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Sri Lanka: Everything you need to know to plan the perfect trip

The view from a tea plantation near Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka.
The view from a tea plantation near Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka.   -   Copyright  Canva
By Maeve Campbell

Just off the south-east coast of India lies the island nation of Sri Lanka. It’s a tropical paradise of white sand beaches, wildlife and delicious food.

Known as the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, this is the perfect destination for a holiday packed with ancient history and a taste of South Asian culture, followed by hikes in the mountains and a whole host of watersports.

Within a few hours, you can travel through different eco-systems in Sri Lanka. Where else in the world can you visit a 300BC city in the morning and take a wildlife safari in the afternoon?

Sri Lanka is blessed with magnificent landscapes, historic capitals and temples that are so unique they are considered to be of global importance. The country is even home to eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Here’s everything you need to know when planning your trip.

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Seema Malaka temple in ColomboCanva

Sri Lanka’s travel rules

Sri Lanka is open to visitors from the majority of countries but all foreign travellers will need a visa, health insurance, and a negative COVID-19 test result taken 72 hours before they arrive.

Fully vaccinated travellers visiting from unrestricted countries also no longer have to undergo a COVID-19 test on day seven.

For visitors coming from the UK, the island has recently been removed from the red list.

There is also a way that unvaccinated visitors can visit. They’ll need to present a negative test and then they’ll be part of a ‘bio bubble’. This concept allows tourists to travel the country in semi-isolated groups and means they can sightsee without mixing with the local population.

Despite the unprecedented challenges we faced since 2019, we have been stronger than ever.
Chairman of Sri Lanka tourism, Kimarli Fernando

While in a ‘bio bubble’, you must stay in an approved hotel, visit approved sites at specific times, travel via independent transport, undergo frequent COVID-19 testing and refrain from mingling with the local population.

“Despite the unprecedented challenges we faced since 2019, we have been stronger than ever. Year 2021 to 2030 has been declared as Sri Lanka’s ‘Growth Decade’,” Chairman of Sri Lanka tourism, Kimarli Fernando, tells Euronews Travel.

“Our country’s heritage, culture, wildlife, nature, beaches and more have always proven to be popular. Sri Lanka is a paradise for the post COVID-19 traveller and we are excited to welcome tourists and flourish the tourism industry.”

What are the best things to do in nature?

1. Enjoy the most leopards you’ll see anywhere in the world

It surprised us to learn that Sri Lanka has the highest density of leopards anywhere in the world. A safari into Yala’s National Park - Sri Lanka’s second largest park - is the best way to spy on the elusive leopard.

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See beautiful leopards at Yala National ParkCanva

Setting off into Yala as the sun rises is an epic experience and gives the best chance of spotting the leopard and an array of wildlife that inhabits this arid zone.

2. See the biggest land and sea mammals

Sri Lanka is the only country where you can see both the elephant and the blue whale - the largest land and sea mammals on the planet and all within a few hours of each other.

The country has its own “big five” - Blue Whales, Sperm Whales, Leopards, Asian Elephants and Sloth Bears, along with one of the highest species densities in the world.

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See blue whales off the coast of Sri LankaCanva

You can see elephants in Udawalawe National Park, Yala National Park, Lunugamvehera National Park, Wilpattu National Park and Minneriya National Park. They also live outside protected areas - which could be an either wonderful or terrifying experience.

The southern coast around Galle and Mirissa are the best places for responsible blue whale watching.

3. Witness the largest gathering of Asian Elephants

The largest Asian Elephant gathering known of takes place in Minneriya National Park every year. Lonely Planet has listed it among the top ten wildlife events in the world.

Watching these magnificent animals converge is a sight to behold. Different herds travel together as one with just a single goal in mind - water.

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This is the largest gathering of Asian elephants anywhere in the world.Canva

But don’t be mistaken. This is not a migration but an annual coming together of wild animals that come to sip the waters of the Minneriya Tank at the end of the dry season.

4. Go on one of the most beautiful train rides in the world

Selfies taken hanging out of trains rolling through the tea plantations are one of the most recognisable images of Sri Lanka. But there’s a reason for this.

The train routes in Sri Lanka are some of the most beautiful in the world. A train through the hill country gives you scenic views, snaking through thick verdant jungles and the aforementioned tea plantations.

Aim for the Kandy to Ella route. It’s a 7-hour ride which may sound long, but it will be one of the highlights of your trip.

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This train route in Sri Lanka is one of the most beautiful in the worldCanva

Travelling over the colossal Nine-Arch Bridge is another unmissable experience. Also called ‘Bridge in the Sky’, it is a viaduct bridge and one of the best examples of colonial-era railway construction in the country.

5. Go sailing on the south coast

For those who want to see Sri Lanka's southern coastline in all its glory, while avoiding the tourist crowds, this seven day sailing trip with G Adventures is perfect.

Stepping aboard a 53ft catamaran, you’ll embark on a journey along the coastline, stopping at historic port towns, tiny fishing villages and coves along the way. With a chef and skipper onboard, you’ll be treated to delicious seafood meals.

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Sri Lanka's south coast is best for beaches and surfingCanva

With an abundance of marine life, you will also visit the deep sea trench, frequented by dolphins and whales who use it for feeding.

What are the best regions?

If you want to surf, staying around the beautiful Arugam Bay is a good option. It’s a very relaxed area, with similar vibes to Goa in India.

The dry season and the best time to surf is May to September. The best waves arrive in July, August, and September.

Whereas if you want some nightlife then Galle is where it’s at. Some of the most famous bars are ‘The Lady Hill’, perched on top of the highest hill in the region, ‘Taphouse’ and ‘The Tamarind Hill Bar’.

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Kandy, Sri LankaCanva

If it's sunbathing you’re after, Pasikuda beach comes highly recommended and has some day excursions too, such as an elephant safari. Pasikuda, meaning “green-algae-bay” is approximately 35 kilometers from Batticaloa Town and is famous for its turquoise blue waters.

Kandy, Anuradhapura and Jaffna are the best places to soak in Sri Lanka’s rich history. Kandy in particular is famed for sacred Buddhist sites, including the Temple of the Tooth (Sri Dalada Maligawa) shrine.