After travelling Sri Lanka for three weeks I have created a two week backpacking itinerary full of the highlights.
There is so much to see in Sri Lanka that it is hard to imagine cramming it all into two weeks. But sadly two weeks holiday is often all we can afford to take and making the most out of every day away is paramount. Before I went on this trip of a lifetime I spent hours trawling the internet for the best places to visit. I could justify going away for three weeks and I wanted to fill every minute of that with highlights.
As with every trip there were so many bits I would have done differently, some destinations I would have happily missed and others I wish I had explored for longer. I have therefore put together a two week itinerary so that you don’t have to make the same mistakes I did, and so that you can squeeze the most out of your limited amount of time away.
We flew into Columbo (Bandaranaike International Airport) and got a taxi straight to Sigiriya in Sri Lanka’s central province. The journey took about 4 hours and cost about £50 (with a lot of haggling!) It was a great way to take in the countryside and get a feel for the area and our driver enjoyed stopping for coconuts on the side of the road and pointing out local sights.
Tip: It may be worth looking into getting a driver for the whole of your trip. We decided against it in favour of cheaper local transport but on several occasions ended up taking more expensive taxis to save time or hassle.
The taxi pulled up next to a beautiful lake-in the middle of no where. One thing we discovered about Sri Lanka is that the people here can never do enough to help, and our driver made several phone calls on our behalf to find our accommodation.
We were warned that it was dangerous to walk around at night. But not for all the usual reasons. The locals were terrified of the elephants that roamed the area and although we would have loved a sighting, we were not in the mood to try and outrun a furious stampede. We used tuk tuks to get to and from the town after sunset (at an extortionate rate, because, you know, elephants!) In the day the walk was beautiful and one of the highlights of our time there.
Where to stay?
We stayed at this airbnb which was basic but with the most stunning view of Sigiriya Rock, and in the middle of no where! It might not be ideal for everyone, we did have a visit from a curious rat who made it through my canvas bag, through two plastic wrappers and into my cereal bar (I was a bit miffed he didn’t finish it, what a waste!) But we didn’t mind sharing our space with the locals one little bit! At night the outside was lit up by fireflies, and the owners warned us that people have sighted elephants in the garden, with strict instructions what to do if we saw them. There was also a family of peacocks living nearby. The owners booked tuk tuks for us on request.
Day 2-Sigiriya Rock and Polonnaruwa
Get up early. You’ll probably be out of whack from the time difference anyway to make the most of it! We headed out as soon as we thought it was light enough to avoid elephants! The sunrise over the nearby lake was stunning, and we were the only people around on the walk into town.
We chose to save money and walk to Sigiriya Rock. It was a long walk and I probably wouldn’t bother again -tuk tuks are cheap and plentiful!
Sigiriya or Lion Rock is an ancient rock fortress, nearly 200m high. It rises impressively out of the ground and is a widely used image of Sri Lanka. It is a UNESCO world heritage sight and a bit of a must see, but the entrance fee is pretty extortionate ($30) so think carefully before making the trip! If you are on a tight budget then read on for an equally impressive alternative.
We spent the morning here, walking the endless set of stairs, admiring the ruins and the beautiful view from the top and exploring the grounds below. One of the main attractions was the monkeys, of which we took way too many photos and laughed at way too many times.
In the afternoon we hailed a tuk tuk to Polonnaruwa. Polonnaruwa is Sri Lanka’s second most ancient site and it reminded me of a small scale Angkor Wat. You can get a bus there but on a limited time scale I would consider travelling by tuk tuk. It cost us around £10, for the hour journey there, back and several hours of taking us round the site. You can hire bikes once you are there but I was really thankful for the shade of the tuk tuk as it was screaming hot. Again, there was an expensive entrance fee ($30) and the ticket office was a little way away from the site entrance, so having a knowledgeable driver paid off!
This was an expensive day, probably the most we spent on the whole trip in terms of entrance fees, but I was happy to spend the money on such beautiful and unique places.
Day 3-Pidurangala hike and travel to Kandy
Another early morning I’m afraid! But this one is really worth it. Make sure you book a tuk tuk to pick you up about an hour before sunrise, pack a headtorch and a jumper and head to the entrance of Pidurangala rock. Pay the very small donation to the monks and then make your way up the (unmarked but easy to find) path to the top. It only take about 20 minutes to get up there and the path is well trodden until you reach the very top. Here there is some ‘climbing’ to be done. I read some people claiming it to be light scrambling but I think this is a little misleading!
Top tip: If you’re not bothered about sunrise, or you’re happy to wait around then you will have the peak pretty much to yourself!
After such an early start we had plenty of time to pack up, eat some lunch and find a tuk tuk to take us to Kandy, about 3 hours away.
Day 4 and 5-Knuckles Mountain Range Trek
We were desperate to get off the beaten track and love nothing better than exploring the countryside. We can thoroughly recommend the Knuckles Mountain Range trek and you can find out all about our experience in this in depth blog post.
Day 6-A long train journey and relaxing in Nuwara Eliya
We took the train early in the morning from Kandy’s bustling train station. It is excellently set up for tourists and we didn’t have any trouble finding what we needed. Just ask at your bnb for the train times and they should be able to help you out.
As I’m sure you have read, Sri Lanka’s train journeys are a must and you won’t be disappointed. The journeys here were a real highlight. We travelled on a local festival day, the trains were packed and we were squished into a cabin along with a huge group of bongo playing, Nirvana singing Sri Lanka boys and had a ball. If you’re not so keen on having your feet trodden on and your face in someones armpit then it might be best to double check you aren’t travelling at a particularly busy time. Booking a seat would also be a good option, especially for longer journeys.
Arriving in Nuwara Eliya instantly felt cooler, more relaxed and more like home. You can see why they call it little England. We had booked an air bnb here and enjoyed our stay, especially watching the lightning show from our balcony while eating take away pizza.
If you have a spare few hours before sundown then head to the public gardens (take a picnic!) It is beautifully manicured and a world away from Sri Lanka’s busy streets and markets.
Day 7-Tea factories, waterfalls and posh cocktails
We took in some local culture, ate lunch on top of a waterfall and enjoyed the luxury of The Grand Hotel all in one day.
Pedro Tea Estate is one of the main factories in Nuwara Eliya. We enjoyed the tour but it was a little rushed and very scripted so don’t expect to be able to ask many questions! The highlight was drinking tea on the balcony overlooking the estate, with the tea leaf pickers at work.
In the afternoon we got a little dressed up and headed to the Grand Hotel for cocktails. We considered the afternoon tea but thought it a little expensive, where as cocktails were very reasonably priced. We were forced inside by a dramatic rainstorm and were glad for it when we realised a pianist was playing live music in the lobby.
Day 8-Horton Plains and on to Ella
We arranged a car the day before to take us to Horton Plains national park. Luckily for us we didn’t need to set an alarm, because a national holiday meant that we were kept awake all night by drums,singing and a huge ‘tardis’ float complete with crazy flashing lights right outside our bnb (that was down a quiet residential street ages from the main road!?) We were pretty tired when the car pulled up at 5am (you’ll want to leave early as if you get there too late the views will be covered by clouds). To weigh up whether Horton Plains is something you want to do, check out my detailed post here.
If you decide not to go, treat yourself to a bit of a lie in and then head to the train station and continue the beautiful journey to Ella. This is a shorter trip and should only take a few hours, so you will have time to explore the little town of Ella when you arrive. We absolutely loved it here and used it as a chance to recharge our batteries a bit before continuing. We spent way too much in ‘Cafe Chill’ where they did the most amazing potato wedges (head upstairs and sprawl on beanbags after a day trekking).
After a relaxing lunch (this beautiful cafe is on the way!) you should head to Little Adam’s Peak. The walk isn’t too strenuous and you can choose how much of it to climb. There are several ‘peaks’ and you get amazing views from them all, so if you’re legs are aching from Horton Plains then don’t worry about cramming it all in! Afterwards visit the impressive 9 arch bridge, or save it for the morning if you want to get there early and try and beat the crowds! We were lucky enough to arrive right before a huge downpour, the crowds left and we waited it out, being left with a near empty bridge.
Where to stay
We loved our little hut room among the tea fields. It was very private and they bought you tea on the terrace. It was a little out of town so be prepared to walk quite a long way in the dark (maybe not the best choice for solo travellers). There are countless other choices to suit all needs. My sister raved about her stay here with mountain views and there are plenty of hotels nearer the town centre (though any on the main street may be a little noisy).
Day 9-Ella’s rock
Another day of hiking but it’s totally worth it for the views from the top. We walked along the railway lines until we reached the path to the top of Ella’s rock. There seemed to be a few different routes, but just keep heading up and the path becomes a bit more clear. This walk is quite strenuous so be prepared for some sweaty uphill walking! We bought a few coconuts at the bottom to celebrate reaching the top, and the refreshing juice was a nice energy boosting reward for our hard work!
If you wanted to cram in more excitement you could treat yourself to a massage or try out a cookery class. There are also lots of waterfalls in the area.
Day 10-Travel to Dalawella Beach
Sadly there are no trains from hill country to the coast so we were forced to hire a private car. It is possible to get buses but on a limited time scale we decided to suck up the cost and get there as quickly as possible. If we hadn’t been meeting up with family in Dalawella it would have made more sense to stay in Mirissa or Matara.
By leaving Ella early you can make it to the coast in time for a beach walk and sunset cocktails. If you manage to get to Dalawella you won’t be disappointed. Compared to other beaches we visited along the coast Dalawella was really quiet and not at all built up. We struggled a bit for different places to eat out as there were only a handful of bars and restaurants, but we loved the secluded feel we got here.
A HUGE bonus was being able to see turtles from the beach. You can see their shadows and their little heads popping up every day and you can walk in from the shore and swim with them. The sea is a little rough here and the waves can get quite big at certain times but there is an ideal shallow, sheltered part for kids, with some ok snorkelling around the rocky edges.
Where to stay
There was a large group of us so we rented a whole villa for a few nights. It was a short walk to the beach and was surrounded by cheeky monkeys playing in the trees-don’t leave your windows open!
Day 11-beach chill out
After several weeks of rushing around you may want a day or two to relax on the beach. If you’re still itching to explore here are some ideas:
Dive a wreck (Head to Unawatuna where there are numerous dive centres. We dove with who were excellent, especially for less experienced divers like me-I had my own instructor who kept me calm throughout!)
Spend the day exploring the pretty city of Galle
Visit a nearby beach
Visit a turtle conservation site. We didn’t, as we were lucky enough to spot a baby turtle making it’s way to the sea by moonlight. I have read positive and negative reviews of this experience and the ethical problems it poses, so do your research and pick a centre wisely!
Day 12-Whale watching
We couldn’t miss the opportunity to see blue whales in the wild, but we were also very cautious. I’d done a fair bit of research, wanting to know how ethically ‘ok’ it was. I’ve been lucky enough to have some amazing animal encounters on my travels but I’ve also been caught out a few times and I didn’t want to be funding bad practice. Read more here if you’re curious about our experience, and if you’re not but are planning on going, I would thoroughly recommend booking through Raja and the Whales.
Day 13-Chill out or back to Columbo
If you have an early flight the next day then sadly you’re time here may be up. I’m a nervous flyer (not the flight itself, but catching it on time, panicking about tickets and passports-yes, be thankful you will probably never have to catch a flight with me!) For this reason we headed to Negombo-not the most beautiful place in Sri Lanka but near to the airport and out of the bustling Columbo. You can catch a train to Columbo from Galle and stay there if you want a little taste of the capital, or you can get a bus or taxi to Negombo (in total around 5 hours, or more depending on whether you time the connections right!). A taxi will take a couple of hours so if you want to squeeze out more time on the beach playing with turtles this might be the best option. We treated ourselves to a (slightly) more expensive hotel, one last thing to look forward to before we left. We had a pool and a TV, and a hot shower! There is a pretty plain stretch of beach, but it’s nothing compared to where you’ve just come from!
Day 14-Travel to airport
If you stayed the night in Columbo then you’re about an hours bus ride away from the airport. Negombo is about a 15 minute taxi ride. Make sure you allow plenty of time to get through check in, especially at busier times of the year. The departure lounge is well set up with all the usual if you need food or drink before your flight.
What did I miss?
Got a few extra days and want to add on something extra or swap out something on here that doesn’t take your fancy? Here are some of the things we did on our trip that I have missed off the itinerary.
This strange little town has a certain rundown charm and we enjoyed exploring it because it was a bit more ‘real’ than some of the other towns we visited. We wouldn’t have wanted to stay more than a night or two as there wasn’t much to do. The real attraction was Lipton’s Seat. Take a tuk tuk to the top of the hill for sunrise and then do the walk down to the bottom, which takes a few hours. Walking through the misty tea fields in the morning light was beautiful, but you can have similar experiences elsewhere like Nuwara Eliya and Ella, so I didn’t include this stop on the itinerary.
If you have never been on safari and are desperate to see elephants in the wild then you might want to consider going here. There are plenty of herds of elephants around and your driver will be desperate to find them, so you are almost guaranteed a sighting. We really didn’t enjoy the experience, as it involves chasing the poor creatures around the park alongside countless other jeeps. After being stuck in a traffic jam of cars, trying to catch a glimpse of an elephant, we asked our driver to head off in the other direction away from the crowds (much to his disapproval). We saw some stunning birds and a wild cat in tree in the distance, but Udawalawe is a pain to get to and in my opinion not worth the trip.
If you’re not one for spending the day on the beach then I would definitely consider this as a day trip option while on the coast. This fort town is steeped in history and is a lovely place to spend a day wondering through. The little streets are full of interesting boutique shops and museums and there are plenty of inviting cafes to stop for lunch and refuel.