Sri Lanka

Seeing the Best of Sri Lanka in 12 Days

When Marco Polo first visited Sri Lanka back in the fourteenth century he said it was “undoubtedly the finest island in the world.”
I agree wholeheartedly.

100 miles north of the equator, Sri Lanka is a tropical paradise that’s home to endless beaches, welcoming locals, ancient temples, gorgeous train rides, lush tea plantations, tasty food, and small island charm.

Predominately a Buddhist country, it’s becoming a busy and popular tourist destination- for good reason.

It’s an island, rich in culture and jaw dropping nature. There’s a reason Lonely Planet dubbed it the top place to visit in 2019.

The two weeks I spent in Lanka didn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what the country has to offer.

It’s truly a destination with everything that makes a holiday great, and worthy of being at the tippy top of your travel list.

An Itinerary to Hit Sri Lanka’s Best Bits in Less than Two Weeks

This itinerary is the one I followed, sans a few extra work days in Colombo. It can easily be reversed, but I found fewer crowds, at the time of year I visited, than if I’d done the route in reverse (especially on trains).

Mostly, I moved on from place to place when I felt I’d accomplished what I came there to see and do. I didn’t spend as much time on the south coast as I’d originally planned because of near-constant rain.

As always, you can flex days up or down, pending what you’re interested in and like to do while on holiday.

Day 1: Arrive in Colombo
Day 2: Explore Colombo
Day 3: Travel to Galle by train early morning (2-3 hours), spend day exploring Galle, travel to Unawatuna early evening (10-15 minute tuk tuk ride)
Day 4: Unawatuna, travel to Mirissa at night (30-45 minutes)
Day 5: Mirissa
Day 6: Morning in Mirissa; travel to Ella by private car in afternoon (5-6 hours)
Day 7: Ella
Day 8: Early morning train to Nuwara Eliya (2-3 hours), explore Nuwara Eliya
Day 9: Mid-morning train to Kandy (3.5-4 hours), afternoon in Kandy
Day 10: Kandy
Day 11: Kandy in the am, travel to Habarana in afternoon
Day 12: Habarana
Day 13: Travel to Negombo in morning, late night flight departing Sri Lanka

How to Get Around Lanka

I found planning a trip for Lanka tougher than anywhere else in SE Asia.

Largely because, unless you’re going to hire a private driver for each day (which was cost prohibitive to me as a solo traveler), it’s not an easy country to get around.

Public transit connects some, but not all places. And, sometimes, it takes really long to get from place to place- several times over the time it’d take to drive direct.

In the end, I ended up taking public transit a few times- only trains and a bus once- and hired a city to city driver three times to help me get to places where public transit wasn’t available, or took 2-3+ transfers to reach.

Why is Lanka a bit harder to get around than its Asian counterparts?

It’s because tourism is still relatively new to the island. And, despite the hype around it as a tourist destination, locals, businesses and the government are still getting used to the influx of foreigners.

Common ways to get around Sri Lanka:

  • Hire a private driver to accompany you each day: This is great for a group, especially if you’re short on time, but not ideal if you’re on a budget, and either traveling alone or with one other person. Why? Drivers normally charge upwards of $60-80 USD a day- sometimes more if they have to spend the night and cover meals while driving you around
  • Hire a driver to take you city to city, where public transit isn’t as prevalent, or takes a very long time with multiple transfers required. I used Sri Lanka Car & Driver Hire (beingdom@gmail.com), and would recommend them. Loved their online form to help plan a journey, or get a cost estimate city to city. I’d also join their Facebook Group- you may find people who are looking for a private ride on the same day to the same place and be able to share cost. I hired a driver for these legs of my journey:
    • Mirissa – Ella: $60 USD, including travel time to a beach, and driver waiting time for 1 hour
    • Kandy – Habarana: $35 USD
    • Habarana – Airport: $30 USD, including travel to a hike, and driver waiting time for 2 hours
    • You could also have your hotel arrange drivers, and may be able to negotiate discounts this way. I stayed at hostels for the most part, so I needed to figure out my own transit
  • Enjoy stunning views from some of Sri Lanka’s best train routes: There are three main train lines, connecting mostly the central and southern part of the country. I took trains for-
    • Colombo – Galle: Under $2 USD for second class tickets
    • Ella – Nuwara Eliya: Under $3 USD for second class, reserved tickets
    • Nuwara Eliya – Kandy: Under $4 USD for second class, reserved tickets
      • On local trains, you won’t be able to reserve seats. But, on longer journeys, you have the option of reserving a seat, which I always did. Even though I stood for a lot of the Ella – Kandy train ride, it was so nice having my own seat, and window to gaze out of
      • To reserve tickets, you can use 12GoAsia if you book far in advance, but expect to pay a small admin fee on top of the ticket cost, OR you can rock up to the station day of, as I did, and reserve before your train (come early in peak season)
      • Need help understanding Sri Lankan trains? Google your question- there are tons of blogs with details on how to navigate stations, where to stand on platforms, etc. I didn’t find the train system complicated, and had no issue finding a station employee if I ever needed reassurance on which platform I should wait at
      • And, if you’re taking trains around Lanka, build some flex into your schedule. The trains are notorious for showing up late/running behind. I didn’t experience major delays, but I’ve heard they’re common
  • Take Uber or PickMe tuk tuks: Great for getting around cities, most of my rides were under $1-3 USD. I also used Uber to get from the airport to Colombo on my first day
  • Roll the dice with Sri Lanka’s bus system: I didn’t look into the bus system much, but have heard city to city, timetables can be unreliable / don’t really exist- the bus comes when it comes. It’s cheap to use, but best if you’re super flexible with timings
  • Rent your own tuk tuk: I originally planned on doing this, such a fun adventurous way to travel. While I was worried about driving by myself, and driver’s fatigue, ultimately, it was the cost that prohibited me from renting one- it was over $250-300 all-in for the total term rental, driver’s license fee, and charge for someone to drive the tuk tuk from Ella to Kandy so I could take the famed train. If there’s 2-3 of you, or you’re not fussed with taking the Ella – Kandy train, then renting your own tuk tuk could be a cheaper, fun way to see the country

What to See & Do in Each Itinerary Stop

Colombo

With a population for 5.6 million people, Colombo is a big, cosmopolitan city, experiencing a building boom.

It’s divided into 13 districts, and is the most ethnically mixed place in Sri Lanka with Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Buddhists.

You’ll notice an array of modern life and old colonial buildings, a reminder of when it served as the capital of British Ceylon.

Most people say to skip Colombo or spend a day here, but truthfully, I really enjoyed the upmarket cafes in Colombo, and liked sightseeing around the city, so I’d encourage you to spend a bit more time here and give the city a chance. It may not have obvious grandeur like many capitals around the world, but I think the charm to it actually lies in that.

KEY SIGHTS

  • Hit up the Saturday Market: Happening every week from 9-5 in the Nuga Tree Car Park behind the Ministry of Sports, the market is a hodgepodge of local businesses selling handicrafts, goods and treats. I sampled excellent Ceylon tea here, and savoured a soursop smoothie
  • See the Jamiul Alfar Mosque: A gorgeous red and white facade, worthy of stopping to admire in Old Town
  • Stroll the Federation of Self Employees Market: Keep to the side, so as not to disrupt market activities. Here, you’ll see local traders in all their glory- touting sacks of potatoes, moving large quantities of vegetables and spices, and hawking fruit
  • Wander Pettah, one of Colombo’s oldest districts. It’s a bit mad (read: chaotic), comparable to small, Indian cities
  • Visit two of Colombo’s best temples, Sri Kailawasanathan Swami Devasthanam Kovil​ and Guanarama
    • Sri Kailawasanathan: At Colombo’s oldest Hindu temple, you’ll see a stunning South-Indian inspired facade, with beautiful and bright paintings. Don’t forget to look up, at the ceiling
    • Guanarama: This Buddhist temple complex consists of several buildings, filled with devotional items people have sent to honour Buddha from around the world, some of which are a bit strange. The temple also houses relics of Buddha’s hair, and what seems like endless Buddha statues in stone, plastic and gold
  • Things I didn’t have a chance to see or do:
    • St. Peter’s Church
    • The National Museum
    • Beira Lake
    • The Lotus Tower (not yet open)

WHERE TO EAT & DRINK

  • Black Cafe Cafe: Everything I ate and drank here was exceptional. In particular, the vegan burger and cinnamon mangosteen tea were ace. And, this was the best flat white & latte I had in Sri Lanka
  • Cafe Kumbak: A beautiful, locally run upmarket cafe. Enjoyed an omelet in the garden here, served with Sri Lankan spices and curries
  • Tacocat: Attached to Black Cat, this new taco shop turns out amazing vegetarian tacos (get the jackfruit)
  • Caramel Pumpkin: A cafe popular with locals, perfect for a cake and coffee mid-afternoon pick-me-up
  • Milk & Honey Cafe: Bookstore meets cafe with lovely, fresh juices
  • Tea Avenue: An endless array of tea, don’t miss trying the soursop green tea
  • Plus Nine Four: A bit further south in the city, but easy to reach by tuk tuk, Plus Nine Four does a great avo toast, and excellent iced coffee

ACCOMMODATION RECOMMENDATION

Black Cat, a trendy cafe, is known for being a digital nomad favourite to work or stay because of its reliable WiFi. I stayed at Black Cat B&B because I needed fast internet for work.

My room here was expensive, by Sri Lankan standards, at $30 USD a night, but worth it for the reassurance I’d have working WiFi. And, I loved being above a cafe with great coffee, juices and food options. It made focusing during the days I blocked for work much easier, knowing, I could run downstairs to grab food or a drink, and get back to it.

The bed was comfortable, air-con was strong, and room very clean overall. Also appreciated the lounge spaces around the upper floor of the b&b, and the beautiful balcony.

Galle

A historic town with Dutch-colonial buildings, ancient mosques, stunning churches and winding streets, Galle doesn’t look like anywhere else in Sri Lanka.

Built by the Dutch in the 1600s, historic Galle is located inside a fort. The town itself is surrounded by high walls and ocean waves.

I only gave myself a half day to explore here, but wish I’d had more time.

Pro-tip: If you’re taking the train, you can store your luggage at the Galle Station in the parcel office for under $2 USD until 5 pm. It’s not an advertised service, but if you walk in with a suitcase, they’ll know what’s up and prep a ticket for you.

KEY SIGHTS

  • Wander the historic, old town 
  • Visit the local fruit market: It’s near the next location on this list, Stylo Tailors
  • See the only building in Galle that survived the 2006 Boxing Day tsunami: It’s a beautiful building and truly stands out among the new builds in the area (enter Stylo Tailors & Textiles into Google Maps to find it. It’s a 10 minute walk from the train station, and a good idea to visit before you head into the old town
  • Walk atop Galle fort: Don’t miss the lighthouse or clock tower on your stroll

WHERE TO EAT & DRINK

  • Poonie’s Kitchen: To find Poonie’s kitchen, you’ve got to walk through a shop located on Pedlar street, which will bring you to a courtyard with blue walls, lush greenery, and a pool filled with fish. This is the place for refreshing coconuts and healthy eats
  • Church Street Social: Part of the Galle Fort Hotel, this cafe is gorgeous- in both design and dishes. I enjoyed an iced coffee here, while waiting out a downpour
  • The Heritage Cafe: Good for a bite to eat, especially if you’re looking for Western options
  • Isle of Gelato: Excellent gelato in the old town, usually serving traditional flavours, as well as a few inspired by Sri Lanka fruits

Unawatuna

A little beachside town, full of amazing places to eat, boutique stores to shop, and breathtaking beaches.

Also, that swing you see everywhere on Instagram- which, I’ll admit swayed me to make a stop here.

KEY SIGHTS

  • Lounge on the beaches if you have good weather, sunrise and sunset are particularly beautiful times to visit
  • Head to Dallawella Beach for that Instagram famous rope swing. You’ll find it next to Dream Cabanas. Expect to pay 500 rupees for unlimited swings until sunset if you want to give it a go

WHERE TO EAT & DRINK

  • SkinnyTom’s: The move for a great Sri Lankan breakfast in an upmarket deli. Think: Artisanal coffee and traditional hoppers with curries
    • Nomad friends, they also offer up to two hours of free wifi, and have a lush garden space to work from
  • The Hideout: After walking the main road up and down, I was going to pop into a vegetarian friendly local cafe when I spotted a taco restaurant overlooking the street. Y’all, the plantain chips and guac, and tacos here are amazing

ACCOMMODATION RECOMMENDATION

It should go without saying beach towns are some of Lanka’s most expensive accommodation, even at a budget level.

I stayed at OYO 295 for $20 a night- big, clean rooms, mosquito netting, strong air-conditioning, brilliant porch for chilling. My only complaint is how they do WiFi- they limit it to 300 MB per guest, which is hardly enough to do much of anything.

Mirissa

Clean, beautiful beaches. Tons of water sports and activities, including the chance to dive or go whale watching.

There are also tons of delicious restaurants in Mirissa, and even cafes to rival those of Bali.

Also, that palm tree overlook you’ve likely seen on the gram.

KEY SIGHTS

  • Admire the view at Coconut Tree Hill: One of the most picturesque spots in Sri Lanka, you’ll find the hill just out of town centre. You can walk (15-20 minutes, pending where you start from), or take a tuk tuk to the base. There are two ways to access the hill, from a dirt path/the oceanfront, in which you’ll scramble up a steep hill, or from a pathway behind a nursery and temple. The former is easier to find on your first time there, so I opted to go up that way. On the way down, instead of sliding down the hill, I walked across the top, through a field, and passed the temple/nursery to reach the main road that runs back to town. From here, you can walk back (20-30 minutes), or just hail a tuk tuk that’s passing by. Go early if you want to sit atop the hill in serenity and without the company of dozens of travellers (before 8:30/9 am)
  • Indulge at Secret Root Spa: I waited too long to book here, but have heard they do insane spa treatments at an affordable rate
  • Scope out the street art: Just wandering Mirissa, you’ll see tons of murals. One of the most famous ones, the peacock mural, is located on a wall by Mirissa Dive Academy
  • Lounge on the main beach: Sit on the sand, sip a coconut, take surf lessons, whatever sounds good
  • Hike to a Secret Beach: Admittedly not so secret anymore, I had a driver bring me to the entry point to the walk up through a residential street. After a few minutes, you’ll reach the top and see signs for the beach, leading you through a jungle path. This is a shortcut, and pretty easy to hike down/up. Alternatively, you could continue taking the road the whole way around. However you get there, the beach views are worth it- it’s incredible. I went around 10:30 am, and was delighted to find there weren’t too many people around yet, but I’ve heard it can be quite busy as the day goes on. There were no bars/restaurants here when I visited, so bring your own drinks/food- but, I did notice one being constructed so I’m sure this spot will only get busier with time
  • While the afternoon away at The Doctor’s House: The place to be if you’re looking for a rocking street party

WHERE TO EAT & DRINK

  • Dewmini Roti Shop: Once a small roadside stand, popular with locals, Dewmini became a tiny restaurant with the help of a few expats. Tucked down a backroad and off a dim alleyway, you’ll find some of the best kottu and roti in Sri Lanka
  • Wood Space: Rustic, jungle smoothie hut chic. This place is perfect, they even have decks of playing cards handy
  • Shady Lane: People rave about Shady Lane, and for good reason- it’s a small shop, turning out great smoothie bowls, toasts, coffee drinks and cold coconuts
  • Palms Coffee: The spot for great coffee in Mirissa, pop in here after Coconut Tree Hill and try the coconut cold brew
  • Aloha Coffee Gallery: Cafe meets art gallery is cool enough, but the avo toast and fresh squeezed juices were excellent
  • Starbeans: Think the Starbucks of Sri Lanka, except the coffee isn’t as good. A go-to when you’re in need of a caffeine fix or need access to relatively stable internet, though

Ella

BEST KNOWN FOR

Ah, Ella. A bohemian town in the mountains.

Also the start or end of the infamous Kandy – Ella or Ella – Kandy train ride.

KEY SIGHTS

  • Hike to the top of Little Adam’s Peak: Walk from the centre or town, or take a tuk tuk to Ella Flower Garden Resort & Spa. From there, it’s an easy walk on a paved path with gorgeous views. About halfway in, you’ll reach steps, which you’ll climb, alternating with rocky path, for the remainder of the hike. It took me, stopping often for photos, about 45 minutes to climb up, and ~30 to head the whole way down. At the top, you’ll see a few different viewpoints- it’s worth walking to several of them, the vistas are stunning
    • On your way down, stop at 98 Acres Resort for a fresh juice with a gorgeous view. From the resort, you can walk down to the main road and either walk back to town (~15 minutes) or grab a tuk tuk

Note: This hike is very close to the Nine Arch Bridge (you’ll pass the entrance to the hike down en route to town), and could easily be combined, one after the other. I did both on the same day, but opted for Nine Arches in the morning, had lunch in town, and then did Adam’s Peak early afternoon

  • Wait for the train to go by at Nine Arch Bridge: Imagine an ancient, stone bridge connecting two mountain sides, with lush tea plantations and jungle as the scenery. It’s hard to believe this place is real- this was the moment I really felt like I was in Sri Lanka.
    • How to Get There: You can take a tuk tuk directly to the bridge (for an inflated rate), walk there on the train track from town (flat), or hike down a cliffside as I chose to do. To get to the cliffside, either walk up from town or have a tuk tuk take you there to save ~20 minutes (you’ll see a rainbow temple, and know you’re in the right place). Once at the top of the cliff, it should only take ~15-20 minutes to hike down to the bridge. If you visit in the rainy season as I did, be prepared for very slippery slopes- I actually slide down part of it. But, the above views of the bridge are incredible, and I can’t imagine missing them
    • Once at the base of the bridge: Treat yourself to a coconut from the men selling them on both sides, and sit back to take in the view. I got lucky with a train arriving shortly after I hiked to the bridge, but check timetables and build flexibility into your itinerary if it’s something you want to see (the trains often run early or late)
    • How to Get Back: Tuk tuk drivers were quoting insane rates- upwards of 800-1,000 rupees, which may not be a lot for a group but was far beyond my solo budget. Since I knew a train had just passed, I walked along the tracks to town- which only took 15-20 minutes, and offered some great views
  • Take one of the world’s most scenic train rides: The railway system was initially built by the British in 1865 to transport tea and coffee from Hill Country to Colombo. Arguably, this train ride that winds around hills, tea fields and villages is a Sri Lankan attraction in and of itself. I’d heard horror stories before my trip, of overcrowding, having to stand for seven hours, being squished beyond belief and barely being able to see the view. I don’t know if it was time of year, the fact I did the train route in reverse of what most tourists do (Ella – Kandy), or just dumb luck, but there was hardly anyone on my train. It was a delightful, beautiful journey
    • Tickets:
      • I bought second class for both trips (Ella – Nuwara Eliya & Nuwara Eliya – Kandy), reserved because I liked the idea of having a seat if I got tired of standing in doorways
      • People say to take third class if you want a true Sri Lanka experience, and from what I observed, this was, by far, the most crowded class
      • There’s also first class available, but I’d skip it- you can’t open the windows, which kind of defeats the purpose of taking a beautiful, train journey through fresh mountain air

WHERE TO EAT & DRINK

  • Chill Restaurant Bar: Everyone recommends Chill, so expect to find tons of visitors and a Western focused menu. That said, it is good and worth checking out if you’re looking for something familiar
  • Cafe C Ella: Good cafe for coffee, or mostly Western eats
  • Umbrella Art Cafe: Cute cafe on the road back from Little Adam’s Peak, also near the start of the Nine Arches Bridge hike
  • The Rainbow Inn, The Reincarnation: Surprisingly good Mexican food in the mountains of Sri Lanka
  • The Barn by Starbeans: Good for a quick coffee or juice pick-me-up
  • Ella Super: Great, big supermarket just off the main road in town

ACCOMMODATION RECOMMENDATION

I stayed in a private room at Hostel 4 You for $16 / night, and would recommend it if you’re looking for a bare-bones, affordable place to stay in a town that’s becoming increasingly touristy.

Nuwara Eliya

Nicknamed ‘Little England’, Nuwara Eliya has a very different feel to anywhere else in Lanka.

The area was ‘discovered’ by the British in 1819, and quickly became a ‘home away from home’ hotspot for those visiting or working in Sri Lanka because the cool-climate reminded them of home. It’s why you’ll see Tudor architecture everywhere, which I found oddly fascinating.

Initially, the Brits built coffee plantations here, but switched to tea, which was better suited for the climate.

Bring your jacket and jumper for Nuwara Eliya- nights get pretty cold.

And, if you’re taking the train here from either Kandy or Ella, note the station name is actually Nanuoya.

From Nanuoya, it’s a 15-25 minute drive to Nuwara Eliya. Going rate for a tuk tuk should be ~500-600 rupees (that’s a fair price).

On the way into town, I negotiated a shuttle for 200 rupees, and going back to the station, I haggled with a driver to get to 500 rupees. I had some drivers quote me up to 1,200 rupees, which is a sure sign they’re becoming used to tourists with cash to flash.

KEY SIGHTS

There isn’t much to do in town, per se. It’s small and rural, which I actually enjoyed.

  • Stroll Lake Gregory for relaxation
  • Wander through Victoria Park: A beautiful garden in the heart of town (you will need to pay a small fee to access it)
  • Send a postcard from one of Sri Lanka’s oldest post stations: Nuwara Eliya Post Office
  • Visit a tea plantation: I visited Damro, and really enjoyed it. Sri Lanka was formerly called Ceylon, for the ceylon tea it produces and exports worldwide. Damro has beautiful grounds, and offers a quick, free tour and tasting. I’ve also heard good things about the Pedro Tea Estate
    • I hired a tuk tuk to take me return from town, and wait for 1,200 rupees ($6.65 USD). Considering the fee covered 1.5-2 hours of a driver’s time, I’d consider it a bargain activity
  • Have high tea at the Grand Hotel: Established in 1891, the hotel is a beautiful remnant from the past. High tea here will only set you back $6-9 USD, pending daily menu, and is utterly delicious
  • Walk through Central Market: Admire the beautiful tropical fruits and vegetables the market has to offer, selection seems endless

WHERE TO EAT & DRINK

  • Grand Coffee Bar: The only upmarket coffee spot (read: able to make a latte) in Lanka, and great cakes
  • Hela Bojun Hala: Dine with locals and sample Sri Lankan staples at this open air government-funded restaurant that employs local women

ACCOMMODATION RECOMMENDATION

I stayed at UYOU Ceylon Guest House, about a 10-15 minute walk from the heart of the tiny town, and loved it. There are dorm-esque rooms available, or you can stay private as I did for as little as $13-14 USD a night. My room was fantastic, with two beds and an en-suite.

Kandy

The cultural capital of Sri Lanka.

As the country’s second largest city, and part of the famous tourist Cultural Triangle, many travellers find themselves in Kandy on a visit to Lanka.

Spoiler: I didn’t care much for Kandy. After so much time in small towns and in nature, I just didn’t quite see the appeal. I think if you stay on the hillside (great views), you’ll have a different experience than I did in the heart of town.

KEY SIGHTS

  • Hike to the ‘Big Buddha’ (Bahiravokanda Vihara Buddha Statue), or take a tuk tuk up and walk down (~20 minutes to the centre of town)
  • Relax in the Botanical Gardens: I loved the gardens, but found them an expensive attraction, coming in at $13 USD. However, they are beautiful and worth seeing if in your budget. Dating back to the era of ancient Kings, don’t miss the orchid house and palm tree grove. At one time, the gardens were only accessible by Kandyan royalty, but now it’s easy to hail a tuk tuk via PickMe to take you and bring you back to the city. Altogether, the gardens include more than 4,000 species of plants, and, you’ll likely spot a few cheeky monkeys swinging around, too
  • Admire the Sacred Tooth Relic: One of the most sacred shrines in the whole country, the temple houses a tooth relic of the Lord Buddha, which can usually be seen twice daily during a special ceremony
  • Peruse Central Market: Endless amounts of fresh fruit and meat, you’ll find the best bananas here
  • Take in sunset at Kandy Lake: This was my favourite part of town, just strolling the lake was a calming, beautiful experience

WHERE TO EAT & DRINK

Confession time: I was so tired by the time I reached Kandy (and, in retrospect, probably starting to come down with Dengue Fever), that I ordered Domino’s both nights and watched movies in my hotel room, instead of venturing out to find a local restaurant to eat at. No regrets.

  • Cafe Secret Alley: The best smoothie bowls and coffee drinks. Also decent WiFi for working
  • Natural Coffee: Great teas and coffee selection. Have also heard glowing things about their crepes

ACCOMMODATION RECOMMENDATION

Last minute, I switched my hotel to Kandy City Hotel ($20 a night) from one that’d been a bit more budget, because I wanted somewhere clean, comfortable and nice to stay.

This was a good move if you’re interested in staying in the city- Kandy City Hotel is walking distance to a lot of things downtown, and while the rooms are a tad dated, they’re clean, and beds are comfortable.

Habanara

A great place to hike, go on a safari, or visit an ancient cave complex.

Think: Sri Lanka savanna.

KEY SIGHTS

  • Ogle Ancient Paintings at Dambulla Cave Temple: I didn’t visit, but have heard rave reviews about the largest painted complex of caves in the world
  • Go on a Safari: Minneriya National Park and Kadulla National Park (adjacent to each other) are regarded as the best spots in Sri Lanka to see wild elephants. The elephants move park to park frequently, so it’s likely your travel guide will advise on the best one the day of your visit. When I went, I found a tour company through Google and paid $60 USD for a private jeep safari (didn’t realise it was private at the time of booking, would have happily paid less to join a group)
    • Best time of day: Tours are offered twice daily- early morning and late afternoon. I’d assumed best time would be early morning, but my tour company advised on a late afternoon tour, as that’s when elephants are likely to be more active in the parks, roaming around in search of food and water
    • Animals you’ll see: Spotting animals is never a given, but it’s likely you’ll see elephants, as well as an array of birds, deer, peacocks and monkeys. On my visit, we saw over 100 elephants throughout the park, it was pure magic seeing so many, including so many little ones. You may also see leopards, sloth bears, buffalos, or wild pigs
    • Note: The different parks in Sri Lanka offer different wildlife- I was really keen to spot elephants, so Minneriya and Kadulla made sense, but other parks offer a higher likelihood of spotting elusive leopards, or other wildlife
  • Hike Pidurangala Rock: Sunrise is touted as the best time to do this hike, but since I was starting to feel sick, I opted to sleep in, and instead, went in the afternoon en-route to Negombo/the airport. It’s a decently tough climb, so I’d advise going when it’s cooler
    • For the first part of the hike, you’ll walk through a temple complex and need to have your shoulders/knees covered. After it, you’ll come to a set of stairs, and it’s fine to remove layers to climb
    • The steps should take you 10-20 minutes, pending fitness level. Once near the top, you’ll see a pile of boulders you’ll have to scramble up to the top. The last bit of boulders are quite high / sharp, and I found it a bit challenging without help from others (which, I observed to be the case for just about everyone)
    • The view from the top of Sigiriya, and the surrounding jungle, is absolutely worth the climb. The top of the rock is expansive, and great for soaking in the view
    • There is a small fee to climb Pidurangala, 500 rupees ($3 USD)
  • Climb to the top of Sigiriya Rock: Cost prohibited me from climbing Sigiriya directly, but I had a good view of it from atop Pidurangala. According to historical resources, this place was chosen by King Kasyapa (477 – 495 CE) to be the new capital. It’s almost hard to believe he built his palace on top of this incredible rock formation. After his death, the palace was abandoned, and went through a stint as a Buddhist monastery for some time
    • Note: Pending where you’re staying in the area, you could do both of these hikes in the same day- Sigiriya at opening, and Pidurangala at sunset

WHERE TO EAT & DRINK

I stayed at a gorgeous resort while in Habarana, and ate all my meals onsite.

We drove past a bunch of local restaurants roadside, so you’ll definitely have options if you choose to eat out.

ACCOMMODATION RECOMMENDATION

I can’t say enough great things about the Aliya Resort and Spa.

I held off on booking accommodation for Habarana with the hope I’d find a great last minute deal, and sure enough, that happened.

Rates are normally 1.5-2x what I paid ($55 USD), but worth it, in my opinion. The property is just gorgeous- true luxury.

The rooms are huge, even the basic one that I stayed in, with the most comfortable bed, strong air con, a beautiful balcony, and bathroom with bathtub. The property boasts an infinity pool that overlooks Pidurangala and Sigiriya rocks, as well as wildlife (monkeys, birds), a modern fitness centre, beautiful spa, and open-air lounging.

Dinner is a buffet, which normally I’m not a fan of, but have to admit I enjoyed the traditional Sri Lanka food at this one. I skipped breakfast (still full from dinner), and instead opted to do lunch a la carte.

Negombo

A small beach town, north of Colombo, Negombo is a mix of its past aggressors- the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British.

During the Dutch era, Negombo was one of the most important sources of cinnamon. And, because of its heavy European influence, you’ll find plenty of churches throughout town.

I spent a short amount of time here, just passing through en route to the airport, and I’m not sure I’d recommend staying any longer than a day. The beaches are fine, but the ones in the south are much better.

KEY SIGHTS

  • Negombo Beach
  • The Dutch Canals
  • The Dutch Fort

Where Else to Visit, If You Have Time

Sri Lanka is a deceptively large country- looks tiny on a map, but it’s absolutely packed with attractions.

On my trip, I didn’t have time for these places, but would love to make it back there on a return visit-

  • Trincomalee
  • Dambulla Royal Cave
  • Yala National Park
  • Further north, after being recently inspired by The Ungraceful Guide and their two month tuk tuk trip around Lanka

Solo Female Travel Tips

I’ve written an entire post with more context and details, but I’d tell any women planning a trip to Lanka on their own that the country is safe.

Locals aren’t used to seeing white women (or any foreigners, for that matter) with giant backpacks wandering around on their own. So, you can expect a lot of staring.

Most of the time, these looks were those of curiosity. You need to remember- there are huge cultural differences. A woman traveling the world on her own isn’t even a common activity among Sri Lankan women.

I never felt unsafe traveling Lanka on my own, but I did feel uncomfortable at times, which was a direct result of the sexual harassment I experienced.

In the south, the sexual harassment was rampant- be prepared for constant attention, remarks, whistling and kissing noises.

And, although it’s exhausting to navigate and dodge, I never felt actually threatened.

The majority of people I spoke with were welcoming and kind.

10 tips for women traveling Sri Lanka on their own

  • Be aware of top scams: Train tickets or tours sold on the street, people shorting you change, or tuk tuk drivers trying to take you to tourist spots or telling you a road/part of town is closed
  • Use rideshare apps to call tuk tuks where available (Colombo, Kandy): Doing so eliminates the need for haggling over cost or turning on the metre- two favourites: Uber and PickMe
  • Rely on women and families as a crutch: Sit or stand near them on public transit or in lines to draw less attention from males
  • Chat to other foreigners, befriend travel or even walking pals
  • Understand Sri Lankans stare: It doesn’t matter what you look like, if it’s not Sri Lankan, they’ll stare because they’re curious
  • Get a SIM if your phone is unlocked 
  • Avoid walking alone after dark 
  • Share day plans with your hostel/hotel host, or make sure someone else knows what you’ll be up to
  • Dress conservatively: At minimum, cover your shoulders and knees for less attention
  • Don’t show off flashy belongings 

Extra Sri Lanka Travel Tips

Language: The official languages are Sinhala and Tamil, but the majority of the population, especially in key tourist areas, will speak Sinhala. So, if you’re going to learn key phrases in any language, it should be Sinhala. Transactional English is becoming more wide spoken, especially in cities, key tourist stops, and at resorts

Safety: With a 26-year civil war only ending in 2009, the question of whether Sri Lanka is safe to visit is an understandable question. In the areas I visited, I never felt unsafe, and I’ve heard similar tale from other travellers, including ones who have ventured a bit further north or down the east coast 

Currency: Sri Lankan Rupee

I withdrew from a bank ATM. Look for Visa and Mastercard images on an ATM- that means it’s global. I’d advise carrying cash on you- many purchases are so small, you won’t meet the card minimum if the place you’re at takes cards

Budget: In comparison to other parts of SE Asia (namely Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos, Malaysia, Cambodia), accommodation was a bit higher throughout Lanka for rooms/places I felt were of lower quality. But, it’s Asia and thus, more affordable to travel than other parts of the world. Generally, I’d consider myself to be on a moderate backpacker budget, spending- 

  • Accom: $12-20 USD / night
  • Food: $15-25 USD / daily
    • You can eat a lot cheaper in Sri Lanka, but I ate at mostly upmarket cafes, with the exception of a few local places where someone spoke good enough English for me to communicate my food allergies. If you don’t have life-threatening allergies or restrictive eating preferences, I’d imagine you can eat street for for as little as $7-10 USD per day- possibly even less
  • Attractions: Usually free or under $10-15 USD daily
    • I skipped some of Sri Lanka’s top sights, like Sigiriya, because attraction fees for some places are steep- think $25-35 per historical site
  • Tuk Tuk Rides: Under $5 USD in total daily (for the most part)
  • Private Driver Transport: $25-60 per trip, pending pick-up location and destination
  • Train Tickets: Under $2-3 USD per trip

Getting There: The international airport is actually located closer to Negombo (10-20 minute drive), than Colombo (40-60 minute drive). This means many people do trips in the opposite direction I did. I went against the flow because, I needed to work for a few days in Colombo before setting off on my trip.

Once at the airport, you can either take pre-arranged transport (private driver), hail an Uber, take a fixed-fare taxi, or walk outside the airport gates to find tuk tuk drivers, waiting to negotiate fare.

Where to Stay: I stayed in great budget hotels, and private rooms of hostels. On my last night of the trip, I treated myself to a stay at Aliya Resort and Spa in Habarana (a last-minute deal I scored on Agoda).

  • Use Agoda or Booking.com to help find places in your budget
  • If your trip is flexible, just rock up to each town/place and walk around to find the best deals on accomm- this only works for small towns/cities, not more remote places, like Habarana unless you’re self driving
  • If you’re on a treat-yo-self trip, there’s no shortage of gorgeous, four-five star resorts around the island, many of which are fairly affordable

When to Visit: I visited in late October/early November, when the rainy season in the south was meant to be over. Spoiler: It wasn’t, and I later read conflicting reports of rainy season timings on various travel sources. In fact, friends who traveled Lanka in the midst of the ‘southern dry season’ also reported rainy weather some days, so it seems like luck of the draw, especially with global warming. That said, the island does have two acknowledged monsoon seasons-

  • October – March is best for the southern and western coasts, and mountainous inland
  • April – September is best for eastern and northern beaches

Tipping: Tipping is not common practice in Sri Lanka, although if you have a driver throughout your trip or an exceptional day trip/service, I’d consider tipping up to 500 LKR per day / tour (pending total cost overall)

WiFi Access: Expect this to be limited, and often slow or unstable. I found faster WiFi in cities (Colombo, Kandy), but had a tough time on the south coast and in mountainous regions with stability, which I’d expected and is why I didn’t work too much  

SIM Card Options: I bought a 30-day SIM upon arrival at Sri Lanka’s airport from Dialog (I’d heard they had the best 4G coverage throughout the country). The SIM worked well, and was easy to top up through their app

Packing Necessities: What you bring in total will depend on what you do over the course of your trip, but I’d recommend bringing each of the below-

  • Lightweight scarf (to cover up at temples)
  • Swimsuit / cover-up
  • Trainers and sandals
  • Clothes to hike in
  • Lightweight clothes, for the hot, coastal regions
  • Layers and a foldable jacket for the cooler, mountainous regions (long leggings, long sleeve shirt, sweater, lightweight jacket)
  • Baby wipes or toilet paper for restrooms (squat toilets are prevalent throughout the country)
  • Umbrella or rain jacket for sudden, unexpected downpours (island life)
  • Any specific beauty or personal hygiene items you must use over the course of your trip- don’t expect to find products or brands you’re familiar with
  • Reef safe sunscreen
  • Strong mosquito repellent- this is an absolute must. I picked up Dengue Fever while in Sri Lanka, and the 1-2 weeks that followed were miserable

Have you ever been to Sri Lanka? Where would you recommend people visit in the country? 

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6 comments

  1. Wow, what a whirlwind of an adventure! Sri Lanka looks so beautiful, and even better that it hasn’t become super touristy yet; you get to experience it authentically, as a result! Would you suggest getting certain vaccinations before traveling there? I’m especially worried about getting dengue fever or some other illness, so I’d like to take precautions. Thanks for your detailed post!

    1. Sri Lanka is stunning, one of my favourite countries in Asia. So glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

      Parts are more developed than others, but feel barely touched in comparison to parts of Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, etc.

      Before I travelled, I consulted with my GP, which I’d recommend doing for any international trip to areas where certain diseases may be more prevalent. Vaccinations are always a personal decision, and I opted to only get the main ones recommended by some of the world’s leading health orgs. Plus, if you decide to get any, what you get really depends on the specific cities you travel to (often, there’s less risk in bigger cities than rural areas of the country). For the most part, I tried to also plan my trips around the dry season / fringe rainy season. In Sri Lanka, the seasons can be challenging, and even though I thought I’d be visiting at the start of the dry season, it was quite rainy during the first part of my stay, which is when I got bit a lot. Dengue was terrible, but I didn’t need medical attention- it was just an exhausting, painful couple of weeks. Would also recommend good travel insurance in case something does happen, and you need medical attention.

      1. Thanks for the detailed reply. Should I travel to Sri Lanka within the next couple of years, I’ll keep your advice at hand! It hadn’t been on my bucket list before, and now it is! 🙂

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