Vegan Guide to Sri Lanka

I spent 4 weeks on the breathtaking island of Sri Lanka. To my surprise, the island had a lot to offer for vegans. I have compiled a list of tips and highlights just for you.

1 Sri Lanka Vegan Travel Tips

I’ve just finished up 4 weeks of travelling through the incredibly beautiful island of Sri Lanka. We discovered a country brimming with wildlife, beautiful beaches, glorious mountains and fantastic food! Including lots of vegan goodness.

My plan to come to Sri Lanka was very spontaneous and actually dictated by a music festival myself and my partner wanted to attend.

We lucked out big time! Before arriving, I had no real expectations of Sri Lanka. The beach towns are a bit like India and Thailand had a baby. What I wasn’t expecting was the beautiful mountainous regions of Kandy and Ella. The train journey between these two places was also breathtaking (above photo).

To my great surprise, Sri Lanka is very vegan friendly and not always on purpose. We found a lot of the traditional foods to be vegan and the people are also incredibly helpful in accommodating your vegan needs. So, here’s a simple guide for vegans travelling through Sri Lanka.


1.1 Everyone Speaks English (Pretty Much)

When I lived in Vietnam, it was essential to learn some of the local language in order to survive as a vegan. However, in Sri Lanka it is very easy to get by. Most people speak English and most of people understand your needs as a vegan.

If you are unsure about ingredients when ordering at a restaurant it is usually as simple as just asking them. I also found that when changing or amending items on the menu to suit our needs, the vast majority of people were more than happy to help us.

1.2 Traditional Sri Lankan Vegan Foods

Sri Lankan Breakfast

This simple but tasty spread of dhal, roti, coconut sambal and sometimes string hoppers (like noodles) is all vegan and incredibly tasty. It is also great value if you are on a budget like ourselves. You shouldn’t pay any more than 500 rupees ($2.75) per person. We paid as little as 250 rupees ($1.37) in some places.

Be warned, there are lots of fancy western style places offering Sri Lankan breakfast for upwards of 1500 rupees ($8.23). It’s seriously not worth it and won’t be as good as stuff being sold by the guys on the side of the street.


Enjoying Sri Lankan breakfast. Dhal, coconut sambal, toast, rotti, string hoppers and black tea.

1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 Vegetable Sri Lankan Curry

You will often see these options on menus at restaurants all across Sri Lanka. You can get 1 vegetable curry which could just be green beans or 5 vegetable curry which may include a mix of vegetables with the same style curry sauce and rice. Again, this is all vegan and incredibly good! Double check the ingredients before ordering just in case!

In terms of cost, I paid as little as 600 rupees ($3.30) for an amazing 5 vegetable curry and as much as 450 rupees ($2.47) for a terrible 1 vegetable curry. You need to be savvy in Sri Lanka when it comes to restaurants and pricing. We found ourselves often being left disappointed and reluctantly emptying our wallets.

Amazing vegetable curry from Lindo’s Blu Restaurant in Tangalle. Left to right: coconut sambal, pumpkin curry, fried cabbage, potato onion chilli, beetroot raita (no curd).


Vegetable Roti and Kottu

Two of the most famous dishes in Sri Lanka are Roti and Kottu. Both use the amazing Sri Lankan bread which is soft and stretchy, cooked in a tandoor or on a hot plate. Roti is bread stuffed with vegetables and Kottu is the bread chopped up with lots of vegetables. They also serve both dishes with meats, fish and cheese so make sure you order the vegetable option and always request no cheese!

Again, both of these dishes are cheap and you shouldn’t be paying any more than 800 rupees ($4.40) for either, on the street you can pay as low as 400 rupees ($2.20). I found the best tasting of both Roti and Kottu were served at the side of the road out of little food truck. Restaurants will rip you off for the same product

1.3 Eat Locally

If you want to continuously enjoy tasty food for a reasonable price then I recommend you try to eat locally as much as possible. The big western type restaurants are more than often overpriced with poor food and poor service. Save your money and support the locals and the traditional cuisine.

If you find yourself getting sick of the Sri Lankan food, maybe you could try one of the many Indian restaurants available all over Sri Lanka. With a high population of Indian people in the country, it is not hard to find very affordable and traditional Indian food. I will give special mention to Sryani in Colombo near Fort Railway station. If you have time to kill before jumping on the train you should definitely pay this place a visit. My partner has travelled India extensively and said this was about as good as it gets outside of India itself. You won’t pay more than $2 a person either for more food than you could possibly eat.

If you can’t handle curry and roti every day then you could look out for the Western restaurants with good vegan options.


1.4 Vegan Restaurants

We did manage to find some places in Sri Lanka that were all out vegan and some that had good vegan options. If you look at Tripadvisor, it suggests that every restaurant in Sri Lanka has vegan options. It’s simply not true. You will arrive only to find a side salad or a poor excuse for a vegetable wrap (seriously, $7 for lettuce, cucumber and tomato). To save you the trouble, I’ve listed out the best places to eat in each of the key cities:

Colombo

We didn’t spend long in Colombo, just one night before we jumped on the plane home. We spent our one night in the area of Mount Lavinia which is just South of the main city. This area is a bit more peaceful than the center and the hostel we stayed at, Island Hostels – Mount Lavinia, was incredibly good value for money. A private room, sea view and rooftop pool for just $25. It was more like staying in a hotel.

Anyway, whilst we didn’t have much time to try out all the vegan places in Colombo we did get to one place which I highly reccomend you check out if you are in the area, especially if you have a sweet tooth.

Smokey’s Cafe

This fully vegan cafe is owned by an amazing young woman on a mission to provide quality vegan food for locals and tourists at an affordable price. When we visited she was only serving dessert so we went with chocolate peanut brownie with coconut chocolate ice cream. I’m not exaggerating here, it was one of the best vegan desserts I’ve ever eaten! Including two cups of Sri Lankan coffee, the bill was just over $6! This place is a winner all round and soon she will be expanding into savoury dishes too.

Kandy

Balaji Dosai

The most incredible Indian dosa I have ever had in my life! My partner and I love Indian dosa’s and I had read about this place multiple times before coming to Sri Lanka and it was also recommended by the guys over at Veggie Vagabonds. There are 3 Bijali Dosai restaurants in Kandy, I highly recommend that you visit the one furthest away from the temple. It comes up on google as ‘Bajali Dosai – Aniwatta’.

The mushroom masala dosa is literally one of the best vegan foods I’ve ever eaten.

The amazing mushroom masala dosa from Balaji Dosai, Kandy


Cafe Secret Alley

This well-hidden hipster cafe serves fantastic cafe treats and very good coffee. I ate the peanut butter on toast with banana. Sounds simple but wait until you see what is put in front of you! Quality and quantity rolled into one.

The Empire Cafe

You will find this very cosy and well decorated restaurant to the left hand side of the main temple. Due to its location, it is slightly expensive but they do a great vegetable wrap stuffed with roast veggies and hummus. The french fries are also very tasty.

Ella

Ella is a beautiful little town hidden in the mountains of Sri Lanka. The views around this area are spectacular and a lot of thought has gone into the food on offer here. Be warned that everybody flocks to the Chill Restaurant. It is a tourist trap! It’s far from ‘chill’ with hundreds of tourists waiting around for tables, unfriendly staff and the food is very average. You will also pay a small fortune for this unpleasant experience.

AK Ristoro

This odd blend of Italian and Japanese cuisine somehow works very well. The place is very well decorated with obvious attention to small details. It’s a bit like sitting in the front room of your house, listening to chilled house music but with sushi being served. The pasta is particularly good with some good vegan options. I recommend the mushroom linguine and the Ristoro Special which is traditional Sri Lankan dhal over penne pasta.

Cafe Guru

This place is just outside of the main strip in Ella towards the big waterfall. Hidden above some touristy shops you will find a very relaxed and well decorated restaurant with good music. It serves really tasty food all day. I recommend the Avocado wrap. If there is no avocado, which is a frequent issue in Sri Lanka, then opt for the pickled pumpkin instead.

Gem & Berries

This was my favorite place to eat throughout my entire time in Ella. Lucky for us it was just outside our accommodation. This is THE place for breakfast. They will serve you a traditional Sri Lankan Breakfast for a very reasonable price along with good Italian coffee and incredible service. They will also keep bringing you more dhal and roti as and when you finish it for no extra charge!

Tangalle

Tangalle might not be one of the most popular destinations in Sri Lanka but I had to add it just for this one restaurant!

Lindo’s Restaurant

This place had just opened when we visited and was a life saver. After 2 days in Tangalle we were getting pretty frustrated at the lack of good food and service in the area. Every restaurant was open but the people were so laid back that not much got done and therefore most places would just turn us away rather than serve us. Weird place indeed!

Then, we discovered Lindo’s. This is a small pop up restaurant owned by a young guy (sorry, I forgot his name!) and his sister. He will cook you the best Sri Lankan breakfast and Sri Lankan 5 vegetable curry for dinner. Admittedly, you will wait about an hour for the food but with so little choice in the area and the same speed of service everywhere else you might as well. You won’t regret it. The guy is very passionate about his food and cooking. It really shows in the taste. You will also pay a fraction of what other restaurants will charge you for a much worse version of the same food.

Mirissa

I was excited for Mirissa because the beach is touted as being one of the best in Sri Lanka and I was aware it had a full vegan cafe. It did not disappoint!

Ahimsa Vegan Cafe

Upcycled furniture, set in a wooded area with food being served out of a modified shipping container whilst sitting in an old metal barrel. What more do you want? Everything here is vegan which includes burritos, wraps, pastas, cakes, vegan balls and milkshakes. Try everything, it’s all great!

Cacao & banana shake from Ahimsa Vegan Cafe, Mirissa


Zephyr

Not a fully vegan restaurant but if you want to treat yourself to a romantic meal on the beautiful main beach of Mirissa than Zephyr is the place. Maybe save it for a special occasion as it’s not cheap!

Vegan options include chickpea salad, Sri Lankan curry and avocado on toast for brekkie. Try go for sunset!

Weligama

I had no knowledge of Weligama before travelling to Sri Lanka but it turned out to be one of my favourite places. This little town is full of surfers, hipster cafes and cool places to drink. It’s also the vegan haven of Sri Lanka. If I go back to Sri Lanka, I will make sure I stay here for at least a week.

Nomad Cafe

This small joint in Weligama has amazing vegan options and is a must try. I ate the peanut butter toast with mashed banana, peanut brittle, cacao chips, pomegranate and syrup. My partner had the avocado on toast with tomato, beetroot relish, cucumber and pomegranate. Both dishes were insanely good. They also serve a number of vegan sweet treats like vegan cacao balls and their amazing banana bread with ‘lutella‘ icing! Basically vegan chocolate hazelnut icing *drool*.

vegan-banana-bread
Banana Bread with ‘Lutelle’ Icing


The Hummus Bar

Small, simple, with tasty food and good vibes. If you’re after a tasty snack of the Middle-Eastern kind then The Hummus Bar has got you. As you would expect, the hummus and pita bread is a sure fire winner. Make you sure you try the falafel, baba ganoush and tabouleh also! I have to give a special mention for the ginger and pomegranate lemonade.

The Hummus Bar is also a great place to chill and do some work with a good coffee.

Shirani

This a cosy little family run restaurant near Jungle Beach (well worth the visit!). The guy who runs it speaks English and will whip you up an incredible 5 vegetable Sri Lankan curry within 20 minutes. I highly recommend you go support this family and their food.

1.5 Snacking

When you think of vegan snacking you wouldn’t be wrong in thinking fresh fruit, nuts, seeds or candy. Well, Sri Lanka is slightly different and in my opinion much better. To my surprise, when arriving in Colombo and before jumping on the train to Unawatuna I discovered an abundance of savoury treats being sold everywhere, even on the train itself. All are vegan and consist of samosas, vada (bread doughnut), spring rolls with curry inside them and so on. It’s fair to say I went a bit overboard on the first train I took and consumed about 10 of each on the journey!

If you are doing a long drive I suggest you pack your bags full of these treats before leaving. You will find them in most places just on the side of the road. If you are lucky, you might even see a bakery tuk tuk go past to the sound of Mozart. This is a tuk tuk selling various savoury baked treats for very cheap. If you don’t see one, you will definitely hear one at some point in your travels.

1.6 Animal Tourism

Unfortunately, don’t be surprised to see your fair share of animal tourism on your travels throughout Sri Lanka. The worst areas are the beach destinations with chained elephants walking up and down beaches, monkeys on leashes and snakes in bags. Also, don’t be surprised at the number of tourists jumping to have their photos taken with these poor animals.

You will also see a number of elephant ‘sanctuaries’ being advertised and offered to you by various people. Just say no to all of them. You will see zoos also advertised and even some petting zoos which include tigers. All of these places exploit animals for profit and should be avoided.

I also advocate you try to educate people on your travels too. It’s easy to get upset or even angry at people when they pay into these types of animal exploitation but some people just aren’t awake to the animal’s suffering. Don’t be afraid to tell them, in a polite way, what their money is contributing to.

For more information on responsible tourism in Sri Lanka, please visit the Responsible Travel website.

1.7 Eco Travel

When travelling I think it’s important to reduce your negative impact on the environment as much as possible. One easy way to do this is by buying a good set of reusable utensils. We travelled with a reusable bottle, metal straw and bamboo cutlery.

You can’t drink the tap water so plastic bottled water is everywhere. Buy one big one at a time and re-fill your re-usable bottle as and when you need it.

Single use plastic is also everywhere in Sri Lanka, many time I ordered a drink and got not just one but two plastic straws for no reason at all. Make sure you always ask for no straw and use your metal straw instead.

When buying food from the food trucks they will try give you single-use forks or spoons. Make sure you have your bamboo set at hand!

Reusable bottle and cutlery from Amazon

1.8 General Top Tips for Sri Lanka

Not vegan related but here are some general tips to help you on your travels throughout Sri Lanka.

  • The trains are by far the cheapest way to get around the country and if you don’t mind a few delays and the possible crowded carriages then it’s the best way to travel too. If you want to travel first class on the famous journey between Kandy and Ella then I highly suggest you buy online or through a travel agent as far in advance as is possible. Tickets sell quick! Although, we bought 2nd class tickets for the journey between Kandy and Ella on the day of travel and it was just fine.
  • If renting a scooter watch out for the buses!! They drive insanely fast, take blind corners and stop for nothing. Be very wary of them on the road whilst driving and when crossing the road. Renting a scooter should cost you 1200 rupees at most. You can usually barter down to 1000 rupees which is the going rate across the country and a fair price for both parties.
  • Tuk Tuk’s are a complete rip off in most places in the country. Avoid randomly calling one on the side of the road and instead ask your accommodation staff to call one for you to negotiate a price. When in Colombo and Kandy, download the Pick Me app for your phone to get the best prices for getting around.
  • Buy water from small convenient stores at the sides of the road or supermarkets. Don’t buy in restaurants/bars as you will pay double!

If you have traveled to Sri Lanka and think I missed anything or need to add something please let me know in the comments!

p.s I’d love to meet you on Twitter: here

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