• Francesca

How to see Sri Lanka in just over a week

Updated: Aug 26, 2021

A free, 9-day itinerary

With years of civil unrest and recent Easter bombings that resulted in heightened travel advisory warnings, Sri Lanka may not be on your bucket list just yet. But during my recent journey there, I felt quite safe and instantly fell in love with the people, the nature, the food, and the Sri Lankan lifestyle that reminds all visitors to remain humble, optimistic and to always be kind to others. Read on for a recommended 9 day itinerary with the best things to do and see in Sri Lanka.

As the island lacks modern infrastructure and is a bit challenging to get around, I strongly recommend seeing Sri Lanka with a licensed, local guide. The tour guides in Sri Lanka often double as a private driver who accompanies you during your entire journey and recommends the best places to see. Also, it’s interesting to note that since tourism so important to Sri Lanka, most hotels provide rooms for your driver, free of charge!

The following itinerary was curated by Lucky, from Lucky Travel & Tours. Not only is Lucky now a trusted friend of mine, but he is a professional and safe driver who provides top-notch service to all of his customers- including my 3 friends who toured with him on separate occasions. He offers a comfortable car with air conditioning, airport pickup and drop-off, and his price includes all highway charges and parking tickets. Please note that I do not receive any commission for recommending his services; he is just a kind and genuine man that I wish to support. Below is the itinerary Lucky planned for us with some suggestions and advice from my experience.

Day 1: Arrival in Colombo

The Bandaranaike International Airport is located in Colombo and serves as the country’s main international airport. Depending on what time you arrive, it may be most convenient to spend the night nearby in Negombo. We arrived late in the evening and stayed at the Amagi Aria:

Day 1 Costs:

Day 2: Sigiriya

Wildlife Safari

The drive from Negombo to Sigiriya takes about 4.5 hours. There are several national parks in the Sigiriya area where the Sri Lankan government conservation efforts have allowed for safari tours on nearly untouched land. We paid $50 USD for a safari at the Kaudulla National Park.

NOTE: The water levels at each national park vary depending on the time of the year, meaning that some parks close due to flooding while others remain open.

Lucky Travel & Tours arranged a tour for us through Lankan Wild Life Safari. It was mating season during mid-November, so we saw AT LEAST 100 elephants during our safari:

Traditional Ayurvedic Spa Experience

Subject to availability, you can try a treatment at an ayurvedic spa. Ayurveda is a holistic form of medicine from India that uses herbal remedies, exercise, meditation, and breathing techniques. We booked a full body massage, herbal steam bath, and a facial. Although the massage and steam bath were quite satisfactory, I wouldn't recommend the facial as it wasn't a comfortable experience.

Day 2 Costs:

  • Lunch at an upscale buffet: $15 USD/person

  • Safari in Sigiriya: $50 USD/person

  • Spa treatment at an ayurvedic spa: $60 USD/person

  • Recommended hotel: Hotel Sigriya, $70 USD/night

Day 3: Sigiriya

Lion Rock

There is a lot to do in Sigiriya, so make sure to spend at least 2 days here. Start your day early by climbing Lion Rock, aka simply "Sigiriya." The entrance fee is $30 USD/person. There will be a handful of tour guides that approach you and offer you a guided tour of the vicinity. Rest assured that they are licensed and will charge a fair price ($10 USD, for example). The venue opens at 7:00 AM, and be sure to begin the hike before 8:00 AM; otherwise, you will run into crowds on the narrow, suspended staircases starting at 10:00 AM:

The hike will take about 2 hours round trip, and is mostly uphill though there are plenty of places to stop and rest.

Village Tour

After your hike, take a village tour in the area. Lucky arranged a village safari for us with Sugath Village Safari. It was $25/person and included:

  1. A bullock (buffalo) cart ride

  2. A boat ride across the reservoir

  3. A local cooking class with village residents

  4. Lunch

  5. A tuk tuk ride back to the base in Ehelagala

The buffalo seemed as if he was treated pretty humanely, so I didn't have any qualms about the short cart ride. The people you meet in the village are very sincere and love teaching visitors to cook. Prepare yourself for a delicious and filling meal!

Day 3 Costs:

  • Lion Rock entrance fee: $30 USD/person

  • Village Safari: $25 USD/person

  • Recommended hotel: Hotel Sigriya, $70 USD/night

Day 4: Sigiriya/Kandy

Pidurangala Rock

Don't leave Sigiriya without hiking to Pidurangala Rock. It is a much more strenuous hike than Lion Rock; getting to the top requires a moderate level of fitness and climbing over and through ascending rocks. But this makes it's a less visited spot and the views are absolutely worth it!

Start your hike before 8:00 AM to avoid the blazing sun in the afternoon. Starting this early also allowed us to enjoy a full day in Kandy, which is about 3 hours away from Sigiriya.

The Pidurangala Vihara is a Buddhist monastery that serves as the base of Pidurangala Rock and is where visitors must pay a nominal entrance fee of $500 rupees (about $7 USD). If your knees or shoulders are exposed, you can borrow a sarong from the counter as well; religious customs requires all visitors to dress appropriately when passing this sacred area on the path towards Pidurangala Rock.

Along your trek, you can't miss the 12.5 meter-long Buddha built into a shallow cave. It was once the largest brick reclining Buddha in the world:

Continue along the path and climb the steepest, most challenging part of the hike to reach the top:

You will be rewarded with this view:

Kandy: The Temple of the Tooth

After a much needed shower, travel with Lucky to Kandy, home to Sri Lanka's most revered religious temple, the Temple of the Tooth. This temple is very important to Sri Lankan Buddhists, as its believed to house the left upper canine tooth of the revered Buddha.

There are three ceremonies during the day that visitors can attend at 6:00 AM, 10:00 AM, and 6:00 PM. Drummers will begin to play on the first floor of the temple during these times. Don't spend too much time watching the performance, as the main attraction takes place on the second floor. For fifteen minutes only, guests can line up to view the golden case that houses the Buddha's tooth. Photographs of the case are not allowed, and you will be ushered so fast through the line that you will only get a peek at this ancient artifact. However, it's a beautiful experience to witness offerings of flowers laid across the room and devout Sri Lankans from all over the country praying before the chamber with drums in the background.

Tips for visiting the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy

  • TIP #1: This sacred temple has a very strict dress code. Legs and shoulders must be COMPLETELY COVERED. Ripped jeans and slit skirts won't pass the test; even guys need to wear pants. Dress accordingly as this venue does NOT lend sarongs.

  • TIP #2: All guests (local and foreign) are required to check their shoes and walk the entire premises barefoot. By the end, your foot will be disgustingly dirty. Bring some wet wipes so you can clean off before putting you shoes and socks back on.

Day 4 Costs:

  • Pidurangala Rock entrance fee: $7 USD/person

  • Temple of the Tooth entrance fee: $1,500 rupees/person (exact change required)

  • Suggested donation at shoe counter: At your own discretion

  • Recommended hotel: The Golden Crown Hotel, $75 USD/night

Day 5: Nuwara Eliya

Even though most of Sri Lanka may be hot and tropical, Nuwara Eliya is 1902 meters above sea level and surprisingly cool and rainy. (TIP: Choose a hotel that has central heating- we froze our buns off sleeping in a local hotel high in the mountains!) But this climate provides the ideal conditions for growing tea, and the lush, green plantations have made this area famous:

Tea tasting in Nuwara Eliya

One of the most famous tea houses in Nuwara Eliya is the Damro Tea Lounge. Both a factory and a tea house, this venue offers a free tour of the operational tea factory and a free tasting at the end:

Although this was an educational experience (and the tea was tasty!) I preferred meeting local tea workers and learning how to pick tea from them. Lucky took us to meet the locals on a farm just to the side of the main road. Although the workers expect some money in exchange for the experience, they are extremely grateful for just $5 USD.

Pink post office in Nuwara Eliya

The Nuwara Eliya Post Office is one of the oldest post offices in Sri Lanka built by the British. It is still in great condition and they employ a very efficient system for mailing international postcards. Definitely worth experience. Spoiler alert: even though it's known as the "pink" post office, it's actually more of a reddish color.

Day 5 Costs:

  • Damro Tea Lounge: Free entrance; $10+ USD/tea box

  • Picking tea with local workers: Suggested donation of $2 USD/worker