Destination guide: Sri Lanka

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While there's no denying that the island of Sri Lanka has suffered horribly for various reasons over the past few decades - with the 22-year-long civil war which tore the north of the country apart ending only in 2009, and huge areas of the south being devastated by the Boxing Day tsunami - it's a country on the road to recovery.

The northern half bore the brunt of the civil war, but with its lush rainforests and virgin beaches it's easy to see why many predict that within five years, the north will emerge as the primary tourist destination. New hotels and railways are being built and the airport in Jaffna, the northern province's capital, is being rebuilt. For now, however, the central province, with its tea plantations, temples and rich history, and the southern coast, with its beautiful beaches, fortresses and rainforests, remain the most popular destinations.

Where to stay

The Chaaya Village Habarana resort

Sri Lanka has a fantastic range of hotels, from uber-luxurious affairs like the Fortress Hotel on the southern coast, to smaller, family-run hotels in more rural areas. In Colombo, the Kingsbury Hotel provides a great base from which to explore, and although it's one of Colombo's top hotels, it's also great value, with rooms starting from around £90 per night.

Cinnamon Bey Beruwala hotel

Cinnamon Hotels & Resorts and Chaaya hotels are two great brands which offer luxury and a warm Sri Lankan welcome at purse-friendly prices - their hotels can be found in most cities and beach resorts, along with the lesser-known areas. The southern coast is dotted with beautiful, spacious villas which can be rented out for longer periods. One example is the Teak House in Tangalle. This two-bedroom villa, located just a few metres from a spectacular beach, can be hired out in its entirety from just £185 per night. Eden Villas, which can be found in and around the historic city of Galle, are equally appealing - there are ten to choose from.

Sri Lanka: facts and figures

Boys playing during sunset at Galle

  • Size: 65,610 km²
  • Population: 20 million
  • Currency: The Sri Lankan rupee - there are 212 Sri Lankan rupees (LKR) to the British pound
  • Time zone: GMT + 5.5 hours
  • Flight time from London: 10.5 hours
  • Language: Sinhala
  • Religion: Around 70 per cent are Buddhists. The other main religious groups are Hindus, Muslims and Christians
  • When to go: Sri Lanka is tropical, with distinct dry and wet seasons. In the south and west, monsoon season lasts from May to August, and the dry season lasts from December to March. In the north and the east, dry season lasts from May to December

Food and drink

Sri Lankan delicacies

Due to its proximity to southern India, many dishes bear a strong resemblance to Keralan cuisine. Rice and curry are staple foods enjoyed at lunch, dinner, and often even breakfast. Some of the best seafood can be found in the south, where cuttlefish, tuna and dried fish all feature prominently. Other popular dishes include lamprais - rice boiled in stock and served with curry - and rotis, or flatbreads, served with chicken or beef.

A meal at Bey Beruwala

Sri Lankans have a sweet tooth and treacle-based cakes are incredibly popular. Colombo has some wonderful restaurants, including Ministry of Crab, the Sushi Bar at the Cinnamon Grand hotel (which also serves Sri Lanka's best afternoon tea) and the Park Street Mews restaurant, which merges Sri Lankan and European cuisine. The Kingsbury rooftop SKKY lounge is the perfect place for a sun downer and Glow Bar, in Colombo 3, has an enormous cocktail list, live DJs and great prices. The coastal city of Galle has some fabulous restaurants, many of which can be found within the city's fort.

Things to see and do

Sri Dalada Maligawa temple

The north, with its beautiful beaches, is undoubtedly set to become the country's next big tourist draw. In the meantime, tourists flock to the high-altitude city of Kandy, in the central province, for the tea plantations, rice paddies and temples. Must-sees include the temple of the Tooth Relic (Sri Dalada Maligawa) and Kandy lake. Pinnawala is an hour's drive to the west, and the location of Sri Lanka's largest elephant orphanage. Although some of the elephants in the enclosures near the park's entrance look slightly depressed, there's a huge open area at the back of the orphanage where they look much happier, and this is where you'll find the unbearably-cute baby elephants.

The elephant orphanage

Sigiriya, to the north, is located within the Matale district of the central Province. One highlight is the Sigiriya rock fortress, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. In 480AD, a Sri Lankan king built his castle atop the rock, and although the castle no longer exists, it's possible to hike to the summit. It's a tough, hour-long climb, but the views are breathtaking.

Currently, the southern coast is undoubtedly Sri Lanka's biggest draw. It's the world's best spot for blue whale sightings, and between January and April, there's a 90 per cent chance of seeing them. Aluthgama, Ambalangoda and Hikkaduwa are all prime whale-spotting locations.

When the Boxing Day tsunami hit in 2003, 4000 people died in the coastal city of Galle, but the city's fort split the wave and saved 250,000 lives. Much of Galle was devastated but nobody inside the fort died, and walking around the interior is like taking a step back in time - the shops, restaurants and hotels were all untouched. Be prepared to fend off hawkers - especially ones who try to sell you coins which they claim have been recovered from Portuguese shipwrecks!

The Sigiriya rock fortress

The Tsunami Museum, just outside the nearby village of Hikkaduwa, was set up by a woman who lost everything when the wave hit. She returned to her house to find that only a slab of stone remained, and this is where she built the museum. It's basic, but the collection of photos detailing the havoc wreaked by the tsunami provides a thought-provoking insight into the disaster. The tsunami memorial - a giant Buddha statue presented to the country by Japan - can be found in the nearby village of Peraliya.

Sri Lanka: know before you go

Tuk-tuks at the ready

  • Sri Lanka is a safe country to travel around, but travellers should take the same precautions they would take anywhere else. Tuk-tuks are safe and reliable, but taxis - which are equally cheap and efficient - should be used after dark.
  • Roads, particularly in rural areas, are basic, which means that a 70-mile journey by car can easily take three hours. Buses are cheap and cheerful but journeys can be nerve-wracking affairs.
  • Sri Lanka's trains are old and slow, and take longer than buses, but the train journeys through Sri Lanka's hill country, in the central province, are spectacular.
  • Sri Lankans love asking lots of questions, so don't be surprised when a total stranger asks you where you're going, what you do for a job or if you're married.
  • A tip of 10 per cent tip is standard in hotels, bars and restaurants.

Getting there and away

SriLankan Airlines fly from London Heathrow to Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo, once a day. Return fares start from £588. During peak periods, this increases to 12 flights a week.

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