Tucked under the southeast coast of India, the beguiling island of Sri Lanka has both beauty and brains. Steamy emerald landscapes bloom with bougainvillea, hiding ancient Buddhist temples; crumbly Indiana Jones-worthy palaces stand photogenically atop rocky summits. Add to this rich cultural heritage miles of butter-pale beaches, jungle reserves busy with wildlife and a languid, tropical tempo… Even Marco Polo fell under the spell of this country, so is there any wonder if you will, too?
What’s the vibe?
In comparison with neighbouring India, which can be daunting for first-timers, Sri Lanka is easy to explore on your own. Its people are well known for being friendly and helpful, and the island is relatively compact, with most of the ancient sites clustered together – so you won’t have to travel vast distances to see those key temples.
A Sri Lanka solo trip overview
Two weeks is ideal for ticking off the must-sees – and the best time to visit is January-April, for dry, pleasant weather. Even during monsoon months, there’ll be spells of sunshine between deluges.
Get your history fix in the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka, a region littered with ancient monuments wrapped in jungle. At Polonnaruwa, the 1,000-year-old former royal capital, hire a bike to explore enigmatic stone-carved Buddhas. Or brave the thigh-burning climb at spectacular Sigiriya, teetering upon a volcanic outcrop.
Now head to Hill Country, home to undulating tea plantations and hiking trails. Take in the vibrant city of Kandy, best visited during the eye-popping Esala Perahera festival (July-August), with its spectacular elephant parade. To see these creatures in the wild, along with leopards and crocs, book a safari at Yala National Park.
Time to flop – the south coast has swathes of creamy sand as well as the atmospherically crumbling Dutch fort of Galle.
Accommodation in Sri Lanka
Stylish spots? You’ll be spoiled for choice – even on a budget, it’s easy to find chic guesthouses and hotels nationwide, often with a pool for cooling dips after sweaty temple tours. Splashing out for a night or two? Expect some truly spectacular hideaways – take your pick from colonial-style piles with polished wood floors and four posters, to breezy family-run guesthouses by the sea. There are remote eco-retreats with rustic-chic cabins, or sleek architectural boltholes hidden within palm groves.
What to do in Sri Lanka
For a small island, this nation is astonishingly diverse. There are the poster-worthy beaches, of course, but beyond the coast you’ll find misty tea plantations, vibrant hill towns, timeworn temples left to the jungle’s slow embrace and some of the tastiest cooking in South Asia. Try these top treats…
Go wild in Yala National Park
Ready to see spots? Home to one of the densest populations of leopards in the world, Yala is your best bet for an up-close encounter with one of these majestic big cats. There are also herds of wild elephant, spotted deer, sloth bears and birdlife galore.
A day trip to Yala National Park features as part of Culture Trip’s 12-day small-group adventure Treasure Island: Ancient Temples & Wildlife Encounters in Sri Lanka.
Cook up a Sri Lankan-style feast
Immerse yourself in Sri Lankan cuisine with a hands-on cookery course. Start with a tuk-tuk trip to a local market to select spices and haggle for fresh ingredients, then learn to create rich, flavour-packed curries laced with coconut and chilli. For more information see the Culture Trip guide to food and drink in Sri Lanka.
Plunge into the Sri Lanka festival spirit
Time your trip for the flamboyant annual Esala Perahera festival, held in Kandy over the midsummer full moon. The festival celebrates the annual outing of the country’s most revered relic, a sacred tooth of the Buddha. Book ahead for a front-row seat and admire thousands of dancers and drummers leading a procession of 50 or more costumed elephants.
Eating and drinking in Sri Lanka
From rustic roadside stalls to elegant city eateries, Sri Lankan cooking is a treat. Try rich, coconut-laced curries with fluffy rice and pol sambol (a fiery coconut-chilli relish), washed down with fresh coconut water or icy Lion beer. For breakfast, don’t miss moreish hoppers, bowl-shaped pancakes often served with an egg in the middle. Need an afternoon snack? Munch on some crispy vadai, deliciously spicy donuts made from deep-fried lentils.
If you’re heading to Kandy, see the Culture Trip foodie lowdown for Kandy.
Stay safe, stay happy in Sri Lanka
Pickpocketing and other misdemeanours certainly occur, but tourism is a vital source of livelihood to Sri Lankans and you’ll find yourself wonderfully looked after. Just take the same precautions you would anywhere on holiday.
Getting around in Sri Lanka
Sure, you can hire a car – but you’ll need “good horn, good brakes, good luck,” according to Sri Lankans, as well as nerves of steel. So book a car and driver, like most tourists do – there are plenty of reputable companies and it’s less expensive than it sounds. Public buses are everywhere but they can be uncomfortable and slow. If you love train travel, hop aboard the spectacular Kandy to Ella route, one of the most beautiful railway journeys in the world.
Sri Lankans are incredibly warm and friendly, but you’ll make friends more easily by following a few etiquette rules. Always eat and shake hands with people using your right hand. Dress respectfully at Buddhist temples (cover shoulders and legs) and take off your shoes. Solo female traveller? You’ll attract less unwanted attention – not least on buses and trains – by dressing conservatively; a loose sarong is handy for covering up.
Link up with a small group of like-minded travellers and a Local Insider on the Culture Trip Ancient Temples and Wildlife Encounters trip around Sri Lanka. The tour takes in whitewater rapids, cookery tuition, a wildlife park visit, and temple and fortress tours, as well as time at a rural village school to learn about Sri Lankan education.
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