The first tip I have for visiting Sri Lanka is simple – go to Sri Lanka! Sri Lanka has ancient temples, soaring mountains, thundering waterfalls, safari parks, sandy beaches, and a stunning colonial city. It is a hassle-free destination with friendly people and delicious, healthy food. Basically, we should all be in Sri Lanka right now.
I spent three weeks traveling around the island in December 2017/January 2018. Here are a few things I learned from my experience that may be useful if you make a journey to the island.
Take the Trains Wherever Possible
A travel agent in Colombo kept referring to the train ride from Nuwara Eliya to Ella as the “the most beautiful train ride in the world” with an exaggerated emphasis for comedic effect. Once we got onboard and started traveling past tea plantations, colorful highland villages, and towering waterfalls, it was easy to see that there was some truth in his over-the-top sales pitch.
And that may not be the most impressive train ride in Sri Lanka! The coastal line from Galle to Colombo passes sandy beaches, rickety fishing villages, and offers constant views of sapphire sea.
Maybe the best part of any train journey isn’t the scenery, but the snacks you can buy on board. Vendors pass through the cars selling roti, deep fried garbanzo bean cakes, and samosas. There is no need to buy food for the journey – hop on board and great food will come to you!
For more information on Sri Lankan trains, check out Seat61.com.
Hire a Car and Driver for the North
As a budget traveler at heart, it really pains me to admit this, much less recommend it, but we splurged on a car and driver for a portion of the trip and it greatly enhanced our experience. The ancient cities of Anuradhapura, Polonnuwara, Sigiriya and Dambulla are connected by a network of buses, but they are slow and crowded. Having a driver for this portion took out all the stress of travel and allowed us to see much more in a shorter period of time.
Each morning our driver would show up early, drive us to the ruins, take us to lunch, then drive us to the next city in the afternoon. We saved about four days of travel by doing this and were able to see much more of the country as a result. In addition, we got to eat at several out of the way restaurants and cafes we’d have never found without the local knowledge of the driver and freedom of a car.
Make time for Colombo
Most travelers skip over Colombo because it lacks traditional tourist sites and is a sprawling, sweltering, chaotic mess. I’d recommend staying a day or two and exploring the city. It has a few great parks, especially Galle Face Green, and can be a fun place to practice your photography.
Eat at Jaga Food
I sang the praises of Jaga Food in a different post, so for the purposes of brevity I’ll keep it simple:
- Go to Polonnuwara
- Eat at Jaga Food
- Thank me later
They have 90% excellent ratings on Trip Advisor for a reason.
Know that you will be eating at Pizza Hut from time to time
Sri Lanka doesn’t have a strong street food or restaurant culture like other Asian countries, and I didn’t really appreciate this until we wandered around the town of Anuradhapura looking for dinner and realized that Pizza Hut – yes the American pizza chain – was the happening spot in town! Especially in some of the smaller towns like Annurahapura, Polonnuwara, and Nuwara Eliya, there is a dearth of tourist oriented restaurants. Having said that, many of the guesthouses in those towns offer excellent meals, but it usually needs be booked in advance and they don’t stay open very late.
Sri Lankan rice and curry is one of my all-time favorite meals, and you can’t beat the roadside rotis, but you’ll need Pizza Hut to survive at times.
Understand the monsoons and be prepared for rain
Sri Lanka has two different monsoons and weather can vary from one side of the small island to the other. We had some days of heavy rain in the north in December, but dry and sunny weather in the south. I’d recommend checking out this link on weather when you start planning your trip.
Try to visit Anuradhapura during a festival or during school holidays if at all possible
Anuradhapura without the pilgrims or religious ceremonies is worth a visit. The ruins and restored temples are impressive. However, if you can visit during a time when it is busy with locals the experience will be improved 10 fold.
Further reading: Serendipity in Anuradhapura
We saw several tourists denied entry to temples because they were wearing shorts. You cannot get away with being underdressed at temples in Sri Lanka. At the very least, carry a sarong to put on if needed.
Beyond that, Sri Lanka is a conservative country and to be a good citizen of the world, it is a good idea to dress appropriately.
If you plan to climb Sigiriya, and you should despite the absurd $30 entry fee, get started as early as possible. It is a steep climb to the top and there is no shade on the summit. Even in the cool season, it was hot on the peak.
For the uninitiated, Sigiriya is a plateau with sheer cliffs that served as an ancient fortress. It was difficult climbing it on rickety ladders and steps carved into the rocks. I have not idea how they climbed it in the old days. I imagine more than a few unfortunate people fell to their demise.
One of the unexpected highlights of our trip were the botanical gardens in Kandy. I sort of scoffed at the idea of botanical gardens, but once inside we found a massive, sprawling park with beautiful trees, picnicking families and pleasant tea shops.
Eat at the Old Railway Cafe in Galle
You have to try this place – great coffee and tea, inventive dishes like a shrimp/bacon/avocado wrap, and perhaps the best milkshakes in Asia. The cafe is in a relatively quiet street away form the main tourist area. Service is very friendly and everything is cooked to order in the tiny kitchen.
Walk around Galle Fort early in the morning
I woke up around sunrise and took a stroll through the beautiful and surprisingly quiet streets of colonial Galle Fort. Nothing was open and no one was around, which was bad because I wanted to take some street photos and I desperately needed coffee. But around 7:30am, the streets became a river of school kids, women in saris, and men in suits. Combine this with the soft morning light and gorgeous architecture, and it was a visual feast.
Just outside the fort, fishermen were busy unloading the morning’s catch and vendors were hard at work chopping and filleting fish. It was a great time to walk around since all the tourists were mostly still asleep (or at their guesthouses getting that elusive coffee.)
Do you have any other tips for visiting Sri Lanka?