When to visit Sri Lanka

Climate

Sri Lanka can be visited at any time of year, provided that you tweak your itinerary to allow for regional seasonal variations that are unusually divergent for such a small country. Climatically, the popular west and south coast of Sri Lanka are at their best during the winter months (December–April), when the sea is calm and rainfall is relatively low.

By contrast, the less feted but increasingly popular east coast, from Trincomalee south to Arugam Bay, is driest and most agreeable to visit during the summer months (late April–September), while the little-visited north receives the bulk of its rain over the stormy months (October-December), leaving the rest of the year quite dry. Rainfall patterns are less of a consideration when it comes to visiting Kandy and the archaeological sites of the Cultural Triangle, but ideally you would want to avoid the wettest months of October to December.

The Hill Country around Nuwara Eliya and Ella has a more even monthly rainfall spread than the rest of the country, but the wettest months are again October and November, while the driest are January to March Sri Lanka has a near equatorial location and it mostly stands at altitudes of below 100m, which means that it tends to be hot and humid throughout the year, seldom dropping much below 25°C, even at night. Because it lies in the northern hemisphere, conditions are slightly cooler and more pleasant over the northern winter, especially from December to March. The only part of Sri Lanka to diverge significantly from this sweltering tropical climate is the temperate Hill Country around Nuwara Eliya and Ella, which stands at altitudes of over 1,000m and is almost always moderate by day and cool by night.

Public holidays and festivals

Sri Lanka has only five fixed-date public holidays but another 20 (or in some years 21) variable-date ones associated with the Buddhist, Hindu, Christian or Muslim calendars. These include 12 (or in some years 13) ‘poya’ days, the Sri Lankan equivalent of the full-moon Uposatha observed in other Buddhist countries, held at full moon every lunar month.

Sri Pada Pilgrimage Season

Tens of thousands of multi-denominational pilgrims climb the 2,243m-high Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) to pay homage and make observance over a four-month season that runs from the Unduvap (December) Poya to the Bak (April) Poya. The Buddhapada at the summit reputedly enshrines the footprint of the Gautama Buddha. Hindus, Muslims and Christians make the pilgrimage for their own religious reasons.

Duruthu Perahera

A colourful religious pageant, complete with caparisoned elephants, torch-bearers and dancers, takes place at Kelaniya Temple, on the outskirts of Colombo, over the three days before the Duruthu (January) Poya to mark the start of the first of the Buddha’s three visits to Sri Lanka.

Galle Literary Festival

Sri Lanka’s premier arts festival used to be held for three days in mid-January, attracting dozens of writers and performers from all over Asia and the rest of the world. It hasn’t been held since 2019 owing to an organisational shift, but check the Facebook page for updates.

Tamil Thai Pongal

Thai Pongal is an ancient thanksgiving harvest festival celebrated by Tamils and other Hindus the world over. Houses are decorated with mango and plantain leaves and the hearth is decorated with rice flour. Dates vary slightly from one year to the next, but usually it takes place over four days starting between 12 and 15 January.

Navam Perahera

Focused on Gangaramaya Temple in Colombo, this spectacular perahera with parades of dancers, elephants, whip-crackers and hundreds of Buddhist monks was first staged in 1979 but is now a major fixture on the Colombo calendar, taking place over two days building up to the Navam (February) Poya.

Sinhalese and Tamil New Year

The island’s two main ethnic groups, Sinhalese and Tamil, celebrate a common traditional New Year at what was originally a harvest thanksgiving festival that marks the passage of the sun from Pisces to Aries. It occurs on 13 and 14 April. Games customary to the time and other rituals take place primarily in villages, and many people take the week off to go on holiday or visit their families, so trains and hotels will be crowded.

Vesak (May) Poya

This is a thrice-blessed day for Buddhists as it commemorates three important events in the life of the Gautama Buddha: his birth as Prince Siddhartha, his attainment of enlightenment and his death. The day is devoted to religious observances and charity, as well as being celebrated with illuminations, pageants and pandals (decorated and electrified hoardings). Celebrants set up wayside stalls to distribute food and refreshment to pilgrims and passers-by.

Poson (June) Poya

Second in importance only to the Vesak Poya, Poson commemorates the advent of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and is celebrated with religious observances in addition to illuminations and processions. Poson is particularly special at Mihintale, where the grounds fill with vendors and pilgrims.

Esala Perahera

Sri Lanka’s oldest and most spectacular Buddhist festival, held over ten nights in Kandy, honours the Buddha tooth relic preserved in the Sri Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth), as well as its four guardian deities: Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and Pattini, each of which have their own temples. During the preliminary five days, the perahera is held within the precincts of each of these five temples. The public perahera then begins, taking place over five spectacular nights with men cracking whips leading the parade, followed by men bearing flags of the various provinces of the former Kandyan kingdom.

Vel

Though not an official holiday, Vel is Colombo’s main Hindu festival, with the ornately decorated Vel Chariot making its annual trip between ancient temples in the suburbs of Pettah, Wellawatta and Bambalapitiya. It takes place over July or August.

Deepavali

The festival of lights celebrated by all Hindus takes place in late October or early November and commemorates the return from exile of the heroic deity Rama.

Ill Poya

The last poya of the rainy season, the November poya also marks the end of the Vassana Samaya, a period of retreat practised by Bhikkhu monks, who stay indoors to meditate for the duration. At many temples it is marked by the Katina Cheeva ceremony, a colourful procession during which the Katina Robe and other clothes intended for the monks are carried to the temple by beneficent locals.

Unduvap Poya

Also known as Sangamitta, the year’s final poya commemorates the arrival in Sri Lanka of the shoot of the sacred Bo Tree under which the Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment.

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