Trincomalee Travel Guide: Know Before You Go

As one of the most prominent beach destinations in Sri Lanka, Trincomalee, or ‘Trinco’ for short, has become one of the go-to destinations in Ceylon since the end of the civil war in 2009. Before that, Trinco was in a critical position in the Tamil region, resulting in it being practically off-limits to tourism during the war, in addition to the area being struck by the tsunami in 2004. The Trincomalee travel industry is still in its early days – and it shows – compared to the more visited beach towns along the southern coast of the island. Despite – or because of – that, it is a great place to visit if you’re looking for a more laid-back vibe. We spent a week lazying around the idyllic Uppuveli beach and put together this Trincomalee travel guide to help you decide whether to hit up this sleepy beach town.

Fishermen pulling out the nets at the end of the day at Uppuveli beach

Trincomalee Beaches: Miles and Miles of Them

One of the most unique things about this beach town is just how much beach there is. Seriously – it’s a lot of shore. There are two bigger beaches just up from Trinco town, in addition to a smaller beach located just south of the town.

Uppuveli Beach: Slightly More Happening, but Still Very Chill

The most likely candidate for your beach vacation is Uppuveli, a 3.5 mile-long stretch of gently sloping sand and calm water, dotted with mid-range hotels and homestays mainly from the middle to the northern end of the beach. Going further south, you’ll hit the local fishing village. And while the sea is just as calm and the water is just as nice, the beach is a bit dirtier, unfortunately, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by boats.

Almost empty Uppuveli beach in Trincomalee on a sunny day
Not bad at all, considering this was ‘high season’, apparently.

Out of the Trinco beaches, this one is the ‘busy one’. However, if you’ve visited at least 3 major beach destinations around Europe or Asia, you should take this moniker with a grain of salt. We found it to be just perfect in terms of crowdedness in the middle of the tourist season at the end of July. Yes, there were people, and yet we always managed to find a spot where there was no one around you in a 20-meter radius, at least. Most of our stay, it looked like on the image above.

This beach is perfect for swimming as the water is super calm, but you can also visit one of the 10+ dive centers along the beach if you’re interested in diving. Dive shops, as well as may hotels and independent boat owners can also sell you snorkeling, whale watching or dolphin watching trips. We’re a bit cynical and also too spoiled for crap like this – after snorkeling the gorgeous reefs of the Gili Islands in Indonesia, we’re hard to impress. Wo we skipped most of the offers in Trinco (apart from diving) as the prospect of an overpriced boat ride in search of a whale didn’t really speak to us. But – to each their own.

You’ll find dozens of small restaurants along and inward from the beach, as well as along the main road. If you’re here for some high-production shit, you’re out of luck because most eateries are rather simple, with many being extensions of local homestays. Luckily, this is what we slow travellers actually prefer, and we were lucky to find some terrific choices around Uppuveli. We ended up eating out at the Anna Inn restaurant, which has a tasty curries served around lunchtime for just 200 rupees per dish or 400 as an all-you-can-eat buffet. N Joy Restaurant came through with amazing and generous curry and roti dishes, and served me probably the best tomato soup I’ve eaten, ever. For a filling breakfast, Be Cool Juice Bar offers either American or Sri Lankan breakfast, each with a pot of coffee and a mixed fruit juice included in the price. There’s not much to get into after dinner, except the occasional drink at a beach bar – which is great if you’re not a party tourist. All I can say is, I loved the time spent here and would come back to Uppuveli anytime.

Nilaveli Beach: The Really Quiet One

Since we stayed at a guesthouse at Uppuveli Beach and were happy with that, we didn’t really care to invest the time into going to Nilaveli. But, from what we heard, it is meant to be really quiet, with just a handful of hotels spread around the 2-mile-long beach. Just imagine the solitude! Since there are some protected arears near Nilaveli, such as Pigeon Island which was under strict military barricades for years, the beaches promise clean sand and clear water. The exclusivity also results in a more expensive vacation. The hotels are fewer and farther in between, making up for the gorgeous views with a premium price. And we’ve heard the same about the restaurants at Nilaveli.

To get to Nilaveli, you can either catch a local bus or hire a tuk tuk to go up there. The bus is obviously a cheaper choice – it should cost around 20 Rupees, and it passes through Uppuveli about every half hour. However, it can be tricky to discern an actual timetable – even asking local shop or restaurant owners didn’t seem to help much. In any case, if you hang around the bus stop long enough, it will come.

Dutch Bay: Close to Trinco Town

If you’d like to stay closer to Trinco town, you might want to consider Dutch Bay, a picturesque small bay with turquoise water and relatively empty beach. It’s located just off the city proper, next to the Fort Frederick peninsula – hence the name. We took a walk along there and were left impressed by the vistas – and could imagine lounging here for a day or so.

#nofilter, for real this time.
Dutch Bay in Trincomalee

However, if you want to do some hardcore unwinding and beach time, Dutch Bay might be a bit limiting once you pass the two-day mark, I’d say. Therefore I’d consider still staying in Uppuveli, and coming down for a day or so. Same as with Nilaveli Beach, if you’re coming down to Dutch Bay from Uppuveli, you can catch the local bus down to Trinco town and either walk a mile or so or take a tuk tuk from the bus station.

Trincomalee Tourist Attractions

Small but historically important, Trinco has a handful of sights to offer to the sightseeing-inclined tourist or traveller. The most famous site in town is probably Fort Frederick , a 17th century military fort built by the Dutch and the Portuguese. The area of the fort atop Swami rock now houses the Gajaba Regiment of the Sri Lanka Army, and the historic Koneswara Temple at the very tip of the rock.

A group of deer enjoying the cool shade at Fort Frederick
Look at these cuties chilling in the shade – Fort Frederick is full of them!

Following the path through Fort Frederick, it partly feels like you’re walking through something out of the Jungle Book. The huge banyan trees, an abundance of hyperactive monkeys, and herds of deer create a very serene backdrop considering that you’re in the middle of an army garrison. There’s no need to take a tuk tuk through – just follow the path and enjoy the sights to the left and right. You might happen upon big groups of school kids happy to see and greet almost any tourist, as the Swami Rock tends to be a favored destination for school trips from all over the country.

Koneswaram Temple in Trincomalee

Once you’ve passed the military buildings, hang a left up the hill and you’ll be on the path to a gorgeous Hindu temple sitting at the edge of the cliff. If you thought that all those school kids were headed to Fort Frederick, you were wrong. They were coming to the temple, of course. A highly-frequented one out of the Trincomalee tourist attractions, the Koneswaram Temple dates way further than the dusty fort – all teh way back to 7th century. It is a beloved destination for pilgrims and travellers alike – either to pay respects and pray or to simply take a gander at the gorgeus structure with its many nooks and crannies, statuettes, shrines and the breathtaking views of the Indian Ocean.

Koneswaram Temple in Trincomalee - entrace and colourful facade
The gorgeous facade of the Koneswaram Temple entrance – don’t forget to look up!
Lovers' Leap lookout point and view of the Indian Ocean an a Hindu statue
Peep the Indian Ocean from the Lovers’ Leap lookout!

Before you enter, you’ll be asked to take off your shoes and stow them in a cubby shelf. For this, the attendant will ask 20 Rupees per cubby, which we paid for the two of us combined. If they try to tell you it’s 20 per person and there are two of you, just insist on giving a 20 for the one storage space, it should work.

Trincomalee Accommodation: From Budget to Low End

As I’ve already hinted at in the overview of Nilaveli Beach, the northernmost beach tends to have the least budget-friendly options out of Trincomalee accommodation, thanks to the fact that it’s sparsely used and therefore has a bit more of an ‘exclusive’ feel to it. However, Uppuveli Beach offers plenty of options for both ends of the spectrum, and prices also vary depending on where along the beach you’re staying. The more ‘happening’ area is situated along and off of Sarvodaya Road, at the upper end of Uppuveli. Here you’ll find local-run guesthouses comprising the majority of options, while there is also a handful of higher end hotels and beach bungalows with direct beach access. We walked around to check out several inns and homestays in search for rooms, and the majority of the $15-$25 options offered a similar setup. If this is your financial sweet spot, expect anything from simple rooms with a mosquito net and a fan to air conditioned suites with a TV, or perhaps even a pool if you opt for one of the hotels. If you prefer to find your accommodation as a walk-in, don’t forget to negotiate: there’s always a bit more elbow room than you think.

Beach cabanas at Uppuveli Beach
Splurge those 30 bucks on a beachfront cabana!

We tend to stay in guesthouses and homestays, so we chose the same type of Trincomalee accommodation types. For the majority of our stay we opted for an A/C room at the Emerald House, run by very friendly staff who was very flexible in letting us tack additional nights onto our stay. There were also kittens to play with. If you’re not sure whether you need the air conditioning, be warned – the main season in Trinco means 33 degrees (Celsius) or more, and there’s not much in terms of wind chill, either. Having the comfort of the A/C to counter the stuffiness was welcomed with open arms.

Prior to our stay at Emerald House, we spend a couple of days towards the bottom end of the tourist beach, at Inn Seabreeze. The reason we moved was that we initially booked two nights, wanting to figure out how we like the area and how long we’d want to stay. But, alas, our host received another booking for the days following our checkout, so it was impossible to stay or be moved to another room since it was booked out. He was extremely apologetic and also sweet throughout the entire stay (also letting us check in at 5 am, when we got off the night bus!), and helped us organize a tuk tuk ride to our new digs. The good thing here was that a breakfast was included in the price, and the beach was just a 2-minute walk away and was slightly less visited than the beach area off of Sarvodaya Road (although that one was not busy at all). So, if you like your beach even more quiet, I would thoroughly recommend staying at Inn Seabreeze.

How to Travel to Trincomalee – And How to Get Out

Getting in to Trinco is fairly easy if you’re coming from Colombo. Buses depart daily along the bus line 49, Colombo – Trincomalee from the Pettah Bus terminal, at the very end of platform 4. I would like to say that these buses depart roughly every hour on the hour, or so – but don’t quote me on this: bus schedules are not always easy to find. Or just show up and get on the next bus, if you’re not pressed for time. There’s no need to pre-book a seat on these bad boys. These are local buses though, so be prepared for stuffy air and a rickety ride; but you will get there. A more comfortable way to travel to Trincomalee comes in the form of pre-reserved A/C buses. These depart at from Wellawate at 10 pm and arrive to the Pettah bus station at around 10:30 pm to gather passengers and leave at 11, arriving at Trinco around 5 am. Budget travellers might like this because a night bus means you’re saving one night of accommodation costs! Just make sure to book your tickets to Trinco somewhat in advance, as this mode of transport is popular with both tourists and locals, as it makes stops at some other major points like Dambulla.

For getting around the Trinco area beaches, you can either use tuk tuks or the local bus going up and down Nilaveli Road. If you have nothing better to do with your money, take a tuk tuk, of course – but we found the local bus to be just fine for getting in and out of Uppuveli beach. Again, timetables seem to be somewhat of an elusive item here, so you can kind of guesstimate by asking a local, and, eventually, the bus will turn up. Bus stops are likewise hard to spot, but the good news is that, quite often, you can just stop a bus by waving the driver down. Just hop in as quickly as possible (not making complete stops seems to be a thing here) and wait for the ticket attendant to make his way to you to sort out your fare. The Uppuveli to Trinco town route will set you back 20 Rupees; the further you go the higher the fare. But still nothing compared to the costs you’d rack up with tuk tuks (though they are probably much more comfortable).

Getting Out of Trinco

Sri Lanka’s bus and railway infrastructure isn’t quite up to par with what you would know and expect, perhaps, but there are numerous ways to get out of Trinco, depending on where you’re headed. Anything along the Trinco-Colombo route will be frequently serviced by buses, and you can explore the east coast via train to Batticaloa, as well as buses. Here is a summary of bus lines heading out of Trincomalee, as of August 2018. If you opt for public buses, whether government-owned (red ones) or private lines (blue/white ones), make sure to arrive 15-30 minutes ahead of departure time to secure a seat on the bus as it can get quite full. Those with big backpacks or suitcases should stow their luggage in the dedicated compartment which is located in the ‘trunk’ in the back. The bus attedant will help you out.

Tricomalee long-distance bus schedule
Bus departures out of Trincomalee bus terminal, as of August 2018

To get further down the coast than Batticaloa, you will have to rely on buses for the latter part of the journey – which are, again, fine, but bear in mind that it’s likely very hot and these buses are very slow and crammed.

Public bus in Sri Lanka, line from Trincomalee to Akkaraipatu
Not the newest models, these buses :/

We found out way too late that there’s actually also a very active rideshare community for travellers, to be found at the Sri Lanka Taxi Share website and its dedicated Facebook group. Though more expensive than public transport, it will likely be a bit faster since this platform offers ways to find additional car or van passengers for a journey you have in mind and therefore lower the overall costs. Overall, if you’re trying to do Sri Lanka on a budget and need a way to travel to Trincomalee or to get out, I’d recommend considering the public transport options first before settling for a more expensive alternative. Of course, this is highly dependant on the route you’re doing: our 7-hour public bus trip from Trincomalee to Arugam Bay was not something I’d have to do again, but shorter distances should be okay to handle.

Trincomalee Travel Guide Wrap-Up: Hit or Skip?

Perhaps it was because Trinco marked the start of our one-year sabbatical, or perhaps it was the perfectly sloping beach that just invites you chill on the sand or bob around in the calm water – but Trinco was definitely a location I would recommend to both long and short-term fellow travellers. It’s not as busy as Arugam Bay, yet offers plenty to do in terms of water-related sports and activities, and there’s a decent selection of good eateries along the beach. If you’re coming from a trekking trip around Ella, be prepared for a temperature increase. Additionally, since this corner of the Sri Lankan coast is not yet in full gear when it comes to tourism development, I found that locals weren’t as jaded by the tourism industry as in some other, highly-frequented areas of Sri Lanka – which was nice. So, if you’re considering this sleepy beach town as your next stop, I hope that this Trincomalee travel guide has helped you decide one way or another. If you need inspiration for other destination, check out what else is in store! And, as always, if you have any questions, don’t forget to reach out!