In the 13th Century, Marco Polo declared Sri Lanka “the finest island of its size in all the world” – and if he were to say that today, he’d still be spot on. This lush tropical island features rainforest, over 50 waterfalls, intensely green tea plantations, ancient Buddhist temples, spices, quaint villages and, perhaps above all, some of the world’s loveliest beaches.
Here we cover a selection of the country’s best beaches and top beach resorts.
Best beaches on Sri Lanka’s south coast
Unawatuna is one of the country’s most popular beaches. This beautiful crescent-shaped beach is known for its white sand, intensely turquoise waters (which unlike those at other Sri Lankan beaches are safe for swimming) and simple beachside cafés.
One of the best places to stay is the gorgeous Sri Gemunu Beach Resort, featuring its own stretch of private beach and a restaurant right on the sand, serving up some of the country’s best food. You can opt for a room with a magnificent view of the sea, or stay in one of two fully equipped chalets set in private gardens.
At blissfully peaceful Mirissa, a headland separates a small harbour from a stretch of palm-fringed beach; with calm waters safe for swimming. This is the best beach on the island for viewing blue whales, which converge in the surrounding waters.
For a little slice of heaven, book yourself into Giragala Village. Sip drinks on hammocks in its shady garden, which overlook two small bays, perfect for swimming and snorkelling.
Pronounced “ten-gol” this beach paradise is still comparatively free of mass tourism. This is the place to head if you’re hankering after an unspoilt beach, complete with caramel sand and thundering waves, as well as a lagoon and rock pools for safe swimming. In the surrounding area, you’re almost certain to encounter monitor lizards, as well as peacocks and a huge range of bird life. For the perfect get-away, try the understated luxury of Buckingham Place, just around the corner from Tangalla’s turtle conservation centre.
Best beaches on Sri Lanka’s east coast
Probably the best known of the east-coast beaches is Arugam Bay; famous for the best surfing waves in the country (especially between April and October). The beach is backed by the small Muslim village of Sinna Ulla, and isn’t far from outstanding national parks, with elephants, crocodiles and spectacular bird life.
For an idyllic escape, consider booking into Arugam Bay Hideaway Resort, just across the sand. Highlights include verandas with swing chairs outside spacious rooms, open-air showers, beautifully maintained gardens, attentive service and food that can’t be faulted.
Uppuveli and Nilaveli
The remarkably unspoilt and beautiful Uppuveli is fast gaining a reputation, so get there before the droves of tourists arrive! The beach provides safe swimming and is connected via a coastal path to the equally attractive Nilaveli beach. From Nilaveli, you can take a boat out to the colourful coral gardens of Pigeon Island.
Best of the beach resorts in the area is the stylish, newly opened Anilana Nilaveli. It features spacious rooms, a gorgeous pool, outdoor wooden terrace, gourmet food and friendly staff just a minute’s stroll from the beach.
Best beaches on Sri Lanka’s west coast
The most popular stretch of golden beach on the west coast runs south from the Bentota lagoon. Here you’ll find excellent boutique hotels and resorts, a wide selection of restaurants and shops, and plenty of opportunities for water sports.
The long golden peninsula of Kalpitiya wasn’t on the tourist trail until recently. Kalpitiya runs alongside a marine sanctuary, and its warm Indian Ocean waters are teeming with dolphins, whales, turtles and dugong.
Not just one of the best places to stay in Kalpitiya, but an absolute highlight of any stay in Sri Lanka is the Dolphin Beach resort. Here you sleep in one of just seven luxury tents – complete with mirrored fabrics, L-shaped sofas and verandas that overlook both an adjacent lagoon, and a glorious strip of beach.