Things to Know Before Visiting Sri Lanka

Tea picker in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is one of those enviable destinations that just seems to have it all. Endless swathes of golden sand, dense tropical forests teeming with wildlife, and gently rolling hills carpeted with tea plantations. It’s a land of World Heritage Sites, historical boutique hotels and even safaris – all the ingredients for a perfect holiday! We’ve put together this guide to help you plan your trip to Sri Lanka, including advice about the best times to go, the tourist visa requirements, and how much it’s going to cost.

Stay on a tea estate in Sri Lanka - Governors Mansion luxury hotel
Exploring tea plantations

Best Time to Visit Sri Lanka

One of the most frequently asked questions is about the weather in Sri Lanka, and when the best time to visit tends to be, but it really depends on which part of the island you want to see. There are two monsoon seasons in Sri Lanka which affect different parts of the country at different times of year. The main monsoon (‘Yala’) is from April to September and affects the south and west coasts. The wettest months are May – June so you will probably want to avoid those areas during this time. The other monsoon (‘Maha’) occurs between November and March, mainly affecting the eastern coast.

Generally speaking the best time to visit Sri Lanka is between December and March, which is a great time for a road trip to explore the central hills as well as enjoying some time on the coast. We visited in March and although there were shorts periods of rain and it was sweltering hot on the south coast, it was otherwise pleasant and sunny, and a great time to be travelling around.

If you fancy going whale watching, you’ll want to head to Mirissa (on the south coast) between November and April, or if you’re up in Trincomale in the north, the best time to see some action is between May and September as the whales migrate around the island.

Luxury whale watching Sri Lanka - overnight catamaran from Mirissa with Sail Lanka
Whale watching in Mirissa

Trains, Planes and Tuk Tuks

Getting to Sri Lanka

Despite its remote location, Sri Lanka is relatively easy to get to by plane, with popular routes flying via the Middle East from Europe or North America. The main flight hub is Bandaranaike International Airport, and it’s worth noting that this is 35 km north of Colombo, so if you arrive too late to continue your journey it’s best to stay overnight in the nearby beach town of Negombo rather than the capital itself. The traffic to Colombo Fort can be bad making journey times longer than you might expect, so do factor this into any onward travel plans.

Getting Around Sri Lanka

Travel around Sri Lanka is both cheap and fun, with several bus and train routes, as well as more local tuk tuk and taxi hops. The iconic blue trains are one of the best ways to get around, especially when a ticket in a first class carriage is so affordable. The views in the hill country are stunning, particularly between Ella and Kandy, and the slow pace makes it a real experience rather than just a way to get from A to B.

Alternatively many visitors like to hire a car and driver for part of their holiday, which is more expensive but gives full flexibility and independence. Just bear in mind road journeys take longer than you might imagine, with slow traffic and lots of tuk tuks to overtake along the way.

Blue train on an arched bridge travelling through lush green mountains
A blue train on the famous Nine Arch Bridge near Ella

Read More: Staying on a Tea Estate in Sri Lanka’s Hill Country

Sri Lanka Tourist Visas

All visitors to Sri Lanka will require a visa, whether it’s for tourism or business. The online Sri Lanka visa system makes the whole process really easy so you don’t need to worry about having to do it on arrival. Just fill in the application form before departure, make the payment and then keep an eye out for it in your email inbox.

Most tourist visas are for single-entry trips lasting up to 30 days which is plenty of time to explore the island, but if you need to stay longer than that, there is the possibility of applying for an extension with the embassy. Visas are valid for 6 months so you can buy them in plenty of time before your holiday. Just note that when you arrive in Colombo you’ll need proof of your onward travel with a departure flight ticket, as well as minimum 6 months passport validity.

Luxury Sri Lanka villa Kandy, Aqua Dunhinda
Sri Lanka is full of unexpected sights

Money and Costs

Sri Lanka is somewhere you can really spend whatever you want. It’s a great destination for a cheap holiday, with lots of affordable accommodation options, reliable bus and train transport, and sensible attraction pricing. Yet if you want to splurge, you’ll also find some of the world’s best hotels here, as well as private tours and even helicopter transfers. We reckon you could get by on $40 per day at the lower end of the scale, otherwise the sky is your limit.

The currency in Sri Lanka is the rupee (LKR), and aside from hotels and larger suppliers where cards are accepted, you’ll find that cash is king, especially for transport, tours and restaurants. It’s a closed currency, which means you need to get it when you arrive, either at the airport or an ATM which are usually available in popular locations. Tipping isn’t obligatory but very much appreciated in restaurants and on tours.

Cape Weligama Resort review Sri Lanka
Stunning view from upmarket hotel Cape Weligama on the south coast

Food and Drink in Sri Lanka

The food in Sri Lanka is incredible, and indeed we reckon it’s up amongst the main reasons to visit. With flavours influenced by neighbouring India, dishes here are usually fresh, local and very inventive. There are lots of different curries, rotis and dhal, and don’t leave without trying a hopper – a bowl-shaped pancake made from coconut milk and flour, usually served with an egg for breakfast. If you can, try and book an afternoon tea during your stay, whether that’s at your hotel or a local restaurant. This British institution is a firm favourite amongst visitors, and it’s really interesting to see the local twists on the delicacies we know and love. After all, Sri Lanka is the home of tea!

Be aware that it isn’t safe to drink the tap water, so make sure you use purified water for drinking and brushing your teeth. We’ve never had a problem eating salads and food that may have been washed in water in higher-end eating establishments, but be wary of uncooked street food as it may bring on the dreaded travellers tummy bug!

Cape Weligama Resort review Sri Lanka
Afternoon tea at Cape Weligama

Read More: A Luxury Villa Hideaway near Kandy

What to Wear

It’s generally fine to wear whatever you want when travelling around Sri Lanka, just bear in mind it will probably be hot so take lose-fitting, comfortable clothing so you can keep cool, as well as something to cover up in the evenings when the mosquitoes come out. However, when visiting temples and sacred sites like Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, do dress modestly to respect the Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim cultures, making sure your shoulders and knees are covered.

Is the Temple of the Tooth worth a visit, Kandy, Sri Lanka
Temple of the Tooth in Kandy

Scams to Watch Out For

As with any country, there are common scams attempted on unsuspecting tourists, so make sure you familiarise yourself with them before you go. The main complaint from visitors is the over-charging of tuk tuk journeys. When you’re in a city, insist on using the meter, just like you would in a taxi, and elsewhere just negotiate a fare before getting in so there are no nasty surprises at the end. Pick-pocketing is a risk too, so keep your valuables safe, especially when in busy areas. If you’re taking photos of the stilt fishermen along the south coast in places like Weligama, remember that they will expect payment, and in fact most aren’t genuine fishermen. They make their living posing for pics instead! Finally, there are some dodgy ‘tours’ that will inevitably end up in a gem or gift shop, where you’ll end up buying something you don’t want because you feel pressured and uncomfortable. So always do your research before signing up for a trip!

Stilt fishermen in Koggala in Sri Lanka
Stilt fishermen posing in Koggala

So now you know when to visit Sri Lanka, how to apply for your visa, and how much money you’ll need to budget for your trip. Whether it’s your first visit or your tenth, we hope you’ll enjoy exploring this welcoming country just as much as we did!

If you have some more tips for planning your holiday, tell us about them in the comments!

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  1. says: spanky

    That blue train shot on the Nine Arch Bridge is absolutely beautiful. The train looks nice but is comfortable,clean and a real “1st class experience? I keep wanting and still waiting to have my most “epic/romantic” train experience and I’m beginning to think it’s not going to happen. I think travelling through the Balkans have destroyed this dream. I know Frank has at least one eye on traveling to Sri Lanka one day. If we do, I want the Heather experience and we will come to you for help!

    1. says: Heather Cole

      It’s certainly not ‘1st class’ like you’d expect in Europe, but is comfortable and far less crowded than the other classes (and costs very little so definitely worth it). One day I’m going to do the Orient Express, or the Blue Train in SA, now THAT’s what I’d call luxury. You should join me 😉