Travel Sri Lanka Tips: Everything you Need to Know Before you Go
Looking for some travel Sri Lanka tips? I have you covered.
If there ever was a modern utopia, the teardrop shaped isle of Sri Lanka would be it. Located off the southernmost tip of India, this stunning island takes its influence from its Indian, colonial and native heritage.
White and gold sand beaches, jungled hill tops, vibrant culture, spicy curries, and smiling locals make you want to return again and again. But as with any destination, and Sri Lanka is no exception, it is always a good idea to equip yourself with local tips and tricks on how to make your journey the best it can be.
I’ve taken the guesswork out of it for you. Here are my essential tips on everything you should know before you visit Sri Lanka.
READ MORE | Follow my ideal 3-week Sri Lanka itinerary
READ MORE | Are you a foodie like me? See the best cafes in Southern Sri Lanka
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21 Essential Travel Sri Lanka Tips
#1 Sri Lanka Visa
Online Visa application
Obtaining a Sri Lankan visa is fast and easy through their e-visa system. I have provided you the link here to get your trip started!
How You Can Extend your Stay
Your tourist visa will last 30 days with the opportunity to extend twice for a maximum of 90 days.
Fill in this form for extending your via and bring it to the Department of Immigration & Emigration.
#2 Sri Lanka has Two Distinct Weather Patterns
Weather in Sri Lanka is affected by two major monsoon seasons. The first affects the southwestern side of the island the second the northeast. Both happen at opposite times of year. Here are the best times to travel to Sri Lanka by region:
October to March
The weather in the Southwest region of Sri Lanka is ideal between December to March, but give it a chance in October and November and you won’t be disappointed. Rain here only lasts for a couple hours a day. Plenty of time to get in some surf in the morning and hunker down in a cafe for the afternoon while the rain passes.
April to September
Northeast regions are opening up to better weather during this time. August and September are generally the driest, making it the ideal time to visit Jaffna for culture or head out to Trincomalee for some surf and water activities.
March is the optimal month to visit the green centre of Sri Lanka. Ella and Nuwara Eliya are pleasant during this time. But don’t be dissuaded if your trip doesn’t land in March, you can visit the hill region from January to April and experience nice conditions.
#3 Singala is the native language of Sri Lanka but English is Widely Spoken
Roughly 75% of Sri Lankan’s speak Sinhala, with the remainder made up of Tamil, a language dominant in the Northern region of Sri Lanka.
While English is widely spoken in Sri Lanka, it is always a good idea to have a few common words and phrases under your belt for those occasions when English won’t get you by. The locals will always appreciate a couple words in their native language. You may even get a broad smile in return for your effort
Common Sinhalese words and phrases to learn
- Yes – Ow
- No – Naa
- Hello/good day – Ayubowan (Aayu-bo-wan)
- Please – Karunakara (Karu-nah-kara)
- Thank you – Istuti (Iss-too-tee)
- Thank you very much – Bohoma Istuti (Bo-hoh-mah Iss-too-tee)
#4 Know Sri Lanka’s History
After achieving independence from Britain in 1948 the country started to divide and tensions rose between the Sinhalese (government in the south) and Tamil (guerilla group called the Tigers) who were predominately living in the northern area of Sri Lanka.
After three consecutive Eelam Wars starting in 1987, the Tigers admitted defeat in 2009. If you’d like a deeper look into the history of Sri Lankan civil war, read this.
#5 Is it safe to travel to Sri Lanka?
I travelled to the country at the beginning of 2020, and there is very little sign of war throughout the southwestern and central region of the country.
If you do choose to visit the northern parts of Sri Lanka, which I highly suggest you do, this may be a sensitive subject for locals. I suggest refraining from discussing the civil war when in that area.
#6 Rules for Visiting the Buddhist Country of Sri Lanka
With the majority of Sri Lankans practicing Buddhism (Hinduism, and Muslim also represented here) the country has conservative roots.
Here is not the place to flaunt your Buddha tattoos, as this is considered defacing the country’s religion. Be considerate and keep it covered up.
It’s never a good idea to face your back to a Buddha statue, this shows disrespect to the statue and ultimately the religion. Back away from the statue before turning around.
Don’t touch a Buddhist monk, but only if you are a woman. While I do consider myself to be a feminism, I do try to be respectful of a person’s religion.
#7 Sri Lanka is mainly a Buddhist Country, Dress Appropriately
While clothing restrictions are a bit more lax in Sri Lanka than other countries that share a Buddhist faith, it is important to be considerate of cultural sensitivities. As a huge advocate of sustainable and eco fashion, I’d recommend sourcing brands that don’t contribute to the destruction of our planet.
Visit the top temples in Sri Lanka’s cultural capital of Kandy
#8 Connectivity in Sri Lanka in Generally Good
Just before leaving Bandaranaike International Airport you will notice a few different mobile kiosks, this is the best place to get a SIM card upon arriving in Sri Lanka. It is cheap and easy to set up. All you need is picture ID and your phone. I used Mobitel, which had great connectivity on my trip, but Dialog is also a good choice. A small Sri Lanka travel tip for you: keep a paper clip in your phone case to switch out SIM cards easily.
#9 Renting a Scooter in Sri Lanka Can be the Best Way to See the Country
In order to properly enjoy the southwest coastline villages of Sri Lanka, it is best to rent a motorbike. The villages are located in close proximity to each other, and there is nothing like cruising along the road, warm breeze in your hair, beach and ocean to one side and lush jungle to the other. This will give you the ultimate freedom to stop whenever you like to have a refreshing sip out of a local coconut.
Here are a couple tips on how to do this legally in Sri Lanka:
Is an International Driver’s Permit Necessary?
Yes, you will need to obtain an International Driver’s Permit (IDP) from your home country before arrival.
How to verify your IDP
The government of Sri Lanka also requires visitors to verify their IDP once you arrive before you can legally drive a motorcycle or scooter within the country. This can be done at the Department of Motor Traffic (DMT) in Colombo. You will need to bring your IDP, passport and visa with you. This process takes 3-4 hours and will cost $30USD, but it is well worth the effort.
WHERE | Department of Motor + Traffic, Colombo Sri Lanka
Ask your guesthouse for rental recommendations
Motorbikes or scooters can be rented for between 1000LKR – 2000LKR a day depending on where you are in the country. The longer you stay the deeper the discount the shop can provide you. I recommend using a scooter rental for local transportation only, and not for long haul transport between cities.
#10 The Train is the best mode of transportation for the majority of the Sri Lanka
For the majority of your time in Sri Lanka, I’d recommend taking the train as your main mode of transportation. Especially when traveling between Negombo/Colombo to Dambulla (Sigiriya) and within the hill region of Sri Lanka.
It’s an economic way to see the best parts of the country and converse with locals who are more than enthusiastic to chat with you. Please keep in mind that it is a frequent occurrence to have trains not show on time to your designated stop, so adopt the laid back island vibe and take it all in stride. Some of the best views in the world can be found on the train ride between Kandy and Ella.
If you decide to go straight to the southern coast from Colombo, the best way is to take the train from Colombo Fort Station. The journey will take 3-4 hours and only put you back LKR400.
Need some Sri Lanka inspiration? Check out my Sri Lanka Bucket List
#11 The Local Bus System is Your Best Choice for Southern Coast Transportation
If you aren’t up for driving a scooter around the southern coastline of Sri Lanka, I’d recommend taking the local bus system. Fare between the coastal villages usually runs less than LKR100 ($0.50USD).
#12 It’s Easy to get Cash Out When You Get to Sri Lanka
The local currency is Sri Lankan rupees (LKR), not to be mistaken for Indian rupees. No need to get cash out early from the bank in your home country, it is quick and easy to withdraw money when you’ve arrived at the international airport.
The best place to withdraw Sri Lankan Rupees is at the airport. This goes against everything I’ve learnt about money and travel, but it rings true on this small island. Use the bank of ATMs on your way out of the airport after baggage claim.
As with many other countries, money exchanges can be subject to scams. It’s best to take Sri Lankan Rupees out in bundles from an ATM, versus a money exchange. This way you can avoid any discomfort on your trip.
#13 Sri Lanka Runs on Cash
Since a lot of local shops and guesthouses are not equipped with first world purchasing systems, I’d recommend carrying cash and keeping smaller bills for things like local bus transport and fresh coconuts on the beach.
Looking for a beach vacation? Check out Sri Lanka’s surf capital of Weligama
#14 Tipping is Not Expected in Sri Lanka
Tipping isn’t commonly practiced in Sri Lanka, and the locals don’t expect it. But if you find an extra helpful tuk tuk driver or smiley server, it’s not a bad practice to round up on your bill. In exceptional cases, I’ve dropped a western amount to someone I thought really deserved it.
#15 Bartering is Common
Similar to other countries that run on cash, Sri Lanka does accept and expect bargaining. Start with half the price and haggle up from there!
#16 Sri Lanka has Major Curry Culture
Sri Lankan Curry is similar to a thali plate in India. This dish is made up of various vegetable curries (the eggplant curry is my fave!), a large portion of rice and what I consider one of my best-loved condiments in the world, coconut sambol.
Due to the majority of Sri Lankans following Buddha, this country runs mainly on vegetables. You can find meat options in some places, but expect to get a good healthy dose of colourful and scrumptious gems of the earth. Vegetarians and vegans are well cared for on this Teardrop Isle.
Eat with your hands! But only with your right hand. Eating with your hand is considered the main way to consume food in Sri Lanka. Buddhist culture dictates that the left hand is the ‘dirty hand’, reserved for less savoury tasks. This is one of the best Sri Lanka travel tips!
Sri Lanka is full of earthy, spicy and robust flavours. Rice and curry are a given, but here are some of the items I suggest you also try:
A bowl-shaped thin pancake consisting of fermented coconut milk and rice flour. This dish can be made with or without an egg, and normally comes with curry dahl and coconut sambol.
Made simply from rice flour and water, the batter is pressed to make rice noodles and formed into patties. These are served similarly to hoppers.
Not actually a native dish, contrary to many beliefs, Kottu Roti is still a must try on your trip. Think Pad Thai, but made with chopped up Roti instead of noodles, with a peppering of earthy spices.
The spicy side condiment to most curry dishes, Sri Lanka’s version of sambal is made up of freshly shredded coconut meat, shallots, dried whole chillies, lime juice and salt. Yum!
#17 Lipton Tea Was Created Here
Sri Lanka produces some of the best tea in the world, Ceylon tea to be exact. Tea plantations can be found throughout the hill regions of central Sri Lanka and is the fourth largest exporter of tea in the world. Names like Lipton call Sri Lanka home.
If you are a tea person, I’d definitely suggest making a day of it and spending an afternoon in the tea plantations between Kandy and Nuwara Eliya. If you aren’t tempted to stop and smell the aroma, take the train from Kandy to Ella, as this region has some of the best scenery I’ve ever laid eyes on.
Need some packing advice? Follow my ultimate Sri Lanka Packing List
#18 Budget Around 15-20USD/day for Food + Drink in Sri Lanka
If you decide to visit some of the western restaurants along the southern coast, the prices will be closer to Australian pricing. If you are like me, you will probably do a bit of both, so my recommendation is to budget $15-20USD/day per person for food and drink. General costs of local cuisine can be found below:
- Hoppers (each) – LKR 25
- Vegetable Curry – LKR 600
- Seafood Curry – LKR 1000 – 2000
- Juice/Smoothie – LKR 300-500
- Fresh Coconut – LKR 50-100
- Local Lion Beer (625ml) – LKR 500
#19 Sri Lanka has Accommodation Options for All
Budgeting for Accommodation in Sri Lanka
Like most countries, you can stay at some really ritzy 5-star resorts that will cost you a pretty penny, but for most of us, 20-50USD/night budgeting should do the trick. This is especially true along the southern coast.
Once you venture into larger centres or up into hill country, this budget could go up slightly, depending on your comfort level. I’d recommend spending a couple of nights at a Sri Lankan guesthouse to really immerse yourself in the local culture.
Best Website for Booking Accommodation in Sri Lanka
Try Agoda.com to book your accommodation in Sri Lanka. Agoda provides no deposit down and free cancellation options.
#20 Some of the Best Surfing Beaches in the World are in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is home to a few of the best surfing beaches on our planet. There is a beach for everyone, beginner to pro. I’d suggest making your way down the southern coast of Sri Lanka to take full advantage of what Sri Lanka has to offer in the realm of surfing. Remember to always follow proper surfing etiquette and respect the locals when hitting the waves.
Weligama is a great place to set up camp for your duration on the south coast. From here you can easily get to nearby surfing beaches within a quick tuk tuk ride without having to pick up and move everything to a new location.
In Weligama you will find Beach Break and Gurubebila, both being prime locations for beginners! This is the number one beach if you are new to surfing.
WHERE | Weligama, Sri Lanka
READ MORE | Get my guide to the best things to do in Weligama, Sri Lanka
Venture a little west from Weligama and you will find yourself in the small village of Midigama, home to Lazy Left, Lazy Right and Rams Right. All three locations are great spots to learn how to surf or ride a wave at an intermediate level. On occasion a big swell will grace this spot to the delight of more advanced surfers.
WHERE | Midigama, Sri Lanka
If you are heading down to the south coast of Sri Lanka from Colombo, make sure to stop off in Hikkaduwa for a couple nights to take advantage of its many quality surf spots.
As one of the most developed surf towns on the island, Hikkaduwa is home to many cafes, bars, surf schools and shops. Benny’s, Main Reef, North Jetty and Beach Break are among the best locations for intermediate to advanced surfers in this area.
WHERE | Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka
This little gem on the East coast is best surfed between May and October to ride the most consistent waves. Arugam Bay is considered comparable to surf towns in Bali and because the water breaks over a reef, is arguably the best wave in Sri Lanka.
Sections like Elephant Rock, Peanut Farm Beach, and Pottuvil are where you’ll want to be.
WHERE | Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka
#21 Never Leave Home without Travel Insurance
I’ve always wondered why people think they can get by without travel insurance. On any given trip, anywhere in the world, there is always a chance of theft, injury or travel delay. While, fingers crossed, these don’t happen to you, HeyMondo has a comprehensive plan to make sure you’re covered no matter where you are.
See All Essential Sri Lanka Guides
Want to continue planning your trip to Sri Lanka?
Check out my 3 WEEK SRI LANKA ITINERARY or if you prefer to determine the route yourself, read the specialized guides below for some of the best experiences in Sri Lanka:
SRI LANKA BUCKET LIST | Get inspired by all that Sri Lanka has to offer. Here are my Sri Lanka highlights.
KANDY | Bustling market streets, quiet strolls around the lake, lush botanical gardens, and ornate Buddhist temples, the cultural capital of Sri Lanka has it all
ELLA | Nestled in the green centre of Sri Lanka, this hiker’s paradise features trails with panoramic views of jagged green hills, deep valleys and rushing waterfalls.
YALA NATIONAL PARK | Majestic elephants, elusive leopards, and a myriad of bird species can all be found in one of the biggest national parks in Sri Lanka.
WELIGAMA | Where surf culture is alive and thriving, this central town is located on the golden south coast of Sri Lanka and offers the best surf beach for beginners, and an abundance of traditional and modern eateries.
GALLE FORT | Fortified stone walls, dutch and Portuguese style architecture, great food and shopping all culminate in this little town that was once a major Sri Lankan trading post.
SRI LANKA PACKING LIST | Take the guesswork out of packing and easily check off my list to all things you will need for Sri Lanka’s warm climate