Sri Lanka

Ultimate guide to things to do in Sri Lanka with kids

The tropical island of Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, is awash with stunning landscapes and an amazing cultural heritage experiences. Fringing the coast are golden-sand beaches, while majestic mountains, lush tea estates and rainforests paint the interior in vivid shades of green.

There’s great hiking and trekking, white water rafting, kayaking and canoeing, as well as diving and snorkelling in and around the incredible reefs along its coastline. A wildlife lover’s paradise, vast areas are conserved in national parks and sanctuaries. A wildlife safari offers the opportunity to spot elephant, leopard, deer, giant squirrel, monkeys and a whole range of other quirky critters.

Sigiriya is an ancient rock fortress located in the northern Matale District

But its natural beauty is just part of Sri Lanka’s beauty and charm.  While the old colonial powers have long since departed, Portuguese, Dutch and British influences still impact on the culture, religion, architecture and cuisine of this fascinating country. Colombo is the country’s commercial, economic and cultural hub, its streets lined with old buildings inspired by European Colonists and Moorish traders. 

But Sri Lanka remains the oldest continually Buddhist country where the original soul of Theravada Buddhism has flourished since the second century. The country is home to many places of religious and historic significance including the fascinating ruins of Anuradhapura with its enormous stupas, soaring towers and crumbling temples, and Sri Dalada Maligawa or the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, a Buddhist temple in the city of Kandy which houses Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist relic, a tooth of the Buddha.

Best time to visit Sri Lanka as a family

Thanks to its close proximity to the equator and constantly warm temperatures, Sri Lanka is a great year-round destination. But climatic variations around the country, with two monsoon seasons affecting different regions, mean you need to carefully choose where in the country to travel and when.

From April to September, the southwest of the island is affected by monsoon weather with short bursts of intermittent rain throughout the day while the northeast is similarly affected from December to March. The best time to visit the west and south coasts and hill country is from December to March, while the east coast is as its best from April to September. 

During July a series of important festivals are held across the country and while it is an exciting time to visit, accommodation needs to be booked well in advance and room rates skyrocket.

Things to do in Sri Lanka with...

Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka was the top place to visit in 2019. Picture: Shutterstock

Getting around Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka may be small in size but travelling around the country can be slow and time consuming. Cities are busy and congested making the ubiquitous and cheap three-wheel trishaws your best mode of transport around town. Just remember to use your best bargaining skills and agree on the fare before you get in. Buses and trains are cheap but crowded and tend to be very slow, the 100 kilometre trip from Colombo to Kandy taking around three hours.  Public transport is especially crowded around poya (full moon) holidays so it’s best to avoid non-essential travel during these times.

Sri Lankan fisherman still use traditional methods such as balancing on sticks in the Indian ocean. Credit: shutterstock: SurangaSL

Health

Mosquito borne illnesses including Dengue fever and Japanese Encephalitis and Chikungunya Fever are a risk, as is Malaria in regional areas. Keep yourself and your kids safe by applying a child-safe insect repellent (with no more than a 20% concentration of DEET) at regular intervals. Rabies is also a risk so be careful with children around animals.

Food and water borne diseases are prevalent with more serious outbreaks occurring from time to time, so caution is required when eating. Tap water is not safe to drink, use only bottled or filtered water.

There are no essential vaccinations for travellers to Sri Lanka, however we advise every member of the family is up-to-date with routine vaccinations before travel. 

Medical care is variable in Sri Lanka but the capital, Colombo, has good clinics aimed at expats, which offer a superior standard of care. Just ensure you have an adequate level of travel insurance for your family to cover costs in the event of an emergency.

Souvenirs

  • You’ll find fearsome and colourful masks across the country, which are a popular souvenir for kids, as well as an interesting conversation starter. 
  • You’re bound to see one of Sri Lanka’s gorgeous elephants and one of the many colourful or cuddly elephant souvenirs will prove an excellent memento for kids.
  • Hand crafted wooden toys, skittles and spinning tops are great souvenirs for kids. Just ensure the timber is treated, as they may otherwise not be allowed back in your country.
  • The art of batik was introduced from Indonesia by the Dutch and pretty batik clothes and pictures make an excellent memento.
  • Tea is the country’s most famous export and makes an excellent gift for family members.

Food

Sri Lanka, the spice island once known as Ceylon, is a rich melting pot of cuisines influenced by Portuguese, Dutch and British colonists as well as Indian, Arab and Malay traders.

Staples of Sri Lankan cuisine are coconut, boiled or steamed rice, curries of fish, chicken, beef and mutton, fresh and pickled fruits or vegetables. Sri Lankans love their spices, but there are plenty of simple grilled fish and chicken dishes for less adventurous palates. Many of the larger hotels produce western cuisine if your kids are especially picky.

Other popular dishes for kids are hoppers (a crispy fried pancake), string hoppers (steamed noodle pancakes) and flaky roti bread. Fruit is also abundant with mango, pineapple and papaya popular choices for kids. More adventurous diners will enjoy tasting their way through the country’s many fiery curries, as well as lamprais (a combination of meat, rice and sambal chilli), pickles and the fried salted fish.

Local Customs

Buddhism is the main faith in Sri Lanka, although a percentage of the population also follows Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. Regardless of your own beliefs, it is important to be respectful. Remove shoes and dress modestly, covering up knees and shoulders, before entering temples. Be quiet and respectful inside temples. Don’t touch, climb on, turn your back on, or point the soles of your feet towards, the Buddha, as this is considered highly offensive. And never touch or pat the top of the head of a monk.

When it comes to mealtimes, remember always use your right hand. Sri Lankans eat with the fingertips of their right hands (though most places will offer you cutlery if you desire). They also use their right hand when shaking hands, handling money and passing small objects, a custom that is based on hygiene as the left hand is generally used in the bathroom. It’s one worth remembering!

Independence Square, Colombo, Sri Lanka. Credit: Shutterstock: SurangaSL

Costs

Sri Lanka is a relatively good value destination for families. Accommodation is very affordable even at the luxury end of the market, but prices do increase during the high season between December and March. Many visitors rent a car with a driver to get around, as they are reasonably well priced and comfortable. But, if you are on a budget, the bus service is the cheapest way to get around. Food is inexpensive, especially if you stick to eating rice and curries and short eats (finger foods) with the locals, as restaurants located in resorts and hotels tend to be more expensive. Tipping is expected as is haggling over the price of hotels and shopping.

The one exception is the cost of entry into attractions, especially National Parks and government run archaeological parks, which can be high as tourist prices are applied, and these can be as much as 100 times more than the local price.

What’s on?

The best annual events for families in Thailand

Feb/March – Adelaide Fringe

You’ll find family and kid friendly shows at Adelaide’s wild and wonderful Fringe festival.

March - Adelaide Festival

Australia’s premier Arts festival showcases theatre, world-class musicians, dance, writers and visual art.

March – Adelaide 500

This motorsport spectacular is packed with action and entertainment for families. The 2021 Superloop Adelaide 500 will occur on revised dates in 2021.

March – South Australia History Festival

Enjoy hundreds of events such as talks to workshops exploring the local history.

March – WOMADelaide

Enjoy family friendly performances and workshops by the world’s best traditional and contemporary musicians, dancers and DJs.

May – DreamBig Children’s Festival

This arts festival for schools and families is the largest of its kind in the world.

September – Royal Adelaide Show

Experience animals, rides, food and entertainment as the country comes to the city.

October – OzAsia Festival

Australia’s biggest Asian arts festival.

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