My 2-week Travel Itinerary for Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka really is a fantastic country and it fully deserves the attention it’s currently getting around the world from travellers. Sri Lanka is having its moment and I just hear of more and more people travelling there. So I thought it might be useful to give an overview of the route I took around the country and some of the incredible places you can visit and things there are to do on this tropical island in the Indian Ocean.
- Sri Lanka merits at least 2 weeks – With one week you’ll barely scratch the surface and it’s a country that merits at least two.
- December – March is the best time to visit weather-wise – This is their peak season, but I travelled in January and it wasn’t actually that crowded.
- It’s not that well tailored for solo travellers – You’ll end up paying for double rooms and I didn’t bump into any other solo travellers. As luck would have it I only spent 4 of my 16 days travelling alone in the end and it made everything much much cheaper. On the other hand, I met a lot more locals by travelling solo, getting a better insight into the country.
- It’s not as cheap as South-East Asia – My average spend per day was £40, although you certainly could spend less if you’re on a real budget. If you’re on a budget, take public transport & tuktuks & stay in fan-only guesthouses. If you have a bit more to spend, then travel in taxis & tuktuks and you’ll find some stunning hotels to stay in.
- Public transport is not for the faint-hearted – But it’s such a fascinating cultural experience! Be sure to take one train and one bus at the very least, if only to experience a small taste of local life. My longest was a 9-hour journey and it was an endurance test, but not one that I regret.
- Book hotels or guesthouses a day beforehand – Don’t overplan by booking everything before your plane even lands, but by booking a room the day before each new town, you avoid being left with the dregs of the accommodation available from touts on the street. The two nights I arrived somewhere new without a booking (Mirissa & Sigiriya) were definitely the worst two nights accommodation-wise.
The ideal 2-week itinerary for Sri Lanka
Disclaimer: my own route differed slightly from the route I’m suggesting here, because I was fitting in around the various people I met up with and travelled with. My first week was quite rushed as I was travelling with a guy who could only spend one week there, and then I deliberately headed to the coast early in order to meet up with two friends and relax on some pristine beaches with them, before trekking up north to the Cultural Triangle for the solo part of my trip. So the itinerary below is what I’d suggest you do, based on what I learned from the diversion I took. Also, these are not the very best photos I took – I simply haven’t got round to sorting them all yet!
Upon leaving the airport, ignore Colombo initially and head north straight away to Anuradhapura, the huge ruined ancient city that served as capital of the island from the 3rd century BC until 993 AD, to cycle around the extensive monasteries, palaces, tanks and dagobas. Spend 1 full day and a night here before heading east to the second point if the so-called “Cultural Triangle”.
I didn’t personally have time to go here, but according to my guidebook it’s a major site worth visiting and you should rent bikes to get around the city.
The remains of the island’s second capital can be visited in half a day if you’re conscious of time, or a whole day if you’re really keen on your archeology. Rent a bike from your guesthouse (I stayed at Ruins Villa, who were hugely helpful and cooked up a great dinner) to cycle around the surprisingly peaceful and tourist-free ancient city. I saw more cows grazing and monkeys grooming than other foreigners snapping photos. The lake nearby is great spot for a sunset.
Not far away is the must-visit Lion’s Rock of Sigiriya, a set of water gardens, frescoes and a ruined citadel atop a 200m-tall rock jutting out of the otherwise mostly flat surrounding countryside. It’s a steep climb to the top but the views are unmissable. Stay 1 night and rise early the next morning to hike up Pidurangala Rock just north of Lion’s Rock before breakfast. I had the whole climb to myself as it doesn’t receive any of the coachloads of East Asian tourists that descend upon Sigiriya. In fact the only living soul that I saw from bottom to top was this little puppy who accompanied me up of his own choice! The views are possibly even better than at Lion’s Rock and the quiet, isolated atmosphere was unbeatable. Having now seen the three main sites in the Cultural Triangle, head south into the hill country.
I made a stop in between Sigiriya and Kandy to spend a night at the house of a Sri Lankan friend of a friend in Matale, a town that doesn’t otherwise have many tourist attractions. Staying with Shammi and his very welcoming parents however was a fascinating part of my trip, seeing how a Sri Lankan family live, and tasting the best Sri Lankan food I ate anywhere!
1 night suffices in Kandy to walk along the lake, visit the Temple of the Tooth, visit an elephant sanctuary and perhaps also walk up to the enormous Bahiravakanda Buddha. Stay in a guesthouse in the surrounding hills – we stayed at the plush Earls Regent Hotel.
Hatton (for Adam’s Peak)
We didn’t manage to do this because of poor weather and lack of time, but if you take the (very scenic) train to Hatton, or then even further to the town of Dalhousie, then you can climb Adam’s Peak, a 2243m tall mountain held sacred by Buddhists, which you ascend through the night along a lit path in order to see the sunrise from the summit. 1 night needed in Hatton.
In between Kandy and Ella we did spend a night in Nuwara Eliya but I didn’t like it and there was little to see beyond some interesting tea plantations sculpted into the hills, which I think you could also visit from Hatton or Ella instead.
Continue on the train from Hatton to Ella and pray for no clouds, as the view is incredible! Reserve a 2nd class seat a few days in advance if you can, and take your camera fully charged. Spend 2 nights in Kandy at the beautifully secluded Nine Arches Lodge and explore the hill country by climbing Little Adam’s Peak and Ella’s Rock, and visiting the Rawana Ella waterfalls and the Nine Arches Bridge.
Spend 2 nights in this beautiful bay, relaxing on a beach, dining in fairylit restaurants by night and you can also go whale-watching.
Also along this stretch of coast are the following beach towns: nearby Weligama is apparently the perfect spot to learn to surf; and Unawatuna is another beach similar to Mirissa where we spent a night.
Spend 1 night in the beautifully preserved colonial Galle Fort, watching the sunset and locals play cricket on the ramparts, meandering through the tranquil streets and perusing galleries and the best cuisine you’ll find in Sri Lanka. I went to Galle twice, once staying at the very friendly Seagreen Guesthouse, and the second time to have dinner with a Sri Lankan friend of a friend, Sashini, who was staying at the incredibly luxurious Livingroom by TPV, which has an incredible private rooftop terrace and an equally stunning cocktail bar below. Galle is refreshingly calm compared to most of Sri Lanka, as there’s no traffic and it’s basically purely occupied by tourists.
Take a 30-minute tuktuk to the beach town of Hikkaduwa, and book 3 nights in the Blue Fox Hotel, slightly set back from the beach but with a heavenly swimming pool surrounded by palm trees. Aim to be nearer Narigama Beach than Hikkaduwa Beach, as Narigama has a more laidback backpacker / independent traveller vibe. Start your days with a 7am yoga class overlooking the beach, then take a dip in the pool before breakfast and then have a surf lesson mid-morning with Kipal or Dan at the Beach Break Surf School (near the Drifters Hotel and only £10/hour – an incredible place to learn!), before spending the rest of the day strolling up and down the 3 km-long Narigama Beach or resting your limbs on a sunbed at Funky De Bar with a Michael Ondaatje novel to learn more context about Sri Lanka. Or at least that’s how I spent 3 days with my friends Georgie & Alex, which I then actually extended to 5 nights because I fell so in love with the place!
I really made progress with my surfing (so much fun but harder than it looks!), enjoyed my daily yoga and took a much needed breather from my rather hectic schedule over the last few months. And if you fancy a break from an idyllic beach and the soothing sound of breaking waves, take a short tuktuk trip to visit Mr Telwatta’s Turtle Sanctuary, pay respects at the 2004 Tsunami Memorial in Peraliya and visit the Tsunami Museum. I just adored Hikkaduwa and could easily have spent several weeks there…
Head north to the capital city for 1 night, staying at the perfectly located Olu Colombo Villa which is a hostel and hotel run by a lovely girl, Devumi, who I met through Sashini in Galle. If you’re pressed for time then you might choose to skip exploring Colombo, but it is close to the airport, so if you can spare a night then you should visit its many truly excellent restaurants, cafes and bars (Sash & her friends took me to the Thai Cuisine Boulevard restaurant, Gallery Cafe, Sugar 41 rooftop bar, Dilmah Tea Lounge and Barefoot Cafe & Shop, and we also popped our heads into Tintagel, the Sky Bar at Kingsbury Hotel and the seafront bar at Galle Face Hotel – all of which looked incredible!).
In terms of sights, it’s interesting to drive around the city and see the following, although you don’t necessairly need to get out at each stop: Parliament, along Diyawanna Lake, Gangaramaya Temple, the colonial buildings in Fort district, the chaotic streets of the Pettah bazaar, the Clocktower & Lighthouse in Fort, Galle Face Green and Independence Square. The reason I found Colombo so fascinating is because I was very kindly shown around the city by Sash, who grew up there and knows the country inside out. It really made a world of difference to spend time with locals my age that have now become friends, and not merely a local guide who I’m paying to explain the tourist sights for example. So far that reason I’m hugely grateful to my English friends Kate and James who put me in touch respectively with Sash and Shammi – honestly meeting these two and their friends and family were some of the highlights of my entire trip!
So there’s my 14-night itinerary for Sri Lanka, and it’s tempting to pre-plan and pre-book everything, but try to resist! You’ll like some places more than others and it’s good to have some flexibility, especially as the weather can change and will affect where you go. There’s obviously far more to Sri Lanka than I could fit into a single blog post but here’s a starter for ten and a taste of the diversity you can find in just one country. Sri Lanka stunned me and I seriously recommend you add it to your travel wishlist!