Sri Lanka is simply incredible. There’s no wonder they call it the “hidden treasure of Asia”. We cannot speak more highly about this country and it is now up there with one of our favourite countries in the world.
There is something for every type of traveller in Sri Lanka. There are mountains to hike, scenic trains to board, beaches to relax on, animals to spot, tea fields to admire, food to indulge in and most importantly the friendliest locals to engage with. It’s a country that has it all and it’s one of the most affordable we’ve been to so far.
How long do you need in Sri Lanka
In the hopes of helping you plan your trip to Sri Lanka, we want to share with you some general information about Sri Lanka, along with our 2-3 week itinerary including the places we went & how long we stayed. We felt 3 weeks was a good amount of time to explore the south of the country, but you could easily cut or add days in these places. We would not recommend any less than 12 days to see the best of Sri Lanka and even then, that would be extremely rushed.
What’s the best time to visit Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is close to the Equator which means that temperatures remain fairly constant year-round. However, it is recommended to visit between the months of December to April in order to avoid the south-west monsoon rains.
Visa Requirements for Sri Lanka
Unless you are a citizen of the Maldives, Singapore or Seychelles, you need a visa. The process is simple and easy. Apply online for an Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA, shown above) before you travel and your tourist visa is valid for 30 days with 2 entries allowed. It takes about 24 hours to process. For more details and applying for the visa, visit here.
How to get around Sri Lanka
The options are endless. Hired drivers (popular but the most expensive), taxi’s, shared vans, scooters, tuk-tuks, local buses and trains. If you take a taxi/tuk-tuk, don’t forget to negotiate prices before you jump in. For longer distances, ask around before settling on a price. We found the homestays gave the best prices vs the tourist offices.
See here for more detailed information about driving in Sri Lanka and here for detailed information on Sri Lanka’s train network. If you’re pressed for time, avoid the buses, they stop regularly, therefore, adding on extra travel time but they definitely give you the experience.
Top Tips for Sri Lanka
- A lot of places don’t take credit card so be prepared to carry a lot of cash around. Larger hotels and some restaurants will.
- Service is often very slow at bars and restaurants, be patient, they haven’t forgotten you.
- Always remove your shoes when you are entering a shop or someone’s home.
- Hire a scooter when you visit the coastal towns, it allows much more freedom to travel between places and works out to be cheaper than tuk-tuks.
- Avoid drinking tap water.
- Allow extra time for travel days, Google Maps is incorrect with driving distances.
- Don’t leave Sri Lanka with any leftover Sri Lankan Rupees. It is a closed currency that doesn’t allow you to change the money over once you’ve left the country nor can you obtain the currency prior to arrival.
Basic Costs in Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka, they use the rupee (LKR). As of now (mid 2017) 150 rupees = $1 USD.
Here is a brief rundown of basic costs. All prices are in USD. Our daily budget for 2 people including everything, was $80 USD but could easily be done under $50 if you avoid the western restaurants.
- Food – Food is affordable, including fresh seafood. If you eat locally, rice and curry can be as low as $1. Western food tends to be higher with an average $5 – $8 for a meal.
- Transport – Local trains and buses are the cheapest way to get around, however, they are also sometimes the slowest. Tuk-tuks are done on a negotiation basis and can be used for longer distances to reduce the cost of a taxi. Hiring a driver is usually $40-$50 USD for the day depending on the distance. Don’t forget, always negotiate! Scooter rentals are 800-1000 LKR ($7 USD).
- Activities – There are a lot of free activities to do in Sri Lanka and some jacked up tourist priced ones too. Certain tourist attractions like Worlds End Walk and Sigiriya are downright a rip off (3000 LKR/$20 USD). Cheaper attractions range from 250 LKR to 400 LKR ($1.60 USD – $3.50 USD).
- Accommodation – A basic room in a guest house is on average $15- $20 and often includes breakfast. The standards are much lower if you dip below $15 and dorm rooms are not very common. $20- $25 gets you A/C.
Our 3 Week Itinerary
As you can see we only covered a small portion of the country over 3 weeks and we did this at a moderate pace. You could cut days at certain places such as the coastal towns we stayed longer at. Sri Lanka still has so much to offer but below is our itinerary which mixes culture, the hills and the coast.
Note: This itinerary is a basic guide and can it be done in the reverse order. Here is a brief summary.
- NEGOMBO (where the airport is) – KANDY
- KANDY – NUWARA ELIYA
- NUWARA ELIYA- ELLA
- ELLA – TANGALLE
- TANGALLA – UDAWALAWE NATIONAL PARK
- UDAWALAWE NATIONAL PARK – MIRISSA
- MIRISSA – UNAWATUNA
- UNAWATUNA – GALLE
- GALLE – COLOMBO
- COLOMBO – AIRPORT
NEGOMBO (2 Nights / 2 Days)
Negombo is the closest city to the Colombo International Airport and is used by many as a transit stop for late or early departures/arrivals. We spent 2 days here getting accustomed to Sri Lanka. Watch the local fisherman early in the morning or enjoy the sunsets in the evening.
- Must Eat: Lords Restaurant Complex & Simply Strawberries
- Stay: Villa Hundaria (mid-range) OR Lakshmi Family Villa (budget)
- Read: 1-3 Days Transit in Negombo, Sri Lanka
To get from NEGOMBO to KANDY: By Private Driver, 6000 LKR/$40 USD
Alternatively, for a much cheaper option, you could take a bus to Colombo and then the train to Kandy.
KANDY (2 Nights / 2 Days)
First thing in the morning, hire a driver (usually through your homestay) and head towards Kandy. We recommend leaving as early as 6 am to beat some of the traffic. Kandy is a bustling city with a man-made lake as the centre of the city. It is best seen if you hire a tuk-tuk for the day and see the sights including the most famous Temple of the Tooth.
- Must Eat: Cool Corner Fried Ice cream Parlour
- Stay: Sweet Lanka Kandy (mid-range) OR Tea Heights (luxury)
- Read: The Top 10 Things to do in Kandy
To get from KANDY to NUWARA ELIYA: Local train: 120 LRK/ $0.80 USD
NUWARA ELIYA (3 Nights / 3 Days)
We took the morning train from Kandy (8:47 am) and headed towards Nuwara Eliya. Don’t be alarmed if you are told the train tickets are sold out in the days prior, just head to the station early in the morning (45 minutes – 1 hour before) and you can buy them there. This train journey is not to be missed in any Sri Lankan Itinerary!
Nuwara Eliya is a beautiful village, also known as “Little England”. Come here for the many opportunities to visit the amazing tea plantations/factories, enjoy high tea at the Grand Hotel and the hike World’s End Walk, a moderate hike to an 800m cliff. On a clear day, the ocean can be seen in the distance.
- Must Eat: Indian at the Grand Hotel
- Stay: Perera Home Stay (mid-range), The Train View Hotel (budget) OR Singha Sanasa Luxury Homestay (luxury)
- Read: The World’s Most Scenic Train Journey: Kandy – Ella
- Read: Surviving World’s End & Exploring Nuwara Eliya
To get from NUWARA ELIYA to ELLA: Local train. 120 LRK/ $0.80 USD
ELLA (2 Nights / 2 Days)
Getting to Ella was exciting in itself and this train journey was even more beautiful than the last train. Don’t forget to turn up before the scheduled departure to secure yourself a ticket. The town of Ella is small with a decent selection of restaurants and rooftop bars but the surrounding areas are what draws you to this village. It’s peaceful, green and much cooler than the coast! There are many great hikes to do such as Little Adam’s Peak and Ella’s Rock.
Ella was one of the only stops we had that we wished we could have stayed longer, maybe 1-2 days more. The weather wasn’t on our side 🙁
Note: The train leaving Nuwara Eliya at 9:30 am is a 3rd class train. It takes 4 hours and is very, very old! The train after at 12:45 pm is much more comfortable and takes only 2.5 hours.
- Must Eat: Matey Hut (Make sure you do their cooking class too!)
- Stay: The Chillout Ella (budget) OR The One Ella (mid-range)
- Read: Ella Travel Guide For Backpackers, Sri Lanka
To get from ELLA to TANGALLE: Private Driver, 7000 LKR/$46 USD
Note: Rather going straight from Ella to Tangalle, consider stopping at Yala or Udawalawe National Park for a safari. More info on that below.
TANGALLE (4 Nights / 5 Days)
Tangalle is a quiet coastal town that was damaged terribly by the 2004 tsunami. Although it is slowly rebuilding itself, it is not as commonly visited as Sri Lanka’s other beach towns such as Mirissa or Unawatuna, but this is what drew us in. Tangalle is a great stop for a relaxing, quiet beach holiday on a very long sandy beach. There are many great bays and beaches to explore surrounding Tangalle so rent a scooter and see for yourself!
Consider spending a night or two at Hiriketiya Beach (20 minutes from Tangalle). It was beautiful, perfect for beginner surfers & had the nicest water of all the beaches.
- Must Eat: The Lounge (BEST seafood)
- Stay: Coco Beach Villa (mid-range) OR Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle Resort (luxury)
- Read: Tangalle by Scooter – The Best Beaches to Visit
To get from TANGALLE to UDAWALAWE NATIONAL PARK: Private Driver 4000 LRK/$26 USD
UDAWALAWE NATIONAL PARK (1/2 Day Morning Safari Drive)
After a few relaxing beach days, we left Tangalle at 4:45 am and headed towards Udawalawe National Park. This particular park is well known for having the largest amount of elephants in Sri Lanka, as well as water buffalos and a large variety of birds. Leopards are few and far between and you would have to be extremely lucky to see one, especially on only one morning drive. Safari drives are done at 6:30-9:00 am and 3:30 – 6:00 pm.
We chose to do this last minute, therefore, we backtracked a little. If you want to visit the National Parks either Udawalawe or Yala, we recommend going directly after Ella, before you hit the south coast.
Entry to the park is 3500 LKR/ $23 USD each and a jeep costs 3500 LKR/$23 USD total. The more people you have, the cheaper it is.
To get from UDAWALAWE NATIONAL PARK to MIRISSA: Private driver (same driver as above) 3000 LRK/$20 USD
MIRISSA (5 Nights / 5 days)
Our driver waited for us to finish our safari and we continued on to the coastal town of Mirissa. The beach was one of the cleanest, the restaurants plentiful and the chilled atmosphere here was different, in a good way. Be sure to take a whale watching cruise if you’re here in the season (November to April / May), take surfing lessons or rent a scooter and explore the beaches surrounding Mirissa. We could have spent ages beach bumming our way around this town. It was definitely our favourite.
- Must Eat: No 1 Dewmini Roti Shop & Coco Loco
- Stay: Dream Palace Family Guest House (budget) OR Maison D’hotes Sanda Beach (mid-range)
- Read: 6 Reasons Why You’ll Love Mirissa, Sri Lanka
To get from MIRISSA to UNAWATUNA: Public Bus, 60 LKR $0.40 USD
UNAWATUNA (5 nights / 4 Days)
Taking the public bus was cheap and extremely easy. All we had to do was walk out the front of our hotel and the bus stopped every 10 minutes. It cost close to nothing for the 45-minute journey to Unawatuna.
We used Unawatuna as a base to explore it’s surrounding areas such as Dalawella Beach, Talpe and Koggala (where the stilt fishing takes place).
Unawatuna is the busiest, most developed of the coastal towns and not necessarily in a good way. As soon as we arrived we felt the difference immediately. Not only that, it’s very touristic and lacks the real Sri Lankan vibe & hospitality we had received everywhere else we went. Within the space of 10 minutes, people tried to rip us off massively, something we hadn’t experienced once so far in Sri Lanka. Looking back, we would avoid basing ourselves at Unawatuna and stay at Dalawella Beach or Talpe instead.
The beach itself is quite large with plenty of sand. There are lots of restaurants, bars and beach chairs laid out, snorkelling trips to take and water sports. To us, this had a similar touristy vibe to that of Phuket in Thailand. Not our cup of tea. The nearby Dalawella Beach is a must visit, especially for the ‘insta-famous’ swing, it’s located in front of Dream Cabanas.
- Must Eat: Bedspace Kitchen & Hop stars
- Read: 12 Top Foods & Dishes you MUST try in Sri Lanka.
To get from UNAWATUNA to GALLE: Rent a Scooter for the day 800 LRK $5 USD)
GALLE (1 Day)
Galle, located 6km from Unawatuna is the capital of the Southern Province and has a heavy Dutch influence. We hired a scooter for the day (you can also take the bus) and headed there for the afternoon from Unawatuna. During the day the temperatures are hot and are best spent at one of the beaches.
The old part of Galle is known as the Galle Fort and is surrounded by a big city wall. Originally built in 1663 by the Dutch, the streets are colourful with lots of boutique stores, courtyards and a magnitude of restaurants, however, they are considerably more expensive (x2) than any other town we visited. To finish off the day in Galle, take a stroll along the wall during sunset. It’s beautiful!
Must Eat: Chambers Restaurant & Poonie’s Kitchen
To get from GALLE to COLOMBO: Local train (120 LKR / $1) or Taxi (7000 LRK / $47) or bus but you’ll have to change 2 or 3 times depending on where your accommodation is.
COLOMBO (1 Night / 1 Day)
Colombo was the last stop on our 3 weeks through Sri Lanka and we were extremely disappointed we had to leave! Unfortunately, we were in Colombo during the Sri Lankan New Year and almost everything was shut. The streets were considerably quieter than we had prepared ourselves for and it was difficult to get the real vibe of the city. Instead, we went on the search for a Vegetable Roti to have ‘one last one’. If you’ve read prior posts, you’ll understand the love we have for these 🙂
From what we did see, it isn’t a must visit when visiting Sri Lanka. We wouldn’t recommend more than 1 night/1 day. Use your time in one of the above towns instead 🙂
Must Eat: Not very local of us, but considering everything was closed we were limited with our options. If you feel like a buffet, head to ‘The Kingsbury’ for lunch/dinner. One of the nicest buffets we’ve ever had and only 3000 LKR ($20 USD)!
- Read: One day in Colombo
What would we have done differently?
- Stayed in Ella 2 extra days + done a cooking class at Matey Hut
- Stopped in Yala/Udawalwe National Park on the way to Tangalle from Ella as opposed to after.
- Based ourselves in Dalawella Beach / Talpe instead of Unawatuna.
- Spent a few nights at Hiriketiya Beach (see our Tangalle by Scooter for reference).
- Taken more public buses, but it was just SO hot.
What else could you add in?
There’s never enough time to do everything but should you have longer or have other interests, here are a few things we didn’t get around to doing.
- Sigiriya Rock (shown above)
- Hike Adam’s Peak (Hatton)
- Yala National Park (Largest amount of Leopards in Sri Lanka)
- Hikkaduwa Beach (North of Galle, turtles, busy & touristic)
We left Sri Lanka after our 3 weeks with not only sun-bleached hair, tanned skin, mosquito bites and curry bellies but with a whole new love for a country that originally, we knew very little about.
If you’re considering Sri Lanka for your next holiday destination, stop thinking and start doing! Whilst you’re at it… why not visit the Maldives for a little piece of heaven, just a 1-hour flight from Sri Lanka. See our experience of the Maldives. I’m sure it won’t take long to book that flight.
Married Days Survived; 766