See Sri Lanka: A 2 Week Itinerary for the Pearl of the Indian Ocean
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that Sri Lanka has become one of the top places to visit in Asia. If for some reason you need convincing, here are 10 excellent reasons why now is the time to see Ceylon. A few years ago, I was like, “where is Sri Lanka?” But since my first trip to Sri Lanka at the beginning of 2015, I have been back nearly every 2-3 months to explore more of the country, practice my surfing skills and to visit a certain surf coach *ahem*. Over the past few months, friends who know that I spend a lot of time visiting the island have approached me for some recommendations for where to go and what to see in Sri Lanka, and over time I’ve developed a makeshift itinerary for those who are planning to visit. These are just a few places I would recommend that you see in Sri Lanka, and you can add or subtract days here and there to make it work for your trip! Oh and have I mentioned that Sri Lanka has some of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever witnessed anywhere in the world?
Things to know before you go to Sri Lanka
- The currency is the Sri Lankan Rupee (different from the Indian Rupee), and the exchange rate varies from approximately 135-145 LKR: 1 USD. There are plenty of places to exchange money in Sri Lanka, and there are also ATMs in cities like Colombo and Galle where you can withdraw money.
- Local SIM cards and data packages can be purchased at the airport once you arrive, but you may need to provide your passport in order to register the number. Data is cheap and 3G is fairly stable throughout Sri Lanka.
- There is a lot of ground to cover in Sri Lanka! For such a small country there is tons to do. Getting around is relatively easy and train travel is cheap and reliable(ish) in Sri Lanka, but not every train has first or even second class carriages. Seats can be reserved in person at a train station up to 45 days before the trip and scenic routes fill up FAST. Train travel through tea country is an amazing experience!
- Most hotels can help you to book a private car and driver to your next destination but do not expect the prices to be dirt cheap, a 3-4 hour car ride can cost anywhere from US$100 to $140, but may be worthwhile if you have a large group of people. Hiring a car and driving around yourself is not really a thing in Sri Lanka; you can probably find car rental places in Colombo, but your best bet is to take a train or hire a driver.
- Traveling around by bus is also dirt cheap, but not highly recommended because they drive like absolute mad men!
- Sri Lanka is unlike some other Asian countries in the sense that it is still relatively modest. The primary religion is Buddhism so be mindful of your attire when you visit temples. Let me put it this way: I would not recommend that you drive shirtless on a scooter or walk around in a bikini.
- Sri Lanka has a few different climates so you may need to bring a sweatshirt or two if you’re visiting hill country as it can get fairly chilly.
Visiting Sri Lanka? Click here for the full list of 12 things you should know before your trip!
Day 1: Arrive at Bandaranaike International Airport / Colombo
This is the primary international airport serving Sri Lanka and is just outside Colombo (around 45 minutes to an hour north of Colombo). If you’re landing in the evening, your best bet is to head into Colombo to get some rest. Barefoot Cafe serves up a mean coffee and you can explore their store afterwards for amazing vintage posters and local souvenirs. Take a stroll along Galle Face Green, a long park on the waterfront that often has food stalls and tons of kite fliers. A good hotel option is OZO Colombo, which has a great rooftop bar facing the ocean and incredibly comfortable rooms. Click here to book your stay at OZO Colombo!
Day 2: Head to Sigiriya
This rock fortress is unmissable if you’re visiting Sri Lanka. Sigiriya is an amazing ancient palace that has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I would recommend doing the climb in the afternoon as the temperature cools, and staying for the sunset once you’re at the top. Close to the rock fortress is Dambulla’s cave temples which are worth a visit also, and the ruins of Polonnaruwa are about an hour away. Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks are also nearby and popular safari destinations for elephant lovers (but we’ll get to Yala and Udawalawe a little later). Zinc Journey Sigiriya is a fantastic hotel right next to Sigiriya Rock and offers beautiful, spacious rooms and excellent service. You can actually see the rock fortress from the hotel! Click here to book your stay at Zinc Journey Sigiriya, or click here for more accommodation options around Sigiriya!
Days 3 and 4: Make your way over to Kandy
Kandy is another major city in Sri Lanka and was the last capital of the ancient kings’ era of Sri Lanka. It is home to several sacred sites such as the Temple of the Tooth, the Royal Palace and Royal Botanical Gardens. The aptly-named Knuckles mountain range can also be found here and offers great hiking trails and waterfalls for people who love the outdoors. Look into staying at Madulkelle Tea & Eco Lodge which is about a 45-minute drive from downtown Kandy: it’s a seriously amazing hotel and the perfect place to unwind from your first few days of traveling. Click here to book your stay at Madulkelle Tea & Eco Lodge!
Days 5 and 6: Take the train to Nuwara Eliya
I cannot emphasize enough how wonderful this train journey is. Wind and weave your way through acres and acres of tea plantations and even hang out (CAREFULLY) of the train carriage to feel the wind in your face. The routes between Kandy, Nuwara Eliya and Ella are extremely popular so it’s important to try to sort out your tickets early – it’s not uncommon for the trains to be packed to the absolute brim with standing room only.
Traveling by train in Sri Lanka is an incredibly cost-effective and picturesque way to get around, and many people believe it’s an integral part of the overall Ceylon travel experience. Click here to read more tips on train travel through tea country in Sri Lanka!
From Nuwara Eliya, you can do the hike to Adam’s Peak and World’s End to catch the sunrise (most guides recommend that you start early at 2 or 3 am for Adam’s Peak) and explore Lake Gregory. In the summer months the lake gets busy and offers a number of water sport activities or horse riding. Unique Cottages offered a comfortable 1 night stay at a reasonable price. The staff are friendly and helpful, and can help to book transport and tours to Horton Plains/World’s End. If you are planning to stay here, try to avoid the attic room as there is only 1 small window for ventilation. Click here to book your stay at Unique Cottages!
Days 7 and 8: Take the train to Ella
Just east of Nuwara Eliya is Ella, a small town in the highlands of Central Sri Lanka. Ella is surrounded by tea plantations that you can visit and tour, and if you skipped the hike to Adam’s Peak you can visit Little Adam’s Peak here, a much gentler climb that takes about an hour, or trek to Ella Rock which takes about two hours each way. Ravana Falls, one of the widest falls in Sri Lanka, is about half an hour away and is seriously pretty, and you can also get to the famous Nine Arch Bridge easily from the heart of Ella. For amazing views of the Ella mountain gap, stay at Ella Mountain Heavens, a cozy boutique hotel high up in the hills. Click here to book your stay at Ella Mountain Heavens!
Optional after Ella: If you have a few days to spare and you are keen to do some surfing, Arugum Bay is a popular spot for surf aficionados and is just 3 hours east of Ella. The beaches are popular during the summer months (from June to September) when the conditions are best.
Day 9: Go on a safari at Yala National Park or Udawalawe National Park
Make your way down to Yala National Park or Udawalawe National Park in the south. Sri Lanka is one of the most biodiverse places in the world – Yala National Park has one of the highest leopard densities in the world and you are almost guaranteed to spot wild elephants in Udawalawe National Park. There are also opportunities to see crocodiles, deer, water buffalo, boar, peacocks, mongoose and bears.
You can opt to either do a day trip to Yala/Udawalawe or stay overnight if you want to go on more than 1 drive. If you plan to do a day trip to Yala/Udawalawe, your best bet is to stay in the southern province.
Days 10 and 11: Beach time!
The southern coast has beautiful stretches of beach and you have tons of options for places to stay. The Anantara Tangalle, Shangri-La’s Hambantota Resort, Anantara Kalutara are 5-star properties with amazing restaurants and service. If you’re looking for something more low key, check out Talalla Retreat, the perfect place for surf and yoga.
The surf in the south is outstanding (warm water surfing for the win!) and many places offer board rental if you don’t have your own. The peak season for the southern province is from around November to January.
In this area you will also find the southernmost point of Sri Lanka at Dondra. There is a beautiful lighthouse there that you can visit – when I was there last, you couldn’t climb to the top of the lighthouse but you can always check to see if it’s open to the public again.
Days 11 and 12: Explore more of the south coast
The southern coast is also home to Matara, home to the second most important fort in Sri Lanka (next to Galle Fort), Mirissa, Weligama and Unawatuna. In this area you will find a plethora of hotel options and activities, including watching the famous stilt fisherman at sunset, whale watching, spice gardens and sea turtle sanctuaries. If you’re in Matara, definitely stop by the Paravi Duwa Temple (featured photo at the top), a beautiful island temple connected to the mainland by bridge.
Day 13: Visit Galle Fort
I love Galle Fort. It’s an amazing blend of old world European architecture (Portugese and Dutch in particular) and Sri Lankan flair, and can be easily reached by train from Mirissa or Matara. Galle Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a great place to wander around: book a massage at the Galle Fort Spa, sip on a cup of tea at the Amangalla, visit the old Dutch Hospital, do some shopping at Barefoot Gallery and Salt Clothing, spend some time strolling through the town, see the iconic Galle Fort Lighthouse and walk along the fort wall for panoramic coastal views. I would recommend that you stay the night at The Fort Printers, a converted heritage hotel in the heart of Galle Fort. Click here to book your stay at stay the night at The Fort Printers!
If you don’t want to stay the night in Galle, other alternatives are to stay further north and closer to the airport.
Option 1 is located in a little seaside town called Negombo. Jetwing Ayurveda Pavilions is a beautiful boutique retreat that is located just 30 minutes away from the airport and is a great place to wind down after an exciting 2 weeks in Sri Lanka! Read my full review here or click here to book your stay at Jetwing Ayurveda Pavilions!
Option 2 is situated about an hour and a half away from the airport in a lakeside down called Kalutara. Anantara Kalutara is a stunning sun-filled property that offers fantastic food, a beautiful pool and amazing spa services. Read my full review here or click here to book your stay at Anantara Kalutara!
Day 14: Head straight to the airport
On your way back, skip Colombo and head straight to the airport for your flight!
This is a lot of ground to cover in two weeks, and we haven’t even covered Trincomalee or the northern regions such as Jaffna. I told you Sri Lanka was massive! What are some other must-visit spots in Sri Lanka? Tell me about them in the comments section below!
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