Sri Lanka has many cities and towns. Below is a selection of the most important to travelers.
See also: Sacred sites of the Indian sub-continent
Tropical monsoon; northeast monsoon (December to March) only affects east coast; southwest monsoon (June to October) affects mostly the west coast and mountains.
Mostly low, flat to rolling plain; mountains in south-central interior.
Highest point: Pidurutalagala 2,524 m
The Sinhalese arrived in Sri Lanka late in the 6th century B.C., probably from northern India. Buddhism was introduced beginning in about the mid-3rd century B.C. and a great civilization developed at such cities as Anuradhapura (kingdom from c. 200 B.C. to c. 1000 A.D.) and Polonnaruwa (c. 1070 to 1200).
Occupied by the Portuguese in the 16th century and by the Dutch in the 17th century, the island was ceded to the British in 1796 and became a crown colony in 1802. As Ceylon, it became independent in 1948; the name was changed to Sri Lanka in 1972.
Tensions between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil separatists erupted in violence in the mid-1980s, killing over 70,000. After a shaky ceasefire between 2001 and 2008, open warfare erupted again, with the Tamil Tigers finally surrendering in 2009. It remains to be seen whether winning the war can be parlayed into lasting peace as well.
Sri Lankan Airlines  - Flight code UL - Is the national flagship carrier operating to and from Colombo-Bandaranayake. Flights are available from origins throughout Europe, Southeast Asia, China, Japan, the Middle East, India, and Pakistan. UL also flies to the nearby resort areas of Goa, India and the Maldives.
Sri Lankan also code shares with Emirates Airlines of the United Arab Emirates. This allows for connections from places UL doesn't fly to itself, such as North America.
Qatar Airways had become a popular choice from Europe to Sri Lanka by 2008, and the Indian carrier Kingfisher Airlines further improved choice in early 2009 when it opened a Bangalore route to Colombo that enabled easy links to Sri Lanka from the Uk via India.
Other airlines include Singapore, Malaysia, Thai, Cathay Pacific, Saudi Arabian, LTU (Germany), and Edelweiss Air (Switzerland).
There are no direct flights outside of Asia (incl. Middle East) and Europe. From the west coast of the USA/Canada, the distance is almost half-way around the world. Depending on your preferences, and how much spare time you have, consider a stopover in Europe or SE Asia. Another option (for both coasts) is the non-stop flights over the north pole to New Delhi or Mumbai, India from Atlanta, Chicago, Newark, New York City, or San Francisco. In many cases, this may be the fastest route, but check if an Indian transit visa is required.
You can take Indian Shipping lines cargo and passenger ship from Trivandrum cheaper than the planes. Sri Lanka port authority  has information.
The most common mode of transport in Sri Lanka is via a three-wheeled automobile appropriately referred to as a three-wheeler (Tri-Shaw). Also known as Tuk-Tuks from the noise of their motors. These operate in a manner similar to taxis, and is a highly cost-efficient way to get around. However, three-wheelers have been linked to many illegal and criminal activities, including an assasination attempt on a foreign ambassador, in the recent past.
Rented cars usually turn out cheaper than three-wheelers, and are less prone to road accidents--and are recommended by most hotels.
Rented cars often come with their own drivers. Often the automobile itself is free, whereas the driver will charge a fee for his services. Some drivers/guides are government-licensed; some are extremely knowledgeable and multi-lingual, specializing in historical and cultural knowledge, and environment/natural history for your visits to the ancient sites and the natural reserves.
Tour Operators are happy to get you a van and a driver who will take you all over the island but beware, the roads are bumpy and slow. If you book off-the-cuff when you arrive, ask to be shown on a map where you are going before agreeing to any 'tour' of the island and research before you arrive so that you have a clear idea of where you might like to travel. Senseless backtracking to lengthen the trip and increase the cost is a real danger, as is a driver's wish to take you on unwanted shopping expeditions in an effort to gain commission. Travel websites specialising in Sri Lanka are easily found and have greatly increased the choice that is readily available to independent travellers seeking tailor-made tours. The best of them will produce clearly-stated travel itineraries and some are flexible enough to make late changes to itineraries. Ask to see their Booking Conditions and anti-fraud policies.
Taxis (011 2556556, 011 2377677, 011 2818818, 0112588588, 0112 688688) are a better way of getting around Colombo than three wheelers as, due to the metering, they often turn out to be cheaper. Rates are about USD0.55 and they have full day packages (approx 8 hours and 80km) for around USD 40.
They will also take you outstation for around USD 0.30-0.35 per km with no waiting charges. You can also set up your own itenary and travel around that way as opposed to whatever the tour operator tells you.
For those on a budget buses are everywhere. They're ridiculously crowded and massively uncomfortable, but they get you around for almost nothing; it costs about a dollar to get half-way across the island. If you're planning on splashing out, AC buses run most routes for twice the price, which offer air-conditioning and a guaranteed seat. However, they're still uncomfortable. Bus stations are confusing places, especially the big ones, but almost everyone will be delighted to practice their English and help you. Also, when travelling by bus, it is local etiquette in most buses to provide or give up the very front passenger seats to members of the clergy such as monks or priests if they are present.
(see warning in the stay safe section) Trains also run in some places - these can be slower than buses, depending if you are on a line that offers an express train or not, but more comfortable and picturesque and even less expensive than buses.
Sri Lanka has an extensive railway system serving all major towns and cities in the island except for the North. There are special Observation cars for tourists that like to take in the scenery.
The Railway system in Sri Lanka is very picturesque when entering the hill country because of the winding tracks along the mountains especially on the Badullu-Nanu Oya line. Make sure, if you can, to sit on the right side of the train, as it offers the better view.
Sri Lankan Airlines operates small Seaplane service to destinations such as Nuwara Eliya, Kandy, Galle and many more locations. This is perfect for Photography trips because you can get a bird's eye view of the island and takes less time to get to a destination than using the road. Also the seaplanes land on picturesque lakes and tanks around the island.
Aero Lanka operates domestic flights between Colombo-Ratmalana, Jaffna and Trincomalee
The majority of Sri Lankans speak Sinhala, with Tamil as the second language. English is commonly used by government and tourism officials. Don't expect everyone, everywhere to be able to speak it fluently. It's much more common in the beach and tourist areas. Most people in rural villages cannot speak any English, beyond a few simple words.
Sinhala writing is much more curved than Tamil. After a while, you'll learn how to distinguish between the two.
The currency is the Sri Lankan Rupee. The exchange rates are approximately 117Rs/ USD, or 160Rs/ EUR. There are coins for 25 and 50 cents (bronze), 1 rupee (old version is big and silver, new version is small and gold,) 2 rupees (silver,) and 5 rupees (gold,) as well as banknotes ranging from 10- 2000 rupees. Coins that are more than a few years old are typically in quite bad condition.
Handicrafts Of Sri Lanka. For reed, cane, cotton, paper, leather, wood, clay, metal, and gemstones have been transformed and re-expressed in a array of batiks, toys, curios and jewelery, all exquisite hand made treasures.
Credit cards and ATMs
ATMs are located in many places (specially at bank branches) in the cities and suburbs, less so in the countryside.
You can withdraw from debit cards too (Cirrus, Maestro, Visa Electron etc) where the logos are displayed - so no need to carry wads of US dollars when entering the country.
Sri Lanka and South Indian food share a lot in common, and many local restaurants will describe their menus as Sri Lankan & South Indian. There are a number of regional variations thought, the different types of hopper, devilled prawns/cuttlefish/chicken/etc. and the common fiery addition to any curry, pol sambol made of grated coconut, red chilli powder and lime juice.
The food is very cheap generally, with a cheap meal costing about a dollar. The most expensive, tourist-orientated places seldom charge more than ten dollars. The staple food of Sri Lankans is rice and curry - a massive mound of rice surrounded by various curries and delicacies. If you want to eat a cheap lunch you can follow the Sri Lankan crowds and duck into any of a million small cafes, confusingly called 'Hotels'. These normally sell a rice and curry packet, as well as 'short eats', a collection of spicy rolls. This is ideal for backpackers and those who want to get past the touristy hotels selling burnt chicken and chips - you're charged by how much you eat, and unless you're absolutely ravenous it probably won't cost over a dollar.
Kottu (Kothu) Roti (a medley of chopped roti, vegetables and your choice of meat) is a must-have for anyone - tourist or otherwise - in Sri Lanka. It is uniquely Sri Lankan and tastes best when made fresh by street vendors.
Note that Sri Lankans eat with their right hands - this isn't a major problem, because everywhere will be able to provide cutlery if you can't eat otherwise. But try the Sri Lankan way (tips of fingers only!), it's harder than it looks but strangely liberating.
There are many upscale restaurants to choose from in the city of Colombo. There are many fine dining restaurants at the 5 star hotels which offer both Local and International cuisine.
Fast-food outlets such as KFC, Pizza Hut etc. can be found in Colombo and Kandy.
Water is not always healthy for unseasoned travelers, and so it is recommended that either purifying tablets or bottled water be used whenever possible. Fresh milk, due to the climate, spoils easily, and so is often very expensive. Powdered milk, however, is safe and is often substituted.
Thambli the juice from King Coconut, is very refreshing. It's sold at the side of streets throughout the island, you know it's clean as the coconut is cut open in front of you and it's cheaper than bottled drinks at about R20/- each.
Soft drinks are available almost everywhere, normally in dusty-looking glass bottles. The local producer, Elephant, make a range of interesting drinks - try the ginger beer and cream soda.
"Coca Cola" and "Pepsi" also available in large and small sizes (plastic bottles) including several local soft drink brands - all available at rapidly multiplying supermarkets all across the country and grocery shops.
The most common local beer is Lion Lager. For something a bit different try Lion Stout. It is characterized by it's tar-like oiliness of body and chocolate finish. Other brews include Three Coins, which is brewed by the Mt Lavinia hotel chain, allegedly to a Belgian recipe.
The traditional spirit is Arrack, which costs about 4 USD for a bottle, and is often drunk with ginger beer. The quality can vary depending on how much you want to pay. However, widely recommended brand would be "Old Reserve" and worth paying 7.5 USD for it.
Sri Lanka accommodation has been transformed in recent years. What would be recognised as the modern tourist industry began in the 1960s with traditional beach hotels built on the west coast which were aimed primarily at the package holiday crowd and traditional travel operators. But the past decade has brought a major change, with the growth of villas, boutique hotels, and small independent and individualistic properties offering a huge array of choice.
Meditation You may find monasteries and meditation centers that offer meditation courses (generally free of charge) in the Buddhist Publication Society guide: www.bps.lk/other_library/information_sri Lanka_monasteries_2008_jan.pdf
Sri Lanka's lengthy and bloody civil war seems to come to an end in May 2009, when the Sri Lankan army finally defeated the rebel group Tamil Tigers. It is still way too early to assess if the broader conflict between the hinduistic tamil minority and the buddhist sinhalese majority will now be settled in the political arena. The northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka are likely to remain under strict military control for a considerable time. Some areas may contain land mines, and the facilities in cities and towns are war torn.
Bombings and assassinations were a firm part of the Tigers' repertoire, and there is heavy security in all sensitive locations. While the separatists have never targeted tourists and none have ever been killed, a few have been wounded by terrorist actions. In general, though, traffic accidents should be a greater concern than terrorism.
Violent crime is not a serious problem for tourists in Sri Lanka. As in most tourist locations, beware of pickpockets, and don't leave valuables unguarded. Women should not be alone at night on the beach or streets. There has been a slight increase in violent crimes involving tourists in the past few years, but it is still rare.
Con artists and touts are a serious problem throughout all tourist areas. Using the services of a tout for accommodation, local travel, etc. will most likely increase the price. First time travelers to Sri Lanka may find themselves the victim of scams, however seasoned travelers to Sri Lanka are very rarely scammed and it is simple to avoid becoming a victim of scammers by taking precautions:
Also, beware of single males who wish you to accompany them after a religious service. First, ask other members if the person is honest and reliable. Dishonest Sri Lankans (mostly male) are very adept at talking tourists out of their money, and generally prefer this method over violence. They frequent the Galle Face Road area surrounding the tourist hotels, Galle Face Hotel and the Holiday Inn. Their "modus operandi" is to tell you upfront that they don't want anything from you, only to talk. There may be an auspicious day occurring in Sri Lanka and they will use this to coerce you to accompany them to a temple or church. They will wine, dine, and pay for everything, and then, after two days, will begin to extort money from you.
Although snake bites are extremely rare among tourists (comparable to being struck by lightning), anyone bitten should seek prompt medical care. This is true even if the bite doesn't result in any pain and swelling.
There are several customs that (for Westerners) take a bit of getting used to.
The country code for Sri Lanka is 94. Remove the '0' from a Sri Lankan number beginning with '0' (ie 0112 688 688 becomes 94 112 688 688) when dialling from abroad.