Our Sri Lanka Travel Guide
Whether it’s your first time travelling to Sri Lanka or you’ve been there before, read our guide on the country’s history, etiquette, tipping culture, food, festivals and more.
At a glance
A verdant teardrop falling off the cheek of the Indian subcontinent, Sri Lanka boasts extraordinary natural, cultural and historical wealth but years of a brutal civil war kept Sri Lanka from being as popular with tourists as the island should have been. Now, with a quarter century of conflict behind it, Sri Lanka's doors are open and many are trying to resolve the scars of conflict as quickly as possible. The country has also worked hard to recover from the devastating tsunami in 2004.
The country's attractions are numerous. There's Colombo, the chaotic capital, which can be a jolt to the senses but with atmospheric bazaars and a buzz to proceedings, tea plantations galore and rich plains and forests with birds and bees and leopards, too. Elephants walk along the roads and dugongs swim along the coast. Fishermen in Weligama fish from slits and surfers flock to world-class surf breaks, beaches and reefs. There are eight UNIESCO World Heritage sites to explore, including the Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Kandy, Anuradhapura, the ancient capital, and the prominent peak of Sigiriya Rock, a temple-topped flattop rock in the central region which offers perfect sunrise views.
It's a perfect destination for stop-start holidays that mix cultural outings with beach breaks and hilly retreats. There is perhaps nowhere else in Asia that can offer so much to scintillate the senses in such a small, compact space.
Culture & etiquette
Sri Lanka is an easy country to navigate in terms of social norms, and British travellers may find numerous cultural similarities, a hangover from colonial days.
Sri Lankans place a great emphasis on politeness. Raising your voice will only counter your cause. Sri Lankans are also a very proud population, keen to show travellers their country and keen to know what visitors think of it. Be honest, but polite, and consider that any overtly negative or derogatory comments will likely cause offence. 25 years of a recently ended civil war means that discussing politics is best avoided.
Men and women rarely show public displays of affection. Be sure to follow this trend in order to avoid any unwanted attention. Sunbathing or swimming topless or in the nude is a major taboo. Female travellers should consider carrying a thin scarf or pullover and erring on the side of conservative clothing.
If visiting the country's Buddhist or Hindu temples, be sure to dress appropriately by covering shoulders and legs and removing shoes and headgear.
Ceylon tea is ubiquitous with Sri Lanka and, like chai in India, is served in all the most unlikely (and likely) places, so you're never too far from a good cuppa. Climb into the hills and visit a tea plantation to observe the process that goes into turning innocuous green leaves into one of Sri Lanka's finest exports. If you're not in the mood for tea, soft drinks are widely available, particularly ginger beer, which is a bit of a local favourite.
Alcohol has been happily consumed in Sri Lanka since its introduction in the Kandyan period. Local Lion lager is the most popular drop and enjoying a cool, condensation-dripping bottle is an excellent way to wind down on a humid evening. Other beers include Three Coins Riva, a wheat beer and trusty old Carlsberg, which is brewed in Sir Lanka under a special license.
More uniquely Sri Lankan is arrack, a 33 (or there about...) percent proof liquor fermented from another local favourite toddy, which is brewed from coconut flowers. Enjoyed neat in small shot glasses or with a mixer, it's a fine social lubricant and sold in most bars and supermarkets, except on the night of the monthly full moon when alcohol sales are prohibited. As in any destination serving 'home-brews', be careful that it is the real thing, and not-methanol based.
January- Duruthu Poya, Buddhist festival
February - National Day
February/March - Maha Sivarathri, the night when Siva danced his dance of destruction
April - Sinhala Tamil New Year
May - Vesak Full Moon Poya
June - Poson Full Moon Poya
July - Esala Full Moon Poya
August - Esala Perahera, Buddist festival of the tooth
September - Binara Full Moon Poya
October - Deepavali, Hindu Festival of Lights
November - Il Full Moon Poya
Food & drink
This is an original spice island, and Sri Lankans like their food hot verging on fiery. That said, restaurants serving travellers have long since tempered dishes to bring the spice levels down, and it's easy as a visitor (expected even) to ask to have your food served 'medium' and not mind-blowingly hot. Hot or not, it's undeniably fragrant and flavourful, with cardamom, cinnamon, cumin and coriander.
In this particular blend of spicing and in many popular dishes, there are traces of Indian influence, but Sri Lanka, given its trading history and location, has also seen its cuisine absorb European, Arabic, Malaysian and Moorish ingredients and methods; while remaining distinctive.
Rice and curry is the national staple, an institution served at every café and restaurant and eaten at least once a day. This can be a simple affair with a main meat or fish based curry, dhal and side dishes of pickles and chutneys, or an elaborate banquet with a mound of rice served with more than a dozen variations on curry and vegetable dishes, inspired by the Dutch rijsttafel or rice table, itself inspired by nasi padang, a dish from another Dutch colony, Indonesia. Anything goes, from jackfruit curry, to okra, to curried pineapple or spicy aubergines.
As you'd expect from a tropical island, coconuts and seafood play a major part in Sri Lanka's diet. Tuna, mullet, succulent white seerfish, crab, lobster, prawns (often jumbo prawns), pomfret, and delicious butterfish all feature prominently. Seafood can provide a less spicy option, as it is often simply fried or grilled with lemon, though chilli crab is a particular national favourite.
Deep fried snacks are savoured and favoured too, among them fried cassava chips and jackfruit seeds, samosas and nuggets of crisp batter topped with curry leaves. Luckily, there is a healthy alternative available - a superb selection of tropical fruit, from mangoes to mangosteens.
Some Sri Lankan specialities include:
Sambols - less a dish, more a garnish, these blends of grated coconut or onion, pounded with lime juice, salt, chilli powder and 'Maldive fish' (sun-dried tuna) are delicious and served with almost everything.
Mallum - meaning mix up, this salad-style dish of finely shredded green leaves, grated coconut, red onions and spices is refreshing, a Sri Lankan take on tabbouleh.
Lamprais - a Dutch inspired Sri Lankan dish, in which rice is cooked in stock and curry, with frikkadels (meatballs) before being wrapped in a banana leaf and baked.
Ulundhu Vadai - delicious fritters made from lentil flour and spices, fried until crunchy and crisp without, soft and crumbly within, an ubiquitous Sri Lankan snack.
Those or dosai - crispy rice flour (or lentil flour) served plain with coconut chutney on the side, or as masala dosas, wrapped around a mildly spiced potato filling - as found in Kerala.
Roti - thin flatbread, usually wrapped around a portion of curried meat or vegetables. Watching them being made is part of the fun.
Kottu - another street food favourite that provides a fine spectacle as paratha bread is shredded before being stir fried with assorted spices and meat or vegetables or eggs or combinations of all three, served with a bowl of curry sauce to add a splash more flavour and fun.
Appa - or egg hoppers - are served at stands throughout the island, and make for a delicious breakfast. These small pancakes are made from a batter that includes coconut milk and a touch of palm toddy, and fried in small pots, so the bottom is doughy and the edges and frilly crisp around the edges. An egg is fried in the middle, and most customers add the chilli and onion sauce provided for a spicy start to the day. String hoppers or indiappa - made from a tangle of steamed rice noodles, served with a little curry or dhal are also popular for breakfast.
Sri Lanka covers an area of 65,610 square kilometres and has a population of over 20 million people (similar to that of Australia), of which 15% live in urban areas. Sri Lanka has over 1,340 km of coastline and the highest point is Pidurutalagala, which peaks at 2,524m and is situated in the Central Province.
Your WEXAS Travel consultant can arrange any combination of internal travel to suit your tailor-made itinerary, depending on your preferences.
A remnant of British colonialism, the railway network in Sri Lanka is a wonderful, cheap and speedy way of getting around and of seeing the country, too. Sri Lankan train services operate three classes, from 1st - sleeping berths, observation saloons - to 3rd - unreserved, often cramped. None of these are expensive. Long distance train travel is a good way of covering some ground as domestic flights are few and long-distance buses can be unreliable and uncomfortable.
That said, buses service up to 80% of all Sri Lankan roads, so can prove incredibly useful when trying to reach certain areas. Like the trains, they are incredibly cheap compared to western costs. Be sure to book with private bus companies if you fancy air-conditioning and a comfortable seat.
Hiring a car with a driver offers maximum flexibility and your driver will no doubt be able to share some good local knowledge. Though more expensive that bus or train travel, travelling by private car is by no means expensive, especially if you're travelling with a group.
When it comes to local transport, auto-rickshaws are everywhere, easy to flag down and equally easy to barter with. Inner-city or short bus journeys can cost as little as 4p. Those with steely nerves could consider hiring a moped - with a good horn - for ultimate freedom.
Sri Lanka's history is a mass of conflicting and converging threads, which has, at times, resulted in chaos and conflict. As a centre of historical trading routes and a home to various ethnic groups, notably the Sinhalese and Tamils, the island's history has been heavily influenced by both domestic struggle and foreign intervention.
The original inhabitants of Sri Lanka arrived sometime around 35,000BC. They were hunter-gatherers, known as Veddahs, who migrated across a land bridge between India and Northern Sri Lanka. In 5000 BC, this land bridge was submerged by rising sea levels and some millennia later, in 900 BC, a megalithic culture began to emerge with Anuradhapura at its centre.
Buddhism arrived on the island in the 3rd century BC, transforming Anuradhapura and becoming a major influence on the island's first established kingdom, the Anuradhapura Kingdom, which lasted until the 11th century AD.
Several other kingdoms were established across the country following the Anuradhapura, but by the time the Portuguese arrived, in 1505, Sri Lanka was separated into three kingdoms: Jaffna (Tamil) and Kandy and Kotte (Sinhalese). The Portuguese quickly established a friendly relationship with the Kotte kingdom on the west coast and gained the trade monopoly on the island's valuable spices. Soon however colonial greed had taken over, and Jaffna fell after two violent attempts at resistance in 1619, during which numerous important Hindu temples and the royal library were destroyed. Kotte was also taken over and Portugal soon controlled the entire east and west coast. Only the Kandyan kingdom resisted domination.
Portuguese activity on the island had soon aroused interest from Dutch and British traders. The Dutch arrived in 1602 and cut a deal with the Kandyan king, Rajasinha II, which allowed them access to the island's precious spices and effectively took complete control from the Portuguese. The Dutch built canal systems to transport crops - some of which can still be seen in Negombo - and left a lasting impression on the country; the Sri Lankan legal canon is still formed in part by Dutch era legalities.
With French influence spreading to the east coast of India, the British viewed Sri Lanka in strategic terms, singling out the harbour of Trincomalee as a key asset in colonial influence. Complications in Europe led the Dutch to cede Sri Lanka to the British in 1796 and by 1802 Sir Lanka was a British island colony. Just over a decade later, the first unified administration of the island by a European power was established.
British power was unpopular, particularly among the Sinhalese who believed that only custodians of the tooth relic of Buddha, which had been brought to Anuradhapura in 371 AD, had the right to rule. Between 1843 and 1859, over 900,000 Tamils from South India migrated to Ceylon to work in the new tea plantation estates that had sprung up across the country and the cultural, social and demographic matrix of Sri Lanka was altered dramatically.
By the end of the 19th century, Tamil and Sinhalese campaigns were established to help protect Sri Lankan culture against a Christian and colonial influx and by 1919, the nationalist mission was formalised as the Ceylon National Congress. Some years later, on 4 February 1948, Sri Lanka became fully independent.
A wave of Sinhalese nationalism followed, cemented by the Sri Lankan Freedom Party who came to power in 1956 and followed an agenda based on the promotion of Sinhalese language and socialism and government support for Buddhism. Tamils, who had found themselves well represented in the run up to independence, were now in a position of a threatened minority. Society was further divided following a Sinhala-only bill, which partially blocked Hindu and Muslim-Tamils from government jobs and services and access to university.
The result was a backlash from young Tamils and in the mid-1970s clashes between Tamils and security forces developed into a pattern of killings and reprisals. This came to a crux at the beginning of the 1980s when, in response to killing of 13 government soldiers by Tamil Tigers, a mass riot on so-called Black July led to the killing of between 400 to 3000 Tamils in the streets of Colombo. The government failed to react and revenge attacks continued across the country. Following a failed 1987 bill that would offer limited Tamil autonomy in the north, the country was thrust into full-scale civil war, which raged for 25 years, claiming up to 100,000 lives.
In 2002, with the help of a Norwegian peace broker, the Sri Lankan military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) came to the negotiating table and, though a ceasefire was agreed, tensions remained and some small-scale atrocities were committed. The 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which killed tens of thousands of Sri Lankans and flattened coastal towns, disrupted the peace talks and soon Sri Lanka was in the grip of civil war once again. It lasted until its brutal end on 2009, when the Sri Lankan military launched an all-out assault on areas under the control of the LTTE. No major conflict has occurred since.
Today, with peace at last, Sri Lanka is making the most of its natural and mineral wealth. Tourists have flocked to the country since 2009 and hopes of a unified, economically successful Sri Lanka are finally starting to be realised.
Tipping is de rigueur in Sri Lanka. Service charges of 10-15% are almost always added to restaurant or hotel bills, taxi drivers expect similar rates, residents of temples will expect a small donation if they've shown you around and tour guides and drivers generally expect a little something too. Try to ascertain whom the tip is going to, and if possible, tip directly to the person you've been dealing with. This is particularly important in larger hotels and restaurants.
Where to eat
Most of the country's independent restaurants are in Colombo, Kandy, Galle and Negombo - in other words in popular tourist areas. The rest of the country is served mostly by little cafés, or street stalls, though in the hill stations, family-owned restaurants provide excellent home cooking.
Hotel restaurants tend to focus more on Western dishes, but some boutique and coastal resort hotels do make a feature of traditional dishes. Indian and Chinese restaurants are common in Colombo - in fact 'devilled' Chinese style dishes are popular in Sri Lanka (perhaps because they are faster to prepare than Sri Lankan meals).
To eat like the locals, try specialities from the various street stalls, or pick up a lunch packet from a café - these are incredibly cheap, and include steamed rice with chicken, beef, fish or egg curry, a vegetable dish and sambol. As always, when picking a stall or café, opt for the busiest places where food is freshly prepared.