At the start of this year, Sri Lanka was experiencing a tourism boom and with visitor arrivals up 12 per cent from 2018. Following April’s terrorist attacks , Sri Lanka’s international arrivals fell by 71 per cent, the lowest since Sri Lanka’s civil war ended a decade ago, according to the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority.
To combat this drastic drop, the Sri Lankan government is now waiving the visa fee for tourists from 48 countries (the UK included) saving Brits £30. The new initiative came into place on August 1 and will be available for one-month visas. The British Foreign Office downgraded its travel warnings on June 6 and Sri Lanka has seen a slow uptick in visitor arrivals ever since.
A tranquil place, Sri Lanka is full of happy people, misty mountaintops, lush waterfalls, great waves, seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Geoffrey Bawa architecture and chilled vibes. Not only that, it is also home to the oldest and most holistic medical system in the world – Ayurveda.
Excellent street food is also a highlight of time spent on the island. Expect to fall in love with some of the classic dishes like Kottu Roti, a dish made of chopped up roti bread, fresh veggies and meat, served with a spicy curried gravy; and string hoppers (for breakfast) as well. It’ll be the happy greetings of ‘Ayubowan’ (good wishes for a healthy and long life) from the local people though that will be your favourite thing.
Be sure to catch the train from Ella to Kandy – a stunning 6.5 hour journey winding through lush green hills and tea plantations, past colourful houses and cute little villages – the perfect glimpse into life in the hills. Local street vendors jump on the train at different stops to sell local food – deep fried prawns and vegetables from one vendor, mandarins from another, hot roasted peanuts with chilli salt from another. The lush mountainscape, narrow bridges, and village life is extraordinary and beautiful.
Colombo is a big and dusty city, so we recommend staying only for a night and then heading south for the beaches and then up to the mountains. Here is a list of some of our favourite hotels in Sri Lanka.
Best hotel in Colombo: The Wallawwa
The Wallawwa is an incredibly calm oasis, not far from Colombo’s airport in the nearby neighbourhood of Negombo. A lush, green sanctuary on a huge acreage with a beautiful pool, this is a lovely place to stop for a night or two on either arrival into, or on your way out of, Sri Lanka.
The service is exceptional, as is the complimentary high tea served each afternoon. The 200-year old colonial-style house was converted into a hotel back in 2008, and is now home to 18 suites and a lovely day spa (request a massage with Supun).
Surrounded by native trees – the Nah tree, the Sal tree, and the Arecanut tree, to name just a few – the property is a gardener’s paradise, with an impressive fruit orchard and abundant vegetable garden (from which the kitchen prepares your meals) as well. This eight acre property is incredibly inviting and makes for the perfect place to stay on any stopover.
Rooms from £203 per night, teardrop-hotels.com/wallawwa
Best hotel in Galle: Amangalla
Located in the middle of the old town of Galle, within the Fort walls, Amangalla’s is a truly luxurious retreat. Its serene setting has been welcoming guests for more than 150 years and is the oldest operating hotel in South Asia (with Raffles in Singapore being a close second).
With 60 per cent of the furniture being original antiques, there is a definite sense of nostalgia and old-school charm. Amangalla also houses the only swimming pool within the Fort and a beautiful, enchanted garden spread out over 9,000sqm, providing a lush oasis for relaxation.
Amangalla’s spa, The Baths, offers Ayurvedic treatments and massages, as well as complimentary hatha yoga in its yoga pavilion each morning (Deshare was an incredible teacher). We recommend booking Suite 8 or 14, for their spectacular views over the Fort, and beautiful arched windows.
Your very own butler will ensure you have everything you could possibly need for your stay. The Great Hall provides the perfect setting for an afternoon G&T, while jazz plays in the background, and the balcony restaurant is an intimate setting for dinner, with its crisp white linen and antique silverware, and a daily-changing menu which showcases both Sri Lankan and International cuisine.
Rooms from £396 per night, aman.com/amangalla
Best hotel in Ahangama: The Kip
Ran by the most gorgeous Australian/Italian couple (who were previously based in Melbourne for 12 years), The Kip is a slow and simple retreat in Ahangama.
Phoebe and her husband Seddy were wanting a change, and came to Sri Lanka looking for a slower pace. It was here that they started The Kip. With a beautiful design style and aesthetic – think lots of pink and white interiors, lots of plants, swinging chairs and indoor daybeds – and just four gorgeous rooms, this is an intimate and bespoke place to stay.
The Kip has a cafe that serves up the most extraordinary vegan and vegetarian menu – raw cakes, smoothies and delicious vegetarian tapas – as well as a very cute and well-curated little boutique. We highly recommend a visit here.
Rooms from £57 per night, thekipsrilanka.com
Best hotels in Weligama: Ceylon Sliders and Sunshine Stories
Weligama is the perfect place to base yourself if you are on the lookout for views, discovering hidden breaks and incredible sunsets. And Ceylon Sliders is the best place to stay.
Celebrating Sri Lanka’s surf culture, Ceylon Sliders is a concept hotel (by the founders of Sunshinestories) – a modern concrete building right opposite the beach, with two suites and one bedroom, and an incredible cafe (the best we found on the island) with excellent coffee and healthy food, a rooftop bar, and a cute shop stocking products designed and made in-house and from like-minded brands around the world. We recommend booking the suite on the top floor for the best views.
Rooms from £100 per night, ceylonsliders.com
Sunshinestories is a lifestyle retreat tucked away under the palm trees of the Sri Lankan jungle (closer to Ahangama), that offers a one-week all-inclusive surf and yoga experience. A real life concept developed and started five years ago by a passionate Swedish couple – Petter and Linn – and a great way to connect not only with the ocean, but also with yourself and like-minded others as well.
The days start with an early morning yoga session with Australian Michelle, followed by a hearty and healthy breakfast, and then a morning surf lesson (with another Australian legend, Steve), a big lunch, and then some surf theory, before a relaxing afternoon and dinner.
Sunshinestories finds the best surf coaches – a mix of local guys and those from abroad – and provides a perfect week-long adventure in the Sri Lankan sun and surf. Ceylon Sliders was born to provide those who might not have a week with a place to be able to drop into for shorter stays, and to become a communal meeting place as well.
All-inclusive surf and yoga retreat from £1,076 for seven days, sunshinestories.com
Best hotel in Dickwella/Hiriketiya: Verse Collective
Part coffee shop, part hostel, hotel and co-working space (one of the first co-working spaces in Sri Lanka), Verse Collective opened up in November 2017.
As Hiriketiya Beach (“Hiri”) becomes more popular, Verse Collective in nearby Dickwella, makes for a slightly quieter and calmer place to stay. Serving great food, good coffee, and with awesome music, the vibes here are chilled and friendly.
The rooms are simple, but with a rotating art exhibition space, a skate ramp out the front, and a perfect location right opposite the beach, this is a great place to stay. One of the go-to places for every digital nomad.
Close to the Hiriketiya point break. The water is beautifully clear and there are a few good bars located near the beach. Waves at Hiriketiya Beach are getting famous with more and more surfers finding Hiri as a place to hang out for a while.
Rooms from £66 per night, versecollective.com
Best hotel in Tangalle: Amanwella
Amanwella’s setting right on the edge of the beach in Tangalle is wild, remote and rugged. Designed by famed Australian architect Kerry Hill, inspired by Sri Lankan Geoffrey Bawa, space and comfort are available in lavish abundance here.
With a dramatic 47-metre infinity pool that hangs over the ocean, this is an incredible place to unwind. The service is excellent, and we especially like its sympathetic nod to the environment – with glass water bottles in the rooms, shower gels in reusable bottles and so on. Amanwella’s suites are super spacious and full of natural light, offering stunning views over the ocean. We recommend one of the Ocean Suites for the most supreme and lush views of all.
Rooms from £572 per night, aman.com/amanwella
Best hotel in Ella: Nine Skies
With spectacular hill country views, this historic tea bungalow villa in Demodera (a small village only 10 minutes from Ella), dates back to the colonial era. With just five bedrooms, this is an intimate and quiet lodging experience.
Enjoy gin and tonics on the manicured lawns, or by the pool, from the exceptionally friendly and professional staff. The service here is warm and personalised. This is the perfect place to stay for enjoying the nearby attractions of Ella – the Nine Arch Railway Bridge (of which you can walk along the rails), or various hikes (Ella Rock, or Little Adam’s Peak), and waterfalls.
Rooms from £412 per night, teardrop-hotels.com/nine-skies
Best hotel in Kandy: Santani Wellness Resort & Spa
Santani, meaning harmony in Sanskrit, is an incredible wellness retreat hidden away in the hills of Kandy, one of the world’s most lush natural environments. Surrounded by the UNESCO Heritage Knuckles Ranges, listed thanks to the richness of biodiversity to be found, it is a sense of harmony that drives everything that is done at Santani.
At 900 metres above sea level, the drive into the mountains is not for the faint-hearted, with many hair-pin bends and narrow roads to navigate on the way, but the reward is huge. The incredible views over the mountains that can be found from this once-abandoned 120 acre tea estate are extraordinary. The holistic architecture (described as an ‘architecture of silence’) has been thoughtfully designed with a minimal footprint – unobtrusive and made primarily of glass and wood, with a natural and gentle colour palette that blends in perfectly with the surrounds, bringing you back to your natural peace.
The main pavilion is a calming and elegant structure where all dining takes place. Wifi cannot be found in this space (only in the suites), meaning it is the perfect space in which to stay disconnected. The food here is exceptional, thanks to Executive Chef Wajira Gamage and his background in healthy fine dining where he applies Ayurvedic principles throughout his cooking. Each of his nourishing dishes contain the six Ayurvedic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, astringent and pungent.
Twice daily hatha yoga classes in an open-air yoga shala are on offer, as are spa treatments from Santani’s award-winning spa, and personalised wellness programs in Ayurveda and detox devised by Santani’s Ayurvedic doctor. This is the perfect place to slow down and reconnect with yourself, nature and healthy living.
Rooms are simple and minimalist, offering spectacular views over the hills, and there are 22 villas available. Staff are friendly and kind and no request is too much trouble. We highly recommend their guided walks through the surrounding mountains, a swim in the nearby river, and some lazy afternoons by the pool. This is serenity at its finest.
Rooms from £589 per night, santani.lk
Best hotel in Sigiriya: Jetwing Vil Uyana
It would be a shame to visit Sri Lanka without experiencing the country’s most popular World Heritage Site and ‘the eighth wonder of the world’, Sigiriya. A remarkable archaeological site, this incredible rock fortress is covered in frescoes of celestial maidens, and is oftentimes thought of as the world’s largest picture gallery. A series of ponds, channels, and fountains make up Sigiriya’s beautiful gardens.
Jetwing Vil Uyana is a short 10 minute drive from Sigiriya and offers a peaceful sanctuary in the shadow of this ancient fortress. Surrounded by paddy fields and reed beds, this charming traditional-style hotel is the perfect place to rest for a night while exploring Sigiriya by day.
Rooms from £333 per night, jetwinghotels.com/jetwingviluyana