Sri Lanka is a melting pot of beaches, hikes, culture and curries. The best part about this island paradise is that it’s incredibly easy and affordable to travel around, especially when compared to neighbouring India. Did you know…there are 21m people living in Sri Lanka, whereas India has a whopping 1.3bn!!
In this guide you will find my top tips for exploring this breathtaking country, including my recommendations on where to stay, keeping active and the ideal route around the island.
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How long do I need to see Sri Lanka?
I’d recommend a minimum of two to three weeks. There are four main tourist spots, which conveniently run in a circular route. These are:
- West Coast – home to the capital Colombo, a few half decent beach resorts like Benotoa and the fabulous railway line that runs south down the island hugging the coast.
- South Coast – the best beach resorts and the historic town of Galle.
- Central Highlands – tea plantation country and wonderful hikes around Ella, Nuwara Eliya and the Horton Plains.
- Cultural Triangle – the historic heartland of Sri Lanka, home to temples and the ruins of ancient civilizations.
You can travel in either direction – we opted for the beaches first and ended with hikes in the hill country. If you have plenty of time, you may also like to visit the beaches on the East coast (namely Arugam Bay) and also the North of the island, which has seen a turbulent history with the recent civil war, but is now safe to visit.
Day 1: Arrive in Colombo
All international flights will arrive into Bandaranaike International Airport, which is located 35km north of the capital Colombo. The journey will take around 1.5 hrs. If your plane arrives at a reasonable hour then buses are available, alternatively you can hire a taxi that will cost around 3,000LKR (£14). Note there are no tuktuks or trains available on this route. Wherever I travel, I always opt for the official taxi rank, as opposed to local providers, as you can never be 100% sure of their safety record. The official rank is located in the arrivals hall.
Spend a few days exploring the capital of Sri Lanka. Here’s my shortlist of what to see and do:
- Get a sweat on at Fitness First.
- Visit the Galle Face Hotel for sundowner drinks and enjoy the daily bagpipe display.
- Visit Galle Face Green in the evening and eat street food with the locals.
- Cross the railway tracks and visit one of the many restaurants and bars running along the coast at Mount Lavina.
- Enjoy Sunday jazz at the Barefoot Garden Cafe.
- For shopaholics, head to Odel and enjoy lunch in the courtyard.
- Visit the Cricket Club Cafe for beer on tap and sports.
Where to stay: Colombo is divided into 15 zones. Your best bet is to look for accommodation around Colombo 2/Slave Island – which has seen mass regeneration lately – or Colombo 7 – which is an affluent part of town. Check out our super Airbnb accommodation here, located near Flower Terrace Road in Colombo 7.
Day 2: Travel south towards Galle
From Colombo take the train running south towards Galle (pronounced Gaulle). This unique journey offers some pretty spectacular views as the train runs along the west coast of the island. You could stop at Hikkaduwa if you fancy a quick beach break.
TOP TIP: In Colombo, board the train at Maradana Railway Station instead of Colombo Fort, as this is the terminus station and you’re far more likely to get a seat.
Arrive at Maradana station – one hour before the departure time to buy your ticket. There won’t be any reserved seats available if you’re purchasing on the day, so as soon as the train pulls into the station, run for your seats! It’s a real scramble. Be prepared to fight.
Enjoy a full day relaxing in the historic Dutch town of Galle. Wonder around the narrow alleyways, visit the fort and enjoy a good meal at Church Street Social.
Day 4: Travel along the coast to Mirissa
Jump back on the train and continue along the south coast towards Mirissa. This is one of the touristiest spots we visited, but with this comes beach bars and restaurants galore. There is so much choice.
We spent our days chilling at the Paradise Beach Club. A beach side pool with the comfiest sun beds I have ever experienced. You can use the facilities for just a few quid a day.
Mirissa is whale watching central and there are heaps of tour operators. I’ve heard that some of the boats get far too close to the whales, so do your research before booking. Also, if you suffer from travel sickness, then be aware the seas around here can get pretty choppy so you may wish to avoid all together.
Take a day trip to nearby Weligama Beach, famous for its surfing.
Where to stay: Mirissa is a spread out town, there is no central high street. Opt for a beach front property if you can afford one, otherwise there are numerous guesthouses scattered around the side roads.
Day 7: Continue along the south coast to Tangalle
Take a bus, tuktuk or taxi towards Tangalle. Spend a few days enjoying this more secluded beach spot, which feels wild and untouched compared to nearby Mirissa. The seas are rough here but you can find small sheltered bays like Goyambokka Beach.
Where to stay: Blue Skies Guesthouse was one of our favourite places to stay in Sri Lanka. Owner Suranga and his family were wonderful hosts. Be sure to try their famous home cooked curries.
Day 10: Go on safari in Sri Lanka
From Tangalle make your way inland towards tea plantation country. There are no trains along this route and so local buses or a taxi are the best bet. If you opt for a taxi, then you can easily detour to one of the nearby safari parks.
There are two safari parks in the south of Sri Lanka – Udawale and Yala. Yala is best known for its Leopards, although sightings are rare and Udawale for its elephants. I’ve heard that Yala is the more expensive of the two and incredibly crowded so chose wisely. You will need to hire a safari jeep for the three hour tour. This can be done through your accommodation. I wouldn’t recommend hiring a guide as well, the ones I saw didn’t really add anything your driver couldn’t.
Day 10: Continue your journey to Ella
After your three hour safari, jump back in your taxi and continue your journey to Ella. Spend two to three days exploring tea country. Here are some ideas for possible day trips:
- Walk along the railway tracks towards the Nine Arches Bridge and hike to the cafe atop of the adjacent hill for fabulous views as the train passes.
- Climb Little Adam’s Peak and reward yourself with lunch at the 98 Acres Resort.
- If you’re feeling particularly active then hike Ella Rock, widely considered as one of the toughest hikes on the island. The Nomadic Boys have a great guide to finding the route here.
Where to stay: Accommodation in Ella is mainly small privately run guesthouses. Our top pick is Richard Homestay, just five mins walk from the center of Ella. Richard is the perfect host having previously spent 20 years working for the area’s best hotels.
Where to eat: You MUST try the home cooked curry at Matey Hut, it runs cookery courses too. And the pizzas at Dream Café are a wonderful treat after a hard days hike.
Day 14: Take the famous train from Ella to Kandy
The six hour train journey from Ella to Kandy is without question the highlight of my trip to Sri Lanka. The views across rolling tea plantations and the wild landscapes of the Horton Plains are OUT OF THIS WORLD! You ride high up into the clouds, passing schools and remote villages – offering a unique glimpse into everyday life in rural Sri Lanka.
We traveled in Second Class Reserved – which offered more than enough comfort. You really don’t need to pay over the odds for First Class or the Observation Car. You can reserve seats at the train station a few days prior to the journey or pay double the price for a tour operator to do it for you. The man over at Seat61 and I both rate Sri Lanka Tours as a trustworthy operator and a great alternative if you cant make it to the train station to buy tickets. Plus point, the trains in Sri Lanka are wonderfully clean compared to India, even the toilets!
Day 14: Continue your journey onto Habarrana
Get off at Kandy station. From here you are heading towards the Cultural North and I suggest you stay in Habarrana. There are no trains that run this route and so local buses or taxis are your best bet. We arranged for our accommodation in Habarrana to send a taxi to meet us at Kandy train station which worked well. This small rural town is not a tourist trap and it’s likely you’ll dine in your accommodation most days, so pick wisely! It gets hot and humid here so it’s best to sightsee early in the morning, and save your afternoons for relaxing by the pool. We paid a small fee to use the facilities at the 5* Cinnamon Lodge.
Spend two days touring the best that this area has to offer:
- Pay $35 to climb Sigiriya (also known as Lion’s rock), or better yet pay just $5 to climb neighbouring Pidurangula and get the same views!
- Hire a bicycle to explore the ancient ruins at Polonnaruwa. Once the King’s residence, this incredible collection of ruins and temples is the Sri Lankan equivalent of Cambodia’s Angkor Watt.
Where to stay: Centurion Resort offers clean, spacious rooms with delicious home cooking.
Day 17: Travel back to Kandy for one night
There are no trains running to Kandy, so jump in a taxi or local bus. Break up the journey with a visit to the sacred caves at Dambulla and be amazed by the impeccably kept wall paintings.
Kandy is a chaotic town, I believe the second biggest in Sri Lanka. At 6pm witness the daily worship at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic; one of the most important Buddhist shrines in the entire world.
Where to stay: Try and get up into the hills surrounding Kandy to enjoy the magical views. We treated ourselves to a night at the Randholee Resort & Spa, which had an awesome gym!
Day 18: Return to Colombo
Catch a train back to Colombo and continue with your onward travel.