If Sri Lanka isn’t already on your radar, it definitely should be. This tiny country packs a big, beautiful punch. Located just below India, the tear-drop shaped island is home to some of the most diverse landscapes I’ve ever seen. From jungles and rainforests, to hills and mountains and long stretches of sandy beaches; there is something here for every type of traveler.
We were completely blown away by the natural wonders of Sri Lanka and just how untouched this part of the world really is. While 17 days here is only enough to scratch the surface of what Sri Lanka has to offer, I hope that you can use this guide to maximize your time in this mesmerizing country.
Throughout this post you will find links to other, more in depth writings from many of the locations we visited in Sri Lanka.
Included in This Blog Post:
- A Complete 17-Day Itinerary to Adventuring Around the Country
- Where to Visit, Stay and Eat in Each Location
- The Culture & People
- Visas & Vaccinations
- How to Get Around
- And More!
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Day 1: Arrival in Colombo
We flew from the Maldives to Sri Lanka on a short flight and landed in Colombo at night. Prior to arriving in Sri Lanka I had purchased my visa online. I will add more about eVisas later. If you hold a Maldivian passport you do not need any visa to enter.
Due to our arrival time, we stayed in a local guesthouse close to the airport to lay our heads down and get some sleep. This was the only part of our trip to Sri Lanka that we had planned before our arrival. The rest we figured out as we went.
Day 2: Colombo to Kandy
After breakfast, check out of your hotel in Colombo (or near the airport) and take an inexpensive tuk tuk to the closest bus station. Arrive at the bus station and ask a local which bus to take to get to Kandy. The locals are incredibly friendly and so helpful in assisting you to get on the right bus or train. Since we stayed just outside of the airport, our first bus ride took about 30 minutes to reach the main bus terminal in Colombo. From here we were directed to the bus that would take us the 3 hours to Kandy. Many of the buses in Sri Lanka are not air-conditioned but this one was and for just a few dollars it was a very comfortable journey.
Arrive in Kandy and either walk or take a tuk tuk to your hotel to check in and drop your belongings. We stayed at the Cafe Aroma Inn, located in the heart of Kandy and within walking distance to the Temple of the Tooth. There are many sights within Kandy that are worth visiting so be sure to get out and make the most of your time.
∇ Top Sights to See in Kandy ∇
Sri Dalada Maligawa or the Temple of the Sacred Tooth is one of the top places to visit in Kandy. Within the walls of this stunning Buddhist Temple you can find the relic of the tooth of the Buddha. When entering the Temple there are strict rules requiring all visitors (men and women) to be covered appropriately. Due to the heat in Sri Lanka, Hamey was wearing shorts so we were unable to enter. So keep in mind the dress code, covering shoulders and legs, when visiting some of these Temples.
Absolutely make a visit to the Bahiravokanda Vihara Buddha. This Buddhist place of worship is located at the top of a hill with gorgeous 360 views of Kandy. The easiest way to reach the Buddha is to take a tuk tuk to the entrance at the top of the hill. To enter you must remove your shoes and pay a fee of 250 LKR ($1.37). Once you enter, be sure to walk all the way around the back of the Buddha statue to climb the stair for an even better view!
∇ Restaurants in Kandy ∇
The Empire Cafe, located very close to the Temple of the Tooth is an adorable cafe with a very Sri Lankan vibe. The food is delicious and so are the milkshakes! They sell the famous Stick No Bills Ceylon posters and some other fun items to purchase as a memento from your trip.
The Secret Alley Cafe is exactly how it sounds. Tucked away down a narrow alley, this vegan friendly cafe is easy to find but still feels like you are in a secluded location away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Be sure to try their smoothies, all made with fresh ingredients and perfect for those warm, sunny days in Lanka.
Day 3: Day Trip to Sigiriya and Dambulla
If you are only planning on doing a day trip to Sigiriya Rock and the Dambulla Cave Temples be sure to get an early start to your day. From the main bus terminal in Kandy, ask around to find the bus to get to Dambulla. You will need to arrive here first and then proceed to another bus to reach Sigiriya. The ride from Kandy to Dambulla cost 98 LKR ($0.54) per person for a 2 hour ride. The cost to travel around Sri Lanka is incredibly cheap, easy and surprisingly reliable.
Tip: Unless there are no other seats available, I would refrain from sitting in the front row of the bus. Once all the seats were occupied, the passengers that had to stand would mostly converge in the front of the bus leaving very little room for any movement. And for a 2 hour bus ride that can become pretty uncomfortable!
Once you’ve arrived at the Dambulla bus station you can immediately hop on another bus headed to Sigiriya. Another 30 minutes and 35 LKR ($0.19) later you will arrive at the road side entrance of Sigiriya Rock. Begin walking along the path for about 30-45 minutes (we stopped to take a lot of pictures) until you reach the main entrance and ticket counter. At the entrance there is a small cafe with snacks and drinks and a restroom. To enter the UNESCO World Heritage site you have to pay $30 per person. Most of the costs in Sri Lanka are relatively inexpensive with the exception of some of the sights.
Once you enter, you will follow the path that will lead you through the grounds and up some stairs until you reach the rock. There are many signs reminding visitors to remain silent due to large wasp nests and the possibility of a wasp attack. There have been times where they have had to close down the site due to the wasps. You will eventually find your way to the main entrance of the rock, marked by the famous lion paws. Climb up the rock and enjoy the panoramic views from above.
Departing Sigiriya Rock, take the bus from the same location you were dropped off at and head back to Dambulla. From the bus station you can hire a tuk tuk to take you to the cave entrance.
The cost to enter the Dambulla Cave Temples is $10 per person and the ticket office is located at the bottom of the stairs. Climb to the top of the stairs to reach the cave temples where you can either pay to store your shoes or put them in your backpack. Take your time walking around the cave temples and admiring the many beautiful and elaborate Buddha statues and frescos painted on the walls of the caves.
After your visit at Dambulla, find your way back the bus station and take your journey back to Kandy. I also recommend packing lots of water and snacks for the day
Tip: The entrance fees to Sigiriya Rock and the Dambulla Cave Temples can both be paid in USD cash.
Day 4: The Most Beautiful Train Journey from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya
Begin your journey in Kandy, where you will pre-purchase your tickets. We purchased the 2nd class tickets to Nuwara Eliya and 3rd class tickets to Ella. The entire train journey takes 7 hours from Kandy to Ella but you can make an overnight stop in Nuwara Eliya to visit some of the tea plantations.
The views along the train journey are stunning. Around every new turn were more views of the Sri Lankan countryside and rolling hills filled with rows of vibrant green tea leaves. I guarantee you’ll have your camera out the entire time!
Tip: Be sure to keep your train tickets on hand because you will need to turn them in when exiting the station.
To arrive in Nuwara Eliya you will exit at the Nanu-Oya station. Many tuk tuk’s will be waiting to take you to your hotel. We stayed at the Pigeon’s Nest, a small but quaint family run homestay on the top of the hill with spectacular views overlooking the town. The weather in Nuwara Eliya can be quite temperamental and is one of the coldest towns in Sri Lanka.
Once you’ve settled in, explore the surrounding areas and take a visit to at least one of the tea plantations. We visited Mackwoods and were offered a quick, free tour inside the factory to watch the process of making the tea. You are welcome to roam around the tea fields and explore a bit of the area before leaving.
After a visit to the tea plantation, find your way back into town to wander the streets. Stroll around in search of the buildings recognized from their rich British Colonial influence and maybe try a some of the delicious street food.
Day 5-6: Train Travel From Nuwara Eliya to Ella and Exploring Ella
Your departure time from Nuwara Eliya will determine your arrival time in Ella. We were on board the 12:30 pm train and arrived in Ella 3.5 hours later. We stayed at a new guesthouse, Ella White Elephant, located on top of a hill and a very short walking distance from the train station.
Nestled in the middle of Sri Lanka’s hill country and surrounded by lush green mountains, Ella is a charming town and any nature lovers dream. Most visitors stay in Ella while they explore the surrounding areas and hike the nearby peaks.
∇ Top Sights to See in Ella ∇
The Nine Arches Bridge in the nearby town of Demodara is a must see when visiting Ella. The best way to access the famous bridge is to walk along the main street in town and follow the hand-made signs pointing you in the direction of Nine Arches. Rising almost 100 ft from the ravine below in the small nearby town of Demodara, the Nine Arches Bridge is an impressive display of railway construction that is still in use today.
Walk through nature and along the train tracks to reach the Rawanna Temple. The train tracks are safe to walk along as you can hear the train coming from quite a distance away and there is plenty of space to jump to the side should a train pass through. To be honest, we were really in search of the Rawanna waterfall. We didn’t find it but ended up at the Temple instead and enjoyed the views from there. We saw the waterfall the next day on the bus as we were headed out of town… whoops!
Little Adam’s Peak and Ella Rock are two of the most popular day hikes in the area but since I was traveling with my Maldivian friend during Ramadan we decided to explore the areas closer to town. Little Adam’s peak is a relatively easy hike with a steady incline, reaching a maximum height of 1141 meters. Once you reach the top you will be rewarded with stunning views as far as the eye can see. The trek to Ella Rock is known to take about 4 hours round trip and can be done without a guide although it is easy to get lost.
∇ Restaurants in Ella ∇
Cafe Chill is a popular restaurant in the center of town. This restaurant had many positive reviews and we’d have to agree. The food was delicious and reasonably priced with large portion sizes. We enjoyed the atmosphere, music and eclectic vibes.
Day 7-8: Discovering the Beaches and Beauty of Arugam Bay
To reach Arugam Bay from Ella you will first need to take a bus to Wellawaya (the first transfer stop). The bus stop in Ella is located on the same side of the road as Cafe Chill directly in front of the library sign.
The bus transfers from Ella to Arugam Bay are listed here: Ella to Wellawaya (30 LKR/$0.16 pp). Wellawaya to Monaragala (60 LKR/$0.33 pp). Monaragala to Pottuvil. From Pottuvil, you will take a tuk tuk to Arugam Bay. There may be other ways to get there but this is the route we took and it worked for us!
Arugam Bay is a beautiful crescent-shaped sandy beach located along Sri Lanka’s Eastern Coast. This famous surf spot has a super laid back vibe that draws in surfers, yogis and visitors from all over the world. A-Bay (affectionately referred to by the locals) is a great place to chill out for a few days and soak up the sun.
∇ Top Sights to See in Arugam Bay ∇
The beaches are an obvious must see when visiting Arugam Bay. Well known for its surf, this beach along Sri Lanka’s west coast is extremely popular during the high season. We were visiting in the low season so the beach wasn’t packed like I expect it would be at a different time during the year. If you want to give surfing a try there are plenty of places in town where you can rent a board for a pretty low price.
Go on a safari to the nearby Kumana National Park. Unbeknownst to many, Sri Lanka is home to a large population of elephants and leopards. There are many National Parks where you can take a safari tour to see these beautiful creatures in the wild. Yala National Park is the most famous, but if you are looking for something a little closer and less expensive, visit the sister park of Kumana, located in Yala East. The 6 hour safari trip cost 5000 LKR ($31) per person and we spotted many elephants, deer and crocodiles along the way.
Tip: Please do not visit the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage during your travels through Sri Lanka. I absolutely refused to go to this place based on very little information about how they treated their elephants. Yes, the pictures that many influencers are posting make this orphanage look beautiful and the elephants appear to be living a happy life. However, if you look closely you can see the chains around their ankles. Since I did not visit, I cannot speak from personal experience. However, I have seen others post that the elephants there have been mistreated and the orphanage is focused more on generating income rather than the livelihood of the elephants. Of course, the decision is always yours but just do your research before supporting any tourist attraction that may be mistreating their animals just to make money.
Day 9-11: Depart Arugam Bay to Explore Sri Lanka’s Capital City of Colombo
Okay, so first of all you don’t actually need to go to Colombo to get to Galle Fort. We arrived in Sri Lanka’s capital city as a stopover on our way to Galle Fort. Unfortunately, I don’t have any bus transfer information for this route since I awoke with one of my dreaded migraines and decided that hiring a private driver for this day was necessary. The drive took 7.5 hours and cost 14,000 LKR ($76) for a large, air-con van.
Colombo is a very large city and not many of the sights are within walking distance. Utilizing the tuk tuks is a good way to easily get around the city.
Tip: Check to make sure there is a meter in any tuk tuk in Colombo. Within the city they are required to have a meter to provide a fair price to their passengers. If you get in a tuk tuk without a meter immediately get out and find a different one. We made this mistake and the driver tried to royally rip us off.
∇ Top Sights to See in Colombo ∇
The Jami Ul Alfar Mosque is one of the most photographed Mosques in all of Sri Lanka and it’s easy to see why. Located on the Main Street in Pettah, surrounded by local vendors, heavy traffic and busy store fronts, this candy cane looking Mosque is beautiful. Often referred to as the Red Mosque, you will be mesmerized by the unique architectural design and brickwork.
Another must see in Colombo is the Seema Malakaya Meditation Centre. This Buddhist temple can be found floating on the Beira Lake and mainly serves as a meditation center as opposed to a temple of worship. If you’d like to enter the centre there is a 300 LKR ($1.64) charge per person.
∇ Restaurants in Colombo ∇
The Barefoot Garden Cafe and Artisan Shop is the best place to have a meal in Colombo. It’s so good that we went twice in one day and then we returned the next day to get food to take on the train with us! They also hand make their own fabrics and create beautiful home decor pieces that you will definitely want to purchase!
Day 12-14: The Historic Town of Galle Fort and South Coast Beaches
With three sides surrounded by the sea, the gorgeous coastal town of Galle Fort was easily my favorite place in Sri Lanka. We chose to stay in Galle Fort for a few nights as a home base due to its close proximity to the many lovely beaches along the south coast.
To reach Galle from Colombo, take the 3.5 hour train journey. This will set you back a mere 180 LKR ($0.98) per person.
∇ Top Sights to See in Galle Fort ∇
Explore the UNESCO World Heritage sight of Galle Fort. Within the ancient fort walls the quaint, grey-brick lined streets are lined with boutique shops and delicious restaurants. In the evenings, head toward the grassy fields where the surrounding wall creates a barrier from the steep drop into the crashing ocean waves.
Along the fort walls you will find the iconic lighthouse. Built in 1938, the lighthouse is a good starting point for walking the circumference around Galle Fort.
Just outside of the old fort walls is the not-so-touristy part of Galle town. Here you will find the local fruit and fish markets, as well as the photogenic Style Tailors & Textiles shop with its well-worn turquoise walls.
∇ Restaurants in Galle Fort ∇
Arriving at Poonie’s Kitchen for lunch made me feel like I’d stumbled upon a secret location in the heart of Galle Fort. Although easy to find, directly off the main street, the cozy café is a quiet escape for a delicious meal.
For a unique twist on traditional Chinese cuisine, look no further than Summer Green. The open-air restaurant is beautifully designed with an inviting coastal feel. All their food is very fresh and super flavorful, with portions large enough to share. Make sure you also try their avocado milkshake, it is oh-so-good!
∇ The Best South Coast Beaches ∇
The idyllic and serene Dalawella Beach was my favorite of the ones I visited in Sri Lanka. Located just 8.5 kilometers south of Galle Fort, this small beach is just a little further down the coast from the busier, more popular Unuwatuna beach. Here you can find the Instagram famous rope swing. But now the hotel is charging a fee to use it so we chose not too.
The most popular and well known of Sri Lanka’s southern beaches is Mirissa Beach. There is plenty to do here and you could easily spend a day or two wandering around the town and digging your toes in the sand. Be sure to walk along the waters edge until you reach Parrot Rock, an outcropping which you can climb up in the high season. It was barricaded when we were there in low season and most of the restaurants were closed. If you continue walking along the beach you can eventually reach the coconut tree hill, another popular photo spot!
Day 15: Searching for Sea Turtles at Hikkaduwa
There are many buses during the day that travel from Galle to Hikkaduwa. Therefore, you don’t need to feel rushed to leave early from Galle Fort. Spend the morning checking out of the sights you may have missed within the fort walls before leaving. Head to the bus station in Galle and board the bus to Hikkaduwa. The journey takes about 40 minutes and cost 35 LKR ($0.19) per person. The bus driver even dropped us off directly in front of our hotel. We stated at the Oasis Villa, which I mainly choose because of the pool. Well, ironically enough, the pool was closed during our stay as they were completely renovating it… go figure!
Try to arrive before sunset and go straight to the beach. The sunset from here was possibly the best one during our entire trip!
Hikkaduwa is the home to a few curious sea turtles that will swim up to the shore. We were hoping to see them during our short time here but it appeared that maybe they had heard it was low season too.
∇ Restaurants in Hikkaduwa ∇
There is a very welcoming bar/restaurant called Mama’s that is located directly on the beach. This is a great place to relax and have a drink while watching the sun begin to set.
For dinner we ate at JLH Beach Restaurant which was recommended by our hotel and highly reviewed online. Try the curries and try to get a table by the ocean!
Day 16: Spend Your Last Night in Negombo
You can take the bus from Hikkaduwa to Negombo for 245 LKR ($1.34) pp. Choose a hotel right on the beach! You’ll want to spend your final hours soaking up Sri Lanka’s beautiful coast. Or swim in the pool and enjoy the cooler temperatures that blow through at night as the winds pick up.
Day 17: Departure Day
Today you will leave Negombo and travel back to the airport in Colombo. This is where your adventures and journey through Sri Lanka will end. Reflect back on your trip and all of the diversity that this tiny country offers. It’s easy to see why Sri Lanka is now one of the best places to travel to.
The Culture and People of Sri Lanka
Buddhism is the main religion and culture of Sri Lanka. Throughout the country you will see many Temples and Buddha statues as a place of worship. Please be respectful and dress appropriately when entering these religious sites.
Sri Lankans are very friendly, welcoming and helpful people. Create conversations with the locals and interact with the children. While Sinhala and Tamil are the official languages of Sri Lanka, many people will be able to speak and understand some english.
Visa and Vaccinations: What You Need to Know
According to their website, all visitors (excluding residents of Singapore, Maldives and Seychelles) are required to obtain a visa prior to or on arrival. The online eVisa is probably the easiest and fastest way to get the visa. You can apply on the ETA Application website and provide all the required documents to receive your visa. I’m not sure if the costs vary from country to country but the fee should not be very expensive.
In addition to you typical childhood vaccinations, travelers to Sri Lanka should absolutely get the Hepatitis A and Typhoid vaccinations. Others that are recommended but not always necessary include Hepatitis B, Japanese Encephalitis and Rabies. If you are traveling from a country where Yellow Fever is present, the Sri Lankan government requires proof of the yellow fever vaccination. It is also advisable to carry anti-malarial prophylaxis and a drug, such as Ciprofloxacin, for travelers diarrhea. Be sure to apply insect repellent (with DEET) frequently to avoid mosquito bites. This will lessen your chances of contracting any mosquito-bourne illnesses.
How to Get Around
There are many options to getting around Sri Lanka.
The cheapest option is using the safe and reliable public transportation which allows you to get anywhere within the country. Since most of the locals depend on public transportation you can rest assured that you will be able to travel around using the same methods.
You can also, very easily, find a tuk tuk to take you anywhere you want to go. We absolutely utilized these during our time in Sri Lanka. They were useful in reaching destinations that were a little further than walking distance from the train or bus stations.
Another option is to hire a private driver. These drivers usually cost around $50 a day. Which is quite expensive when you compare it to the pennies you will pay for public transport. Since we didn’t use a private driver I can’t speak from experience. However, I understand that the same driver will travel with you during your entire trip. Before hiring a private driver I would find out if you are responsible for paying for their hotel stay, food, etc. Just something to consider.
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