For such a small country, Sri Lanka’s climate varies considerably from one region to another. Whether you’re into hot, sunny days on the beach or cold, misty, mountain air requiring a hat, gloves and a warm winter coat, this tiny teardrop island has the perfect weather for everyone and provides an excellent place to live all year around. Average temperatures across the island stay relatively stable throughout the year. Coastal areas usually average between 25 to 30 C and between 15 and 18C in the highlands.
Sri Lanka has two distinct monsoon seasons, which are the primary influence on the climate. From around May to September, the west and south-west coasts experience their highest rainfall as the south-western monsoon moves in. In contrast, the east coast and northern region have their wettest season between October and January/February. So, when one part of the country gets a little too rainy for your liking, you can always head to the other side and continue to enjoy warm, sunny days.
Even during the wet season, the rain tends to come in short, sharp bursts rather than a constant all day downpour. Frequently, the heat and humidity will build up during the day and then culminate in an afternoon or evening thunderstorm that cools things down and makes for a comfortable night’s sleep. (Much the same as it does in northern parts of Australia and other parts of Asia.)
For those who grow weary of the tropical heat, the highlands and atmospheric hill stations provide the opportunity for a cooler existence or a romantic escape, snuggled up in front of a fire.
Note: As with much of the world’s weather, the locals will tell you the seasons are changing. The following summary of Sri Lanka’s climate is based on history and my own experience between January and March in 2018.
Colombo and the West, South West and Southern Coasts
This area includes the new wind and kite-surfing mecca, Kalpitiya around 170 kilometres north of the capital Colombo, down through Negombo, Bentota, Hikkaduwa, Galle, Mirissa and onto Tangalle, approximately 200 kilometres to the southeast.
The driest weather in this part of the country occurs between November and April, although it’s not unusual to get a refreshing thunderstorm at the end of the day at any time of the year.
Maximum daytime temperatures in Colombo hover around 30 C year-round, with nighttime lows around 23 C. The beach locations can feel a little cooler due to sea breezes. Bright sunny days, white sandy beaches and turquoise blue waters make this part of the world a haven for those seeking respite from the winter chills in the northern hemisphere and the scorching Australian summer during the dry season.
Kandy and The Highlands
This region is influenced by both monsoon seasons and therefore sees rain throughout the year, although annual rainfall totals less than that on the coast. Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second biggest city, is much lower in altitude (450 metres) than the tea plantations and highlands (up to 2000 metres) and is hotter and drier than the rest of this region. Days get a little warmer and the night’s a little cooler in comparison to Colombo. January is usually the coolest month and April the hottest, although average temperatures don’t vary all that much: 23.5 C versus 26 C.
Nuwara Eliya, Ella, Hatton and Haputale form the heart of ‘Tea Country.’ At elevations of between 1000 and 2000 metres, the temperatures are noticeably cooler in this region. In the dead of ‘winter,’ (Jan) the average minimum temperature is in single figures and the daytime maximums, a pleasant 19-20oC. Misty rain and fog often add to the atmosphere and may see you tracking down the warmth of an open fire at one of the colonial hotels or restaurants. But when the sun does shine the views are spectacular and the temperatures are excellent for hiking in and around plantations and national parks. February and March are the driest months, and it’s often cloudy between May and December.
Popular locations on the East Coast of Sri Lanka include Trincomalee (Uppuveli and Nirveli Beaches), Pasikudah, Batticaloa and the surfing mecca at Arugam Bay.
When the rest of the island starts to get wet as the south-west monsoon moves in, this part of the country begins to shine. Expats, some businesses, and hospitality workers will shut up shop in May in places like Unawatuna and head East to the likes of Arugam Bay, returning when the season turns again in November.
The best season here runs between April/May to September, although there’s plenty of sunshine all year round. The rainy season usually starts around October and runs through to January.
The Cultural Triangle
Several of Sri Lanka’s UNESCO World Heritage sites including Anuradhapura, Dambulla, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya sit north of The Highlands in the centre of the country at low altitude. Consequently, they are much hotter and drier than much of the rest of the country.
During the hottest months of March and April, average daytime maximums can be in the mid-thirties. Rainfall peaks between October and December but annual rainfall is less than half of that of the West Coast.
Jaffna, in the north of Sri Lanka, has different climatic conditions again, with hot and sunny weather all year round except for October to December, when rainfall increases. One of the driest parts of the country, average annual rainfall here is less than a third of that of the south-west.
A Seasonal Breakdown:
January to March
Plenty of sunshine all over the country. Higher rainfall on the east coast. Great hiking weather in the highlands.
Sri Lanka’s hottest month, especially in the Cultural Triangle. On the west coast, humidity starts to build in anticipation of the monsoon season.
May to June
The start of the wet season in the south-west, bringing refreshing rains. Lots of expats pack up their gear and head for the east coast until the season turns again in October/November.
July to September
The “inter-monsoon” season. This means that there’s still some rain around, but generally the weather is good across the country.
October to November
The start of the north-east monsoon season. Although it predominantly affects the north and east coasts, it can also impact on the rest of the country especially the highlands.
As the northeast monsoon peters out, the whole island is lush and green but the weather, especially in the south-west, turns sunny and dry. The perfect time to head into the highlands and enjoy the scenery or off to one of the many magnificent beaches along the coast.