The Ultimate Traveller's Guide to Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka, an enchanting island nation floating in the blue waters of the Indian Ocean, beckons travellers with its rich tapestry of culture, history, and breathtaking landscapes. This guide delves deep into the cultural practices you must respect and the quintessential places you must visit to truly appreciate the splendour of this vibrant country.

Here's a comprehensive list of key information for tourists planning to visit Sri Lanka:

  • Capital: Colombo
  • Visa System: E-visa required for most tourists
  • Main Airport: Bandaranaike International Airport
  • Principal Seaport: Colombo Port
  • Best Time to Visit: December to March for the west and south coasts; April to September for the east coast
  • Official Languages: Sinhala and Tamil; English is widely spoken in tourist areas
  • Driving Side: Left
  • Emergency Contact: 119 for police; 110 for ambulance and fire
  • Popular Attractions: Sigiriya, Yala National Park, Galle Fort, and Temple of the Tooth

Must Know Before You Travel to Sri Lanka



Hours of Business

  • Weekdays: 9:00 AM - 5:00 PM 
  • Museums: Closed on Fridays 
  • Temples: Varying hours

Poya Days

  • Monthly full moon observances 
  • Some business closures
  • Limited public transport

Cultural Considerations

  • Photography: Payment required for certain photos; restrictions at religious sites 
  • Environment: It is illegal to remove natural artefacts

Distinct Identity

  • Unique culture, less crowded than India
  • Serene beaches and affordable accommodations

Staying Informed

  • Check the most recent news and travel advisories.

Currency & Money

  • Currency: Sri Lankan Rupee (LKR) 
  • ATMs and credit cards are widely accepted 
  • Tipping and bargaining are customary


  • Local SIM is recommended for calls/internet 
  • Wi-Fi availability varies


  • Taxis, tuk-tuks, buses, and ride-sharing available

Packing Tips

  • Modest dress at religious sites 
  • Suitable clothing for local weather

Safety & Security

  • Exercise common sense in crowded areas 
  • Keep embassy contact for emergencies


Cultural Etiquette in Sri Lanka

Greetings and Gestures

In Sri Lanka, a smile and a nod, accompanied by the traditional greeting "Ayubowan," which means "may you have a long life," is the ideal way to meet and greet. This expression is not just a greeting but a wish for one's longevity, reflecting the deep-seated warmth and respect inherent in Sri Lankan culture.

Dressing Appropriately for Occasions

Dressing conservatively is key in Sri Lanka, especially when visiting temples and other religious sites. Both men and women should wear clothes that cover their shoulders and legs. Carrying a shawl or sarong can be very useful for impromptu visits to sacred places.

Dining Etiquette and Practices

When dining, it is customary to use your right hand to eat, particularly when indulging in local staples like rice and curry. It's seen not just as a practice but as an engagement with the meal, providing a connection to the humble and intimate food.

Exploring the Ancient Cities


The ancient city of Anuradhapura, once a major centre of Sri Lankan civilisation, today stands as a silent but awe-inspiring testament to the past. Visiting its stupa-filled skyline and sacred Bodhi Tree, which has been revered for centuries, is like walking through pages of history.


Polonnaruwa, another gem in Sri Lanka’s historic crown, offers a glimpse into medieval architecture and the country's transition from a monarchic state to a thriving cultural hub. Its beautifully preserved ruins and statues speak volumes of the Buddhist culture that once flourished here.

Sigiriya: The Lion Rock

Sigiriya, or Lion Rock, is a fortress and a palace located atop a massive column of rock nearly 200 meters high. This UNESCO World Heritage site is well-known for its elaborate gardens, historic frescoes, and the breathtaking vista of the surrounding countryside from the summit.

Spiritual Journeys in Kandy

Temple of the Tooth Relic

One of Buddhism's holiest artefacts, a tooth belonging to the Buddha, is kept in the revered Temple of the Tooth in Kandy. The temple complex is a cultural and religious epicentre where visitors can witness daily puja rituals and annual celebrations like the Esala Perahera festival.

Esala Perahera Festival

This vibrant festival is one of the most significant in Sri Lanka. It is marked by ten nights of processions featuring dancers, drummers, and elaborately decorated elephants. For anyone visiting in July or August, this cultural show is a must-see as it perfectly captures the essence of Kandy. 

Wildlife and Nature Reserves

Yala National Park

Yala is Sri Lanka's most visited and second-largest national park. Known for its leopard population, the park also attracts a variety of other animals, such as elephants, crocodiles, and hundreds of bird species. Safaris in Yala provide a window into the island's diverse ecosystems.

Wilpattu National Park

Less frequented than Yala, Wilpattu National Park offers a more secluded safari experience with its unique feature of natural sand-rimmed water basins that attract wildlife. It’s a perfect spot for those looking to experience nature without the crowds.

Tea Country: The Heart of Ceylon

Nuwara Eliya

With its cool climate and verdant landscapes, Nuwara Eliya is the heart of Sri Lanka’s tea country. The colonial-era ambience with Tudor-style homes and old tea estates invites visitors to step back in time while enjoying a cup of the finest Ceylon tea.

Tea Plantation Visits

A visit to a tea plantation is essential when in Nuwara Eliya. Touring the plantations, visitors can learn about the process of tea making, from picking the leaf to brewing the cup. The experience is educational and picturesque, with endless rows of tea bushes against misty mountains.

Beaches of Sri Lanka


Mirissa is a beautiful coastal town known for its idyllic beaches and vibrant nightlife. It is also one of the best places on earth to see whales and dolphins, giving tourists the opportunity to take in the beauty of these regal animals in their native environment.


Trincomalee’s pristine beaches are perfect for those looking to escape the more tourist-trodden paths of the south. The town’s historic Koneswaram Temple, perched on a cliff overlooking the Indian Ocean, adds a spiritual dimension to the visit.

Colonial History in Galle

Galle Fort Walkthrough

A stroll through Galle Fort offers a journey through time with its well-preserved colonial architecture, chic boutiques, and historical landmarks. The fort, a remnant of Portuguese, Dutch, and British rule, provides panoramic ocean views and is a favourite among photographers and history enthusiasts.

Maritime Museum

Located in Galle Fort, the Maritime Museum provides insights into Sri Lanka's maritime heritage. Exhibits showcase ancient trading histories and marine artefacts, making it a fascinating visit for history buffs.

Cultural Festivals and Events

Vesak Poya

Vesak Poya, which celebrates the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha, is one of the most important and visually stunning religious events in Sri Lanka. The entire country lights up with lanterns and the air fills with the scent of flowers, creating a mesmerising atmosphere.

Kataragama Festival

The Kataragama Festival in the south is a vibrant affair, attracting thousands of devotees who perform rituals and dances in honour of the deity Kataragama. This event is a deep dive into the local faith and communal spirit of the Sri Lankan people.

Contemporary Sri Lankan Life

Colombo’s Urban Vibe

Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, contrasts sharply with the rest of the island with its bustling city life and modern skyscrapers. The city is a melting pot of races, religions, and cultures, offering a contemporary edge with its shopping malls, restaurants, and nightlife.

The Art Scene in Jaffna

Jaffna, which is situated in the north of Sri Lanka, is burgeoning as a cultural hotspot with its art galleries and local crafts. The Jaffna Library, rebuilt after the Civil War, is a symbol of resilience and a must-visit for those interested in Tamil culture and history.

Culinary Delights of Sri Lanka

Street Food

Sri Lankan street food is a testament to the island’s rich culinary diversity. From kottu roti, a type of chopped bread with vegetables and meat, to sweet treats like wattalappam, a coconut custard pudding, the streets offer myriad tastes that are both exotic and mouthwatering.

Traditional Sri Lankan Cuisine

Traditional meals in Sri Lanka typically consist of rice and curry, with a variety of side dishes, including dhal (lentil curry), coconut sambal, and spicy meat curries. The use of local spices and coconut milk enhances the flavour, making each meal a delightful experience.

Some Additional Information:

Nightlife Delights:

  • Colombo: Dive into Colombo's pulsating nightlife with rooftop bars, live music venues, and nightclubs catering to various tastes.
  • Hikkaduwa & Mirissa: Enjoy beachside bars and restaurants with live music and DJ nights, perfect for a relaxed evening under the stars.
  • Cultural Shows: Immerse yourself in traditional dance performances like Kandyan dancing or captivating fire-eating acts.

Unique Stays:

  • Homestays: Experience Sri Lankan hospitality firsthand by staying with a local family. This offers a glimpse into daily life and a chance to practice your Sinhala or Tamil!
  • Boutique Stays: Indulge in luxurious comfort and personalised service at charming boutique hotels housed in restored colonial buildings or nestled amidst tea plantations.

Exploring Sri Lanka on a Budget:

  • Buses & Trains: Sri Lanka's extensive bus network offers a budget-friendly way to travel between major cities and towns. Trains provide a scenic journey along the coast or through the hill country.
  • Local Food Stalls: Savor a variety of delicious and affordable street food like kottu roti (chopped flatbread with vegetables) or savoury pastries.

Conclusion: Unveiling the Island’s Charm

In conclusion, Sri Lanka is a country where ancient traditions blend seamlessly with natural beauty. From its historic ruins and vibrant cultural festivals to its lush landscapes and culinary delights, Sri Lanka offers a myriad of opportunities for exploration and enjoyment. By respecting its cultural etiquette and diving into its many attractions, visitors can fully experience the unique charm of this beautiful island nation.


  • Which season is ideal for travelling to Sri Lanka?

    The best times to travel to Sri Lanka are during the dry seasons, which run from April to September for the east coast and from December to March for the west and south coasts. This timing helps avoid the monsoon seasons and ensures a more pleasant travel experience.

  • How should I dress when visiting religious sites in Sri Lanka?It is important to dress modestly when visiting religious sites. Men and women should wear clothing that covers their shoulders and legs. Carrying a shawl or sarong can be useful for covering up as needed.
  • What are some must-try local dishes?

    Sri Lankan cuisine is rich and varied. Some must-try dishes include rice and curry, pol sambal (coconut relish), and string hoppers (steamed rice noodles). For those with a sweet tooth, kiri pani (yoghurt with palm syrup) is a delightful treat.

  • Can I use credit cards throughout Sri Lanka?

    While major hotels, restaurants, and shops in urban areas accept credit cards, carrying cash is advisable, especially in rural or less touristy areas. ATMs are widely available in major cities.

  • What are the customs regarding tipping in Sri Lanka?

    Tipping is a customary practice in Sri Lanka for services rendered. Leaving a 10% tip is common in restaurants if a service charge isn’t included in the bill. Tipping drivers, guides, and hotel staff are also appreciated.

  • Are there any customs from a particular culture that I should know about?

    Yes, it is crucial to honour regional traditions and customs. For instance, removing shoes and hats is customary when visiting temples. It’s also polite to accept and give things with your right hand.


Although this information was last updated in May 2024, we recommend verifying with the appropriate agencies, embassies, and airlines to ensure complete accuracy regarding your travel plans.