When to go? Pick your monsoon :)
Sri Lanka is genuinely a year-round tourist destination but “the best time to go” is fundamentally related to understanding its monsoons (yes, there’s more than one) together with which region of Sri Lanka you’d like to get the most out of i.e. that’s where you’d want it to be dry season.
So, here’s the bit you need to know about Sri Lanka’s monsoons, bearing in mind they can vary from year to year and have been affected by climate change.
Sri Lanka has 4 climactic seasons – north-east monsoon, first inter-monsoon, south-west monsoon, second inter-monsoon – which means it’s likely to be the “rainy season” on some part of the island at any given time as the figures below illustrate (taken from Sri Lanka’s Department of Metereology - read more there):
The upshot is that the South-West monsoon (often called the “Yala Monsoon”) is the heaviest and brings rain to the west and southwest coasts and hill country from April/May to September (wettest from May to June/July). The less severe North-West monsoon (often called the “Maha Monsoon”) hits the east coast from November to March (wettest from November to December). You’re likely to see thunderstorm-like rains in the afternoons and evenings during the 1st inter-monsoonal period in south-west extending to the hill country. Heavy rainfall and thunderstorms can occur pretty much anywhere across the island during the 2nd inter-monsoonal period.
In practical terms, this means that the west and south coasts and hill country is at its driest from December to March, while the best weather on the east coast is from April/May to September.
Peak tourist season directly corresponds to the dry season for the south and west coastal regions of Sri Lanka. Why? Because the beaches in these regions have the closest proximity to Colombo and are at their best. It’s also a generally a great time to visit other blockbuster destinations like the Cultural Triangle, Kandy and around Nuwara Eliya. This translates to crowds and higher costs all over the island from December through to February with November, March and April being shoulder periods. April is considered the best month for seasonally for most of country and is also less crowded. And travelling to east coast during the May to September season has its own rewards - great surfing and aquamarine beaches in the most chillaxed part of the country, the east coast.
So don’t let the magic around picking monsoons stop you going to Sri Lanka at certain times of the year. You only need to avoid an area if a specific activity you want to do is dependent on dry weather (e.g you’d want to avoid hiking in the Knuckles Mountain range in November and December because of the heavy rains then). Otherwise, rain in the monsoonal areas are often ad hoc or you can easily find great attractions in the other dry regions of Sri Lanka for the period you’re travelling.
where to go (and why)
So you’ve worked out the best time to go to Sri Lanka and now you want to know where to visit in that time, right? Well, here’s a quick and dirty overview of some of the popular tourist attractions using some rules of thumb of the best time to go there (as per the information in the above section).
You don’t need a visa for Sri Lanka if:
you are a child under 12 years of age;
you are a citizen of Singapore, the Maldives and Seychelles; and
you are there on transit for 48 hours.
Everyone else requires a 30 day visa (which can be extended) but you should apply online before you arrive. If you don’t do it beforehand, you can still obtain a visa on arrival but be prepared to wait in queues to process your visa and pay an additional amount.
what to bring
Bring sun block (or sun protective clothing) and mosquito repellent to Sri Lanka as it is surprisingly hard to find. Otherwise, what you choose to bring is a matter of choice and, if you forget, you can pretty much buy anything you need in Sri Lanka.
It is mostly hot and humid around the country but be aware that it can be chilly if you go to the hill country (there’s often morning frost around Horton Plains and the tea plantations) so pack a jumper. It’s also advisable to have some clothing that will cover legs and shoulders for visiting religious sites.
Families with young children will benefit from taking antiseptic hand gels/cream or wipes for small bites and scratches which may easily become infected in the tropics.