A free, 9-day itinerary on what to do and how to get around Sri Lanka
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. You can also check out more itineraries and reviews of Lucky's services here.
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
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.
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
Day 3: Sigiriya
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.
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:
A bullock (buffalo) cart ride
A boat ride across the reservoir
A local cooking class with village residents
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
Day 4: Sigiriya/Kandy
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
Pink post office: Free entrance; nominal fee to purchase and send postcards
Day 6: Ella
Train ride through the Central Highland
Probably the number one thing to do in Sri Lanka is to take the picturesque train ride to Ella. The ultimate way to take in the country's beauty, you will pass by rolling hills, green tea plantations, misty mountains, mountain tunnels, bridges, and local villages with people standing right next to the train tracks.
Tips for Riding the Train to Ella
Tip #1: While most guidebooks recommend the 7-hour train ride from Kandy to Ella, the three-to-four hour train ride from Nuwara Eliya to Ella is more than enough to experience Sri Lanka's beauty.
Tip # 2: Book third class, not first class tickets, if you want to be able to hang out of the doors and take photos. Note that seats are first come, first serve in this area. If you absolutely need a seat, you can book a third class "Reserved" ticket, although there is still a small chance you won't get a seat.
Tip #3: Try to grab a seat on the right side of the train. Lucky was kind enough to jump on the train first and fight for a seat for us!
Tip #4: When heading to Ella from Nuwara Eliya, take photos within the first 30 minutes of the ride. That is the only time you will pass by the beautiful tea fields.
Tip #5: Be careful when taking photos outside the train; the train passes through some narrow pathways so it's not always safe to hang out the doors.
Where to eat in Ella: Cafe Chill
This is a very popular wooden hut-themed restaurant in Ella 2 minutes from the Ella train station. Be sure to get here before 12:30- everyone disembarks from the train then and the restaurant gets packed! We ordered the Lumprais, a 10 curry baked dish served in a banana leaf, and the spaghetti bolognese. We also tried the buffalo milk curd with honey for dessert. They serve fresh juices, smoothies, and modern cocktails with paper or bamboo straws only.
Nine Arch Bridge
This Nine Arch Bridge in Ella is a stunning piece of architecture that has great vantage points and through which the train to Ella continues onward. Lucky guided us on the local trail to get to this viaduct bridge. Although the train tracks along the bridge are active, visitors are allowed to walk along it so long as the train is not passing by.
Little Adam's Peak
We climbed Little Adam's Peak in Ella the next morning before leaving for Mirissa. It's a 2-3 hour hike that reaches 1141 meters high:
The highest peak offers great views of the valley, and there is also the option to zipline across the famous Ella gap.
Ravana Falls is also a stop worth visiting as you exit Ella. The waterfall is open for swimming to all, but just note that the water is pretty cold.
Day 6 Costs:
Train ride to Ella: 60 rupees ($0.50 USD/person)
Cafe Chill: $6-12 USD/person
Recommended hotel: EKHO Ella, $86 USD/night
Day 7: Mirissa
Surfing in Weligama Bay
Mirissa is a beautiful beach town that I wished we had stayed longer in. For surfing, though, Weligama Bay is the ideal location with its mellow waves and abundant surf school options. Even Lucky enjoyed trying surfing with us!
In the evening, you can walk Mirissa beach to find dozens of beach-side restaurants that sell fresh seafood and drinks.
Day 7 Costs:
Surfboard rentals: ~$2.50 USD/surfboard
Beach-side dining: $15 USD/person
Recommended hotel: Randiya Sea View Hotel, $56 USD/night
Day 8: Galle
One of the best photo opportunities in Sri Lanka (besides the train to Ellla) is the stilt fishermen. Although the ancient art of stilt fishing is no longer a common practice in Sri Lanka, it is still performed for tourists. And since tourism is still one of the country's largest industries, (on which the locals are reliant) you can expect to pay for this experience. We paid $1,000 rupees ($5.50 USD) each for a photo and for the opportunity to have a fisherman assist us on a stilt so we could try to "fish" for ourselves.
Galle Dutch Fort
The Galle Fort in Sri Lanka was originally built by the Portuguese in the 16th century and later fortified by the Dutch for use as a spice trading port.
Still in relatively good condition, this quaint fortress houses boutique stores, restaurants, and colonial relics. Don't miss:
The Lighthouse | The iconic white lighthouse is the #1 attraction at the Galle Fort. Not only does it provide the perfect Instagram shot, but it's also frequented by friendly locals who enjoy approaching foreigners and welcoming them to their country.
This vegan-friendly restaurant | Calorie Counter features high protein, super food, vegan, vegetarian and meat dishes. It is conveniently located on Galle Fort’s Main Street where all of the unique shops and vendors are located.
More shops, restaurants, and historical sites recommended by The Common Wanderer.
Day 8 Costs:
Stilt fisherman experience: $1,000 rupees ($5.50 USD/person)
Beach-side dining: $15 USD/person
Recommended hotel: Randiya Sea View Hotel, $56 USD/night
Day 9: Return to Colombo
The original agenda Lucky had planned for our last day in Colombo included the following attractions and experiences:
· Train ride along the coastline
· Colombo city tour
Tip: You can also find more itineraries and reviews of Lucky's services here.
But when Lucky invited us over to his house for a home-cooked meal, we canceled all of our plans and opted to spend the day with his family. It was the highlight of our tour, and the most intimate way to get to know the beautiful people of Sri Lanka.