Last updated on November 28th, 2018 at 02:14 pm
This guide will help you to understand where to stay in Sri Lanka.
The best part?
It covers not just beach areas but also the best places to stay in Sri Lanka to have all the attractions next to your resort: beautiful sea, elephant safaris and historical sites as the world famous Sigiriya.
If you are willing to travel through a few destinations I will show you also three 10 days itineraries of Sri Lanka to get the best out of this country.
And now comes the great part, it’s all updated to 2018 (no old stuff)
So without further talk, let’s get started…
As you can imagine, there is no best area to stay in Sri Lanka as it really depends on what you are after (explore new destinations, historical sites, surfing, etc). Here below a quick subdivision of the country with a few suggestions on which part may suit you best
For more information on the weather have a look at the local Department of Meteorology, a trustable resource.
Now let me go more into the details of each area and later you can read a few itineraries. You can do all of them on your own. There is no need to join a tour operator.
I have personally had no security problems. I always felt very safe, even on crowded trains where I could not move a single finger (I will tell you more on this later)
My only suggestion is to book well in advance your accommodation if you intend to visit towns or areas on local public holidays, as for example Kandy during the Esala Perahera (first two weeks of August). I was there in 2017, so crowded but at the same time so amazingly beautiful.
I can’t hide that I was not impressed that much by Colombo.
I would not consider the capital as a place to stay in Sri Lanka but just a city to probably spend 1 or 2 days, ideally the last night before you fly out and/or the first day of your trip.
In saying that, Colombo has some interesting attractions and a decent beach, to be a city.
You probably have two choices when you look for your accommodation.
I suggest also visiting Barefoot for some shopping. This is one of a few places where you can find real local products. The higher price is related to the higher quality you get.
There is also a quiet backyard with a lovely cafe and an exhibition space (there was an interesting photo exhibition by a local photographer when I was there)
Galle is probably the most famous tourist destination in the whole of Sri Lanka.
The historic city centre is absolutely a gem, a place to spend an entire day walking through the lanes and the alleys; watching the buildings with a Dutch colonial architecture, the beautiful villas and the impressive churches, mostly built during the Dutch Empire (beginning in 1663).
I like to call Galle an open-air museum.
Sometimes it is described as the city for the artists. Probably not anymore because of the increased leaving cost. In saying that you will definitely stumble in many studios nowadays owned by foreign designers and photographers.
And most definitely there is an abundance of cool cafes to spend some relaxing time sipping the local tea or coffee.
If you are after the historical sites I would probably suggest booking your accommodation in the city centre, in one the many refurbished mansions.
You will feel like back in the 17th century. You can always take a taxi to the beaches (10 minutes).
But if you prefer to relax at the beach and just visit in/out the historical sites then stay on the coast, few km out from Galle or Matara. There is a great choice of resorts and hotels to choose from.
And if you are after some easy surfing then you will not be disappointed (I have listed a few spots in the 10-day itinerary).
These are a couple of cafes I may suggest in the fort area:
This is the place to be for anyone planning to spend the holiday mostly on the surfboard. Just be sure to be in the right season, between May and September.
How many times I have heard how beautiful was Bali in the 70s. In my opinion still is, although I would avoid a few spots.
Now, I feel like Arugam Bay has a bit of that Bali soul. Relaxed, chilled out, easy going.
I am not sure how was Bali in the 70s but most definitely Arugam has a lot of positive things included the still not-overcrowded, still-to-discover feeling.
It’s probably more catered for the backpackers and flashpackers, however, I would not discount it also as an upper market choice.
I previously mentioned Arugam Bay as more for serious surfing. The main reasons are the challenging big waves and the presence of the reef, which can create “damages”.
Here is an important tip for your accommodation area:
There are lots of family-run restaurants on the main beach, a perfect place to have dinner. Have a try at the Karma Gardens for a healthy breakfast or the tiny Why Not Restaurant for the fabulous roti.
I had such a great time in this city that I visited it twice, on two separate trips.
Kandy is a World Heritage Site, mostly for its spectacular location, nestled between several hills and a lake, and the beautiful temples, all around the city.
If you are into travel photography, Kandy is absolutely a heaven, an inspirational place, at every corner (I will list below my favourite sites to visit)
What do I like the most of Kandy?
and so much more. I am sure you will add this city to your itinerary in Sri Lanka as soon as you will start reading these 13 things to do in Kandy
These are my personal tips on the locations for the best travel photography:
I would personally suggest staying close to the city centre. In one occasion my hotel was on the outskirts of Kandy and moving around was really hard, due to the traffic conditions which takes me to the biggest tip.
Book well in advance, even 10-12 months, if you plan to visit Kandy during the Esala Perahera festival (first 2 weeks in August). The procession is probably unique in the world and, obviously, the town is well overcrowded.
This is, in my opinion, the most scenic part of Sri Lanka.
I have visited this central area on two separate occasions and, in both cases, I could not stop myself taking photos and making videos, but most importantly enjoying the place.
I wrote most extensively here on how to enjoy the tea plantations and where to stay. Just a few quick tips:
But the best suggestion here is to take the $2 train that leaves Kandy in the early morning and travels through the tea fields and the steep hills on a slow 4 hours trip to Nuwara Eliya. This was one of my most memorable trips ever.
The scenery is just stunning, changing at every corner, and being the train so slow means you are going to enjoy every single minute. No time to get bored. I added a video at the end of the post to make you dream.
Buy the ticket a day in advance, if you can, especially on weekends.
Pasikuda and Kalkudah are two beautiful beaches located on the east coast, in the centre-north part of it.
There are no waves there, it’s mostly turquoise calm water, at least in Pasikuda beach, where most of the resorts are. I may add really warm water too, so nice at sunset time.
I have written a more extensive post on this area here. This is a part of Sri Lanka that was very famous in the 70s, however, it was declared off-limits during the civil war. Since 2010 it has seen tourists coming back.
It’s the perfect spot if you want to have a relaxing holiday on the beach with the possibility to have some amazing day trips when you feel a bit bored.
I will talk more in the next section about these 2 amazing attractions, just 2 hours drive from Pasikuda
If you made it to Sri Lanka then you should organise an elephant safari.
There are a few national parks where elephants can graze freely in the country.
The Minneriya is a great national park, with a wide lake in the centre of it where usually the elephants get together around sunrise and sunset time.
I would personally not suggest a safari in the middle of the day because the animals tend to sleep in the bush at that time of the day, so you will be less likely to sight that many.
I have done a couple of safaris, both around sunset time, and on both occasions, I lost track of the number of elephants I saw.
Keep in mind you will not be alone. Sometimes you may even think there are more jeeps than elephants. But once inside the wide park things get better.
How does it work?
You book a jeep either at one of the agencies in Habarana, or at your hotel, and that’s really it. There is a limited number of 4WD that can enter the park; if you can, book in advance.
There are also some elephant orphanages around as well.
It’s a personal choice if you want to visit them or not. I heard some good and other “less” good stories. This is my take on Pinnawala.
Sigiriya is the other top attraction in the area, a world heritage site, an impressive monolith with a fortress on top.
You can still see the steps carved into the stone used by the many slaves to bring construction material on top.
And you know what is the most impressive part?
The swimming pool carved right on the peak of the fortress.
Sigiriya is as impressive to visit it as unbelievable to think humans did that over 1500 years ago.
You can read more about the Dambulla area, Sigiriya and the Elephant Safari in this ad hoc post.
I have already mentioned that Kandy was one of the ancient capitals as well as Anuradhapura and other cities. Colombo has been the capital only for the last 200 years.
What makes Anuradhapura special is the level of conservation and preservation, with a few temples, monuments and sites almost intact.
If you have been to Thailand and you have visited Ayutthaya then you have the full picture.
The area is quite widespread, however, still close enough to rent a bicycle and ride across all of the interesting sites in a couple of days (1 day if you are in a rush)
The alternative is to rent a driver or a tuk-tuk that will happily take you around and give you some guiding too.
If you are thinking to travel north to Jaffna then you should plan a stop-over here. This will make the long trip even more interesting.
Why the mysterious north?
Because it has just been re-opened after so many years of civil war and instability. It’s a new part of Sri Lanka to discover, a region that has been improving the own tourism infrastructure only for the last 3-4 years.
The train station was reconnected to the network only in 2014. A ticket from Colombo (overnight train) costs between $3 and $10, based on the carriage class.
Yes, there is a scarcity of hotels and you may have a hard time to find one with a pool. And this is the best part of Jaffna, the lack of mass tourism.
You can feel more of an explorer, more of a unique visitor.
The ancient fort is maybe not as impressive as the one in Galle but it has the own character.
I wrote a full guide to Jaffna that you should read if interested to visit this region
Creating a 10 days Sri Lanka itinerary can be as easy as writing down a list of 10 locations.
But I will try to be a bit smarter and come up with a plan for a surfer, a beach/arty traveller and history addicted explorer
The best time for surfing is between May and September on the east coast (Arugam Bay) and October to April on the south coast (around Galle).
The 10 day itinerary below includes both locations however you may experience good waves on both coasts only on the shoulder months
This itinerary focuses on some beach time and interesting places to visit, mostly in the centre of Sri Lanka
If you have a 2 or 3 spare days I would suggest taking a return train from Kandy to the tea plantations areas.
This itinerary focuses more on a cultural trip including a few historical sites in Sri Lanka
If you have 1 or 2 spare days I would suggest extending your stay in Colombo (Day 11/12), maybe relaxing at the Mt Lavinia beach or staying in a hotel in the city centre with a great pool on the rooftop.
If you are in Colombo and you are looking for a place to visit in Sri Lanka within one day then I would definitely go to Galle.
The drive from the capital is around 2 hours so I would suggest an early start.
If someone offers you a day trip from Colombo to Kandy, expect around 7-8 hours just for the driving (3-4 hours one way). That will leave you probably 2-3 hours in Kandy itself, if you are lucky.
I see Kandy more of a weekend destination.
I can see two of them that are worth the trip:
If you are after a cool place to stay in Sri Lanka I would not hesitate to suggest these hotels. They are just a level above any kind of expectation.
This is not a comprehensive list by any meaning. I really have to dive back in my notes to add a few others.
If you have any question or you need an idea for an accommodation or a restaurant just add a comment below.
I always reply to my comments and I usually do that within 24 hours 😉
Stef Ferro is the founder and editor of MEL365, a travel & photography website made to enhance the travelling experience and improve the photography work.
Stef is a professional travel photographer with past experience in the cycling and film industry.
Stef runs travel photography workshops in Melbourne and around the world.