Sri Lanka has seduced travellers for centuries, with Indian, Arab and European traders and adventurers attracted by rare spices, precious stones and magnificent elephants. Marco Polo described it as the finest island of its size in the world, and it seems his bold claim still holds true.
Picture a coastline of wide sandy shores and rocky outcrops backed by coconut plantations, fishermen on poles in calm Indian Ocean waters and surfers conquering the waves. Venturing inland is a scenic adventure, from lowland jungle to misty hill country and immaculate tea plantations. While a rich heritage dating back over 2,000 years can be relived through visits to ruined cities and revered sacred sites.
Pick the best season
Sri Lanka’s climate is affected by two separate monsoons, meaning that there is usually good weather somewhere on the island at most times of the year. The main southwest yala monsoon brings rain to the west and southwest coasts and hill country from April or May to September, and is wettest from April to June. The less severe northeast maha monsoon hits the east coast from November to March and is wettest from November to December. In addition there is an inter-monsoonal period of unsettled weather preceding the maha monsoon in October and November, during which heavy rainfall and thunderstorms can occur anywhere across the island. In practical terms, this means that the best time to visit the west and south coasts and hill country is from December to March, while the best weather on the east coast is from April or May to September.
Sri Lanka’s position close to the Equator means that temperatures remain fairly constant year round. Coastal and lowland areas enjoy average daytime temperatures of 26 – 30°C (often climbing up well into the 30s during the hottest part of the day. Temperatures decrease with altitude, reducing to 18 – 22°C in Kandy, and a pleasantly mild 14 – 17°C in Nuwara Eliya and the highest parts of the island. Nights in the hills can be quite chilly with temperatures sometimes falling close to freezing. However humidity is high everywhere, rising to 90% at times in the southwest, and averaging 60 – 80% across the rest of the island.
Map out your adventures
The island’s capital Colombo is a sprawling metropolis of contrasting districts. Along the west coast, beach destinations include Negombo and Beruwala, stylish Bentota and the old hippy hangout Hikkaduwa. The south coast is less developed and beyond the old Dutch city of Galle, quieter stretches of beach include Tangalle. Heading east, Tissamaharama is a convenient base to explore Yala and Bundala national parks, and the temple town of Kataragama.
Inland from Colombo, verdant hill country is swathed in tea plantations. Kandy is Sri Lanka’s second-largest city, home to the famous Temple of the Tooth and magnificent Esala Perahera festival. To the south lies the old British town of Nuwara Eliya, the centre of the country’s tea industry and a convenient base to visit Horton Plains National Park. The soaring summit of Adam’s Peak is a major pilgrimage site and the gem mining centre of Ratnapura is a good starting point to reach the elephant-rich Uda Walawe National Park and rare tropical rainforest of Sinharaja.
North of Kandy, the Cultural Triangle boasts the fascinating ruined cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, the cave temples of Dambulla, the hilltop shrines and dagobas of Mihintale and the rock citadel of Sigiriya. The east’s pristine coastline remains undeveloped, save for the sleepy villages of Nilaveli and Uppuveli, and the surfing centre of Arugam Bay. Even less visited, the north is slowly emerging after years of civil war to offer more adventurous possibilities.
Meet Sri Lanka’s giant and rare wildlife
Whale watching boat trips from Mirissa Harbour set sail for Weligama Bay where giant blue back whales frequent the waters from December to April. From April to September, green, hawksbill and occasionally even leatherback turtles struggle ashore at night to lay their eggs on Rekawa Beach. Join the turtle watching volunteers at the Rekawa Turtle Conservation Project to patrol the beach at night to protect the mother turtles whilst they lay eggs, as well as helping to collect the eggs which are then cared for at the conservation project’s hatcheries, until the baby turtles are born and released back into the ocean. On land, vast national parks offer thrilling wildlife encounters. Head out to Yala National Park on a 4x4 safari with a park tracker and get your camera ready to capture storks, crocodiles, fantailed peacocks, chattering monkeys in the treetops and elusive leopards.