The best time for travelling is November to mid April, when it's mainly dry on the south and west coasts (the main beach areas). The central highlands are pleasantly cool and relatively dry from January to April. However, December to March is also the height of the tourist season in Sri Lanka, so many visitors find the island quieter and much cheaper out of season. The best time for diving on the southwest coast is December to February, when the water is generally calm and clear.
On the west and south coasts, the rainy season is from the end of April to October. The heaviest rainfall is usually between May to mid June and October to November, with July, August and September being relatively drier, though still with low season prices. In recent years the seasons have been erratic! Rain varies from light and refreshing to prolonged downpours which can disrupt travel. However, it shouldn't rain all the time and a mix of sunshine, cloud and rain is the norm. Temperatures remain the same throughout the year.
In July/August Kandy hosts the island's most spectacular festival, the 10-day Esala Perahera, which is one of the most important religious festivals in Asia.
Sri Lanka must have more holidays than anywhere else in the world - about 72 including Sundays. All important Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian, as well as national festivals, are celebrated. Every full moon (Poya) day is also a Buddhist holiday. On these days all public places of entertainment are closed and no alcohol is sold. However, hotels make special arrangements for guests.
Some of the key festivals are:
Duruthu poya - a colourful festival in Colombo, held in January
Navam poya - Colombo's grandest parade, held in February
Esala Perahera - Sri Lanka's most spectacular festival, held in Kandy, which climaxes with dancers and drummers in colourful local costumes. It lasts 10 days in July/August, leading up to the full moon day (Esala Poya).
Sri Lanka standard time is 4 1/2 hours ahead of GMT in summer and 5 1/5 hours ahead of GMT in winter.
NB, please do not rely solely on this information for your travel planning.
From the UK: carriers include Sri Lankan Airlines and British Airways. Or via the Middle East with Emirates Airlines, Qatar Airways and Royal Jordanian.
From Europe: via the Middle East with Emirates Airlines and Qatar Airways.
FROM THE AIRPORT: There's a train service and buses run from the airport to the city, but the easiest option is to get a taxi or arrange a transfer through your hotel.
CAR AND DRIVER: If you can afford it and have limited time, we would recommend hiring a car with a driver as the best way to see the country. It's cheaper than hiring a self-drive car and the drivers usually arrange their own accommodation and food. Enquire through Tailormade Tours.
INTERNAL FLIGHTS: with SriLankan Airlines' air taxi service or with Cinnamon Air's air taxi service.
BY BUS: Travelling by bus is a cheap way to get around, but buses can be very overcrowded and uncomfortable.
BY TRAIN: Rail travel is generally slower and more expensive than buses, but is far more comfortable. We'd recommend doing a train journey at some stage as they can be super scenic. See Seat61 for more details.
BY TAXI: A large number of 3-wheelers (tuk-tuks) operate on the roads. Agree to a rate before starting your journey and make sure the driver has a clear idea of your destination.
Ensure that your passport is valid for at least 6 months beyond the date of your arrival. A visa valid for 30 days is issued on arrival at no cost for visitors from most nations, including European countries, the USA, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
From January 2012, electronic travel authorisation will replace tourist visas for visitors from most countries (excluding Singapore and the Maldives). This must be obtained online prior to travel and is valid for 30 days.
Since malaria is a risk in most rural areas, it's advisable to take a course of anti-malaria drugs and take all possible measures to avoid being bitten.
Immunisation against polio, tetanus, typhoid and hepatitis A is also recommended.
In general, standards of hygiene in Sri Lanka are reasonable and visitors who follow a few basic rules should have a completely healthy stay. Don't drink tap water or ice made from it - bottled water is available at most hotels. Avoid dairy products made with unboiled milk and only eat well-cooked meat and fish, preferably served hot. Pork, salad and mayonnaise may carry increased risk. Vegetables should be cooked and fruit should be peeled.
Tipping is expected in Sri Lankan hotels, even when the service is included, and staff rely on it. Assuming you have enjoyed your stay, a tip of 500 Rupee (about US$5) per day seems a reasonable figure (in 2010). This is either put into a common tip box at reception, or if there isn't one, distributed among porters, waiting/bar staff and room boys (you might need some small notes). For carrying your bags to your room, 100 Rupee suffices. For chauffeurs and guides outside hotels, a reasonable figure might be 1000-2000 Rupee (US$5-10) per full day (in 2010), depending on how satisfied you were.
If you take photographs of Buddha statues never pose alongside them. This would be considered a sign of disrespect. And if you encounter a Buddhist monk distinguished by his yellow robe do not expect him to pose for pictures or attempt to shake hands with him.
Sri Lanka is a great place to travel with children - the Sri Lankan people love kids and they're welcome almost everywhere. Places to stay and eat cater for children as a matter of course.
There are lots of opportunities for seeing animals, in particular elephants - a great place to take children is the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage between Kandy and Colombo, although we've heard mixed reports about the treatment of the elephants lately. The turtle hatcheries on the south coast are also fun for children. And if it gets too hot on the coast you can always escape to the cooler hill country. All the places we recommend in Kandy and the hill country welcome children.