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Want a vacation that your kids will remember forever? One that will be both fascinating and relaxing? Put Sri Lanka at the top of your list. Sri Lanka tourism is booming and the tourism industry is prepared to welcome and pamper visitors from around the world. It’s a combination of exotic foods, cultural heritage sites, beach resorts and ancient cities. Bonus: It wasn’t hard to find English signs and speakers and the prices are right for a great deal on a family vacation.
Disclosure: Brands mentioned provided some consideration.
When the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau invited TravelingMom to visit Sri Lanka, I didn’t know much about the island nation. Frankly, I was a bit overwhelmed. Would it be too much to go there solo with my daughter? How hard would it be to navigate a new language and culture?
I’m here to tell you that my worrying was completely unfounded. Our trip was both easy and enjoyable. Here’s the travel guide to Sri Lanka that I wish I had before we went.
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Where in the World is Sri Lanka?
If you’re asking yourself, “Where is Sri Lanka?” don’t feel bad. Located in Asia, Sri Lanka is a small island in the Indian Ocean close to India and the Maldives. You may recognize its British name, Ceylon.
With so much oceanfront in Sri Lanka, beaches were a huge draw. My daughter had a lot to say about Sri Lankan beaches.
“The beaches in Sri Lanka were beautiful! The water there isn’t too hot or cold. If you look closely you can see tiny sand crabs scurrying through the sand. They pop in and out of tiny holes. You can have dinners on the beach.”
How Long Does it Take to Get to Sri Lanka?
Most folks in the United States can count on a full 24 hours of transit. Flights to Sri Lanka from the United States typically connect in the Middle East. The first flight leg is around 15 hours. The second flight from the Middle East to Sri Lanka is about 4 hours. The return route actually takes longer with the second flight topping 17 hours!
Flights originating on the West Coast will sometimes connect in Japan or Singapore. From the Midwest and East Coast, we saw connections come up in Dubai and Doha.
Fifteen plus hours on a single flight sounds overwhelming, but it can be done.
Is Sri Lanka Safe?
Sri Lanka is popping onto the travel scene as an up-and-coming destination. From 1983 to 2009, Sri Lanka was locked in a bitter civil war. Since the war ended, much has changed. The government is focused on bringing visitors to this beautiful island nation. Then, terrorists bombed three churches and three luxury hotels on Easter Sunday 2019. It rocked Sir Lanka tourism. The military says it prevented several other attacks and arrested several people.
With this being said, we felt extremely safe in Sri Lanka, more so than several other countries I’ve visited. People were friendly and quick to offer help. There is a strong military and police presence all over the island, including troops with long guns stationed around cities. Hotels are usually gated and employees inspect vehicle trunks and look under vehicles with mirrored poles upon arrival.
We walked around several towns and cities and felt extremely safe. The only thing you’ll have to worry about is saying no to high pressure sales street vendors.
TravelingMom Tip: With the current coronavirus situation, Sri Lanka scans visitors at the airport. Many hotels are also taking temperatures at check in. Sri Lanka tourism is no longer granting visas on arrival for visitors from some countries. At the time of this writing, Sri Lanka only had one coronavirus case of a tourist who had entered from Wuhan, China. The virus did not spread.
Read more: Things to do in Sri Lanka
Does Sri Lanka Welcome Kids?
Yes! The Sri Lankan people LOVE kids. FYI, they call all kids, no matter what age, babies. People like to pat and touch children. It is usually a quick and respectful touch on the cheek. My daughter wasn’t startled by this. We live in Texas and she’s grown up culturally with mal de ojo (which translates to “evil eye”). Basically, if someone stares at a kiddo too intently it can give them an “evil eye” curse. The antidote is to touch the child to eliminate the curse. So she’s used to relative strangers touching her. As this is a cultural thing, it can come across as very rude if you yell at someone for touching your child. I understand that everyone’s comfort level with this practice will vary, which is why I am giving you a heads up!
While there aren’t a lot of activities in Sri Lanka directed specifically at kids, my 9-year-old daughter enjoyed many of the things to do in Sri Lanka that are recommended for adults. Bonus: With numerous UNESCO World Heritage Sites, they’re sure to learn a bunch while touring.
Check out this post for more information on fun things to do in Sri Lanka with kids including whale watching, cultural heritage sites, Sigiriya rock fortress, tea plantations, the tooth relic and more. We cover Nuwara Eliya, Colombo, Negombo, Trincomalee, Mirissa, Jaffna and more.
Is the Food in Sri Lanka Kid-Friendly?
Yes and no. Honestly, it depends on your kids and your itinerary. My daughter is an adventurous eater. We eat a variety of ethnic foods at home, and she was game to try a ton of things on our vacation. Some of the other kiddos on the trip? Not so much. They stuck to some of the Western options in the resort — lots of pasta and French fries. In most resort-type environments, Western food is available. Much of the food is served buffet style and there was always a pasta option as well as a potato offering.
Food in Sri Lanka is rice-based like many Asian countries, and includes a delicious array of curries and stews. It’s an island, so seafood is everywhere. If your kids (or you) aren’t spice fans, you’re in luck. It’s easy to assume that, due to the proximity to India, the food is similar. It’s not. Curries and stews are decidedly less spicy. In the tea highlands near Nuwara Eliya, the food had a bit more heat. Indian Tamils settled in that area years ago while working on tea plantations and have influenced cuisine in that area.
My daughter had the following to say about the food:
“The food in Sri Lanka was so much better than I thought it would be. They have rice and a bunch of different types of curry. They also have things like fruit (lots of kinds, even ones I hadn’t heard of), hoppers (a kind of bread bowl), and even different types of pasta!”
What Language is Spoken in Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka with its Dutch and British influence has three official languages — Sinhala, Tamil and English. We found many signs in English (as well as Sinhala and sometimes Tamil) and we never had a problem finding someone who spoke English. Most shop owners, retail workers and food service employees we encountered spoke enough English to piece together a conversation.
Overall, people in Sri Lanka were super friendly and eager to chat with us.
What Should I Pack for Sri Lanka?
We have you covered with a full Sri Lanka packing list that details exactly what you need and why!
Transportation in Sri Lanka
Self Drive (Don’t do it.)
Many people fly into Colombo, Sri Lanka, and start other legs of their trip from there. I am usually pretty DIY on my trips and feel comfortable renting a car and navigating new places. If you’re thinking about renting a car in Sri Lanka my best advice is: DON’T. Roadways can go from 3 lanes in each direction to 5 in one direction and 1 in the other in the blink of an eye. With a mix of tuk tuks, pedestrians, motorcycles, bicycles and large trucks vying for space on windy roads and in heavy traffic, I’ve never been so happy to have a driver.
Renting a car in Colombo will run about $300 a week plus another $100 for full coverage on the vehicle (don’t skip the coverage). In addition, you need an International Drivers License and Sri Lankan driving permit. Rental companies have a tendency to give dicey cars to tourists with little driving experience in Sri Lanka (because why give a new car to someone who will likely get in an accident). Don’t self drive.
Hire a Driver. (Yes!)
Hiring a driver is a very affordable option in Sri Lanka. Expect to pay about $50 a day. When you hire your own driver you can plan your route and stop to take pictures when you come upon great scenery.
Sites such as SriLankaCarandDriverHire.com allow you to browse through drivers and read reviews. I strongly suggest asking for a quick phone call with your selected driver via WhatsApp to make sure you can communicate easily. Ask if you can make changes to your itinerary, add stops and how flexible they are. Many hotels offer free driver accommodations; call rather than booking online to be sure. Budget around 500LR daily for a tip if the driver improves your Sri Lankan experience.
Buses and Trains (Sometimes)
Buses and trains are another way to get around in Sri Lanka. Taking a train makes it easy to cover a lot of ground. Trains have both unreserved and reserved seats. You can purchase unreserved seats the same day you travel. These areas of the train can be crowded. Reserved first class seats release 30 days prior to travel and cannot be purchased online. However, you can use a website to book your tickets 32 days in advance. Someone from the site will buy the tickets for you when they are released.
Sri Lanka has some gorgeous scenic train routes like the one weaving through the tea highlands from Ella to Kandy. It’s on my bucket list for a return trip!
Buses in Sri Lanka come in both private and government-run varieties. Many have no air conditioning and will fill to full capacity. You’ll pay the fare onboard so be sure to carry rupees with you If you have the choice between a bus and a train, choose the train.
Accommodations in Sri Lanka
Hotels in Sri Lanka are abundantly available and use a star rating system that most visitors will be familiar with. They range from budget to boutique and are great for families. Most hotels have full board and half board options that bundle meals with the hotel stay at a very affordable rate.
We stayed in a lot of Jetwing-branded hotels. I was impressed with the green initiatives that stretched across all of the company’s locations. It was refreshing. though, that each hotel was unique, reflecting the local area.
Just as an FYI, “hotel” is also used as a word for restaurants/snack shops. I spent the first half of my trip wondering what type of hotel could possibly be located over a grocery store until I realized this.
Etiquette in Sri Lanka
Overall, Sri Lankan culture is very respectful. Raising your voice, pointing, yelling and cussing are looked down upon. Clothing styles are slightly more conservative. Most residents wear clothing that covers their shoulders and legs. It’s required in temples. Speaking of temples, it is unacceptable to take photos of yourself or anyone else with your back to Buddha (no selfies!).
The left hand is considered the “dirty” hand so be sure to shake hands, eat, and gesture with your right hand.
Attention to Tourism
As a travel writer, I know that the attention a country gives to its tourism industry translates into the quality of the vacation. Sri Lanka is extremely committed to promoting tourism, listening to tourist experiences and improving them. An entire Tourism Development Authority studies tourism improvements. This commitment and attention to visitor experience shows in the numbers. In 2018, more than 2.3 million tourists visited Sri Lanka.
Our week-long trip wasn’t long enough. I can’t believe how many things remain on my Sri Lanka bucket list. There is an itinerary for every type of family vacation here, be it active, relaxed, cultural or foodie. Would you head to Sri Lanka with your family? Leave any questions below.