Visiting Sri Lanka With Kids
By Fathima Mohsin
Sri Lanka, the pearl of the Indian Ocean, is a fabulous holiday destination because of its lush natural beauty and rich culture including many UNESCO World Heritage sites. I was born in Sri Lanka and have lived there for some years as well as visiting from Australia and abroad many times.
Over the years, I’ve visited numerous amazing locations around the island including golden beaches, ancient ruins, stately temples, cool waterfalls, lush jungles with leopards and elephants and rich green tea plantations. My most recent visits have been with my two young children so now I can give a few tips on seeing Sri Lanka with kids!
A two-week Sri Lanka itinerary
I have broadly outlined some locations worth visiting that might suit a family with kids. Looking at a map of Sri Lanka, distances look small, however, road travel can take more time than expected and can be hot and bumpy, so try not to incorporate too long a distance within a single day.
The locations I have suggested are mostly on the west and south coast and the central Hill Country and can be done in a loop. I have also mentioned the Cultural Triangle because of its historical and architectural importance, this area is in the North West and North Central Provinces of the Island and will require more travel.
Sri Lanka’s largest city is about 45 minutes away from the main airport. Visit restored colonial buildings like the Dutch hospital (now a shopping and eating precinct), Jami-ul-Arfar mosque and its surrounding crowded Pettah market streets, Gangaramaya Temple, Nelum Pokuna Art Street (you can buy paintings by local artists) and the nearby Viharamahadevi Park.
West and South Coast: Sandy Beaches
The Western and Southern Coast of Sri Lanka have some lovely sandy stretches of beach with several options to stay including Bentota and Unawatuna. Spend time at a resort, building sandcastles and unwinding in the sun. Also, I have heard that Weligama and few other spots have affordable surfing lessons for beginners.
Galle Fort is about 1.5 hours away from Colombo, if using the tolled Southern Expressway. Originally built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, the fort was further fortified by the Dutch. Galle Fort is well preserved and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a relatively small and charming place to explore, within the fort you find hotels, homes, restaurants, shops. Gaze at the lighthouse with mosque opposite, walk the ramparts.
See Wildlife in the National Parks
Go on safari to spot wildlife such as elephants, buffalos, monkeys and possibly even leopards. Choose between Uda Walawe, Wilpattu, Yala (greater possibility to see leopards), Minneriya (famous for elephants). Go very early in the morning!
The Cultural Triangle
This triangle-shaped region in Sri Lanka comprises three historic cities, Anuradhapura to the north, Polonnaruwa to the east and Kandy to the south-west, and has many majestic ruins and historic sites. Inside the triangle, there are other places of interest; Mihintale, Ritigala and Dambulla. Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa were the capital cities of the Ancient Sinhala Kingdoms at varying points of time and so have some amazing historical constructions and relics.
Sigiriya, the Lion Rock
Located within the Cultural Triangle, Lion Rock originally consisted of a Citadel atop a massive rock built in the 5th Century by King Kasyapa after he seized the throne from his father in a coup. The ruins are minimal at the summit but the climb is worth it to see the amazing ancient landscaped gardens around it. On the way, stop to see the ancient wall frescoes of court maidens and the Mirror Wall with graffiti dating back more than a millennium. The climb is best done early morning (opens at 6:30 am) to avoid the heat and crowds. The climb has about 1200 steps and the last stretch is single file. This is not suitable for very young children but can be done with older kids.
Kandy City and Hill Country
In Kandy, visit Temple of the Tooth to see the casket containing the “Sacred Tooth Relic”. During June/July, the casket is carried in a spectacular procession (called the Esala Perahera) around the city. The surrounding hill country offers opportunities to visit tea factories and the train rides offer spectacular views.
More places to visit
Other awesome locations in the country to consider that may require longer travelling (but nothing more than 8 hours I believe) are
The North – includes Jaffna, home to most of the Island’s Tamils and Hindu temples
The East – Arugam Bay for surfing and many amazing beaches and hotels
Ella – Home to the iconic Nine Arch Bridge and gorgeous waterfalls.
Nuwara Eliya – “Little England” with colonial bungalows, hotels, pretty gardens and cool climate was the favoured holiday spot of the English during their colonial occupation of Sri Lanka. However, roads are very twisty going up the mountains.
Sri Lanka: Where to Stay
There is a wide range of options from more luxurious hotels to simple family-run guesthouses. Below are a few that I have stayed at or heard personal recommendations about. Note that when choosing accommodation on the budget end especially, check that they have air-conditioning and hot water in the bathrooms or any other amenities that are important to your family’s comfort.
Cultural Triangle Hotels
Cinnamon Lodge Habarana and Habarana Village by Cinnamon
These two adjoining properties are managed by the Cinnamon Hotel Group and set on a tree-filled landscape abutting the Habarana Lake. The rooms are quite basic but there is lots of space to run around and plenty of wildlife to observe. A range of activities is available for guests, including paddle boats and bicycles. I myself have stayed here a few times, when I was a child and as an adult. Its location makes it suitable as base to visit historic sites like Sigiriya, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Minneriya National Park and Wilpattu National Park.
Another option in the same area in the more luxurious (and pricier) Heritance Kandalama, an iconic hotel of which I have heard many recommendations.
Sri Lanka offers a huge array of beach hotels with a wide range of prices. However, before booking, do check previous travellers’ reviews to get an idea about the type of beach you will have access to (for example, if it usually has rough sea or if the beach is more rocky than sandy) and look at pictures of the rooms and facilities.
Hotels I have visited include:
- Club Palm Bay, which is on the West Coast, closer to the airport – I felt it was value for money.
- Tangerine Beach Hotel in Waskaduwa
- The Blue Water, Wadduwa – I visited this hotel a few years ago, it was satisfactory, but I felt the room was bit small. However, it has good reviews on Tripadvisor, so I included it.
A friend of mine stayed at Saman Villas and Jungle Beach by Uga Escapes and she recommended both highly. My cousin highly recommended Amari Galle where she stayed recently but suggested to take half-board and have lunch at Galle. However, these hotels are on the more expensive end of the range.
Also location-wise, if you don’t want to go too far south just for a beach, look along the West Coast at places like Negombo (very close to the airport), Beruwala, Bentota, Kalutara (about 1 to 2 hours drive from the airport, depending on traffic). That way you could either start or end your holiday at a relaxing beach hotel.
- Unless you are a national of Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Singapore or the Seychelles, you will need to obtain a visa at eta.gov.lk.
- The currency used is Sri Lankan Rupees (Rs.).
- DFAT travel advice for Sri Lanka is currently Level 2: Exercise a high degree of caution in Sri Lanka.
- Flying to Sri Lanka: flying to Colombo from Sydney usually involves transit in South Asia (Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand). Our most recent trip involved a 9-hour flight to Malaysia where we had a 2-hour transit followed by 4-hour flight to Colombo. However, Sri Lankan Airlines flies direct from Melbourne to Colombo (10-hour flight).
- Mobile service providers: some mobile phone operators have a small outlet at the airport if you wish to obtain a mobile SIM (prepaid connection) for your stay – I would recommend Dialog or Mobitel. You can then reload credit at any local convenience store or supermarket when needed. Both calls and mobile data are much cheaper with a local Sri Lankan service provider than using a roaming SIM from Australia.
- It is very unlikely that you will be able to use the stroller for most of your time in Sri Lanka. Not all towns have smooth sidewalks to facilitate the use of a stroller. Bring a baby carrier if needed.
- Always carry plenty of water and snacks if needed.
- Preferably use bottled, filtered or boiled water during your stay.
- Buddhism is the religion of the majority (about 70%) of Sri Lankans, and the image of Buddha is treated with reverence. Accordingly when visiting Sri Lanka, avoid wearing clothing depicting the image of Buddha and if you have any tattoos of Buddhist images, please cover these during your visit. Another custom is to avoid keeping your back to any image of Buddha, even if trying to take a photo.
- There might be restrictions on taking photographs or using a camera flash at certain places of worship, wildlife parks and historical sites. Ask if not sure.
- As much as possible try to start the day as early as possible to avoid the heat as noon approaches. Also as the time is Sri Lanka is several hours behind Australia, you will find yourself automatically waking early and getting sleepy early. During the first week of my recent visit to Sri Lanka, my kids (who are early birds even at home in Sydney) tended to wake up at about 4:30 am and dropped off around 6:30 pm.
- At temples and most other places of worship, you will be asked to remove your shoes (bring socks for kids if the ground is too hot) and cover bare shoulders and legs. Specifically at Buddhist temples, you also be asked to remove any kind of head covering.
- Take kids for ride in a three wheeler (aka Tuktuk) – it is a breezy, enjoyable experience. When my son was two years old, he loved tuktuk rides so much and asked for them repeatedly.
- Enjoy drinking king-coconut (tambili) water. It is usually widely available, it’s cheap and refreshing.
- Weather in Sri Lanka is hot and very humid. Bring sunhat, sunscreen and mosquito repellent. However, if you intend to visit cooler areas in the Hill country especially Nuwara Eliya, you need to check the temperature beforehand and be prepared with a jumper.
- There is risk of dengue in some parts of the country. The mosquito species which carries dengue tends to bite during morning hours (approx 9 am to 12 noon). Accordingly wearing light weight, breathable clothing which cover limbs could prevent bites.
- Sri Lanka was declared malaria-free by WHO in 2016 so no need for anti-malarial drugs.
- Beware of any animal bites as rabies is present in Sri Lanka. Seek immediate medical attention if bitten by an animal.
Have you visited Sri Lanka? Or might you like to?
Please do ask any questions in the comments.
You might like to look at more family holiday planning posts, just click here.
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If you’re thinking of a weekend away with the kids, click here!
Photos: thanks to Fathima and her cousin Safiya and also Thivaphoto for the lovely pictures, also thanks to the photographers on Pixabay who are happy to share some photos too.