Are you planning a trip to Sri Lanka? Very good decision! I’ve spent 17 days in Sri Lanka and wrote down my itinerary which hopefully help you to collect ideas to plan your own route in Sri Lanka.
1 night in Negombo
Most probably your journey will start and end in Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo. Don’t let the name of the airport confuse you. The airport is way closer to Negombo which is only 20 minutes away from the airport (taxi for 1000-1500 LKR / 6-10$), while Colombo is 1,5-2 hours away.
So, my recommendation is to overnight in Negombo on your day of arrival to recover from the flight. Depending on your arrival time you could of course carry on directly to your first stop, if you’re OK with looking like a zombie when you show up at your hotel.
Where to stay in Negombo: I stayed at Villa Taprobane. The owners are very friendly and answer all your questions. The Sri Lankan breakfast they serve is the best way to start your culinary adventure in Sri Lankan. They also organise the pick up from the airport.
3-4 days in Dambulla
Dambulla is a good base for the so called cultural triangle. Thanks to its good bus network it is very convenient for the day trips to Sigiriya (30min), Anuradhapura (2hrs) and Polonnaruwa (1-2hrs). Also the Cave Temple in Dambulla is definitely worth visiting.
Day trips from Dambulla to Ancient Cities:
To Sigiriya Rock: The most convenient way is to hire a Tuk Tuk (auto rickshaw) which waits for you there and takes you back to your hotel (30mins – 1500 LKR return). Climbing up the Sigiriya Rock and down takes about 3-4 hours. The driver waits for you in the car park.
Read next: Tips Visiting Sigiriya Rock
To Anuradhapura: The bus drive takes about 2hrs from Dambulla and costs 95 LKR. Start early to have enough time in Anuradhapura which is a big area to explore (5-6hrs). Best way is to hire a tuk tuk who can also guide you around. Last bus from Anuradhapura to Dambulla is supposed to be at 6pm.
Read next: Tips for visiting Anuradhapura
To Polonnaruwa: Either by bus or again tuk tuk. The advantage of a tuk tuk ride is that you can stop when you see wild elephants on the side of the road when passing by Minneriya National Park.
Read next: Tips for visiting Pollonaruwa
It takes about 2hrs till Polonnaruwa and 2hrs back and you spend about 4 hours driving around the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. All this with tuk tuk costs 3500 LKR. If you go to Polonnaruwa by bus and hire a tuk tuk driver there it will cost you 2000 LKR.
If you don't have enough time you could skip Anuradhapura and visit Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa at the same day.
How to go to Dambulla: From Negombo to Dambulla you can go by bus (4-5 hours). First take the air conditioned / express bus to Kurunegela (1hr 45min – 185 LKR). From here take the normal bus to Dambulla (2hrs – 76 LKR).
Where to stay in Dambulla: I stayed at Sevonrich Holiday Resort. The owner is super friendly and helps with organising the day trips. He picks up his guests from the bus station and drives around if he has time. He also cooks yummy dinner.
Visiting the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic is a highlight you shouldn’t miss when touring in Sri Lanka.
Near to the temple, there are 3-4 locations where you can visit a traditional dance and fire show. They all start at 5pm and last one hour, which is the best time to visit the temple by the way 🙂
The day tourists charted with shuttle busses visit the temple after the dance show, as the sacred tooth relic is presented between 6:30 and 8pm.
Try to make time to visit the Botanical Garden to escape the busy streets in downtown and relax under one of the huge trees.
Many people visit Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage during their stay in Kandy which I ruled out due to the fact that this place works rather as a touristic attraction where the elephants are kept in chains. I decided for myself that I do not want to see animals in chains and don’t want to support such organizations.
For hiking fans Knuckles Range is easily reachable from Kandy.
How to go to Kandy: From Dambulla to Kandy it takes only 2 hours by bus.
Where to stay in Kandy: I stayed at Primrose Inn which is a cosy homestay with a Sri Lankan family. The owners lived in New Zealand and Africa for a long time as English teachers and returned to Sri Lanka. The owner prepares fresh made delicious hoppers for the breakfast!
Nuwara Eliya in Hill Country is the perfect place to wander around the tea plantations and to visit a Tea factory. The history of the tea production will help you also to understand the contemporary history of Sri Lanka. The British influence in this region is so present that Nuwara Eliya is even called “Little England”.
Hiking in Horton Plains, is a highlight you should not miss. The view in World’s End (2000m high) is simply breathtaking.
Also there are many waterfalls in this area. Baker’s Falls in Horton Plains and Ramboda Falls are the best known ones.
Nuwara Eliya is also a good place to plan your hiking tour in Adam’s Peak.
How to go to Nuwara Eliya: Catch the train from Kandy’s Railway Station to Nanu Oya. The train ride takes about 4 hours. From Nanu Oya to Nuwara Eliya with Tuk Tuk it takes only 20-30 min for 500 LKR.
Tips: The second train from Kandy at 11:10 is less crowded. For the best and most up to date information check Seat61.
Where to stay in Nuwara Eliya: I stayed at Kings Park Villa. It is located near to Viktoria Park and 5 min. away from downtown. The staff is very helpful and the shower in the room is the best I had in Sri Lanka.
Read next: 2 days in Nuwara Eliya
1-2 days in Ella
Ella is also in Hill Country but it is way more touristic than Nuwara Eliya. I was shocked to see how touristy such a small town can get. The cafés and restaurants are “westernized” and there are countless guesthouses and B&Bs.
Nevertheless it is located also in a beautiful area and perfect for hiking. Ella’s Rock (3-4 hours) and Little Adam’s Peak (1-2 hours) offer again breathtaking views. The Nine Nine Arch Bridge and Rawana Waterfall are the bonus on top of it.
How to go to Ella: Again by train. If you catch the train at 12:40 from Nanu Oya you’ll arrive in Ella at 15:15. From the train station in Ella (Elle) to downtown with Tuk Tuk it takes 10 min. for 200 LKR.
Where to stay in Ella: I stayed at Leisure Dream Inn which has the best views you can ever imagine. The rooms are very nice and spacious. And the breakfast! It was simply the BEST breakfast I had in Sri Linka… Plus the view while having your breakfast… Just priceless.
1 day in Tissamaharama
If you want to visit Yala National Park for a very low chance to spot a leopard I recommend to stay in Tissamaharama (Tissa). You can organise easily the Safari tour in the town or at your hotel directly.
However, I must warn you about my disappointment about Yala National Park. Not because I was not lucky enough to see a Leopard, but also because of the poor wild life. All the animals I’ve seen in Yala, I also saw outside the Yala National Park, just randomly on the roads. Yes, even an elephant. Besides, I had the feeling the number of the jeeps and humans in the park was way higher than the animals.
Long story short I don’t recommend to visit Yala National Park, just for the very low chance to spot a leopard. If it fits to your route try out Udawalawe National Park or Minneriya National Park where you can supposedly see herds of Elephants for sure.
How to go to Tissamaharama / Yala National Park: From Ella you can catch the direct bus to Tissahamarama. If you missed the direct bus, you can take a bus till Wellawaya and get another bus to Tissa from here. The drive takes about 5 hours in total.
Where to stay in Tissamahrama: I stayed at My Village. Once you go through the main gate you feel like entering another world. It is decorated very stylish and the rooms are spacious.
There are many paradise like places to relax in the south coast. It just depends on your plans. If you surf Weligama Bay is a good start I guess. Many of the travelers I met headed to Tangalla beach.
I stayed in Weligama, near to Midigama Beach, and had indeed lonely beaches only for me.
Mirissa Beach is a beautiful beach but too crowded for my taste. The Whale watching tours start here, which I also ruled out, after talking to people and reading the reviews. It should be called “whale chasing” rather than “watching”. Everyday 20-30 boats try to offer the best experience to their customers by getting as close as possible to the whales which is simply disturbing for the whales and neither ethical nor sustainable.
During your stay in the South Coast you can easily visit Galle as a day trip. From Mirissa to bus to Galle takes only 30 min. I’m still angry with myself that I did not manage to visit Galle.
How to go to the South Coast of Sri Lanka: Any bus heading to Galle will take you to the beach of your choice in the South coast.
If you don't like mass tourism avoid the west coast, especially Unawatuna and Hikkaduwa.
Transfer to Airport
Depending on your flight time you should consider staying in Negombo the day before your flight.
Taxi from Mirissa to Airport in Colombo takes 3 hours if they take the toll highway and costs 9000-14.000 LKR, all highway costs included.
From Matara you can take the train or bus to Colombo and take the “airport express bus” from Colombo to the Airport. If you choose this option, you should plan with 6 hours minimum.
What did I miss?
If I would have stayed 3-5 days longer I would have visited Jaffna, the northern gem of Sri Lanka. I’ve seen small colorful Hindu temples here and there but Jaffna is I guess the best place to understand the Hindu and Tamil culture of Sri Lanka.
If I knew better I would have skipped Yala National Park and would have relaxed in one of the beaches in the East Coast which are supposedly way less crowded than the south and west coast. I heard and read that Arugam Bay is a good spot for surfers.
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For more insights from real pros I recommend Lonely Planet's Travel Guide for Sri Lanka. For price worthy accommodation check Booking.com or Agoda.com.
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