Sri Lanka is an island southeast of India with a population of over 22 million. Most of the population lives on the west coast of the island, but the north and east coasts are also relatively densely populated. Sri Lanka has beautiful nature and interesting history, and is known for its vast cultural diversity.

The largest ethnic group on the island is the Sinhalese, followed by the Tamils and numerous other minorities. Sri Lanka still retains many remnants of the colonial domination of the Portuguese, Dutch and English. The name Sri Lanka is derived from Sanskrit and means ‘holy island’. This name has only been in official use since 1972. Before that, the island was called Ceylon.

Tourists visit this island mainly for its natural beauty. The country has numerous national parks and is home to a wide range of wildlife. The white beaches are also a major tourist attraction.

Keep reading to learn more about Sri Lanka’s history, culture and major tourist attractions.


Facts and figures

Capital Official: Sri Jayewardenapura Kotte
De facto: Colombo
Population 22 million (2021)
Official languages Sinhala, Tamil and English
Currency Sri Lankan rupee (LKR)
Time difference 4.5 hours (summer) of 5.5 hours (winter)
Travel time 11 hours
Electricity 230 volts, 50 Hz
Power outlet and plugs Type D, M and G (adapter required)
Tap water Not safe to drink
Visa Sri Lanka visa required
Safety Check the travel advice for Sri Lanka

Map

Sri Lanka is an island in the Indian Ocean with a surface area of 25.332 mi² (65,610 km²). The island is just 34 miles (50 kilometres) off the Indian subcontinent. Not surprisingly, there are many cultural similarities between India and Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka consists of a main island and 30 smaller islands, the largest being the islands of Mannar and Delft. To the southwest of Sri Lanka, separated by the ocean, are also the Maldives.


History

Prehistory and the great migration waves
For millions of years, Sri Lanka was connected to the Indian subcontinent. This changed between 25 and 5 million years ago, when Sri Lanka drifted away from India as a result of shifting tectonic plates and became an island. The first humans settled in Sri Lanka around 125,000 years BCE. They were hunters and gatherers, who mainly used stone tools and lived in caves. The first urban societies emerged around 1000 BCE in the north and centre of the island. Over the following centuries, different ethnic groups migrated to Sri Lanka.

From around 500 BCE, Indo-Europeans migrated to Sri Lanka from northern India. These people, the ancestors of the Sinhalese, founded the kingdom of Anuradhapura, which ruled Sri Lanka for more than a thousand years. From the 3rd century BCE until 1200, Sri Lanka experienced a migration of Tamils, who came from the south and west of India and settled in the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka. The arrival of these new populations increasingly marginalised Sri Lanka’s original inhabitants, the Vedda, over the centuries.
AnuradhapuraAnuradhapura, in northern Sri Lanka, is home to many ancient ruins

Buddhism found its way to Sri Lanka in the third century BCE and became the island’s main religion in a matter of just a few centuries. Hundreds of Buddhist temples were built, many of which can still be visited. In Sri Lanka, a caste system similar to that of India emerged. On the island, however, this system was observed a lot less rigorously than in India.

Invasions from India and the development of international trade
In the 11th century, large parts of Sri Lanka fell under the Chola Empire. The Cholas, a Tamil dynasty, had slowly extended their rule over southern India over a period of several centuries. Their influence eventually stretched all the way to Thailand and the Indonesian archipelago. Although the Sinhalese people continued to constantly resist this outside influence, Tamil rulers dominated Sri Lanka for a long time. After the departure of the Cholas, Sri Lanka faced invasions by other dynasties from southern India, such as the Pandyas and the Pallavas.

The Pandya dynasty reigned over a significant part of Sri Lanka for several centuries. At that time, the island was divided into several kingdoms that were often at war with each other. From the 14th century, a thriving trade in cinnamon (the cinnamon tree is a native Sri Lankan plant) and other spices developed. These products were initially purchased mainly by Arab traders, who then sold the spices elsewhere in Asia, East Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. Kotte and Galle, two towns on Sri Lanka’s west coast, grew into important trading hubs during this period.

The Portuguese and Dutch in Sri Lanka
The first Europeans to come into contact with Sri Lanka were Portuguese sailors in the early 16th century who, in 1518, were granted limited trading rights and permission to build a fort at Colombo. Over the course of the century, the Portuguese began to interfere more and more in Sri Lanka's domestic politics, slowly gaining more control over the island. After several conflicts with Sri Lankan rulers, the Portuguese, who had more modern weapons than their opponents, managed to gain direct control over large parts of the island. The Europeans also brought Catholicism with them to Sri Lanka. Roman Catholic missionaries travelled alongside the Portuguese expeditions to convert as many inhabitants of Sri Lanka to Christianity as possible. The Portuguese language also spread rapidly across the island, especially among upper classes of society.

Resistance to Portuguese domination began in the late 16th century. Sri Lankan princes tried to get help from other European powers. The Dutch were eager to drive the Portuguese out of Sri Lanka to increase the Dutch trade empire. Several conflicts between the Dutch, Portuguese and Sri Lankan kingdoms took place throughout Sri Lanka in the 17th century. In 1658, the Portuguese were finally defeated and the Dutch gained control of the Sri Lankan coastline. In the following years, the Dutch penetrated deeper inland until they took control of the main areas of Sri Lanka. However, the Sri Lankan kingdom of Kandy, which ruled much of the inner country, remained independent. Under the dominion of the Dutch, Sri Lanka developed into a major trading hub. Cinnamon, tea and coffee found their way to European markets, while in eastern India and the Bengal region, Sri Lankan elephants, other important trading goods, were sold. Galle FortThe Galle Fort is a relic of the Dutch dominion

British control of Sri Lanka: the crown colony of Ceylon
At the time of the Napoleonic Wars, the Sri Lankan coastal regions fell into the hands of the British. In 1815, the sovereignty of the British over the island was recognized by the other European powers. However, this did not mean that the British had complete control over the entire island. The kingdom of Kandy still ruled the interior of the country. After a number of conflicts with the English, however, the Sri Lankans succumbed and the kingdom of Kandy too was incorporated into the British Empire.

Under English rule, the government of the island changed dramatically. English was introduced as a compulsory language and Christian missionaries converted the local population. However, Sri Lankans continued to resist the European interference. By the end of the 19th century, a nationalist self-awareness emerged among the local population. However, it was not until World War I that Sri Lankan nationalist movements gained traction.

Independence and civil war
In the years following World War I, the people of Sri Lanka slowly gained more control over their own future. Universal suffrage was introduced in 1931, allowing Sri Lankans to gain more power. When Sri Lanka got a new constitution in 1948 and became an independent country within the British Commonwealth, the Sinhalese were the most influential. This led to the Tamils being disadvantaged, increasing ethnic tensions on the island.

In 1972, Sri Lanka became a socialist republic, completely independent of the English. The Sri Lankan president Jayewardene did everything in his power to dismantle the government system based on the English. The ethnic tensions continued even after 1972. The Tamils had been fighting for more rights since the 1970s. The Tamil Tigers, a militant organization, did this in part through terrorist attacks against the government. This eventually led to a civil war that lasted from 1983 to 2009. The Sri Lankan government eventually managed to subdue the Tamil Tigers.


Culture of Sri Lanka

The culture of Sri Lanka is extremely diverse. Throughout history, many different ethnic groups have lived there, each leaving their own mark on the island. This also explains the great religious diversity on the island. Not only are there many Buddhist and Hindu temples on the island, but also numerous churches and mosques. Most Sri Lankans, however, adhere to a variant of Buddhism.

The Sinhalese constitute Sri Lanka’s largest ethnic group, accounting for 75% of the total population. Most Sinhalese are Buddhists. Sri Lanka’s official languages are Sinhalese, Tamil and English. The Sinhalese language is known locally as Sinhala, a name derived from the Sanskrit word for ‘lion’. The lion on the flag of Sri Lanka represents the Sinhalese. The other parts of the Sri Lankan flag also have symbolic meaning. For example, the sword held by the lion symbolizes independence.

Sri Lanka’s largest minority is represented by the Tamils. On Sri Lanka’s flag, this minority group is symbolized by the vertical orange stripe. The Tamils live mainly in the north of the country and on the coastal areas in the east. Most of them follow Hinduism. Sri Lanka has another significant minority group that makes up about 10% of the population: the Sri Lankan Moors. This population group is Muslim and is represented on the flag by the vertical green stripe.

Flag of Sri LankaThe flag of Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan food culture is mainly influenced by Indian, Indonesian and Dutch cuisine. Rice is the main ingredient in many dishes. Coconut is also a very common ingredient in Sri Lankan meals, which is not surprising considering that coconut trees are widely distributed across the island. Cinnamon, a traditional Sri Lankan spice, is also widely used.


Climate and best time to travel

Sri Lanka is located about 400 miles (700 kilometres) from the equator. Therefore, the island has a tropical climate with year-round temperatures of around 30 degrees. In the winter, the average temperature lies just below 26 degrees. An exception is found in the mountainous inland areas, where the temperature can drop to 10 degrees in winter.

Sri Lanka has two seasons determined by the monsoons. During the Yala season from May to August, the southwest monsoon (or ‘yala’) blows. During this period, rainfall is especially high on the west coast of the island, while the south and northwest have less precipitation. The Maha season goes from September to March, when the northeast monsoon (or ‘maha’) blows and the weather is therefore relatively drier. The driest months of the year, which are also the best months to travel to Sri Lanka, are mainly January and February.

Palms in Sri LankaThe island country of Sri Lanka is home to many beautiful beaches and palm trees


Tourist highlights of Sri Lanka

Despite being a relatively small island, Sri Lanka has a lot to offer to its visitors. The country boasts beautiful natural landscapes with great diversity. An example is the contrast between the landscape of the inland high plains and that of the coastal regions. Sri Lanka also has several interesting cities, each offering its own unique experience. Here are some of the tourist highlights of Sri Lanka.

Sigiriya
Sigiriya, an ancient palace located on a rock in the middle of the island, is perhaps Sri Lanka’s most famous attraction. This palace was built in the 5th century BCE by the then king of Sri Lanka. Only some ruins of it remain today, but a visit to this palace is still absolutely worthwhile. Visitors can climb the thousands of steps to admire the ancient frescoes painted on the rock. The top of the rock also offers a magnificent view over the natural beauty of Sri Lanka. SigiriyaSigiriya is one of the most spectacular attractions in Sri Lanka

Kandy
The city of Kandy is located in the centre of the island and is especially recommended for its ancient buildings. Many of these date back to the period of the kingdom of Kandy, which long managed to hold its ground against the Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial rulers. When visiting this city, don’t forget to visit the Dalada Maligawa, or Temple of the Tooth. A tooth of Buddha is said to have been kept in this temple since ancient times. Today, this temple is one of the most sacred places in the world for Buddhists.

Minneriya national park
This national park is best known for the annual migration of elephants. During the dry season, hundreds of elephants come together on the grassy plains of this national park. This is where some of the largest herds of Asian elephants in the world can be found.

Galle
Galle is a coastal city in southwestern Sri Lanka. Many buildings from the time of Dutch rule can still be seen in the city. Fort Galle, in particular, is an important tourist attraction. The 17th-century walls of this fort are still almost completely intact. The buildings within the fort’s walls are a special mix of European colonial architecture and indigenous architectural styles.

Anuradhapura
Anuradhapura, located in the northern part of Sri Lanka, is among the oldest cities on the island. The city was founded in the 4th century BCE and was the island’s most important city for a long time. Anuradhapura is home to many ancient temples and statues. One of the most popular attractions is Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, a tree sacred to Buddhists. The tree is said to have sprung from a side branch of the tree under which Buddha reached enlightenment.

Elephants in Sri LankaThe number of elephants in Sri Lanka is increasing and currently exceeds 6,000


Economy and currency

The economy of Sri Lanka is largely based on services. Many people today work in the tourism sector, which has grown rapidly in the years following the civil war. In addition, the role of Sri Lanka as a trade hub and hence that of the island’s air and sea ports has become more important for the economy. Sri Lanka is also among the most important exporters of tea. At least 23% of all tea in the world comes from Sri Lanka.

Currency
In Sri Lanka, people pay with the Sri Lankan rupee (LKR). One rupee is made up of 100 cents. Coins are available in denominations of 10, 25 and 50 cents and 1, 2, 5 and 10 rupees. Notes are available in denominations of 20, 50, 100, 500, 1000, 2000 and 5000 rupee. Although it is possible to pay by credit card in hotels, restaurants and large retail chains, most people use cash. It is therefore highly recommended to carry enough cash in your pocket. You can withdraw cash easily at any ATM, but you will have to pay a small commission fee.

Tipping is common in Sri Lankan culture. The same goes for bargaining. If you do not bargain, you will lose a lot more money in most cases. In larger shops and hotels, however, it is not customary to negotiate.


Health and safety in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a fairly safe destination, but not entirely free of security risks. Especially in the north of the country, there are still many unexploded mines dating back to the civil war. Therefore, always stay on marked paths and roads here. In addition, political protests take place regularly in Sri Lanka and can get out of hand, so avoid demonstrations and large crowds. Tourists are also advised to always keep an eye on their personal belongings to avoid the risk of theft. Stay away from secluded alleys and, preferably, do not go out after sunset. For more information on safety in the country, consult our travel advice for Sri Lanka or the Foreign Ministry website.

Health
Before travelling to Sri Lanka, a number of vaccinations are recommended. These include vaccinations against hepatitis A, hepatitis B, DTP, yellow fever, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, rabies, Japanese encephalitis and measles. Furthermore, mosquitoes that carry diseases are common in Sri Lanka. Make sure that you have adequate protection against mosquito bites. The text on this website is not written by a doctor. It is recommended to contact your doctor before your departure to Sri Lanka for any other medical preparations for your trip.


Sri Lanka visa application

It is necessary to apply for a Sri Lanka visa. Travellers who are staying in Sri Lanka for less than 30 days and meet all other requirements can apply for an e-visa. This e-visa is also known as the ETA Sri Lanka and can be easily applied for through this website. The application process of the ETA generally takes no longer than 20 minutes and the average delivery time of the ETA is 4 days.
Submit your Sri Lanka visa application

e-Visa.ie is a commercial and professional visa agency, and supports travellers in obtaining, among others, the Sri Lanka visa. e-Visa.ie acts as an intermediary and is in no way part of any government. You can also apply for a visa directly with the immigration service (52,08 USD per visa, via eta.gov.lk). However, not with our level of support. If you submit your application via e-Visa.ie, our support centre is available to you 24/7. We also check your application before submitting it to the immigration authorities on your behalf. If we suspect any errors or omissions while doing so, we will personally contact you to ensure that your application can still be processed quickly and correctly. To use our services, you pay us 52,08 USD in consular fees, which we pay to the immigration service on your behalf, as well as € 31,14 in service fees as compensation for our services, including VAT. Our services have saved many travellers from major problems during their trip. Should an application be rejected despite our support and verification, we will refund the full purchase price (unless an application for a previous Sri Lanka visa was rejected for the same traveller). Read more about our services here.