The small, teardrop-shaped island of Sri Lanka is home otherworldly hikes, cave temples, stunning tea plantations, a rich biodiversity within its many national parks, verdant untouched jungle landscapes, and one of the best coastal topographies on Earth.
Encapsulated by beaches, Sri Lanka has a stretch of sand for every kind of traveler. Resort speckled shores, bohemian surf paradises, and restaurant-lined city beaches each offer different experiences to enthrall backpackers and families alike. And when compared to the packed shores of Goa, India, Sri Lanka’s neighbor to the north, you might find the beaches here peaceful.
On an island of this size, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to visit all of the coastal towns mentioned here. But to fully soak in the atmosphere of each, you should narrow your focus to a handful that suit your travel style. These are some of the best beaches in Sri Lanka for every type of traveler.
For families: Tangalle
As one of the largest beach towns in southern Sri Lanka, Tangalle is an easy add on to most itineraries. Tangelle is a two-hour bus ride from the popular mountain town of Ella, and visiting here proves a relaxing introduction to the Sri Lankan coastline.
Tangalle is one of the most family-friendly and popular beaches in Sri Lanka, and it makes for a safe base to explore the coastline. There’s not a lot to do in Tangalle for the adventurous traveler — the waters here aren’t suitable for surfing and the landscape is too flat for hiking — but you can easily venture to closeby swimmable and scenic beaches such as Goyambokka and Silent Beach.
Most cafes in this area cater to the typical tourist palate — think American and traditional English breakfasts of white toast, jam, and scrambled eggs. That said, The Lounge, located beachside, has some of Tangalle’s best seafood and cocktails made with locally sourced ingredients.
If you’re hoping to start your day with a traditional Sri Lankan breakfast of egg hoppers, sambol, and pani pol (a local breakfast dish that resembles a sugar-filled rolled pancake) make an effort to order the night before with one of the local beachside restaurants and they will accommodate you.
For surfers and fans of dining and drinking on the beach: Hiriketiya
Moving west along the southern coastline you’ll find Hiriketiya. This vibe of this beach town is best described as hippy surf paradise meets trendy cafe.
Hiriketiya is one of the most popular surf destinations in the country, and it’s also an ideal place to learn to surf. For around $3, you can rent a surfboard and join the locals paddling off the U-shaped bay fringed with palm trees. The town itself is small — just a smattering of surf shops, spas, murals, and coworking coffee shops — but the beach is one of the best in the world. A few hotels and beachside cafes serve fresh seafood and provide a backdrop to the sandy stray dogs and sunbathers enjoying arguably the most photogenic beach in all of Sri Lanka.
If the crowds of Hiriketiya Beach get to be too much, venture up the highway 10 minutes via local bus to Dickwella Beach. Hailing a bus is simple. Just wave a hand at the bright blue buses like you would a taxi, and they’ll deliver you up the highway for under a dollar. Dickwella Beach is a vast quiet stretch of sand where you’ll find a handful of thatched wooden shacks serving freshly pressed passionfruit mojitos.
If it’s authentic Sri Lankan cuisine you’re looking for, this town has some of the best. Just a few blocks from the sand of Hiriketiya proper, you’ll find Garlic Cafe. A local and tourist favorite serving a vegetarian buffet of curried delicacies from rustic orange clay pots every evening. For dessert, consider a cup of fresh buffalo curd topped with local honey. It’s the Sri Lankan answer to ice cream and equally as satisfying. The waterfront restaurants are temptingly scenic, but generally offer a more Westernized spin on the local cuisine — if any Sri Lankan food at all.
For true beach lovers: Mirissa
Don’t be scared away by this southern beach town’s Instagram fame. Mirissa is trendy but laid back. If you’re beach-hopping on the southern coast, it’s one of the must-see beaches in Sri Lanka. Yes, it will be busy with tourists, but the sheer size of Mirissa leaves plenty of room for you to enjoy one of the several idyllic beaches in the area: Mirissa, Weligama, and Secret Beach.
Mirissa beach offers a seemingly endless vista of the open ocean from its rock-strewn stretch of sand. This swath of shoreline is perfect for sunbathing or simply watching the sky turn to hues of pink and lavender at sunset. It’s also the closest beach to the town center ensuring the walk from your accommodation is a short one.
But when it comes to the best sunset spots in Mirissa, Parrot Rock wins by a landslide. At low tide, you can climb to its summit for unrivaled panoramic ocean views and a chance to spot some black-tipped sharks in the protected outcroppings. Just make sure you keep an eye on the ever-changing tide or you’ll find yourself marooned on the island.
Another must-visit local attraction near the beach is Coconut Tree Hill, which is a small knoll just outside of town dotted with picturesque skinny palms that’s best enjoyed at sunrise. Visiting at this early hour also ensures that you’ll have fewer tourists to jostle with for the best photo spots.
Secret beach, although not much of a secret, is a local favorite. Shaded and rocky, this tucked-away cove is separated from the town by a short hike down a deeply rutted dirt path. It’s worth the effort if you plan to snorkel, as sometimes turtles and stingrays are spotted in the area.
Weligama beach is the single best beach in the country for first-time surfers. The small rolling waves here don’t hold a candle to Hiriketiya’s crashers, and without coral or a rocky shoreline you’ll have nothing to break your fall but soft sand.
In the town of Mirissa you’ll have the option to dine on sushi, Chinese dim sum, vegan favorites, or local cuisines. No. 1 Dewmini Roti Shop is as authentic as it gets. Once just a simple roadside food cart, Dewmini has now expanded into a lovely family-run restaurant offering Sri Lankan roti and other local staples.
Mirissa is also world-renowned for whale watching. Both grey and fin whales feed year-round in Sri Lanka’s warm southern waters, and hundreds of small whale watching operations eager to capitalize on the native wildlife have sprung up over the years. Raja and the Whales is the most sustainable and ethical whale watching company in the region and an absolute must-do if you plan to visit Mirissa.
For backpackers and bohemian surfers: Unawatuna
Unawatuna is a favorite of backpackers and bohemian surfers alike. Sri Lanka isn’t a huge party destination, but Unawatuna has a vibrant nightlife. This town is also the ideal jumping off point for several famous southern beaches in Sri Lanka, namely, Unawatuna, Wijaya, and Dalawella beach.
Unawatuna Beach is perfect for swimming and lounging while still remaining close to the new trendy cafes and restaurants that have popped up since the 2004 tsunami.
Wijaya Beach is a hot snorkel spot that almost always has a few giant sea turtles milling about in the coral-protected bay. You can spend a day snorkeling here, but the water is so clear and the turtles are often so close to shore you won’t even need to jump in with a mask to see them.
The highlight of a visit to Dalawella beach is swinging high over the ocean on a rope swing attached to a towering palm. Although the rope swing has become a bit of a tourist gimmick, it’s a lovely experience at sunset. The beach itself, although crowded with restaurants, is protected from the waves and great for sunbathing.
Pay a visit to the Unawatuna Japanese Peace Pagoda. Architecturally stunning, this white pagoda stands in stark contrast to the vibrant surrounding jungle and turquoise waters. If you go, be sure to dress appropriately with your shoulders and knees covered at all times.
For travelers looking for an artsy beach town: Galle
Next door to Unawatuna, Galle deserves a spotlight all its own. Cast aside all your expectations of a typical bohemian beach town because Galle is Sri Lankan luxury.
If it wasn’t for this church-strewn cobblestoned town’s deeply European atmosphere you might forget that Sri Lanka was once a Dutch colony. Some highlights of Galle are the postcard ready white lighthouse perched on the pier, the Maritime Archeology Museum, and the white crumbling facade of the Dutch Reformed Church. Pedlar street, lined with boutiques, restaurants, and art galleries, offers some of the best people-watching and shopping in the country. Galle is UNESCO-Heritage recognized which helps to keep the town clean, perfectly preserved and brimming with local artisans.
When the sweltering heat has you searching for sand, Koggala Beach is only a short bus ride away. Here you’ll find a turtle hatchery, a rugged shoreline with tossing waves and lush jungle edges, and often, the iconic stilted Sri Lankan fisherman.
For beach nightlife lovers: Negombo
Leaving the south coast behind, this town sits high on Sri Lanka’s west coast. Just like the southern beaches in Sri Lanka, it’s easily reachable by bus from Colombo.
For travelers who loathe simply lounging on the sand, Negombo is the perfect combination of a modern city beach and a traditional fishing village. Although not quite as urbanized as the capital city of Colombo, Negombo has a thriving nightlife scene and a wide array of restaurants. As for its shoreline, Negombo beach is covered in an impossibly wide expanse of golden sand with a strip of palms separating the city from the sea.
First thing in the morning, Negombo fish market is an experience not to be missed. Small boats careen onto the sand and unload the day’s catch ready to be sliced and dried right on the shore for distribution to the local markets. It’s a view of local life, but be sure to get there early, as it’s all over by 9:00 AM each day.
Most guesthouses and hotels in the area can also arrange boat tours of the Negombo Lagoon and Muthurajawela Marsh, which are close to town. Here, you can spend the day swimming, bird-watching, and weaving through the mangroves that line the lagoon.