Sri Lanka, that tiny island nation that emerged from civil war in 2009, might seem like an exotic destination for family travel, but more and more parents are discovering it as a worthwhile and easy place to visit with kids.
What makes it truly special—and easy for families— is that it offers a wealth of diverse cultural and natural attractions. It has world-class beaches, rain forests, tea estates and ancient cities, all in a country about the size of West Virginia. Knowing that nothing is more than a few hours away makes traveling with young kids seem doable.
We found plenty of comfortable family friendly hotels and resorts that were good values. But families can also do Sri Lanka safely and well on a backpacker budget, too.
Here is what we most enjoyed doing and seeing when we visited Sri Lanka with a 2-year-old.
How To Explore Sri Lanka With A PreSchooler
Tour Sri Lanka’s Capitol
Colombo, the capitol city, is worth spending at least a day in. It’s a good place to start or end your trip as it’s about an hour from the airport. We didn’t find a lot of things to do with kids, but these were three of our favorite spots:
The Galle Face Green (left) is a promenade that stretches for about a quarter mile along the coast in the city’s business district. The lawn is scraggly but there is a stroller-friendly walkway. Our toddler loved look at all the sidewalk vendors selling cheap food and toys. The wind catcher we got for 50 cents entertained him for many hours. This is also the spot where caught a spectacular sunset.
Independence Memorial Hall commemorates Sri Lankan independence from the British in 1948. The open stone pavilion is based on Celebration Hall where Sri Lankan royalty held audiences prior to British occupation the early 1900s. The large stone lions that stand guard around the hall intrigued our 2-year-old. And the surrounding park is also one of the best places in the city to let kids run free.
The Dutch Hospital is an open-air structure built during the Dutch Colonial period (roughly the late 1600s). It’s recently found new life as an outdoor dining and shopping pavilion. Our toddler ran around the courtyard exploring and checking out the other kids while we got to sit and enjoy a variety of very good good. Offering include a tap house, European and other Asian food as well as Sri Lankan options. Head there for dinner and enjoy the refreshing evening breeze.
Hit the Beach
Bentota, Hikkaduwa, Unawatuna and Galle are well known beach destinations on the southern coast. A new highway can take you from Colombo to Galle in a quick 90 minutes. The local Galle Road is a longer, slower route but is more scenic and has small towns along the way for breaking up the drive.
This is the are to visit when you need a break from sightseeing, and where you’ll find the most for kids to do. We based ourselves in Hikkaduwa but got the flavor of the other beach towns by making day trips.
The beaches offer glistening water, crashing waves and soft, yellow sand and are great for taking walks on in the morning and evening. You won’t find lifeguards, but the beaches surrounded by reefs were calm enough for sage playing and swimming, especially at low tide. The sun is too hot for the beach at midday so we relaxed by the pool or explored the small shops, restaurants and spas in Hikkaduwa and Unawatuna.
We noticed advertisements for turtle hatcheries and chose to visit the Kosgoda Sea Turtle Conservation Project, a sanctuary with a lot of volunteer support. This was a great opportunity to see many types of turtles and learn how they nurture turtle eggs underground.
Skip the glass bottom boat tours. Constantly looking down made our toddler dizzy and the coral reefs off of Hikkaduwa are severely damaged and not worth the hefty prices quoted to tourists.
Built by the Portuguese in the late16th century and fortified by the Dutch from the 17th to 19th centuries, the Galle Fort (left) is a UNSECO World heritage site and one of the most historically significant monuments on the southern coast. The Dutch architecture has been beautifully preserved (even after the 2004 Tsunami) and it sheds light on the European influence on Lankan culture.
We arrived in the evening, but still had time to enjoy ocean views from the lighthouse, tour the museum and churches and watch a beautiful sunset before stopping for a snack at Pedlar’s Inn, a stylish café inside the fort.
Explore Sri Lanka’s Interior
The interior offers lush mountain landscapes and a glimpse at local history dating as far back as 900BC. We based ourselves in Kandy, the second largest city and another UNESCO site, about three hours inland from Colombo. It’s a surprisingly easy place to visit with a toddler. It’s low-key and the sightseeing is easy to do even with a toddler. Older kids would enjoy what we did even more, I think.
The Temple of the Tooth (right) houses a tooth relic of the Buddha. We got to see local people engaging in Buddhist rituals such as offering flowers, lighting lamps and chanting prayers. A good guidebook can help you interpret the temple’s design, symbols and cultural references.
Kandy Lake is a 19th century man-made lake alongside the temple. The path around the lake is perfect for an evening stroll. We took in the beauty of the temple and the city while our toddler explored the aptly named cloud wall that surrounds the lake.
The Peradeniya Botanical Gardens are a great respite from the busy streets of Kandy. Dating back to the 14th century they were destroyed and rebuilt by the British in the 1800s. We got to see many species of native Sri Lanka flowers and herbs. A troop of monkeys roaming the gardens was the highlight for our toddler.
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Anuja De Silva loves to inspire families to have new experiences through travel. She lives in Hudson Valley, New York with her husband and toddler son and works full time in technology development. She makes the most of her weekends and vacation time to discover fun things to do and new places to see. She is always on the look out for eclectic and affordable activities that can help her raise a cosmopolitan kid. You can read her blog,Where is Little D, and about her travels on TravelingMOM.com. You can also follow her on Twitter.