Sri Lanka's Beaches: Where and When to Go
Sri Lanka 05.03.2018 David Abram
The Tear Drop Isle of Sri Lanka boasts 1,340 km of gorgeous coastline and an enviable choice of palm-fringed golden beaches. And these beaches come in all styles and suit all manner of taste, from the popular surfer spots of Weligama to the marine-rich coastal spot of Mirissa.
Where you choose to spend your beach break can be heavily influenced by the monsoon rains, which vary across the island according to the season. It might be raining buckets on the east coast while beautiful and dry on the west side of the island.
To help you plan your dream beach holiday to Sri Lanka, we've taken the guess work out of the process and put together our guide on where and when to go.
When to plan your Sri Lanka beach holiday
The first thing you need to bear in mind when planning a beach holiday in Sri Lanka is the time of year you’re intending to travel. The monsoon affects different parts of the island at different times. In the south and west, the rainy season peaks in May and October, whereas on the East coast, November and December is the wettest time.
The upside is that at any given month there will be one corner where the weather is good for the beach. In the south and west, December–April is the optimal time. On the east coast, it’s our summer – July through September, which makes it perfect for the school holidays.
Where to go on a Sri Lanka beach holiday
Whether ‘barefoot’ or ‘bright lights’ is your thing, rest assured our team will have dozens of suggestions. To get the ball rolling, we’ve picked up some of our favourite spots on the Sri Lankan coast, with tips for where to stay to best enjoy the idyllic views and local sights.
Where: East coast
Best for: families; snorkelling; diving; nature.
Passikudah, on the east coast of the island, forms a breathtaking arc of pristine golden sand and warm, turquoise water. It’s a half day’s drive from Colombo airport, but the transfer is well worth the effort – especially if you’re travelling with children as, unlike the south and west coast beaches, the bay is shallow and gently shelving (perfect for little ones).
The choice of hotels nestled in the palm groves behind is extensive (the properties are all brand new) and you can escape the holiday scene altogether at neighbouring Kalkudah, a short stroll around the headland. The local reefs are great for snorkelling and there are quality kayaks and sailboards for hire. Sunset cruises by catamaran are an added attraction.
Top hotel pick in Passikudah: Uga Bay
Occupying a plum spot at the centre of Passikudah beach, Uga Bay is a stylish five-star with an intimate feel and fabulous Indian Ocean views from all of its rooms and villas. You’re a short stroll from the sea, but there’s also an infinity pool with shaded loungers should you prefer. Fresh, local seafood and mellow Sri Lankan curries are served in the restaurant. We also love the terrace facing the bay – the perfect spot for a leisurely sundowner.
Kuchaveli and Trincomalee
Where: East coast
Best for: barefoot luxury
The town of Trincomalee, or ‘Trinco’ as it’s known locally, straddles a peninsula on the East coast, overlooking one of the finest and oldest harbours in Asia. To the north stretches a largely deserted coastline of white-sand beaches, and the fishing village of Kuchaveli is scattered behind a particularly beautiful section, backed by lush tropical scrub.
The sea here is calm and ideal for bathing outside the monsoon period, and the nearby Pigeon Island Marine Reserve offers some of the finest reef snorkelling and wreck diving in the Indian Ocean. If you’re seeking peace and quiet, well away from the brouhaha of the tourist boom, this is our recommended option.
Top hotel pick in Trincomalee: Jungle Beach
Live out your castaway fantasy at this idyllic boutique bolthole up the coast from Trinco. Nestled in a swathe of mangrove bushes, the thatched villas of the Jungle Beach keep a low profile behind miles of empty, golden sand and cobalt-blue water. They’re well spaced around a heavenly curvilinear pool, offering plenty of privacy and a vivid taste of local nature, with geckos, kingfishers and even the odd hornbill flitting through the foliage.
Facilities, food and service are all five-star standard, but the feel is soothing and rustic. Between ocean dips, enjoy the sea views from your own private deck, or head off on a croc-spotting stroll around the nearby lagoon.
Where: South coast
When: December – April
Best for: families; beach walks; fishing; kayaking; nature; architecture
Dotted along the prettiest stretch of the south coast, Tangalle consists of a series of gorgeous little coves enfolded by screens of gently inclining coconut palms and piles of black granite boulders. Tourism in the area is low key, and the beaches delightfully unspoilt. Most of the accommodation in the area consists of small, family-run guest houses and beautiful little boutique hotels offering direct access to the sand.
The location couldn’t be better: you’re within easy reach of some of the island’s top off-beat sights, including the giant Buddha at Wewurukannala, the rock temples of Mulkirigala and Rekawa beach, where marine turtles nest.
Top hotel pick in Tangalle: The Last House
This is one of our all-time favourite discoveries in Sri Lanka, if not all of Asia. Designed by the legendary architect Geoffrey Bawa, the Last House is a dreamy assemblage of semi-al-fresco living spaces, open to the greenery and ocean breezes. Huge, shuttered windows frame expansive views from the rooms and pillared verandas through frangipani trees and across manicured laws to a mile of serene sand and churning waves.
You can enjoy the vistas from the privacy of your suite, flopped in an antique arm chair, or in one of the shady loggias, against a backdrop of ochre-washed walls and painted turquoise pillars. Dine on flame-grilled prawns by flickering candle light, and fall asleep to the sound of the crashing waves.
Where: West coast
When: December - April
Best for: retro-colonial style; sunsets; tranquility
Midway between Colombo city and Galle on the southwest coast of Sri Lanka, Bentota is a byword for ‘watersports’, with some of the best facilities on the island. The area also holds an exceptional array of beaches, most of them surprisingly empty. Our favourite is the one to the south of town, around the headland from the Taj Hotel, where a curtain of corkscrew palms screens a clutch of particularly inviting boutique hideaways.
Don’t expect much in the way of beachlife – this is somewhere to stroll along empty sands, soaking up the rays, marvelling at the tropical sunsets and enjoying the wildlife (nearby Kosgoda has a famous turtle hatchery and the birdlife is prolific).
Top hotel pick in Bentota: Rock Villa
Pick of the bunch of boutique gems hidden in the palms to the south of Bentota is this heavenly little property. It occupies a 170-year-old, colonial-style mansion set in two-and-a-half acres of tropical garden. The heritage feel is accentuated by the handsome antique planters chairs dotted along the verandas, and pretty, white-painted shutters on the windows.
The interiors of the Rock Villa are cool and light, styled in a soothing palette of lime wash and earth clay tiles. And the pool is simply fabulous – like lazing in a Merchant Ivory film with a beach on the doorstep.
Where: West coast
When: December – April
Best for: honeymooners; tour extensions; end-of-trip beach breaks
Less than an hour’s drive south of Colombo city, Wadduwa makes a handy first landfall on the island or last halt before flying home. Given the proximity of the capital, its beach remains astonishingly unspoilt. The resorts and guest houses dotted along it are discretely spaced, and the sands never busy.
Because they’re steeply shelving, everyone tends to swim in their hotel pools, leaving miles of golden, palm-backed beach to the fishermen, who haul giant hand nets from the sea in the early morning, and heave old outriggers into the surf at sunset time, when the warm, tropical light intensifies the colours of the palm canopy.
Top hotel pick in Wadduwa: Reef Villa
Imagine a bungalow of an East India company burrasahib somewhere in upstate Bengal circa 1850, only transported to a dreamy strip of Sri Lanka’s southwest coast. Add a dash of Balinese boutique chic, and surround with palm groves and three acres of gardens of lush lawns and lily ponds, and you’ll have something close to Reef Villa – a recent discovery of our team we’re sure will prove a huge hit.
Its British owners have been inspired by the romance of the Raj era to create an elegant, luxurious retreat right on Wadduwa beach. Wicker chairs, paddle fans, and antique canopied four-posters set the tone. Everything has been beautifully done and the result is a delight.
Where: South coast
When: December – April
Best for: ultimate luxury at a prime location
Half an hour’s drive east of Galle, Weligama Bay forms a conspicuous bite out of the Sri Lanka’s heavenly south coast, and one that has attracted surprisingly few visitors given the spectacular, golden sand beach that lines most of it. Spread around the bay, the town retains a traditional, workaday feel, with an atmospheric market area and lots of pretty, colonial-era villas with traditional wood-carved eaves.
But it’s the rugged stretch of coast to the west we like best. Honeycombed with hidden coves, this stretch serves as a great base for a holiday combining beach relaxation with wider-ranging cultural explorations.
Top Hotel Pick in Wligama: Cape Weligama
Occupying a breezy clifftop to the west of Weligama, this fabulous resort hotel is the last word in tropical chic. The site is sublime, with jaw-dropping 270-degree panorama, and a crescent-shaped infinity pool that makes the most of it. The individual villas at Cape Weligama share smaller plunge pools and pretty lawned gardens, but you’ve plenty of privacy and nearly all of the suites enjoy uninterrupted coastal views.
Built by one of the island’s tea-growing families, this is Sri Lanka’s first full-service luxury resort and no expense has been spared to create the most soothing, sophisticated experience possible. Spend your day soaking up the sunshine and sea breezes, clambering down cliff paths to hidden coves and enjoying the gourmet seafood. Such luxury comes at a price, but it’s one well worth paying if you’re seeking a special experience somewhere extraordinary.
This little, laid-back resort on the south coast makes it on to our list thanks to its low-key feel and picturesque shoreline. Spread over three separate bays bounded by rocky headlands, the village nestles under a canopy of coconut trees. One of the great pleasures of staying in Mirissa is wandering down the beaches and scaling palm-studded bluffs to watch the sunset. At night, the shack-restaurants dotted along the beachfronts are illuminated by lanterns and fairy lights –one of the prettiest spectacles on the entire Sri Lankan coast.
Mirissa is also one of the island’s principal centres for whale watching. A flotilla of boats chugs out of the harbour each morning in search of cetaceans, which congregate in the lapis-blue waters off-shore in healthy numbers between November and April.
Top hotel pick in Mirissa: Lantern Boutique Hotel
Close to the resort of Mirissa, the Lantern is a cosy, stylish boutique property with just six rooms. Some have ocean views from their extensive band there are garden suites on the ground floor.
Using locally sourced ingredients, the resident chefs prepare meals in an open kitchen, while the spa also delivers restorative therapies and treatments such as lime, ginger and sea-salt scrubs, and clay and herbal cocoons. The hotel also has plenty of communal areas where you can socialize with your fellow guests.
If you'd like to enjoy the endless coastline of the Tear Drop Isle, browse our selection of Sri Lanka beach holidays.