You should go see Sri Lanka.
Why? This island nation has a growing buzz and within a few years the secret will really be out.
We’ve been there twice now (Jan 2017 and Jan 2018) and we experienced a place full of surprises. Sri Lanka was packed full of friendly people, incredible food, beautiful beaches, ancient ruins and touristy stops. It’s was easy to get around and CHEAP. I’d say this land is a back-packers paradise.
Although Jackson and I didn’t follow this itinerary in the order we’ve written it, we feel this would be an optimal way to spend 2 weeks exploring. Unfortunately, 2 weeks won’t cover everything so these are the highlights from the nearly 5 weeks we’ve spent here. Feel free to look at more of our blog to get more detail on what we did.
Day 1: Negombo to Colombo to Galle
Your airline ticket says “Colombo” but you’re gonna land in Negombo, a city an hour north of the capital.
Colombo is an explosion for the senses. I found it very similar to the busy streets of Indian cities: chaotic, noisy, crowded and full of a million sites and sounds. It’s quite hard to walk around and take things in at your leisure. If you cared to, you could stop in Colombo for lunch before catching an afternoon train down south. There are plenty of places to get good food and cultural spots to check out, but I’d skip spending time here and head straight from the airport toward Galle. It’ll be a long day on the move, but so worth it.
The airport is undergoing repairs (at the time of writing this) and can be a little chaotic. We took an Uber from the airport to Colombo and it cost us all of $16USD. There are cheaper alternatives, like a bus which can cost about $3USD, but getting an Uber was super easy and convenient.
Day 2-3: Galle (2 nights)
Welcome to Galle! After sleeping off your travels, go explore the old town!
Jackson and I loved walking around the fort and strolling along the old town streets. The area is packed with shops, restaurants and stalls. We didn’t do any shopping, but enjoyed the quiet churches, small streets and watching the locals play in the beach. Galle’s a beach town at heart and the coast is lovely.
I’d spend a day here at most. The old town is quaint, but a good day of exploration will take you to just about all there is to see.
Day 3: Travel from Galle to Ella
This’ll take a few hours in a car or by bus. If you take a bus, you’ll spend only a few dollars to get there. Buses in Sri Lanka are cheap as chips and run frequently. They are not made for tourists, though, so don’t expect A/C or comfy seats. Travelling around in them is wonderful, however, and you’ll really get a sense of local life.
Day 3-5: Ella (3 nights)
Ella is back-packing central and can feel really touristy. I can see why everyone comes here, there is a lot to see and do.
Jackson and I spent 2 full days taking Ella in and we were glad we did. One day we spent hiking up Ella rock to check out the views. The hike was intense, but really worth it. At the top we saw some gorgeous views of the mountains. To get to the peak you’ll need to walk along train tracks and scamper through tea fields. It’s a strange path, but we enjoyed it.
We spent another full day renting a tuk-tuk and getting a full tour of the surrounding attractions. There’s a waterfall, tea plantations, and beautiful vistas and bridges to check out. Jackson and I rented the tuk-tuk through the home-stay we were with and spent the day with another border at the home-stay to help split the cost. For the full day we spent about $23USD total.
A lot of people recommend Adam’s Peak. We didn’t go because we’d heard that it got really crowded. Especially on weekends. Adam’s Peak is a holy pilgrimage site for the locals in Sri Lanka and a hot-spot for tourists and the combination of both made it sound like it was swarming with people. That didn’t appeal to us. If you do go, set aside a full day.
Day 5: Travel from Ella to Kandy
Kandy is a huge hub and plenty of buses and trains and cars go there. There is a train you can catch that takes you through tea country on the way to Kandy. We didn’t take this train route, but heard it was beautiful. I’d recommend taking the bus; you’ll get stunning views and pay about a dollar to get where you need to go faster than the train could get you there. Also, buses in Sri Lanka are safe.
Day 5-6: Kandy (2 nights)
Kandy used to be a separate kingdom and is home to some of Buddhisms most prized artifacts. The town is full of history. I’d spend a day there walking around. We went to check out the Temple of the Tooth which was PACKED with people. It was worth it, though. Inside the compound it was beautiful and the grounds are full of things to see, like museums and sculptures. For more on what we did there you can read this.
Day 7: Travel from Kandy to Sigiriya
Sigiriya Rock is incredible. It’s a world heritage sight for good reason and a must-see when coming to Sri Lanka.
Day 7 & 8: Sigiriya (2 nights)
The town of Sigiriya isn’t too much to write home about. We stayed in a small home-stay that was across the street from an elementary school. To get to the town we needed to take a bus to Dambulla and then negotiate a tuk-tuk to take us the rest of the way (about 800 LKR or $5USD). We didn’t find too many places to eat, although there is a “strip” that’ll offer food to the tourists, we didn’t find the food to be particularly mind blowing and was more expensive than other areas.
We went to Sigiriya Rock at 4pm. The park closes around 6. An ex-guide, now restaurateur told us that the best time to go was in the afternoon. I can’t speak to what it’s like in the early morning, but the afternoon seemed like a fine time to be there. We got to watch most of the sunset from the top of the rock, which was amazing. All-in-all, you only need about half a day to see Sigiriya and the sights around it. It’s just not that big!
Day 9: Travel from Sigiriya to Tincomalee to Irrakkakandi Beach
This’ll take you a little out of your way, but you WON’T be sorry!
The bus from Tincomalee (or Trinco as it’s known locally) will take about 30-40 min and will cost about .20 cents USD. You can negotiate a tuk-tuk drive to your beach villa for a couple bucks. Just make sure you get out enough cash in Trinco, there are NO ATMs beyond the city limits!! (We made that mistake). Book at least 3 nights here so you can relax.
Day 9-12: Irrakkakandi Beach (4 nights)
Do yourself a favor and stay on the Northeast coast. Why go out of your way? Because these beaches are deserted, beautiful and cheap. The East coast of Sri Lanka was devastated by the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 and it has taken a long time to bounce back. These little communities are authentic, full of curious locals and really gets you off the beaten path.
We stayed at the Nagenahira Beach Villas and LOVED the relaxing atmosphere. They’ll give you dinner (you pay extra for that) and free breakfast. The beds were super comfy and we were able to go up to the roof of our villa and enjoy the sunset.
Day 12: Travel from Trinco to Polonnaruwa
On your way back to the West Coast, why not stop and check out some awesome ruins?
Day 12-13 Polonnaruwa (2 nights)
Polonnaruwa is a compound of ruins from ages ago. These ruins are awesome. They’re not as touristy as Sigiriya or Anuradhapura and you can get around and see almost everything in a day (if you rent a bike, which you should). We loved the temples, shrines, and pagodas and enjoyed the shade that the trees provided. I’d recommend Polonnaruwa over Anuradhapura because the latter is REALLY big and it can get super hot on a bike, whereas the former is smaller and provides more time to look around and explore.
Day 14: Travel from Polonnaruwa to Negombo
Time to go home. You’ll likely need to go through Colombo to get to Negombo, but there are buses leaving from Dambulla very regularly if you catch a bus. You can also negotiate a tuk-tuk ride to get to Dambulla from Polonnaruwa.
Hopefully you come out of Sri Lanka full of good memories of sunsets, ruins, beaches, food and people. It’s a wonderful country and 2 weeks isn’t enough to see how incredible it really is.
If you had unlimited time, I’d recommend 4 weeks. You can see so much more of this country including national parks like Yala or Sinharaja. Eat delicious food in Anuradhapura and tour the ruins there. Explore the countryside, taking side trips and touring tea plantations. There’s plenty to do.
Although this country can seem daunting at first, it’s best to dive in and embrace what it has to offer with an open mind. Enjoy yourself! Good luck!