Sri Lanka has been an emerging destination of interest for a few years now. I’ve been looking extensively at Sri Lanka family holidays for us and looking at all the different places I would love to visit. There are so many amazing places to visit in Sri Lanka, its very difficult to narrow down exactly where I would like to go because honestly, I’d love to see everything Sri Lanka has to offer.
Traditionally people have tended to skip Sri Lanka as a family travel destination due to the adverse publicity regarding civil conflict. Sri Lanka experienced 30 years of civil war ending in 2009, tourism has steadily increased since then. While you still have to travel anywhere in Asia with caution and follow safety guidelines provided by your government, Sri Lanka is an overwhelmingly safe place to travel for families in the current climate. I take all my advice from the Australian Government website Smart Traveller and it’s currently green and advising to exercise normal safety precautions. This to me indicates that Sri Lanka is a safe place to travel.
So why do I think Sri Lanka family holidays are a great choice?
One of the best things to do in Sri Lanka and top of my bucket list is seeing elephants in their natural environment. In fact Sri Lanka has many wildlife experiences I would be very interested in visiting. Also Sri Lankan people have a special rapport with children, like many Southeast Asian countries kids will definitely be the centre of attention. Many of the pristine beaches, wildlife experiences and open window train rides will fascinate kids and its a very laid back environment to visit, basically visiting Sri Lanka with kids will be a great experience.
Top places to visit in Sri Lanka with kids
There are so many great places to visit in Sri Lanka with kids. While there are many, I have outlined the ones below that I think would be best for kids in the tween to teen age group so 9-17 years old. This is the age group of my kids and I know what things they like to see and do. They also like to have a bit of input these days and I love to see them taking an interest in the things we do. Below I have also listed the best things to do in Sri Lanka with kids for each place we have listed.
Colombo is the capital city of Sri Lanka and will also be the place you first arrive if you are flying in. Colombo lacks famous signature must-see sights like the other capital cities in Asia. The best places to visit in Colombo are definitely Fort and Pettah. Fort originally operated as a fully operational fort back in its day, surrounded by the sea on two sides and a moat on the land side, it is currently being restored to its former glory.
Fort also contains many colonial era buildings, however also houses more modern buildings such as the World Trade Centre. Pettah also has many colonial buildings and upmarket hotels so grab your exploring shoes or hire a tuk-tuk and get out to find some of the markets in the area.
With plenty of Sri Lankan history, the National Museum is a grand example of a colonial era building, built in 1876 it originally housed the British Governor. The Buddhist temple Gangaramaya (Vihara) a bustling temple complex filled with an enormous amount of Buddhist relics. The temple apparently has pieces of Buddha’s hair, interestingly so does the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar.
Other places to visit include Beira Park, Independence Memorial Hall, Temple of Sri Kailawasanathan Swami Devasthanam Kovil but most of all get out and about. Teens will particularly enjoy the Pettah floating markets and kite surfing in Galle Face, something they definitely wouldn’t see at home.
If all else fails and you are short of things to do in Colombo, the scenic train ride between Colombo and Ella is definitely worth doing. Touted as one of the most scenic train rides in Asia, the ride is takes about 6 hours with the most scenic part of the train ride is from Hatton to Haputale. Ella Sri Lanka is definitely worth a day trip or even an overnight stay.
Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is home to eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including many opportunities to experience ancient history. Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa, and Anuradhapura are the three ancient cities that comprise the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka. It is highly recommended you explore all three ancient cities of Sri Lanka.
Sigiriya Rock Fortress is a UNESCO heritage site which is one of the best ancient sites in the country otherwise known as the Lion’s Rock and is situated in the Matale district. Visitors are able to climb up to the ancient ruins, however it is a difficult climb however children over 8 years old will be able to manage it. When you arrive at the top of Sigiriya you’ll be rewarded with rolling hills of the jungle below.
Other activities that your child will love is hot air ballooning at Sunrise over Sigiriya, providing stunning views over the ancient city, climbing Pidurangala rock is another challenging adventure families with teenage children will enjoy. You can also experience a 4WD safari where you will see elephants in Minneriya or Wilpaththu National Park, a great experience to try when you are in Sigiriya, Dambulla or Anuradhapura.
We would love to visit Chena Cultivation, an archetypal Sri Lankan village, you can trek out to the village or take a bullock cart which is Sri Lanka’s oldest form of transportation on an unpaved trail. At the village you will spend time with a farmer harvesting crops, or watch the children play or enjoy the sight of the village folk as they go about their early morning tasks of fishing or washing clothes at the lake.
Wind down to a scrumptious home cooked meal in the heart of the village. A great experience my kids would love, a hard but simple lifestyle foreign to the life our kids experience at home.
Anuradhapura, a Buddhist complex founded in the 4th century, is another of the ancient cities of Sri Lanka. It consists of three colossal stupas and houses some of the largest monuments ever constructed in the ancient world. For Sri Lankans, Anuradhapura is an important pilgrimage site, home to the sacred Body tree. Don’t miss the wooded Abhayagiri Monastery complex, the Citadel and its ruined royal palace and the Jetavanarama stupa.
Sri Lanka’s ancient cities are Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, Dambulla,Kandy and Yapahuwa, just in case you are interested in seeing others.
Yapahuwa is located in the Wayamba province of Sri Lanka, the Rock Fortress Complex of Yapahuwa is considered remarkable despite not yet being popular with tourists. However, it is renowned as one of the best archeological site in the country. Many suggest it is more significant than The Rock Fortress in Sigiriya.
I much prefer to visit places that are less popular with tourists and provide a more authentic experience, this sounds like it might be Sri Lanka’s best kept secret, perfect if you have extra time and are prepared to explore a little further.
Kandy is a large city located on a plateau in Sri Lanka that is surrounded by the central highland mountains. A World Heritage Site its home to tea plantations and a bio-diverse rainforest. Kandy is famed for sacred Buddhist sites, including the Temple of the Tooth (Sri Dalada Maligawa) Shrine, which was built in the 4th century and holds a very sacred relic—Buddha’s tooth.
Kandy lake is a man-made lake built in 1807 and located in the centre of town. Explore the many walks, such as the Udawattakelle sanctuary or up to the Royal Palace Park or simply people watch. The Big Buddha can be seen from almost everywhere in Kandy particularly when lit up at night. Located on top of the hill and providing the most fantastic panoramic views of the city below.
The Botanical Gardens are Sri Lanka’s largest and most impressive gardens with a staggering 2 million visitors a year. There are also 2 museums, the World Buddhist Museum and the Ceylon Tea Museum, both are worth a visit. The kids would love a cultural Kandy dance show which include elaborate traditional costumes and fire eaters.
Another plateau town surrounded by mountains is Nuwara Eliya, often referred to as Little England for its old British colonial buildings, its does have a British country village feel to it. Very popular with tourists are the Queen’s Cottage and the General’s House.
Nuwara Eliya is one of many tea plantation areas in Sri Lanka, but it is regarded as the most important spot for tea production in the country. Don’t miss Pedro Tea Estate, take the 20 minute guided tour of the factory built in 1885 that still operates on 19th century machinery. Photography inside the factory in forbidden.
Visit Hakgala Botanical Gardens displaying roses and tree ferns and home to monkeys and blue magpies. The legend states that the garden is thought to have been a pleasure garden of King Ravana which he gifted to Queen Seetha to lessen her sorrow. Also known as Asoka Vitika, the Queen is thought to have spent her captivity here.
Lord Hanuman first saw the Queen in the gardens and presented her with King Rama’s ring with news of his plans to rescue her. Hanuman then attempted to destroy the gardens in his quest to demonstrate to King Ravana the strength of the forces against him. Reminds me of the legends told to us when we visited the Taj Mahal in India. Our kids loved all the legends and history behind the Taj Mahal and I am sure they would love these legends also.
Seetha Amman Temple a Hindu temple worth visiting, is said to mark the area in which Queen Seetha was held captive by King Rawana and where she prayed daily for her king to rescue her. The stream that runs from the nearby hill is said to be where the queen bathed during her residence at the nearby gardens of Ashok Vatika.
About a century ago, three idols were discovered near the stream, one of which was that of Queen Seetha. Impressions on the rocks of the river bank are thought to be footprints of Lord Hanuman who rested at this spot after the battle to save Queen Seetha from the clutches of King Ravana.
The densely forested Galway’s Land National Park is a sanctuary for endemic and migratory bird species, including bulbuls and flycatchers. For something a little different hike to the The Moon Plains, a rather new area for visiting. Moon Plains are an open area full of fields, forests, walking paths and surrounding mountains. The perfect place for getting kids out and about and enjoying the fresh mountain air.
Yala National Park
Yala National Park is situated on the south coast of Sri Lanka, with parts reaching the Indian Ocean. These parts were substantially affected by the 2004 tsunami and 195 people lost their lives however no animals were lost leading to the assumption of them having a ‘sixth sense’.
Yala National Park is the place to go to see big cats, its home to the highest concentration of leopards in the world and is an important sanctuary for Sri Lankan elephants and aquatic birds. You’ll also see monkeys, crocodiles and various other wildlife around the park’s grassy plains and forest areas.
Yala is divided into 5 zones there are two zones open to public and tourists which are zone 1 and zone 5, zones 2-4 are reserved only for professional research and documentary filming. Many tourists hire a driver in Yala National Park and don’t bother with a guide but best practice is that you hire a driver and a guide to get the best experience. It is also recommended that you stay 2-3 nights at Yala National Park, this will give you the best opportunity to see all the big game such as leopards, elephants and buffalo.
Mirissa is a small town on the south coast of Sri Lanka, its approximately 150 kilometres south of Colombo. Mirissa’s beach and nightlife make it a popular tourist destination. Tourism didn’t take off until the mid-1990s, the area is still quite down to earth however it is developing a reputation as a party destination for the backpacker scene. During high season DJ’s will pump tunes till late on several nights a week possibly making it not the best family friendly destination.
Mirissa has developed quickly over the last couple of years so it’s getting more crowded. There are still enough spots where you can enjoy a fresh coconut from your hammock watching the beautiful sunsets. The sandy beach is dotted with beach shacks and restaurants, mostly simple bamboo and palm frond affairs, no big developments at this stage, they are likely on the way though.
Mirissa is world renowned as a fantastic area for whale and dolphin watching. Biologists have recently discovered that blue whales, the world’s largest living mammal love the Sri Lankan coast, particularly around the waters of Mirissa and Dondra Head.
Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery is another experience you may like to explore with your kids, Trip Advisor has mixed reviews regarding their ethical treatment of the turtles, I also recommend you do your research and go with your own gut feelings. I would not recommend handling the turtles unless you are releasing them into the ocean.
Galle is a city on the southwest coast of Sri Lanka, best known for Galle Fort and the fortified old town founded by Portuguese colonists in the 16th century. The Dutch-built Galle Fort is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest remaining sea fort in Asia built by European occupiers.
The town is full of charming Dutch-era villas and delightful seaside views. The National Maritime Museum of Sri Lanka also lies within the fortifications, it’s a small museum unfortunately significantly damaged in the 2004 tsunami.
Australians will recognise the Galle International Stadium, regarded as the most picturesque cricket ground and a popular stop with cricket tourists. The Old Dutch Market is usually crammed with the freshest local produce. Browse the tropical fruits which are in season in this 300 year old marketplace. Another popular attraction is the Dutch Reformed Church originally built in 1640, the present building dates from 1752. Its floor is paved with gravestones from Dutch cemeteries.
Sri Lanka Visa Requirements
Do Australians need a visa to visit Sri Lanka? Yes.
There are two options of obtaining a visa for Sri Lanka, these are an ETA online application prior to arrival or at the border on arrival. There is only one website to obtain a Sri Lankan visa, there are many fraudulent sites out there so make sure you use the one linked above.
Prices are for a Sri Lankan tourist visa valid for 30 days are US$35 utilising the ETA online application prior to arrival or US$40 when you arrive at the border. All children under 12 years old are free.
I always get my visa and country information from the Smart Traveller website. This site also has up to date information on any security concerns you may not be aware of in the country you are visiting. I always register every overseas holiday we take on the Smart Traveller website.
Best time to visit Sri Lanka
The best time to visit Sri Lanka is very much dependent on which parts of the country you are planning to visit.
The Cultural Triangle covers Sigirya, Dambulla, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa in the north east are best visited between May and September however it is warm all year round. Located in the middle of the island is Kandy and Nuwara Eliya cooler than most other areas with little rain its recommended best time to visit is January to April.
The best wildlife viewing is at Yala National Park, visit between February to June to see the animals at their best. Down south of the island you have Colombo and Galle which have year round temperate weather with the average temperature of 27 degrees, best time to visit is when there is the least rain which is between December and March.
Depending on which parts of the country you are most interested in will determine which time of year is best for you to visit. Personally, I would be aiming for the wildlife at Yala National Park and Kandy tea plantations so March would be perfect for me. The high season runs from December to March however April and September are still a good time to visit Sri Lanka.
Best places to stay in Sri Lanka
It’s always nice to get a recommendation for a decent hotel, I have to admit while budget floats some peoples boat, it definitely doesn’t float mine and I much prefer a nice hotel with a fluffy, warm and comfortable bed! So with that in mind, here are my bucket list hotels recommended by people and bloggers in the know!
Jetwing Yala – Located right on the beach and at the door step of Yala National Park, you’ll enjoy the luxury surroundings after a long day on safari spotting the amazing wildlife Yala National Park has on offer. There are various restaurants to dine in, 75m swimming pool and indulgent spa.
Hotel RIU Ahungalla – Located on an exclusive beach front between Colombo and Galle, its the perfect spot to stop and soak up some luxury away from the craziness of Galle. With various pools, one with a swim up bar you’ll be very comfortable in this large resort. The Renova Spa is a must for mum while the kids play in the water park specifically for kids aged 5-12 years old.
Jetwing St Andrews – Located in Nuwara Eliya in the scenic central highlands of Sri Lanka is another luxury resort by Jetwing. Originally a Georgian-style mansion occupied by the British in the colonial era, be sure to experience an elegant afternoon high tea with the tea leaves sourced from the surrounding tea fields. The restaurants serves delicious traditional Sri Lankan food, be sure to try some of the curries.
Jetwing Calamansi Cove Villas – Located between Galle and Colombo, the exclusive boutique resort has amazing beach villas and is a great spot to stop to break up the long trip. Wedged between the Indian Ocean and Waduganga Lake, the 3 mile beach front is pristine and clean and the food sensational. There are twelve private luxury villas facing the Indian Ocean, have a dip in the ocean or relax by the pool. With private butler service and babysitting on request, you can’t go wrong with a luxurious resort such as this.
Best elephant sanctuary in Sri Lanka
I often get asked about ethical elephant sanctuaries and which are best to visit in Asia. We visited Kuala Gandah in Kuala Lumpur and looking back now with what I know I actually am concerned about just how ‘ethical’ that experience was.
Don’t get me wrong, we didn’t ride elephants or climb on them when bathing them but just a few things I saw that have made me reconsider. Things like they were chained up when we arrived, babies were sectioned off ‘for their safety’ from the main group and the mahmuts were using stick picks to steer the elephants. I just doesn’t sit right with me now.
Sri Lanka has one of the biggest populations of wild Asian elephants in the world. I have heard many times about the ethical elephant sanctuary in Sri Lanka called Uduwalawe Elephant Transfer Home located inside the Uduwalawe National Park. Click link for Elephant Safari review.
The Udawalawe Elephant Transfer Home was established in 1995. The sanctuary is a safe rehabilitation centre for orphaned baby elephants to ultimately release them back into Uduwalawe National Park. Up to three elephants per week are killed in Sri Lanka due to interactions with humans, often leaving behind orphaned calves.
The elephants are kept at Udawalawe National Park to maintain familiarity with their habitat, but have access to both food and medical care before being released. The elephants are free to roam around and are never chained ensuring that human contact is kept to a minimum in order to maximize their chance of survival when they are returned to the wild.
Located in the south of Sri Lanka you could visit Udawalawe on your way to Yale National Park.
Best ways to get around Sri Lanka
Transport options are limited in Sri Lanka, most tourists opt for private drivers for optimum flexibility and air conditioned vehicles however for those a little more adventurous you can experience the bus or the train. While buses and trains can be cheap and adventurous, they often end up being uncomfortable and time consuming. Buses doesn’t run according to a timetable and will sometimes leave you waiting for hours for a connecting bus. You will find the local buses to be overcrowded but very affordable and buses service most of the country but you’ll need to be patient.
When travelling with kids, it is strongly recommended to book a tour or a tourist board licenced guide that will provide expert local knowledge and will add value to your experience. Taxi drivers are great for getting from point A to point B however will not operate as a tour leader providing information and history about Sri Lanka. Tuk tuks are not recommended for long distance particularly in areas where big vehicles don’t adhere to speed limits.
If you on a tight schedule then I wouldn’t recommend buses, it can take double the amount of time and are not very convenient as most accommodations or sites are not accessible by bus. It might be easier to get a taxi or a tuk tuk for the last stretch to your hotel. This is where it might be worth considering a private driver or taking a tour.
The train network is continually improving and will be much more comfortable than the local bus. I do advise you stick to first and second class and give third class a miss. There are various trips that provide exceptional scenery at a very cheap price, these trips include those between Haputale and Ella and between Colombo and Galle. I recommend taking the train to experience the scenery not to mention the opportunity to hang out the doors and windows like the locals do.
What to pack for visiting Sri Lanka
The weather is tropical throughout most of Sri Lanka. You will need to dress modestly when visiting religiously significant places. I take a shawl to cover my shoulders when visiting temples as 70% of the island practice Buddhism. Pants or skirts that cover the knees are also respectful options.
Budget for visiting Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is a fairly budget friendly destination like many other Asian countries your western money should go reasonably far. There are ways to reduce your costs such as eating street food and staying in budget hotels or hostels. It really depends what type of traveller you are.
If you are on a strict budget you could really survive reasonably well on US$80 per day. I am not great at setting or sticking to budgets and I’m a little cautious of street food particularly when travelling with the kids. That’s not to say that we don’t eat local, we do but not from street vendors. Reason being, a sick child can ruin your holiday.
ATMs are widely available in cities and the larger tourist towns and credit cards are excepted in mid-range to top end hotels. I found the Lonely Planet Money Guide useful for getting a good grasp of what things would cost and I like that it breaks in down into budget, mid-range and top end.
Sri Lankan tour company I recommend
I’ve never denied that I like a little luxury and in my research I’ve come across Beyond Dream Travels, they are right up my alley with affordable luxury tours, guided tours, private drivers and private hotel transfers on arrival. Their target market is families with kids. The beach and wildlife tours look like something my kids would love and the luxury hotel stays will definitely keep me happy. Check them out if you are planning a trip to Sri Lanka.
Beyond Dream Travels is currently running a promotional offer on their fantastic Beach and Wildlife Tour, the offer is only available until 15th May 2019 so book now and you’ll be on your dream Sri Lankan family holiday before you know it. The tour includes a wildlife safari at Yalla National Park, the amazing sights and relaxed vibe at Galle and Ahungalle which is famous for sea turtles, an adventure all the family will love.
I plan to visit Sri Lanka next year and will make it a priority after having researched it so thoroughly in this post. I think Sri Lanka has a lot to offer families and I would love to visit the Maldives again while over that way. I love that the wildlife sanctuaries are ethical and they are going about setting a new industry standard that neighbouring countries might learn from.
I know my kids would love to visit Sri Lanka for the safari opportunities but the kids love the beaches as well. A good mix of wildlife safari and time at the beach and pool is every kids dream holiday isn’t it! I think Sri Lanka can provide an unforgettable experience for all the family.
Have you been to Sri Lanka or are you planning a trip to Sri Lanka? Please tell us about it in the comments below, I would love to hear all about your experiences or upcoming plans.
Sal, Craig & Our3kids