Just a short flight from most major Indian cities, Sri Lanka is familiar in ethos yet distinctly different from India. Despite its compact size, the Emerald Isle offers diverse landscapes and experiences, from tea gardens to wildlife, and quaint hill stations to beaches. While it’s possible to cover most of that in a relatively short span of time, most tourists—rightly—make a beeline for the island’s southern coast, dotted with sunny beaches, good-quality accommodation to suit a range of budgets, and great eating options. A trip of three days to a week makes for the perfect tropical getaway.
The easiest way to get from Colombo airport to the city centre is via radio taxi (35 km/30-45 min via the Airport Expressway; Kangaroo Cabs +94-11-2588588; 2588588.com; is the most reliable; airport to the city costs LKR1,750/₹800 with toll). You can also request for a Kangaroo Cabs chauffeur to pick you up at the arrivals hall when you reserve the cab on phone or online (LKR2,500/₹1,160, plus toll).
Several radio cab companies operate within the city. From Nano cabs that are cheaper and better suited to quick jaunts, to Toyota Prius cabs that are more comfortable; you can choose from a range. (Nano cabs, call Budget Meter Taxis at +94-11-2592592; Prius cabs, call Kangaroo). Radio cabs cannot be flagged on the street. The easiest way to hire one is to call the company. Most drivers can speak English and are familiar with the major landmarks of the city. You can request your hotel to book you a cab.
Although train travel within Sri Lanka is picturesque and old-worldly, tickets may need to be booked in advance by visiting a railway station. If you’re on a short trip, hiring a private vehicle through a travel agency is the most convenient option. Rates vary according to destination, although a rough average is LKR25,000/₹12,000 for a two-day trip to the south, inclusive of the driver’s stay and daily allowance.
Indians can apply for a 30-day tourist visa to Sri Lanka online at www.eta.gov.lk. The visa takes a maximum of two days to process and costs $15/₹986. You can also apply for a visa on arrival at Colombo airport. The processing fee for a visa on arrival is $20/₹1,315.
It is easy to procure a SIM card upon landing in Sri Lanka at Dialog, Hutch, or Mobitel counters in the airport arrivals hall. Dialog, the service provider with the widest network also offers special tourist plans (www.dialog.lk/tourist-plans).
Located on the arterial Galle Road, the Cinnamon Grand is a popular luxury hotel with a vantage point of the sea and excellent eating options (www.cinnamonhotels.com/cinnamongrandcolombo; doubles from $170/₹11,089). Compact and quirky, Casa Colombo is a boutique property dotted with waterbodies. It also has a rooftop bar and restaurant (www.casacolombo.com; doubles from $90/₹5,870). No less central in terms of location, the newly opened Cinnamon Red offers comfortable rooms, has an infinity pool and a rooftop bar on the 26th floor, at a more wallet-friendly price (www.cinnamonhotels.com/cinnamonredcolombo; doubles from $80/₹5,217).
Exuding European charm in a firmly south Asian setting, Colombo has come into its own in the years since Sri Lanka’s debilitating, decades-long civil war ended in 2009. Picket fences have been replaced by parks and open spaces, and a number of the city’s landmarks have received a facelift in the past few years. Hugged by the Indian Ocean on one side, Colombo also boasts a long, vibrant coastline, extending all the way to the once-distant suburb of Mount Lavinia.
Begin your exploration of the city with a visit to Gangaramaya Temple. This 19th-century Buddhist shrine is located in the middle of Beira Lake, a sprawling water body ringed by tall towers in the heart of Colombo’s business district. Enjoy a ride on the old-worldly swan boats (LKR100-150/₹40-50 for an hour) followed by a stop for ice cream on the banks of the lake.
Refuel with a spread of Jaffna-style delicacies at Palmyrah, a popular restaurant in Renuka City Hotel on Galle Road. It specialises in the fiery cuisine of northern Sri Lanka. Order a stack of hoppers (like appams, but less spongy), to go with signature dishes like mutton pal poriyal (Jaffna-style lamb cooked with coconut milk), kanavai pirettal (cuttlefish curry), and a range of sambols (chutneys). Finish with a jaggery hopper served in a pool of treacle (www.renukahotel.com/dining/palmyrah-restaurant/; lunch for two approximately LKR4,000/₹1,853).
For a more straightforward Sri Lankan rice-and-curry meal in a clean, air-conditioned environment, head to Upali’s by Nawaloka. Located opposite the Town Hall, a ten-minute cab ride from Galle Road, Upali’s offers a satisfying set meal of the Sri Lankan lunch staple of rice (both red and white) with three vegetarian curries, pol sambol, the spicy chutney made of grated coconut, and pappadam. At an additional cost, there’s a range of fish, meat, and chicken dishes (www.upalis.com; set meal LKR280/₹130, plus taxes per person; crowded at lunch time, reservation recommended).
Work off the excesses of lunch with a spot of shopping at Barefoot on Galle Road, 1 km/10-15-minute walk from Renuka Hotel. Something of a local institution, Barefoot is best known for promoting Sri Lankan handlooms and crafts through a range of colourful clothing, upholstery, toys, and eclectic housewares. Located in a beautiful heritage bungalow with an al fresco café and art gallery in the courtyard, this is the sort of place where you can spend several hours savouring the island pace of life (www.barefootceylon.com; Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m.-5 p.m.). Interior design aficionados should stop at Paradise Road on Dharmapala Mawatha (2 km/10 minutes by cab), an eclectic store that stocks a fascinating array of souvenirs, crockery, spices, and assorted bric-a-brac within its dimly lit yet tasteful interiors. The brand’s range of mugs and plates printed with the Sinhalese and Tamil alphabets make excellent presents (www.paradiseroad.lk; daily 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; mugs from LKR550/₹255 onwards; café open 10 a.m.-11 p.m.).
From Paradise Road, hire a cab to Independence Square on Independence Avenue (2.2 km/5-10 min by taxi), a complex that includes lawns, cycling and walking tracks and a monument built to commemorate the country’s freedom from British rule. This is a great place to spend an evening in the breezy, tree-lined grounds walking or on a bicycle (bike hire LKR100/₹46 an hour).
Arcade Independence Square mall at the northern end of Independence Avenue is good to visit for high-end brand shopping. Most Colombo residents however flock here for a cup of tea at t-Lounge by Dilmah where you can sample and buy a variety of high-quality, locally grown teas. The modest menu includes toasties and treats like waffles topped with pol pani, grated coconut with treacle (dilmaht-lounge.com; hot and cold teas from LKR300/₹139 onwards).
If you’ve got more than one day, and would rather explore the city in a structured way, I’d recommend getting on Colombo City Tour’s Glimpse of Colombo hop-on, hop-off bus tour in the evening. Beira Lake is one of the stops on this open-top, double decker bus tour that flags off from Galle Face, the popular seaside promenade that is also a local landmark. The tour winds through some historic parts of the city, such as Slave Island, a rapidly evolving British-era suburb with heritage architecture, before moving on to more recent additions like the Nelum Pokuna Theatre, a striking, lotus-shaped opera house built a few years ago. (www.colombocitytours.com; Glimpse of Colombo tours available Mon-Fri at 4.30 p.m. and 6.30 p.m.; adults US$ 25/₹1,635, children US$12/₹785. Heritage of Colombo and Colombo by Night tours also available.)
Located in the Dutch Hospital building in Colombo’s old city or Fort area, is Sri Lanka’s most famous restaurant Ministry of Crab which justifies its premium pricing with a standout menu showcasing its signature ingredient—crab. The restaurant is co-owned by former Sri Lankan cricket captains and local heart-throbs Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene with restaurateur Dharshan Munidasa (5.5 km/25 min from Independence square). Try the spicy, Sri Lankan-style curry crab along with the roast paan or crusty bread. (+94-11-2342722; www.ministryofcrab.com; daily noon-3 p.m. and 6-11 p.m.; prices vary according to size and weight; meal for two approximately LKR12,000/₹5,581.)
Leave Colombo early and get on the four-lane Southern Expressway that links Colombo to the port of Galle in just over an hour. If self-driving, avoid speeding on this scenic road that offers a perfect Sri Lankan vista of blue skies and greenery (toll LKR400/₹186).
Head straight to Galle Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was first constructed by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and fortified and rebuilt by the Dutch in the 17th century. Located in colourful and chaotic Galle, the Galle Fort holds a tidy, self-contained town within its stone walls. With cobblestone streets and an unhurried air the fort is fascinating, as much for its multi-ethnic heritage, as for its striking architecture and unique, bohemian vibe. Enjoy an unhurried breakfast at Sugar Bistro, one of the best eateries within the Fort. Try the cinnamon-flecked French toast and any egg dish, and if it’s the weekend, the fully-loaded Sri Lankan breakfast. (sugarcolombo.com/sugar-bistro-galle; breakfast for two LKR2,500/₹1,162.)
Swarming with tourists in the busy season (Dec-Feb), Galle Fort has plenty of accommodations from charming homestays and budget hotels to boutique properties and exclusive hotels. Fort Printers is a boutique hotel in an 18th-century mansion that was once a printing press. Its restaurant serves fresh, local seafood (www.thefortprinters.com; suites from $190/₹12,249 between Dec-April; $170/₹11,121 during the rest of the year).
Mama’s Galle Fort guesthouse in an old bungalow within the fort is more wallet-friendly. It’s spartan but a good budget choice (www.mamas-galle-fort.com; doubles from $40/₹2,627; rates vary in peak season).
In Galle town, outside the fort, Jetwing Lighthouse Galle is the most luxurious option. Overlooking a rugged beach, it offers comfortable rooms kitted out with standard mod-cons (www.jetwinghotels.com/jetwinglighthouse; doubles from $148/₹9,682).
Away from the tourist throngs and offering vantage ocean views is Closenburg Hotel a colonial-era local favourite with a stunning pool (www.facebook.com/closenberghotel/; doubles from $125/₹8,177).
The best way to soak in the rich, multi-cultural history of Galle Fort is on a walking tour with Juliet Coombe, a spirited and knowledgeable British author and former journalist with the BBC, who has lived here for over a decade. From architecture and crafts to sampling street food, Coombe leads a variety of walks to suit diverse interests (+94-77-6838659; firstname.lastname@example.org; from $20/₹1,315 per person for a one-hour tour).
Satisfy the midday munchies with a meal at Lucky Fort, a popular restaurant well-known for its Sri Lankan spread of rice and up to ten vegetarian and non-vegetarian curries. Look out for seasonal specialities like pineapple or ambarella curry, made with hog plums. (+94-91-2242922; meal for two LKR1,000/₹464.)
Watch the sunset at the ramparts of the fort that overlook the ocean. The west end leads to a clean beach with clear waters. Smaller than more popular beaches such as Unawatuna and Hikkaduwa, which are located on the coast, Galle Fort beach is better suited for a brief dip than activities such as snorkelling.
Galle Fort has edgy boutiques, jewellery stores, and well-known brands jostling for attention. Visit the Dutch Hospital, a colonial-era hospital that has been converted into a shopping destination, to browse multiple brands under one (high) roof. Sri Lanka-themed souvenirs like T-shirts, mugs, bags, curios, and food are best at Luv SL, a popular sub-brand of Odel, Sri Lanka’s best-known retail outlet.
End the day with a meal at Fortaleza, an elegant boutique hotel with a restaurant that serves good meze and fresh seafood (www.fortaleza.lk; meal for two LKR3,000/₹1,383).
Close to Galle, explore the southern coast’s beaches, for gentle, romantic days spent in a serene environment. For snorkelling in shallow, coral-rich waters, drive north from Galle to Hikkaduwa (21 km/35 min), one of two designated national marine parks. The reef off Hikkaduwa supports a number of tropical fish species, even turtles on occasion.Poseidon Diving Station conducts scuba certification courses, and is a reliable place to rent snorkelling gear and life jackets (www.divingsrilanka.com; snorkelling gear LKR1,000/₹464 per person). Hikkaduwa has numerous accommodation options to suit every budget for those who want to linger.
If your idea of a good time is enjoying a beer on the beach, give popular and crowded beaches like Hikkaduwa and Unawatuna a miss. Head instead to Thalpe, a small, nondescript village best known for its wide swathe of clean sand and aquamarine waters (11 km/25-min south of Galle).
My destination of choice when I make the trip down south is Wijaya Beach, a guesthouse and restaurant on Dalawella Beach in Thalpe. It enjoys a well-deserved reputation as one of the best spots to spend a relaxed Sunday. A bright, airy restaurant exuding a Mediterranean vibe, Wijaya Beach serves some of the best thin-crust, wood-fired pizzas anywhere in Sri Lanka, along with super-fresh seafood dishes like tuna ceviche and sashimi. After a leisurely lunch, settle into one of the beach chairs, overlooking the emerald ocean that is accessible by walking down a few steps. Although the stretch of beach directly in front of Wijaya Beach is a tad rocky, there is a shallow pool of water just 500 metres away, which is great for a refreshing dip. The restaurant also has an open shower for a quick rinse afterwards (www.wijayabeach.com; pizzas from LKR1,400/₹650).
If you’d prefer to go the fine dining route, Talpe Beach Restaurant (5 min south from Wijaya Beach) is a great option, set in an elegant bungalow which also offers accommodation. Here, try the fresh seafood dishes such as tuna tartare, coconut-crusted fish with tamarind sauce, and grilled calamari (www.talpebeach.com; meal for two LKR4,000/₹1,860).
Continue to enjoy the easy pace of life with a boat ride on Koggala Lake, a 14 km/20-min drive from Wijaya Beach. Secluded and serene, the lake is speckled with several small islands, which can be explored by hiring a motor boat that seats four (get there before 5 p.m.). Boat operators add on a few pit stops, including an island with a cinnamon plantation where farmers demonstrate how fragrant Ceylon cinnamon is extracted from the bark of the tree. Buy cinnamon sticks, powder, and oil to take home.
Over 200 bird species live at the lake, considered a biodiversity hotspot. While some aspects of the boat trip may feel like a tourist trap, it’s one worth falling for, simply for the unspoiled experience of Sri Lanka that it offers. (In Koggala town, after Koggala air field and the Martin Wickramasinghe folk museum, look out for signboards advertising “bird island boat tours.” A 90-min boat ride costs LKR4,000/₹1,860 for four.)
After a leisurely time at the beach for one or two days, return to Galle, Colombo, or drive straight back to Katunayake airport (2.5 hours) to take your flight back home.
Appeared in the December 2015 issue as “Southern Seaboard”.
This is National Geographic Traveller India’s handy guide for a couple’s holiday to the southern coast of Sri Lanka. Here, you get prices for everything to help you plan your trip and modify it depending on your budget. This three-day itinerary for two costs ₹60,000 (without airfare) but can cost less depending on the accommodation/activities chosen. Options are also available to make this a six-day holiday which would then cost about ₹90,000 (without airfare) but can also be done for less. This holiday is planned with three-star accommodation, a private taxi, and several meals at fine restaurants. Travellers can save significantly on the cost of this trip by staying in a budget place and eating at less expensive restaurants serving local food. Since stay and food accounts for over half the budget, choosing cheaper options can halve the cost of this trip, or extend its duration by several days.
is a food and travel writer based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Having called Mumbai home for several years, she recently decided to go on a real-life adventure. Colombo is the first pit stop of many she hopes to make in the years to come.
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