Known as the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, everybody seems to love Sri Lanka. People who haven’t been are fascinated by the country, and those who have visited have nothing but good words to say about it. And it’s easy to see why: Sri Lanka is a hugely diverse country, with something to offer for any taste.
Ceylon is the birthplace of tea – and a trip to the highlands and one of the hundreds of tea plantations will teach you all about it. You can hike to the tallest peaks of the island and the views of the hills are just breathtaking. Some of the most beautiful beaches on the planet can be found on the Southern shorelines, and the Far North is home to towering multi-coloured temples, rich with a fresh history to tell. Wildlife is abundant; the Island is home to elephants, leopards, crocodiles, monkeys and hundreds of species of birds, whilst the seas are home to whales, dolphins and sea turtles amongst many more.
But it’s the people (and, perhaps, their food) that really make the visit. Sri Lankan hospitality is taken very seriously; the locals will welcome you with friendly smiles and a helpful nature. The taste of the samosas, rotti, curry with rice and those incredible dosas will stay with you long after you return home.
Sri Lanka has so much to offer; even after a month there I felt I hadn’t seen enough of it. Something to bear in mind when planning your itinerary is how long it takes to travel around… whether you choose to travel with a driver or by train/bus, aim to leave early so you maximise the time in each destination (remember that you can always sleep en route!)
This itinerary is almost exactly how I travelled Sri Lanka for a month in April 2017, but I’ve adapted it slightly to improve it. It’s jam-packed, with only a few nights in each place – but of course, if you prefer to travel more slowly, this itinerary can be adapted to your liking. In the below route, you’ll fully maximise your time in Sri Lanka and ensure you see as much of possible while you’re there.
Need help planning a more tailored trip? Read this post!
THE ANCIENT CITIES & THE FAR NORTH
Day 1-2: Colombo (1 day/ 2 nights)
Allow yourself two nights in Colombo when you first land (unless you have a much tighter itinerary). We landed in the evening, so went straight to bed, and woke up feeling fresh the next morning. One day is about enough to see all of Colombo’s main sights. As far as capital cities go, I quite liked Colombo, as it’s got the buzz of a city without being too overpowering.
Here’s some must-do’s while you’re there:
- Visit the Dilmah tea rooms – their iced teas (and the air conditioning!) are very welcome in the humidity!
- Hunt for treasures and trinkets at one of the many markets in the city
- Wander the Fort area and see the historic buildings and lighthouse
- Visit one of the many temples in the city
Where to stay: The Clock Inn is rated highly – we stayed in a hotel a while from the city centre.
Day 2-4: Anuradhapura (1 day/ 2 nights)
The next day, take the train to Anuradhapura, an ancient city that dates back to 380AD. You’ll only need one full day to explore the ancient city, so stay for two nights to maximise your time there.
The best way to explore the temples ruins is by tuk tuk, as many of the sights are located quite a fair distance from each other. Read this post to make sure you don’t make the same mistake I did when I visited…
Stay at one of the many guesthouses in the city, then take the train north to Jaffna.
How to get there: Take the train from Colombo Fort train station to Anuradhapura.
Read more here: How NOT to visit Anuradhapura
Day 4-7: Jaffna (2 days/ 3 nights)
The far north of Sri Lanka is much less frequently visited than the South, but that’s what intrigued me about it! It only opened to tourists recently, as conflict was ongoing until 2009, but now the city and surrounding areas are beginning to become spots on the tourist trail once again.
Spend two full days in the area. Devote the first day to exploring the city’s sights, enjoy a dosa at Mangos restaurant, and visit the many temples and the fort. On your second day, rent a moped and take a trip to Nainativu Island and see the incredible Naga Pooshani Amman and Nagadipa temples. Travel up north to the old Kankesanturai (KKS) military base for a view of the rigour that used to have a hold over the country.
How to get there: Take the first class train from Anuradhapura north to Jaffna.
Where to stay: We loved D’Villa Guest House as the host, Dylan, was so kind and helpful!
Read more here: Exploring the far north of Sri Lanka: Two days in Jaffna
Day 7-9: Dambulla (a base for day trips; 2 days/ 3 nights)
Whilst there isn’t a great deal to do in the city itself, Dambulla is a good base from which you can explore the more expensive-to-stay-in spots like Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa. We stayed in Dambulla for three nights to do this.
Spend your first afternoon in Dambulla ticking off some of its must sees, such as the Golden Temple and the Cave Temples. Save your two full days for exploring Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa as detailed below. I arrived back in Dambulla in the early afternoon after visiting Sigiriya and went to the Cave Temples in Dambulla that afternoon. The Golden Temple is also worth a visit.
How to get there: From Jaffna, take the train back to Anuradhapura and then take a bus to Dambulla.
Where to stay: We stayed at the Lotus Inn Tourist Resort which was basic but it was the cheapest place we stayed in our month in Sri Lanka, with our room costing just £7.50 a night for a double room! The hosts were lovely and we had our own patio where we watched the monkeys swinging from the trees.
Day 8: Sigiriya (1 day)
Sigiriya is easily reachable from Dambulla on public transport, and is a must on any tourist’s itinerary, as it’s home to possibly the most famous landmark on the entire island: Lion Rock. Climbing it, and visiting the monastery atop it, is a must – but also worth visiting is the nearby Pidurangala Rock, which offers spectacular views of the landscape. Read more in this post.
Where to stay: Although we stayed in Dambulla and took a day trip to Sigiriya, there are some excellent hotels and guesthouses in the area – see the booking form at the end of this section for inspiration.
How to get there: Buses from Dambulla leave regularly (around every 30mins or so) from the clock tower – we took the 6:15am bus for 80Rs per person (one way), and the bus back to Dambulla at around 2:30pm.
Read more here: Visiting Lion Rock: How to experience Sigiriya on a budget
Day 9: Polonnaruwa (1 day)
Spend at least one full day exploring the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. The ruins are located on a site close to the main city and are easily reachable on two wheels – rent a bike from any of the many stands near to the site’s entrance (we chose one by the main ticket office).
If you are torn between whether to go to Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, I would advise visiting Polonnaruwa, because it is so much more easily accessible and, since the temples are not as old as those of Anuradhapura, they are generally much more well-preserved.
How to get there: The bus from Dambulla departs frequently until around 4pm and costs just 77 rupees each way.
THE HILL COUNTRY
Day 10-12: Kandy (1 day/ 2 nights)
Kandy is the “culture capital” of Sri Lanka and everyone seems to rave about it, however I didn’t find it that interesting. Key sights to visit are:
- The Temple of the Tooth – where the Buddha’s tooth relic is kept behind closed doors year round, only making an appearance in August (so if you want to see it, you’ll have to visit then!)
- Kandy Lake – besutiful at sunset!
- Helga’s Folly – a bizarre but captivating house, hotel and cafe that Helga da Silva has been creating over the past fifty years or so.
- Take a bus north to Matale (or stop off there en route from Dambulla to Kandy) and visit one of the many Spice Gardens in the area – we loved Euphoria Spice.
How to get there: Kandy is the start of the Kandy – Badulla train line, you may have heard other posts mention to take the train from Kandy to Ella because of how scenic the journey is, and the below route follows it.
Where to stay: We stayed at Oops! Hostel which I can only recommend – the host, Marcus, took us out for breakfast with the locals on our second morning. It’s situated a little walk from the centre but costs around 25 rupees to get there on the local bus.
Day 12-14: Dalhousie & Adam’s Peak (1 day/ 2 nights)
If there’s one hike I recommend you doing in Sri Lanka, it’s the pilgrimage to the top of Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak), the second tallest mountain in Sri Lanka.
The tiny town runs on tourism, but with views of the Peak from your bedroom window, there’s something very peaceful about the place. Head to bed early and start your walk at 2am (nope I’m not kidding!) so you can watch the sun rise from the top of a mountain – an unforgettable experience.
How to get there: Dalhousie isn’t the easiest of places to reach, but it’s worth it once you’re there. From Kandy, catch a train to Hatton and then a bus to Dalhousie. Hatton is a stop on the Kandy – Ella – Badulla train journey.
Where to stay: The White House was one of my favourite places we stayed in Sri Lanka. Large, spacious bedrooms look out onto the view of the Peak – take a peak before you set off on your hike to see the lights zig zag up the mountain.
Read more here: Climbing Adam’s Peak: The Pilgrimage to Sri Pada, Sri Lanka
Day 14-16: Nuwara Eliya & World’s End (1 day/ 2 nights)
From one hike to the next! Now we are entering Sri Lanka’s Hill Country – try to get a window seat on the train because the views are beautiful!
Most people visiting Nuwara Eliya either visit a tea plantation or hike to World’s End, which is in Horton Plains National Park. We did both.
When I visited, we actually only spent one night in Nuwara Eliya. We visited the Pedro Tea Estate on our first afternoon there, and then did the hike the following morning (luckily our host let us check out of our accommodation at noon, after having a shower). This worked well for us as there isn’t much else to do in Nuwara Eliya, however for the purpose of this itinerary I have added an extra night to give you time to relax!
How to get there: From Dalhousie, take the bus back to Hatton and then take a train to Nanu Oya. This is where Nuwara Eliya is – the town is a short journey from the train station but a local bus there costs about 15p.
Read more here: Is the hike to World’s End worth it?
Day 16-19: Ella (2 days/ 3 nights)
Ella was a highlight of my time in Sri Lanka – everyone seems to love it there for its relaxed vibe and the plethora of hikes in the area! Must do hikes are Little Adam’s Peak and Ella Rock, and also worth a visit are the nearby Rawana Falls and Nine Arch Bridge. Sam and Natalia from Something of Freedom have a great guide to visiting Ella on their blog which is worth a read before you visit. Make sure you spend at least two days in Ella to give yourself enough time to do everything!
Where to stay: We stayed at the Ella Alpine Resort and loved it! Our hosts were so kind and welcoming and our room had an incredible view of the hills. I highly recommend this place.
How to get there: From Nanu Oya, take the train bound for Badulla – get a window seat for the journey!
THE EAST COAST
Day 19-22: Arugam Bay (2 days/ 3 nights)
Most travellers don’t make it out to the East of the Island, but if you have time I highly recommend it! Arugam Bay is a hotspot for surfing, with many places offering lessons and surfboard hire. Even if you’re not a surfer it’s worth a visit, as it is a great place to experience some of the untouched nature of the Island.
Tours to the nearby Kumana National Park will give you the opportunity to see many species of wildlife, and even the surrounding mangroves are home to crocodiles – you might spot one when you least expect it!
Taking a cooking class in Arugam Bay was an unforgettable experience – learning the secrets to Sri Lankan cooking is a must while you are in the country and there is no company better than EcoWave to learn from – read why here.
How to get there: From Ella, take a bus to Monoregala. Then take a bus from Monoregala to Pottuvil/ Arugam Bay. This is a long day of travel but it’s worth it in my opinion.
Where to stay: EcoWave can organise a homestay for you, or there are many beach cabanas in the area such as Happy Panda Homestay and Surf n Sun. We stayed at Arugam Bay Beach Cabanas which was okay but VERY basic.
Read more here: An authentic Sri Lankan Cooking Class with EcoWave
Day 21: Kumana National Park (1 day/ no nights)
One of my #1 wishes in Sri Lanka was to see elephants in their natural habitat – and there are plenty of National Parks in Sri Lanka where this is possible. We chose Kumana National Park mostly because it was recommended to be much less touristy than the other parks and I’m glad we did. Read about it in this post.
How to get there: You have to explore Kumana National Park in a jeep with a guide; see the above-mentioned post for more info.
Where to stay: We stayed in a homestay in Panama the night before our safari, however there are a number of options in Arugam Bay, from where the jeep will pick you up in the morning.
THE BEACHES & THE SOUTH
Day 22-24: Tangalla (1 day, 2 nights)
Set amongst the mangroves, Tangalla is a lovely little spot on the South, and is much less busy than some of the resorts to the West. The beach here is gorgeous – it was one of my favourite in Sri Lanka. Spend a day or two here, and perhaps rent a moped to explore further; the nearby Mulkirigala temple is worth a visit. Both spellings of Tangalla and Tangalle are used.
Where to stay: We chose the Open Door Cabana Restaurant where we had our own cabana with a huge beg and walk-in bathroom. We loved it! We rented a moped from here to explore further.
How to get there: We took a bus from Arugam Bay to Monoregala, where we changed and hopped on a bus to Tangalla (bound for Matara).
Day 24-26: Talalla (1 day, 2 nights)
One of my favourite beaches in Sri Lanka, Talalla is small without any amenities save for a couple of restaurants along the sea front. It’s the perfect place to ‘get away from it all’, since it isn’t overly popular with tourists, who seem to favour the neighbouring resorts of Tangalla and Mirissa.
This said, Talalla is home to the prestigious Talalla Retreat, which offers incredible accommodation, wellness retreats, yoga classes and surf lessons – as well as a spa, pool and restaurant. I would of course love to stay, had I the budget for it!
Where to stay: We stayed at the Talalla Freedom Resort in a comfortable bungalow set above the restaurant, in a quiet setting surrounded by the trees.
How to get there: There are regular buses along the south coast from Tangalla to Galle – hop on any going towards Matara from Tangalle. Most of the accommodation is in walking distance from the bus stop, which is a junction along the main road.
Day 26-29: Mirissa (2 days, 3 nights)
Mirissa is a small backpacker hub with lots of hostels, restaurants and things to do. In some ways, it reminded me of Goa in India, as it caters very much towards a Western audience. I wouldn’t normally advise staying in a touristy area, but Mirissa’s beauty continues to shine despite the large number of visitors, and it is a lot less populated than nearby Hikkaduwa and Unawatuna.
Must dos while you’re here include:
- Visiting Mirissa beach – it’s busy, with sun-beds where you can pay for a day’s usage and has many bars and restaurants. We chose to go to this beach in the evenings for dinner and drinks – and I can imagine the music goes on for much later than we were out!
- Visit the ‘Secret Beach’ (which is actually quite secret despite its close proximity to such a large number of tourist resorts). Follow the signs from the harbour to this beach (it’s quite a walk, so consider a tuk tuk – look for ‘Secret Beach Bar’ on Google Maps).
- Go Whale Watching – I urge you to please research the company you choose to go with before arriving at the harbour; many boats chase the whales and ‘box them in’ so that tourists are able to get a good photo of them. Ensure your boat keeps a safe distance from the animals so as not to disturb them or get horrible petrol fumes too close to them. I recommend Whale Watching with Geeth.
- Rent a scooter to explore the surrounding beaches and towns. Worth and visit are Midigama, Dikwella, Koggala and Weligama (fishing town).
Where to stay: We stayed at Hansagira Guesthouse in their beautiful bedroom at the top of the house, however as it was quite a distance from the centre of the city, I would recommend looking into other options.
How to get there: Hop on a bus from Talalla to Matara, and then on a bus towards Galle.
Day 29-31: Galle (1 day, 2 nights)
I regret that when we visited, we actually only had one night in Galle, so we had to cram everything in really quickly! For this itinerary I’ve added an extra night, so you’ll have a full day to explore the town and what it has to offer.
There’s so much history in Galle and it’s a great place to begin to understand the colonisation of the country by the Dutch, with many European influences noticeable in the buildings and the Fort. Galle is also a great place to go shopping as there are many independent boutiques and many jewellery shops, which is why I’ve included it at the end of the trip – so you can pack your rucksack full of souvenirs to take home!
How to get there: Take a bus from Mirissa – these are frequent.
Day 31: Colombo
And before you know it, it’s home time. Catch a train from Galle to Colombo Fort (stand on the left hand side to see the sea!) and head to the airport. If you have some time to kill in Colombo, you can leave your luggage at the Fort Railway Station for a small fee – you need to take your own padlock for the lockers, and don’t leave any valuables in there.
What I would have done differently
- Bentota – I wanted to see sea turtles whilst we were in Sri Lanka and, despite doing a lot of research into the best, most sustainable way of seeing them, I regret what we chose to do. We spent one night in Bentota so we could visit the Kosgoda Sea Turtle Conservation Project and I regret every second – read why in this post. I’ve omitted it from this itinerary because I would have rather spent more time in other locations than here (for example I added an extra night in Galle to this itinerary instead).
- Trincomalee is on the East Coast; we didn’t have time to visit but I have heard many good things; it’s on the list for my next trip to Sri Lanka!
- Many travellers recommend Negombo over Colombo (it’s slightly north of the capital) as somewhere to stay when you are first arriving or leaving the country, however we did not have time to visit.
NOT GOT A MONTH?
Not everyone is able to explore this incredible country for a whole month – if this is you, I’ve got you covered. Most people I met were in Sri Lanka for one or two weeks, and most split their time between the beaches and the Hill Country, with a day trip to one of the ancient cities.
Generally, I would allow one week in each area of the country: one week for the ancient cities, one week for the hill country, one week for the beaches of the south – just as a rough guideline. However, you can chop and change this as you please. For example, if you only want to see Sigiriya and aren’t worried about spending as long on the beach, you can take one of these days and put it there instead. Note that travelling around takes some time, particularly on public transport. For more help planning an itinerary that is completely tailored to suit you, see this page.
ESSENTIAL INFORMATION BEFORE YOU GO
You will most likely need a visa to be able to enter Sri Lanka; check on your country’s government website for official information. People from many countries can get an e-visa – a quick, easy process that you complete online and is emailed to you. It’s called an Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA), costs $35 USD, and allows you 30 days in the country. You can apply online here – don’t bother booking through third party websites as the official one is easy-peasy to use and won’t charge any additional fees.
Sri Lanka is fantastic in terms that you can visit any time of the year as there are no definite seasons that affect the entire country at once. Monsoons affect different areas of the country at different times, however generally January to April and mid-July to September are the best times to visit. The southwest monsoon takes place in May to July and the North East Monsoon in October to January. We visited in March 2017 and had a few thunderstorms (generally they seemed to appear in the afternoons so we made the most of our mornings).
Colombo is most likely where you’ll be flying into and out of when you visit Sri Lanka and there are frequent flights from all major hubs. We flew with Oman Airlines from London Heathrow to Colombo with a layover in Muscat – I found the flights on Skyscanner and paid £373.43 per person for return flights 6 weeks before we flew.
I generally booked each guesthouse a few days in advance, as we were unsure if our itinerary was going to change. This was never a problem; I used booking.com to reserve every one of our reservations while there.
We travelled on public transport throughout the trip. Read this post for more information. I haven’t detailed times of trains and buses here as there is simply too much information, however this post will give you an insight into using public transport and that generally, you should just turn up early and get on when you can.
You can get a Sri Lankan sim card with 10GB of data at the arrivals lounge in Colombo airport for 1,300Rs per person. This amount of data lasted me the whole month (and I’m always on my phone!) Make sure your phone is unlocked.
What did you think of my one month Sri Lanka itinerary?
As always, leave me a comment below with anything I’ve missed or suggestions on how to improve this itinerary!
Thanks for reading and happy travels!
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