Sri Lanka has been gaining buzz as one of the top holiday destinations in the world and as you’d expect, tourism thrives on the Island.
But what a lot of tour guides and packages don’t mention is that Sri Lanka is also really cheap to travel to and around on a budget. If you don’t want to spend an exorbitant amount of money on your next holiday, read on for why Sri Lanka is one of your best options for an amazing time and an easy load on your wallet too.
Sri Lankan tourist visas are quite cheap. If you apply ahead of your arrival online, you’ll only pay a fee of $35. There’s also the possibility of a tourist visa on arrival at the Sri Lankan airport but there’s a price hike and long waiting lines if you choose this option so for a budget holiday, apply online and get your visa cheap and fast!
While your typical, touristy hotels can be a bit pricey on a budget, there’s any number of budget hotels, hostels, small bungalows and homestay opportunities for as low as $10.
What’s more, booking rooms in advance using online trip planners such as Booking.com will net you cheaper prices than if you book directly at the place. And it will also help you plan out your trip around the Island a bit better too, as a side bonus.
It goes without saying that booking private transport around the country is much more expensive than public transport. What’s surprising is how much cheaper public transport is. There’s an extensive bus network throughout Sri Lanka and even a journey of more than two hours will only set you back a couple of U.S dollars. Buses can get crowded but there’s never a dull moment in one with booming Sri Lankan music and screeching horns so it’s definitely an experience not to miss.
Sri Lanka’s train network, although not extensive and certainly not fast, is also quite cheap and is often the best way to get from one large city to another, especially in the Southern and Central regions of the country. Like buses, train rides are very cheap. Though there are air-conditioned, 1st class cabins in pretty much all intercity trains, opting for a much cheaper 2nd class seat is a much better idea. How else are you going to hang out the doors of a long winding train on a hill and take that photo you’ve only seen online and always wanted to take?
For shorter trips within cities, tuk-tuks are abundant although it’s general practice among tuk-tuk drivers to charge tourists almost double the local price. But you can ask your homestay family or the manager of your budget hotel for a local price point so that you can negotiate the price down to its normal level before you set off on the tuk-tuk ride.
There’s no shortage of cheap food options in Sri Lanka. Street-food in Sri Lanka is amazingly cheap and quite often are unique experiences you won’t find anywhere else in the world.
For meals, it’s quite easy to duck into small restaurants, recognizable by their mostly local clientele and small spaces, and sit down for a full rice and curry lunch or dinner for just a U.S dollar or two. Just make sure to keep smaller notes in local currency on hand and you’ll be saving quite a lot in food expenses while still getting Sri Lanka’s iconic, delicious food experience.
Perhaps the best thing about Sri Lanka when it comes to budget travel is that there are many things to do and experience around the country, completely for free.
Because of Sri Lanka’s all-around coastline, there’s definitely any number of local beaches that are completely free and oftentimes, completely devoid of other visitors. Settle down, stretch out and get ready to lose quite a few hours on a gloriously empty and completely free beach.
It’s common practice, too, for travellers on a budget to make a beeline for a beach town like Hikkaduwa and then make full use of the beautiful coastline nearby for free while staying at cost-effective accommodation and budget hotels in Hikkaduwa like Citrus Hikkaduwa. You can even take an early morning stroll to see local fisherman prepare for the day’s first catch.
Colombo too, despite its reputation as a tourist spot, has many intriguing and free attractions for the budget traveller. To ease up on travel within the city, book an affordable city hotel in Colombo such as The Steuart by Citrus and then head off to explore the historic districts of Colombo Fort by foot, completely free of course! The local markets are an amazing way to get the feel of the city and also the perfect way to meet the friendly locals.
Colombo often got the short end of the stick as a tourist destination in Sri Lanka. It used to be a crowded, congested city of industry and business but as of recently, with new revitalization efforts, a world-class shopping experience, and a renewed focus on history, culture and art within the city, Colombo is an absolute must on your Sri Lankan itinerary.
It’s a city teeming with life and activity so book a city hotel in Colombo to cut down on travel time from the various places you’re going to visit and take a tour through Colombo’s finest.
We’ll start with the most obvious reason you should visit Colombo: it’s a world-class shopping destination with shockingly affordable prices.
Each year, there’s quite a healthy influx of visitors, tourists and travellers, from the Middle-East and beyond, that make the trip to Colombo’s many shopping options to stock up on the best international brands, at a price that fits them.
Start with Crescat Boulevard, the iconic shopping mall near the Galle Face green. It’s got an eclectic collection of luxury Sri Lankan clothing and accessories brands, along with some fabulous boutiques for gifts and souvenirs.
Odel, the next shopping destination, has been a mainstay on Colombo’s high-end shopping mall lists since the early 2000s and with good reason. There’s a classy collection of upscale clothing boutiques and stores nestled in this mall, along with many smaller stores with premium quality gifts and accessories that you won’t find in many other places.
Finally, the newest addition to Colombo’s shopping landscape is the huge mall at One Galle Face, attached to its own luxury apartment complex and living community. Here you’ll find a large variety of international fashion houses rubbing shoulders with Sri Lankan brands of similar make and price. Expect to spend a few hours in this dizzying complex and leave armed with new wardrobes, home goods, gifts, accessories and even get some quality pampering at a few of the spas inside. The perfect shopping experience to sate your palate.
Nowhere else in Sri Lanka will you find as cosmopolitan and eclectic a mix of premier cuisine as in Colombo. Gastronomic delights abound in Colombo for there’s no shortage of delectable restaurants, serving you both the finest of Sri Lankan food and the best of world-class international cuisine.
Ministry of Crab is an obvious choice for any lover of high-quality seafood fused with Sri Lankan flavors. Crab comes in all sizes there, even a massive 2 kilogram one if you’re up for it, and their commitment to only using the freshest of the daily catch and best of ingredients will impress you.
Likewise, Nihonbashi is a beautiful culinary dream. Named the 38th best restaurant in Asia by San Pellegrino, and run by the same chef behind Ministry of Crab, Nihonbashi gets everything right about the simple yet immensely elegant Japanese cuisine, from sushi and sashimi to more hearty offerings of hotpots and charcoal grilled savourings.
If Italian food is more your fare then Giovanni’s is your best bet. Smack in the middle of Colombo 5, Giovanni’s a delightfully quaint restaurant serving nothing but the most authentic, woodfired pizza and indulgent pasta dishes. It’s your own slice of Italy right here in the heart of Colombo with an unbeatable atmosphere and the freshest of ingredients and food.
Increasingly, as of late, Colombo has been at the center of a dizzying spotlight on history and culture, with sites and things to do popping up around the city. There’s a wide variety of interesting experiences, from old standards of history to new explosions of art.
A visit to the National Museum is essential. It’s colonial architecture is one of the best preserved throughout the country and its historical collections date back to Sri Lanka’s ancient royal families and heirlooms. A better introduction to Sri Lanka’s history you cannot ask for.
There’s more colonial architecture at the Old Dutch Hospital in Colombo 01. Formerly, as its name suggests, a hospital for Dutch Military built in the 17th century, it now houses a charming collection of cafes and small boutiques that form quite the popular hang-out spot for tourists and locals alike.
Similarly, the Arcade Independence Square is a new shopping complex housed in a collection of 19th Century British-built buildings, faithfully preserved and renovated. The area around the complex is a popular promenade for Colombo residents and visitors alike and attracts quite an eclectic crowd everyday.
Situated right in the heart of Colombo’s classy Cinnamon Gardens neighborhood, the Saskia Fernando Gallery is a cool and modern art gallery filled routinely with exhibitions from Sri Lanka’s newest and most contemporary artists. There are new artists highlighted almost every month of the year and the gallery frequently holds international collaborations with similar institutions from Dubai, Singapore, London and Los Angeles. Drop by for a peek into Sri Lanka’s every-maturing contemporary and multidisciplinary art scene and take your fill of an oft-overlooked experience.
Then, make your way over to Colombo 04 where the new Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art is located. Opened just this past year in 2019, the MMCA houses unique exhibitions of 20th and 21st Century Sri Lankan art and holds many curatorial discussions and education programmes that help reveal the social, cultural and sometimes political contexts that the art pieces were created in.
The MMCA is also family-friendly with many programs for kids on their calendar.
Designed to be freely accessible to the public, it’s truly a modern Museum and art space that’s sure to both entertain and illuminate, and perhaps even make you ask questions you never thought you’d ask on a holiday to Sri Lanka.
For a more intimate, yet no less rich, experience the Barefoot Gallery is an exquisite art space and gallery with an attached gift boutique, café and handcrafts shop that’s sure to take your fancy. Here too are displays and exhibits by a diverse group of ever-changing artists and creators.
As a tropical Island right on the equator, Sri Lanka is known as a genuine year-round destination.
But that doesn’t really mean you should travel to Sri Lanka on a whim too. Because Sri Lanka also has its fair share of upsetting weather and seasonal attractions so if you’re looking for a helpful primer on when best to visit Sri Lanka and what things to do in Sri Lanka based on the season, you’ve come to the right place.
Sri Lanka is a dual weather Island meaning that pretty much all of Sri Lanka’s weather patterns are dependent on two big monsoons that sweep through Sri Lanka each year.
But don’t worry, because the two monsoons blow past in opposite directions, and never overlap, you can be sure of fair weather on either side of the Island at any given time.
Once you understand the two big monsoons, you’re pretty much done with figuring out Sri Lanka’s tropical weather.
The Southwest monsoon brings rain to the west and southwest coast and the central Hill country from April or May to September, but is generally wettest from April to June. Thus, in the west and southwest coasts, the dry season runs from December to March.
The other monsoon, the Northeast monsoon brings wind and rain to the eastern and northeastern coastal regions, with rain showers also in the central Hill country, from November to March, with the wettest months being November and December. The dry season, thus, in this region is from May to September.
There is also an inter-monsoonal period, right before the Northeast monsoon hits, where rain and thunderstorms can hit anywhere across the island but it usually clears up in the second half of November.
It’s a trick question, really, because the answer depends on where you want to go, where you’re staying and what things you want to do in Sri Lanka.
Because the monsoon seasons alternate, with half the Island in a wet season and the other half enjoying a dry season at any given time of the year, when you should visit Sri Lanka really truly depends on your itinerary.
So how do you decide?
Here’s a quick guide:
Visiting Sri Lanka for the European Winter (December – February)
December to February is smack dab in the middle of the Northeast monsoon so if you’re planning a trip to Sri Lanka around these months for your winter, you should make a beeline for the western and southwest coastal regions.
Colombo is a great place to serve as the hub for your trip and once you decide on where to stay in Colombo, destination beaches in the western coast such as Bentota, Kalpitiya and Hikkaduwa are a short train journey away.
In the south western coasts, fair weather is pretty much the order of the day too and beaches such as Mirissa, Tangalle and Weligama are all pretty popular at this time. Make sure to hit Galle, in the south, for a historical escape and you can even make it to Yala National Park, one of Sri Lanka’s largest nature reserves teeming with leopards and elephants for your viewing pleasure.
Visiting Sri Lanka for the European Summer (June – August)
Since the Southwest monsoon is in full swing by the time your summer rolls around, this is the perfect time to hit the north, north eastern and eastern regions of Sri Lanka.
The Jaffna peninsula and Jaffna city is an excellent outdoor location during these times, with its bustling and colorful atmosphere. So are the east coast beaches, namely, Passikudah, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Nilaveli and Arugam Bay, the latter being famous for its world class surfing waves.
This is also a great time to visit Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle, home to five of Sri Lanka’s seven UNESCO world heritage sites. Because this region is in the ‘dry zone’ only December and November bring rain here and it is quite arid and dry the remainder of the year. This is also quite close to Minneriya National Park where you can watch the annual elephant migration.
Since both monsoons influence the weather in the Central region, there’s not a dedicated dry season here but the high altitude and the surrounding hills mean that the climate in the Hill country is quite balmy and mild most days.
Kandy, the Hill country’s cultural capital, enjoys lower rainfall than elsewhere and the December-May period also marks the pilgrimage season for Adam’s Peak, a must-do for any trekker and hiker.
If you’re looking to have a fun and productive shopping experience in Colombo, and wondering which mall to choose for that, we understand your confusion. Not only are there many malls to choose from in this one city, but the traffic can make it a little tedious to simply go around exploring one mall after the other as well. Here’s a list of malls available in Colombo city, and what you can expect in them, no matter where you stay in Colombo…
When it comes to Colombo’s malls the Majestic City mall is one that many locals have fond memories of. In fact, those who grew up in the 90’s will think of it as the spot that they were most eager to visit in weekends (or whenever they visited Colombo, for that matter!), as it not only had some of the best game shops, but also had a gaming area that was “innovative” for that period. Fast forward to 2020, it’s not one of the best spots to shop at, but still has a certain charm. From toy shops to cosmetic stores, and branded clothing to affordable trinkets, Majestic City has it all. One thing that hasn’t changed in all these years is the tempting smell of fried French fries you get at the parking lot; either from the food court, or from the Majestic city branch of KFC!
Comparatively new (though not as new as some of the malls coming ahead in the list), the Arcade Independence Square has much to offer when it comes to shopping. From branded lingerie to branded shoes, you have quite a lot to choose from if you ever feel like splurging. Speaking of splurging, if you feel like having a luxury cinema experience, then the Arcade Independent Square mall also has a luxury theater; though their movie choices are limited. Apart from that, this mall is also a great place to grab a luxurious bite of food, as it hosts some of the top restaurants of the city.
The Colombo City Center, or the CCC as the locals fondly call it, is another new mall. It is also a great example for the world to see how Sri Lankan architecture has changed in the last few years. The entire building comprises of 5 floors for the mall and theaters, a 164 roomed hotel, and 192 residential apartments. Though some of these floors are still under construction, the retail section is completed, and in full function. Whether you want to buy international brands or have a large variety of movie choice at the same place, Colombo city center is the mall for you.
If you’re thinking of settling down in Sri Lanka and looking for a few pieces of furniture for that period of time, then you’ll have plenty to choose from if visit the Marino mall. Apart from furniture, you’ll also be able to buy all the home appliances you need, and then some! Marino Mall also offers clothes, and a pretty decent food court, with cuisines like Vietnamese, Indian, European as well as Middle Eastern. If you have your child accompanying you, and don’t want them disturbing you while you shop, the mall has a separate gaming area with VRs and 9D options. They’ve also got a few older generation games that even today’s kids will enjoy; so you can easily convince them to stay put while you shop!
Though not a mall, we believe Laksala needs to have an honorary mention in this list. As the only state owned arts and crafts souvenir boutique in Sri Lanka, Laksala has a reputation of being on the high end of the market. Aimed basically to cater for the tourists, at Laksala, you can find anything from intricate hand woven shawls to vibrantly colorful little wooden Elephants (signifying those Elephants that participate in the Kandy Esala Perehara). This is the ideal spot for you to shop for those true tourist-y souvenirs; especially if someone back home (or a friend you’re visiting) is expecting a gift as such. And the best part is that there are several branches of it in most of the important tourist destinations, so you wouldn’t have to go looking for one of their branches.
Joining in very newly to Colombo’s mall collection is the oh-so-popular (for the moment) One Galle Face Mall. This mall is right opposite the famed Galle Face Green, and those who visit it for it’s scenic sunsets will most definitely want to visit the One Galle Face Mall¾at least to escape the heat! From an entire floor dedicated for branded clothing, to luxury pens and fine jewelry, the mall has something special for everyone’s taste. Adding to it’s specialness, One Galle Face mall is also famous for hosting a variety of luxurious and affordable restaurants’ outlets; as well as having its own cinema and game arcade. If you’re looking to drop your kids off with something to occupy them while you relax a bit, this is the mall for you!