Sri Lanka - When and where to visit

When to visit
Highlights and itineraries


Being close to the Equator, Sri Lanka’s seasons are not well defined, and there is no winter. Daylight is almost regular in length throughout the year, the difference in Colombo being only 48 minutes between 22 June and 22 December. Sri Lanka’s climate ranges from an average low of 12°C in Nuwara Eliya to a high of 33°C in Trincomalee.

The average rainfall varies from about 1,000mm (39in) over a small region in the arid parts of the northwest and southeast to over 5,000mm (197in) at a few places in the Kegalle and Nuwara Eliya districts (on the southwestern slopes of the central hills). The monsoonal rains generally cover the southwestern and northeastern parts in their seasons although sometimes the rains fail, causing not only droughts but also power cuts as the hydro-electric supply suffers water shortage.

It will never be cold enough for snow and, even when it rains, you would find an umbrella more useful than a raincoat because the humidity makes wearing heavy clothes uncomfortable. In general, every day is a sunny one somewhere in the country.

When to visit

The rule used to be that October to March was the best time to stay on the west coast (the sea is calm then and the beach broad). April is the spring season in the hill country, and May to September is the time to be on the east-coast beaches north and far south of Trincomalee when the sea there is at its best. Now the seasons are not so predictable, the rule can be broken. Visit whenever you can; chances are that at any time of the year you will find the climate that suits you somewhere on the island.

If the cost is the main factor, then consider the so-called ‘off season’ of May to September which – except for August – will yield cheaper west-coast hotel rates. The rainy season? Well, that’s why May to September is cheaper on the west coast, but it seldom rains monsoon-style for the whole day, so it’s worth a chance. The sea, however, is rougher on the west coast then and not pleasant (safe) for swimming, but beach hotels all have swimming pools.

Another plan would be to visit when hotels are cheaper on the east coast, which is from October to March, and stay there with tours inland. But only do that if you like ‘out of season’ holiday resorts. The east coast is never very lively at the best of times and you might find it as dull as the weather then, which is why it’s cheaper than the west coast.

Highlights and itineraries 


To Sri Lanka’s comfortable and moderate climate, rich biodiversity of flora and fauna, tropical rainforests and botanical gardens, add its varied land forms, with mountains, valleys, lakes and waterfalls contrasting with sandy, palm-fringed beaches and blue seas with coral reefs to explore.

Evidence of the island’s 2,300-year-old hydraulic civilisation through manmade reservoirs remains alongside ruins of ancient cities that have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites. These include Anuradhapura (which flourished from the 5th century bc to the 10th century); Sigiriya (5th century); Polonnaruwa (9th to 14th century); and Kandy (16th to 19th century).

The island’s glorious, and sometimes turbulent, past is represented by hundreds of dagobas, temples, monasteries and gardens, and by paintings, sculptures, carvings and ancient as well as colonial architecture, such as the World Heritage Site of Galle Fort. Religious and cultural festivals are living monuments, to be seen alongside more modern rituals, such as cricket with Sri Lanka’s feisty team, and even rugby matches, horse racing and billiard tournaments.

Every visitor’s ‘must see’ list would probably include the following:


Of the hundreds of buildings with religious connections, those of particular interest are:

  • Embekke Temple, near Kandy
  • Dambulla Rock Temple
  • Munneswaram, near Chilaw
  • Jumi-Ul-Affar Jummah Mosque, Pettah
  • Holy Trinity Church, Nuwara Eliya


Suggested itineraries

After a long flight you owe it to yourself to rest a day or two to recover and also to adjust to the heat and the way of life. I suggest getting the trip to Colombo over and done with on arrival, so from the airport head straight for the city, check in and relax. The next day you could explore the city and attend to any travel business (booking tours, banking, buying rail tickets, etc).

By train

Although trains do not go everywhere in Sri Lanka, they cover the most interesting parts of the island. Using trains and taxis would enable you to see most of the country without doubling back. However, the railway system in Sri Lanka suffers from lack of maintenance and journeys are an adventure rather than a comfortable way of travelling. Here are two rail/road itineraries to see a lot during a two-week stay:

Colombo to Kandy

By intercity train, you could take a day train to the hill country via Nanu Oya (for Nuwara Eliya), day train to Haputale or Bandarawela, taxi to Tissamaharama, jeep hire for Yala safari, three-wheeler to Matara, train to Galle, train to Hikkaduwa or Bentota (for beach stay), train to Colombo or taxi direct to the airport for departure. This could also be done in reverse if you prefer to relax on the beach before exploring.

To include the Cultural Triangle by train and road, try:

Colombo to Anuradhapura

By train, you could take a taxi to Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya and Matale, train to Kandy, train to Nanu Oya (for Nuwara Eliya), train to Bandarawela, taxi to Tissamaharama, jeep for safari to Yala, three-wheeler to Matara, train to Hikkaduwa or Bentota for beach stay, taxi to airport.

By bus

The above itineraries can be followed using intercity and local buses instead of trains. Long-distance bus travel is even more uncomfortable than by train and is not recommended for visitors unless resiliently young and travelling with a companion, and unfazed by reckless driving, occasional roadblocks and sometimes passengers of dubious demeanour.

By road

By hiring a car or minibus with a driver you are free to set your own itinerary. My suggestion for a 13-night stay is below. Reverse the itinerary if you want to start in Colombo and finish at the beach.

  • Airport to west or south-coast beach resort by taxi to stay two nights
  • Beach resort (via Galle) to Yala (two nights)
  • Yala to Ella (one night)
  • Ella to Nuwara Eliya (two nights)
  • Nuwara Eliya to Kandy (one night)
  • Kandy to Giritale (one night)
  • Giratale to Sigiriya (one night)
  • Sigiriya to Anuradhapura (one night)
  • Anuradhapura to Colombo (two nights)
  • Colombo to airport


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