5 days in Sri Lanka: The ultimate guide

A beautiful misty morning in Sri Lanka with a view over a lake and mountains
5 DAYS IN SRI LANKA
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5 days in Sri Lanka is just about long enough to get a taste for this beautiful country, but be warned, it will leave you wanting more!

Perhaps you want to add another country on to an already planned trip, or you are simply pushed for time. If possible, we would recommend you try to spend at least two weeks in Sri Lanka (you can find a detailed guide here), but if you only have time for 5 days in Sri Lanka then it is possible to see some of the incredible things this country has to offer.

How to travel with only 5 days in Sri Lanka

With only 5 days in Sri Lanka we would recommend hiring a personal driver for your trip. This isn’t as expensive as it sounds, and is in fact a very common way to travel in Sri Lanka.

You will need to work out what costs are included before you book. Is petrol and the drivers food and accommodation included in the upfront cost? Remember that the drivers will expect (and deserve) a tip, and account for the possibility that you may want to buy your driver drinks or food when you eat out.

A girl looking at a sunset over a lake on her 5 days in Sri Lanka trip
HIRE A DRIVER TO GET THE MOST FROM YOUR 5 DAYS IN SRI LANKA

Lankan Personal Drivers have excellent reviews and you can contact them to arrange a personalised tour, but there are many companies out there offering similar services. Shop around to find the best deal.

Sri Lanka has excellent transport links through their railway lines, and not too expensive tuk tuks to take you shorter distances. If you are prepared to sacrifice a little sight seeing at the other end then these are also excellent ways to get around, but with only 5 days in Sri Lanka we recommend maximising your sight seeing time and hiring a driver.

Where to go on your 5 days in Sri Lanka

A sri lankan women sweeping the tea fields, seen on a 5 days in sri lanka trip
CHOOSE THE RIGHT ITINERARY FOR YOU

You will have to be very careful with your time and plan your trip carefully to make sure you get the most out of your stay. For this reason we have put together a few different 5 days in Sri Lanka itineraries to suit a variety of interests.

Scroll down to find our three options.

Itinerary 1 is a cultural tour of Sri Lanka, taking in some of the famous historic and religious sights that make this country so unique.

Itinerary 2 is for those of you who want some serious R and R, and perhaps the odd bit of sea based adventure too!

Itinerary 3 details some of the best hiking and incredible sights that Sri Lanka has on offer and if you just can’t choose then why not combine bits of all three to make for a truly memorable trip!

5 days in Sri Lanka-Itinerary 1

The cultural tour on your 5 days in Sri Lanka

TEMPLES AND STATUES

This 5 days in Sri Lanka itinerary is for the history buffs amongst you. It is also the best way to get a proper feel for Sri Lanka’s culture and heritage. The historical sights of Sri Lanka are quite spread out, so to get the most from your 5 days in Sri Lanka we definitely recommend you hire a driver.

Top tip: Make sure you wear modest clothing on this trip. We recommend you keep your knees covered and bring a scarf or light shirt to cover your shoulders, as you will be in and out of temples throughout.

Day 1: Anuradhapura

With only 5 days in Sri Lanka we recommend you give Columbo a miss. Instead head straight to Anuradhapura. The ruins of UNESCO World Heritage site Anuradhapura are one of South Asia’s most impressive sights.

Anuradhapura, AN ANCIENT TEMPLE
ANCIENT ARCHITECTURE

The sprawling area contains a large collection of archaeological and architectural wonders: ancient pools, enormous brick stupas and decaying temples. Anuradhapura was built during it’s thousand years of rule and today some of the site is still in use. It has a slightly more ‘real’ feel than Polonnaruwa because of this, and both are worth visiting if history and culture are your thing.

Entrance will cost about £25. The site is HUGE, so either ask your driver to drive you around or, if you’re feeling energetic, hire a bicycle which is far more peaceful (but doesn’t come with air con!) Because of it’s size it is likely that you will need to pick and choose the places you visit. All of them are incredible, you can’t really make any bad choices, so just enjoy where you end up and soak in the atmosphere!

Where to stay

It might be worth making the hour and a half drive to Sigiriya and booking two nights there, instead of jumping from room to room. But if you fancy a night in Anuradhapura, this authentic family run homestay offers simple, comfortable rooms and even has an outdoor pool!

Day 2: Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa

Sigiriya is one of Sri Lanka’s most iconic sights and a place of huge historical and archaeological significance. Here you will find the ruins of a palace that was built on top of this huge rock, and views to die for. It’s an hour and half’s drive from Anuradhapura.

The foot of lion rock in sigiriya on a five day intinerary
THE FOOT OF LION ROCK

Sigiriya, also known as Lion Rock, comes with a pretty hefty entrance fee (about £30 per person) but really is a must see if you have limited time in Sri Lanka. Make sure you ask your driver to stop along the way so that you can take some photos of this incredible natural feature.

A short drive from Lion Rock is the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka. This place surpassed our expectations and I would thoroughly recommend a visit here on your 5 days in Sri Lanka.

Polonnaruwa is a bit like a smaller Angkor Wat. It is a maze of intricately built temples that have been left to nature for hundreds of years and only recently been opened as a tourist attraction. It has a lost in time feel, with monkeys climbing over the crumbling walls and greenery taking hold of nooks and crannies.

POLONNARUWA: A MUST VISIT

Again, ticket prices here aren’t cheap, so expect to pay around £25 for an adult ticket. We were pretty shocked when entrance alone cost us so much on our first day in Sri Lanka but we promise it gets a lot cheaper!

Where to stay

After a full day of exploring you will be pretty exhausted, so make sure you find somewhere slightly outside of the bustling city centre to get some rest. Seyara Holiday resort is a small family hotel that comes highly recommended and is worth a look-they have recently had a swimming pool built for ultimate relaxation. Most guest houses offer reasonably priced food cooked on site, and it will give you chance to taste some real Sri Lankan home cooking.

Day 3: Kandy

Get up and at it early! You only have 5 days in Sri Lanka after all!

Kandy lake in sri lanka at sunset
KANDY IS THREE AND A HALF HOURS AWAY

The drive to Kandy is about 3 and half hours away, but ask your driver to take you via Dambulla so that you can visit the Dambulla cave temples, an important religious site full of Buddha statues and ancient paintings.

The site itself offers stunning views of the area, and there are five caves for you to explore, each of them full of Buddha statues of all different sizes and types. It’s a fascinating insight into Sri Lanka’s culture.

Dambulla town itself doesn’t have much to offer, so don’t hang around here too long before you head to Kandy.

Spend the afternoon exploring the vibrant city of Kandy. We only stayed here for one night but fell in love with the place. The lake at sunset is an absolute must, and there are several interesting sights to see here if you aren’t content just to wonder and enjoy a little insight into daily life in Sri Lanka.

Kandy lake at sunset with a tree silhouette framing it
KANDY LAKE AT SUNSET

The main attraction here is the impressive Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, one of Buddhism’s most sacred shrines. Make sure you cover up if you want to visit this religious site.

Where to stay

We stayed at a home stay booked through air bnb.  The family were lovely, and so were their many cats!  The guest house is set a little back from the town, meaning it’s quite and peaceful there. They made us feel at home with tea and biscuits after our long journey and it was nice to be in a slightly separate part of the house for a little privacy. You can book with them here.

Day 4: Nuwara Eliya

A 5 day cultural tour of Sri Lanka wouldn’t be complete without a visit to hill country, and Nuwara Eliya is only a 2 hour drive away. Try to leave early today so that you have time for lunch here before heading on.

Tea tasting at pedro tea estate in sri lanka
TEA TASTING AT PEDRO TEA ESTATE

Nuwara Eliya is set amongst a back drop of tea plantations, and is full of colonial charm. It is often called ‘little England’, due to the quaint architecture enjoyed by colonial Britain back in the day. The climate is slightly cooler and is a welcome change to the dusty heat further North.

We spent a whole day alone just wondering the streets and taking in the holiday atmosphere, but with only 5 days in Sri Lanka you can make this a stop off on your way down south. We would recommend you make the most of your time with a tour of a tea factory followed by afternoon tea for lunch (or cocktails, you are on holiday after all!) at The Grand.

Cocktails and cameras at the grand in nuwara eliya
COCKTAILS AT THE GRAND

There is no rest for the wicked, and it’s a long way south, so head on to Udawalawa which is three and half hours drive away, where you can stop for the night.

Top tip: Take the train from Nuwara Eliya to Ella and get your driver to meet you there. It really is the best way to travel in Sri Lanka, the scenery is incredible! You can find out all about train times and how to get tickets here.

BLUE TRAIN IN SRI LANKA GOING THROUGH HILL COUNTRY
THE BEST WAY TO TRAVEL IN SRI LANKA

Where to stay

Kottawatta Village offers luxury tent accommodation for a good price. Our stay here was one of the most memorable in Sri Lanka, you feel as though you are sleeping in the jungle but with all the comforts of a hotel. There is a swimming pool and a small restaurant.

Day 5: Udawalawa and Galle

Udawalawa is a convenient stop to get you down south to the beautiful town of Galle, and we wouldn’t have included it in our 5 day cultural tour otherwise. But if you feel inclined you can make the most of your five days here and take an early morning safari to see the elephants.

A monkey clinging onto a girls leg in udawalawa national park in sri lanka
UDAWALAWA

Sri Lanka’s wildlife is a huge part of their culture and they are proud of the diversity of animals that you can find here. From peacocks to elephants, Sri Lanka really does have it all.

You can explore some of this wildlife through an early morning safari, and in Udawalawa’s safari park you are almost guaranteed an elephant siting. We found it a little crowded, and didn’t like the conveyor belt of tourists snapping away at the elephant herds, but it is still amazing to see these creatures in the wild. If you’re very lucky you may even spot a leopard!

Head on to Galle, a three hour drive away, for some more town action. This old fort and port town was put on the map by the Portuguese in the 16th century and is now a cool, waterside hub of upmarket hotels, restaurants and artisan shops. It is well worth an afternoon of exploring and is quite different to what you will have found in the rest of Sri Lanka.

a view of the white lighthouse in galle sri lanka
GALLE FORT TOWN

Where to stay

Stay in Galle overnight and give yourself plenty of time the next day to make it back to Colombo for your flight home. It is a two hour drive, and your driver will be able to advise you on how much time to leave to allow for traffic.

Galle isn’t the cheapest place to stay in Sri Lanka, but it’s worth a night of splashing out to stay in such a beautiful little town. We found Sirene Galle Fort to be among the better priced options.

If you have an early morning flight then you may want to consider missing out Udawalawa and Galle altogether and heading to Colombo for your final day in Sri Lanka.

5 days in Sri Lanka-Itinerary 2

A brightly coloured fishing boat out at sea in sri lanka
BEACH STAYS FOR 5 DAYS IN SRI LANKA

Beach bums and sunsets

This one is for the more relaxed amongst you. As lots of people come to Sri Lanka for their honeymoon, or for the famed beaches, we thought it was important to include a 5 day itinerary that focused on beaches and the sea.

But don’t worry, we have included lots of fun things to do just in case lying around sunbathing isn’t for you! We have focused on the more popular south west coast.

Top Tip: It isn’t really necessary to hire a driver to explore the beaches of Sri Lanka. You can catch the coastal train from Colombo and then travel by taxis or tuk tuks, as everything is quite close by.

Day 1: Unawatuna or Dalawella

Head straight to Unawatuna and relax in one of the many bars and restaurants, or base yourself a little further on at the more secluded Dalawella beach.

Unawatuna has a lot more going on, but is busier because of this. If you truly want to relax then we would recommend Dalawella. It’s a 5 minute tuk tuk journey into Unawatuna if you want a wider choice of restaurants or you fancy partying the night away, and during the day the beach is quieter and prettier than it’s neighbouring town.

A turtle under the water in sri lanka
SWIMMING WITH TURTLES IN DALAWELLA

You will probably want a day to recover from your flight and soak up the sun. If you are staying in Dalawella then make sure you keep an eye out for the turtles that show up here regularly. You can watch their shadows in the waves from a local beach side bar, or get in and snorkel with them right from the beach.

Where to stay

SHORE in Unawatuna is right on the beachfront and has excellent reviews.

Day 2: Surfing and diving

Now that you’ve recovered it’s time to pick an activity! And you won’t be short of choice.

Surf board for rent sign in bright colours in sri lanka
TAKE A SURF LESSON

Between Unawatuna and Galle there is a good beach to learn to surf. Note that the best season for surfing is between November and May. At Ahikava Surf school, you can rent a board and they offer surfing lessons as well. If surfing isn’t for you then they also offer stand up paddle boards for rent. Why not hire one for sunset for a really romantic evening.

There are also some great diving spots around Unawatuna and we can highly recommend Pearl Divers. We ended up doing two morning dives with them, as the first was so much fun.

If you already have your PADI qualification they will talk you through the dives available. Let them know if you are a nervous diver or less experienced like me and they will assign you an instructor so you’re never alone. They were professional and knowledgeable, only taking a very small group at a time.

Adam did the try dive with them and raved about it. They made sure it was relaxed and fun, as well as being safe, so if you’re with someone who doesn’t dive then they should definitely give it a try here.

Day 3: Mirissa

SUNSET ON MIRISSA BEACH IN SRI LANKA
THE PERFECT SUNSET WATCHING SPOT

Head to Mirissa today and take your time getting there, stopping at some of the beautiful little coves along the way. Just ask your driver/tuk tuk driver and they will know some good spots!

Top Tip: If you didn’t give surfing a try yesterday then today might be the perfect day. Stop off at Weligama beach which is famous for it’s great surf, and the perfect half way stop off. You can take a surf lesson with an English speaking instructor for just over £10 here!

Mirissa has become a little crowded in recent years, but it’s still a great spot to relax with a beer, practice your surfing or go whale watching. You can spend the rest of the day exploring the small parrot rock just off the main beach, and watching the incredible sunset from a reggae beach bar. Seriously chilled!

Where to stay

The beautiful Peacock Villa is raved about and although we didn’t stay here ourselves we have heard excellent things about it, so it’s worth a little look!

Day 4: Whale watching

A blue whale's tail in sri lanka
BLUE WHALE WATCHING

Book a whale watching trip for today, leaving from Mirissa. Make sure you do your research, as some tourists have had some horrible experiences in recent years with overcrowding and lack of animal welfare considerations.

We booked with Raja and the Whales and have nothing but praise for them. You can read all about our whale watching trip here, including prices and times.

Day 5: Galle

Still not bored of beaches? Today you can chill out by the sea or choose to travel up the coast to the beautiful fort town of Galle (we think you should choose this option for a taste of something a little different!)

Galle is about an hours drive away, and is back in the direction of the airport so you will be closer to that unwelcome flight home. If you didn’t hire a driver then get a taxi, tuk tuk or a local bus.

This old fort and port town was put on the map by the Portuguese in the 16th century and is now a cool, waterside hub of upmarket hotels, restaurants and artisan shops. It is well worth an afternoon of exploring and will be a nice change from all the beach action (but don’t worry, you will still have fantastic views of the sea!)

Where to stay

Galle isn’t the cheapest place to stay in Sri Lanka, but it’s worth a night of splashing out to stay in such a beautiful little town. We found Sirene Galle Fort to be among the better priced options.

5 days in Sri Lanka-Itinerary 3

THE VIEW FROM PIDURANGALA ON A 5 DAYS IN SRI LANKA TRIP
THE VIEW FROM PIDURANGALA

Getting active on your 5 days in Sri Lanka!

This is the perfect itinerary for those of you who can’t sit still! We have included all the best mountain treks with unbeatable views, but if you have a little more time to spare or fancy mixing it up a little then check out our two weeks in Sri Lanka post for more inspiration on amazing treks (we can highly recommend the trek down from Lipton’s Seat through the tea fields).

Day 1: Sigiriya and Pidurangala

Head straight to Sigiriya, one of Sri Lanka’s most iconic sights and also one of it’s most exhausting climbs. Here you will find the ruins of a palace that was built on top of this huge rock, and views to die for.

Sigiriya, also known as Lion Rock, comes with a pretty hefty entrance fee (about £30 per person) but really is a must see if you have limited time in Sri Lanka. It is set in beautiful grounds (which you’ll be relieved to hear are mostly on level ground), but the climb to the top is the bit you will really want to do. It is one giant stair master of a climb that rewards you with incredible views.

A little monkey in sigiriya
SPOTTING MONKEYS IN SIGIRIYA

If you thighs aren’t burning enough from the walk up Lion Rock then head to Pidurangala, just a short drive away. This is a much shorter climb, but is less well maintained and there is a small amount of boulder scrambling at the top. Here you will have incredible views of Sigiriya rock and beyond.

Head to Kandy for an over night stop. It’s a two hour car journey away so you will have plenty of time to rest your tired legs!

Where to stay

We stayed at a home stay booked through air bnb.  The family were lovely, and so were their many cats!  The guest house is set a little back from the town, meaning it’s quite and peaceful there. They made us feel at home with tea and biscuits after our long journey and it was nice to be in a slightly separate part of the house for a little privacy. You can book with them here.

Day 2: Knuckles Mountain Range

View from the knuckles mountain range on a five days in sri lanka trip
DON’T MISS THE KNUCKLES RANGE ON YOUR 5 DAYS IN SRI LANKA

You’ll be up and out early this morning for your trek in the Knuckles Mountain Range. This is arguably one of the best treks in all of Sri Lanka and you will pass through a range of varied landscape and spot a wide array of wildlife.

It takes a little planning as you will need to organise a guide. Make sure you read our detailed guide on trekking in the Knuckles Mountain Range before you go to get the most out of your trip.

Rice terraces and mountain walks in sri lanka
WALKING THROUGH THE RICE TERRACES

The trek will include an over night stay under the stars in the mountains, so you won’t need to book accommodation for tonight!

Day 3: Ella

The trek finishes early afternoon (depending on how fast you walk!) Head straight from here to the pretty hill town of Ella, where you can enjoy some home comforts (the potato wedges at Chill restaurant bar are to die for!)

Ella is set up well for tourists and there are numerous activities to keep you occupied here. Why not treat your aching muscles to a spa treatment, or take a Sri Lankan cookery course? We enjoyed watching the heavy rainfall from one of many chilled out bars and watching the world pass by.

Where to stay

Hilltop Guest House is a great value option and comes with stunning views. Each room has a seating area, and there is a shared kitchen you can use.

Day 4: Trekking in Ella

Ella is FULL of great trekking opportunities. You will have a hard time choosing what to cram into your day spent here, so we’ve detailed some of the best below to help you make your decision, and if you get up early it may well be possible to fit in our favourite three Ella sights.

Top Tip: As you’re on a limited time frame, you should book this tour of the best three sights in Ella. We actually couldn’t believe the price (it includes a sit down lunch and water) and wish we had found it before our trip. Having a local guide to accompany you always adds so much value, as they know all about local flora and fauna, can spot wildlife, update you on history and they know all the best photo spots! Chatting away to someone who lives in the country you are visiting and getting to know a local always makes those uphill stretches go more quickly!

Views from Ella rock in sri lanka on a 5 day itinerary
VIEWS FROM ELLA ROCK, SRI LANKA

First on the list is the hike up Ella Rock. This is a strenuous but beautiful trek, and the views from the top will make you wish you didn’t have to walk back down again. If you feel the heat, then it may be best to do this trek early in the very early morning. Bring plenty of water and a hat! When you reach the peak don’t just rush back down again. There are more incredible views if you walk around the forest at the very top of the mountain.

Once you’re safely on flat land again head to lunch at Ella Flower Garden Resort, a beautiful cafe complete with views and an abundance of wildlife!

Nine arches bridge in sri lanka
NINE ARCHES BRIDGE

Once you have re-fuelled, walk to the very instagrammable Nine Arches Bridge. The walk may well take you along the railway tracks, which is quite an experience in itself! Careful to listen out for passing trains!

Half an hours walk from here you will reach Little Adam’s Peak, a mountain ridge that offers lovely views, but isn’t too strenuous if you are tired from the mornings activities.

Little adam's peak in sri lanka
LITTLE ADAM’S PEAK

As well as these three iconic treks, there are numerous other walking routes starting in, or a short distance from Ella. You can go and see nearby waterfalls or explore the tea plantations.

Day 5: Horton Plains

It’s time to start making your way back to Colombo for your flight home, but hopefully you have a morning to spare for a trip to Horton Plains national park. The trek to World’s End is one of Sri Lanka’s most famous, and rightfully so if views are what you’re after.

You won’t find the same sort of remote and off the beaten path trekking that you will have found in the Knuckles Mountain Range, the paths are well maintained and signposted and the crowds are a plenty. But this an extremely well looked after national park and there are little signs of the many visitors it receives in terms of litter.

You’ll want to get here for sunrise, so expect an early start, and this isn’t the cheapest trek so be prepared for that. You should read our post on trekking to World’s End before you go, to get all the relevant information and decide if it’s right for you. The view from World’s End would be the perfect way to end your 5 days in Sri Lanka, so we recommend you give some serious consideration!

A deer in the mist in horton plains national park
SUNRISE IN HORTON PLAINS, SRI LANKA

Making the most of your 5 days in Sri Lanka

As you can see, it certainly is possible to get the most out of your 5 days in Sri Lanka. It does mean rushing around some really beautiful sights, but it is so much better to see them in a bit of a hurry than to miss out on them altogether!

If you’re not sure about some of the activities and sights we’ve listed above then you might want to check out some of our other guides for alternative ideas.

Trek the Lover’s Leap waterfalls and follow it with a calming cup of tea at the Pedro Tea Estate in Nuwara Eliya

Visit the iconic Lipton’s Seat in Haputale and spend time walking the misty tea fields in the early morning light.

Lipton's seat tea fields in sri lanka
LIPTON’S SEAT TEA FIELDS

Spend a little longer travelling by train on Sri Lanka’s most beautiful train rides.

Or for even more ideas on how to spend your time in Sri Lanka you can check out our ultimate two week guide!

Let us know how your 5 days in Sri Lanka went by leaving us a comment below!

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