Sri Lanka has been on my travel bucket list for as long as I can remember. In fact, as soon as I discovered you could see elephants in the wild there, I was sold and just knew we needed to go. We decided against a pre-organised tour and opted to wing it, booking flights when they were cheap(ish) and then doing a hell of a lot of research on where was best to stay and what we to do in Sri Lanka.
We visited Sri Lanka in October, which is just before peak season starts in November and for us, this was the perfect month to visit. Yes, you get the odd rainy day, but we had some amazing sunny days and the temperatures were always hot. Plus, most areas are so much quieter at this time of year, as they say, more clouds, less crowds. At some times, we had entire stretches of beaches to ourselves, I’d take that over blazing sunshine any day.
The country is so vast and we soon discovered there was an awful lot to see within the week we had there. Although it may suit some, lying on a beach with all that culture on your doorstep (albeit there’s nothing wrong with that) was not for us. We wanted to immerse ourselves in a new culture, meet Sri Lankan’s, eat their food, find secluded beaches, climb ancient fortresses and sample all the delights this magical island has to offer. After many, many hours of research and toing and froing for a long time we settled on the following itinerary, Kandy, Nuwara Eilya, Ella, Udawalwe, Unawatuna and Galle. For us, this was the perfect Sri Lanka itinerary. Yes it was full on, but we wanted to make the most of our time there, seeing as much as possible in the week we had, plus we had plenty of time for snoozing in the car between locations.
We wanted to find the best hotels in Sri Lanka in ideal locations, but for the best price, which actually turned out to be pretty easy, as hotels in Sri Lanka are so reasonably priced. Scroll down to discover where to stay in Sri Lanka, what to do, plus our top tips before you go and whilst you’re there. Plus, get an extra 10% off your Sri Lanka hotel stay here on Booking.com.
KANDY – DAY 1
Our first stop was Kandy, which is the second biggest town in Sri Lanka. It took about three hours to get from the capital Colombo (where the main airport is) to Kandy by car. This journey was such a highlight as we were able to witness Sri Lankan’s going about their day to day lives on a busy Monday morning, whilst witnessing all the stunning scenery, from bustling towns, to rural villages and lush green forests. Just be aware, the traffic is mental, tuk tuks, buses, mopeds and cars all jostle to be on the road but it’s all part of the experience and works for them.
We stayed in the Golden Crown Hotel for two nights, which was pretty central in Kandy. It’s quite a new hotel and it’s HUGE, our room was bigger than some flats I’ve lived in in the past, but it was the perfect place to refresh and relax after nearly 24 hours of travelling. After a dreamy massage and a delicious meal it was time for an early night.
KANDY – DAY 2
On our second day, we had an early start of 8am for the long drive (three hours) to Sigiriya. Considered to be the eighth wonder of the world, the rock fortress was first inhabited in 300 BC and it certainly did not disappoint. Also known as Lion Rock, the complex includes remnants of a ruined palace, surrounded by vast gardens, ponds, canals, alleys and fountains. The gardens of Sigiriya are amongst the oldest landscaped gardens in the world and they are just as beautiful from above. You can get tickets inside Sigiriya, just make sure you don’t accept a guide from the entrance as you really don’t need it and it’s costly. The entrance ticket was roughly $27 each, but oh so worth it.
After about two hours of climbing and exploring we headed for lunch at Ahinsa Restaurant. Fresh pineapple juice, an avocado salad (filled with about three avocados) plus a delicious and traditional roti was just £3.
Post lunch, it was a short ride to our second climb of the day at Pidurangala Rock. It takes about 30 minutes to reach the top after a few steps, but it’s quite a serious, rocky climb at the end, so be warned. It’s not as clear a path as the one over at Sigiriya, but there are plenty of arrows to show you the way. Once you reach the top, it’s more than worth it, as here, you’ll find the best views of Sigiriya.
Our final stop for the day was at the majestic Dambulla Cave Temple. You can’t really miss it considering the largest Buddha statue in the world sits above the caves, welcoming you in. The colours and many statues, are so beautiful to take in and there’s plenty to appreciate, it’s thought worships have been visiting since 1 BC. We visited right at the end of the day so it was pleasantly peaceful and crowd free.
After seeing so much history and ancientness, it was back to our Kandy mansion for more snoozes and an abundance of beautiful food.
- The Temple of the Tooth
- Kandy View Point
- Kandy Lake
Kandy Hotel Recommendation: Golden Crown Hotel
KANDY/NUWARIYA ELIYA/ELLA – DAY 3
On day three it was time to check out of our hotel (with a lovingly packed lunch box from the hotel manager) and leave Kandy, but not before a visit to the historic Temple of the Tooth in the centre. We were so lucky our lovely driver, Saman, was our personal guide for the temple, giving us so much inside knowledge and showing us all this beautiful place had to offer. The temple is just stunning and smells like a dream with so many incense sticks burning and fresh flowers adorning every room.
The tooth in question is in fact supposed to have belonged to Buddha himself, so you can see why locals and tourists travel far and wide to be in it’s company. Worshippers go to pray with cloth, which they tie up around inside the temple and wish for good health for themselves and their family. There were so many beautiful babies, whom had been brought there by their parents, who wish for good health for them. Make sure you don’t miss out on the museum above the temple, considering how quiet it was in comparison to the temple itself, I think a lot of people didn’t see the signs, but it contains some amazing, ancient relics. Plus there are some fantastic views over Kandy from the top floor of the museum.
After the beautiful temple, we headed to the Kandy View Point, where you’ll find a 360 view of the beautiful ancient city. We also discovered that the enormous white Buddha statue we could see in the distance was the very heart of Kandy and the town was built around it. We had lunch at the Honey Pot overlooking the Mahini River which runs through Kandy.
It was time to leave Kandy and head to our first waterfall. When searching for which Sri Lankan waterfalls to visit, I’d read that Ramboda Falls was a must see. I’m so happy we visited, it was a LOT of steps to climb (460 metres of them) but we were the only ones there. We of course had to take some obligatory (cringe) waterfall photos. We loved that our driver duplicated as a part-time photographer too.
Post waterfall climb it was onto the Ella View Point followed by a tea plantation. Sri Lanka is renowned worldwide for it’s tea production and it was a delight to see how vast the hills really are. We visited Dambro Tea where we saw first hand how tea goes from leaves to cup and even got to try some fresh black tea and cake whilst surveying the plantations. The tea and tour was free in the hope you’ll buy a cake at the cafe (only 70p) and tea from the shop. Of course we stocked up on a wide variety of different flavours to take home.
We got back on the road and headed onto Nuwariya Eliya. Known as ‘Little England’ it’s one of the highest points in Sri Lanka and at the heart of the historic tea country. The highland community does have a vaguely British feel to it, with its colonial-era bungalows, Tudor-style hotels, well-tended hedgerows and pretty gardens. It definitely felt like we were walking through a Lake District village and the lower temperature and rain gave is that impression too. We didn’t stay here as we chose to stay in Ella instead, but just couldn’t miss this quaint town en-route to the next destination.
After another long day, we arrived in Ella and ate at Chilli’s Restaurant which was truly bustling in the small centre of Ella. We stayed at the Ella Flower Garden Resort for one night after reading some good reviews and got an early night for a long day tomorrow.
ELLA/UDAWALAWE – DAY 4
We woke up to the most amazing views of Ella Rock from our balcony, as we arrived in the dark the night before, we had no idea what was out there. There was also a beautiful plunge pool on the balcony too, which we didn’t even notice, as when we arrived, we dived straight into bed, so that was a welcome surprise.
Breakfast was in the hotels gardens, which you are free to wonder through and eat in even if you are not staying there. Scrummy fruit platters, avocado toast and fresh juice, I was in veggie heaven.
We came to Ella as we had read that the Little Adam’s Peak climb and the Nine Arch Bridge were must sees, plus it was on the way down to the South Coast. So we did just that, the Ella Flower Garden is situated in the perfect location for the Little Adam’s Peak walk, it’s essentially at the start. There are many steps to climb but the views at the top are unreal, we were lucky the sun was shining so got some fabulous views, but also some fabulous sunburn, so be careful kids! The walk shouldn’t take longer than 2 hours to do, but it’s really up to you how long you spend up there.
Our driver then took us to the somewhat back entrance of the Nine Arches Bridge in Ella, which was so tranquil through some beautiful forests, with not a sole in site, just a friendly cow. The bridge is amazing, you can walk on the tracks, climb onto the edge, drink some fresh coconuts, watch tea pickers below and wave at those on the train that pass you by. It’s pretty safe, as you can hear the trains coming a mile off and they’re slow. We were lucky to see two, but they’re not very frequent so check the train timetable before you go there.
We stopped for a bite to eat at Ella Mount Heaven, which again, had really amazing views. After way too many noodles, we got back on the road and headed for Udawalawe, but not before two stop offs at Ravana Falls and Diyaluma Falls. They were on the way to Udawalawe so thought why not. You can’t walk up or get to close to Ravana Falls as it’s so powerful and fast flowing but great to see and the mist is lovely and cooling. Diyaluma Falls was impressive from below, but we didn’t realise you had to take quite a hefty hike up to the top to fully appreciate it and take a dip into the many natural pools it holds. With little daylight hours left we didn’t make it, so definitely something to add to the itinerary for our next Sri Lanka visit and something you should definitely try to see.
It was then a three hour car journey to Udawalwe, where we checked into the Centauria Wild Hotel on the outskirts of the national park before our 5.30am safari the next morning. Be prepared for an explosion of humongous bugs when you get to this part of Sri Lanka, due to the humidity and natural wildlife, I would seriously stock up on Jungle Formula bug spray before you go. I am not joking when I say we splatted 20 bugs in our room before going to bed and it was a rather nice establishment too, so it’s not for the fainthearted.
- Ella Flower Garden for Ella Rock views
- Little Adam’s Peak walk
- Nine Arch Bridge
- Ramboda Falls
- Ravana Falls
- Diyaluma Falls
- Chilli’s Restaurant
Ella Hotel Recommendation: Ella Flower Garden Resort
UDAWALAWE/UNAWATUNA – DAY 5
The unwelcome sound of a 4.50am alarm woke us in the morning, but we soon perked up as soon as we jumped in our safari jeep and saw the morning sunrise flooding the Udwalawe National Park with natural, golden light.
We were picked up from the hotel by our guide Lahiru Prasad, who we had pre-booked before coming to Sri Lanka. I would seriously recommend booking a guide as well as a driver. The main reason being, if you don’t have a guide, your driver has to do both – drive and spot wildlife. When you have a guide, they sit with you in the back and point out all the amazing wildlife Udawalawe has to offer. Lahiru was simply outstanding, he used to work in the park as a conservationist, so he not only knows how to find the animals, but also deeply respects and cares for them. He was spotting rare birds, crocodile, buffalo, lizards and of course elephants. We saw such vast wildlife. It was absolutely amazing, they were within touching distance and it was so incredible to see babies with their mothers, not chained up or drugged and free to roam for miles.
He really took us off the beaten track and we got up close and personal with the friendliest bull elephant, something I never thought would happen, after having low expectations of even spotting an elephant. That had to be the highlight of the whole holiday. Another highlight was seeing two beautiful baby elephants which were in a herd with their mothers and also some buffalo cooling off in the water, the leaving on mass, it was like a scene right out of Planet Earth.
On the way back we saw a few vehicles who were also leaving and said they had spotted no elephants, so it really was worth paying that little bit more for a guide, in particular Lahiru.
After probably the best day ever (and all before 9.30am) we headed back to the hotel where breakfast was prepared for us and we set off fro Unawatuna on the south coast.
It took about 3 hours to arrive at Unawatuna and we instantly noticed the warmer temperatures, beachy vibes and generally relaxed scene. We chose Unawatuna over more popular destinations like Weligama and Mirissa as we wanted a laid back feel and it was situated right amongst many beaches we wanted to visit.
We stayed at Shore by Hoppa, a newly opened hotel in October 2019 and I couldn’t recommend it enough. At check in we were welcomed with fresh coconuts and cocktails were on 2-4-1, winning. They’re also a plastic free hotel, they offer glass bottles in the room which you can refill at the bar with their drinkable water tap as much as you like. The best part is the hotel is right on the beach, so you can lounge in the sun, relax in the shade in the cabanas, or wander straight out and explore, plus most bedrooms have dreamy ocean views.
After exploring the local area and checking out some shops, we headed to one of the many restaurants on the beach and settled at Thaproban Beach House for the most divine fish platter. £13 each for fresh tuna steak, prawns, lobster, crab, muscles and more, plus sticky rice and a beer on a beach. The same amount of fish would have literally cost upwards of £100+ back home. We headed back to our hotel for more cocktails, relaxed beach tunes and chatted with the lovely staff there.
- Udawalwe National Park Safari
Udawalawe Recommendations: Centauria Wild Hotel
UNAWATUNA – DAY 6
Exploring palm tree lined beaches was on the list for Sri Lanka and on day 6 of our trip we did just that. We grabbed a tuk tuk from outside of the hotel (there are loads going along the streets and they come to you) and headed for Dalawella Beach. We didn’t pay more than 100 rupees for this trip from Unawatuna so don’t let them rip you off. Dalawella was deserted, I mean it was raining, but it was still just as beautiful.
This is the beach where you’ll find the iconic beach swing, but what all those pretty Instagram pictures don’t show are the huge rocks below ready to break your leg, or the fee you have to pay to the apparent ‘swing owner.’ We decided to give it a miss, there are quite a few swing photos out there already to enjoy, that we didn’t think it was worth the insurance claim.
After Dalawella, we grabbed another tuk tuk to go to Koggala. Here you’ll find a few traditional Sri Lankan stilt fisherman, but make sure you have some change to tip them if you take their photo. We wandered along this deserted beach and stopped for lunch at Wiener Dshungel, where two tuna steaks chips and salad was £4.50 plus, of course a Lion Beer, which we seemingly had to sample in every place we ate. Genuinely think we got through about 50 in the week we were there.
Now I mentioned before it was raining, but of course as soon as we left the restaurant, the heavens opened even more and the heaviest rain I’ve ever seen poured down, so we took shelter in another bar along the beach and, you guessed it, had another lion beer.
After the rain cleared a little, we continued our walk and stumbled across a Turtle Sanctuary. Make of this what you will but I’m not too sure how genuine it was. they had a protected hatching area which was great, as birds can swoop in and steel precious turtle eggs. However, inside these dank, dark pools contained both adult and baby turtles. We were told the adults were injured so they were caring for them as they would die in the open ocean, but they also had a pool filled with maybe 70 baby turtles. We were given the tour then asked if we wanted to release one into the open ocean, for this it would cost $40. We just couldn’t help think they were keeping these baby turtles here to lure tourists into feeling bad and paying a high price to release them, unnaturally. We declined, left a donation and quickly departed.
We grabbed a tuk tuk back to Unawatuna and stopped in the town centre for some traditional roti. The Roti Shop (Yaddehimulla Rd, Unawatuna 80000, Sri Lanka) was recommended to us by fellow tourists and my word was it amazing. Roti’s are a traditional Sri Lankan dish, it’s a sort of crisp pancake, filled with mainly savoury delights, but with some outlets offering sweet fillings. We devoured 3 because they were so good and only 90p each, plus we had the most delicious pineapple lassi.
Unawatuna is filled with so many gorgeous shops selling intricate trinkets. We picked up some hand made wooden ornaments and bowls made from traditional ebony wood and I also got a beach shirt, shorts and dress all handmade in the shop for less than £10 for the three, I felt bad they were so low in price, but they were happy with the sale!
Our evening meal was at the Pink Elephant, which had such a vast assortment of food and drinks available, I would recommend this one for vegans. Afterwards, the staff at our hotel recommended going to Kingfisher, a restaurant and bar located at the end of the main road in Unawatuna for a party. It was a lot of fun, great music, on the beach and cheap drinks.
- Dalawella Beach
- Koggola Beach
Unawatuna Restaurant Recommendations:
- The Roti Shop
- Pink Elephant
- Thropaban Beach House Restaurant
- Love Gelato
- Skinny Tom’s
Unawatuna Hotel Recommendations: Shore by Hoppa,
UNAWATUNA/GALLE – DAY 7
On the final morning we enjoyed breakfast at the hotel, checked out and headed to The Sanctuary Spa in Unawatuna. We had read great reviews about this spa and wanted to enjoy a full morning of relaxing treatments, turned out this spa was pretty much next door to our hotel. I’d pre-booked the full treatment before we arrived in Sri Lanka and it was 130 minutes of pure bliss for £30. Something that would have cost around £200 in the UK and would have been nowhere near as good. The treatment included an ayurveda full body massage, herbal steam bath and shirodara (a form of Ayurveda therapy that involves gently pouring warm oil over the forehead). It felt like we were walking on air when we left, it truly is a sanctuary of calm and a hidden oasis.
Before our final stop in Galle, we enjoyed lunch at Skinny Tom’s Deli in Unawatuna for an Instagrammable (rather expensive) sandwich followied by the most delicious (and vegan) gelato from Love Gelato. It turned out the owner was actually from a town about 5 minutes from us in Manchester, small world! All the gelato is made on the premises and absolutely delicious, I would recommend the dark chocolate and coconut combination.
After a morning of indulgence and far to many calories, it was on to Galle. We decided to splurge a little on the last night (after staying at relatively low cost hotels for the first part of the trip) and stayed the Galle Fort Hotel. I can confirm it is worth it. Galle is less than a 10 minute drive from Unawatuna and tuk tuks, taxis and buses are all readily accessible. We checked into the dreamy room and explored Galle.
A Unesco World Heritage Site, the historic city of Galle is a delight to explore on foot, and very easy to do so as it’s all flat. The exotic old trading port features a mix of Dutch-colonial buildings, ancient mosques and churches, grand mansions and museums. Galle’s rambling lanes feature stylish cafes, quirky boutiques, art shops and impeccably restored hotels. The shops are on the pricey side and sell produce that you can find much cheaper outside of the fort walls but who would say no to exploring air conditioned shops during the afternoon sun. Our favourites were Ibrahim Jewellers, KK Collection and Stick No Bills.
After sharing a bottle of wine in the courtyard of The Sugar Wine Bar and Bistro, we ambled down to the iconic lighthouse and enjoyed one of the most beautiful sunsets, we just sat on the sea wall for the perfect uncrowded spot. What’s more, the stunning purple sky that followed the sunset was the most perfect backdrop for the old Dutch fort and lighthouse.
It was back to the hotel for our evening meal in the Galle Fort Hotel Restaurant, which was delicious to say the least, before packing up ready for an early morning drive back to the airport.
- Galle Lighthouse
- Ibrahim Jewellers
- KK Collection
- Stick No Bills
- The Sugar Wine Bar and Bistro
Galle Hotel Recommendations: Galle Fort Hotel.
Top Tips When Visiting Sri Lanka
Hiring a Driver
If you’re planning a whistle stop tour of Sri Lanka, we would recommend a driver as the best form of getting from place to place. It’s the quickest and most comfortable. It is the most expensive but means you have complete freedom of what you want to see, when you want to see it and saves you valuable time. There’s no waiting for buses, sitting on packed trains or stopping at places you don’t want to be. We pre-booked our driver with Pradeep, after a friend who had used his services highly recommended his services. He has a few drivers who work for him and we were given the lovely Saman. For the week, Saman cost us less than $400 (this is of course dependent on how much you use the driver, driver accommodation and also how far you travel). We definitely felt like we got our money’s worth, especially as our driver, Saman, doubled as incredibly knowledgeable tour guide/photographer. You can find more about Pradeeps services here.
Sri Lankan Currency
The currency in Sri Lanka is the Sri Lankan Rupee (LKR) it is a closed currency, meaning you cannot purchase it outside of the country before you arrive. When you arrive at the airport there are a whole host of currency exchange outlets, but they only take cash and don’t take card, so make sure you have cash. Alternatively you can visit one of the many ATM’s if your bank card allows you to.
Time Between Locations
The distance between locations in Sri Lanka is vastly different to what Google Maps depicts. For example we thought Kandy to Ella would be two hours hours according to Google, however it was more like four. Google doesn’t take into account traffic or the fact a lot of the roads are so windy, meaning the speed you can realistically go is significantly less.
Sri Lanka Visa
Make sure you arrange a visa on the Sri Lankan government site at least two weeks before you arrive, otherwise you can expect a big wait at the airport.
Pinnawala Elephant Sanctuary
If you are heading along the popular route between Columbo Airport and Kandy when you first arrive, don’t get drawn in and offered to visit the Pinnawala Elephant Sanctuary. Thankfully I had read some awful stories about visitors here and so we luckily avoided it, but I’m sure some people aren’t so fortunate. You can read more here from Hand Luggage Only and on TripAdvisor then make your own mind up about whether you wish to visit.
Mirissa and Yala
Two places I wish we had time for were Yala National Park and Mirissa. In Yala there is the opportunity to see leopards in the wild, although notoriously shy and difficult to sport, there is a chance. Whereas in Mirissa, time of year dependent, there is the opportunity to spot blue whales. If and when we return, these two places will be at the top of the list.
Kandy to Ella Train
One of the most iconic images you will have likely seen of Sri Lanka is the rickety train with people dangling from it’s doorways. The journey is about 7 hours, which if you have the time and patience to do is great. You’re not guaranteed a ticket however and long queues can form at the station in Kandy so make sure you’re there early to grab one. There are three different classes 1st, 2nd and 3rd and air con is not guaranteed. There are many suppliers who offer to book tickets on your behalf (they can be requested two weeks in advance) but again, it’s not guaranteed. It’s something we would definitely try to do when we return for the experience, as there are some fantastic views along the route.
If you’ve got The Maldives on your travel bucket list why not tie the two destinations into one holiday? The Maldives is only just over an hours flight from Sri Lanka and to add the flight onto our booking was only an extra £80. We found the best budget resort too, with cheap airport transfers, pristine beaches and an all inclusive deal, check it out here.
Is Sri Lanka Safe?
Since the atrocious terrorist attacks in April 2019 in Colombo, understandably, many foreigners have been put off visiting this stunning country. Honestly, I would go back in a heart beat. It’s unfortunate, but true, that terrorist attacks can happen anywhere in the world and I would not be put off or scared to visit anywhere that has been affected.
Sri Lankans, who are predominantly Buddhist, have a characteristically beautiful interpretation of everything, preferring to see the good rather than the bad and I think we could all learn a thing or two from that. For that reason, I for one will be returning sooner rather than later.
Have you been to Sri Lanka? What were your favourite things to do?