Sri Lanka

Arriving home from travelling, I often got asked the question, “which was your favourite country?” It’s a tough decision between Nepal and Sri Lanka, but I think Sri Lanka just slightly tops it for me as my favourite country. There is so much to explore in Sri Lanka, from the busy, cosmopolitan city of Colombo, to the tea plantations and trekking in the centre, to the beaches in the South. And that’s not even mentioning the beautiful deserted islands and history of the north! We spent a total of four weeks in Sri Lanka and arrived one week after the FCO had advised that it was now open and safe to travel to after the terrible events of April 2019. Don’t let these events scare you or put you off travelling here, the people are some of the friendliest I’ve ever met and Sri Lanka is definitely firmly back on the travel list and open for business!

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Getting there, visas, currency etc.
Most visits to Sri Lanka will likely begin in the large, international City of Colombo. There are now direct flights from London Heathrow to Colombo and a visa can be obtained online in advance or at the airport on arrival. A 30-day visa costs $40. The local currency is the Sri Lankan Rupee and works out as roughly 233.25 rupees to £1. If, like me you struggle with mental arithmetic, I’d definitely recommend the XE currency conversion app! English is widely spoken in Sri Lanka.

Colombo
I’m not usually a fan of Capital Cities. I find them overpopulated, polluted, and usually can’t wait to get out of them! This wasn’t the case with Colombo. There is so much to do and explore here, and I even found it to be quite clean (for a Capital City at least!). The International airport is located approximately 32km outside of Colombo, and the easiest way to get from the airport into the City is by using an Uber. We arrived at 12am after a 6-hour journey from Nepal via Kuala Lumpur and attempted to make the journey from the airport into the City on public transport. Turns out this isn’t easy in the middle of the night, so we instead opted for a tuk tuk which felt like the longest journey of my life as they only travel 30mph. It’s safe to say we ended up booking an Uber for our return journey!

  • Where we stayed: We stayed in a hostel called the Clock Inn in the downtown area of Colombo. It’s a lovely, clean hostel within easy walking distance to all the main sites and attractions and is decently priced. We ended up coming back and staying here when we returned to Colombo before departure. The staff are also really friendly and provide a sightseeing map if needed.
  • Things to do:
  • Independence Square: The independence square is the centre point of Colombo, filled with war monuments and set in a pretty garden. From here you can easily walk to some of the other main tourist attraction sites, passing pretty shops and ice cream stalls along the way.
  • Gangaramaya Temple: The Gangaramaya temple is set right on a lake and surrounded by hundreds of statues of Buddha. Remember to remove your shoes before entering and cover below the knee, or bring a wrap to cover up. On a different note, there is a great shopping centre called City Mall directly opposite the Temple with great shops, a cinema, and a food court if you’re already missing those home comforts!
  • Galle Face: The Galle face promenade is pretty to walk along and watch the sunset in the evening. It’s a popular place for locals to meet and socialise and is a nice way to walk into town if you are staying near the seafront, however the waters around the beach are polluted from all the cargo ships so don’t swim here!
  • Red Mosque: I have included the Red Mosque as it is often recommended as one of the main sites to see in Colombo, however we weren’t all that impressed. It’s beautiful from the outside, but you likely won’t be allowed in to see the inside, and it’s set in a really busy, bustling market areas. If you’re short of time in the City, maybe consider skipping it!
  • Places to eat: 
    Barefoot Café: Barefoot café serves incredible food at pretty affordable prices. It’s located right opposite the Clock Inn where we stayed, so we ended up having breakfast here most mornings! They also have a shop and bookstore.
    Dutch Hospital : The Dutch hospital is an old colonial building from the days when the Dutch colonised Sri Lanka. The old hospital building has now been converted into lots of pubs, restaurants and shops. Make sure to try the tower of Lion Beer in the Dutch pub!
    Banana Leaf: Near barefoot café, there is a lovely little lunch/dinner spot called the Banana leaf owned by a Sri Lankan family who serve up tasty, traditional Sri Lankan curry served on banana leaves!
    Ministry of Crab: Now this is definitely on the higher end of the price scale, but if you fancy a treat and trying some tasty crab then look no further than the Ministry of Crab. You can choose from a one person size portion all the way up to the ‘Godzilla’ king of crabs.
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Buddha statues of the Gangarampur Temple

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Kandy
Kandy is a well known town in Sri Lanka, surrounded by hills and set on a lake with a temple famous for containing the Buddha’s tooth.

  • How to get there: If travelling from Colombo to Kandy, the train takes 3 hours and costs approximately £1.50 for a first class ticket. If sitting in first class, make sure to bring a jumper with you as the air conditioning is turned to maximum for the entire journey!
  • Where we stayed: We stayed in a hostel called Funk Bunks whilst in Kandy. However, I wouldn’t recommend it! The owners and staff are barely ever there so arranging transport or getting advice on where to go/what to see is difficult, and the breakfast served was terrible! Oh, and I also got bitten by a stray dog when walking back to the hostel one night as the hostel is located up a steep hill where lots of stray dogs tend to roam. Not ideal!
  • Things to do:
    – Visit the botanical gardens: We absolutely loved the botanical gardens in Kandy. Filled with lots of tropical species of beautiful flowers and plants, wildlife including flying fox bats, colourful lizards, and lots of monkeys, and a café for lunch set right in the middle of the grounds.
    Sacred temple of the Buddha’s tooth: As mentioned, Kandy is famous for housing the Buddha’s tooth. The tooth isn’t actually on display, but it’s worth a visit to see the beautiful architecture of the building and museum attached to the temple. Make sure to bring a cover up to cover shoulders and below the knee as you will not be admitted without this.
  • Places to eat:
    Cool corner: a tasty ice cream parlour where they hand roll the ice cream in front of you while you wait!
    Empire café: Located right outside the temple of the tooth, empire café serves up a selection of delicious curries thali style.
    Royal hotel: a nice spot for a cocktail. The balcony is especially nice to escape the hustle and bustle of the streets below.

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Temple of the Buddha’s tooth

Ella
Ella is high on the list of most travellers’ bucket list of places to visit in Sri Lanka. It has lots to offer, from climbing the mountains surrounding the town, to visiting a tea plantation, or seeing the ‘famous’ 9 arches bridge.

  • How to get there: Now, quite controversially, I did not think that the train journey from Kandy to Ella, supposedly one of the ‘most scenic train journeys in the world’ was all it’s made out to be. The journey takes 6 hours from Kandy to Ella and is literally a tourist train. Most tourists will spend their time hanging out the window or door to get that ‘perfect Instagram photo’. Alternatively, you can spend 1.5 hours travelling by road from Kandy to Ella and avoid the social media frenzy. Also, we’d read a lot about how terrible the third class seats are, but don’t believe this. We travelled third class as other classes of tickets were sold out and it was absolutely fine.
  • Where we stayed: We stayed in a beautiful homestay called Nature’s Glow overlooking Little Rawana falls. The family we stayed with were lovely and we ate breakfast every morning overlooking the valley and jungle surrounding Ella.
  • Things to do:
    Little Adam’s Peek: Little Adam’s Peek is one of the 2 main hills to climb surrounding Ella. It’s a fairly easy climb, only takes about 30 minutes to the summit, and we climbed it in flip flops!
    Uva Halpewatte Tea plantations: The tea plantations at Uva Halpewatte include a guided tour by knowledgeable guides and a chance to learn all about the hard work that goes into that little cup of tea we love so much! You can also sample the tea at the end of the tour and buy presents as gifts for family and friends back home.
    Ella Rock: A bit more of a difficult hike, you might want to wear trainers/decent shoes for this one! The views from the summit are beautiful and it’s a good way to work off some of that curry you’ll likely be living off!
    9 Arches bridge: I include 9 arches bridge under my list of things to do only because I know that most people consider it a ‘must see’ activity in Ella. Honestly, it’s a bridge…Maybe I’m spoiled by living in Yorkshire where there are plenty of impressive viaduct bridges to see, but I didn’t see what all the fuss was about and just ended up getting annoyed at all the social media ‘models’ again.
  • Places to eat:
    Café Chill: Café chill really does live up to its name and is a good place to chill out with a beer and some tasty food after a busy day exploring. Make sure to try the Lamprais curry: a mixture of 10 different curries all served together in a banana leaf wrap!
    The Curd shop: Curd is a type of yogurt which is served with fruit. It’s really tasty and filling, and the curd shop offer a good selection to try.

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Breakfast with a view!
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View from Little Adam’s Peek

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Arugam bay
Arugam bay is slightly off the beaten track for Sri Lanka. It lies on the East coast and is known as a surfing town. Even if you’re not a fan of surfing, Arugam bay has lots to offer!

  • How to get there: Getting from Ella to Arugam bay can be difficult. We had planned to take two different public buses and knew this would take 7 hours. However, whilst we were stood at the bus stop waiting, a local approached us and mentioned that he knew people who had booked a private bus and were going to Arugam bay. We decided to take him up on this offer and were glad we did as it only took 3 hours in the end! If you don’t fancy public buses (or hanging around waiting for strangers to offer you transport!) there are lots of taxi firms who line the main street of Ella and will travel to Arugam bay.
  • Where we stayed: We stayed in a hostel 2km outside of Arugam bay called Shim’s place. The hostel rooms consisted of cabanas set right on the beach. They also offer free bike rentals, so we were able to cycle into town every morning.
  • Things to do:
    Surf/enjoy the beach: Most of the shops lining the main street of Arugam bay offer surf lessons or board hire. If surfing’s not your thing, there are lots of hotels which allow use of their sun loungers if you buy a drink at the attached bars/restaurants. I’d recommend either Golden bay hotel, or Bay Vista hotel.
    Kumana safari: Most people who visit Sri Lanka will head straight for Yala National park. However, we chose to visit Kumana national park and I’m so glad we did! We organised a half day safari with our guide which included private jeep, guide, and entrance fees and cost £30 per person. The safari was incredible! We only saw 2 other jeeps the whole day and we managed to spot a leopard, sloth bear, elephants, lake deer, mongoose, buffalo deer, hornbills, and storks!
  • Places to eat:
    Bites café: We absolutely loved this little café, and ended up cycling here for breakfast every day we were in Arugam bay! Their coffee is amazing and definitely try their brookies (brownie and cookies).
    Mister Fisherman: The mister fisherman restaurant is a roadside restaurant right on the main street that serves incredible fresh fish caught by local fishermen on the day.
    Seahorse pizzeria: Nice restaurant serving decent pizza. Make sure to wear lots of mosquito spray though as the restaurant is set in a garden.
    Bay Vista café: Vegan café located on the top floor of the Bay Vista hotel. They also offer yoga lessons on the rooftop and it has beautiful views across the whole bay.

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Sloth bear in Kumana National Park

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Brookies!

Tangalle
Tangalle is a lovely beach town on the South coast of Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, after the terrorist attacks it was hit hard by the lack of tourists and when we were there most of the hotels and restaurants had closed as they couldn’t afford to stay open.

  • How to get there: If travelling from Arugam bay to Tangalle, local public buses start from Pottuvil and take approximately 5 hours.
  • Where we stayed: We stayed in a home-stay called Sun Sea Guesthouse. The family were so kind and friendly and we were very well looked after! They explained how following the terrorist attack of April 2019, most home-stays and guesthouses had to close as overnight they lost the next 3 months’ worth of business. It is local businesses and families who really suffer as a result of incidents like April 2019, so please try to stay local and support local businesses where possible when travelling.
  • Things to do:
    – Humana Blow hole: The humana blow hole is an incredible natural formation where sea water is forced through rocks and rises up like a blow hole to spray water over the rocks. Don’t let the smaller splashes fool you, we got completely soaked when we stood a bit too close to the blow hole!
    Rekawa turtle sanctuary: The rekawa turtle sanctuary works to educate locals on the importance of protecting sea turtles and using sustainable fishing techniques to prevent turtles being caught in fishing nets. We arrived to find lots of little baby turtles scurrying up the beach as they had become disorientated by the lights of nearby houses. We helped collect them and release them into the ocean, and then went to find a mother turtle laying her eggs. An incredible experience!
  • Places to eat:
    As mentioned, when we were in Tangalle, most of the restaurants had closed for the season, so we ended up eating most meals at our home-stay. However, we did sample a few restaurants listed below.
    Oceana: Oceana is a nice but basic restaurant located near the beach. When we were there it was in the process of refurbishment so may have altered the menu by now.
    Cinebar: A lovely restaurant overlooking the beach and serving tasty lobster and Lion beer.

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Mirissa
Mirissa is a gorgeous beach side town that most people make a beeline for. It’s also one of the best places for whale watching!

  • How to get there: We took a local public bus from Tangalle to Mirissa, changing at Matara enroute. The journey takes 1.5 hours in total.
  • Where we stayed: Again, we chose to stay in a home-stay, and stayed in a place called Zenith’s guesthouse. It was pretty central, only a short 5 minute walk from the main street.
  • Things to do:
    Whale watching tours: Whale watching is usually top of the list of most people’s things to do in Mirissa. We arrived in the wrong season for whale watching as the seas are quite rough at this time of year, but we really wanted to see the whales so found a company still offering tours. The sea was definitely rough (make sure to take sea sickness tablets!) but we managed to see blue whales, an amazing experience!
    Cinnamon plantation tour: We visited a cinnamon plantation and learned about how the cinnamon is grown, collected and turned into a retail product for export. The tour was very informative and they even made us dinner at the end of the tour!
  • Places to eat:
    Zephyr café: Zephyr café takes it’s name from the Red hot chilli peppers. The food served here is incredible and they also serve delicious cocktails!
    Ceylon café: A really tasty, air conditioned café on the mainstreet which serves sandwiches and milkshakes.

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Galle/Unawatuna
Galle is the colonial town surrounded by a fort built by the Portuguese in the colonial era. Galle itself has options to stay in, but most backpackers tend to stay in Unawatuna, the small, beach side town located 10 minutes outside of Galle.

  • How to get there: Local public buses from Mirissa to Unawatuna take approximately one hour and can be easily flagged down from the side of the road.
  • Where we stayed: We stayed in a nice hostel called backpacker’s lodge which is located just off the mainstreet of Unawatuna.
  • Things to do:
    Explore Galle: Galle can be reached by local bus from Unawatuna and the journey takes 10 minutes. The fort and walls of Galle can easily be walked around and explored in a morning. Make sure to visit the iconic lighthouse and old dutch hospital. You can also visit the Maritime museum and archaeological museum within the grounds of Galle fort.
    Explore Unawatuna and jungle beach: Jungle beach is literally paradise! Getting there involves either climbing a steep hill, or wandering through the jungle paths, but it’s worth it when you get there and is a great place to spend the day!
  • Places to eat:
    – Bedspace: Bedspace restaurant is a tasty restaurant hidden down a little back street with hostel attached. The food is incredible, make sure to try their home made hummus!
    Skinny Tom’s café: Skinny Tom’s has a great breakfast and lunch menu with tasty milkshakes and brownies on offer too.
    Hideout restaurant: Local restaurant serving a mixture of veggie and meat filled tacos. They also have movie nights and quizzes on certain evenings.

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Jaffna
Most people will skip Jaffna when they travel to Sri Lanka because years of Civil war meant the north was inaccessible for a long period of time. The North of Sri Lanka is now deemed as safe to travel in and contains lots of hidden gems definitely worth exploring! We had travelled to everywhere mentioned above in 3 weeks, and had one week to spare so decided to take the train from Colombo to Sri Lanka to explore the far north!

  • How to get there: The train from Colombo to Jaffna takes approximately 7 hours, you might want to travel first class for this length of journey, but remember to bring a jumper as the air conditioning is usually on full blast!
  • Where we stayed: We stayed in a central hotel called King Palace Hotel Inn. The staff were really friendly and helpful and the hotel offered breakfast and moped hire.
  • Things to do:
    Explore Jaffna town centre: You can easily fill a day wandering around Jaffna itself visiting the fort, clock tower, public library, and Hindi temples (the north of Sri Lanka is mainly Hindu)
    Rent a moped: The best way to explore the Jaffna peninsula is with your own wheels, preferably two! We were able to rent a moped from our hotel and it was such a great way to head off for the day and explore the deserted peninsula! The roads are fairly empty too so don’t worry about crazy drivers. We spent the day driving around the peninsula stopping at archaeological sites, hot springs, and even found the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen!
    Visit the Jaffna islands: the Jaffna archipelago is mainly deserted, but you can take a ferry across to the islands for the day and tuk tuk drivers take you on tours of the islands showing you baobab trees, wild horses, and flamingos. It’s a great day trip and amazing to see the lives of the villagers who live on the islands!
  • Places to eat:
    Rio’s ice cream parlour! Rio’s ice cream parlour is famous in Jaffna, and for good reason, the ice cream is incredible! We went here everyday for ice cream after our moped adventures, highly recommend!
    Green Grass Restaurant: Green Grass restaurant is attached to Green Grass hotel, but they serve up great food and tasty curries.
    Mangoes restaurant: Tasty restaurant serving up the usual selection of Sri Lankan food at good prices.
    Jetwing: Jetwing hotel is pretty fancy, but the rooftop bar and restaurant is great. They also have good Wi-Fi and sell Lion beer.

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Wild horses on Delft island

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From here we headed back to Colombo for our flight to India. Sri Lanka is such a beautiful country with so much to explore. Enjoy your time here and let me know if you have any additional tips to share! Happy Travels!

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2 thoughts on “Sri Lanka

  1. It sounds like you can easily spend weeks in Sri Lanka and never get run out of things to see and do! Thanks for sharing such a informative article, my husband has always been crazy about going over but as we travel with a three year old toddler I’m not all that convinced, although I have to say, Sri Lanka is slowly growing on me 😊😊😊

    Like

    1. You’re welcome! Glad you found it so helpful! Well done for travelling with a toddler, very impressive! Sri Lanka is such a beautiful country and we felt very safe during our time there. The people are so friendly and there’s so much to see and do. If you do make it there have an amazing time! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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