Unawatuna is a beach town located in the southern part of Sri Lanka, offering sandy beaches, picturesque sunsets, great surfing, and those famous rope swings. Its close proximity to Galle Fort makes it an attractive destination, not only for those tourists who want to relax on the beach, but also those who want to learn about the history and architecture of this place.
Prior to the 2004 tsunami, the beach in Unawatuna was ranked in the top 12 in the world, despite the destruction and decline in the beach’s ranking, it still offers a great spot to relax, swim, admire gorgeous sunsets, or try water activities such as surfing, snorkelling, or scuba diving. We personally haven’t tried the last two, as we wanted to take advantage of the great waves and focus on improving our surfing skills.
The moment you step off the bus on the main road, you’re faced with the honking of car horns, exhaust fumes, and a sauna-like heat. Take a few steps off the main road and into the town and everything changes, the honking of horns is replaced by the sound of waves, and instead of cars, you’ll see the boutique shops selling surfboards, swimming suits, and summer clothing. Once you check in and drop off your luggage, it’s time to feel the sand between your toes.
If you’re a dog lover like ourselves, you’ll be happy to know on your walk along the beach you’ll be joined by a number of local dogs who are just out to play. Even our romantic sunset picnic date was crashed by the cutest dog that received more attention from Brett than Sandra did.
If you have seen beautiful pictures on social media of people swinging at sunset on a palm tree rope swing, Unawatuna is where you’ll be able to take your own shot, and enjoy the fun they bring.
How to get there?
If you have landed at Colombo International Airport (Negombo), and depending on your budget and convenience, you can take a taxi from arrivals, which will take around two hours, or take a public bus. If you opt in for taking a public bus, like we did, you’ll need to catch the bus outside the terminal to Colombo bus station, which will take around one hour and will cost 280 LKR ($0.80). From Colombo, you’ll then have two options; either take the train which was our first choice, but unfortunately was not running at the time we were there, or take another public bus to Unawatuna. Don’t worry about finding the right bus, the bus terminals are overwhelming and busy, but in seconds the locals will point you in the right direction.
The bus from Colombo to Unawatuna took us around six hours, due to stops, bumpy roads, and having to stop for a tyre change, twice! You might be more lucky than us. This bus only cost us 380 LKR ($1). Although we didn’t take the train, this would be a more scenic option that takes around two hours, and still cost no more than 380 LKR ($1).
If you are coming from a different direction, Sri Lanka is well connected and extremely affordable, locals will also help you out to find the right bus and best connection.
We booked our accommodation in advance, but the town was relatively quiet, so you could potentially find accommodation upon your arrival. Depending on the location of your accommodation, you’ll find a tuk-tuk driver willing to take you from the bus stop to the door. After a long time on the bus, we opted to stretch our legs and take the short 1km walk to our place.
We arrived at Birdhouse Unawatuna, and were welcomed by the owners with a hot cup of tea. Not exactly what we were craving in thirty degree heat, but we were told it will help us cool down. It didn’t! We had booked the “penthouse” suite which offered a double room, with a fan, but air conditioning was available in other rooms. For that sacrifice, we got a kitchenette, well actually a sink, fridge, and dinning table. The rooftop made for a chilled place in the evenings, to enjoy some snacks, beers, and a movie. For four nights this cost 20,200 LKR ($55), and didn’t include breakfast, but don’t panic, you’ll find plenty in town, or pay extra at the property.
Our preferred accommodation option for every budget:
Low budget: Birdhouse Unawatuna ($20 a night for a double room with terrace).
Mid budget: Tartaruga Hotel & Beach Resort ($60 a night for a super deluxe double room).
High budget: Villa SPACE ($220+ a night for a deluxe double room).
Unawatuna was our first destination in Sri Lanka, and we arrived hungry and on the hunt for the famous Sri Lankan curry. Whether you’re vegetarian, meat or fish eater, love or hate spice, the variety is available to you. We were overwhelmed at first with the number of restaurants along the beach, with the owners trying to invite us in for a meal. Our favourite for our stay in Unawatuna was One Love Bar & Restaurant, it was our first and best curry at this destination. With so many varieties of curries available, we opted for a potato curry and a dhal curry (to this day we still obsess over how delicious these dishes were), the owner was super welcoming and when we asked for super spicy, she delivered for our taste buds. Curries here cost us 700 LKR ($2), which was extremely good value for money, considering you get a large portion of curry and rice. Even whilst writing this, our mouths are watering at the thought of it.
For a more western vibe and good coffee, look no further than Skinny Tom’s Deli. It’s well designed for nomads with its good internet and spacious working environment, or simply for coffee lovers like us. The Australian style menu was full of great breakfast options, and a counter full of incredible cakes. We managed to enjoy a delicious eggs benedict with halloumi. The taste of their coffee made us return the next morning, and it’s a great place to settle if you get caught in any downpours.
Most restaurants offer a very extensive list of western dishes, from pizza to pasta to burgers. From our experience these dishes don’t taste like anything from what you know from back home, and would recommend sticking to the local dishes.
To our surprise, some restaurants closed early, some closed half way through the day, some re-opened in the evening, and some just stayed closed. Sometimes, planning a meal time and looking for a restaurant, felt like a lottery to where and what time you would eat.
We hit the jackpot with a local fruit shop just outside our accommodation. The fruit in Sri Lanka tasted nothing like fruit back home, in the best possible way, and cost a fraction of the price. The exotic fruits we tried were so juicy and exploded with flavour in our mouths. If you’re not a fan of eating fruit, but if you want your daily vitamins in, you’ll get a choice of freshly squeezed juices, at a reasonable price.
If you want to buy a bottle of wine for that sunset on the beach, or some beers, you’ll have to either buy from a restaurant, or locate the wine store outside of the main town. Tienzin Wine Store was located along the main road, and had locals queuing (jumping the queue), to get their hands on their alcohol.
Things to do
Exploring Galle Fort
Galle Fort or Dutch Fort was first built by the Portuguese in 1588 and later taken over and further developed by the Dutch, until handed over to the British in 1796, until the independence of Sri Lanka in 1815.
The best preserved fortification in Asia built by Europeans, displaying the European architectural styles and South Asian traditions, declared by UNESCO a World Heritage site in 1988.
Galle Fort still has an amount of remaining impressive landmarks of high historical importance, such as; The Dutch Reformed Church, New Orient Hotel, Meeran Mosque, the Clock Tower, and Galle Lighthouse.
Galle Fort also offers stunning architecture, quirky coffee shops and restaurants, ice cream parlours, and gifts shops. Between exploring the historical parts and enjoying the local cuisine, you can easily spend an entire day here.
Surfing at Weligama Beach
Sri Lanka is one of the top destinations for surfing, due to its famous waves and incredibly affordable board rentals. Weligama Beach, technically not in Unawatuna, but a short bus journey ride, was a great spot for beginners.
Scattered along the beach, you find the locals waiting for you with boards on offer to rent, or surf classes, if you want to improve your technique. They will help you select the surfboard suitable for your experience level, and look after your belongings whilst you’re enjoying your surf.
A day of surfing will only cost you a few dollars, so you’ll want to keep coming back.
Sunset picnic at Dalawella Beach
Whether you’re a romantic or just a sunset lover, you can’t miss visiting Dalawella Beach for sunset. Whilst on the beach we were surprised with a light rain shower, which produced a stunning double rainbow, followed by one of the most spectacular sunsets we had seen.
With the colours so intense and constantly changing, the sky eventually turned orange and red, giving the impression that it was on fire. The whole experience felt complete with a blanket, some snacks of exotic fruits, local beers, a speaker full of music to dance on the beach to. The highlight of the evening was the arrival of the special guest, Bruce – the cutest stray puppy who added to the company and provided further entertainment.
It’s only a short walk down from Unawatuna beach and feels a lot quieter and private than the main beach.
Coconut Tree hill at Mirissa Beach
If you are looking for the popular Instagrammable photo looking out onto the Indian ocean on top of a domed shaped green hill, surrounded by tall palm trees, this is the place for you to go.
We ran out of time to visit this place but it is still on our to do list for our return. It is only a short bus journey from Unawatuna, so you can visit as a day trip, or if you want more time, stay for a few nights in Mirissa.
Dalawella Palm Tree Rope Swing
Now the competition is on for the most Instagrammable spot in southern Sri Lanka. One of the most iconic photos from Sri Lanka can be found at this spot, if you come at sunrise or sunset, you’ll capture that million dollar worthy picture. We just went because we wanted to feel like children again.
As it’s privately owned, expect to pay a dollar or two to get your photos taken and enjoy the swing. You may find other rope swings along the beach, but this one is the most popular one.