For a small nation, Sri Lanka fits an awful lot in from stunning beaches to unique wildlife, beautiful jungle retreats to awesome relaxing resorts and villas. Home to no less than 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, it’s no wonder Sri Lanka is one of the most popular short escapes from the UAE!
You may choose to simply base yourself in one spot in Sri Lanka for relaxation or see the whole country in a circuit. This can be done in 10 days to two weeks depending on the seasons.
There are a few things you need to know before visiting Sri Lanka to make the most of your trip so we will talk you through the seasons, things to know like getting your Sri Lanka ETA sorted out in advance and the top attractions you won’t want to miss.
Which seasons are best for visiting Sri Lanka?
Often people complain “it’s the wrong season for Sri Lanka”, but this really depends on what you are looking for out of your trip. The country can experience some weather extremes even between relatively short distances, but year-round there is always a part of Sri Lanka that should be receiving some pleasant weather! It’s what makes it such a great all-rounder family destination.
The Monsoon season brings heavy rains to the west and south-west coasts from May to September, and to the east coast and north of the country between October and February. The remainder of the year is dry and sunny with consistent year-round temperatures; in coastal areas expect 25c to 30c, and the highlands much cooler, 15c to 18c.
We will highlight along with the top sightseeing attractions when the seasons are at their best to help you plan your itinerary to Sri Lanka.
If you are specifically after a beachy holiday, check out this superb guide to Sri Lankan beaches for families – you will be booking your flight before you know it!
Other things to know before you go to Sri Lanka
- The currency is the Sri Lankan Rupee – LKR or Rs. For best exchange rates, swap your money after leaving the airport. At time of writing $1USD = 178Rs or 1000Rs = $5.60
- There are many different languages spoken with the official languages Sinhalese and Tamil; visitors will largely get by in tourist areas speaking English.
- Most nationalities will need an Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) prior to travel. Whether it’s pleasure or business travel, get your Sri Lanka visa online.
- Distances are further than they appear! Roads are often long and winding and vehicles do not move fast. If there’s a train to your destination, it can often be quicker and cheaper than travelling by road.
- If you are hiring a car or driver service, note that you’ll likely want to BYO any car seat or booster seats. Bear in mind, however, a lot of vehicles may not have a full set of seat belts with which to attach any device.
- A baby/toddler sling or carrier may be preferred over a stroller due to general lack of footpaths and ease of getting on and off transport.
- Although Sri Lanka is now considered low-risk for malaria, do check out health guidance from authorities such as the NHS and check you’re up to date on inoculations.
- Don’t forget essentials such as sunblock and mosquito repellent, and to help the environment take your own reusable straws.
Top spots for families to include on a Sri Lanka itinerary
Without further ado, which popular destinations should you include in a family trip to Sri Lanka?
This list is not endless but includes some of the top spots we have visited and gathered from other travelling families over the years:
To the South of Sri Lanka – beaches and history
The ancient Galle Fort and the city wall are one of the countries popular highlights. Originally built in the 17th century by the Portuguese it holds a commanding view over the Indian Ocean. The city is only 1km square so manageable for little legs, but you’ll likely want to break it up with some stops including plentiful museums, churches and Afternoon Tea at the Galle Fort Hotel.
Cricket fans may agree Galle International Stadium is one of the prettiest in the world!
Best weather is from November to late April.
For one of southern Sri Lanka’s most beautiful beaches, you need to head a bit further south from Galle. Soft white sandy beaches lined with palm trees and no big resorts interrupting the view. From here you can catch whale watching and dolphin spotting tours. You can also go snorkelling here to see sea turtles.
The best whale spotting opportunities with calmer waters is September to April.
Best known for its beautiful beaches, luxury resorts, water sports and stunning estuaries. Near Bentota, there are a number of turtle rescue hatcheries where you can learn about conservation work and even get the opportunity to help release baby turtles back into the ocean.
The best time to enjoy the beaches in October to April, though waves can still be quite large through to December
National Parks and attractions in the south-east of Sri Lanka
Did you know 10% of the elephants in the world live in this tiny island nation? There are many opportunities you can find to get up close to these amazing animals.
Head to Udawalawe National Park to see some of the countries spectacular wildlife including water buffalo, crocodiles, peacocks, storks, foxes and lizards and yes elephants! Several friends have recommended to stay nearby at family friendly Kottawatta Village, and they can organise a 3-hour morning safari for you.
Yala National Park is home to a myriad of wildlife and Sithulpauwwa, the ancient rock temple. Here, as well as elephants, crocodiles and over 300 species of birds you will find big cats, home to the highest population of leopards in the world.
Heading beyond the national parks, there are some great distances to cover on slow roads to get to the far east coast and Arugam Bay (320km from Colombo), but so many families have shared with us, well worth the effort! Here you will find spectacular surf, Kumana National Park (more elephants!) and many ancient ruins and archaeological sites as well as incredible calmer bays.
High season runs April to October, best for big waves but the low season can also be great for beginners or those seeking a peaceful beach retreat.
Head to the central mountains
Kandy is a busy town in the mountains to the east of Colombo, the country’s second largest city. It is home to the most important Buddhist relic in Sri Lanka, the tooth of Buddha. A visit to the Temple of the Tooth of the Relic and the royal palace complex of this former kingdom is a must, but don’t miss these other attractions in and around Kandy too.
Next head south and even higher into the mountains to Ella. The Ella to Kandy train ride is known as one of the most beautiful in the world. There are plenty of things to do in Ella, like visit a traditional tea plantation, visit the stunning 9 arches bridge and tunnel or try a short hike to the likes of Little Adam’s Peak for some stunning views.
You may also want to spend some time in beautiful Nuwara Eliya. Again, tea plantations are big business here, as well as Lake Gregory and Laxapana Falls.
Visit during July/August for the country’s most famous festival, Esala Perahera – the festival of the tooth.
North of Colombo and the Cultural Triangle
There are quite a few destinations to cover, both close to Colombo and on the far north-east coast.
A popular choice for families is the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. Here they rescue and breed Asian elephant as part of a breeding program, and you can watch the elephants being bathed and fed. It is the largest herd of captive elephants in the world. Proximity to Colombo makes this a popular choice if you only have a short time in the country.
Many of the country’s highlights, including 5 UNESCO sites are located within the region called “The Cultural Triangle” which reaches from Anuradhapura in the north to the royal ancient city of Polonnaruwa in the east and Kandy in the south.
Sigiriya, also known as Lion’s Rock is perhaps one of the best-known sights of Sri Lanka. This UNESCO listed plateau sits at almost 600 feet high above sea level, providing dramatic jungle views. Access to the top is via a series of zig-zagging stairs, some 1600 years old!
Nearby, visit the Minneriya National Park for one of the largest Asian elephant populations.
This central area has some of the country’s best year-round weather with rain usually only experienced in November/December and hotter temperatures in July-August.
North and East Sri Lanka
Civil war made much of the north of Sri Lanka inaccessible for several decades, but since 2009 tourism has been able to thrive once more.
To the very north, you will find Jaffna. A city with many cultural influences, this area of Sri Lanka has been settled by generations of Tamil immigrants and has a strong Hindu Indian influence – as well as Portuguese, Dutch, British and even Muslim influences. Here you will find colourful temples next to churches – and trying the local cuisine with it’s Indian influence is a must!
Popular beach relaxation spots on the northern east coast include Passenkudah Bay and Trincomalee. Further south, you’ll find the former capital and historic city of Batticaloa. The town centre here is small and easy to navigate on foot, explore the lighthouse, waterfront promenade and peaceful Batticaloa Beach or nearby Kallady Beach.
The best time to head north and east is over the traditional northern hemisphere summer, with possible whale spotting off the coast of Trincomalee in August.
Whilst most will use the Bandaranaike International Airport (CMB) in Colombo to arrive and exit the country, many fail to stop and enjoy what the capital has to offer.
A bustling capital steeped in history, it is well worth a stop in itself to wander the historic streets of the Fort area, see the Old City Hall and clock tower. Hang out at Galle Face Green and with kids, don’t miss Viharamahadevi Park (next to the National Museum) for a great playground, fountains, boating lake and small train rides.
If you’re up for grabbing a bargain head to Pettah for the markets and get ready to hustle. Or enjoy some of the beautiful temples including Buddhist temple Gangaramaya nearby to Beira Lake or colourful Hindi Temple of Sri Kailawasanathan Swami Devasthanam Kovil.
Have you been to Sri Lanka with kids? What were your favourite highlights to recommend?
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