The exotic, far-flung country of Sri Lanka has so much to offer visitors. Although it was plagued by civil war not that long ago, the destination now welcomes tourists with open arms. If you’re a nature lover, beach bum, hiker, or culture seeker, the country has it all — and at a very affordable price.
Logistics & Travel Tips
A visit to Sri Lanka merits at least two weeks. Although the country is relatively small (especially compared to neighboring India), you’ll still need at least a few weeks if you want to take in the various landscapes and experiences Sri Lanka has to offer.
You can’t fly nonstop from the US, so the best plan is to add in a trip to India or plan for a layover in a spot like Mumbai, or even Middle Eastern hubs like Doha or Dubai. Click here to get updates on flight deals as they arise.
Make sure to get Sri Lankan rupees upon arrival, especially small bills. If you’re visiting temples, bring something to cover your knees and shoulders. It’s also important to check when each region’s rainy season occurs. This particular itinerary is best done during July, August, or September for minimal rain exposure. If you visit in winter, it’s better to stay south or west.
Make sure to check visa requirements before traveling. Visitors coming from most European or US destinations require a visa that you can purchase ahead of time online for a fee.
Getting from spot to spot is affordable and easy by hiring a private driver. The Facebook group ‘Sri Lanka Car and Driver Reviews‘ allows you to find private and affordable drivers to take you from one city to another. Car rental is always an option but beware that roads are not always in top condition depending on your destination.
Although wine is usually available at hotels, it’s not the most popular drink in the country. Instead, bring your own from duty-free or enjoy local beer when dining out.
Stop 1: Colombo/Negombo, 1 night
Sri Lanka’s main airport is in Colombo. The airport is actually located an hour away from Colombo’s dusty, dirty streets in a delightful town called Negombo. Negombo has beautiful, sandy beaches, so avoid Colombo, which doesn’t have much to see, and spend your first night in Negombo instead, fighting off your jet lag with a beach visit.
Stop 2: Kandy, 1 night
The best way to get to Kandy is a two-hour train ride from Colombo. Although you’ll start to see some local villages and jungle foliage, this train ride passes relatively quickly. Once in Kandy, stop to see the famed Temple of the Tooth which houses one of Buddha’s teeth. Wander around the lake and pick up some traditional Sri Lankan fare.
Stop 3: Ella, 2 nights
The train ride between Kandy and Ella is one of the top reasons for visiting Sri Lanka. It’s one of the most famous train rides in the world. You’ve probably seen influencers dangling out of blue or red train doors with mystical, hilly tea plantations in the background. But please, dangle with caution.
Make sure to book your train tickets in advance. If you want the opportunity to hang out the doors and windows, book second class. Those looking for air-conditioned cars should book first class. Third class is the cheapest, but you’ll be smushed between sweaty bodies, livestock and who knows what else, so you may want to ‘splurge’ (a whopping $4 or so) for second class.
Once in Ella, hikes range from easy (Little Adam’s Peak) to intermediate (Adam’s Peak), and of course, visiting a tea plantation is a must. So is a walk up to the Nine Arches Bridge — make sure to wait to see the train cross the towering bridge.
Stop 4: Tangalle, 2 nights
Tangalle is known for its golden sand beaches and yoga retreats. You can also day trip over to the nearby city of Galle, which has some historical monuments worth visiting like the Dutch Fort or the lighthouse. A trip to Koggala will teach you about traditional Sri Lanka stilt fishing. This southern region typically experiences rain during the summer, so come prepared.
Stop 5: Yala, 1 night
Yala is one of Sri Lanka’s most famous wildlife parks where you can spot animals such as leopards. Glamping (glamorous camping) is the preferred way to lodge, and a day safari to the park is a must. Other animals such as crocodiles, elephants, buffalo, flamingos, and even turtles call the park home.
Arugam Bay, 2 nights
Continue along the coast to Arugam, a hippy beach town that’s known for surfing. Here, you can take classes or simply rent a board and try your luck. Whether you’re a beginner or advanced surfer, you’ll find the right size swells for you in Arugam.
Combine a day of surfing and lagoon by heading over to Pottuvil Point, a surf spot perfect for all levels. Then, barter with small boat owners to take you around the Pottuvil lagoon and mangroves, where you’ll spot elephants, monkeys, crocodiles, and exotic birds.
Trincomalee, 2 nights
The further north you go up the coast, the fewer tourists you’ll see. Even in high season, there’s plenty of wide-open space on Trincomalee’s white sands. Lap the beach, get an ayurvedic spa treatment, or scuba dive. There are many dive sites nearby where you can spot coral, fish, eels, blacktip reef sharks, and even whales. Visibility is best during the dry season (between April and October).
Anuradhapura, 2 nights
Head inland to Sri Lanka’s most famous temple site, Anuradhapura. The main temple sites are best explored via bike, which you can rent outside the temple complex. Once you pay the entrance fee, you’ll get a map and can cycle around exploring the temples at your leisure. Go early before the heat sets in. Make sure to take a few hours to visit Mihintale, a site with a large Buddha statue and hilltop rock where Buddhism got its start in Sri Lanka.
Sigiriya, 2 nights
Not too far from Anuradhapura, Sigiriya is known for its famous hike to Lion Rock. However, this attraction can get very crowded, and hiking up with crowds can be trying. The best plan is to hike up the other rock, Pidurangala, which is cheaper, less crowded, and affords you a view of Lion Rock.
A safari to Minneriya or Kaudulla (guides which pick the park depending on the season and elephant migration) offers sightings of large herds of elephants. Safari trucks can drive off-road which means you may be just feet away from these gentle giants. The earlier you go, the better, as the elephants are very active around sunrise before the massive heat sets in.
It’s time to drive back to Colombo/ Negombo to catch your flight.