A Quick Guide to Unawatuna, Sri Lanka
We rolled into Galle by train like we roll into any new city; sweaty, disgruntled, confused, and hungry. We needed a beach and we needed one badly. Our initial plan had been to head straight for the popular beach town of Unawatuna, but after the travel day we’d had it was tempting to check into the first guesthouse we saw and call it a night. Luckily, we decided to follow a group of fellow backpackers and a short ten minute tuk-tuk drive away, we had reached our first Sri Lankan beach.
After hearing how touristy the area was, part of me was expecting an all-inclusive junkyard filled with garbage and speedos. Admittedly there were speedos a-plenty, but I was so pleasantly surprised with what we found instead. The town of Unawatuna itself was my favourite of the Sri Lankan beaches. It has plenty of cute cafes and chic restaurants serving western food at budget-busting prices and a few gift shops here and there, but the town still maintains the beach town charm that I missed at other beaches on the coast. The walk through town is on a winding dirt road lined with guesthouses and family restaurants and although every other person you see is a tourist, it still manages to maintain a sense of community. Note that I was here in Unawatuna’s off-season; for all I know, on-season could look like a Pitbull video.
All-in-all, my stay in Unawatuna quickly became one of my favourites, from the wonderful people to watching gorgeous sunsets on the beach with a belly full of freshly caught seafood. With endless hotels, restaurants and excursions to choose from, I can see how a visit to Unawatuna could go less perfectly than mine had. Luckily, I may have saved a handy tip or two to help you on your way!
If Unawatuna is your next stop out of Colombo, the train from Colombo Fort to Galle is an absolute must. The rails lie right along the coast and almost your entire 2.5 hour journey will be filled with waves; whether it be the kind in the ocean next to you, or returning the waves of the smiling people living along the tracks! The day was long, but this trip immediately put a great first impression in my mind. We rode the 2:25 train which was blistering hot, so ride the morning train if possible! Otherwise, find a comfy spot hanging out the door and cross your fingers for breeze!
Once you pull into Galle station, prepare to be ambushed by tuk-tuk drivers. We asked around with a few, but they had all agreed on a set price of 600 rupees. If you can find a weak link in the system and talk him down a hundred or so then you’re already doing great! If you’re solo, try to find others headed the same way, as the ride costs the same whether the tuk-tuk is full or not.
Where to Stay
In typical fashion, we strolled into town with nowhere to stay, assuming that something fabulous would magically fall into our laps. This time it actually did- I knew it wasn’t a flawed system! We followed the same backpackers into a guesthouse at the start of town, as we had already committed to cramping their style. Happy Coconuts is quite possibly my favourite place that we stayed in across Sri Lanka! Oksana and Maria are the hostesses with the mostest(ess?) and were always eager to make sure that we were enjoying Unawatuna to the fullest. If possible, ask for room eleven- for $21 USD (off-season) we had a air-con room with a huge comfy bed, perfect shower pressure, fast internet, and because the room next door was vacant, an entire huge terrace to ourselves! If you need a place to escape the midday heat or casually watch some monkeys swing between your garden of palm trees, you’ll be hard-pressed to find somewhere better.
If you’re looking for something outside of the budget price range, I heard fantastic things about Ridee Villa, which is right on the beach and has views to die for! Maybe one day when my multi-billion dollar company launches (industry yet to be decided) we’ll come back and stay here.
Where to Eat
The only topic that really matters, right? For cheap Sri Lankan eats, check out Happy Spice in town, which is rumoured to have the best vegetable curries in the vicinity. I also had a great vegetable curry at South Ceylon and their papadam is perfection!
For western bites, Pink Elephant is always happening with the youngsters. Expect to pay a little more, but the place has a great vibe and a pretty diverse menu, which is probably much-needed if you’ve been on the tourist trail here for awhile.
If you want an Instagrammable meal in one of those beach cabanas that you always assume you can’t afford, Imesh is probably the most reasonable option- a pizza is 800 rupees, so splitting one makes for an affordable light lunch! If you’re willing to spend a smidgen more, Catamaran next door is said to be the tastier option.
Finally, the best bits. You’ve come all this way, you’d might as well get in on the fresh seafood action! Thaproban serves their meals right on the beach, and while their menu prices are slightly obscene, their fresh seafood market is the best deal around. Tuna steak is 400 rupees per 100 grams and the price may make you think that you need to order at least 200-300 to be satisfied. However, all meals are served with fries and salad so unless you come in guns a’ blazing, you should be alright.
No matter where you are in Unawatuna, there will always be a tuk tuk driver at the ready to take you wherever you want to go. Getting a decent price to do this is another story. Depending on the driver, loyalty can go a long way. We took our first ride with the owner of Me-Nu Restaurant and as we had already eaten enough pancakes to pay for a week-long vacation, he drove us for what we knew was a good price. From then on, we kept riding with him and the prices kept getting cheaper- kind of like the fast-food loyalty cards that take up all the space in my wallet. If you find yourself in the area and need a reliable driver, let me know and I will put you in touch! I like being able to use the phrase, “I know a guy.” A good rule of thumb is to ask someone objective (like your server or hotel receptionist) for a good price to pay for a trip before negotiating a price.
What to Do
Unawatuna is not the place for you if you like to spend your life on a board. Luckily, this town should have you covered on all other fronts. There are three main beaches close to Unawatuna- Wijaya Beach, Jungle Beach and Unawatuna beach. I only made it to the last two, but Wijaya is rumoured to have a decent swimming hole and has the possibility of seeing turtles. If you want to do nothing but swim, sunbathe and take pictures that are sure to make everyone back home jealous, Jungle Beach is the place for you. With one solitary restaurant on the sand, Jungle Beach has nothing but lush green behind you and gentle blue waves crashing on the rocks in front of you. It’s possible to walk here from town, but in the low-season heat we were having, that was a hard pass. The drive is about 10 minutes and shouldn’t cost you anymore than 400 rupees roundtrip. Make sure your driver is picking you up at an agreed time, as there are only one or two tuk-tuks waiting to overcharge you at the path to the beach. From the drop-off point, it’s a slightly steep but easy 10 minute walk down to the beach below.
If you’re eying up a little more action head to Unawatuna, where beach bars, dive and snorkel outlets and vendors line the sand waiting for you. In on-season, you can take a glass-bottom boat on a snorkel trip, spend the day diving, go on a comically short jet-ski ride, or just swim in the turquoise bay. Ask a local before you go for a dip, as little jellyfish tend to get swept in here if the currents go a certain way. All restaurants carry vinegar in case you get a sting, but I never needed it and I’m a verified drama queen. Be prepared to be approached regularly by vendors selling one thing or another, but they move on quite quickly when they realize you aren’t interested. To use the loungers littering the beach you will probably be asked to buy something from the restaurant or bar at some point or another, but this usually isn’t enforced until lunch hour.
When you’re beached out, that means it’s probably time to hit up Galle Fort. Most people actually choose to stay in Galle and do the day trip to Unawatuna, but I’m more of a beach bum than a history buff. To be honest, we almost skipped Galle completely, which will probably cue some horrified shocks. For awhile I genuinely thought that all there was to the area was the fort itself, which I was not all that interested in. As I like to say, I’m not sporty and I’m not fort-y. Luckily, we had heard some great things about Galle’s gorgeous sea views and interesting old Dutch town that had been filled with boutiques, cafes and overall hipster hangs. We decided to go check out out the cool bohemian vibes thinking that we too, are cool and bohemian.
I’m still glad that we decided not to base ourselves in Galle as it felt a little too upscale for our broke selves, but our day trip was great! We went early in the evening to avoid the heat of the day and spent about four hours walking the fort wall, exploring the cute side streets and testing the different ice cream shops (for research purposes). This town could either be a day trip destination like it was for us or the place you choose to base yourself, but definitely give it a visit regardless!
Neat Tip: For a cheap cheese-explosion, go to Blockhouse for chicken and cheese kotthu. It’s one of the cheapest places to eat in town and this meal is the cheese overload we all need in our lives.
That my friends, is your not-so-quick guide to Unawatuna. After hearing about the amount of tourists that flock here, I myself was tempted to skip it completely. Little did I know that it would become one of my favourite stops! I’m super happy I gave this place a chance, and I hope you will too.
Have you guys visited Unawatuna? How does it stack up to your favourite Sri Lankan beach?