
Being an island, Sri Lanka boats some impressive coastlines. From diving around Trincomalee, surfing in Arugam Bay, White Water Rafting in Kitugala, and recently kiteboarding around Kalpitiya and Mannar, plenty of opportunities for water enthusiasts.
11. Hiking Green Mountains and Peaks
Outdoor aficionados will also like the lush landscape of Ella, the rolling hills of Horton Plains, and the sunrise hike of Adam’s Peak are prime destinations for hikers
12. Rich Culturally
Historically Sri Lanka saw the confluence of different cultures and religions. Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, and Muslims are all present today, and their legacies are found in the various ruins and monuments across Sri Lanka, such as Sigiriya or Anuradhapura.
13. Sri Lanka Travel Safety
If you wonder, “is it safe to travel to Sri Lanka,” the answer is yes. We found Sri Lanka safe to travel to. We did not feel threatened or uneasy at any point during our time there. However, general safety reminders apply, such as not flashing cash, watching for your jewelry and electronic equipment, and being mindful when walking in remote or dark places at night.
After over two decades of civil war between the South and the North of Sri Lanka, the region around Jaffna is now at peace since the 2009 end of the civil war with the Tamil Tigers. The newly accessible area lets you discover pristine beaches, old Buddhist temples, and former forts. Do, however, be mindful that some areas might still have abandoned bombs and grenades hidden on the grounds. Check with the locals before exploring remote areas.
14. Watch the 2 Monsoons
The question “when is the best time to travel to Sri Lanka?” is a bit tricky to answer as Sri Lanka has two monsoon seasons. In the northeast, the monsoon last from December to March, and in the southwest, from June to October. These rainy months might make travel and outdoor activities difficult. So decide what you want to do before you can determine when in Sri Lanka best time to travel might be.
15. Money and ATM Sri Lanka
ATMs are widely available in Sri Lanka, though the country is mostly based on a cash economy.
See the average costs for budget travelers:
- Lodging: double room with private bathroom: 1,000-2,000 LKR (US$6-12)
- Food (Lunch/Dinner): 200-800 LKR (US$1-5) for 2
- Transportation (Bus/Tuk-tuk): 100-500 LKR (US$0.50-3) for 2
Beach and touristy areas tend to be more expensive, and renting a car with a driver will increase your budget to about US$80-150 a day, depending on the vehicle and services.
We were able to retrieve cash with our Mastercards from the Bank of Ceylon, SBK State of India, Commercial Bank, and HNB.
16. Beware of the Pol Sambal
Pol sambal, sometimes called coconut relish, is a blend of coconut, red onions, whole dried chilies or chili powder, and lime juice, with sometimes a dash of Maldive fish. What makes Pol Sambal special are the dried chilies. Most sambal will make you cry and feel hot steam coming out of your nose and ears. No joke, and a must-try when sampling Sri Lanka cuisine!
17. “Vade, Vade, Vade”
In the land of ‘Rice and curry,’ fish curry, dhal, kottu, and hoppers, make sure to try parippu vade, a street food snack made of lentils mixed with chilies. Of Tamil origin, try them hot and fresh when you hear the nearby local vendors shouting “vade, vade, vade.”
18. Rent a Tuktuk or a Scooter
Bring your international driver’s license. In theory, you would need a separate tuk-tuk driving license, but it seems that an international driver’s license could be enough. Getting the tuk-tuk driver’s license can only be done in Colombo.
Scooters are more comfortable to drive, and you can go up to 70 km/h. As simple as tuk-tuks look, they are tough to drive, and their driving speed is limited to 40 km/h. The only advantage of renting a tuk-tuk is if you have more luggage that could fit a scooter and for fun. We recommend tuk-tuks for short distances only as the slow speed and the driving mechanism make it challenging after several hours on the road.
If you want to rent a tuk-tuk or a scooter around Kalpitiya and the Puttalam Peninsula, contact Chamara Sreyanakara (+94 77 277 7474 / +94 71 739 0600 / [email protected]). Another option for renting a scooter is from Juud from Kite Villas (+94 77 900 3821)
- Tuk-tuk rental costs: About 2,000-2,500 LKR / day
- Scooter rental costs: About 800-1,000 LKR / day
19. Drive on the left
Unless you are coming from India, Australia, the UK, or one of the other 73 countries that drive on the left, remember to drive on the other side of the road in Sri Lanka!
If you do drive, beware of free-roaming dogs, cows, chickens, that cross the streets unexpectedly.
20. Tuk-tuk Scam
Tuk-tuk drivers will try to charge you about 3 to 5 times the regular prices, so feel free to haggle hard. Moreover, even after you agree on a price, many drivers will stop on the way to ask for more money. Make sure to clarify the costs before stepping into a tuk-tuk. In general, tuk-tuk drivers were slightly aggressive, touting you from a distance “Tuk-tuk,” “taxi,” even as you are not looking for one. You can practice your inner yoga and deep breathing techniques to stay calm after the nth driver calls you out. I confess I did sometimes lose my cool.
21. Beware of Mosquitoes
Bring your DEET or other anti-mosquito secrets, as the flying bugs are unfortunately present, like on any tropical island. However, Sri Lanka has recently seen several Dengue Fever outbreaks, especially in the Colombo area. Bruno itself got infected during a week-long stay in Colombo at the end of our Sri Lanka stay and had to be hospitalized when we arrived in Singapore.
22. Not a Party Scene
Except for Colombo, Arugam Bay, Hikkaduwa, and a few other touristy areas, the party scene in Sri Lanka is limited. So if you are looking to party all night, the small tropical island is not for you.
Indeed, most of the country lives around fishing and agriculture, with quiet evenings.
Having said that, Sri Lankans love music and blast it as early as 6 am. Which makes for an unexpected and unwanted early wake-up.
23. Dress Conservatively
While shorts and swimwear are acceptable along the beach area, dress conservatively while traveling through the country. When visiting temples and other religious sites, bring a sarong to cover your shoulders and legs.
24. Friendly People
Be ready for extended chats, people looking to welcome you, practice their English, or just share a part of Sri Lanka hospitality
25. Be Respectful of Religious Representations
Do not take a photo with your back to Buddha. Cover any Buddha tattoo. Hide bags, clothes, or anything that might feature Buddha and could be considered disrespectful. This recommendation applies to any deity and religious beliefs and is one of the travel tips Sri Lanka visitors need to remember. Several tourists have been jailed for unrespectful selfies at religious sites.
26. Not All Hotels Are Equals
Some establishments are not real hotels. Small restaurants are called hotels but have no beds and only serve food. A legacy from when only hotels provided decent meals.
27. Bring a Universal Adapter
You will most likely find three different types of electrical plugs: the 3-pronged UK socket, the 2-pronged European plug, and sometimes the rounded Indian 3-pronged socket.
28. Indulge in Ayurvedic Yoga and Massages
Ayurveda is a thousand years old tradition in Sri Lanka, the perfect way to wellness, yoga, and massage treatments.
29. When “No” Means “Yes”
Sri Lankans, like Indians, shake their heads sideways to signal their agreement. So what you might take as a no in Western countries mean yes in Sri Lanka
30. Your Right Hand is Your “Right” Hand
The left hand is used for sanitary purposes and is considered “unclean.” Use your right hand to eat, touch, and take things.
31. Beware of Dogs
A large population of abandoned dogs roams in Sri Lanka. Many are infested with skin diseases, others are starving, and occasionally some have rabies. A French child died recently after what was assumed to have been licked by a small puppy on a beach in Sri Lanka. So stay away from all dogs, even cute puppies, as they might be infected but not yet showing any rabid signs.
Any other suggestions and travel tips to Sri Lanka? Any other bits of advice to add to a Travel Guide Sri Lanka?
And as mentioned before, we will post a comprehensive Sri Lanka travel guide soon, so register now to receive it directly in your mailbox. Check out our other Sri Lanka travels.
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May 22, 2019 at 8:57 pm
A really excellent post. Now that I’m based in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, Sri Lanka is a place I’d eventually like to visit, and this list was incredibly helpful for a first look at how I might go about that. Pol Sambal sounds amazing, and that fish curry is making me hungry! Very practical advice included in the list as well as inspirational material 🙂 Thanks for sharing!
May 23, 2019 at 2:26 am
Thank you for the kind words! Yes, you are probably a short hop away to Sri Lanka! Perfect to go enjoy that fish curry 🙂
May 20, 2019 at 2:13 am
I went to Sri Lanka a couple of years ago and really loved it. I didn’t do enough massages though, I really need to go back and indulge!
May 23, 2019 at 2:32 am
Ah, massages! You and I both should go back for more. Which part of Sri Lanka did you visit!
April 25, 2019 at 2:47 am
Hey Patricia! Sri Lanka is an interesting country to visit and your tips are very informative and complete. Thank you for putting this all together 🙂
April 25, 2019 at 5:39 am
Sri Lanka is a great country indeed. What a tragedy these attacks, so horrible. Thank you for stopping by, glad you like our post.