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Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka ticks all the boxes: vibrant culture, friendly people, varied scenery, excellent accommodation and, of course, wholly impressive wildlife

Tailor-Made Holidays
To Sri Lanka

Known in the distant past as Serendip and more recently Ceylon, Sri Lanka today retains many of the charms that attracted all those visitors and conquerors over the centuries. UNESCO evidently agrees – Sri Lanka boasts no fewer than seven World Heritage Sites.

Perhaps better known for its stunning Buddhist temples, beautiful coastline and highland tea estates, Sri Lanka is also a haven for a surprising variety of wildlife. The many reserves and national parks harbour mammals such as giant flying squirrel, leopard, wild elephant, sloth bear, slender loris, deer, purple-faced leaf monkey, wild boar, wild buffalo, porcupine and anteater. Reptile-wise there are crocodiles, monitor lizards and snakes, and sixteen endemic amphibians. Over 250 resident bird species have been recorded, including a large number of colourful endemics to delight avid birdwatchers and lay visitors alike.

Offshore, snorkelling is quite limited but whale watching has become very popular, especially from the south coast. The east coast has a shorter season and is far less busy. For one month a year there is the chance to snorkel with blue whales off Trincomalee – one of the best wildlife experiences ever.

Whatever attracts you to Sri Lanka, we are supremely confident you will find the island and its many facets to be everything you had hoped.

An image caption based on something written in the destination intro. E.g. wonderful shot of an inquisitive young Gorilla in Nyungwe park

Photography by Reef & Rainforest

Best Time To Visit Sri Lanka

Climatically, the island is divided into wet and dry zones, the latter falling in the north half and all the east and comprising roughly three quarters of total land mass. Almost on the equator, Sri Lanka has two monsoons: the relatively cool, dry and stable north east monsoon, which affects the dry zone from October to May; and the wetter, warmer south west monsoon visiting the south west from May to October.

Sri Lanka can be seen as a year-round destination: visit the north and east during our summer, the south and west during our winter.

The climate of the coastal plains is hotter and more humid than the highlands, which can be quite cold. Temperatures range from 25-28C on the plains, with daytime averages of around 16C in the highlands. Only the dry north east reaches above 38C.

Sri Lanka Travel

Getting There

Flight Time

Approximately 11 hours flying direct from London to Colombo

Time Zone

GMT +5

Language

Sinhala and Tamil

Population

20.48 million

Highlights

What To See

Passikudah and Kalkudah

Another area on the east coast which has opened up after the end of the Tamil Tiger war, Passikudah Bay has emerged from years of neglect and now boasts sweeping sandy beaches and a few guesthouses and smart resorts: perfect for a sunny ending to a great Sri Lankan holiday.

Anuradhapura and Mihintale

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Anuradhapura was the original ancient capital of Sri Lanka, built around a cutting of the sacred Bodhi fig tree (now a large sprawling giant of a tree) under which the Buddha sat in India and brought to Sri Lanka in the 3rd Century BC. The city flourished for 1300 years until invaded in 993: it declined then lay clothed in jungle until being rediscovered in the early 19th Century. It is now integrated into the modern town, and there is an interesting museum.

Anuradhapura is often visited in conjunction with Mihintale, a nearby sacred Buddhist site where the first Sinhalese king was converted to Buddhism, leading to the religion spreading across Sri Lanka. It is a pleasant place to walk around (barefoot being mandatory), with statues of Buddha, a rock to visit, a small Hindu temple and few foreign visitors.

Nuwara Eliya

The central highland region of Sri Lanka is a world apart from the coastal plains. Starting south of Kandy, the road winds its scenic way up to Nuwara Eliya, the island’s highest town and once a British hill station, surrounded by tea plantations. The many existing examples of colonial British architecture combined with the unpredictable weather puts one in mind of an English rather than Sri Lankan town, albeit one surrounded by tea bushes.

Nearby is Horton Plains at 6500 feet altitude, wildlife reserve and gateway to the sheer drop of World’s End and with views to the mighty mountain known as Adam’s Peak. The montane Hakgala Botanical Gardens contains habituated purple-faced leaf monkey and toque macaque and many plants from around the world.

Trincomalee and Nilaveli

In common with Wilpattu and other northern and eastern areas, Trincomalee and Nilaveli were off limits during the war against the Tamil Tigers. Now they are once more firmly on the map, offering more attractive beaches than the southwest coast, whale watching, cultural sites and good snorkelling.

Trincomalee has the second largest natural harbour in the world, which made it ideal as the base for the combined Allied East Asian fleets during WWII after the fall of Singapore. The town also has the colonial Fort Frederick, and the Hindu Koneswaram temple constructed atop Swami Rock. At 426 feet above the Bay of Bangal, Swami Rock is also known as Lovers Leap in reference to the attempted suicide of the lovelorn daughter of a Dutch general in colonial times. Fort Frederick illustrates the changing colonial conquests of Sri Lanka (and much of the East): it was built by the Portuguese in 1623, captured and restructured by the Dutch in 1639, then taken by the French in 1672 and finally captured then rebuilt in 1803 by the British.

Further up the coast is Nilaveli and environs, an area of beautiful sandy beaches, good resorts and coral reefs. Diving and snorkelling can be enjoyed on the offshore reefs and at Pigeon Island, as well as swimming in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. In season, March to August, blue whales can be seen offshore on dedicated boat trips.

The Cultural Triangle

In heritage terms, the Cultural Triangle is the most important area in Sri Lanka. It embraces three ancient UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Dambulla, Sigiriya and Polonnoruwa, all within easy distance of each other but all very different, and easily combined.

A sacred Buddhist pilgrimage site for 22 centuries, Dambulla is the best preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka, with five sanctuaries, 2100 square metres of religious murals and 157 Buddhist statues.

Dating from 477, the ancient city of Sigiriya occupies the base, slopes and summit of a huge granite rock 370 metres high. Visitors climb to the summit by stairs and walkways, en route passing frescoes, from where there are fabulous views across the surrounding forests.

Polonnaruwa, the second capital of Sri Lanka after the destruction of Anuradhapura in 993, comprises Brahmanic monuments built by the Cholas and the ruins of a fabulous garden city built in the 12th Century, spread over a large acreage.

Kandy

The last seat of the ancient Sinhalese kings, the attractive upland city of Kandy is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and contains the stunning Buddhist Temple of the Tooth Relic, sited near the large scenic lake. After a temple visit, it is well worth strolling through town to catch the relaxed atmosphere and enjoy its pleasant climate.

A visit to nearby Udawattakale, the forbidden forest of the ancient Kandyan kings, should reveal quarrelsome troops of dusky toque macaques and an impressive variety of bird species.

Peradeniya Botanical Gardens near Kandy occupies 146 acres of spice plants, palms, orchids and giant tropical trees, totalling 4000 species.
Dating back to the 14th Century, it is Sri Lanka’s premier botanical garden and a must for plant enthusiasts.

Minneriya National Park

A fine example of the many ancient rainwater reservoirs (or tanks) that dot the island of Sri Lanka, Minneriya Tank (built nearly 2000 years ago) is the focal point for this small eponymous reserve of c.9000 hectares and the reason it exists. The tank supplies water to the surrounding area as well as large herds of elephants, who come in their hundreds during the dry zone’s dry season from May to October: the famous Gathering which is the main attraction for visitors.

However, the elephant is only one of 24 mammal, 170 bird, 25 reptile, 26 fish and 75 butterfly species found there. Minneriya is notable as one of Sir Lanka’s 70 Important Bird Areas: it is a habitat for large numbers of water birds. It also contains the two endemic Sri Lankan monkey species, purple-faced leaf monkey and toque macaque, and the rare grey slender loris.

Sinharaja Forest Reserve

Covering a mere 112 square kilometres, Sri Lanka’s only biological UNESCO World Heritage Site is a biodiversity hotspot and the last significant tract of undisturbed primary rainforest on the island. Sinharaja has a high endemicity of trees, oddities such as the purple-faced leaf monkey, and is famed among birdwatchers for mixed feeding flocks and for protecting the majority of the island’s endemic bird species. Of Sri Lanka’s 26 endemic birds, the 20 rainforest species all occur here, including red-faced malkoha and green-billed coucal. Reptiles often seen are the hump-nosed lizard and green pit viper and there are a large variety of tree frogs. Sinharaja is a priceless and rare natural jewel.

Uda Walawe National Park

Covering nearly 31,000 hectares, Uda Walawe National Park was created in 1972 as a sanctuary for wild animals displaced by the construction of the Uda Walawe reservoir. Mammals present include elephant, leopard, fishing cat, sloth bear, wild boar, golden palm civet, three species of mongoose, tocque macaque, tufted grey langur and wild buffalo. Renowned as perhaps the best place in Asia for observing wild elephant, the park is also an important bridwatching site: water birds and raptors are numerous, and resident endemics include Sri Lanka spurfowl and red-faced malkoha. Reptiles found there include mugger crocodile, water and Bengal monitors, painted lip lizard and 30 species of snake. Uda Walawe is the third most visited national park.

Mirissa

Situated on the wide Weligama Bay on the south coast east of Galle, the village of Mirissa is itself not very remarkable, but it’s from there that early morning boat trips are taken out to sea to spot the largest creature ever to have lived on Earth – the blue whale. From November to April, these wondrous cetaceans can be reliably observed offshore, along with various species of dolphins and seabirds. This activity combines very well with an itinerary including Galle, Bundala and Yala.

Galle

The southern coastal town of Galle holds a very special UNESCO World Heritage Site: Galle Fort and Old Town. Built on a promontory by the Dutch four centuries ago, the Fort contains many well-preserved colonial buildings and exudes a profound sense of history. One can walk the high ramparts of Galle Fort and enjoy the promenading locals and long views out to sea, or wander the quaint cobble streets of the Old Town to admire the grand colonial architecture and soak in the atmosphere.

Bundala National Park

Bundala National Park is an outstanding Important Bird Area: in 1991 Bundala was the first in Sri Lanka to be designated a RAMSAR wetland. Bundala boasts 197 bird species, of which 100 are water fowl and 58 migratory. The avian highlight at Bundala is the greater flamingo, which visits in large flocks, but also seen are Eurasian spoonbill, painted stork, lesser adjutant and lesser whistling duck. It contains two avian endemics: brown-capped babbler and Sri Lanka jungle fowl. Although chiefly a birding site, the 6,200 hectares of lagoon and scrub bush also harbour elephant and crocodile, and turtles come ashore to nest on the beach. Bundala can conveniently be combined with a visit to nearby Yala.

Wilpattu National Park

Situated in the northern dry zone, Wilpattu is Sri Lanka’s largest national park at 131,000 hectares, yet one of its least visited. Off limits during the war with the Tamil Tigers, since that ended in 2009 the park infrastructure has gradually been improved so that now the largely forested reserve is again very rewarding to visit. Wilpattu’s unique feature is its willus, shallow basins which fill with rainwater and attract wildlife such as wild boar, spotted deer, sambhur, sloth bear, elephant, leopard and water buffalo – just a few of its 31 mammal species. Notable among over 200 bird species found at Wilpattu are the endemic brown-capped babbler, Sri Lankan jungle fowl and woodshrike and black-capped bulbul. Of the reptiles, monitor lizard, mugger crocodile, cobra, python, rat snake and soft shelled turtle are most common. The park is certain to become more popular, so now is a good time to visit.

Yala National Park

Sri Lanka’s second largest national park (at 378 sq miles) and its premier wildlife location, Yala offers an almost African safari experience as well as important Buddhist sites. On game drives by jeep, one can view wild elephant, buffalo and boar, huge monitor lizards, macaque monkeys and many rare and endemic bird species: it is also the best place in south Asia to spot the elusive leopard, frequently seen and admired. Situated in the dry semi-arid climatic zone, the park holds 215 bird species including six Sri Lankan endemics, 46 reptiles (including five endemics) and 44 mammal species. Yala is very popular with both tourists and locals, so weekends are best avoided if possible.

Featured

Wildlife Holidays

Accommodation

Featured Places To Stay

Ulagalla Resort

A beautiful colonial boutique hotel set amongst 58 acres of native forest and ri...
A very different wildlife experience from lodge-based safaris in Yala and Wilpat...

Mahoora Luxury Camping

Offers a very different wildlife experience from lodge-based safaris in Yala, Ud...

Trinco Blu by Cinnamon

Located north of Trincomalee in an area fast becoming one of Sri Lanka’s premi...

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Sri Lanka: 7.873054, 80.771797

Your Very Own

Sri Lanka Specialist

Alan Godwin

Area Specialist

Terrestrial wildlife in Sri Lanka is fantastic: it’s especially great for wild elephant and leopard. Offshore, it’s also one of the planet’s best destinations for snorkelling with great whales: over three days it’s possible to be in the water with blue, sperm and Bryde’s whale, as well as pilot whale and many dolphin species. This is one of the world’s best wildlife experiences possible, in our opinion. The short season is mid-March to mid-April and availability for the boats and best whale guides is limited, so book early.

If you have any questions regarding travel to Sri Lanka, please feel free to contact me on +44 (0)1803 866965