The thing about visiting a country like Sri Lanka is that there aren’t clear-cut places where you absolutely must stay a few days. Colombo and Kandy are the bigger cities, but some people skip Colombo altogether and stay in Negombo. Other people don’t make it all the way up to Dambulla and Sigiriya, which was in my opinion the most interesting spot for tourist attractions. Some people go even farther north to cities like the ancient capital of Anuradhapura.
Knowing what we know now, we definitely would have a tweaked our Sri Lanka itinerary considerably. You can learn from our mistakes and do it the best way possible the first time by following this 10-day itinerary.
Day 1-2 Negombo
Negombo is the city where the international airport is, and though it’s fairly small, it has a really fun beach town feel. The beach is huge and you can swim, take a sailboat tour, or just drink and lay out on the lounge chairs at one of the beach-facing restaurants or hotels.
Our first mistake was staying in Colombo, because since it’s the capital, we thought there would be more to do. But Colombo is a huge financial hub so it’s just a generic downtown. Instead, stay in Negombo and take a tuk tuk or an Uber to Colombo and spend all day zig zagging to the handful of places to see like Gangaramaya Temple and Galle Face. Just don’t waste your time staying there.
Day 3-4 Dambulla and Sigiriya
Dambulla and Sigiriya easily have the best attractions in the country, the Dambulla Cave Temple and the archeological complex of Sigiriya. Both of these are really beautiful places to visit and give you the opportunity to get a little active and walk around in the heart of Sri Lanka’s natural wonders. That felt more exotic and adventurous than anything else on the trip. Though the cities have almost nothing else to offer, staying two days can help you space out the physical activity and relax.
Day 5 Kandy
Though Kandy was more enjoyable than Colombo, it’s not a place with a whole lot to see and do. Most people come here for the Temple of the Sacred Tooth, which is said to hold a tooth of the Buddha. It’s a fairly large complex of religious structures and museums located right on Kandy Lake. Religious significance aside, it wasn’t all that spectacular to visit, especially after you’ve come from something as interesting as the rock temple. But you should do it anyway.
I also recommend making it out to the Royal Botanical Gardens which are massive and full of beautiful flowers and trees. It even has a suspension bridge to add a little excitement. Aside from that, there is a Buddha and a Stupa that overlook Kandy, which are popular places to visit to see the city from above. A much closer viewpoint is called Arthur’s Seat (not to be confused with the one in Edinburgh). It’s a nice place to see the sunset in Kandy.
Some tuk tuk drivers will offer you a whole day tour of Kandy for 1000 rupees. Take it. That’s a great deal and it’ll help you cram all of Kandy’s main attractions into one day. There are a lot of bars and restaurants in the center of town where you can enjoy the night out, but generally everything starts to wind down pretty early. The city is pretty conservative so some places don’t serve alcohol.
Day 6 Train to Nuwara Eliya and Ella
One thing we didn’t do and should have was to stay overnight in either Nuwara Eliya, which is about four hours by train from Kandy, or Ella, which is about six hours away.
Taking the famous train is a much better deal when you need it to transport you to another city, instead of taking it as a day trip and doubling back to Kandy, which is what we did. To be fair, the train costs like $1.50 so it’s a pretty good deal regardless.
If you take the morning train, you can spend the day at Nuwara Eliya, which is an adorable town between Kandy and Ella. It has a lot of European-esque architecture as a holdover from British rule. With equestrian sports, golf, and sailing on Gregory Lake, it’s obvious that people around here are pretty well off. Some nice stops here include Lover’s Leap Waterfall and any of the tea plantations. To avoid a long trek to an actual factory, you can also just visit a tea center like Mackwoods Tea Museum, where you can learn a bit about the tea-making process and sample some of the teas for free in a luxurious tea room.
Four or five hours later, you can take the second train of the day from Nuwara Eliya to Ella to go the rest of the way. The trickiest part about this is figuring out what to do with your bags while you explore Nuwara Eliya, but I’ll let you deal with those fun little logistical nightmares that come with visiting Sri Lanka.
Day 7 Ella
Most locals now consider Ella to be a tourist town, with more foreigners than locals. That’s probably because this is the dumping ground for that hyped train ride. The good thing about going all the way to Ella on the train is that you‘ll be close to the iconic Nine Arch Bridge, which is set upon a lush forest background. It is possible to walk on the bridge, as long as you know the daily train times.
Like Nuwara Eliya, Ella has a lot of natural beauty. You can hike to Little Adam’s Peak or Ella Rock to get a bird’s eye view of the surrounding green mountains. Some tour companies package these three attractions into a one-day tour. Other popular things to see in Ella include Ravana Falls and Ravana Cave.
Day 8-9 Galle and the beaches
Aside from some of the more picturesque natural sites among the lush tea plantations and mountainous jungles, Sri Lanka’s biggest draw is the beach scene. All up and down the coast, you will find lengthy pristine stretches of golden sand, dotted by palm trees and rocks.
Galle is a good stopping point to be among the beaches though the city itself doesn’t have too much beaching to offer. You can visit the Galle Dutch Fort and then hightail it over to one of the nearby sunny spots like Unawatuna Beach and Balapitiya Beach. I recommend going all out and staying at a resort on one of the beaches. It’s the end of your trip, and you’ll want to unwind.
If you’re interested in whale watching, you should stop in Matara instead of Galle. It’s a little closer to Ella, and a lot of whale watching excursions leave from there or the nearby Mirissa.
Day 10 Negombo and the airport
Because of how horrible the traffic is all over Sri Lanka, I recommend your itinerary include staying in Negombo the night before your flight, especially if it’s early in the morning. Otherwise you run the risk of being extremely delayed. If you’re pressed for time, you can shave a day from Negombo at the beginning of the trip and tack it on to the end.
You can modify this itinerary according to your preferences, by cutting a day at the beaches or a day in Dambulla. The problem with that is how much time you’re going to waste each day getting from one place to another.
The longest distance between any two places would be Kandy to Ella, which would take a total of over 6 hours. The longest car distance would be Ella to Galle, almost 5 hours. Every other city to city transfer will take around 2-4 hours depending on the time of day.
You’ll note that this itinerary doesn’t include any trips to the national parks where you can do an elephant safari. Though we decided not to do that, these are options you can enjoy as a day or half day trip from the north or south of the country.