Lying along Sri Lanka’s south coast 35 km east of Galle, Mirissa is a small port town with its main street stretching along a string of sandy beaches. The town is famous for being the best place in the world to see Blue Whales – the largest living creatures on Earth. It was the promise of whales that brought us to Mirissa for a couple of days as part of our Sri Lankan safari.
To be completely honest, Mirissa is not a pretty town. Hardly any Sri Lankan towns are. And it is murderously hot and humid in the middle of the day to explore it by aimlessly walking around. So here is a list of our favourite things to do in Mirissa to help you plan your own itinerary.
Generally, the time between 1 and 3 pm is too hot for any meaningful exploration. The best place to spend the hottest part of the day is Turtle Bay restaurant on Turtle Beach. It is shaded and you can jump in the ocean when it gets too hot.
Secret Beach is another lovely beach with plenty of shade and a beach bar, but the walk to Secret Beach is almost a kilometre long and I wouldn’t recommend taking it in the middle of the day.
Go Whale Watching
The Blue Whales found in Sri Lanka waters are non-migratory and believed to be resident, which means you can see them all year round providing the sea conditions are not too rough. The Indian Ocean is not a calm ocean at the best of times and during the peak of Yala, or the southern monsoon from May to July, it is not safe for the boats. So the whale watching season in Mirissa runs from November until the end of April/early May and from August until October.
Tip: If you are visiting Sri Lanka between May and July, you can see whales in Trincomalee, on the east coast. Sri Lanka has two monsoon seasons and when the sea is too rough in the south, it is perfectly sailable in the east.
There are several different whale-watching tour operators and unfortunately, most of them are entirely unethical and would chase a whale for hours approaching much closer than the international whale-watching guidelines allow. This no doubt causes constant stress to the whales making them leave their preferred feeding areas. And for a 120-ton animal, the inability to consume enough food is no laughing matter.
Thankfully there is one wonderful ethical operator in town – Raja and the Whales. This local family-run business is the original whale-watching tour operator in Mirissa. They were the first to offer tours to see Blue Whales in Mirissa.
The tour starts at 6 am pick up from your accommodation for a 6.30 am departure from Mirissa Harbour. The duration of the tour is not set – the boat will remain at sea until every effort to find whales has been exhausted. Usually, this takes about 6 hours, but can be longer, or shorter.
We took a couple of hours looking for Blue Whales. And in the meantime, found a Pilot Whale female with a tiny calf. Pilot whales are the second largest creatures on earth and as migratory species, they are not encountered as often as Blue Whales.
When we finally encountered a Blue Whale, we stayed a respectful distance away from it. It was absolutely enormous. Large that our 15-meter boat by about a third. There was no need to come closer to see it well. And since we were not harassing the whale it resurfaced close to our boat of its own accord.
We stayed with the whale for about 5-6 dives and then left it alone to feed in peace. On the way back we came across a pod of Spinner dolphins – one of the smallest and by far the most acrobatic dolphin species. They came to ride the bow wave of our boat, constantly jumping out of the water for the fun of it.
If you are planning to go whale watching in Mirissa, I highly recommend booking your tour with Raja and the Whales. You can find more details and images from our trip in my guide to ethical whale watching in Mirissa.
See Green Sea Turtles
Wildlife-watching adventures don’t stop with whales and dolphins in Mirissa. There are a couple of places in town where you can watch Green sea turtles from land as they feed in the shallows. I watched a couple of kids watching the turtles in reverent awe so turtle spotting would be a fun thing to do if you are visiting Sri Lanka with kids.
The best spot is the Turtle Point beach. It is the small beach at the foot of Coconut Tree Hill (more on visiting the hill below). There is a hotel and bar at the end of the beach and according to the staff at the bar, you can see the turtle in the water right in front of the bar every day.
We watched one of the turtles for at least half an hour in the afternoon and when we left it was still there, battling the powerful surf as it fed on algae. Now and then it lifted its head out of the water to take a breath of air, but mostly it remained just below the surface of the water.
If you have snorkelling gear with you, you can have a very up-close-and-personal encounter with the turtles. Just be careful in the surf – the current is very strong.
If you visit in the afternoon, you’ll see local fishermen going out fishing from the beach in their colourful boats. This is a much more authentic sight than the stilt fishermen experience (more on this in the stilt fishermen section below).
Snap a Photo of Coconut Tree Hill
Of all the things to do in Mirissa, taking a snap of Coconut Tree Hill is the most iconic one. Just Google Mirissa and the first few images will be of a small red rock promontory encircled by very tall coconut palm trees.
The hill, which is actually a headland is located within a short stroll from the centre of town, just past Turtle Point Beach. Unfortunately, the central tree has lost its crown in a recent storm, but the view is still lovely.
This is a busy spot, so if you are a keen photographer, you’ll want to visit the hill at sunrise when it is virtually deserted.
Most people visit the hill just long enough to snap a few photos, but if you stick around and watch the rocks at the bottom of the headland looking towards Turtle Point beach, you are likely to spot one of the Green sea turtles that live there.
Chill out on Turtle Beach
Turtle Beach is one of the best spots in town to while away the hottest part of the day. It lies adjacent to Turtle Point Beach, but the surf here tends to be considerably calmer and there are no rocks in the surf.
It is a small beach but the best part about it is that it is shaded. There is a beachside restaurant right on the sand called Turtle Bay, so you can have lunch, get a drink or relax on a sun bed and enjoy the cool breeze.
True to its name, Turtle Beach is home to some sea turtles. So keep your eye on the surf and if you spot one, wade into the water some distance away from it and let it come towards you if it will.
But please make sure to give the turtle enough space. Don’t get too close and restrict its movements. It’s a hard job as it is feeding in such powerful surf.
Visit the Not So Secret ‘Secret Beach’
While Mirissa’s Secret Beach is the worst-kept secret in town, with signs pointing to it and its location marked on Google Maps, it is still a very pretty beach and a sheltered swimming spot.
To find the beach, simply navigate to it on Google Maps, or park at one of the signposted parking spots on Harbour Road and follow the signs to the beach. It’s an 800-meter walk first uphill and then downhill at the end.
When you pass a small temple, about halfway along, keep an eye out for Purple-faced leaf monkeys. You can see Toque macaques east enough but I haven’t seen Leaf monkeys anywhere else in Mirissa.
Once you get to Secret Beach Bar, walk through it to get to the beach. The beach is not big but it is very picturesque. Sheltered from the surf by the rocks it is virtually a rock pool.
Climb Parrot Rock
Located along Mirissa Beach, Parrot Rock is a small rock island about 15 meters from the shore. But while 15 meters sounds like a short distance, you’ll need to keep an eye on the tide. it’s quite easy to walk to the rock at low tide but at high tide, the short crossing can be treacherous.
Once you are on the island, there is a rickety stairway to get to the top of the rock from where you get fantastic views of Mirissa beach, the town behind it and Coconut Tree Hill to the far right.
The best time to visit the rock is around sunset. But in my opinion, the view of the rock itself is as interesting as the view from its summit.
A friend of mine came to Mirissa as part of disaster relief work after the 2004 tsunami and their group camped on top of Parrot Rock. So perhaps you could do that now as well.
Catch the Sunset on the Beach
Mirissa Beach which runs parallel to the main street of Mirissa is the perfect place for an afternoon stroll to catch the beautiful golden light and a fiery sunset. You can start the walk from Parrot Rock and stroll for as long as you like – the beach is at least a kilometre long.
At sunset, as the sky turns red the surf takes on a deep pink hue as well. With views stretching from Coconut Tree Hill headland to the western headland at the end of Mirissa Beach the glow of the setting sun seems to envelope the world around you.
See Colourful Boats in Mirissa Harbor
Mirissa is the largest fishing port on Sri Lanka’s south coast and Mirissa Harbour is an explosion of colour with brightly painted fishing boats moored in neat rows.
It is the point of departure for Whale and Dolphin watching tours. So if you are joining a tour, you’ll the boat harbour from the water.
But if you are not planning to sail out of the harbour, you can go for a stroll along the water’s edge and watch the colourful boats come and go.
The harbour lies on the other side of the headland from the Secret Beach, so you can easily visit both on the same walk.
As you stroll around the harbour, remember that this area was devastated by the 2004 tsunami caused by a deep-sea earthquake. It’s difficult to imagine such destructive force looking at the colourful boats peacefully bobbing on the waves.
Visit Stilt Fishermen in Koggala
This one is not for everyone. I was very keen to see the stilt fishermen, but when we found them and spoke to them, we decided not to participate in the ‘experience’. Here’s the spill so you can decide for yourself.
Fishing from stilts is an age-old tradition on Sri Lanka’s south coast. Usually, fishermen go fishing in their small boats, but when the sea is too rough, they fish from the stilts in the surf. Or they used to.
We came across a stilt fisherman in Koggala, while driving from Galle to Mirissa. Excited, we parked, grabbed our cameras and trotted to the beach. There we met several fishermen, one of whom spoke good English and explained to us that they fish on the stilts from 4 am to 8 am. After 8 am, which is the time when most tourists would pass them, they are happy to jump onto their stilts and pretend to fish for a fee (1,000 rupees in our case).
I was gutted to hear this. To me, this symbolizes everything that is wrong with modern-day tourism and its effect on local cultures. I entirely appreciate the fact that the fishermen will make more money posing for tourists than actually fishing. And that means that their families will eat well tonight. But I couldn’t bring myself to make people perform tricks for me for a treat. It is a morally confronting situation where either choice you make leaves you feeling guilty.
As we returned to the car, we noticed that there was a sign on the side of the road that read “Stilt Fishermen”. Further down the road, there were several more. So much for discovering unique cultures. I wonder if these fishermen actually catch fish from the stilts at all. The image above is a stock photo.
Take a Day trip to Galle
Located just 35 km from Mirissa, Galle Fort is full of colonial charm. It is one of the prettiest towns in Sri Lanka with its narrow alleyways, centuries-old churches, palm tree-lined coast, and a lovely lighthouse.
Galle Fort is also home to some of the best shops and artisan galleries in Sri Lanka. You can pick up anything from clothes and souvenirs to traditional masks and swords here.
If you have your own set of wheels, stop at Talpe Natural Pool on the way. It’s a lovely sheltered rock pool, perfect for a swim. There is a parking area where you can leave your car for 400 rupees and a shower for 100 rupees.
Go on Safari in Yala National Park
If you don’t have enough time to go to Tissamaharama for a safari in Yala National Park, you can book a Yala safari from Mirissa, but it will be an early start. Sri Lankan national parks open at 6 am and most tours start around 5.30 am. However, to do a full-day Yala safari from Mirissa, you’ll need to leave around 3.30 am.
Keep in mind, Yala is the busiest national park in Sri Lanka, which means that hundreds of jeeps enter the park each day. And when a particularly interesting animal is spotted, like a leopard, the jeep drivers call each other with the animal’s location and within minutes you’ll be surrounded by dozens of jeeps. It’s quite a chaotic experience.
But… Yala has the highest density of leopards in the world, so if you are dreaming of seeing a Sri Lankan leopard in the wild, Yala is your best chance.
How to get to Mirissa
The best way to get to Mirissa from Colombo is by catching a train either to Weligama or Matara. The journey takes just over 3 hours. From either train station, it is a short tuk-tuk ride to Mirissa.
Alternatively, you can book a private transfer from Colombo Airport to Mirissa for about USD $75.
Where to Stay in Mirissa
If you are looking to wrap yourself in comfort and luxury, Beach Mirissa Hotel has a gorgeous pool and elegant rooms that feature balconies with ocean views.
In mid-range, Tiki Bay Mirissa is just a few steps from the beach and has simple but comfortable rooms and serves delicious pancakes for breakfast.
If you are travelling on a budget, Sun Hopes is very affordable, perfectly comfortable and located within a short walk from Coconut Tree Hill, Turtle Beach and Mirissa Beach.