The Complete Backpacker’s Guide to Sri Lanka

There’s no better feeling in the world than booking your flights, throwing your worldly belongings into a backpack and heading out on an adventure to explore another country. Maybe you’ll join a tour. Maybe you’ll travel solo. Maybe you’ll enjoy a combination of both. Whichever way you choose to start the adventure is completely up to you. 

For some time now, Sri Lanka has been welcoming travellers from all over the world, with the promise of a tropical climate, gorgeous beaches, fantastic food and friendly locals – and the best part – it won’t break the bank.  Here’s a helpful guide to ensure you have an incredible time here, whilst sticking to your budget.

Feeling inspired to start the adventure? Take a look at the most popular tours travelling to Sri Lanka

sri lanka

Silhouettes of the traditional stilt fishermen at the sunset near Galle in Sri Lanka

There are SO many things that we fell in love with in Sri Lanka and one of them was definitely the Vibe. Whether you were in the city, up in the mountains
or on the coast with the surf culture – the vibe there was just fantastic! Locals are incredibly friendly and accommodating and there is just such a peace
there, even if it still struggles with rough history. Also, the food is amazing. Hands down!

Embrace & respect the way things are done in Sri Lanka. Tuk Tuks are not as scary as they seem and definitely try and meet some locals; they are always happy to show you around and point you in the right direction. We had an incredible Tuk Tuk driver who showed us took us around for a couple of days and it really opened up the country for us. Also – if you’re sensitive to Chilli and the locals say “it’s not very hot”; believe me, it will melt your face. You can always make a joke and ask them “is it not hot for you, but for a tourist it’s fire?” They normally laugh at that and sometimes will be honest and say “okay, it’s a bit hot”. – Melli and Shayne, Melli&Shayne

What to pack for Sri Lanka 

Sri Lanka is lucky to have a tropical temperature all year round, this means light and loose fitting clothing. Remember that Sri Lanka is a melting pot of culture and religion. In general, Sri Lankans tend to dress conservatively, and it is always appreciated when you dress modestly too. This means covering your shoulders (sleeveless tops are ok in beach places) and wearing knee-length skirts or shorts.

Here’s an idea of what to pack:

  1. 3-4 singlets or tank tops
  2. 3-4 t-shirts/light shirts with sleeves
  3. 2 pairs of shorts
  4. 1 pair of capris or 3/4 length pants
  5. 1 light summer dress
  6. 1 long skirt (you can easily pick on up in Sri Lanka)
  7. 1 pair of lightweight pants
  8. 2 scarves/ sarongs for covering shoulders- sarong will double as your towel for the beach.
  9. 1 lightweight rain jacket
  10. 1 fleece
  11. 1 pair comfortable walking shoes
  12. 1 pair nice sandals
  13. 1 pair of comfortable flip-flops
  14. A hat
  15. Underwear
  16. 1-2 swimsuits
Colombo seafront

Colombo seafront at sunset

Budget for Sri Lanka 

Depending on what you want to see or do, you might want to consider booking a multi-day group tour to help you manage your travel budget, as a tour often covers the essentials such as local experiences, accommodation and food for all, or part of your backpacking adventure. At the end of the day, how much you spend during your time in Sri Lanka is entirely up to you. If you choose to stay in local guesthouses or a simple cabana on the beach, and you’ll pay about $20-30 USD per night for two people. 

As for food, it is best to eat meals in local cafés for a couple of dollars per meal or grab ‘short eats’ from street food vendors to really keep things cheap.

Sri Lanka can be very budget-friendly, as long as you commit to using local transport to get around. You want to be surprised that you can easily get from one end of this country to the other for around $25 USD using local buses. So, taking care of the essentials, you can absolutely travel around Sri Lanka for $30 USD per day if you’re savvy.

As with most countries, it’s sometimes the extras like entrance fees, national parks and transport getting to and from recommended sites that will perhaps blow your budget. Just remember that you’re here to learn about the culture and see some awesome sights, so plan your budget accordingly so you don’t miss out on all the highlights.

For example, depending on what sites you’d like to see, the below costs give you an idea of how to factor these into your budget.

  • A day ticket to Sigiriya costs $30 USD per person.
  • National Parks- entrance ranges from $5-25 USD per person. (factor in the transport to get to and from the national parks, as these can be located in places that aren’t so easily reached. For this reason, you may need to hire a private guide/driver with a car. A half-day trip to a national park for 2 people can easily cost $80-100 USD).
  • Elephant Orphanage, Pinnawala $20 USD per person.
  • Ancient City of Polonnaruwa $25 USD per person. 
Backpacker's guide to Sri Lanka

Photo credit: comicpie on VisualHunt / CC BY

When touring Sri Lanka, one of my highlights was visiting the tea factory. Sri Lanka has been world famous for its tea for generations. These days, even its former name of Ceylon is maintained forever in a style of tea. Head up into the hills and countryside to see where the tea is grown and tour an impressive factory. I recommend the Dambatenne Tea Factory, which was opened by Scotsman Thomas Lipton over 100 years ago. Lipton’s name lives on in the form of the Lipton tea company. But delve into the place where it all began and where some of the finest tea in the world is grown – here in the hills of Sri Lanka. – Johnny, Don’t Stop Living

Budget food in Sri Lanka

Eat a Sri Lankan breakfast of egg hoppers or string hoppers and dahl curry in small cafes – try to choose a busy one.  If the café is busy with locals eating breakfast here – it’s likely going to be good food and very reasonably priced.

Small cafes will serve rice and curry for a couple of dollars. This is a great option to fill up at lunchtime. Listen out for the unmistakable tapping of the popular street food dish ‘kothu roti’ being prepared. It’s the equivalent of a pad-thai in Bangkok or a Pho in Hanoi, the go-to meal available at any time.  This is a heavy meal, but very affordable and one that will keep you satisfied for the entire day.

Street vendors and small take away places offer ‘short eats’ all day and night. These are simple, yet filling snacks full of vegetables, meat or fish.  These are often grilled or deep-fried. Expect to pay about 40c per piece.

Sri Lanka has given me so many novel experiences that will always make me look back and smile. Meeting friendly and amazing locals everywhere who had stories to share. Trying tasty and spicy dishes that had such a potent flavor I never had it anywhere else. The best part would be surfing some amazing waves and witnessing a pack of wild elephants walking leisurely on the beach.
I hope you do make it out to Sri Lanka. And when you do, stay open. Stay open to trying new experiences, meeting new people, and discovering exotic places. Try to stay for a week or two and even that may not be enough to see this beautiful country. There will be a lot of places to stay and eat and it won’t cost you that much. – Lois, We Are Sole Sisters

What you need to know before you go to Sri Lanka 

  • Dress modestly. Have a sarong or scarf always handy to cover your knees and shoulders when visiting temples. On popular beaches, bikinis are fine but remember to cover up with a sarong or shirt if you leave the beach and go to a beach cafe.  
  • Take hard currency to exchange (GBP, EUR or USD). There is also access to ATM’s in all major cities. Make sure you change any leftover rupees in the country before you leave, as you’ll get a very poor rate to exchange them outside of Sri Lanka).

kandy, sri lanka

Sunny day in Kandy

A small island with tropical jungle, endless white-sand beaches, gorgeous temples and roaming elephants. It’s easy to understand why Sri Lanka is becoming increasingly popular among travelers. I started my backpacking trip in Sri Lanka with one of the most scenic train journeys in the world, taking me through lush tea plantations to the Central Highlands. The spectacular Central highlands were the perfect place for hiking and trekking. After spotting elephants in one of the southern national parks, I moved on to the coast for beach time, diving and surfing. I loved my trip to Sri Lanka. It was fun, easy to get around and affordable. If you’re a first-time backpacker to Sri Lanka, I would advice to incorporate the train ride from Kandy to Ella in your travels, it’s something you don’t want to miss! – Manouk, Bunch of Backpackers

Transport and getting around Sri Lanka

Travelling on public transport is either on trains or buses: both modes of transport are inexpensive. It’s somewhat unavoidable, but trains are generally very crowded. Then again, you’ll be amazed at the number of people who will be crammed onto local buses too.

There’s always room for one more in Sri Lanka. Be prepared to get squashed, and probably stand for several hours, but remember that everybody else has to do the same. Embrace it.

  • Three-wheelers: Also known as tuk-tuks, these vehicles can be found almost everywhere in Sri Lanka. This is a popular way to get around, however, brush up on your bargaining skills and decide on the fare that you’ll pay the driver before you jump in. Most tuk-tuks have a meter, but many drivers try to avoid using it or will say it’s broken so that he can charge you a much higher fare. Decide on the price first, if you’re not happy with it, smile and say thank you and then just hail another one.
  • Taxi: Only some taxis are metered and the fare is quite reasonable in most cases. If the taxi isn’t metered, again, it’s a good idea to ask how much you’ll pay for the ride before you accept the ride. If you’re happy with the quoted fare, go for it.
  • Uber: This is a popular way to get around in the capital city of Colombo.

Accommodation in Sri Lanka 

To keep costs low, consider staying at local guesthouses and small family run hotels to be the most affordable. You can book these online or just turn up and ask to see a room once you arrive in a new town. Make sure you book ahead if travelling during the busy season, December to March).

 Most accommodation options will include a local breakfast included in the nightly rate.

One of the things I enjoyed most about Sri Lanka was the train ride from Kandy to Ella. Hanging out of the doors of the train as green hills rolled past me and the misty air clung to my skin was an experience unlike any other. Interacting, chatting, eating, and taking photos with the locals on the train was another part of the entire experience that made it so memorable.

Accommodation in Sri Lanka is a bit pricey, especially compared to India and most countries in Southeast Asia, so make sure you budget yourself around that. Otherwise, the food and transportation (train and bus travel) is affordable! – Monica, Globe Trottica

Visas for Sri Lanka 

You will need a visa to travel to Sri Lanka and you can apply for an electronic 30-day visa in advance online – (

Visa cost is from US$25 to US$100, depending on your nationality.

Ready to go? Check out these popular tours travelling to Sri Lanka