Tea plantations in Sri Lanka's hill country

Train Travel Through Sri Lanka’s Tea Country: From Nuwara Eliya to Kandy

Train in Sri Lanka with text overlay Tea plantations in Sri Lanka with text overlay

Read on for more practical advice and tips for traveling by train through hill country in Sri Lanka.

There’s more to Sri Lanka than pristine beaches! Sri Lanka’s lush tea country is one of the most popular and iconic sights (check out my earlier post on why Sri Lanka is a must-visit destination!) and on my latest trip to Sri Lanka, I finally had a chance to explore Kandy and Nuwara Eliya.

Young woman enjoying train ride from Ella to Kandy among tea plantations in the highlands of Sri Lanka
Photo credit: shalamov via Depositphotos

There was one small catch: I only had three days to complete the trip. If you’re planning on traveling to Sri Lanka on a tight schedule and want to explore both the coast and tea country, fear not: it’s doable! There are certain things you might have to sacrifice and save for another trip (like the trek up to Adam’s Peak, sleep and sometimes your sanity), but three days is plenty of time to drink in what the hilly region has to offer, I swear.

Tea plantations from a train in Sri Lanka

The three most popular towns and cities in Sri Lanka’s tea country are Kandy, Nuwara Eliya and Ella – while it’s possible to see all three places in three days, you may want to stick to two as the journey between destinations can be length.

I started my trip in the Southern Province of Sri Lanka so traveled northbound, but you can do this trip in reverse as well if you’re traveling from Colombo. For example, because we were already in the Matara district in south Sri Lanka, we drove to Nuwara Eliya; if you’re traveling from Colombo, you can catch a train directly to Kandy.

Planning a trip to Sri Lanka? Here are 12 things you should know before visiting Sri Lanka!

Sri Lanka train travel tips

Train on Nine Arch Bridge in Ella Sri Lanka
  • Book ahead if you want guaranteed seating traveling by train in Sri Lanka – bookings open 30 days in advance but you need a local number or need someone to visit the station in person. Sri Lanka Railways recently launched an online ticket booking system in early 2022 – it may be glitchy and not all routes may be available, but it is an additional option for you to check out.
  • Don’t stress if you can’t purchase a reserved seat – head to the station the morning of your trip and buy a 2nd or 3rd class unreserved seat. This just means that for part of the journey you may find yourself standing by the carriage door, and you’ll get amazing views!
  • This website was an incredible resource for train routes and schedules while I was planning the trip. You should also check out the Sri Lanka Railways website to make sure all the information is up-to-date.
  • Bring a light jacket as it is cool in the early mornings and evenings, but steaming hot once the sun is up.
  • Bring some snacks and water, but avoid drinking too much as the bathrooms on the train are…unpleasant.
  • Watching the sunrise across tea plantations is an amazing experience. Try to time your journey with a sunrise or sunset!

Our journey through Sri Lanka’s tea country

Train traveling through Kandy in Sri Lanka
Photo credit: AlexGukBO via Depositphotos

Looking to travel by train through the hill region? Here is what happened on our train trip from Nuwara Eliya to Kandy.

Nuwara Eliya

Jetwing St Andrews Nuwara Eliya garden

We left Talalla Retreat and embarked on a five hour long drive to Nuwara Eliya. The road up was long and winding, and at times fairly terrifying – on no less than three occasions did we come face-to-face with a bus speeding head-on towards us. This drive is not for the faint-hearted or those prone to motion sickness!

Sri Lanka is home to more than a hundred waterfalls, and our first pit stop was Rawana Falls, currently one of the widest waterfalls in the country. Those traveling in the opposite direction from Ella can also get there easily via tuk tuk or scooter.

Ravana Falls near Ella in Sri Lanka

Nuwara Eliya is often overlooked for Ella, its slightly more popular and trendy sister. But Nuwara Eliya, the “City of Light”, is higher up in the mountains than both Ella and Kandy (which also makes it much much colder in the evening, so bring warm clothes – we found out the hard way!) and the start line for those hoping to visit World’s End and Adam’s Peak.

Nuwara Eliya is also home to Lake Gregory, a reservoir in the heart of the tea country: it’s a lovely little spot for a sunset stroll, but be wary of the swarms of bloodthirsty mosquitoes at dusk – unless you were hoping to catch a glimpse of what a cloud of 100 mosquitoes looks like.

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.

Tip: The train route between Ella and Kandy is one of the most popular and scenic journeys (translation: packed like sardines) and reserved seats sell out early, so we decided to take the road less traveled (literally) and beat the crowd by taking the train from Nuwara Eliya to Kandy instead.

Tuk tuk in Nuwara Eliya in Sri Lanka

Nanu Oya station is a quick 10 minute tuk tuk ride away from the heart of Nuwara Eliya, and we stopped by to try to buy a ticket for the next day. Here’s how the conversation at the ticket counter went:

Me: Hi, can we buy two first class tickets for tomorrow’s 9:25 am train to Kandy?
Guy at the counter (henceforth known as GATC): Sold out.
Me: Are there seats in the second class carriage available?
GATC: Sold out.
Me: Ok…how about 5:30 am?
GATC: No reserved seating.
Me: Ok…how about the train at noon?
GATC: Sold out.

You get the gist. This went on for a little while longer and the backpacking couple behind us with approximately three-too-many-bags become more and more visibly impatient because there was only one ticket counter open. Long story short, we walked away without purchasing a ticket and decided to take our chances and grab unallocated seats (which don’t sell out) the next morning.

Tea plantations in Nuwara Eliya in Sri Lanka

Lessons learned: 1) book ahead if you want guaranteed seating – bookings open 30 days in advance, and 2) you can turn up and hop onto any train if you’re willing to beat the crowd and grab the first seat you see in second or third class.

Sunrise journey to Kandy

We decided to bite the bullet and try to catch the 5:30 am train to Kandy. I woke up at 4:30 am freezing, tired, grumpy and had no less than seven mosquito bites on my arms and face thanks to the lack of a mosquito net at our hotel. The tuk tuk driver was late. Guy at the counter 2 (GATC 2) wasn’t sure if the 5:30 am train was going straight to Kandy or if we had to switch trains at some point. Only third class carriage tickets were available. Was this really a good idea?

We hopped on the train in the dark and I looked around the carriage: it wasn’t quite full, but everyone looked sleepy. Some of the other passengers had beanies and lightweight down jackets on, and I wondered to myself if I was going to be able to stay warm enough during the ride. I then inspected the headrest on my seat because it looked…what I can only describe as ‘greasy’, and before I knew it, it was too late to change my mind – the train had started chugging along and there was no way out.

And then this happened.

And this.

Tea plantations from a train in Sri Lanka

Tea country is, as you would imagine, green green green – some of the richest and most vibrant greens I’ve ever seen. We were offered panoramic views of tea plantations, sleepy little towns and Adam’s Peak from a distance. What I wasn’t quite prepared for was the cascading layers of mountain ranges separated by cloudy mist, and the colors that form around the peaks during sunrise and sunset – sensational.

Train Travel Through Sri Lanka 2

The carriages have no doors so you can stand in the doorway (with a very wide, stable stance, might I add) and marvel at the incredible sight of the sun rising across tea plantations and illuminating villages one after another. It didn’t take long before I forgot about how cold my hands were and it didn’t matter how the train squeaked piercingly at every turn. This sunrise train journey quickly became one of my top travel experiences, ever: at two dollars a pop for a ticket to this ride, it’s a must-do in my books for anyone visiting Sri Lanka.

Our train stopped at every single station on the way to Kandy, with more and more people piling on as they went about their everyday lives. At one point, an older lady in a beautiful sari squeezed in next to us when the train was full, and the three of us shared two seats. Two schoolgirls sat in our carriage and did their English homework, occasionally giggling when we glanced over: the train is a great place for people watching.

The train slowed down and we chugged along the last 50 kilometers or so; at one point, the train even went backwards to let a regular express train pass by. And then we arrived in Nawalapitiya. And every single person got off the train. The control freak inside of me was screaming “what the heck is happening?!” Thankfully, a Sri Lankan gentleman took pity and let us know that we had to hop across the tracks to change trains for the rest of the way to Kandy.

Arriving in Kandy

Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy Sri Lanka

Another hour or so later, we arrived in Kandy later than scheduled: the whole journey had taken nearly five hours. After I regained feeling in my butt and legs, we quickly hopped in a car for the hour-long drive up to Madulkelle Tea and Eco Lodge, nestled among a tea plantation high in the mountains. Read my review on this incredible glamping hotel in Sri Lanka.

Visiting Kandy? Click here for 7 things to do in the last Kingdom of Sri Lanka

Where to stay in Sri Lanka’s Tea Country

Tea plantation in Nuwara Eliya Sri Lanka

Nuwara Eliya: 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.

I also highly recommend Jetwing St. Andrew’s, a boutique hotel set in a restored colonial mansion. The rooms are slightly dated but comfortable, and the on-site restaurant and bar are both fantastic. For a touch of sophistication check out their afternoon tea offering and treat yourself with a glass of champagne. Click here to book your stay at Jetwing St. Andrew’s or click here for more accommodation options in Nuwara Eliya!

Kandy: Madulkelle Tea & Eco Lodge is about a 45-minute drive from downtown Kandy: it’s a seriously amazing hotel overlooking the famous Knuckles mountain range as well as the most breathtaking sunrise views from your own private balcony. Click here to book your stay at Madulkelle Tea & Eco Lodgeor click here for more accommodation options in Kandy!

98 Acres in Ella Sri Lanka

Ella: For amazing views of the Ella mountain gap, stay at Ella Mountain Heavens, a cozy boutique hotel high up in the hills with an infinity pool to die for. Click here to book your stay at Ella Mountain Heavens. For a luxury Ella experience head right to 98 Acres, an incredible property with a stunning pool and on-site spa. It is just steps away from the trail head for the Little Adam’s Peak hike. Click here to book your stay at 98 Acres. Looking for more options? Click here for more hotel options in Ella.

Planning a trip to Sri Lanka? Here are some quick logistics must-knows:

✈️ To get into Sri Lanka by air you will fly into Bandaranaike International Airport (airport code: CMB).

🛂 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. Here is my step-by-step guide to using the new Sri Lanka electronic visa website. (Note that as of April 17th 2024 the old electronic travel authorization (“ETA”) website has been decommissioned as the government moved to a new e-visa website.) You can also get a Sri Lankan visa upon arrival at Bandaranaike International Airport.

💱 The currency is the Sri Lankan Rupee (different from the Indian Rupee), and the official exchange rate currently varies from approximately 300-330 LKR: 1 USD/Euro or 200 LKR: 1 AUD. 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 picked up at the airport. You can buy a 30-day Sri Lanka SIM card from Mobitel here (the booth is located in the arrivals hall after you pick up your luggage) and top it up during your stay at any Food City supermarket or local Mobitel shop.

👚 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 revealing outfits – the same goes for men and women. 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. l always recommend booking hotels in advance when you are planning a trip to Sri Lanka, as popular hotels fill up quickly – click here for some of the best tried-and-tested boutique and luxury hotels to stay at in Sri Lanka or explore more Sri Lanka hotel options here.

Ready to hop on a plane? Here are some Sri Lanka reads to help you plan the perfect trip:

Have you traveled by train in Sri Lanka or visited tea country? Comment below and share what your experience was like, or pin this for later!

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  1. Hi,

    Great blog guys and very informative. My husband and I are planning to visit Sri Lanka in August this year for 4 days (unfortunately cannot increase the number of days!), but cant wait to see the beautiful country. We are planning to visit Nuwara Eliya, Ella or Kandy. Since we are there only for 4 days cant decide which place to skip. Pls help us decide if Nuwara Eliya is better or Ella. Or should we go to both the places and skip Kandy. We are keen on taking the train journey too. Pls suggest.

    1. Hi Sumita, it really depends on what you’re looking for. There are major cultural sites in Kandy, great hiking in Nuwara Eliya and beautiful tea plantations around Ella. During my first trip to tea country I skipped Ella and traveled between Nuwara Eliya and Kandy via train. Given that I am not a major fan of hiking we didn’t go to World’s End or Adam’s Peak, so didn’t get as much out of Nuwara Eliya that others may have. Difficult decision – good luck!

    1. I honestly contemplated running into the station to use the bathroom there when the train stopped for 5-6 minutes, but I was so worried that it would leave without me!

  2. I’ve just started thinking more about traveling to Sri Lanka, and these photos are really selling me. You have some amazing captures there, and now sitting at home with serious wanderlust. Great article!

  3. I will be visiting Sri Lanka in February and this post was beyond helpful! Thank you for the tips about booking trains and the honest review of what to expect. I’m devouring the website you linked to with all of the information about trains. All so helpful!

    1. I’m so glad you found this helpful, Marissa! I have some other articles on Sri Lanka, and feel free to get in touch if you’d like any recommendations!

  4. Lovely photos, it looks like you had an incredible trip and I love all the travel tips for those of us who may be considering doing this trip for themselves 🙂

  5. Really useful article! I almost went to Sri Lanka last year, as I thought the tickets might be cheap if I travel there from New Delhi. Turned out not so much, so instead I went to Darjeeling to see the tea plantations there. But, Sri Lanka is on my list and some day I’ll come here for the tea, as I am a huge tea drinker (nursing a cup this very moment 🙂 ).

  6. Oh this is one of my dreams and as I am moving closer to Sri lanka want to explore. So glad to see I can do this by train. I love train travelling. Do you think it’s safe from Colombo to Kandy on a train?

  7. I visited a tea county in Taiwan and loved the lushness of it all. I wish I was able to arrive before sunset, because your photos with the sky lit up and the greens are really stunning. My friend just sent me a message inquiring on my thoughts about Sri Lanka. I didn’t have any but I’m excited to forward her your website and see what plans we could cook up.

    1. Sri Lanka is SO amazing, Ashley! You’d love it – feel free to email me if you have any questions. I also have a 2 week itinerary that you can check out 🙂

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