Whether you’re going to Colombo, Galle, Kandy or Ella, we’re here to help you plan your perfect trip to Sri Lanka.
Marco Polo famously described Sri Lanka as one of the most beautiful islands in the world. Anyone who has visited the country will undoubtedly agree with him.”The Pearl of The Indian Ocean” was ranked as the top place to travel in 2019 by Lonely Planet and we are here to back that up! We love Sri Lanka for so many reasons, including the fantastic food, amazing scenery and friendly locals. There is an incredible amount to do in the country, but luckily lots of the main attractions are not too far away from each other. You can be hiking through tea country in the morning, getting up close and personal with elephants in the afternoon and sipping cocktails by the beach after dinner. Whether you want to spend a weekend or a month here, this guide will take all the stress out of planning your trip. We’ve done the legwork – sit back, relax, and get ready to learn why Sri Lanka needs to jump to the top of your travel bucket list.
Sigirya, Polonnaruwa & Dambulla
This is undoubtedly the most beautiful way to travel around the country. While not every place in this guide is accessible by train, many are. The two most notable train journeys in the country are those between Colombo and Galle and between Kandy and Ella. It’s possible to find train tickets online through travel agents, but we recommend simply going to the train station a couple of days before your journey and buying tickets there. Try to snag a ticket in first or second class for a small additional price, if you want to be as comfortable as possible. Third class is a fun experience too, though! Either way, it’s hard to go wrong with the famous Sri Lankan railway system.
Buses in Sri Lanka are a very cheap way to get around but buses generally don’t run on a schedule, so journey times are unpredictable (and pretty packed). Busing is a fun to experience at some point during your stay, but may not be the best primary form of transportation.
Many tourists opt to hire a driver for the length of their trip. If you want a hassle free trip, this is probably your best option. We recommend hiring a driver from Sri Shannon Tours, which is Sassy tried and tested.
Tuk-tuks are the best way to get around any place in Sri Lanka. We wouldn’t recommend taking them for long distance drives, but they’re great to get us from the hotel to dinner, and from the beach to the bar.
No trip to a country is complete without a stop in the nation’s capital. Colombo is a bustling metropolis, filled with sounds and smells that act as a perfect introduction to Sri Lanka. While you don’t need to spend a huge chunk of time in the city, it’s the perfect place to recover for a day after your flight, or to prepare for your trip home.
Where to Stay:
Taru Villas Lake Lodge
Tucked away in a cul-de-sac in the middle of the city, Lake Lodge is a serene haven in Colombo. There are only 13 rooms, creating an intimate vibe. The rooms are super chic and comfortable and are all reasonably priced. The excellent food and unique cocktails served at the restaurant might result in you spending the entire time in the city, cooped up in this little oasis.
Shangri-La Hotel, Colombo
The Colombo branch of the luxury hotel chain epitomises elegance. Wake up to stunning views of the Indian Ocean then head down for a morning dip in the gorgeous tropical swimming pool. In the afternoon, pamper yourself after a busy day of exploring the city, with a Sri Lankan treatment at the spa. Eat dinner at one of the six acclaimed restaurants and bars that are situated in the hotel.
While not technically in Colombo, this hotel is situated a 20-minute drive away in the town of Negombo, where the airport is situated. It’s the perfect location if you’re getting in on a late flight from the 852, as you’ll be able to snuggle up in the comfy beds, after only a couple minutes in a cab. The beachside hotel is beautiful, the staff are extremely friendly and the food is delicious.
What to Do:
The best way to be introduced to a new city is often by taking a walking tour. Familiarise yourself with Sri Lankan culture by taking a tour with family-run Colombo Walks. This extremely popular company will give you a deeper understanding of the fascinating capital.
Wandering through Sri Lanka’s most famous shop is an experience to remember. The three floors are stocked with colourful and unique products that are distinctly Barefoot (and perfect for gifts), including a wide array of handmade fabrics, jewellery and homeware. Stop by the bookstore and pick up a book by a local author to learn a little bit more about the country. After you’ve shopped to your heart’s content, head out to the tranquil garden at the back where you can enjoy lunch or a drink.
Established in 1877, this museum tells the story of ancient Sri Lanka. Here you’ll be able to see items that were the property of the royal family, including the king’s crown and the throne. It’s a great way to familiarise yourself with the local history before you head out and explore the rest of the country.
Where to Eat:
For authentic Sri Lankan cuisine for a great price, make your way to Upali’s. Feast on curry and rice, or sub the rice for string hoppers to really experience local flavours. If you want to take your meal to go, grab a takeaway lunch from 11:30am onwards. It’s served the traditional way – in a banana leaf.
Ministry of Crab
Set in a 400 year-old Dutch fort, this restaurant is an ode to everything crab. Crab lovers will be in heaven sampling the signature lagoon crab cooked one of four ways – chilli, pepper, garlic, or in a Sri Lankan curry. If you’re not a crab person, sample the prawns or chicken for an equally amazing dining experience. With out-of-this-world flavours, it’s no surprise that this famous Colombo institution landed on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2019.
The Galle Face Hotel
Grab a sundowner and watch the sky turn red over the ocean at Colombo’s most iconic hotel. The dinner buffet here is definitely something to write home about, showcasing local Sri Lankan delicacies and Western cuisine alike in a gorgeous setting. If you want to take a walk to digest afterwards, head outside the hotel to the Galle Face Green, which is filled with local vendors and children playing on the grass.
This scenic town on Sri Lanka’s south coast has captured the hearts of travellers for decades. Structured around the legendary Old Dutch Fort, Galle has transformed from a colonial trading port to a hub full of trendy restaurants, bars and hotels. Spend a couple of days wandering the streets of this charming coastal town.
Where to Stay:
Le Grand Galle
This stunning hotel does luxury right. Offering unparalleled views of the iconic fort and the ocean, it truly is any traveller to Sri Lanka’s dream accommodation. The fantastic facilities, food and staff all contribute to this being one of the country’s most sought after establishments.
The Fort Bazaar
It’s all about location, location, location at The Fort Bazaar. The architecture of this merchant’s house-turned-boutique hotel inside the historical Dutch Fort has been wonderfully preserved. We love the large veranda area, which is the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of the town.
This oasis is located on a tea plantation, which lies nine kilometres from Galle. If you’re seeking a tranquil hotel where you can truly unwind from the fast paced city life, Nigayama House is your best bet. Start your morning the right way with a yoga class, followed by guided meditation, then reconnect with nature by floating in the chlorine-free swimming pool that overlooks the rainforest.
What to Do:
Stroll along the ramparts of the Dutch Fort, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. Watch the local teenagers dive off the walls into the crystal clear water, and friends compete over an afternoon game of cricket. It’s the perfect place to experience culture, while getting in a bit of exercise.
Stand Up Paddle Board
A short tuk tuk ride away from Galle lies the beach town of Unawatuna, the perfect place to try your hand at SUP. SUPer Juice Bar is a great place to rent a board because you’ll be able to order a healthy smoothie or juice delivered right to your beach chair (you can use theirs for the day if you rent from them) after a solid SUP workout.
Afternoon Tea at The Amangalla Hotel
The Amangalla Hotel feels reminiscent of the days that Sri Lanka was a British colony. One of the traditions that stuck was the act of having afternoon tea, which they’ve kept alive over the years. Spend some time unwinding over scones and finger sandwiches in Galle.
Where to Eat:
Lucky Fort Restaurant
This family-run business in the heart of the Galle Fort serves delicious curries for a fantastic price. Opt for the 10 curry tasting set, which can be shared between two. They can make food with your desired level of spice, so it’s the perfect place to sample curries while giving your stomach a much-needed rest.
A Minute By Tuk Tuk
Located in the historic Dutch Hospital, this fusion restaurant boasts beautiful ocean views and is the perfect place to come drink an ice-cold Lion Beer as the sun goes down.
Isle of Gelato
Take a break from the tropical heat by ducking into this air-conditioned shop and grabbing a gelato. Many exciting flavours are on offer, but a favourite is the Lychee Dream Sorbetto, which has a delightful secret ingredient – you’ll have to ask what it is for yourself!
If there’s an ideal base to explore Sri Lanka’s southern coast, it’s Weligama – a beautiful beach, which also is home to lots of great hotels, restaurants and bars. Spend the days beach-hopping and the evenings watching the sunset at your hotel with a cocktail in hand.
Where to Stay:
With a beach location, an infinity pool, a fabulous food and cocktail menu and comfy rooms, what’s not to love about W15 Weligama? There’s a DJ that plays from the afternoon into the evening too.
Weligama Bay Marriott Resort and Spa
Three swimming pools and direct beach access makes this the perfect luxury beach hotel. Every room comes with a stunning sea view and a balcony. If you’re looking to keep fitness goals, make the most of the fitness facilities on offer and enlist the help of one of the resort’s own personal trainers.
This Aussie-run boutique hotel truly epitomises relaxed surf culture. We love that the rooms are all named after (and include photos and art of) places where the founders have sought inspiration – more travel inspo. Make sure to wake up early during your stay for one of their sunrise yoga classes followed by a refreshing smoothie bowl and a perfectly made cappuccino.
What to Do:
Learn to surf
Weligama is the perfect place for beginners to learn to surf and there is no shortage of surf schools offering classes. Simply take a stroll along the beachfront and you’ll see the different options. Seasoned surfers should head to Midigama to surf the famous Lazy Left wave, which is 10 minutes away by tuk tuk.
Sri Lanka is a famed whale-watching site due to the large number of blue whales that can be seen here from November to April. There are many companies that lead tours, but we’ve heard lots of good things about Whale Watching Club.
Go Beach Hopping
Sri Lanka’s Southern coast is scattered with gorgeous beaches. Mirissa Beach is often said to be one of the most beautiful in the country and is conveniently located 15 minutes away from Weligama. Tangalle, Wijaya and Hiriketiya are some other favourites. Make sure to spend a day lounging on the sand with a book in hand, sipping from a fresh coconut.
Where to Eat:
Shirani Home Made Rice & Curry
This no-frills local restaurant is true to its name, whipping up homemade feasts. If you love the food, come back the next day for a cooking class and learn how to make the dishes yourselves. They’re able to cater to vegan and gluten-free visitors too.
This local establishment has long been a firm favourite with tourists. Try the kottu roti, which this spot is famed for. Make sure to get here early – it gets packed out every night.
Nomad Café & Boutique
If you’re craving some “healthy” food to offset all the curry you’ve been eating, head to the café in the morning for a stack of vegan pancakes or some avocado toast. For lunch, opt for the veggie-filled tuna poke bowl, the perfect light meal on a hot day.
The beautiful city of Kandy is nestled in the mountains of central Sri Lanka. It’s built around a lake, which acts as a serene oasis in an otherwise bustling city. Kandy has long been the cultural hub of Sri Lanka and has played an essential role in constructing the country’s identity. Additionally, it is one of the most sacred places of worship in the Buddhist world and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Spend a couple of days discovering this special place.
Where to Stay:
Elegance is the name of the game at this boutique hotel in Kandy. Originally a colonial bungalow overlooking the hills, it’s the perfect place to kick back and relax. We love the option to enjoy a Sri Lankan breakfast and a steaming cup of coffee on your balcony, with panoramic views of the countryside every morning.
Sweet Lanka Kandy
This is the perfect place to stay if you’re on a budget. The staff are extremely warm and friendly, the rooms comfortable, and the breakfast delicious. The view alone is reason enough to make this your home away from home in Kandy.
This boutique homestay is located five kilometres away from the town of Kandy. Complete with views of the Mahaweli River and the beautiful surrounding landscapes, this is a wonderful place to relax your mind and body. Expect warm hospitality at this family-run guesthouse.
What to Do:
Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic
This is undoubtedly the top attraction in Kandy. This temple was built by Kandyan Kings to house the Buddha’s sacred tooth relic. There are swarms of visitors here every day hoping to catch a glimpse of the famed tooth. Remember to dress conservatively in order to be allowed entrance to the temple.
Royal Botanical Gardens
The Botanical Gardens are located 10 kilometres from Kandy in a town called Peradeniya. The Gardens are home to over 4,000 different plant species, including orchids, palm trees and medicinal plants. You’ll also be able to catch glimpses of monkeys swinging between the trees as you wander through the gorgeous property.
Kandy Lake was artificially constructed by the last king of Sri Lanka, but remains unfinished due to the British invasion in 1815. Take a break from the busy city and go on a stroll around the historic lake.
Where to Eat:
The Soya Centre
People have been known to travel from Colombo just to taste the delicious soy ice cream that this establishment is known for. The Soya Centre is perfect for vegans and dairy lovers alike. Make sure not to leave without sampling the coconut pancake and the vegetable roti.
Take a break from Sri Lankan cuisine and treat yourself to some Thai food in the heart of Kandy. The friendly staff are reason enough to incorporate it into your travel plans.
Fine dining with a spectacular view is what Theva is known for. Enjoy the selection of mains, desserts and cocktails overlooking the hills of Kandy. Try to time your visit with sunset to make the most of the experience.
Sri Lanka’s tea country is a must-visit on your trip. Ella is a beloved hotspot in the heart of the region, which is famed for its stunning scenery. Spend a few days here wandering the tea plantations and hiking the stunning mountains framing the town.
Where to Stay:
98 Acres Resort
This luxury eco-friendly boutique hotel is built on a (98 acre) tea estate. Wake up in this hidden oasis to the sight of tea pickers working below you and Little Adams Peak up ahead. The restaurant here is great, so if you don’t stay, drop by for dinner and some sunset cocktails.
Ella Mount View Guest Inn
This quaint inn is a fabulous option for accommodation in Ella. The property overlooks the famous “Ella Gap” and offers some of the most beautiful views in the country. Each room is equipped with a private balcony and outdoor seating, perfect for reading a book with a cup of Ceylon tea in hand. The delicious home-cooked breakfasts are a bonus.
This hotel is conveniently located only 200m away from the main town of Ella. The panoramic views from the hotel are gorgeous. Wake up early one morning to catch a glimpse of the star-filled sky before watching the dramatic sunrise from the roof. The hotel also has a restaurant offering Italian, Chinese, Western and Sri Lankan food.
What to Do:
Train from Kandy
The journey from Kandy to Ella is widely considered to be one of the world’s most scenic train rides. Watch the breath-taking scenery through the open windows (and doors) while snacking on local Sri Lankan fare, which is sold by vendors throughout the trip. If you want to break up the six-hour journey, consider stopping in Hatton or Nuwara Eliya.
Little Adams Peak
This is one of Sri Lanka’s most iconic hikes. The foot of the mountain is 45 minutes away from Ella by foot. From there, it’s only 15 minutes to the top. The hike takes you through tea plantations and a local village and ends at a stunning viewpoint. Coincide your arrival at the top with sunset, to be rewarded with even more wonderful views than usual.
Cool down with a swim in Sri Lanka’s second highest waterfall. This activity will take up a whole day, but promises to be a highlight of the trip. The foot of the waterfall lies an hour by tuk tuk from Ella. Once you’ve marvelled at the falls from the bottom, take another tuk tuk for 30 minutes to the top. From here, hike for 45 minutes until you reach the rock pools. There are many natural pools, all different levels, which boast stunning views of the surrounding countryside.
Where to Eat:
If you’re looking for cheap and delicious Sri Lankan fare, this is where to go. This local restaurant is located in an actual hut (hence the name), which makes for a fun atmosphere for lunch or dinner. Arrive early to avoid a long wait.
Ella Flower Garden Restaurant
This is one of the most beautiful restaurants in Ella. It’s situated in a garden filled with colourful flowers, which overlooks the mountains. Sit outside and enjoy your food in the sunshine.
The Kitchen Garden
This is the perfect place to experience true Sri Lankan hospitality. Diners sit in the back garden outside their family home, where they grow all their vegetables. We can guarantee that you will want to fill up on the delicious curries, but make sure to save some room for the out-of-this-world desserts.
Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa & Dambulla
Three of Sri Lanka’s eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites are located in close proximity to one another. Use one of these towns as your base to explore all of these amazing architectural feats.
Where to Stay:
The Green Edge
Visitors consistently rave about this family-run bed and breakfast in Dambulla. The rooms are spotless, the atmosphere is serene and the homemade food is authentic and delicious. Make sure to book in advance, as there are only four rooms available.
This luxurious hotel lies on the shores of the Kandalama Lake, within 40 acres of forest. Experience the comforts of a five-star hotel in the midst of nature. The large pool and complimentary after-dinner entertainment are nice touches. The resort is quite spread out, so if you’re too tired to walk the distance in between the buildings, whizz around on one of the golf carts
Sigiriana Resort by Thilanka
Sigiriana Resort is a beautifully furnished modern-meets-colonial hotel. The rooms are clean and comfortable, but the nature surrounding the hotel is what makes it so special. Rice fields, mango trees and cashew trees are the perfect backdrop for the hotel and create a feeling of truly being immersed in nature. The infinity pool that overlooks the huge garden is a lovely place to take a dip after a busy day exploring.
What to Do:
It’s no surprise that this is the most-visited attraction in Sri Lanka. Locals refer to this ancient rock fortress as the “Eighth Wonder of the World”. Hike to the top of Sigirya Rock for panoramic views of the jungle below. Wander through the abandoned palace and discover its waterways, canals and ponds.
Ancient City of Polonnaruwa
Polonnaruwa was the second capital of Sri Lanka in the 10th century. The Ancient City is filled with spectacular temples and ruins, which are definitely worth seeing. Polonnaruwa is quite big, so we recommend renting bikes to best experience it. Don’t miss The Royal Palace, Rankot Vihara and The Sacred Quadrangle.
Golden Temple of Dambulla
This has been a sacred pilgrimage site for 22 centuries. The best-preserved cave-temple complex in Sri Lanka is home to vast Buddhist mural paintings and 157 statues. Bear in mind that while this is a tourist attraction, it is also a very important religious site; so make sure to be respectful.
Where to Eat:
This was hands down the best food I had in the month I spent in Sri Lanka. The meal includes a fabulous spread of curries, dessert and a fresh juice. Most of the fruits and vegetables are grown on site in the organic garden, which you can walk through before or after your meal. Sit overlooking the river and watch the wildlife while you feast. Jaga Food is located in Polonnaruwa and is the perfect place to go for lunch or dinner after a day in the Ancient City.
Those of you craving Western flavours will enjoy this Dambulla restaurant. It’s slightly pricier than local food, but it can provide a nice flavour variation (and coffee lovers will enjoy the cappuccinos).
Gamagedara Village Food
If you’ve worked up an appetite after a visit to Sigirya Rock, head here for a satisfying meal. This rustic restaurant cooks up filling local food for a reasonable price. The kottu roti here is a visitor favourite.
If you’ve got some extra time…
Sri Lanka is a country with so much to offer. If you are planning a longer trip, consider incorporating these activities into your itinerary.
See the Elephants
Sri Lanka is one of the best places in Asia to see elephants. The animals are native to the country and have always been a huge draw for visitors. Elephants have been widely mistreated here in the name of tourism, so it’s important to be mindful of this when choosing where to view them. We suggest visiting a national park, such as Yala or Kaudulla. If you’d like to visit an elephant orphanage, we recommend the Elephant Transit Home in the Udawalawe National Park.
Hike to World’s End
This famous viewpoint is located within Horton’s Plains National Park in Nuwara Eliya. This is not far from Ella, and is worth the trip if you are already in the tea country. At the end of the two and a half hour hike you will be rewarded with jaw-dropping views as you reach a sheer cliff, which is referred to as World’s End.
Sri Lanka’s northern city of Jaffna is culturally very different from the south. The main spoken language is Tamil, instead of Sinhalese, which is spoken in the rest of the country. Take a trip to Jaffna if you want to experience an interesting city that is off the tourist trail.
Thrill seekers, this one’s for you. This eco-lodge is a great place to base yourself for a couple of adventure-packed days. Where else can you wake up and fall asleep to the sound of the river rushing beneath you? The activities on offer include white-water rafting, zip lining, waterfall abseiling, canyoning and bird watching.
Featured image courtesy of Daniel Klein via Unsplash, image 1 courtesy of Mariana Proençaimage via Unsplash, image 2 courtesy of Farhath Firows via Unsplash, image 3 courtesy of Kanchana Amilani via Unsplash, image 4 courtesy of travel_leap via Instagram, image 5 courtesy of Fredrick Ohlander via Unsplash, image 6 courtesy of Ceylon Sliders, image 7 courtesy of Fredrick Ohlander via Unsplash, image 8 courtesy of Eugene Dorosh via Pexels, image 9 courtesy of Buttpacker via Instagram, image 10 courtesy of Natalia Tavannikova via Unsplash , image 11 courtesy of Kirsty Barnby via Unsplash, image 12 courtesy of Louise Burton via Unsplash, image 13 courtesy of Izzy Baehr, image 14 courtesy of Sheshan R via Unsplash