Sri Lanka overwhelms the senses. The air is heavy with the scent of jasmine, the food richly spiced and the landscape one of utter beauty; the radiant green rice paddies, forests of swaying palm trees and mountains puckered in tea plantations are utterly bewitching. But for many people Sri Lanka can be summed up in two simple words: the beach.
No matter what kind of beach bum you want to be, you’ll find a patch of palm-backed perfection here. You can book in for pampering at one of the island's chic boutique beachside hotels, dive across glowing coral reefs, learn to surf on gentle sandbars, or merely toddle off to find your own little undiscovered corner of paradise.
Here’s our guide to the best of Sri Lankan beaches.
Lapped by lazy azure waters, the coconut-coloured beaches around Tangalla are hands down our favourite Sri Lankan bolt holes. Tangalla itself marks the dividing line between the picture-perfect tropical coves that dominate much of the southwest coast and the long, wave-lashed beaches that you'll find in the southeast corner of the island.
Crack open a coconut, slip into a hammock and rock gently in the breeze. Of all the bigger Sri Lankan beach resorts, Mirissa is the favourite of many visitors. In general, this is a place for sitting and being rather than doing, but if you need a shot of adrenaline then Mirissa is the best base for a waterborne safari in search of blue whales, the largest living creatures on earth.
Lovely Arugam Bay is arguably home to the best surf spot in Sri Lanka. Even if you’re not a surfer there are plenty of other draws, including crocodile-filled mangrove swamps and elephant-packed national parks. But to be honest you’ll probably find lounging about beachside entertaining enough.
During the dark years of civil war the east coast was out of bounds and its beautiful beaches were confined to the subject of rumour. Peace has brought new opportunities for trailblazing sun seekers and stunning Uppuveli is fast emerging as the best place to dip your toes. Good as the beach is, the real attractions are the glittering coral gardens of Pigeon Island just off nearby Nilaveli beach (which could win a beach beauty contest in its own right).
Surrounded by mega package resort hotels, you might expect the beach here to be overrun...but you'd be wrong. With a smattering of divine boutique hotels, a sublime stretch of golden sand, and barely another tourist's footprint in sight, this is one of the best places to unwind.
It’s hardly undiscovered, but Unawatuna is popular for a reason. With moonstone waters as calm as a lake, beachside cafes serving up delicious food and just enough action to keep things fresh, it would be fair to say that most visitors fall for Unawatuna.
Like what you’ve heard so far but need a little more persuading? The following breakdown should help you reach the right decision.
- Best for snorkelling: Pigeon island off Nilaveli beach offers crystal waters, shallow reefs, colourful fish, and diving and snorkelling that’s great for beginners and the experienced.
- Best for whale-watching: whales can be seen all along the Sri Lankan coast but Mirissa is the best base for seeing blue whales just a short distance from the shore.
- Best for self-indulgence: Bentota beach has a great collection of boutique hotels, and when you’re done with the pampering the beach itself ain’t bad.
- Best for children: Unawatuna and Uppuveli vie for the title of having the calmest, safest swimming.
Beaches? Yup. Culture? Plenty. Food? Delectable. Find out what else Sri Lanka has going for it with Lonely Planet's Sri Lanka guide book.