Train on Nine Arch Bridge in Ella Sri Lanka

Highlights of Sri Lanka: An Express 7 Day Sri Lanka Itinerary for First Time Visitors

Red Mosque in Colombo Sri Lanka with text overlay Dickwella town in south Sri Lanka with text overlay Drone shot of Hiriketiya Bay in Sri Lanka with text overlay

Only have 1 week in Sri Lanka? Read on for my express 1 week Sri Lanka itinerary to help you make the most of your time!

It’s no secret that I love Sri Lanka. The palm-fringed island has become my second home over the past 7 years, and I now spend nearly half of the year there with my partner and adopted cat, Ziggy. One of the best parts about spending more time in Sri Lanka is that I can convince my friends and family to come visit, and I get to show them around some of my favourite places and restaurants.

Drinking tea in Ella Sri Lanka

The issue is, many people (especially those who live and work in Asia) don’t get much time off from work, and more often than not it just isn’t do-able for them to spend 2 weeks in Sri Lanka. So what’s the solution? I’ve had to seriously compress my 2 week Sri Lanka itinerary to help friends and family make the most of their time in Ceylon. The result? This express Sri Lanka 1 week itinerary that gives visitors a taste of what the country has to offer, with room for plenty of poolside (spiked) coconuts at happy hour.

9 Arch Bridge sign in Sri Lanka

If you are short on time and it is your first time to Sri Lanka, then look no further for an easy 1 week Sri Lanka itinerary (complete with essential Sri Lanka travel tips) to help you plan your travels! But first, a few basics.

Interested in spending more time in Sri Lanka? Check out my 2 week Sri Lanka itinerary here, or head on over here for all of my insider Sri Lanka travel tips and destination guides.

Helpful things to know before you go to Sri Lanka

Traditional fishing boats in south Sri Lanka

Planning a trip to Sri Lanka in 2022? Read this first!

Latest update as of September 2022: If you are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated you will no longer need to quarantine on arrival in Sri Lanka, provided that you arrive with a negative PCR test 72 hours before your flight, or negative RAT test (self-swabs disallowed) 48 hours before your flight. Details here. As before, fully vaccinated travelers can board a flight to Sri Lanka without taking a PCR/antigen test and do not need to quarantine. The health declaration is no longer required, and the insurance is no longer mandatory but can be purchased on arrival. Details here. You may be required to wear a face mask in Sri Lanka.

Most countries have lifted travel advisories against traveling to Sri Lanka. However, it is prudent to check directly with your country’s foreign office on their advice, and ensure that your travel insurance is valid. The political tensions have eased, but public demonstrations may continue to take place in major cities. The economic crisis has led to a shortage in medicine, cooking gas and petrol/diesel. There are still scheduled power cuts and it is not always possible for hotels and guesthouses to run backup generators due to a lack of diesel. Visitors who have certain medical supply needs should plan accordingly as it may not be possible to purchase required medication in Sri Lanka.

More information and updates here, but long story short I highly recommend that you read through all of the materials carefully as there are a number of restrictions in place that you should be aware of before traveling to Sri Lanka, and the regulations change quickly (sometimes faster than they can even update the website). Snap lockdowns, curfews, interprovincial travel restrictions and last-minute closure of tourist sites may be implemented.

The situation and rules may change quickly and without warning. You should consider whether it is appropriate for you to travel internationally at this time and have a back-up plan for if you test positive and require medical treatment, or if your country changes their inbound passenger regulations.

  • Most visitors will need to apply for a Sri Lanka e-visa (except for nationals of Singapore, Maldives and Seychelles) but can be done online. It usually takes 24-48 hours for the visa approval to come through via e-mail. Alternatively, you can get a Sri Lankan visa upon arrival at Bandaranaike International Airport, though lines can be long during the peak season.
  • The currency is the Sri Lankan Rupee (different from the Indian Rupee), and the official exchange rate currently varies from approximately 250-260 LKR: 1 USD or 280-290 LKR: 1 Euro. Cash is king, so either exchange some money upon arrival or withdraw some from ATMs in major cities like Colombo and Galle.
  • Local SIM cards and data packages can be purchased at the airport once you arrive. Data is cheap and 3/4G is fairly stable throughout Sri Lanka.
  • The primary religion in Sri Lanka is Buddhism, so be mindful of your attire when you visit temples. While there is no strict dress code it can be considered culturally offensive to walk around towns and villages wearing extremely skimpy outfits – the same goes for men and women. If you are driving a scooter you absolutely need to wear a helmet, shoes and a shirt (at the very least!) Read more on what not to do in Sri Lanka here.
  • In general there is no need to tip if your hotel or restaurant has included a service charge. However, a small tip is always appreciated by people in the service industry (such as porters, housekeeping staff, waiters etc.) and tuk tuk drivers.
  • There are a variety of hotel options suiting every budget: budget hotels can cost anywhere from US$30-50/night, mid-range hotels from US$75-120/night and luxury hotels from US$150-200/night and upwards. I personally look for comfort, beautiful décor and warm hospitality when I travel – click here for some of the best tried-and-tested boutique and luxury hotels to stay at in Sri Lanka.

Getting around Sri Lanka

Driving in south Sri Lanka

Once you have arrived in Sri Lanka, it is relatively easy to travel between cities by private transfers or public transportation (trains and buses). However, if you only have 7 days in Sri Lanka then I recommend sticking to private cars for maximum flexibility as domestic flights can be expensive (and infrequent), and buses and trains can be extremely time consuming with multiple transfers.

If you are an independent traveler to Sri Lanka then I recommend booking one-way point-to-point transfers as you go. There’s no need to book a driver who will accompany you for the entirety of your trip as you will need to figure out driver accommodation for them, and the worst-case scenario is that you get paired with a less-than-helpful or unprofessional driver who you are then stuck with for the rest of the time.

Most hotels can help you to book a private car and driver to your next destination – just let them know where you are going next and when you need the car. They will then provide you with a quotation. In general, a day or more’s notice is ideal so that they can call their contacts. However, you can also use Uber’s intercity service or reach out to transportation companies (I have used ACE Cabs a few times in the past) for quotations.

For any journeys under 60-90 minutes, it is also possible to take a tuk tuk unless you have lots of luggage. However, tuk tuks are not allowed onto highways so your travel time can go up significantly as the coastal belt and some inland roads can experience significant traffic.

While it is technically possible to hire a car and drive yourself around for this Sri Lanka travel itinerary, the roads can be difficult to navigate and people (especially bus drivers) drive like absolute madmen. You are also not legally allowed to drive in Sri Lanka using an international driving license without the proper local accreditation. It’s best to leave the hard work to professional drivers, and you can rest up in the car during long drives.

Visiting Sri Lanka? Click here for the full list of important things you should know before your trip to Sri Lanka as well as things you should NOT do if you’re visiting the island!

Safety in Sri Lanka

Pettah Market Colombo Sri Lanka

The vast majority of visits to Sri Lanka are trouble free, and tourism is a major source of revenue for the country. Following the devastating Easter Sunday attacks in 2019, authorities have implemented additional security measures to protect its citizens and visitors. You can read more about the important precautions to take when traveling to Sri Lanka here.

In recent years, Sri Lanka has experienced protests and you may experience traffic or road diversions as a result. The vast majority of protests have been peaceful, but it is not advised as a tourist to participate or attend as tensions may run high. Curfews and snap lockdowns can be (and have been) implemented, though tourists tend to be exempt from these restrictions. You may be asked to provide your passport at any check points to prove that you are a tourist. Social media bans have also been implemented without warning, so you may want to consider subscribing to a VPN service if you rely primarily on Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger or Instagram to communicate with family members and friends back home. As of 2022, you will likely experience inconveniences during your trip to Sri Lanka.

Violent crime against foreigners occurs infrequently, but petty crime is not uncommon. You should keep a close eye on your personal belongings, especially in crowded areas. There are a number of common scams in Sri Lanka: if an offer seems “too good to be true” or overly convenient, it could very well be part of a scam.

Sri Lankan people are generally friendly and helpful – however, you should keep your wits about you (just as you would when you travel to other destinations around the world). The most common scam is being overcharged by tuk tuk drivers; to avoid this make sure you agree on a price before you hop in. If you run into any issues, Sri Lanka has dedicated tourist police department which you can reach by calling 1912 or 011-2421052.

I have traveled around Sri Lanka as a solo female traveler on many occasions, and have experienced some issues including verbal harassment and lewd comments. If you are a solo female traveler in Sri Lanka, I recommend not engaging/responding, and avoid walking alone late at night. I do recommend taking certain precautions such as pre-booking airport transportation, asking your hotel or the restaurant to organize a tuk tuk for you, watching your drink when you are out and about, and buying a local SIM card so that you can keep in touch with your friends and family back home.

Is 1 week enough for Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka Shangri La Hambantota Rooms

Sri Lanka is only about 430 KM tall and 220 KM wide, but don’t let its compact size fool you: it is extremely time consuming to travel around the island and it can take hours upon hours to travel from place to place as the roads can be extremely congested. So, is 7 days enough for Sri Lanka? There’s a ton to see and do in Sri Lanka: from the heritage sites in central Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle and waterfalls and lush tea plantations in hill country to the beaches along the south coast of Sri Lanka – you’ll never be bored.

Wondering how long to spend in Sri Lanka? In my opinion the “ideal” amount of time to spend in Sri Lanka for a first time visitor is between 2-4 weeks. However, I’m fully cognizant of the fact that not everyone can up and leave their home or job for weeks at a time, nor might you want to.

If you’re looking for a straight forward 1 week itinerary for Sri Lanka for first time visitors, then this is the route I would recommend. The only caveat is that you will visit fewer cities and the pace is less leisurely due to the amount of travel required – with only 7 days in Sri Lanka you are unlikely to have enough time to venture to some of the more far-flung destinations such as Kalpitiya, Trincomalee or Arugam Bay (unless you’re traveling for a specific purpose such as kitesurfing or surfing). This itinerary also does not include the iconic train journey from Kandy to Ella (or vice versa) as it eats up the better part of a full day of travel.

If your heart is set on this train ride then you can modify the itinerary to better suit your needs – I recommend either taking the train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya, or Nuwara Eliya to Ella rather than the full length between Kandy and Ella as it is not uncommon for the journey to take much longer than scheduled.

Looking for more Sri Lanka trip inspiration? Here is a list of the top destinations in Sri Lanka!

1 week Sri Lanka itinerary

Sri Lanka Beach and fishing boats

Ready to plan a trip to Ceylon? I’ve put together a 1 week itinerary for Sri Lanka to help you get a taste of this stunning country – read on!

Note: This itinerary is also do-able in reverse! If you have 2 weeks in Sri Lanka check out this article instead.

Day 1: Arrive at Bandaranaike International Airport near Colombo

Red Mosque Pettah Colombo Sri Lanka

Kick off your 7 days in Sri Lanka by arriving into Bandaranaike International Airport near Colombo. Although Colombo is the transportation gateway to the rest of Sri Lanka, it has pockets of vibrant and eccentric neighborhoods to explore as well as many new and exciting restaurants opening up left, right and center. Colombo is easily explored within a day, and a great place to start your Sri Lanka itinerary or unwind towards the end of your trip.

Seema Malaka Temple Colombo

Don’t miss the Red Mosque, Seema Malaka, Gangaramaya Temple and the Dutch Hospital. This city offers an eclectic blend of architecture waiting to be explored, and you can end the day sipping on a tailormade cocktail at one of the trendy establishments Colombo is becoming famous for.

The best way to get around the sprawling city of Colombo is by tuk tuk, Uber or Pickme (similar to Uber). Read more about how to spend 24 hours in Colombo by clicking here.

Where to stay in Colombo: For a trendy hotel in the city that offers a great rooftop bar and pool facing the ocean and incredibly comfortable rooms, check out OZO Colombo. Opt for a room with ocean views if you want to watch the coastal trains zip up and down all day long. Click here to book your stay at OZO Colombo!
 
Alternatively, check out Colombo Hotel by Ceilao Villas, a small family-run boutique hotel with just 6 bedrooms. It feels like an oasis tucked away in a quieter neighborhood and is a perfect place to retreat to after a long day of sightseeing. Click here to check current rates at Colombo Hotel!

Day 2: Head to Sigiriya

Sri Lanka Sigiriya Rock

In my opinion, Sigiriya cannot be missed from any 7 day Sri Lanka itinerary. Sigiriya is a 4-hour drive from Colombo, or a quick 30-minute domestic flight away if you’re feeling fancy (mind you, it might be quicker and cheaper to just bite the bullet and take a car). It forms part of Sri Lanka’s “Cultural Triangle” and is home to the towering “Lion Rock” fortress measuring nearly 200-metres tall.

Lion Rock in Sigiriya Sri Lanka

Sigiriya Rock Fortress is an ancient palace that has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It consists of the Sky Palace offering panoramic views, a mid-level terrace that features the Lion Gate and beautiful gardens and moats on the lower levels.

Dambulla Cave Temples in Central Sri Lanka

I recommend stopping at the Dambulla Cave Temples on your way to Sigiriya from Colombo, checking into your hotel and taking a breather, and then climbing Sigiriya Rock in the afternoon so that you can admire the sunset from up high. The trek up to the Sky Palace involves climbing several steep sets of stairs (be aware if you suffer from extreme vertigo), so make sure you wear appropriate footwear! Read more about climbing Sigiriya Rock Fortress by clicking here.

Where to stay in Sigiriya: Check out EKHO Sigiriya right next to Sigiriya Rock. It offers elegantly decorated rooms, incredible service and an on-site restaurant. Click here to book your stay at EKHO Sigiriya! Looking for more choices? Click here for more accommodation options around Sigiriya!

Day 3: Visit Polonnaruwa and leave for Ella

Shrine ruins at Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka

Polonnaruwa is an ancient city in Sri Lanka located approximately 1 hour by car from Sigiriya. It served as the country’s capital for nearly 2 centuries between the 11th and 13th centuries A.D. and features wonderfully preserved heritage and historical sites. Today, you can explore the ancient city on foot or by bicycle and wander through the ruins of temples, palaces and shrines to your heart’s content. Read more about visiting Polonnaruwa here!

Buddha statue in Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka

I recommend getting an early start and leaving Sigiriya in the morning around 8 or 9 AM to beat the midday heat and spend 2-3 hours in Polonnaruwa, before making the long journey down towards Ella. The drive between Polonnaruwa to Ella in the hill country will take anywhere between 4-6 hours – it will be a long but very worthwhile trip towards your next stop.

Option if you are a wildlife lover visiting Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa from July to September: The Gathering is believed to be the largest gathering of Asian elephants in the world and takes place at Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks during the dry season from June/July to September. During this season it’s common to see herds of up to 100 elephants bathing, grazing and playing together near the lakes. If you choose this option then you might skip Yala or Udawalawe National Parks later on in the week and spend more time at the beach instead.

Once you have arrived in Ella, check straight into your hotel and grab some dinner. Take it easy and get an early night’s sleep as the next few days will be action-packed, so you’ll want to be well rested.

Day 4: Explore Ella

Nine Arch Bridge in Ella

By this time you are already halfway through your 1 week Sri Lanka itinerary! Make the most of your time in Ella, an enchanting mountain town in Sri Lanka that has quickly become a must-visit destination for first-time and repeat visitors alike. The town features a seemingly endless sprawl of lush tea plantations, rice fields, mountain ranges and the picture-perfect Nine Arch Bridge.

Sri Lanka Ravana Falls Ella

Start your day with a tour of the Uva Halpewatte Tea Factory to see how tea leaves are processed, and finish your tour off with a tasting or stock up on some tea at bargain prices at the souvenir shop.

Afterwards, hike to Little Adam’s Peak (the trail begins near the 98 Acres hotel) and walk along the train tracks at Nine Arch Bridge (but get out of the way when trains approach!). Top it all off by hopping in a tuk tuk and checking out Ravana Falls.

Though I could easily spend 2 to 3 days relaxing in Ella, there’s only time in this 1 week Sri Lanka itinerary for 1 full day – you’ll just have to make plans to come back! Read more about things to do in Ella here.

Where to stay in Ella: There are a handful of boutique hotels that I would wholeheartedly recommend in Ella. The first is 98 Acres, a stunning hotel offering the most breathtaking views across tea plantations and Mini Adam’s Peak. Click here to check current rates and availability at 98 Acres.
 
If you’re not able to snag a room at 98 Acres, then book yourself into Ella Mountain Heavens down the road. This hotel in Ella offers an unobstructed view of the Ella mountain gap – take it all in from the comfort of your own private balcony or their outdoor infinity pool. Click here to book your stay at Ella Mountain Heavens!

Day 5: Head to Yala or Udawalawe

Baby elephant in Udawalawe National Park in Sri Lanka

Ready for the next leg of your epic 1 week in Sri Lanka? This one’s for the animal lovers out there. From Ella, check out of your hotel in the morning and embark on the 2-hour drive to Yala or Udawalawe. You will want to leave your hotel bright and early by about 11 AM in order to get to the national park in time for the afternoon safari drive, which typically begins at 3 PM. Afternoon safari drives at Yala or Udawalawe finish at approximately 6 PM, and you can either stay overnight near the park or bite the bullet and hop in a car to head to one of the coastal beach towns.

Udawalawe National Park Sri Lanka Elephant Wildlife Safari Jeep

Yala and Udawalawe National Parks are two of the country’s most prized nature reserves. Yala National Park is a popular destination for those hoping to spot a spotted leopard as it boasts one of the highest leopard densities in the world.

Elephant Transit Home Udawalawe Sri Lanka

Udawalawe National Park is popular among those who want guaranteed elephant sightings; it is also about a third of the size of Yala and typically less crowded. If you are headed towards Udawalawe then make sure you also stop at the Elephant Transit Home, an ethical elephant orphanage which rehabilitates baby elephants and returns them to the wild once they turn 5 years old.

Whichever park you choose, make sure you read up on the dos and dont’s of animal safaris in Sri Lanka. It is not uncommon for vehicles to chase and corner wild animals – this is a big no no! Don’t encourage your jeep driver to engage in unethical behaviour that disturbs and traumatizes the wildlife. Read more about what not to do in Sri Lanka here.

Where to stay in Udawalawe: I had a great experience at Eliyanth Udawalawe, a small boutique guesthouse by the river. Their staff are helpful and can organize your transportation as well as safari drives for you, and they have a small restaurant offering fresh homemade food. The rooms are spacious and extremely clean. Click here to book your stay at Eliyanth Udawalawe.
 
Where to stay in Yala: If you’re looking to try out glamping in Yala, look no further than Mahoora Tented Camps. The glamping site features spacious tents with en-suite bathrooms, an outdoor dining area under the stars and a small lounge area for coffee and tea. Click here to book your stay at Mahoora Tented Camps in Yala.
 
Prefer staying indoors? Check out the stunning rooms at Jetwing Yala instead. There’s also beach access or a pool complete with a swim-up bar. Click here to book your stay at Jetwing Yala!
 
Where to stay in south Sri Lanka: If you have decided to head to one of the town’s along the south coast to begin the final leg of your Sri Lanka 1 week itinerary, then look no further than Talalla Retreat, the perfect place for surf and yoga, or Villa Talay (former Zephyr Talalla), a boutique beachfront villa serving up the best food & cocktails. For a 5-star luxury option you simply can’t go wrong with Cape Weligama.
 
Prefer even more privacy? Check out Sam & Lola’s (my property) in Hiriketiya: the two private villas each feature a private plunge pool and you can easily access two of the most picturesque bays in all of the south. You can check availability or book via AirBnb here and here.
 
All of these hotels are within 2-3 hours’ drive away from Udawalawe National Park.

Day 6: Beach, cocktails and chill

Surfing in Hiriketiya south Sri Lanka drone shot

If you stayed overnight in Yala or Udawalawe, get an early start and head towards your hotel along Sri Lanka’s south coast to check-into your room. After a few days on the move, indulge in a little peace and relaxation in south Sri Lanka. Make the most of this time, because you deserve it after making it through this Sri Lanka 7 day itinerary. The more popular beach towns to stay in south Sri Lanka are Tangalle, Mirissa, Unawatuna and Weligama. Some alternative options for your base along the coast include Hiriketiya/Dickwella, Talalla, Ahangama, Midigama and Madiha.

Hiriketiya beach in south Sri Lanka drone shot

Enjoy your hotel pool or go for a leisurely swim in the Indian Ocean. Want to stay active? Try your hand at surfing at one of the many sand-bottom beach breaks (I love surfing at Hiriketiya beach) or practice Yoga at one of the open-air shalas. Don’t feel like doing anything? That’s okay too! Sign up for a massage and enjoy the pampering.

Silhouettes of stilt fishermen in Sri Lanka at sunset

In the later afternoon, head along the coast to see the stilt fishermen, or order yourself a tropical cocktail and watch the sun go down. Feeling peckish? Head to Hiriketiya, Cape Weligama or Zephyr at Kurumba Bay for dinner. Here are more ideas for how to make the most of your time in southern Sri Lanka or read on for my favorite beaches along the coast!

Insider tip: If you’ve heard through the travel grapevine that you shouldn’t visit southern Sri Lanka from June to October I would encourage you to take that advice with a massive fistful of salt. While there does tend to be more rain during this season, it is nowhere near as bad as you might imagine. Often the rain comes in heavy spurts and there’s still plenty of sunshine to be had during the day. Very rarely does it rain heavily for days on end with no respite.

Day 7: Galle and airport

Galle Lighthouse in Galle Fort Sri Lanka

Galle Fort is one of the top places to visit in Sri Lanka: it is famous for the European architectural styles while effortlessly blending in with South Asian traditions, and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. After checking out of your hotel, stop at Galle Fort on your way back towards western Sri Lanka. Depending on where you are staying along the south coast, it will take anywhere from 1-2 hours to get to Galle Fort.

Pedlar Street in Galle Fort Sri Lanka

The fort itself is very small and can easily be explored on foot within 2-3 hours, but it’s a great place to grab lunch if you’re hungry – we love Sugar Bistro and Minute by Tuk Tuk in the Dutch Hospital, Poonie’s Kitchen for healthy options and Il Gelato for a sweet treat. Need to stock up on some souvenirs for friends and family back home? Check out Barefoot Gallery, Stolen Paradise or Stick No Bills. Make sure you set aside some time to walk along the fort ramparts as well! Read more about visiting Galle Fort here.

If you can bear to tear yourself away from Galle it should take you 2 hours or so to get to Bandaranaike International Airport. And that concludes your 1 week in Sri Lanka!

Sri Lankan people are known for their hospitality, and the tourism industry has survived a tumultuous few years – I am eager for travelers to experience what the island and its people have to offer! I hope you found this 1 week in Sri Lanka itinerary helpful! Feel free to share this article with friends and family.

If you’re planning an adventure in Sri Lanka you might also find these guides helpful:

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8 Comments

  1. Hi! Thanks for this great itinerary. I wanted to do the train from Ella to Kandy — how would you recommend I incorporate this into this trip? Thanks!

    1. Hi Helena, you might want to check out this post instead: https://www.yogawinetravel.com/see-sri-lanka-a-two-week-itinerary-for-the-pearl-of-the-indian-ocean/

      If you only have 1 week in Sri Lanka and are eager to take the Kandy to Ella/Ella to Kandy train then I would recommend you skip Sigiriya and substitute it for Kandy instead. So you would spend approximately 2 days in Kandy instead of 2 days in Sigiriya/Polonnaruwa. Here’s a guide that you might find helpful for Kandy: https://www.yogawinetravel.com/things-to-do-in-kandy-sri-lanka/

      Have fun!

  2. Hi Flo,

    Thank you for sharing the itinerary. What do you recommend- Ella or Nuwara Eliya? We have 1.5 years old baby with us, considering both the hill stations we want to visit either of the one.

    1. Hi Ewa,

      I suppose you could, but scooters are not allowed on highways and the roads in/out of Ella are very windy. I really wouldn’t recommend doing the whole trip on a scooter as the traffic and driving conditions in Sri Lanka can be extremely hectic.

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