Sri Lanka Travel Guide
Sri Lanka has grown in popularity as a backpacking destination in the last decade, after their 26-year conflict was resolved.
This is a guide for a two week trip and is dependent on what time of the year you will be visiting Sri Lanka. Between the months of December to March the south is the right place to visit, and what is entailed in our guide below. However, between April to September you will want to visit the east of the country as the weather there is better during this period. So if you are going between December and March keep reading baby! If not, then perhaps just read as far as day 10 and then adjust your plans to visit the east coast.
As always, none of the recommendations mentioned are sponsored. They are from personal experience and are recommendations we genuinely feel are worthwhile to pass on.
DAY 1: Colombo
You will fly into Colombo and most people recommend moving on as soon as possible arguing that there isn’t much to do or see in the capital city. However if you find yourself here for a day there is plenty to keep yourself occupied.
Take a stroll along the Galle Face Green, which is a seafront park offering some local street food. It will be a great introduction to the delicious Sri Lankan cuisine ahead! You could visit a floating temple of Seema Malaka in the middle of Beira Lake and take a look at the beautiful Red Mosque in the heart of Pettah Market. Both sites are worth the visit and will look ace on your Insta grid.
DAY 2: Travel from Colombo to Sigiriya via Kandy
The train is the best option to get around Sri Lanka for long journeys and it’s a brilliant way to see the countryside.
A typical route from Colombo would be to go to Kandy which is a beautiful train journey; definitely try to sit by a window or hang out near the doorway so you can take in the views. When you arrive in Kandy we would recommend continuing your journey via bus to go straight to Sigiriya because, to be perfectly honest, we didn’t love Kandy. However it has mixed reviews so if you’re interested in seeing sacred Buddhist sites then definitely stop here a night to make judgement for yourself.
Taking in the view from the train doorway
If you are going to continue your journey to Sigiriya, the bus station in Kandy is right next to the train station which you will arrive into so ask around to find which is the next bus heading there. It will take about an 2 hours and 30 minutes, but depending on the timetable you may need to switch to a different bus in Dambulla.
Day 3: Sigiriya
If you’re not limited with time you could probably spend a few days in the peaceful little oasis that is Sigiriya. However you can definitely squeeze the “must do’s” into one day, but it will be an early start!
Get up for a sunrise hike to Pidurangala Rock which will give you a glorious view of the famous Lion Rock (Sigiriya). The climb will take about 30 minutes and don’t forget to bring a torch! You might want to spend some time up top enjoying the view as the sun rises over the countryside. When you are ready make your way down to grab some breakfast before heading to Lion Rock for more exploring.
Lion Rock is $30 USD to enter and doesn’t suit most backpacker budgets. But try to make an exception for this one because we promise - it is worth it! Depending on crowds the climb up can take anywhere from 40 minutes to 1.5 hours. Once you get to the top there is a lot more space to wander around, play with monkeys, and explore the UNESCO listed world heritage site.
You’ll probably be pretty tired after all the walking so spend a few hours chilling out in the town before hopping on a 30 minute bus to Dambulla where you could relax for the evening.
Day 4: Dambulla
Dambulla is often a forgotten city on the Sri Lanka tourist trail but if you’re after an authentic experience then take some time here to walk around the bustling streets. Visit the Cave Temples and the Golden Buddha, and if you have time take a look at the Dambulla Produce Market; it’s a wholesale market so you probably won’t buy anything but it’s an incredible look into the vast amount of produce grown in Sri Lanka.
Day 5: Anuradhapura
If history is something that interests you head north via bus for a day to Anuradhapura, one of the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka. The journey from Dambulla should only take about an hour and 30 minutes.
You could spend weeks here wandering around the ancient ruins and crumbling temples, so if you’re short on time do some research on which sites you want to cover during your visit.
DAY 6-7: Back to Kandy
Next you’ll want to venture back down to Kandy, and this time stay overnight. The reason being is you’ll want to get up early to catch the train to Ella. This is THE Sri Lankan train journey that everyone talks about. And with reason, it is pretty spectacular!
But it is insanely overcrowded, and there are only a few trains a day that take this route. If you’re organised enough to book a reserved seat then great, but these usually book out weeks in advance and are near impossible to get a hold of. And if you don’t get a seat you will be standing for 6-7 hours which, from experience, we can safely tell you is not fun and takes away from the once-in-a-lifetime trip.
So here’s a tip: Instead of getting on at the tourist-ridden Kandy station, head to the station 1-2 stops before that. Hop on here and try to your best to beat the crowds.
Once you’ve settled on the train, enjoy the beautiful views as you coast through the mountains dotted along countryside. You’ll probably arrive into Ella in the early evening and pretty tired after the long journey; if you’re hungry there’s a great place called Matey Hut near the station that does the most delicious Sri Lankan food!
We recommend staying at Hangover Hostel in Ella; it’s clean, central and has a lovely balcony where free yoga classes take place.
Pro Tip: If you want to complete the well-known pilgrimage hike to Adams Peak, you will be hopping off the train at Hatton and finishing the journey to Ella another day.
DAY 8-9: Ella
Ella can often times be described as “overrated”, but we beg to differ! It is a little town tucked away in the high country of Sri Lanka, surrounded by waterfalls and rolling hills, with gorgeous cafes and restaurants (albeit a bit westernised so try to venture off the main street to find local food!)
There is plenty to do and see here, whether its visiting the tea plantations high in the mountains or riding around to see the many waterfalls. Little Adams Peak for sunrise is a spectacular sight, and you can take a short-cut through the woodlands on your way back down to visit the famous Nine Arch Bridge. There are only a number of times a train passes over the bridge a day and the timetable changes often so plan ahead to align with this.
Sunrise at Little Adams Peak
Ella Rock is another lovely hike which starts with a walk along the train tracks and finishes with a strenuous 20-minute climb. Top tip: it is quite difficult to find your way to Ella Rock and don’t be fooled by the local touts who try to confuse tourists into buying their guide services. If you follow this step by step guide you’ll be sure to find your way.
DAY 10: Udawalawe National Park
If you’re keen to see some wildlife during your Sri Lanka visit, then make your way down south from Ella to Udawalawe National Park. There are many different trip types available here but if you’re short on time a day trip is definitely do-able. It will be an early start and if you organise the tour through Hangover Hostel you’ll be picked up in a 4x4 well before sunrise to start the 2 hour journey from Ella to the national park.
If you’re lucky enough you’ll get to see an abundance of elephants, sambar, chital, wild boar, eagles, owls and much more! What’s more is this national park was built as a sanctuary for wild animals displaced by the construction of the Udawalawe Reservoir on the Walawe River. However, it can often be overcrowded with jeeps so do your part by reminding your driver to stay a safe distant from the animals so as not to alter their natural behaviour and ensure your party don’t take photographs with a flash.
After the long but satisfying day in the national park you can make your way down to the south coast via bus. There are lots of idyllic beach towns running all along the coast so we’ve handpicked our favourites.
DAY 11: Matara
Stop off at the Doctors Office Hostel in Matara for a night, you won’t regret it. We’ve listed this resting spot as one of our Top 10 Hostels. The Doctor’s Office is a former Dutch hostel (hence the name) run by a group of young Australian guys and is the epitome of chilled vibes. It is right across the road from a quiet beach, and a ten minute walk from another beach where you can snorkel with sea turtles.
Serving wood-fired pizza, as well as nutritious food, and the tastiest cocktails it will be a place you'll want to spend a sunset hangout even if you're not staying there. There is ample space out the front of the hostel to meet new people, play games, or just relax.
DAY 12: Mirissa
Next hop on a 30 minute bus to Mirissa. Be prepared; this is a tourist-ridden town but with good reason. This is a great town for just wandering the streets and perhaps picking up some trinkets to bring home. Talk a walk out to Secret Beach if you want a more quiet location to relax and venture up to Coconut Hill for the ultimate Insta shot (it gets crowded here so try go early). There is also great whale watching off the coast of Mirissa, but make sure you book with an ethical tour.
The insta-famous Coconut Hill in Mirissa
DAY 13: Weligama
Sri Lanka is a renowned surfing destination that caters to all levels. With surf schools dotted all along the beach front, Weligama is the place to rent that surf board whether you are just a beginner or a well experienced wave-rider.
Stay at Spindrift Hostel (also in our Top 10 Hostel List!) which is right across the road from the beach and fuel yourself with delicious curry from Meewitha Family Restaurant after your day on the water.
Time to head back to Colombo to catch your flight. The train journey from Weligama will take 3-4 hours, but as always in Sri Lanka – expect delays!
We hope this guide was helpful and that you have the most incredible trip to one of our all-time favourite countries! Leave us a comment below to tell us what you think, we love to hear your feedback.