Little Sri Lanka is like entry-level Asia for family holidays: a gentle introduction to the continent without the absolute culture shock.
That’s not to suggest it’s any less wonderful than the neighbours, just a bit easier on the senses, in a good way. Younger kids love Sri Lanka for the friendly Sri Lankans, beaches, elephants and endless sunshine.
All of which appeals just as much to teenagers, only with the added bonus of awe-inspiring temples and monuments, brilliantly lively cities, great street food, water sports and rugged outdoor activities.
Direct flights from London to the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, take just over 10 hours
Short rainy season
Southern Sri Lanka has average temperatures of 27˚C all year round, 8 hours of sunshine a day for 365 days and a short rainy season between October and November.
A growing number of eco-resorts and heritage hotels on the south east coast balance more commercialised development in the busier south west.
Family friendly elephant and leopard safaris in southern and central national parks.
Between 3000 and 4000 elephants roam wild in Sri Lanka.
The drive from Colombo Airport to Galle now takes less than two hours on the Southern Expressway.
Sri Lanka has 15 National Parks and eight World Heritage sites including the entire Central Highlands and the sacred cities of Kandy and Anuradhapura.
Educational value for kids
Introduce kids to Sri Lankan folklore with a visit to the traditional mask and puppet makers of Ambalangoda.
Visit the sacred city of Kandy. It’s the ancient capital, one of the most sacred places of worship in the Buddhist world and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Just over two hours’ drive from Colombo.
Tea might not interest children as a drink but Sri Lanka’s south west tea plantations are magnificent.
Festivals all year round all over the country are captivating: look out for summer’s Galle Face Kite Festival and the Poson Poya full moon festival.
Sri Lanka has quite a few large museums, but smaller local collections are often a lot more engaging and intriguing.
Slowly but surely, trains are being reintroduced across Sri Lanka, even a short journey with older kids is fun.
In Sri Lankan culture, dance is one of the most expressive arts. Try to catch a performance with kids, the stories and costumes are mesmerising.
Where to go and stay in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka’s roughly half the size of Cuba and easier to visit now than ever. Roads are improving all the time and the railway line between Colombo in the south and Jaffna in the far north has recently been re-opened. But the south coast’s a good choice for family holidays: the loveliest beaches are here along with several interesting towns and central Sri Lanka’s interior is still very accessible for a day (or more) exploring.
Pasikud and Kalkuda
Galle was built by the Portuguese in the 17th century and it’s their ingenuity you see in the World Heritage Old City walls and fort. The Dutch arrived later and bequeathed an impressively large hospital – the tropical climate didn’t agree with their northern constitutions. Now this historic town is one of the south coast’s most popular for pretty beaches, authentic atmosphere and family-friendly resorts and hotels.
Good choice of four and five star family accommodation.
Just over an hour’s drive from Colombo Airport.
Close to the gorgeous, unspoiled south coast beaches at Thalpe and Dalawela where kids can see Sri Lanka’s ritipanna fishermen.
Renowned for outstanding whale spotting in winter and dolphin watching cruises all year round, Mirissa is also where you’ll find palm tree lined white sands, sweet local restaurants and a laid back beachy vibe. Good for water sports and one of the top spots for sea kayaking and rewarding Snorkel Safaris.
Part of Mirissa’s appeal is a lack of commercialism so there aren’t too many places to stay, but Galle is less than an hour’s drive west.
South Sri Lanka’s most gorgeous stretch of coast, Tangalla is relaxed, with just enough development to add a few exclusive, paradise-style family resorts into the equation. The area also wins with kids because it has Rekawa Beach and Lagoon, a top spot in the country for turtle watching.
Good base for Kalametiua Bird Sanctuary, the giant Wewurukannala Buddha and the captivating rock temples at Mulkirigala.
The village of Goyambokka is on the Tangalla coast and where to find iconic Godawella Beach.
Sitting between Colombo and Galle, this sleepy little town is worth a visit for the turtle beach where conservationists set up temporary hatcheries between October and April. Not too far from the main tourist resorts round Hikkaduwa.
Pasikud and Kalkuda
Some claim these beaches are the best in southern Sri Lanka. They’re certainly pristine. Not least of all because they were off limits for decades during the civil war. Now that peace is less tentative, pioneering eco-entrepreneurs have created just enough gorgeous, authentic hotels here to give families complete escapism.
What to do and see with kids in Sri Lanka
Whale watching, Mirissa Harbour From November to March every year hundreds of whales journey along the Sri Lankan coast. Mirissa Harbour is the best location to see Blue Whales, Sperm Whales and, occasionally, Killer Whales. Good for dolphin spotting all year round.
Colombo City Tour Sri Lanka’s capital isn’t all-round pretty but it’s full of interesting pockets. See the good bits on an open-top double decker London bus tour – the first of its kind in the country.
Yala National Park Sri Lanka’s favourite national park is one of the finest places to see great herds of the country’s legendary elephant population roaming free.
Golden Temple of Gambulla This first century BC temple is a World Heritage site and Sri Lanka’s most important pilgrimage for both Hindus and Buddhists. To see the collection of treasures and marvellous frescoes even non-pilgrims have to climb barefoot to the top.
Sigiriya Rock 200m high Sigiriya Rock is one of Sri Lanka’s most famous landmarks. Known as the Lion Rock it was originally the site of a 5th century fortress. Little remains of the original buildings except two enormous lion paws. There’s a steep staircase but bold kids will love the climb and views are astonishing. Sigiriya Rock
Colombo National Museum Tour Take a guided tour of Colombo National Museum to give kids a hint of the Sri Lankan splendour they can expect in the country’s exotic temples and monuments.
Old Town Galle Galle’s at the heart of Sri Lanka’s beautiful, beachy southwest coast and home to World Heritage Old Town Galle and Galle Fort. Both were built by the Portuguese in the 17th century and later added to by the Dutch during the 1800s.
Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage A must-do visit with kids in Sri Lanka, this orphanage gives a close-up view of the country’s important conservation work – seeing babies being giant-bottle fed is unforgettable.
Leopard Safaris, Yala National Park Balance the beach with an inland leopard safari. Several packages are designed for families and incorporate fun kids activities as well as wildlife.
Minneriya Elephant Gathering The largest gathering of elephants on earth happens in Sri Lanka’s Minneriya National Park between August and September every year.
Getting about with kids in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is a stunning country to drive around. Avoid using a car in any of the cities: taxis and trishaws are better options. The country’s public transport network is quite extensive, but first-class and air con are only available on some routes, so buses and trains can be uncomfortable for younger children and some journeys can take much longer than anticipated.