What to do and see in Sri Lanka
I’ve written a lot of long posts about Sri Lanka so I wanted to put together something shorter and more accessible for those of you scrolling through thinking ‘just tell me where to go!’
Sri Lanka has great scenery, culture and food and the country is compact enough to explore extensively over a two week holiday, but you could easily see some of the highlights inside a week.
These are my top tips for traveling to Sri Lanka and a two week itinerary of what to see, where to stay and where to eat.
Top tips for visiting Sri Lanka
When to visit Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has two monsoons to make sure you check the weather for the areas you want to visit before planning your trip. The South West is best visited between December and March, as are the central regions around Nuwara Eliya. The North and East are best visited April to September. This makes a great excuse to come back for a second visit!
How to get around Sri Lanka
Public transport is cheap, easy and regular. Buses tend to get less regular after 6pm and the trains can be infrequent for longer journeys, but this is nothing some up front planning won’t address.
If you want to travel first class on the train then you typically need to book ahead as these tickets do sell out in advance. You can do this in person at the station up to 30 days before travel, or a quick Google will give you the relevant telephone contact for the line you wish to travel on.
Second class travel is perfectly ok, sometimes it can be crowded and sweaty but it’s all part of the experience and with the windows and doors open you get a nice breeze making the heat far from unbearable. The same goes for the bus. Check out the website The Man in Seat Sixty-One for up to date train times and lots of other useful travel information.
What should you pack for Sri Lanka?
Mosquitoes are everywhere in Sri Lanka so I used a mosquito spray with 50% DEET. Nearly all hotels and guest houses will either supply mosquito nets or have air conditioning which keeps them at bay. I took a net with me but never used it- you could probably do without if you have a big enough supply of repellent.
Other must haves: a torch (some areas can be badly lit and it’s sometimes dark inside temples); binoculars (for safari and for looking at the finer details of temples and other ruins); a small backpack for sightseeing; a rash vest to protect you from the sun when you’re swimming; flip flops (easy to take on and off when visiting temples); a poncho (easy to carry and great all over protection for sudden downpours); sunscreen; aloe vera (take plenty as you’ll struggle to restock in many parts of Sri Lanka); a hat, sunglasses and umbrella. Last but not least; a local sim card from the airport so you can check Google maps to see which bus you may or may not be on and when you need to get off.
How long should you spend in Sri Lanka?
There are plenty of ways of constructing great itineraries for any length of stay. I’d recommend 2 to 3 weeks if you want a comprehensive tour of the island with some relaxation built in, but you can equally have a great time there for just a week if you are realistic about the ground you’re able to cover and focused about what you want to see.
What to eat in Sri Lanka
Sri Lankan food is great and very varied. Take the opportunity to try as much as you can, as it’s not always the easiest to find when you get home. Make sure to try ‘short eats’, Sri Lankan snacks – often deep fried and lentil-based – available on trains, buses and pretty much everywhere else.
Hoppers are another Sri Lankan staple, usually served at breakfast. They come in different varieties; plain hoppers are little bowl shaped crepe-like pancakes made from rice flour for dipping into a variety of sauces. Sometimes they come with an egg cooked into the hopper, you also get ‘string hoppers’.
Kottu Roti is literally ‘chopped roti’ mixed with various combinations of meat, prawns, egg and vegetables. This is a street food staple and in cities and towns across Sri Lank you hear the characteristic sound of chefs chopping the roti on a griddle. I tried it for the first time in Mirissa Beach at 1 Dewmini Roti Shop and it did not disappoint.
Two week itinerary for Sri Lanka
Day 1 – Colombo
Take a taxi from Colombo airport (about an hour’s drive) and arrive in Colombo to explore the Old Dutch Hospital and watch the sunset from Galle Face Green. Have dinner at the popular Ministry of Crab (make a reservation first!)
Day 2 – Habarana
Take the train to Habarana which you can use as a base for visiting a number of Sri Lanka’s top tourist spots. There’s little to do in Habarana itself but you can stay at the upscale Cinnamon Lodge Habarana to enjoy some poolside relaxation in between sightseeing.
Day 3 – Anuradhapura
Take a day trip to Anuradhapura on the bus (around 90 mins each way) to see one of Sri Lanka’s ancient capitals, occupied from at least the 4th century BC. Anuradhapura is a World Heritage Site and boasts some remarkably well preserved temples.
Day 4 – Sigiriya and Dambulla
Hop in a tuk tuk to the sights of Sigiriya and Dambulla. Climb the ancient rock fortress at Sigiriya to see the ruins of a palace on the top and intricately painted murals on the rock face half the way up. It’s a long climb but worth it for breath-taking views over the surrounding countryside. Head to the painted caves of Dambulla.
Take the bus to Polonnaruwa and explore the museum and archaeological site. Then head to Kandy (easiest by private driver)
Day 5 – Polonnaruwa
Explore yet another World Heritage Site and the capital city of Sri Lanka’s second most ancient kingdom. This is a fascinating and well laid out site full of temples covered in ornate carvings. The museum makes a good start to the day, giving you plenty of context for your visit.
In the afternoon head to Kandy (easiest by private driver – book ahead for the best prices).
Day 6 – Kandy
Explore Kandy including the Temple of the Sacred Tooth.
Day 7 – Train to Ella and onwards to Kataragama
Take the early train to from Kandy to Ella (08:47) and enjoy one of the most spectacular train rides in the world. It’s a long journey (6 and a half hours!) but worth it. Journey onwards to Kataragama by bus (about another 90 minutes).
Day 8 – Yala National Park
Take a game drive to look for Yala’s elusive leopards, crocodiles, cobras and more. You can book ahead with a company online or ask your hotel to recommend a driver. Your entrance fee to Yala includes a guide for your jeep who will be able to tell you about the park and animals.
After lunch, take the bus to Mirissa Beach (around 3 hours).
Day 9 – Mirissa Beach
Relax for the day at Mirissa Beach. Make sure you visit No. 1 Dewmini Roti Shop for kottu roti at lunch and find a restaurant on the beach for a dinner of freshly caught fish to eat with the sand between your toes.
Day 10 – Galle
Take the bus to Galle (around half an hour) and see the various museums and landmarks, mostly from the Dutch colonial period. You can see the whole Fort area by foot and there are plenty of great restaurants to try (Elita Restaurant and Lucky Fort are worth a try). Watch the sunset over the sea with the locals.
Day 11 – Galle and Colombo
Continue exploring Galle and then take the train back to Colombo (around 2 and a half hours) for excellent views along the coast.
Day 12 – Colombo
Spend your last day exploring the rest of Colombo including the Colombo National Museum, Dutch Period Museum and Viharamahadevi park where you can spot huge fruit bats resting in the trees.