Explore our favourite 10 places in gay Sri Lanka

An almond-shaped island dropping south of the subcontinent and into the Indian Ocean is the independent nation of Sri Lanka. Located southwest of the Bay of Bengal, Sri Lanka holds a key position in pan Asian, African and Oceanic trade routes and yet remains inexplicably under-travelled. Promising all of the allure of South Asia, with less chaos and fewer crowds than India, Sri Lanka is a dream destination for anyone searching for something different. Its beaches are on par with Thailand’s; its prices pleasingly low and its unique flavours deeper and more beguiling with every meditative breath. A paradise of many colours with 2,000 years of history, Sri Lanka can tell stories of colonial rule and ancient Hindu kingdoms, to the backdrop of tropical tea plantations and lofty rainforests which rise to misty unknowable heights. Interested? Visit our favourite places in gay Sri Lanka today.

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LGBT Sri Lanka

Technically and somewhat astonishingly, it is illegal to be gay in Sri Lanka, as of 1886 when British colonialists made the ruling. While conservative lawmakers still refuse to repeal the law and the Sri Lankan government can be heard making incendiary comments on the matter, it should be noted that the country’s supreme court declared these laws dormant and unenforced (the last conviction made 60 years ago). Among Sri Lankan society, rather more progressive views prosper and locals are discreetly accepting of same-sex unions.

When looking for Sri Lanka gay information, it is advised to be discreet and acknowledge that most local gays are still closeted. In spite of all of this, the Colombo gay scene is quietly thriving, particularly around the areas of Col 1, Col 3 and Col 7.

Is Sri Lanka safe for LGBTQ travellers?

Sri Lanka’s legal system still upholds some backwards views on gay rights, with anti-gay laws a surprising legacy of colonial times. Be that as it may, Sri Lanka could very well be considered a safe country for gay travellers as locals are – in general – very welcoming and curious of foreigners, regardless of orientation. As a traveller, you shouldn’t worry too much about booking hotels and the like, but as a precaution keep PDA to a minimum in public. On a happy note, we’re pleased to see a growing number of specifically gay hotels popping up in cities like Negombo (see no.10 for more information).

For the native LGBTQ community, however, the rules are a little different and stigma still very much exists in Sri Lankan society. The lack of Sri Lanka gay rights means it is possible for bigots and corrupt officials to discriminate with impunity and this is largely why openly gay locals are hard to come by. Meeting Sri Lankan gay friends and singles is made a little easier however with apps such as Lanka Love, Gay Romeo and, of course, Grindr.

Photo: Ale Romo Photography

Photo: Oliver Sjostrom

Tips for first-time visitors 

With so much to see and do, Sri Lanka holidays should be long and lingering affairs. Take time to soak up the atmosphere on winding train journeys around forested mountains and leisurely overnight treks towards UNESCO-listed ruins. With a chilled agenda, moving through Hill Country will seem much more pleasant. You’ll notice the deceleration of the rail engines as you incline steadily into the mountains, with a similar experience had on slow-moving tuk-tuks and buses serving tea plantations in the region. If you’ve got places to be, however, renting a chauffeured car or even a seaplane may be worth the extra rupees.

While partying is possible, Sri Lanka offers the unique chance to purge the spirit in meditative levels of tranquillity. It’s possible to find a few luxury beach resorts with all the modern amenities, but largely you’ll find that family-run guesthouses are more numerous. Take this opportunity to befriend fellow guests and locals with a supreme knowledge of the region in homely comfort.

It’s not all slow-motion jaunts, however, because Sri Lanka also conceals much adrenalin-packed activity. Find white-water rafting in Kelaniya Ganga and hiking on of the peaks within Knuckles Mountain Range. Surfing on the east coast’s Arugam Bay is also a popular pastime, with end-of-day socialising in bars along the shore, particularly in peak season. Another way to see a side to the country that few others have is to book with a cycling tour operator for a bucket-list-ticking holiday.

If in doubt about where in the country to travel, you should note that the north is the less crowded half of the country, a territory once a Tamil Tiger stronghold and therefore off-limits to tourists for many years. Because of this, you’ll find that the north is somewhat undeveloped, lacking in the diverse hotels and resorts that are available in the south. Despite this slight downside, take a chance in travelling north to find deserted beaches, hidden temples and authentic port towns.

Sri Lankan culture is found all around but it’s the local cuisine that will undoubtedly pique your interest at various points on your trip. Much of the difficulty is in knowing where and what to eat so be sure to make a list of must-try dishes and tick them off as you go. We’d recommend rice crêpes named ‘hoppers’ for brunch, any colourful curry for lunch and the kottu rotty (vegetable flatbread) for dinner. While certain meals are only served at certain times and street food is thin on the ground, the ever-hungry should head back to their guesthouse for the most memorable meals prepared with love.

Photo: Marvin Meyer

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Mosey through Colombo to find grandiose colonial architecture in various states of restoration, as well as shady boulevards leading to open green spaces and cafés overlooking bustling street-side stalls, such as at Pettah Market in district 11

1. Colombo

A sprawling city rooted in colonial legacy, Colombo continues to grow its ambitious plan for cosmopolitan Sri Lanka. Though in the past the city was stifled with the dust of heavy traffic, today Colombo has emerged from the fog with a range of shiny new hotels alongside modern eateries, galleries and shops centred around the ever-developing Galle Road. Though embracing newness, Colombo still retains its old-world charm. Mosey through Colombo to find grandiose colonial architecture in various states of restoration, as well as shady boulevards leading to open green spaces and cafés overlooking bustling street-side stalls, such as at Pettah Market in district 11. Each of the city’s 13 districts is distinct in its own way, with the Fort Area most representative of the city’s diverse tableau of Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists. Once walking becomes too much like hard work, flag a tuk-tuk to complete your tour of Colombo, finishing up at Galle Face Green to watch children fly kites in the peachy light of sunset.

Gay Colombo has no official queer hangouts but nevertheless, the LGBTQ community is certainly active here. Find out about upcoming events through gay dating apps and social media, meeting at gay-friendly spaces such as the Lazaani Hotel. Those looking for a quiet rendezvous should consider the bars and restaurants owned by large chain hotels, as these are places generally more comfortable with same-sex flirtations. Other places to check out include the upmarket jazz clubs, rooftop bars and world-class restaurants studding the skyline.

Colombo | Photo: Brian Kyed

Colombo | Photo: Jalitha Hewage

2. Galle

The journey to Galle is a gift in itself. Take the train from Colombo train station and prepare to embark on one of the most scenic two hours of your life. A rewarding day trip from the capital, Galle allows travellers to drop luggage at the station on arrival, freeing up the body for stress-free exploration of the city’s Dutch colonial setting. Wander the narrow streets to find artsy stores and galleries beside a number of tempting cafés and restaurants. Save time to tour the 17th-century fortifications surrounding the port, winding up on the beachfront by sunset for scenic views beside the old lantern. Those not yet ready to return to the capital can check in to one of the many boutique hotels around the fort or the nearby town of Unawatuna.

3. Mirissa

A one-hour drive from Galle along the gorgeous coastline lies the romantic beach town of Mirissa Sri Lanka, which any tuk-tuk or taxi driver will oblige to take you. From here you can indulge in ultimate relaxation, taking to the beaches along the beautiful south-west coastline between Bentota and Tangalle. As well as taking advantage of the peaceful surfing spots in the area, you should consider Mirissa for its diving tours and whale and dolphin watching safaris. Find ticket vendors along the edge of the beaches or book with ease through your hotel. Follow up your day of marine adventure with delectable seafood treats in candlelight along the beachfront.

Mirissa | Photo: Youhana Nassif

4. Tangalle

Drifting down to the southernmost tip of Sri Lanka, we come across Tangalle, just 1.5 hours’ drive from Mirissa. Slightly more developed than the previous towns, Tangalle is made up of a selection of unfussy guesthouses as well as newer, more luxurious hotels and villas. The best lodgings lie between the coves and beaches along the coastline, with low-key vibes all round. After taking time to traverse the endless stretches of golden sand beaches, venture inland for the town’s top attractions. The OTT shrines of Wewurukannala, the rock temples of Mulkirigala and the impressive Hoo-maniya blowhole can all be combined in a half-day tour, ending at Rekawa Beach for turtle watching and dinner. Bird lovers meanwhile should take their binoculars over to the little-known yet notable Kalametiya Bird Sanctuary, a short way from the grand plateau of Ussangoda.

5. Yala National Park

Prized for its leopard population and its Noah’s Ark of other species including elephant, buffalo, monkey, peacock and more, Yala National Park is wild Sri Lanka at its best. The oldest sanctuary in the country opened in 1900, Yala is also the busiest, and somewhat overrun with jeeps. Despite this, just two sections of the 1,000 square kilometre park are open to visitors, meaning that the rest of the place is free territory for the 44 species of mammal and 215 bird species that reside here. Block one and five are tourist domain, and both, though often crowded, still allow for some incredible encounters with the park’s top residents.

Your best chance for sightings lies in the dry season from February to September when the animals come to the lagoons to drink. In September and October however, the park is closed for maintenance. As well as with its wildlife, Yala National Park also wows its visitors with its diverse landscapes that cover forest, grassland and coastline, with watering holes and metamorphic rock formations spotted throughout. One of the biggest and most photogenic is Elephant Rock in block one. Based just southeast of Colombo, Yala is best accessed from Tangalle, a two-hour drive away by Uber or private car. Getting home after your morning or afternoon safari could be tricky however unless you ask your driver to wait (or join you!) while you do the tour.

Photo: Daniel Klein

6. Udawalawe National Park

The second of our favourite Sri Lanka national parks is Udawalawe, a rather less crowded alternative to Yala. Though just a third of the size of Yala, Udawalawe National Park is still worth your consideration, not least because of its more serene atmosphere. Udawalawe is also the best place in the country to spot wild Asian elephants, with year-round opportunities to catch sight of leopard, buffalo, crocodile, boar and beyond. Here at Udawalawe, the density of wildlife is much higher making it near-certain that you’ll spot at least one of the 700 elephants said to roam the park. If that wasn’t enough, residing here are some 43 other species of mammal, 33 reptile, 184 bird and 135 species of butterfly.

Also boasting equally diverse landscapes, Udawalawe hosts wetlands, scrublands, forests and grasslands, together with mountainous areas and a central body of water; the Udawalawe Reservoir. Though Yala wins most tourists with its much larger concentration of leopards, Udawalawe is a calmer experience equidistant from Tangalle with fewer jeeps on the scene and more chance to find yourself entirely rapt by nature.

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Rural in the best sense of the word, Ella retains its charming small-town feel while also providing a convenient base for further ventures into the mountainous countryside

7. Ella

Next, we move upwards into the luscious mountains at the heart of Sri Lanka’s central tea plantation region, to the little village of Ella. A laid-back escape from the stress of the big cities, Ella Sri Lanka is the place to come for outdoor adventure and a chilled vibe, just two hours inland from Yala National Park. Rural in the best sense of the word, Ella retains its charming small-town feel while also providing a convenient base for further ventures into the mountainous countryside. Be sure to scout out the area’s beauty spots along with a series of hiking trails that begin in the centre. Little Adam’s Peak goes from the entrance to 98 Acres Resort, rewarding trekkers with a shrine to Buddha at the peak and sheer hill-edge views along the way. Slightly more challenging is the hike up to Ella Rock, a 3-4 hour trek from the village train station. Allow plenty of daylight to complete this trek, marvelling at the epic scenery and tea plantation views as you climb.

Other activities to do while in Ella include a lofty walk along the iconic Nine Arch Bridge, towards the dense jungles beyond, or, of course, a proper visit to a tea plantation where you can learn about the history and culture of the local tea culture, greeting the colourfully dressed pickers who work tirelessly amid endless rows of tea. When set to leave Ella, consider departing in style aboard the scenic train which stops at countless other tiny towns within Hill Country, ending at Kandy, the next destination on our list.

Ella | Photo: Egle Sidaraviciute

Photo: Alex Azabache

8. Kandy 

The train ride to Kandy from Ella (or vice-versa) is said to be one of the most beautiful journeys to undertake in Sri Lanka, so it would be mad not to mention both towns. The train takes eight hours to go the entire way but there is also the option of hopping on and off as you please to stop at smaller towns, such as Nuwara Eliya, to grab a bite to eat and appreciate authentic local lifestyles. If going non-stop to Kandy, book your train ticket in advance to avoid disappointment. Despite Kandy being Sri Lanka’s second city, the misty intrigue of the mountain region remains in full force, giving this urban space an otherworldly feel.

The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic is the crowning attraction in Kandy and one of Sri Lanka’s most prized Buddhist relics – from the mouth Buddha himself! The cynical among you who don’t succumb to the mystery of the temple may instead opt to visit the Royal Botanical Garden or Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage which lie slightly further afield by car. Back in Kandy, learn of the importance of this ancient ‘City of Kings’, the last bastion of independent Ceylon before the nation relinquished power to Portuguese and Dutch colonisers in the 16th and 17th century.

Nevertheless, Kandy was able to preserve native culture and customs better than other regions, resulting in unique works of art and architecture which may not have survived elsewhere. With the arrival of British colonisers in the 19th century, Kandy underwent evermore change and now offers a blend of ancient sites, stately gardens and colonial builds, all set to the distinctly Sri Lankan backdrop of emerald hills, lakes and bushels of tea. Spend some days getting lost in the culture of Kandy, staying in the lively downtown area for close access to attractions and the best restaurants, or, opting for more peaceful lodgings on the banks of Kandy Lake or within the Anniewatta area.

Kandy | Photo: Shaun Salmon

9. Polonnaruwa

Ancient capital of Sri Lanka for a total of three centuries, Polonnaruwa is the ultimate destination for history and culture buffs. Positively crammed with temples and ruins in vibrant green jungle surroundings, Polonnaruwa is a UNESCO World Heritage Site once home to Sinhalese royalty, still alive with fables told of the lost kingdom. As well as myriad temples, the city offers stupas, palaces, Buddha statues and more, all centred on the age-old Quadrangle where the Dalada Maluwa (or ‘Terrace of the Tooth Relic’) is ceremoniously set. Perhaps the most ornate building in Sri Lanka, the central shrine here is carved with elaborate figures and gemstones, each detail of sacred meaning. After marvelling at the workmanship in the centre, move outwards to the Lankatilaka and Gal Vihara, each built with their own celestial significance and equally as mesmerising.

As well as buying your tickets at the Polonnaruwa Museum, be sure to head inside to better understand the history of the archaeology above. After several hours of history, calm your mind with a trip out to Minneriya and Kaudulla national parks. While impressive all year round, these parks are best during dry season when herds of elephants gather to drink. At Minneriya, don’t miss the so-called ‘gathering’, a famed event promising elephant sightings. Those who could never tire of the region’s ancient ruins may also like to explore the other two Ancient Cities of Sri Lanka, Sigiriya and Anuradhapura, the latter just 3 hours’ drive from Polonnaruwa.

Photo: Oliver Sjostrom

Photo: Tharaka Jayasuriya

10. Negombo

A calmer alternative to the capital with just as many beaches is the friendly resort town of Negombo. A popular first stop on the gay Sri Lanka travel itinerary, Negombo offers the chance to grow accustomed to the frenetic energy of the nation amidst stunning coastline and colonial-era architecture. Conveniently located just 10 kilometres from Bandaranaike International Airport, Negombo also offers a decent cache of hotels and restaurants at all scales of budget. Choose between five-star resorts hosting Sri Lanka massage spas or more homely guesthouses which overlook the seafront. Enjoy the amenities of the city and all kinds of water sports on unhurried beach days or take a leisurely boat tour along the canals connecting Negombo Lagoon to the sea. Here you’ll find historical buildings surrounding the Dutch-era harbour, all showcasing Negombo’s past as a key exporter of cinnamon to the world.

Heavily influenced by the Dutch and Portuguese, Negombo offers many churches and a friendly community of Catholics who refer to the city as ‘Little Rome’. Despite religious influence, Negombo is one of the country’s most liberal areas and the heart of gay Lanka. Despite national laws muting explicit LGBT culture, gay Negonmo does offer a few unofficial gay hotels, such as the male-only Gomez Place and gay-friendly “adult-only” Dickman and Binnacle hotel resorts. By day, Negombo Beach is a popular gay hangout which turns into a slightly riskier cruising spot for so-called ‘beach boys’ (or escorts) at dusk.

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