As someone who loves the beach, I spent a good deal of my time in Sri Lanka exploring beaches (now I’ve gotta go back to explore more tourist sights). I actually had no idea so many beaches existed in the country, but was pleasantly surprised when I found out they do. I tried to steer clear of the most popular spots, which are primarily those closer to Colombo. My search took me first to the East Coast to Arugam Bay in the super-off season, south to Tangalle, and westward from there. I even made an aggressive move up north to Trincomalee.
Sketchier than expected in the off-season, with fishing boats galore.
Arugam Bay is a super-rad surf spot full of fun! And parties! Waves and beautiful beaches! Or so the internet said. I was excited to transit out there even though it’s a bit of a long haul (4 buses), thinking it’d be less crazy than some of the hotspots like Unawatuna and Weligama. However, I can’t say I get the hype. In the off season it was, eloquently put, sketchy AF. The town is one of those “dusty” fishing village types as LP might generously describe it. It is a bit rustic, with brambles on the beach and some beautiful fishing boats and real life fishermen. But, as beautiful as these little fishing towns are, they also tend to have a bit of an undertone of the undesirable sort. When I arrived the harassment began sooner than desired (never) and I only felt more on edge when I discovered I was the only one staying in my highly-unsecured home stay. By day I saw 6 other tourist as it was off season, and there were a few too many “strange people watching me sunbathe” incidents. The one night I had to walk back after dark and I was literally terrified. So…did I love Arugam bay? Gonna go with a no. But there were some really cool parts including the remote dusty Pasarichenai Beach where I saw zero people, the little local hotels nestled in the neighborhoods, and notably the adorable children saying “hi” and waving around every corner, actually happy to see you.
You can also take a walk (or a quick tuk tuk if you aren’t as cheap as me) the few miles to Pottuvil, which is a very authentic town (read: not a tourist town) with places to have lunch for cheap and a market. It also has some interesting beach-side temples including ruins of the Buddhist Muhudu Maha Vihara and a beachfront mosque. Also, there are many goats in the streets. I found it quite a good place to explore, but the beach wasn’t necessarily ideal for swimming or tanning.
Amazing and quite possibly my new favorite beach in the world.
Tangalle is amazing. It really might be my new favorite beach (sorry, Nusa Penida) in all the world, as nutso as that sounds given I didn’t even know Sri Lanka had beaches until I visited.
After spending a few terrifying nights as the only guest in my lodging in Arugam Bay, I was determined to find a popular place to stay. Or at least a spot where I was not the only guest. I hopped off my bus and hit the street on foot, waving off tuk-tuk drivers and people trying to sell me “budget accommodation.” I started scoping out the many guesthouses, all of which looked the same. Generally I book at least a few minutes in advance, but I decided to try my changes this time. The result was stellar. Some amazing, cheap, beachfront accommodations – $11-20 for a private room with balcony, AC and maybe even food.
Tangalle’s beaches are amazing. Sprawling, not crowded at all, with pristine blue water and clean sand with not many people. There are some great beachfront bars and restaurants with free chairs with purchase, and if you want to get away from people you can walk 4+ miles down the beach to other empty, stunning beaches. From Tangalle you can also reach many other beaches which only have a handful of visitors (or zero if you go around 6-7am). Some of these beautiful and pristine beaches include Goyambokka and Silent Beach to the east, and a bit further out are Talla Beach and Mawella. To the west, accessible on foot, are Marakolliya Beach and Rekawa Beach – those you can walk to if you start walking left down Tangalle’s beach.
Dickwella & Hiriketiya Beach
Expansive beach with calm waters actually suitable for swimming! Plus terrible neighbor, Hiriketiya.
Dikwella beach is beautiful, but it has a different vibe than Tangalle which had already stolen my heart as one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. Dikwella is pretty empty, an expansive beach with very calm waters in which you can swim. This is important because it’s too rough in many areas in Sri Lanka and you may be dragged out to sea. And who wants to be dragged out to sea? Probably no one. The water is clean and not too cloudy. The coast is dotted with rustic thatched beach huts with wooden chairs, but they seem grosser, more barren, perhaps, than say those at Tangalle (<3). You can buy the requisite king coconut for a buck and stay all day, and of course order food or drinks if it’s in budget.
If you walk to the other side of Dickwella you’ll find a fancy resort, with some trees out front which I squatted under for free. You can also walk around the rocky outcropping to two little bay beaches, which become increasingly “rustic” (gross) as you go around. If you do this I do not suggest scaling the rocks barefoot to get there…turns out there is incidentally a very nice path right behind the resort, which I failed to discover until after a strenuous, treacherous climb along slick rocks covered in sea creatures and a minor bloody foot wound.
There is a beautiful co-working spot called Verse Collective at Dickwella, which is uppity but great. The town of Dickwella is a highlight, too, with some local spots to eat, a small market, and a bustling bus station. There is of course a Cargills Food City (in Sri Lanka, when is there not), a fancy pharmacy, and arguably the best part is the Wewurukannala Vihara Temple with a massive golden buddha made from mosaics.
Right next to Dickwella is Hiriketiya Beach. Things I read about this said it was a cool surf spot, not yet discovered, had a cute village vibe. I must report this is totally false. It has been discovered. By a lot of people. It was absolutely overrun; there wasn’t anywhere to lay on the sand and the concentration of people in the water was disturbing. Off putting when you can literally walk 10 minutes to Dikwella and have a very peaceful experience. Maybe you don’t want that… but I wouldn’t recommend “Hiri” by any means. Accommodation surrounding the area (not even beachfront) also seemed inflated compared; it was certainly more upmarket than some other areas I visited and people more stylish. I guess it depends what you are looking for.
Matara & Surrounds
Matara, Polhena, Madhia, too
Matara Beach is vile, unsurprisingly, as it’s located next to a bustling city and city beaches tend not to be ideal. There is an amazing, albeit treacherous, bridge out to an island with a temple on it, which I’d argue is the spot’s highlight. The bottom of the bridge is rusted with holes and some wooden planks covering them. Buses lean off the edge, leaking fuel and fumes. The beach itself is fine, but it’s so close to the air pollution and buildings it lacks a relaxing beach appeal. Not far off are two other tourist beaches, Polhena and Madiha.
Polhena Beach is disgusting. Lonely Planet says “it is the nicest beach in this area” but, as per usual, Lonely Planet is wrong. It has a slight apocalyptic feel, and the stray dogs there are quite scary. One touched my legs and I spent 4 hours debating whether I needed the rabies shot because it was very questionable.
Madiha Beach looks pretty, but the swimming isn’t ideal as there is a lot of coral debris which is painful on the feet! There are also some rocky patches. You cannot walk (or run) the length of the beach without being interrupted by rocky outcroppings, so …yikes! There is a popular hostel/bar called Doctor’s Bar which is only cool because it’s located in this amazing old fort. But it is not a good value.
Trincomalee & Uppuveli
Gritty to upscale, plus a fish market and temples.
I really liked Trincomalee! I went in the off-season so it was very empty, but I didn’t feel weird like I did in Arguam Bay. The city has a gritty and dirty feel to it, and is home to hundreds of spotted deer with antlers roaming about. Sometimes the deer eat trash, and sometimes weird black crows land on them while they eat trash. Cool. There is a very popular fish market right in the heart of the city, where men sell their slimy catches on blue tarps. I saw some small sharks being chopped up, maybe this is not legal, but everyone was quite nice in there. There is also a stunning temple, Thirukkoneswaram Kovil New Temple, on an outcropping downtown, with views off the cliffs into the blue-blue water. There is a wet market too, of course, and some excellent local hotels (try Hotel New Trinco) where roti and sambol is oh-so-very cheap and delicious.
I stayed up north by Uppuveli Beach, which had a bit of a rustic feel on the side streets and some fancier lodging on the beachfront. It was quite pretty and not overly developed, and Fernando’s Bar was a cool place to hang/do some work beachside. While I was there there was an ongoing power outage town-wide, which made for quite the experience. Up even further north is the fancy and not-crowded Nilaveli, where the expensive accommodation is. I didn’t get quite this far, but heard it’s very secluded with few people. I highly recommend going out to Pigeon Island – one of the only places you can see reef sharks while snorkeling. I think it’s a bit crowded and touristy these days, but the shark sightings sound worth dealing with the masses. I tried to go several times but the seas were rough and Sri Lanka actually cares about safety and thus the boats wouldn’t go.
There are many more beaches up the west coast which I did not go to, but merely glimpsed out the window of my bus (my face got covered in pollution, to be clear). Of theI m Mirissa/Weligama/Midigama trio (all in close proximity) I heard Midigama is the best beach-wise and Mirissia is the worst town-wise and all three are quite touristy. I guess that Galle isn’t actually a swimming beach but where the old fort is, so if you’re trying to get some beach time near there you’d actually go to Unawatu. Hirikkia is the party place, apparently, although i cannot back this up with firsthand experience or secondhand testimonial. Benota is supposed to be nice, a pristine stretch of beach surprisingly not too crowded despite being near the big city.
To be updated once I make my return to Sri Lanka and visit more beaches!