Despite its incredible ancient treasures, lush jungles home to elephants, leopards, sloths and monkeys, and gorgeous, long sandy beaches, Sri Lanka is still a destination-less-travelled. War and natural disasters have plagued this beautiful, green land, but now’s your chance! Before everyone’s done it! Come before the best places to stay in Sri Lanka get too well known and you can’t get a bed in one for love nor money! And like the variations in what to see and do, you’ll find similar diversity in the types of accommodation on offer. The range is wide from simple homestay style guesthouses to no-holds-barred, once-in-a-lifetime style luxury and of course everything in between, whether you’re looking for a beachfront stay or a city pad.
Sri Lanka has eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites packed into a very small space, and these temples, palaces, forts and caves represent several thousands of years of rich culture. Six of these sites are within the Cultural Triangle, a triangle in the centre of this teardrop-shapped island, which is small enough to ‘see’ in one day, though you’d only have time to clap eyes on them rather than really experience them. After the great palaces came the colonial forts of the Portuguese, then the British tea plantations, but there are still great swathes of this island that are raw jungle, national parks or forests, and Sri Lanka is an incredible place for a safari or seven.
And wherever you are on the island of Sri Lanka you’re never far from a beautiful beach. Often the sand will be totally devoid of footprints. Or, if you want you can surf or dive, pastimes the island is quickly becoming known for. The great thing about Sri Lanka is that you can really see a lot of it in a week or two, so we recommend you pick out more than one of the hotel recommendations on our list of the best places to stay in Sri Lanka, and possibly one from each of the destinations mentioned below?
Where to Stay? Which Part of Sri Lanka?
- Colombo once typified the idea of graceful colonial capital with its white pillars, grand boulevards and flourishing gardens. But in today’s Colombo commerce has well and truly taken hold and the city has burgeoned and sprawled. Most visitors will seek out a bit of both worlds, enjoying the fun of its myriad of markets, and appreciating the large scale restoration works going on around some of the most historic architecture, including the central fort complex.
- Kandy is Sri Lanka’s second largest city, so an easy hub to head for. It’s grown up around a misty hill in lush tea growing country. Busy and colourful, in Kandy you’ll be surprised by impromptu street markets, sudden tropical rain storms and the deliciousness of the food. Kandy is also one of the best places to stay in Sri Lanka if you want to get close to an elephant. There are numerous elephant spotting tours and safaris, and you can get closer still at an elephant orphanage, like the one at Pinnawala.
- Up in the cool hills, Hatton is the old tea capital. Cool and lush, Hatton is still where the majority of Sri Lanka’s higher altitude tea is grown, and it still retains a very British colonial feel, with many of our hotel recommendations within old plantations houses or converted colonial era villas. As well as these beautiful surrounds, Hatton is also close to Adam’s Peak, with its incredible collection of temples and monuments, and the Sinharajo Forest Reserve. The best way to get here is on the atmospheric railway line.
- Haputale is another British colonial tea plantation town, hugging a beautiful mountain ridge, a feat of engineering with incredible views over the Norton Plains National Park. It’s smaller, and less well known than Hatton, and where you’ll find some of our recommendations for the best hotel escapes in Sri Lanka.
- Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle has its points in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Dambulla, and within this shape you’ll find many of the country’s most incredible treasures — in fact six of its eight World Heritage sites, including Sigiriya Rock and the ancient temples, palaces and ruins around Mihintale and Ritigala.
- Just outside the Cultural Triangle is Giritale, another great place to come for a Sri Lankan escape. This region of lakes was formed in the 17th century as part of an irrigation project, and Giritale Lake in particular has stood the test of time, now a haven for local and migratory wildlife. It’s peaceful, beautiful, and close to Polonnaruwa and the Minneriya National Park.
- Then there’s the beaches: white and often sans-footprints, Sri Lanka’s beaches are lovely all the way around the island. There are also plenty of spots offering good diving, snorkelling and surfing opportunities. The Kalpitiya Peninsula, in the less touristy north, is a favourite with visitors, providing a detour from the Cultural Triangle with its empty beaches much loved by kite-surfers.
- But Galle is more famous and more popular, a cultural as well as beach-side destination. Before the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th Century, Galle was a small village, but they quickly turned it into a major spice port, building an impressive fort, now considered the best example of a fortified port built by Europeans in South-East Asia. The Dutch arrived in the 17th Century, and added to the fort, as well as building their homes and churches, so now Galle is a beautiful mix of local and colonial architecture. Today the fort is full of bijou shops and cafes and boutique hotels. It’s a hang out for writers, artists, poets etc..
- Tangalle is around the headland from Galle, on the other side of the Sinharajo Forest Reserve, on a stretch of coast that alternates between rocky promontories and long sweeps of pale yellow sand. The lush interior holds a lot of appeal too, and Tangalle is also close to an important rock temple, a bird sanctuary and a turtle conservation project.
- Trincomalee is our pick of the coastal towns on the north east of the island, almost directly opposite Galle’s position in the south west. This was a fishing town, but its long stretches of golden sand now feature a number of beachfront resorts, with the odd hostel, villa and B&B too. But this is still a charming, and very relaxed spot, with its own ruined Portuguese fort, several impressive temples, a fantastic marketplace and nature reserves nearby, where you’ll see alligators and tropical birds, and maybe even an elephant.
- If it’s local wildlife you most want to see you might also want to consider the Bundala National Park, which is ideal for a safari. This wetland is full of crocodiles, lions, a huge variety of birds and monkeys. A top spot that the whole family will love. Or the Kalamatiya Bird Sanctuary, which is home to around 150 species of bird, and on a beautiful lagoon you need to take a canoe out to.
This beautiful island is growing ever more popular as a holiday destination, so if you’re planning a trip and want to be sure of a room in one of the best places to stay in Sri Lanka, do your homework and book well ahead.
For a city break
- Paradise Road Tintagel is one of Colombo’s historic mansions, now turned into a beautifully, and classically designed ten suite hotel. The entrance is grand, as are the rooms, which all have private balconies and plunge pools, and inside there’s a well stocked library and bar, a steam room and a restaurant serving one of Colombo’s finest meals. Outside are the lovely gardens.
- Also in Colombo, the Galle Face Hotel is a landmark, colonial era hotel opened in 1864, and now one of Colombo’s “grande dames”. It’s right on the ocean, with a colonnaded front and 81 opulent rooms and suites which brim with bygone-era charm. This is the sort of hotel one takes afternoon tea on the verandah, and enjoys cocktails with well heeled, well travelled souls in the bar. There’s a spa and gym too, and an infinity pool overlooking the private beach. And at sunset a bagpiper in a kilt will lower the national flag.
- The Colombo Court Hotel & Spa is a 32 room boutique hotel in the heart of town. The decor is stylish and contemporary, with feature walls, and in some rooms four-poster beds and private courtyards. There’s also a rooftop cafe with fantastic views that hosts open air jazz and cinema nights.
For the Cultural Triangle
- The Queen stayed at the ten room Polonnaruwa Rest House in 1954, and this colonial government bungalow, built in 1870, probably hasn’t changed much since her visit. In fact you can still stay in her lake view suite, which looks out onto Sri Lanka’s largest man made lake. The decor is pure colonial, but the restaurant serves excellent Sri Lankan food, and is a wonderfully airy room jutting out over the lake.
- Vil Uyana is a collection of 30, luxury thatched cabanas, which stand on stilts over a man-made lake close to Sigiriya and the Sigiriya Fortress. The cabanas are arranged with privacy in mind, and have rooms with huge windows and private decks overlooking the wetlands, making them idea for birdwatching. There’s also a peaceful library, a huge infinity pool and a spa. This is a natural retreat, but perfectly located for the Cultural Triangle.
Some of Sri Lanka’s Best Escapes
- The Villa Rosa is one of Kandy’s hidden gems, a calm, green oasis perched in the hills, 600metres above sea level. The Colonial style decor spreads through the eight rooms, which have dark wood furniture and four-poster beds, and through the elegant restaurant which serves exemplary Sri Lankan cuisine. We love the Villa Rosa because it’s a wonderful escape, but still conveniently located for seeing the rest of Sri Lanka.
- Clingendael is another great escape outside Kandy: a five room converted plantation house hideaway with plenty of old fashioned luxury and grandeur. The few rooms give a feeling of being part of an elegant house party, and they’re all decorated with beautiful teak furniture and sumptuous fabrics. The restaurant serves traditional Sri Lankan cuisine, and cocktails with a kick. And you’re right up against the famous Victoria Golf Course.
- Buried in the Weliara Forests near the Yala National Park, the Tree Tops Jungle Lodge is an isolated eco-lodge of just three canvas tents in the middle of nowhere (guided walks are offered to take you to even remoter spots). A truly magical once-in-a-lifetime experience, owner and ‘chief’ Lars Sorensen and his eager staffers go out of their way to make it special, from the G&Ts served with salted cucumber at sunset to the delicious Sri Lankan dishes, made with local ingredients.
For a romantic stay
- If you like unique and eccentric, then Helga’s Folly might be for you. Helga’s home was built in the decadent 1930s, and she’s retained many of the original features, including the building’s particular shade of red, both inside and out. She’s also added murals and historic paintings, photographs and a collection of unusual antiques – that kind of original. Helga swans around day and night, accompanied by jazz and swing music, watching over the visitors staying in her 40 rooms. You’ll love it or loathe it, so even though it’s really close to the Golden Temple, make sure you look at the photos before you book!
- Intimate and unspoiled, Maniumpathy is an old family house tucked away in a smart, and central, neighbourhood of Colombo. There are just eight suites, all large and very elegantly decorated in a colonial fashion, with four poster beds and stand-alone baths. There are two restaurants, one casual and one fine dining, and you’re surrounded by a charming garden with a plunge pool.
- Amangalla is Galle’s top address, a wonderful Aman Group hotel in a handsome, white, colonial building close to the museum and fort. It has 30 rooms and suites, all chicly decorated and filled with wonderful period pieces, and they have beautiful bathrooms too. There’s also a sumptuous spa and an elegant dining room. This is a really romantic spot, but it’s also family friendly, with several gorgeous family suites, babysitting by arrangement and free accommodation for children under 12.
For a Beach Break
- The Dutch House is the sister hotel to The Sun House, and is blessed with similarly lovely views of Galle, from its hilltop position. This home was built for a Dutch naval officer in 1712, so the architecture is totally different. The decor inside is as well, there’s an interesting selection of antiques and contemporary art on the walls. This is a hip spot, and with just four rooms.
- For top end contemporary luxury right on the beach, one of the best places to stay in Sri Lanka is Amanwella in Tangalle. This resort is all about relaxation. The architecture is elegantly sparse and each of the thirty suites has its own plunge pool. But there’s also a beautiful infinity pool overlooking the resort’s private beach, and there’s a palm-fanned terrace with an excellent restaurant. But despite the focus on relaxation there’s plenty to do here, from birdwatching to whale watching, to snorkelling, and windsurfing, to fishing and they even run cooking classes.
- The Fortress Resort & Spa is a luxury beach resort with stunning Indian Ocean views, right on Koggala Beach. The whole resort is set inside a lush walled garden with beautiful water features, and inside its 53 rooms and suites you’ll find stylish full length windows, contemporary Sri Lankan furnishings, not forgetting the butlers on call. Its excellent facilities also include three restaurants, a infinity pool overlooking the ocean and an Ayurvedic spa.
- The Havelock Place Bungalow is a true home from home, providing an alternative to Colombo’s five star hotels, and offering just seven rooms with cosy quilted beds, striped wallpaper and carefully chosen furniture. You’re within walking distance of the Town Hall and Independence Square, and the restaurant is very popular, so book in advance.
- Palagama Beach is a collection of 14 cabanas and villas just metres from a long calm stretch of beach outside Kalpitiya, on the quieter north of the island. All of the cabanas and villas are generously sized, and some are downright luxurious. There’s a bar, restaurant and lounge area with a extensive board game collection, and plenty of other on-site activities, plus kids will love the beach shack accommodation.
For great value
- If you’re looking for somewhere reasonably priced and well located within the Cultural Triangle, one of the best places to stay in Sri Lanka is Lake Lodge, Kandalama. This is also an excellent choice for people wanting a green holiday – surprisingly no trees were cut down during the construction of these six rooms, instead the buildings were designed around them. Which means that the Grey Langur Monkeys and a rich variety of birds have stayed put.
- The Giritale Hotel is another great value hotel in the Cultural Triangle, this time on Giritale Lake, near the sights of Polonnaruwa, set amongst lush gardens with views over a vast reservoir. Its decor is simple, with great views, the pool is good, and the ayurvedic centre is excellent.
Prefer an Apartment or Private Villa?
- If you’d prefer to stay in an apartment or private villa we recommend you visit our online partner, booking.com.
- At the moment the only international entrance to Sri Lanka is Bandaranaike Airport, which is in Negombo, a suburb of Colombo, about 30kms north of the centre of town. From the airport you need to catch a bus, a taxi or hire a car. If you’re travelling into Colombo it will take between 30 and 45minutes, depending on traffic. If you’re going on to Galle it’s about two and a half hours, Kandy is three hours, Sigiriya is four hours and Polonnaruwa is five hours. Domestic flights are fairly limited, but Sri Lanka is fairly small, and the distances between towns and sights aren’t too bad. Your choices are between a slow, irregular train or bus service, or hiring a car, a car and driver, or taking a taxi.
- If you want to hire a car we recommend you visit our online partner, Rentalcars.
- Sri Lanka isn’t big, but it does have very varied weather conditions because of its misty mountain regions, and long stretches of sandy beach. In some areas the temperatures remain fairly static throughout the year, most coastal regions are like this, with fluctuations of only a few degrees, but in some of the higher regions there’s a much larger difference between the warmest day and the coolest. But travellers to Sri Lanka should be more concerned about rainfall and monsoons than warmth. Monsoon season sweeps across Sri Lanka in both directions, hitting Colombo twice between May and November, Kandy and the hill country between October and February, and Galle between May and August. It’s quite complicated, and you do need to check your itinerary against the rain patterns, but, broadly speaking, between December and April is fairly monsoon-free.
Still not sure which is the best place to stay in Sri Lanka?
- Refine your search to the best places to stay in Colombo? or the best places to stay in Kandy? or the best places to stay in Hatton?
- Or you could hit the beaches of Galle? Or the Kalpitiya Peninsula?
- Or you might want to contact one of our friendly Gurus for personalised advice.