Are you looking for a Sri Lanka travel guide? Then you’ve come to the right place! We spent our honeymoon in Sri Lanka and hope our tips for what to see, where to stay, and how to make the most of your time will help you plan your own adventure!
Sri Lanka has it all – you can be energetic and enjoy the golden beaches, wildlife safaris, frenetic city life, or ancient monuments and temples. Or you can slow down and take in the exquisite scenery, yoga retreats, and Ayurvedic treatments. We had just over two weeks which wasn’t enough to explore everything this beautiful country has to offer but we managed to squeeze in all of the above. You could easily flex this Sri Lanka travel guide to add or remove a few days depending on how long you plan to visit for.
Sri Lanka Travel Guide | Travelling to Sri Lanka
We flew with SriLankan Airlines as they operate the only direct flight from London to Colombo. It was slightly more pricy than flights with one stop in the Middle East or India, but we preferred the flight departure/arrival times as well as the non-stop 11 hour flight vs. minimum 15-17 hours with a stop. All cabins on the flight have a good entertainment system and flavourful food – a taste of what’s to come in Sri Lanka. The airline also operate a bidding system for business class upgrades which you can access after booking – if there are any seats available upon departure, these will go to the highest bidder.
Colombo කොළඹ (1 night)
The SriLankan Airlines flight lands into Bandaranaike International Airport at lunchtime. There’s enough time to check into your hotel and head straight out to explore the city. First, we checked out Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque, also known as the Red Mosque.
The mosque is in the Pettah Market area, so we were perfectly positioned to explore. The streets here buzz with frenetic energy – sellers shouting about their wares, tuk tuks darting through tiny gaps, men dragging ox carts laden with goods…
Sri Lanka Travel Guide | Where to stay in Colombo
The Shangri-La Colombo has exceptional service, and the food at their Chinese restaurant, Shang Palace is delicious. We ordered a main course each, only to be advised by the waiter to share one instead! It was huge. They also have a wine trolley that they wheel over to your table – need I say more?! Breakfast consists of everything you could possibly want to eat in the morning, and delightful chefs who excitedly share details about their local cuisine and how it’s best enjoyed. Skip the western breakfast and go local with the egg hoppers with dal and sambal – breakfast will never be the same again.
Kandy මහනුවර (4 nights)
Day 2 – 6:
We drove the three and a half hours from Colombo to Kandy, where the ancient kings of Sri Lanka used to live. Kandy is home to The Temple of the Tooth Relic. This UNESCO world heritage site is one of the most sacred places of worship in the Buddhist world as it houses one of the Buddha’s teeth. The tooth is kept on a two-story tall pedestal within an elaborate temple, and is exposed to worshippers and tourists three times a day. On Wednesdays the tooth is bathed in fragrant water which is then distributed amongst worshippers for its healing powers.
Once we’d had our fill of the ornate temple, we went for a walk around Kandy Lake and admired the Queen’s Bathing Pavilion and intricate cloud wall.
Sri Lanka Travel Guide | Where to stay in Kandy
From Kandy, we travelled an hour up into the mountains to the Santani Wellness Resort and Spa who literally take wellness to new heights. At 2,800m above sea level you can enjoy panoramic mountain views, a personalised menu where every meal is at least 3 courses of perfection, twice daily yoga, Ayurvedic treatments, river swims, and hiking. There’s barely any reason to leave! So…we didn’t. We spent four glorious nights switching off, and re-attuning to nature.
Santani was so peaceful and restorative that we cancelled our plans to spend a day exploring the some of the cultural sites, but for those of you who are keen to do it, here’s what you must see!
Cultural Triangle Day Trip
Kandy sits at the Southern most tip of the cultural triangle with many ancient sites up to 3 hours further North. We planned to do a day trip from Santani to visit the rock fortress of Sigiriya and the ancient cave temples at Dambulla. I heard that there are crowds at Sigiriya no matter what time of day you go, even early in the morning, so don’t worry too much about getting up at the crack of dawn. If you want a more solitary experience and don’t mind not climbing up Sigiriya, head to nearby Pidurangala Rock where you can get exquisite views of Sigiriya minus the crowds.
Sri Lanka Travel Guide | Where to stay in the Cultural Triangle
If you’d like to add in a stay in the Cultural Triangle, you can take two days off the end of this itinerary and add them in here! I would definitely do this. I originally planned to book either the beautiful Jetwing Vil Uyana or the overwater Kumbuk chalet at the Kalundewa Retreat. There are so many cultural delights in the area, so if you’re staying over why not also look into visiting Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Yapahuwa, and Aukana.
Wellawaya වැල්ලවාය (2 nights)
Day 6 – 8:
From Santani, we set off early after our sunrise yoga and breakfast of egg hoppers towards Wellawaya, stopping off in Nuwara Eliya to see the tea plantations, and Ella for that bridge.
As we climbed higher into the mountains of Nuwara Eliya, we were entranced by the views of tea plants clinging to hillsides. Ladies meandered along the rows of tea bushes, precisely flinging freshly-picked leaves into woven baskets on their backs. We stopped the car by the side of the road at the Hellbodde tea plantation and climbed up the steep steps for a look. I have no idea whether they have a factory or shop that you can visit as we just wandered through! We have already been to a tea factory in the Seychelles so skipped that part but if you haven’t seen how tea goes from plant to cup, it’s totally worth doing! Try Mackwoods or Bluefield tea factories. After saying farewell to our new tea picking friends who were so friendly and showed us how they work the fields, we continued on our way to Ella.
The famous Nine Arch Bridge in Ella completed in 1921 is an amazing example of colonial railway construction in Sri Lanka. The 300ft bridge is surrounded by tall palms and tea plants. Check the train timetable with your hotel to see when a train will pass over the bridge – it’s quite a spectacular sight! We weren’t expecting a train but a late one graced us with its presence – which made it extra special.
The next day we drove to Diyaluma Falls to swim in the rock pools at the top of Sri Lanka’s 2nd tallest waterfall! Avoid the busier Ella Ravana Falls and go here instead. It’s a 1hr hike to the top and we were armed with mosquito repellant and lots of water. Your driver or any local taxi will be able to drop you at the right place. From the road it’s a 2.5km trek uphill to the Falls but you can pay a tuk tuk to take you 1km closer on a track that isn’t suitable for cars. The hiking route is quite straightforward, especially if you have maps on your phone but there are also guides around who will offer to show you the way for a small fee.
The hike is steep but the views are incredible, and swimming in the icy-cool water, fresh from the mountains makes it all worthwhile!
If you do go here please be SO CAREFUL. There are no barriers, the ground can be deceptively slippery – even on dry patches, and in places there is a current in the rock pools that threatens to push you over the edge (which intensifies depending on time of year/how much rainfall there has been). People have died here so just be sensible…
If you’re going to climb Little Adam’s Peak, you start from Ella. We were going to do this but were tired from running around the Nine Arch Bridge and hiking Diyaluma Falls the previous day.
Sri Lanka Travel Guide | Where to stay in Wellawaya
We stayed at the Jetwing Kaduruketha, a sustainable, eco-luxury resort nestled in the midst of lush paddy fields at the foothills of the southern mountains. All the rice you eat at this hotel has been grown right there! This hotel is conveniently placed for Ella and Nuwara Eliya, and en route to our next stop Yala. Having visited Ella, I found it to be too touristy and in places inauthentic, so I’m glad we didn’t stay there. It had a bit of a Thai island backpacker vibe with cheesy cafes and restaurants catering to westerners – Starbeans Coffee or fish and chips anyone? 🙄 The Jetwing has a spice garden, butterfly garden, and a gorgeous pool that you can have breakfast in! There’s also all kinds of wildlife like wild peacocks, monitor lizards, monkeys, and the occasional elephant passing through the paddy fields.
Yala National Park යාල (3 nights)
Day 8 – 11:
The gorgeous Yala National Park is the second largest but most visited national park in Sri Lanka. With the Indian Ocean on one side and jungle on the other, it has stunning scenery, and the highest density of leopards in the world! As well as leopards you could spot elephants, sloth bears, monkeys, lizards, wild boar, peacocks, buffalo, and crocodiles to name a few. Yala is closed in September and October.
Don’t forget to stop off at Buduruwagala Rock Temple when you leave Wellawaya to see the amazing stone carvings dating back to the 10th century.
Where to stay in Yala
We stayed at Relais & Chateaux’s Wild Coast Tented Lodge which was exquisite. Positioned between the beach and the jungle, there were no barriers between the hotel and National Park so animals routinely strolled through! An elephant named Short-tail made an appearance, we got surrounded by a herd of buffalo and their little ones on the beach, and I went for a walk with a band of about 100 playful grey langur monkeys! You weren’t even allowed to walk to the restaurant after sunset without phoning for an escort in case there were rogue animals about! It all added to the adventure.
The architecture blended so well into the landscape and the environment felt completely wild allowing you to feel connected to nature in such a pure way which was bliss. I’m not sure what I loved most – the immaculate cocoon shaped rooms next to a watering hole, the decor, the food and drinks, or the warm and attentive service. This was my favourite hotel in Sri Lanka.
Weligama වැලිගම (2 nights)
Day 11 – 13:
After all the excitement of mountains, safaris, hikes, and ancient monuments we felt some downtime was well deserved and headed to a beachy haven on the south coast to unwind.
Where to stay in Weligama / Where to stay in Mirissa
We stayed at Relais & Chateaux’s Cape Weligama. Our Premier Ocean Villa had a “semi-private” infinity pool which was shared with one other villa but we had it to ourselves the whole time – yay! Inside there was a dreamy bathtub and steam room, and board games to keep us occupied (how did they know we love scrabble?). Despite how incredibly beautiful this hotel was, it was our least favourite of everywhere we stayed, which surprised us! I’ll write a full review soon explaining why…
After we checked out of Cape Weligama, we spent some time wandering around nearby Mirissa. A top spot for surfers, there are surfboard rental stands lining the beaches.
Don’t miss the beautiful hill of palm trees that juts out into the ocean near Sunset Beach Bar (just off Coconut Tree Hill Road), and the pretty street art around town.
Balapitiya බලපිටිය (4 nights)
Day 13 – 17:
Next we checked into a secluded jungle hideaway set on the banks of the Madhu Ganga river. You can go on boat trips along the river and glide through mangrove tunnels to explore the dozens of islands. There’s one which houses an elaborate Buddhist temple and another where they enterprisingly grow cinnamon. There’s also lots of wildlife to be seen on these ‘river safaris’ – brightly coloured Blue Blubber Jellyfish, all sorts of birds including Kingfishers, Cormorants (as seen diving for fish with Orca whales on David Attenborough’s Blue Planet), Sea Eagles, crocodiles, water monitors (big swimming lizards), and monkeys.
Where to stay in Balapitiya
We stayed at The River House – an intimate retreat with 5 rooms set in 13 acres of lush gardens. We tried two rooms while we were there – the spacious Gin suite complete with outdoor jacuzzi and private garden, and the Menik suite with its balcony and plunge pool overlooking the river. It’s hard to describe this place – oversized rooms furnished with antiques, personal service and barely seeing another guest made it feel like you’d stepped back in time and were staying at a relative’s very smart home rather than a hotel.
Galle Day Trip
You must visit Galle Fort! First built by the Portuguese in 1588 and fortified by the Dutch in the 17th century, it’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a mix of stunning architecture, trendy hotels, religious buildings, shops selling souvenirs and gemstones, restaurants, and crumbling buildings full of character. It’s not huge so just walk up and down every street to take it all in. Don’t miss the iconic lighthouse and the ramparts.
The Fort Bazaar hotel is excellent for lunch before wandering the shops full of Sri Lanka’s famous gems for a souvenir.
Beruwala Fish Market Morning Trip
If you want to see how some of the locals live and shop, head to Beruwala Fish Market before sunrise. You can watch the fishermen, many who’ve been at sea for months without a break, unloading their catch onto the dock. There are countless fish brought up from the boats’ cavernous cold storage areas including blue marlin, yellowfin tuna and sharks! The catch is laid out on the dock, so you have to be careful not to step on any merch!
It’s fun to watch the locals bartering and trying to carry their huge purchases around. Once the fish has been bought people take it to the chop shop. Here you can see huge tuna being chopped up, and take in the sights and sounds of a working Sri Lankan fish market. The locals are so friendly and are keen to show off what they have caught. People will lift up a Blue Marlin to show you its amazing concertina dorsal fin, and hold up their prized fish to pose for a picture if they see a camera. There weren’t other tourists there as most go to the market in Negombo so it’s a really authentic experience. Many of the islands hotels and restaurants select their fish from here.
Sri Lanka Travel Guide | Tips
Currency & Connectivity
- The currency is the Sri Lankan Rupee. Currency can be exchanged in the airport arrivals area – not in advance of travel. Just take any strong currency with you e.g. GBP, USD, EUR and use one of the currency exchange desks. Alternatively, there are ATMs in the arrivals hall where you can use your bank card to withdraw local currency which is what we did.
- Many places such as hotels, supermarkets, shops and restaurants will accept credit cards. Otherwise, there are ATMs all over the island (you’ll need to double check remote areas) where you can draw out additional funds if needed.
- You can buy a SIM card with data in the airport arrivals area. It’s so helpful to be connected and be able to use google maps, make plans on the fly, or just contact people such as your hotels or driver. It also allowed us to WhatsApp our butler at a couple of the hotels which was so indulgent 🙂
- Take a supply of 50% DEET to avoid mosquito bites. Dengue Fever and Japanese Encephalitis are present here. We took three bottles of Jungle Formula Maximum 50% spray (avoid the aerosol spray though, you’ll inhale half of it). We also took a plug in mosquito repellant and coils if we wanted to sit outdoors in the evening. Mosquitos are most active at dusk and dawn, but the dengue mosquito also bites during the day – little buggers.
- Rabies is endemic in Sri Lanka so avoid contact with any wild animals, monkeys, dogs and cats. If you’re bitten or scratched, go to the hospital for the rabies vaccine and immunoglobulin. For reference, animals with rabies don’t always act aggressive and froth at the mouth although that can happen too. They might show no symptoms, lose their fear of humans and be docile, or just act a bit strange.
- Make sure you pack something warm as hill country (around Nuwara Eliya) can get quite chilly in the evenings.
- You’ll need to cover your shoulders, arms and legs if you are visiting a Buddhist temple, so it’s worth dressing modestly or carrying a non see-through scarf with you if you’re planning such visits. Most tourist hot spots have enterprising chaps selling cover ups nearby if you forget yours though.
- You’ll need to remove your shoes at temples. It’s worth having a pair of little socks in your bag if you have sensitive feet as the ground at the temples can be baking hot.
- It’s considered disrespectful to take photos with statues of the Buddha, especially if you face your back to the statue.
Driving & Traffic
- There’s less traffic on weekends so if you can plan your longer road journeys on Saturdays and Sundays, it’ll be quicker.
- Get a driver, don’t drive yourself. The standard of driving is terrible and you will be exhausted trying to negotiate the constant overtaking, weaving cars, tuk tuks, ox carts, cows, dogs and scooters. The different ‘language’ they use on the roads with their beeps and flashing lights took us a while to understand… I’m still not sure I totally get it! If you’re looking for a driver in Sri Lanka, check out this post for the fantastic company we used.
- If you really want to drive yourself, you’ll need an international driving license (and balls of steel). Or you can apply for a temporary license from the Sri Lankan Department of Motor Transport.
We hope you have a great trip!