The palm fringed beaches and colonial beach towns make the Southern Coast of Sri Lanka a popular destination for visitors to this country. Sri Lanka is often called the pearl of the Indian Ocean and when you travel along the Southern Coast you understand why.
Why visit the Southern Coast of Sri Lanka
I was scared that Sri Lanka’s Southern coast was going to be all about beach time, but luckily there is much more to this part of Sri Lanka. The south has a lot to offer for people like me who get restless after sunbathing on a beach for a day or two.
The Southern Coast of Sri Lanka allows you to do anything. It is a perfect place to relax and do nothing if that is what you prefer or you can choose from a range of activities. Whale watching, surfing, diving, snorkelling or even wildlife safari’s.
For backpackers Sri Lanka is a perfect destination and the Southern Coast makes no difference. It is easy to travel around and accomodation wise there is something for everyone’s budget. You can make traveling onb the Southern coastb of Sri Lanka as cheap or expensive as you like.
In this post I will share with you everything you need to know about backpacking the southern coast of Sri Lanka as an independent traveller. From the best places to visit, where to stay and where to eat.
Best places to visit on the Southern Coast of Sri Lanka
The Southern Coast of Sri Lanka has lots to offer. I travelled from East to West. I started in Tissamaharama and then slowly made my way to Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka.
Most people come to Tissamaharama for a wildlife safari in Yala National Park and I too thought it was just a gateway to other more interesting places. I was absolutely wrong and surprised by the amount of things to see and do in Tissamsaharama. It is the best place along the Southern Coast of Sri Lanka for a range of wildlife and outdoor activities.
Tissamaharama really is a lovely and enchanting place. Think buddhist stupa’s surrounded by rice paddies and beautiful sunsets over the Tissa Wewa lake. Other lakes in the area include Debarawewa lake and the Yodakandiya lake. Perfect for boat rides or canoeing.
If it comes to wildlife Yala National Park is not the only destination near Tissamaharama. Bundala National Park is equally beautiful and if you love birds you shouldn’t miss the Wirawala bird sanctuary.
How to get there: From Colombo to Tissamaharame is about 7-8 hours
Kirinda is a sleepy fishing village. During the week not much is happening here, but in the weekends Kirinda’s small beach gets busy with locals who come here to visit the Vihara Maha Devi temple and take a quick dip in the ocean.
Therefore it is not a beach to take out your bikini. The families that come here with their children are not used to see tourists. The women can be seen fully clothed with their feet in the water watching their sons splash around.
Kirinda is also not the most scenic beach along the Southern Coast of Sri Lanka. However, it is the perflect local experience to see how Sri Lankans enjoy their weekends. It is fun to join them climbing over boulders to reach the temple from where you have a nice view over the ocean.
How to get there: From the bus stand in Tissamaharama there are frequent buses to Kirinda.
Because Kirinda is only 30 minutes from Tissamaharama it is a great combination with a visit to Yala National Park. In fact, Kirinda is closer to the entrance of the park than Tissamaharama and there are some nice resorts that give you the feeling you are in the middle of nature.
I spent a couple of days in the quiet beach town of Tangalle. After two days of sunbathing and enjoying fresh grilled fish dinners I was still enjoying this place, despite the strong currents in the sea that made swimming impossible. The secret was the food and the restaurant scene.
My last evening I discovered a new family restaurant at the end of the beach boulevard. They were the friendliest people I met in Sri Lanka. The owner just opened 2 months ago but they were clearly overwhelmed with their own success as they ran out of forks and knives.
Despite a powercut the mothers owner prepared everyone’s orders in the dark. Still, it was one of the best fish I had. At the end of the night the owner had a big smile and confided to us that since he opened he never had so much guests as tonight.
How to get there: By bus from Tissamaharama it is about 2-3 hours, from Colombo 6-7 hours
My main reason for visiting Mirissa is because it is the best place on the Southern Coast of Sri Lanka to go whale watching. Several tour operators do whale watch safari’s offering the same for a similar price.
I went with Raja and the whales. It is slightly more expensive, but they are very professional and also use their trips to gather data for research and conservation efforts. We saw dozens of spinner dolphins and finally several blue whales. It was amazing to see these majestic animals up close.
Besides the whales Mirissa also has a lovely beach and a selection of very nice restaurants. Don’t miss the Dewmini Roti shop in town for the best and most creative roti’s. At night the restaurants at the beach will display the catch of the day. You can choose the fish you like to eat and they will grill it for you.
How to get there: From Tangalle it is 2 hours by bus, from Colombo 4-5 hours
After several beach days I was ready to see something else. From Mirissa I went to Galle for the day to explore a bit more about my own history. Fort Galle was once the trade center of the dutch VOC and many dutch merchants and soldiers once stayed or even lived here.
The dutch allowed the Sri Lankans to keep their autonomy as long as they got monopoly on the spice trade. The dutch Reformed Church still displays the graves of the dutch people that died here. In old dutch, I can read that there were doctors, lawyers and accountants among them.
Apparently some dutch people still own property in the fort and together with the government they make an effort to preserve the history. Walking through the quiet and clean alleys with the renovated colonial houses it felt almost like a different country. Furthermore, there are some excellent restaurants and cafes here. It was a welcome change after some days at the beach.
How to get there: From Mirissa it is 1 hour by bus, from Colombo 3-4 hours
Hikkaduwa was probably the first place on the Southern Coast of Sri Lanka that I did not really like. There were a lot of Russian tourists and the beach was close to the main road. Not exactly an idyllic beach spot.
The waters were very calm tough, so it was good to swim and the snorkelling above the Marine park was nice. Also there are two wild leatherback turtles that always come close to the shore in front of Chaaya Tranz hotel . It was my first time I saw such big turtles in the wild.
How to get there: From Galle it is 1 hour by bus, from Colombo it is 2-3 hours by bus
7. Kosgoda: Turtle conservation project
The Southern Coast of Sri Lanka is quite known for the turtles that come and lay their eggs. Sri Lanka’s turtles are not faring as well as Sri Lanka’s protected elephants. Along the coast several small projects have opened up to increase the survival prospects of baby turtles, because they have a lot of risks to overcome before they can safely reach the sea.
First of all eggs are sold in the market as food and second there are several predators like dogs and birds trying to catch and eat the baby turtles. The projects buy the eggs from locals and fishermen so they can safely keep them till they hatch.
Once the baby turtles are strong enough they release the baby turtles into the sea. The most interesting fact is that where they are released is where they will come back in twenty years to lay down their own eggs, no matter how far they wander off in the ocean. Most centers let tourists release the baby turtles into the sea for a fee.
How to get there: From Hikkaduwa it is 30 minutes by bus, from Colombo 2 hours
Where to stay on Sri Lanka’s Southern coast
The Southern coast of Sri Lanka is dominated by luxurious resorts, but because they are also popular backpacker destinations it isn’t too difficult to find cheap accomodation either.
Backpacker hostels are coming up and most places along the coast now have one or two hostels. They are the best option for backpackers that travel alone and want to stay within their budget.
Another relatively cheap option on the Southern Coast of Sri Lanka are homestays. Especially if you are a couple this is a good compromise between price and comfort.
Where to eat on Sri Lanka’s Southern coast
It is not difficult to find restaurants with great traditional food along the Southern Coast of Sri Lanka. Of course, there is excellent sea food available along with Sri Lankan classics like hoppers, curries and sambol.
Some restaurants on the Southern Coast of Sri Lanka did stood out for me, either because of the friendly people or the great quality of food.
Dream family Tangalle
This restaurant deserves a price for the best service and the most friendly people along with the best food in Tangalle. It is just a tiny shack in a small back street. Hard to find if you don’t know about it, but finding your way here is more than worth it.
The owners mom prepares everything with fresh ingredients and spices. Some of the best food I had in Sri Lanka. It’s the kind of experience you still remember long after you returned home.
Dewmini Roti Shop Mirissa
I never knew you could create so much varieties of a simple roti. Dewmini Roti shop has an extensive menu of different types of Roti and is an excellent place to go for breakfast. My favourites were coconut roti and banana roti. Other creative combinations include pineapple with chocolate and banana with chocolate.
The Roti shop became so popular that they now aldso have a guesthouse and offer Cooking classess.
Mama Galle’s Fort Roof Cafe
If you are in Galle, look no further than Mama Galle’s fort roof cafe. They have the best Sri Lankan thali’s and if you haven’t tried one yet, this is the place to do so. The rooftop terrace is a nice spot to relax and enjoy the view over the city.
Transport along the Southern Coast of Sri Lanka
Travelling along Sri Lanka’s Southern Coast by public transport is easy and straightforward. You have two options. The train or the bus.
Travelling by train
The train is an experience in itself and the tracks along the Southern Coast of Sri Lanka are very scenic. The Coast line runs from Colombo to Galle and Matara. There are usually 3 trains in the mornings and 4 in the afternoon. Check the latest schedules at the Sri Lankan Railways. From Colombo to Galle it takes about 2.5 hours.
It is best to reserve your tickets beforehand, but usually there are some available for short journeys. In fact, most of the trains from Colombo to Galle and Matara only have unreserved carriages in second and third class. They can get very crowded, but are incredibly cheap.
Insider tips: If you start your journey in Colombo make sure you sit at the right hand side for views over the ocean. For the best chances to get a seat check whether the train starts in Colombo Maradana or Colombo Fort. Make sure to get in where the train starts.
If you want to know more I can recommend this excellent post from Divert living on the Colombo to Galle train.
Travelling by bus
The trains only run as far as Matara so for the South Eastern coast, the bus is the only way to go. Travelling by bus is not as comfortable as the train, but very easy. Every town has a bus station and most of the time there will be a bus to your next destination within an hour or less.
Tissamsaharama: 7-8 hours from Colombo
Kirinda: 30 minutes from Tissamaharame
Tangalle: from Tissamaharama it is about 2-3 hours, from Colombo 6-7 hours
Mirissa: From Tangalle it is 2 hours, from Colombo 4-5 hours
Galle: From Mirissa it is 1 hour, from Colombo 3-4 hours
Hikkaduwa: From Galle it is 1 hour, from Colombo it is 2-3 hours
Kosgoda: From Hikkaduwa it is 30 minutes, from Colombo 2 hours
Last updated: August 2019
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Ellis is a travelblogger from the Netherlands with over 20 years of experience as an independent budget traveller in more than 50 countries. She has a Master degree in Cultural Anthropology and Global Health with a specialization in South Asian cultures and the Caucasus.