The Perfect Sri Lanka Itinerary | 3 Weeks of Adventure in the Garden of Eden

Sri Lanka is one of the hottest backpacker and adventure travel destinations in the world right now, and with good reason.  With a good Sri Lanka itinerary, 3 weeks is enough to surf, trek, safari, and wander to your heart’s contentment from beaches, to elephant filled jungles, to cool and misty tea plantations, and 2500+ year old ruins.  Whatever you’re hoping to find on your dream backpack route, Sri Lanka has it.

The Perfect Sri Lanka Itinerary | 3 Weeks of Adventure in the Garden of Eden
Photo Credit: @coralieboisseau

Before my 3 week adventure wandering through Sri Lanka by tuk tuk the hardest part of planning was deciding between all of the attractions and fitting the best into only 3 weeks!  Luckily, A Brother Abroad has your back and has done it for you.

With this perfect Sri Lanka itinerary 3 weeks will be perfect for you to see just enough of everything, without being overwhelmed by too much moving around.  We’ve accounted for Sri Lanka’s monsoon seasons (November to April and April to November) and created a perfect route for each that includes beaches, tea country, trekking, animal safaris, culture, ruins, and everything else you need to see in Sri Lanka.

In addition to the perfect 3 week Sri Lanka itinerary for your trip and time of year you’ll find alternative itineraries for 2 weeks in Sri Lanka, a one week itinerary, and even a surf itinerary for those on a real mission.

So now that we’ve done the hard work so you can stay motivated to visit Sri Lanka, read on for your perfect itinerary for 3 weeks in Sri Lanka.  Bon voyage!

CONTENTS

YOUR 3 WEEK SRI LANKA ITINERARY, ADJUSTED BY SEASON

THE 2 PERFECT OPTIONS:

The two most common questions about Sri Lanka are “ how many days should I spend in Sri Lanka” and “where should I visit in Sri Lanka”.  I’ll give you straight answers to both questions here.

How Long Should You Spend In Sri Lanka?  3 Weeks.  Heres’ why…

3 weeks in Sri Lanka makes for the perfect itinerary.  You won’t necessarily see everything, but you’ll see enough to feel satisfied and happy, and definitely not feel like you missed out. Sri Lanka’s main draw, and why I recommend it so much, is because it provides so many different experiences and adventures (as you’ll see in the itineraries) in a country you can drive across in 8 hours.  That means in 3 weeks, you could pack the same amount of adventure you’d experience in 5-10 countries over a couple months.  For that reason, 3 weeks is perfect

For more info on the weather and when to go (based on your destination) read our article “Best Time of Year to Visit Sri Lanka

Where Should You Go In Sri Lanka?  Depends On The Season…

As for where to visit in Sri Lanka, this heavily depends on when you plan to visit – specifically whether you’ll visit between the April to November period or the November to April period.  The Sri Lankan monsoon and weather patterns are the main reasons for this.

During each half of the year, the west and east halves of Sri Lanka flip-flop from being hot and dry to being drenched in monsoon rains.  As a result, the beaches and coastal waters go from being pristine, crystal clear, and ripe to surf, to choppy, murky, and not nearly as much fun, ruining the surfing, snorkeling, and diving opportunities. 

Most tourists and tourism providers know this, so “off-season” locations on the coast are not just less fun, but they turn into ghost towns with little to do, fewer people, and poorer conditions on the water.  For these reasons, plan according to this.

November to April: Stick to the west of the island when visiting the south and beaches (Weligama, Hikkaduwa, Unawatuna)

April to November: Stick to the east of the island when visiting the south and beaches (Arugam Bay)

Now that you know the two seasons and where to head in Sri Lanka for each, let’s get into the two perfect options for a Sri Lanka Itinerary of 3 Weeks – one for November to April and the other for April to November.

The Perfect Sri Lanka Itinerary | 3 Weeks of Adventure in the Garden of Eden


THE PERFECT SRI LANKA ITINERARY (3 WEEKS) FOR NOVEMBER TO APRIL +

INCLUDING MAP AND ROUTE

For most travelers, November to April is the ideal time for your 3 weeks in Sri Lanka as the southwest is sunny and happening. Being in the southwest of Sri Lanka puts all of the great, beachy destinations within two hours by bus, train, or car from Colombo, Negombo and the airport making for a much more convenient travel experience.

You’ll skip Arugam Bay, which will be in the off-season and filled with bad weather, rains, and choppy waters.  Skipping Arugam Bay makes your itinerary a natural and easy line south from Colombo toward Galle and Weligama for beaches, then a couple hours inland for a national park and Sri Lanka Safari, then up into the hill country of Ella and Nuwara Eliya, and the cultural and historic sites of Dambula and Aradahadapura.

This is the perfect itinerary for Sri Lanka, doable by railway, public bus, or tuk tuk, experiencing a taste of everything the country has to offer without feeling rushed or deprived along the way.

Let’s dig into each location on the perfect November to April itinerary a bit.

The Perfect Sri Lanka Itinerary for 3 Weeks | From November to April

Recommended uses for the option days

  1. Relax in your favorite beach town for an additional day
  2. Relax in Ella for an additional day
  3. Squeeze in one more national park safari
  4. Consider a walking tour of Colombo focusing on culture and history, followed by visits to major temples and mosques, the market, and some of Anthony Bourdain’s food spots

 

EXPANDED 3 WEEK SRI LANKA ITINERARY FOR NOVEMBER TO APRIL

————————

DAY 1| NEGOMBO & COLOMBO

SETTLE IN, RELAX, AND PREP FOR 3 WEEKS OF ADVENTURE

Start your trip in Negombo instead of Colombo to stay comfortable and begin day 2 fresh and ready. 

The Perfect Sri Lanka Itinerary | 3 Weeks of Adventure in the Garden of Eden

Though Colombo is the capital of Sri Lanka and you fly into the “Colombo Airport” Negombo is much closer to the airport (15 minutes from the airport to Negombo vs. 45 minutes to Colombo), quieter and cleaner with more accommodation options for travelers, both budget and “comfy”.  Do yourself a favor and stay in Negombo while wandering through Colombo in your free time.


THINGS TO DO | COLOMBO

Visit the following spots in the evening if you’re up to explore.  All of the spots are easily accessible by train, bus, or Uber.

  • The Pettah Markets: Located near the Colombo Fort Railway Station, these local markets will give you a quick, robust taste of daily life in Colombo.  Drop by after buying your train ticket to your next destination
  • The Red Mosque (Jami Ul-Alfar Masjid): One of the oldest mosques in Colombo and quite a sight to see
  • Galle Face Green: A grassy spot on the ocean, perfect for sunset, local food, and a local feel.  This is where Anthony Bourdain dropped by for a local meal. Be like him and hit Nana’s Street Food for a beer and whatever looks good
  • The National Museum

————————

NEGOMBO & COLOMBO| DETAILS

How to Get There: To get from the airport to Negombo take an Uber, your most reliable and cheapest bet.  Tuk tuks, taxis, and shuttles are standing by but are overpriced and nearly impossible to negotiate down.

Tips: Beware of the common scams in Colombo

Where to Eat:

Cheap Eats in Colombo |  Best Rated Restaurants in Colombo

DAY 2 | HIKKADUWA

SUN AND RELAX IN A LOW KEY SURF TOWN

Hikkaduwa: A low key surf and beach town with cheap yet comfortable hotels and bars on the beach that practically touch the water. 

The Perfect Sri Lanka Itinerary | 3 Weeks of Adventure in the Garden of Eden

Beyond surfing, lounging on the beach and feeding turtles are the main draws of Hikkaduwa – so if you’re not ready for a surf or beach day yet, I’d suggest saving a day by continuing straight on to Galle instead.


THINGS TO DO | HIKKADUWA

  • Surfing: Rent a board or a lesson at one of the many surf shops on Hikkaduwa’s main street
  • Sunning and Turtles: Hikkaduwa’s main beach is great for soaking up some sun, where turtles also swim up to eat seaweed right out of your hands

HIKKADUWA | DETAILS

TIPS FOR HIKKADUWA

Aim for a hotel right on the beach.  Rooms are cheap (~$20) and literally about 15 feet from the water with a bar & restaurant downstairs and a view of the surf scene.  I recommend Funky Hotel, located just above Funky da Bar.


WHERE TO EAT IN HIKKADUWA

Other Cheap Eats in Hikkaduwa | Trip Advisor Best Rated Restaurants in Hikkaduwa


WHERE TO SLEEP IN HIKKADUWA

Funky Hotel: I recommend Funky Hotel, cheap, modern, and right on the beach, situated above Funky da Bar (which is right on the beach too) but there are plenty of other great hotels in Hikkaduwa


GETTING TO HIKKADUWA

By Train from Colombo to Hikkaduwa will be the cheapest and most straight forward as you can go to the Colombo Fort railway station to purchase first-class tickets with reserved seating

By Bus from Colombo to Hikkaduwa is another quick, easy and cheap option, just ask the management at your accommodation where the nearest bus stop is.

Driving your own tuk tuk is the most fun option.  Simply plug your destination into Google Maps and follow the directions down the coast.  Know going in that the drive out of Colombo will be pure, unadulterated chaos, with honking drivers, smog, and monster trucks on your tail.  Don’t be discouraged though! This is the only part of Sri Lanka wherein driving is so chaotic, the rest will be peaceful, enjoyable, and adventurous.

2 hours, 30 minutes driving (Negombo to Hikkaduwa), 3 hours by train


OTHER HIKKADUWA RESOURCES

Check out the Hikkaduwa Surf Guide to get info on the breaks, board rental, lessons, and more

DAY 3 | GALLE

WALK ALONG THE WALLS OF A UNESCO HERITAGE FORT AND THROUGH LOCAL MARKETS BY THE SEA

The UNESCO World Heritage sites of Galle’s old town and fort are the main draws for Galle, and very much worthwhile.

The Perfect Sri Lanka Itinerary | 3 Weeks of Adventure in the Garden of Eden
Photo Credit: @victoria_sviatetska

After walking around the town along the ramparts wander through the Old Town’s center and the local markets.


THINGS TO DO | GALLE

Galle Fort: Start at the clock tower and walk toward the fort’s front gate, walking along the ramparts, past the hospital, and past the church along the way. Take some time to wander within the fort past the boutique shops and eat at wherever catches your nose.  Hit the fort wall for sunset, like the locals do.


GALLE | DETAILS

WHERE TO EAT IN GALLE

Cheap Eats in Galle Fort | Best Rated Trip Advisor Restaurants in Galle

HOW TO GET TO GALLE

By train or bus are both cheap and easy.  Check the schedule at the local bus station or rail station, as they change frequently.

By tuk tuk follow Google Maps’ directions for an enjoyable 45-minute ride, much more peaceful than driving in Colombo

Drive time: 45 Minutes (Hikkaduwa to Galle) | Rail time: 45 minutes

Click to search availability for Hotels and Hostels in Galle

DAY 4 | WELIGAMA

WELIGAMA: SURF AND RELAX ON THE BEACHES OF WELIGAMA CAPE

The Cape of Weligama is another low key beach spot that offers year-round surf.  In season (November to April) waves pump and the ocean is like glass while parties happen across the street from the beach and in the surrounding cities of Mirissa and beyond.

The Perfect Sri Lanka Itinerary | 3 Weeks of Adventure in the Garden of Eden
Photo Credit: @hangtimehostel

In the offseason, waves still exist between light rain showers, and they’re surfable thanks to the protection offered by Weligama’s bay setup.  This makes Weligama a great stop year-round to break up longer rides from Colombo to Yala National Park or Arugam Bay.


SITES TO SEE | THINGS TO DO


OPTIONAL STOPS NEAR WELIGAMA

  • Unawatuna: Dalawella beach and Mihiripenna beach for beautiful beaches for lounging (or Instagramming), located next to Galle (10 minutes out of town) 35 minutes before Weligama
  • Midigama Beach: Another surf option with a known break when the season is on. Check out our Midigama Surf Guide for more info
  • Mirissa: A party spot for the locals, just south of Cape Weligama

WELIGAMA| DETAILS

RECOMMENDED EXPERIENCES & TOURS


WHERE TO EAT

  • Roti shacks and food shacks along the main road/beach will be your best bet, serving rotis, kotu rotis, seafood, and fried rice.  None of it is exquisite, so stick to the basic items to avoid being disappointed
  • The Hang Ten rooftop at the Hangtime hostel is your best option for good coffee and a western style breakfast / brunch

More Cheap Eats in Weligama | Trip Advisor’s Best Rated Restaurants in Weligama


HOW TO GET WELIGAMA

By bus is the easiest, cheapest, and quickest way to get to Weligama from anywhere between Colombo and Weligama, as the bus takes the expressway the entire way.  To take the bus, just drop by the main bus terminal in your departure town and ask for Weligama.  Buses generally don’t have hard schedules so you’ll have to show up and see.

Driving by Tuk Tuk from Galle simply follow Google Maps.  The route is mellow and enjoyable with some scenic seaside views

Driving Time: 50 Minutes (Galle to Weligama)


WHERE TO STAY IN WELIGAMA

  • Bunkyard Hostel:  Dorms start at $8 per night; Private rooms for $40 per night
  • Hangtime Hostel: Dorms start at $10 per night; Private rooms for $30 per night

Both hostels are lux and modern, located (literally) across the street from the main surf break (very beginner-friendly) and plenty of surf shacks for renting decent boards.

 

DAY 5 | TANGALLE

ARGUABLY THE MOST PEACEFULLY BEAUTIFUL BEACHES IN SOUTHWEST SRI LANKA

If you’re craving true peace on a hidden gem of a beach, stop in Tangalle.  White sands, turquoise waters, and sunbeds without the crowds are what await you in the sleepy oceanside town of Tangalle.

THINGS TO DO | TANGALLE

Lounge…just lounge…and maybe kayak in the lagoon


The Perfect Sri Lanka Itinerary | 3 Weeks of Adventure in the Garden of Eden
Photo Credit: @coralieboisseau

TANGALLE| DETAILS

WHERE TO EAT IN TANGALLE

Cheap Eats in Tangalle | Best Rated Restaurants in Tangalle

HOW TO GET TO TANGALLE

Traveling by bus is your best bet for getting to Tangalle uninterrupted from Weligama.  Just head to the main bus terminal and look for the Tangalle bus.  The bus takes the expressway, making for a much faster, comfortable trip than by train.

By Train fromWeligama will only get you as far as Matara, as that is where the train line ends. From Matara, you’ll need to hop the bus the rest of the way to Tangalle.

By private car, the ride from Weligama to Tangalle is roughly 1 hour and 20 minutes passing Mirissa (and Mirissa Beach)

By Tuk Tuk, if you’re on that adventure, just follow Google Maps’ route and you’ll have no trouble.  The driving is light and easy and the roads are great.

Drive Time: 1 Hour, 20 Minutes (Weligama to Tangalle)


WHERE TO STAY IN TANGALLE

I didn’t stay overnight in Tangalle (as I was anxious to get to Yala National Park), but other Tuk Tuk travelers highly recommended the Guesthouses Three Little Birds and Turtle Watch Cabana

Click here to see availability for all of the Hostels and Hotels in Tangalle

DAY 6 | TISSAMAHARAMA & YALA NATIONAL PARK

SPOT LEOPARDS AND ELEPHANTS ON A JEEP SAFARI

A Sri Lanka safari experience should be on every traveler’s list while wandering Asia, and of the safari options, Yala National Park was my favorite. 

The Perfect Sri Lanka Itinerary | 3 Weeks of Adventure in the Garden of Eden

The variety of animals and the chance to do your own tour (as long as you’re driving your own tuk tuk) make Yala National Park one of my highest recommend experiences in Sri Lanka.  Elephants, leopards, water buffalo, sloth bears, monkeys, peacocks, and so much more wander Yala waiting for you to spot them on your safari.

Keep in mind that Tissamaharama is the best place to stay while exploring Yala National Park.  Tissamaharama is the city adjacent to Yala National Park’s entrance and there isn’t any accommodation in Yala (other than camping) making Tissa the cheapest and most convenient option for sleeping before your Yala safari. 

Fair warning – don’t count on much to do in Tissa aside from Yala National Park.  The town is nearly dead after nightfall

Kataragama is an option for cities to stay in, but you’ll have to backtrack to the entrance of Yala, so staying in Tissa is the better option all around. 

THINGS TO DO | TISSA & YALA NATIONAL PARK

The main (and only worthwhile) attraction from Tissa is Yala National Park, but Yala can be experienced so many different ways (by day, by night, and while camping) that you’ll need to choose your preferred option ahead of time.

Top Yala National Park Experiences


The Yala National Park Safari Experience

Yala National Park Jeep Safari gave me the unexpected (and awesome) chance for an African Sahara style safari seeing elephants, leopards, water buffalo, crocodiles, monkeys, wild hogs, peacocks, and quite a bit more along the way.  If you’re unsure which of the Sri Lankan National Parks and Safaris to do, I highly recommend Yala.

Making the drive from Tangalle in the morning, you’ll make it in time for an evening safari, seeing the animals come to life again just before sunset for a busy night.  Additionally, you can squeeze in a morning safari the following day before leaving to Ella.  The evening Yala Jeep Safari tours start around 2pm, so keep that in mind.

For those who want to splurge on an irreplaceable experience consider luxury camping under the stars for a night before doing an early morning safari.


Self-Guided Yala National Park Safari: My Recommended (and Favorite) Approach

For those on the other end of the budget spectrum (as in, “not rich”), consider renting your own tuk tuk and doing a free “self-guided safari” through Yala National Park.

The Perfect Sri Lanka Itinerary | 3 Weeks of Adventure in the Garden of Eden

On a whim, I took my tuk tuk on this route (detailed below) through Yala National park and encountered plenty of wildlife…from a tuk tuk!  A pack of wild hogs, different clusters of monkeys, peacocks, deer, buffalo, and even elephants were some of the animals I stumbled upon

Here’s how to do your own free self-guided safari of Yala National park by driving your own tuk tuk:

  • Start in Tissamaharan and follow the Google Maps directions from Tissamaharan to drive to the Sithulpawwa Monastery (also spelled Situlpawwa) via “Kirinda-Situlpawwa Road”
  • Park in the parking lot at the Sittulpawa monastery and say hello to the wild pigs and elephants that hang out in the parking lot
  • Make the quick hike up to the Situlpawwa stupa (5-10 minutes) that gives amazing and expansive views of Yala National park
  • To leave Yala, take Situlpawwa to Kataragama route via “Kataragama – Situlpawwa Road” to exit via the other side of the national park
  • To continue your self-guided safari drive road B35 from Kataragama to Buttala.  The road will be dotted with elephants and other animals

CONSIDER THESE SAFARIS

Uda Walawe National Park.  Filled with elephants and a mere 2 hours away from Tangalle, the park is perfect for a safari day trip alternative to Yala if you’re in the mood to see hundreds of elephants.  You will absolutely see elephants in Yala, just fewer and the varied wildlife that Yala offers.

Or view the entire list of the best Sri Lanka Safari options


TISSAMAHARAMA & YALA NATIONAL PARK | DETAILS

COSTS

Safari of Yala National Park Fee: ~$100 booked in advance, ~$40 booked locally

TIPS FOR YALA AND TISSA

  • For accommodation, you will have to stay in either Tissamaharama or Kataragama as Yala is only the national park.  Of the two options, pick Tissamaharama as you can conveniently enter the park (on your solo tuk tuk safari), then exit toward Kataragama and drive north toward your next destination.
  • Consider renting your own Tuk Tuk and doing the self-guided safari of Yala National Park and using the saved money to do a jeep safari in a different Sri Lanka National Park
  • For self-guided tuk tuk safari-ers, do theride through Yala on your way out of town.  This way you’ll drive naturally onto route B35 (another rode filled with elephants) and on to either Ella or Arugam Bay

WHERE TO EAT

Honestly, food options are limited around Tissa, so don’t any food-tastic adventures outside of all-inclusive glamping.  These lists (linked below) are your best bets for a good meal.

Cheap Eats in Tissa | Trip Advisor’s Best Rated Restaurants in Tissa


HOW TO GET TO TISSAMAHARAMA, KATARAGAMA, AND YALA

There are no train lines going into Tissamaharama but there are frequent local bus lines from across the country. 

By Bus, just head to the central bus station in your city of departure and ask around

By Tuk Tuk, just follow Google Maps’ directions.  The roads are well maintained and far from busy going into Tissa    , making it an enjoyable and adventurous ride.

Drive time: 1 Hour, 20 Minutes (Tangalle to Tissamaharan)

DAY 7 | TRAVEL TO ELLA

ENJOY A BEAUTIFUL ROAD TRIP AS YOU RIDE FROM BEACHES TO HILLY TEA COUNTRY

Count Day 7 as a travel day as you drive up to the cooler climate and highlands of tea country into Ella.  For hikers, trekkers, outdoorsy types, and those who prefer mountains over beaches, you’ll fall in love with Ella.

The Perfect Sri Lanka Itinerary | 3 Weeks of Adventure in the Garden of Eden


GETTING TO ELLA

From Tissa: Head to the main bus terminal in Tissamarahama and ask around for the line going to Ella.

For those driving their own tuk tuk, follow Google Maps for the best route from Tissa to Ella and simply enjoy the ride – including Route B35 to Buttala if you want to to see more elephants. 

Plan on your Tuk Tuk losing power as you go higher in altitude.  Also, keep a rain jacket handy and know how to pull the rain flaps down on your Tuk Tuk as rains on the route are pretty common.  The drive is beautiful as you transition from the dry brush filled lands around Yala into the lush, green, mountains of tea country.

Drive time: 1 Hour, 50 Minutes – Kataragama to Ella // Buttala to Ella (1 Hour)


WHERE TO EAT

Ella is a town mainly built around tourism – meaning there are plenty of great places to eat that cater to tourists.  If you’ve been craving western food or a cocktail, Ella’s the place for it.  If you forget where this list is, just walk down the main street of Ella and you’ll see the clear cluster of western-style restaurants and rooftop bars. 

My Favorite Ella Restaurants

  • Café Chill: Hands down my favorite bar and rooftop in Ella.  Great food. Awesome cocktails.  Bean bags.  What else do you need in life?  Perfect for relaxing after an active day
  • Ceylon Tea Factory Restaurant: Swanky and tasty
  • Café One Love: Bean bags, hammocks, and a chill ambiance

More Cheap Eats in Ella | Trip Advisor’s Best Rated Restaurants in Ella

DAY 8 | ELLA

HIKE TO LITTLE ADAM’S PEAK OR ELLA ROCK FOR VIEWS THROUGH MOUNTAINS TO PLAINS + THE 9 ARCH BRIDGE

Ella is a chill outdoor mecca and mountain town surrounded by the greenery of tea country highlands.

Though Ella is very much a tourist-centric city, that doesn’t kill the charm at all thanks to its beauty.  Use your first day in Ella to take one of its two most notorious and very beautiful hikes (either the hike to Little Adam’s Peak or the hike to Ella Rock).  Then, grab some amazing pictures by sunset at the 9 Arch Bridge.

After an active day outdoors, the main street, filled with mildly touristy western restaurants, cafes, and rooftop bars, will be a bit of welcomed respite from all curry meals and beer free cities you’ve been experiencing. Treat yourself to a rooftop drink and tasty meal to end the day. 

Start with Café Chill’s bean bag filled rooftop to get acquainted with Ella.

At night, you’ll find plenty of places to chill if you have the energy – so much so that you’ll likely end up stuck in Ella longer than planned like most travelers (including me).

THINGS TO DO | ELLA

This (awesome) itinerary includes a few days in Ella, as you’ll need the extra time to enjoy this place

  • Ella Rock Hike (Day 8)
  • Little Adam’s Peak Hike (Day 8)
  • 9 Arch Bridge viewpoint (Day 8)
  • Tuk tuk Ride to Lipton’s Seat – can be done from Haputale if you don’t have a Tuk Tuk (2,000-3,000 LKR) (Day 9)
  • UVA Halpewatte Tea Factory Tour in Ella (Day 9)
  • Train ride from Ella to Haputale (or Kandy) (Day 10)

THINGS TO DO | DAY 8 IN ELLA

  • Little Adam’s Peak Hike
  • Ella Rock Hike
  • 9 Arch Bridge

Little Adam’s Peak Hike (2 hrs)

The Perfect Sri Lanka Itinerary | 3 Weeks of Adventure in the Garden of Eden

One of the highlights of Ella, this quick hike is relatively easy and delivers some epic views in return.  The starting point is a 10 to 15-minute ride outside of town making it easily accessible and something you can knock out before or after lunch.

A 1.5 – 2 hour round trip hike crawls over a ridgeline ending with unimpeded views through hill country and into the flatlands of Sri Lanka. 

On the way hiking toward the peak, you’ll pass zip-lining options if you want a quick bit of adventure. 

Beware, there are a couple points walking along the steep mountainside which can be a little vertigo-inducing, but you can easily take the inside route (over the mountain) by walking through the blade grass.

The hike isn’t too tough and is easily doable by most, just keep it slow and easy.

To do the hike, just look for the start point in Maps.Me and follow the hiking route in Maps.Me.


Ella Rock Hike (4 hrs)

The Perfect Sri Lanka Itinerary | 3 Weeks of Adventure in the Garden of Eden

Another fantastic hike and a bit longer, this 4 hour round trip hike gives you more of the same – fresh, cool air and highland views.

To make the Ella rock hike, head to the Ella train station and walk south (along the tracks) past the bridge and towards the Kithaella train station.  From here, continue walking along the tracks following the Maps.Me route to Ella Rock.

Expect the hike to take 4 hours round trip.


Hike to the 9 Arch Bridge

The Perfect Sri Lanka Itinerary | 3 Weeks of Adventure in the Garden of Eden

End the day by making a short hike to the 9 Arch bridge closer to sunset, allowing you to get amazing pictures of pretty epic view while the light is at its best.  A 15-minute ride out of town to the hike start point and a 10-minute hike to the 9 Arch Bridge. 

Grab a refreshing coconut from the shack at the viewpoint.

DAY 9 | ELLA

TAKE THE UVA HALPEWATTE TEA FACTORY TOUR + RIDE TO LIPTON’S SEAT (IF YOU HAVE A TUK TUK)

Continue experiencing Ella and the tea country by sampling the best tea Sri Lanka has to offer while touring the Uva Halpewatte tea factory and taking the scenic drive from Ella to Lipton’s Seat if you’ve rented your own tuk tuk.

THINGS TO DO ON | DAY 9 IN ELLA


Ella Tea Factory Tour at the Uva Haelwatte Tea Factory

Tea is quite a complex creation, despite how simple a cup of tea may seem, and you’ll realize that moreso after taking a tour of a tea factory.  The Uva Hapelwatte Tea Factory offers a great tour of their factory, walking you through the types of leaves, the steps in processing, and how to tell a great cup of tea.  I found it to be much more interesting than expected.

The post-tour cup of tea enjoyed on a high balcony overlooking tea country is an amazing perk too.

To take the tour of the Uva Halpewatte tour, simply show up anytime between 8 AM to 4 PM for the tours that run roughly every 30 minutes, proceed to the top floor (where the store is), pay your tour fee and hangout.

The Perfect Sri Lanka Itinerary | 3 Weeks of Adventure in the Garden of Eden
Photo Credit: @martina.formankova


Take the Scenic Ride to Lipton’s Seat

After the tour, if you’re driving your own Tuk Tuk simply plug “Lipton’s Seat” into Google Maps as your destination and follow the direction.  The ride and scenery will be unreal, and you’ll be recommending the trip to everyone you find with their own tuk tuk.

If you don’t have a tuk tuk of your own, consider hopping on a tour to Lipton’s seat. Click here to check prices and availability for Lipton’s Seat tours

 

DAY 10 | ELLA

TAKE A BEAUTIFUL TRAIN RIDE TO HIPUTALE AND BACK OR ONE WAY TO NUWARA ELIYA

End your time in Ella with a portion of the legendarily scenic train ride on the route from Ella to Kandy, a train winding through the green jungle hills and tea country slowly enough that you can lean out of the doorway and take a selfie, with a feel from decades ago.

The Perfect Sri Lanka Itinerary | 3 Weeks of Adventure in the Garden of Eden
Photo Credit: @tompaulbyrnes

For most travelers, end the day with arrival in Nuwara Eliya by taking the train one way to Nanu Oya and transferring via bus for a ~30-minute ride to Nuwara Eliya

If you have your own tuk tuk and are driving through the country, ride to Haputale then turn back to Ella to drive to Nuwara Eliya in the afternoon


DETAILS OF THE ELLA -> KANDY TRAIN RIDE

No matter which approach you take (the short trip or the long trip), be smart and book your Ella -> Kandy train ride tickets in advance online with 12Go to ensure you get a seat…otherwise you’ll end up sitting on the floor as I did.

Short Option: For Tuk Tuk Drivers: Short Option Ella to Hiputale, 3hrs round trip

Book tickets for the Ella Train ride in advance via 12Go to ride the train from Ella to Haputale, getting off, and taking the same train back to Ella.  This leg (though it seems short) will give you the amazing experience that travelers talk about.

About Ella – Kandy Train Ride FOMO: If you’re driving your own tuk tuk you may be wondering if you’re missing out by not riding the full Ella to Kandy train route. Absolutely feel comfortable that you’re not missing out.  The views from your tuk tuk, from the south on to Kandy, match what you would see on the train.

Long Option: Train Ride 1: Ella to Nanuoya, connect to Nuwara Eliya

For those travelers not driving their own tuk tuks, extend your railway adventure by taking the scenic train from Ella train station Nanuoya, and then transferring to bus to travel to Nuwara Eliya where you’ll spend the night.

I’ll repeat, book your tickets to Nuwara Eliya in advance because though tickets don’t sell out, seats sell out very quickly and you’ll end up sitting on the ground for a 4-hour long train ride

DAY 11 | NUWARA ELIYA

HIKE WORLD’S END IN HORTON’S PLAINS NATIONAL PARK

Nuwara Eliya is a charming little town that offers 3 things: cool weather, views that resemble England a lot, and some nice, long, scenic hikes.  On Day 11, you’ll knock out an epic hike with an epic view: the “World’s End” hike.

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Photo Credit: @allearoundtheworld

THINGS TO DO | DAY 11 NUWARA ELIYA

  • Hike to World’s End in Horton’s Plains National Park for views from a sheer 880-meter tall cliff
  • Visit the Grand View Hotel

Hike to World’s End in Horton’s Plains National Park (3 hrs, 9.5km)

The Perfect Sri Lanka Itinerary | 3 Weeks of Adventure in the Garden of Eden

World’s End is an aptly named viewpoint as it is a cliff face with a sheer 880-meter drop, making for one of the most dramatic views in Sri Lanka.

How to Get to World’s End

Keep in mind that it tends to be chilly and wet at times in Nuwara Eliya, and it will be more so in Horton’s Plains National Park and on the hike.  Come prepared with a rain jacket and something to stay warm, especially if you’re riding up in an open-air tuk tuk.

Leaving from Nuwara Eliya, the drive is 1-1.5 hours by tuk tuk (3,000 LKR / $20 USD) or private van (4500 LKR /$30 USD).  If you’re driving your own tuk tuk simply head to the park (using Google Maps), and after reaching the ticket station, then follow the signs another 15 minutes to the trailhead.

The entrance fee to the park will be roughly $25 per person

At the trailhead, start walking!

The entire hike forms a loop converging at a fork in the road ~10-15 minutes after you start walking.  Going to the left is the faster, more strenuous route.  Going to the right is the slower, easier route. Both trails connect back around the viewpoint.

On the way back, be sure to take the opposite route to vary your views on the walk home


Visit the Grand View Hotel and Coffee Bar

End the day by dropping into the Grand Hotel for a very British view and the best coffee in tea country at the Coffee Bar located right next door.  The hotel and its grounds are grand and beautiful and the coffee shop has the best coffee in Nuwara Eliya at a very reasonable price.

NUWARA ELIYA | DETAILS

RECOMMENDED TOURS

WHERE TO EAT

Cheap Eats in Nuwara Eliya | Trip Advisor’s Best RatedRestaurants in Nuwara Eliya

DAY 12 | NUWARA ELIYA

HIKE ADAM’S PEAK + WANDER “LITTLE ENGLAND” + DRIVE TO KANDY

Finish your visit to Nuwara Eliya with a big day, by waking up early to hike to the religiously significant Adam’s Peak, wandering around “New England”, and leaving for the city of Kandy, history, and Sinhalese culture experiences.

THINGS TO DO | DAY 12 IN NUWARA ELIYA

  • Hike to Adam’s Peak
  • Wander “Little England”

Adam’s Peak Hike | Sri Pada Mountain (7-8 hrs round trip)

Adam’s Peak is a religiously significant spot for Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus, making it a point of pilgrimage for some 20,000 Sri Lankans each year.

Viewed from above, Adam’s Peak bears a crater shaped like a footprint.  Buddhists believe this crater is the footprint of the Buddha. Hindu’s believe the crater is the footstep of Shiva.  Christians and Muslims, however, believe this crater is the footprint of the first place Adam stepped after leaving the Garden of Eden – thus giving the mountain its name – Adam’s Peak.

The 7 kilometers and ~8-hour hike takes you up 5500 steps. Most hikers start at the trailhead in the town of Delhouse/Dalhousie (Nallathanniya on Google Maps) around 2:30 AM, aiming to reach the summit by sunrise. 

Getting to Adam’s Peak: Dalhousie is a 3 hour 20-minute ride from Kandy and a 2.5-hour ride from Nuwara Eliya, so plan accordingly.  If traveling to Adam’s Peak by train take the train 2 hours and 45 minutes to Hatton station, then hop a local bus or Tuk Tuk from there.  Train tickets are available online for the ride, so book in advance to ensure you have a seat.

When to Hike Adam’s Peak Hike | Sri Pada Mountain: December to March is the optimal time.  Outside of this window, expect bad weather in the form of cold, clouds, and rain.  Though some adventurers with rain jackets may feel froggy, more rain makes those 5,000 steps a lot more slippery and treacherous and makes those leaches a lot more mobile on the hike.  The tea and snack shops that normally provide warmth and respite also close down during this season.

Guides: Odds are people will try to sell you a tour or offer guiding service.  Don’t bother.  The route is simple with one way up and one way down with plenty of other hikers/pilgrims on the trail.


TIPS FOR NUWARA ELIYA

  • Bring a headlamp to make hiking in the darkness easier
  • For the leeches, do a quick search on how to remove leeches properly (with something flat, like a credit card)
  • There are many routes you can take to the top of Adam’s Peak based on your starting point – check out the Ratnapura route, the Hatton route and the Kuruwita route as alternatives
  • Beware of leaches on the route as they’re everywhere

View England’s Footprint in Nuwara Eliya…and a few extra sites

After the hike, head into town for grub and wander through the Nuwara Eliya’s preserved architecture from the British colonialization.

For the quick tour, simply plug these landmarks into Google Maps or Maps.Me and walk between them.

The “historically British” points to include in your Nuwara Eliya tour:

  • Ceylon Bank
  • British Post Office located in front of the bus station
  • Victoria Golf Course
  • Grand Hotel and Coffee Bar

OTHER SITES IN NUWARA ELIYA

  • The Single Tree Viewpoint: Located next to the Single Tree Monastery, this spot gives a great view of Nuwara Eliya
  • Rumbada Waterfall, Nanu Oya Waterfall, Lover’s Leap Waterfall
  • Oak Ray Tea Factory: If you didn’t get to visit the Uva Hapelwatte tea factory
  • Seethe Amman Hindu Temple

MOVING ON

If you’re traveling by train continue the beautiful, scenic ride from Nanuoya to Kandy, and don’t forget to book your train tickets to Kandy in advance. 

To get from Nuwara Eliya to Nanuoya, take the bus at the bus station near “Black Pool” in Nuwara Eliya for a cheap ~30-minute ride to Nanuoya’s train station.

If you’re traveling by tuk tuk simply follow Google Maps for another beautiful ride to Kandy

 

 

DAY 13 | KANDY

SEE THE TEMPLE OF BUDDHA’S TOOTH AND THE CULTURAL DANCE SHOW

Don’t get your hopes up for Kandy as it likely won’t match the beauty, charm, and allure of the other places you’ve seen in Sri Lanka.  Just count on Kandy to be a stop between Nuwara Eliya and the cultural triangle that you should skip if you can – to give yourself one more day elsewhere.

THINGS TO DO | KANDY

If you do decide to stay in Kandy for the day and want to make the most of things, squeeze the following experiences into the day

DAY 14 | DAMBULLA (ENROUTE TO SIGIRIYA)

TRAVEL TO SIGIRIYA, STOP AT DAMBULLA ROYAL CAVES ON THE WAY

Continue on toward Sigiriya, but stop at the Dambulla Royal Caves on your way.  The Dambulla royal caves make up a monastic complex and UNESCO world heritage site adorned with over 150 shrines and paintings of the Buddha, some of which are more than 2000 years old.  After seeing the caves, stop off and see the gigantic golden Buddha near the caves

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THINGS TO DO | DAMBULLA (BRIEF STOP)

  • Dambulla Royal Caves + Cave Monastery [UNESCO World Heritage Site]
  • Large Golden Buddha Statue

Dambulla Royal Caves

The largest and best-preserved cave temples in Sri Lanka, this UNESCO world heritage site is a living Buddhist site that has been used by forest-dwelling monks since the 3rd century BC. The walls of the caves are filled with amazingly well preserved Buddhist statues, shrines, and frescos that cover nearly all of the walls.  Over 150 statues and pictures adorn the space, some more than 2,000 years old.

After hiking the 160 meters up to the temple and down from the Cave Temple, feel free to check out the huge gold Buddha, just north, walking distance from the caves.

After the caves, continue on to Sigiriya.  If you have a few hours of daylight left, head straight for the Pidurangala cave monastery, jumping into the Day 15 itinerary


DAMBULLA CAVES| DETAILS

Hours: 7 AM to 7 PM Daily

Cost: 1,500 LKR (~$8.50 USD)

Getting to Dambulla: Stopon the way to/from Sigiriya/Kandy or take the bus, ~500 LKR for a bus with aircon

If you don’t have time to stop in Sigiriya on the way to Anuradhapura, you can easily take a day trip to Sigiriya, Pidurangala, and Dambulla from Anuradhapura cheaply and easily.  Click here to see Sigiriya and Dambulla day trip pictures, prices, and availability.

DAY 15 | SIGIRIYA

VISIT PIDURANGALA ROCK MONASTERY FOR A VIEW OF SIGIRIYA’S LION FORTRESS

In impressive geological feature towering above an otherwise flat landscape, home to a fortress built by a bastard prince after killing his father.  The Sigiriya rock, or “Lion Fortress” is an impressive view and structure with an equally impressive back story.

The Perfect Sri Lanka Itinerary | 3 Weeks of Adventure in the Garden of Eden

You must absolutely see this site, but, not the way most tourists do – read on for how to save yourself $30 and enjoy the same magnificent view


THINGS TO DO | SIGIRIYA

  • Sigiriya Rock | Lion Fortress | Sigiriya Museum
  • Pidurangala Cave Monastery and Viewpoint of Sigiriya

Sigiriya Rock | The Lion Fortress

Sigiriya, the UNESCO World Heritage site and fortress that sits atop a prominent rock is absolutely beautiful and significant in Sinhalese history.  However, paying $30 for the experience of walking to the top of the rock is a nearly unjustifiable tourist trap that can easily leave a bitter taste in your mouth, with the $30 USD entry fee and the 3-hour wait to get in.

Many travelers question whether the Sigiriya Fortress is worth the wait and price tag.  I’ll save you the struggle – it is absolutely not.  Because nearby Pidurangala rock gives the same vast views (at $3.50), and Anuradhapura (your next stop) is filled with even more impressive ruins, there is no real reason why Sigiriya rock is worth $30.

At the top of Sigiriya, there is a series of structures, somewhat similar to Macchu Picchu in much a scaled-down version and much more dilapidated.  Simply peruse Google briefly and you’ll have enough of an idea.

Skip the FOMO itinerary of Sigiriya and instead hike to the top of Pidurangala rock for a much more enjoyable experience.

Sigiriya Rock Info

  • Hours:
  • Cost: 4,500 LKR | $25 USD
  • Getting to Sigiriya: Take the local bus to Sigiriya from Kandy or Anuradhapura for $7

Tips for Sigiriya Rock

  • Go early (at first opening) to avoid crowds and have the site to yourself
  • Pair the experience of Sigiriya with a hike to the top of Pidurangala rock at sunset, for a sunset view of Sigiriya Rock

Pindurangala Rock (and a view of Sigiriya)

A mere mile from Sigiriya rock sits the Pidurangala monastery.


To enter, simply follows the directions on Google maps until you arrive at the parking lot for Pidurangala – on the road in you’ll see a handful of archeological sites to your left and right, similar to the grounds around Sigiriya rock (that you would have to pay to see) and freely open for you to wander through.

After parking, simply head into the small monastery (taking off your shoes and covering up accordingly), pay the $3.50 entrance fee, and start hiking!  The hike leads up around Pidurangala rock, passing by the remains of a large reclining Buddha and the remains of rooms where monks once lived.

The last 20 meters of the hike is “interesting” and fun as you’ll have to climb through a hole in the rock – but – on the other side you’re rewarded with expansive views of the landscape in all directions, and an exquisite view of the fortress at Sigiriya.

Tips for Sigiriya and Pidurangala

  • Wear soles with good shoes worthy of hiking
  • If you’re on a budget, skip Sigiriya and hike Pidurangala instead

PIDURANGALA| DETAILS

COSTS

  • Sigiriya Entry Fee: $30 USD
  • Pidurangala Entry Fee: $3.50 USD

TIPS

  • Skip the entry to Sigiriya if you’re on a budget and opt for just Pidurangala instead

WHERE TO EAT: Cheap Eats | Trip Advisor’s Best Rated Restaurants in Sigiriya


GETTING TO PIDURANGALA

  • From Kandy, head to the main bus station and ask around for the appropriate bus as there is no train into Sigiriya
  • For those traveling by tuk tuk, follow the Google Maps directions and you’ll be just fine

DAY 16 | TRAVEL TO ANURHADAPURA

Make Day 16 an easy travel day by following Google maps to Anuradhapura and then taking it easy the remainder of the day

The Perfect Sri Lanka Itinerary | 3 Weeks of Adventure in the Garden of Eden
Photo Credit: @little_chef_nilaksha

ANURADHAPURA| DETAILS


WHERE TO EAT

Cheap Eats in Anuradhapura | Best Rated Restaurants in Anuradhapura


HOW TO GET TO ANURADHAPURA

Public bus, or luxury bus, is the best way to go – cheap, frequent, and efficient.  Head to the main bus terminal in Kandy and start hunting for the Anuradhapura bus.

For the Train from Kandy to Anuradhapura, take the train from Kandy station to Polgahawela Railway Station and transfer at the Polgahawela Railway Station to the train headed for Anuradhapura Station.  The route may not come up in 12Go so search Google Maps directions from Kandy to Anuradhapura with the public transportation feature or search Rome2Rio’s routes from Kandy to Anuradhapura specifically using the trains function.

For Tuk Tuk riders, trusty old Google Maps’ driving directions are all you need.  The road will be smooth and calm as you cruise through jungles, plains, and wetlands along the way.


WHERE TO STAY IN ANURADHAPURA

The Why Not Palace – clean, modern rooms with aircon at a great price

DAY 17 | ANURHADAPURA

WANDER THE 1500-YEAR-OLD RUINS OF THE SINHALESE KINGDOM

Tucked away in the north, in the cultural triangle is Anuradhapura – the former seat (and third) of the Sinhala Kingdom of Rajarata, from ~400 BC to ~1100 AD, and UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

The Perfect Sri Lanka Itinerary | 3 Weeks of Adventure in the Garden of Eden
Photo Credit: @thais_trip

Though Anuradhapura doesn’t get nearly the press and attention deserved outside of Sri Lanka, this city and vast complex is a must-see because of its well preserved ancient ruins from the Sinhala civilization covering over 16 square miles (41 km2) and a former center of political power and urban life in South Asia.

The Perfect Sri Lanka Itinerary | 3 Weeks of Adventure in the Garden of Eden
Photo Credit: @skykandianan_travels

(For more background I highly recommend reading the Anuradhapura Wikipedia article)


SITES TO SEE | ANURHADAPURA

The common tour of Anuradhapura includes the “Eight Sacred Places” or “Atamasthana”, which are the eight places in Anuradhapura that Sri Lankans believe were visited by the Buddha on his three trips to Sri Lanka.  If this interests you, consider reading up on the “16 Sacred Places” in Sri Lanka visited by Buddha (Wikipedia Article)

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Photo Credit: @donchamantha

Whether or not you’re Buddhist you’ll appreciate these sites.  Grand, magnificent structures built over 1000 years ago share the story of a vast, urban civilization long past that many haven’t even heard of.  A day of wandering in awe will add some learning to your trip and a new appreciation for Sinhalese history and culture.

The Perfect Sri Lanka Itinerary | 3 Weeks of Adventure in the Garden of Eden

The Eight Sacred Places in Anuradhapura:

  1. Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi (The Sacred Bodhi Tree) (click to see the Wikipedia article on this site)
  2. Lovamahapaya (Palace Ruins)
  3. Mirisaveti (Stupa)
  4. Ruwanwelisaya (Stupa)
  5. Jetavanaramaya (Stupa)
  6. Thuparamaya (Stupa)
  7. Lankaran (Stupa)
  8. Abhayagiri Dagaba (Ruins of Monastery)

For efficiency and enjoyment, I recommend visiting the following sites in the order listed below:

Full Itinerary of Anuradhapura Sites

  1. Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi (The Sacred Bodhi Tree) (click to see the Wikipedia article on this site)
  2. Lovamahapaya (Palace Ruins)
  3. Mirisaveti (Stupa)
  4. Ruwanwelisaya (Stupa)
  5. Jetavanaramaya (Stupa)
  6. Thuparamaya (Stupa)
  7. Lankarama (Stupa)
  8. Abhayagiri Dagaba (Ruins of Monastery)
  9. Samadhi Statue [of Buddha]
  10. Kuttam Pokuna (Bathing and Reflecting Pools)
  11. Isurumuniya (Buddhist Temple) (Link to Wikipedia Article)
  12. Sandakada Pahana (Moonstone)

For full background and history of these sites, I recommend reading the Wikipedia Excerpt on Atamasthana which provides descriptions and history of all the “8 Sacred Sites” of Anuradhapura, allowing you to do a robust tour solo.


HOW TO EXPERIENCE ANURADHAPURA: MAPS.ME AND CHART YOUR OWN PATH

Doing your own tour of Anuradhapura is very easy, as long as you’ve downloaded Maps.Me.  Simply save all of the following landmarks beforehand and follow the roads in between each site, stopping at anything that catches your eye along the way.

The Perfect Sri Lanka Itinerary | 3 Weeks of Adventure in the Garden of Eden
Photo Credit: @bee_sarah_

Getting a guide for Anuradhapura

With the Wikipedia articles available for the Anuradhapura sites, a guide isn’t totally necessary. However, if you would prefer to get a guide, I recommend booking this day tour of Anradhaprua’s Sacred Sites with hotel pickup and dropoff.

Click here to see pictures and check availability for the Anuradhapura Day Tour

If you’re pressed for time, consider a Day Trip to Anuradhapura Ruins from Colombo (click here to see pictures, prices, and availability)


Getting around Anuradhapura: Tuk Tuk, Bike, or Tuk Tuk

The ruins complex of Anuradhapura is so vast that seeing it all merely by foot is nearly impossible. 

To best experience the ruins, renting your own tuk tuk and driving yourself through Anuradhapura is by far the best option.  I wandered in my tuk tuk and not only saw the major sites but stopped at random forests and wandered through centuries-old castles that aren’t marked on the map.

The second best option is to hire a tuk tuk driver for the day as your personal driver. This offers the convenience of relaxing between sites without worrying about peddling around.  Plan on this costing 7,000 LKR/~$38 USD for the entire day if booked locally (just ask the management at your accommodation for suggested drivers for the best price and most reliable drivers). 

Also, consider the Anuradhapura Day Tour that visits the 8 sacred sites with hotel pick up and drop off, and is just as cheap (~$25). (Click here to see pictures and availability )

The last option is simply renting a bike and riding through Anuradhapura.  Cheap, simple, and adventurous, Anuradhapura by bike is a fun experience.  Pack plenty of water and plan on it costing ~1500 LKR / ~$8.50 to rent for the day.  Bike rental is best arranged through your hotel.

Be sure to pack water and snacks as the days are hot, the drive back to a mini-mart can be long and the kiosk vendors can overcharge foreigners at times


Entrance Fees to Anuradhapura

This is an interesting one, and one that you’ll find quite some debate on across the internet…not because of the fee, but because of what you’re charged…or not charged.

The fee to enter the Anuradhapura ruins complex is $25 per person – for foreigners.  Members of “SAARC” countries pay half that.  In my opinion, that is quite steep considering the “local price”, which isn’t even published for many places on the internet.  For the similar city of Polonnaruwa, the entry fee for foreigners is $25 as well…and locals are free. At Sigiriya, the cost for foreigners is $30 for entry…local entry is $1. 

I’m all for paying to preserve culture, but I get a bit irritated when there is a 3000% cost difference because of my passport, but there are still locals living in poverty just outside of these sites.

So, I’ll explain what I did, and the options available to you.

The complex of Anuradhapura is so vast that, if you’re in local transport (tuk tuk, private car) you can drive right in without paying…which is exactly what I did.  From there, I took the $25 I would have paid to the tourism arm of the government, and placed it in the donation boxes for the religious sites and purchased items from the local vendors – ensuring that the money went to a place I’m comfortable with considering the 3000% tax for being a foreigner.

Whether or not you pay the entrance fee is (at current) your choice and can be paid in the sum of $25 USD at the front entrance.

A note to starving backpackers and a personal opinion – if this $25 price tag is standing between you and entering the Anuradhapura complex, skip the fee and just go in.  The positive ripple effects achieved by your awareness of Sinhalese culture, learning their history, and traveling on to tell others does a service to the culture, their history, and the reputation of Sri Lanka that is worth more than $25.  So, if you cash strapped, I recommend just going.

Tips for Anuradhapura

  • Wear long pants and a long shirt to respect (and be allowed into) the beautiful religious sites or bring a sarong to cover-up

ANURADHAPURA vs. POLONNARUWA

When making travel plans, sometimes we ask, “is it worth it?” and rightly so.  Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa are both listed on many itineraries, but being so similar, is it worth visiting both cities?

The simple answer:

Go to Anuradhapura, skip Polonnaruwa

Few travel writers had gone to both cities, so I decided to, just to see how they measure up.  There are 4 reasons I recommend Anuradhapura over Polonnaruwa.

  1. The ruins complex of Anuradhapura is much larger, religiously and culturally relevant, and beautiful
  2. Anuradhapura has many more hidden gems set back along hiking trails in forests, making it more fun to wander
  3. Broke travelers still interested in experiencing the culture and history can easily walk past the “$25 foreigner entrance fee” in Anuradhapura – if you do sneak in, try to pay it forward some other way down the road
  4. Anuradhapura is 2 hours closer to Colombo, making your eventual drive home much easier

Polonnaruwa is an impressive site within a smaller complex that can be bicycled easily but does not have enough to warrant visiting instead of Anuradhapura or in addition to Anuradhapura.  Some have chosen Polonnaruwa because it is slightly cooler with fewer mosquitoes, but for me this wasn’t significant enough for me to choose Polonnaruwa over Anuradhapura and the extra 2-hour drive.

The Bottom Line: Absolutely choose Anuradhapura.

Whichever destination you choose just know that you do not need to go to both.  Both experiences and sites are so similar that it is worth spending that extra elsewhere…unless you really love history and archeology.


ANURADHAPURA| DETAILS

Costs

  • “Entry Fee”: $25 or free (depending on your approach)
  • Tuk Tuk Hire for a Day: 7,000 LKR / ~$38 USD (not negotiated)
  • Bicycle Hire for a Day: 300 LKR / ~$1.75
  • Tour: $25 (Click to see availability)

Tips

  • Wear a long shirt and pants to respect the religious sites and be allowed access
  • Bring water – its pretty hot in Anuradhapura
  • Don’t count on walking between sites or it will be a very  long day
  • Wear socks if walking barefoot bothers you – you’ll need to remove your shoes at most sites

RECOMMENDED TOURS

WHERE TO EAT

Cheap Eats in Anuradhapura | Best Rated Restaurants in Anuradhapura

WHERE TO STAY IN ANURADHAPURA

  • The Why Not Palace

DAY 18 + DAY 19 | OPTION DAYS

This Sri Lanka itinerary is packed with places and experiences and you will absolutely fall in love with at least one.  Know that with these two open days in your itinerary, you have the leeway to stay in a place you love for a bit longer

I highly recommend using one day to lounge and rest in Ella and a second day to lounge in the beach town of your choice.


DAY 20 | BACK TO NEGOMBO

Start the end of your trip by making your way back to the capital and bedding down for the night in Negombo.  Treat yourself to a beer and pat yourself on the back for taking on such an adventurous location and travel experience.

Bed down for the night in Negombo (instead of Colombo) to place yourself conveniently near the airport.


DAY 21 | FLY OUT

Book your Uber to the airport early.  Catch up on Instagram on the way.  Start planning your next adventure

THE PERFECT SRI LANKA ITINERARY (3 WEEKS) + MAP AND ROUTE FOR APRIL TO NOVEMBER

For the April to November travelers, Sri Lanka is just as great and the weather offers an interesting choice as monsoons descend on the southwest of Sri Lanka, around Colombo, Weligama, Hikkaduwa, Unawatuna, and many other beachy surf destinations.  Though you still can visit these destinations, the crowds will be thin and the water will be choppy and murky…but it will be peaceful and quiet (in terms of tourists) through the southwest if that’s what you’re after.  If water, surf, adventure, and parties are what you’re after, head straight to Arugam Bay.

The April to November itinerary skips most of the beach spots in the west and replaces them with bee-lining straight to Arugam Bay – a surf mecca with surf for all levels, wonderful beaches, a peaceful vibe, and nightly beach parties.  In a way, this is a gift, because instead of hopping from beach city to beach city you’re forced to just enjoy Arugam bay, which is easy to enjoy. 

If traveling by your own tuk tuk, consider leaving Colombo/Negombo and stopping at Galle (and the Dutch Fort), Tissaharama (and Yala National Park), and potentially Weligama (for small surf and quiet), or Tangalle if you really need a beach and sunbathing fix.  These spots will break up the drive perfectly.  I also recommend the same if you’re traveling by bus and train, as these are major stops along the way.

Here’s the full 3-week itinerary for Sri Lanka between April and November.


THE PERFECT SRI LANKA ITINERARY FOR 3 WEEKS | FROM APRIL TO NOVEMBER

  • Day 1: Arrive and stay in Negombo
  • Day 2: Galle: The Dutch Fort on the water and local markets
  • Day 3: Tangalle: Peacefully quiet beaches (or save the day for Arugam bay)
  • Day 4: Tissamaharama for animal Safari in Yala National Park
  • Day 5: Travel to Arugam Bay
  • Day 6: Arugam Bay: Sun, surfing, and parties in a remote and chill surf town
  • Day 7: Arugam Bay: Self-guided tour of the opposite side of Yala National Park by Tuk Tuk
  • Day 8: Travel from Arugam Bay to Ella
  • Day 8: Ella: Hike to Little Adam’s Peak or Ella Rock for views through mountains to plains
  • Day 9: Ella: Take theTea Factory Tour + Ride to Lipton’s Seat (if you have a tuk tuk)
  • Day 10: Ella: Take a beautiful train ride to Hiputale and back or one way to Nuwara Eliya
  • Day 11: Nuwara Eliya: Hike World’s End in Horton’s Plains National Park
  • Day 12: Nuwara Eliya: HikeAdam’s Peak + Wander “Little England” + Drive to Kandy
  • Day 13: Kandy: See the Temple of Buddha’s tooth and the cultural dance show
  • Day 14: Travel to Sigiriya, stop at Dambulla Royal Caves on the way
  • Day 15: Sigiriya: Visit Pidurangala Rock Monastery for a view of Sigiriya’s Lion Fortress
  • Day 16: Travel to Anuradhapura
  • Day 17: Anuradhapura: Wander the 1500-year-old ruins of the Sinhalese Kingdom
  • Day 18: Travel back to Negombo
  • Day 19: (Option day)
  • Day 20: (Option day)
  • Day 21: Fly out of Sri Lanka

Recommended use of the option days:

  1. Relax in Arugam Bay for an additional day
  2. Relax in Ella for an additional day
  3. Squeeze in one more Sri Lanka safari
  4. Consider a walking tour of Colombo focusing on culture and history, followed by visits to

DAY 1| NEGOMBO & COLOMBO

SETTLE IN, RELAX, AND PREP FOR 3 WEEKS OF ADVENTURE

Start your trip in Negombo instead of Colombo to stay comfortable and begin day 2 fresh and ready. 

Photo Credit: @thegodfaber

Though Colombo is the capital of Sri Lanka and you fly into the “Colombo Airport” Negombo is much closer to the airport (15 minutes from the airport to Negombo vs. 45 minutes to Colombo), quieter and cleaner with more accommodation options.  Do yourself a favor and stay in Colombo while wandering through Colombo in your free time.


THINGS TO DO | COLOMBO

Do yourself a favor and visit the following spots around Colombo in the evening if you’re up to explore.  All of the spots are easily accessible by train.

  • The Pettah Markets: Located near the Colombo Fort Railway Station, these local markets will give you a quick, robust taste of daily life in Colombo.  Drop by after buying your train ticket to your next destination
  • The Red Mosque (Jami Ul-Alfar Masjid): One of the oldest mosques in Colombo and quite a sight to see
  • Galle Face Green: A grassy spot on the ocean, perfect for sunset, local food, and a local feel.  This is where Anthony Bourdain dropped by for a local meal. Be like him and hit Nana’s Street Food for a beer and whatever looks good
  • The National Museum

NEGOMBO & COLOMBO| DETAILS

How to Get There: To get from the airport to Negombo Uber is your most reliable and cheapest bet.  Tuk tuks, taxis, and shuttles are standing by but are overpriced.

Tips: Beware of the common scams in Colombo


WHERE TO EAT IN COLOMBO

DAY 2 | GALLE

WALK ALONG THE WALLS OF A UNESCO HERITAGE FORT AND THROUGH LOCAL MARKETS BY THE SEA

The UNESCO World Heritage sites of Galle’s old town and fort are the main draws for Galle, and very much worthwhile.

Photo Credit: @victoria_sviatetska

Galle’s fort is adjacent to the sea, and walking along its walls gives some amazing views by day and sunset.

After walking around the town along the ramparts wander through the Old Town’s center and the local markets.

THINGS TO DO | GALLE

Galle Fort: Start at the clock tower and walk toward the fort’s front gate, walking along the ramparts, past the hospital, and past the church along the way. Take some time to wander within the fort by the boutique shops and eat at wherever catches your nose.  Hit the fort wall for sunset.


GALLE | DETAILS

WHERE TO EAT IN GALLE

Cheap Eats in Galle Fort | Best Rated Trip Advisor Restaurants in Galle


HOW TO GET TO GALLE

By train or bus are both cheap and easy.  Check the schedule at the local bus station or rail station, as they change frequently.

By tuk tuk follow Google Maps’ directions for an enjoyable 45-minute ride, much more peaceful than driving in Colombo

Drive time: 45 Minutes (Hikkaduwa to Galle) | Rail time: 45 minutes

Click to search availability for Hotels and Hostels in Galle

DAY 3 | TANGALLE

ARGUABLY THE MOST PEACEFULLY BEAUTIFUL BEACHES IN SOUTHWEST SRI LANKA

If you’re craving true peace on a hidden gem of a beach, stop in Tangalle.  White sands, turquoise waters, and sunbeds without the crowds are what await you in the sleepy oceanside town of Tangalle

THINGS TO DO | TANGALLE

Lounge…just lounge…and maybe kayak in the lagoon


TANGALLE| DETAILS


WHERE TO EAT IN TANGALLE

Cheap Eats in Tangalle | Best Rated Restaurants in Tangalle


HOW TO GET TO TANGALLE

Traveling by bus is your best bet for getting to Tangalle uninterrupted from Weligama.  Just head to the main bus terminal and look for the Tangalle bus.

By Train fromWeligama will only get you as far as Matara, as that is where the train line ends. From Matara, you’ll need to hop the bus the rest of the way to Tangalle.

By private car, the ride from Weligama to Tangalle is roughly 1 hour and 20 minutes passing Mirissa (and Mirissa Beach)

By Tuk Tuk, if you’re on that adventure, just follow Google Maps’ route and you’ll have no trouble.  The driving is light and easy and the roads are great.

Drive Time: 1 Hour, 20 Minutes (Weligama to Tangalle)


WHERE TO STAY IN TANGALLE

I didn’t stay overnight in Tangalle (as I was anxious to get to Yala National Park), but other Tuk Tuk travelers highly recommended the Guesthouses Three Little Birds and Turtle Watch Cabana

Click here to see availability for all of the Hostels and Hotels in Tangalle

DAY 4 | TISSAMAHARAMA & YALA NATIONAL PARK

LEOPARDS AND ELEPHANTS ON A JEEP SAFARI

A Sri Lanka safari experience should be on every traveler’s list while wandering Asia, and of the safari options, Yala National Park is my favorite. 

The variety of animals and the chance to do your own tour (as long as you’re driving your own tuk tuk) make Yala National Park one of my highest recommend experiences in Sri Lanka.  Elephants, leopards, water buffalo, sloth bears, monkeys, peacocks, and so much more wander Yala waiting for you to spot them on your safari

Keep in mind that Tissamaharama is the best place to stay while exploring Yala National Park.  Tissamaharama is the city adjacent to Yala National Park’s entrance and there isn’t any accommodation in Yala (other than camping) making Tissa the cheapest and most convenient option for sleeping before your Yala safari. 

Fair warning – don’t count on much to do in Tissa aside from Yala National Park.  The town is nearly dead after nightfall

Kataragama is an option for cities to stay in, but you’ll have to backtrack to the entrance of Yala, so staying in Tissa is the better option all around. 


THINGS TO DO | TISSA & YALA NATIONAL PARK

The main (and only worthwhile) attraction from Tissa is Yala National Park, but Yala can be experienced so many different ways (by day, by night, and while camping) that you’ll need to choose ahead of time

Main Yala National Park Experiences


The Yala National Park Safari Experience

Yala National Park Jeep Safari gave me the unexpected (and awesome) chance for an African Sahara style safari seeing elephants, leopards, water buffalo, crocodiles, monkeys, wild hogs, peacocks, and quite a bit more along the way.  If you’re unsure which of the Sri Lankan National Parks and Safaris to do, I highly recommend Yala.

Making the drive from Tangalle in the morning, you’ll make it in time for an evening safari, seeing the animals come to life again just before sunset for a busy night.  Additionally, you can squeeze in a morning safari the following day before leaving to Ella.  The evening Yala Jeep Safari tours start around 2 pm, so keep that in mind.

For those who want to splurge on an irreplaceable experience consider luxury camping under the stars for a night before doing an early morning safari.


Self-Guided Yala National Park Safari: My Recommended (and Favorite) Approach

For those on the other end of the budget spectrum (as in, “not rich”), consider renting your own tuk tuk and doing a free “self-guided safari” through Yala National Park.

On a whim, I took my tuk tuk on this route (detailed below) through Yala National park and encountered plenty of wildlife…from a tuk tuk!  A pack of wild hogs, different clusters of monkeys, peacocks, deer, buffalo, and even elephants were some of the animals I stumbled upon

Here’s how to do your own free self-guided safari of Yala National park by driving your own tuk tuk:

  1. Start in Tissamaharan and follow the Google Maps directions from Tissamaharan to drive to the Sithulpawwa Monastery (also spelled Situlpawwa) via “Kirinda-Situlpawwa Road”
  2. Park in the parking lot at the Sittulpawa monastery and say hello to the wild pigs and elephants that hang out in the parking lot
  3. Make the quick hike up to the Situlpawwa stupa (5-10 minutes) that gives amazing and expansive views of Yala National park
  4. To leave Yala, take Situlpawwa to Kataragama route via “Kataragama – Situlpawwa Road” to exit via the other side of the national park
  5. To continue your self-guided safari drive road B35 from Kataragama to Buttala.  The road will be dotted with elephants and other animals

ALSO CONSIDER THESE SAFARIS

Udawalawa National Park.  Filled with elephants and a mere 2 hours away from Tangalle, the park is perfect for a safari day trip alternative to Yala if you’re in the mood to see hundreds of elephants instead of the fewer elephants and varied wildlife that Yala offers.

Or view the entire list of the best Sri Lanka Safari options


TISSAMAHARAMA & YALA NATIONAL PARK | DETAILS


COSTS

  • Safari of Yala National Park: ~$100 booked in advance, ~$40 booked locally

TIPS FOR YALA AND TISSA

  • For accommodation, you will have to stay in either Tissamaharama or Kataragama as Yala is only the national park.  Of the two, options, pick Tissamaharama as you can conveniently enter the park, then exit toward Kataragama and drive north toward your next destination.
  • Consider renting your own Tuk Tuk and doing the self-guided safari of Yala National Park and using the saved money to do a jeep safari in a different Sri Lanka National Park
  • For self-guided tuk tuk safari-ers, do theride through Yala on your way out of town.  This way you’ll drive naturally onto route B35 (another rode filled with elephants) and on to either Ella or Arugam Bay

WHERE TO EAT IN TISSAMAHARAMA, KATARAGAMA AND YALA

Honestly, food options are limited around Tissa, so don’t any food-tastic adventures outside of all-inclusive glamping.  These lists (linked below) are your best bets for a good meal.

Cheap Eats in Tissa | Trip Advisor’s Best Rated Restaurants in Tissa


HOW TO GET TO TISSAMAHARAMA, KATARAGAMA AND YALA

There are no train lines going into Tissamaharama but there are frequent local bus lines from across the country. 

By Bus, just head to the central bus station in your city of departure and ask around

By Tuk Tuk, just follow Google Maps’ directions.  The roads are well maintained and far from busy, making it an enjoyable and adventurous ride.

Drive time: 1 Hour, 20 Minutes (Tangalle to Tissamaharan)

DAY 5 | TRAVEL TO ARUGAM BAY

————————

GETTING TO ARUGAM BAY

From Tissamaharama by bus, simply show up to the Tissamaharama bus terminal to find out when the next bus is leaving for Arugam Bay

If traveling by rented Tuk Tuk from Tissamaharama, be sure to do the self-guided safari through Yala National Park, riding from Tissa to Situlpawa and from Situlpawa to Kataragama.  From Kataragama, take the road B35 up to Buttala to see more amazing animals (like elephants) on the road.  From Butala, simply follow Google Maps’ directions on toward Arugam Bay.  *Pro Tip* take your bags with you in your tuk tuk so you don’t have to return to Tissa (to pick them up) before driving on to Arugam Bay.

Drive time: 3 Hours – Kataragama to Arugam Bay // Buttala to Arugam (2 Hours)


WHERE TO EAT IN ARUGAM BAY

Cheap Eats In Arugam Bay | Trip Advisor’s Best Rated Restaurants

————————

WHERE TO SLEEP IN ARUGAM BAY

  • Sea Shells Inn
  • Dusty’s Hostel
  • Surf and Turf

WHERE TO PARTY IN ARUGAM BAY

  • Whisky Point on Fridays
  • Mango Beach on Saturdays.  A shuttle to the party leaves from Surf and Turf routinely after 7pm

 

DAYS 6 & 7 | ARUGAM BAY

DAY 6: SUN, SURFING, AND PARTIES IN A REMOTE AND CHILL SURF TOWN

DAY 7: SELF GUIDED TOUR OF THE OPPOSITE SIDE OF YALA NATIONAL PARK BY TUK TUK

MAKE THE 3.5 HOUR DRIVE TO THE SURF MECCA OF ARUGAM BAY

Arugam Bay is a legendary surf mecca and arguably the surf capital of Sri Lanka, especially during the April to November. Make the most of your time here by surfing, learning to surf, or hanging in a hammock and enjoying the amazing beach views and surf village vibes. 

If you have energy by day, venture on a guided safari of the nearby National Park, or wander through the eastern part of Yala National Park solo if you have a tuk tuk.

If you have energy by night and no plans for early surf the next day, hit the beach of the night for a beachside or poolside party as late as you can hang.

After two nights, when its time to go, I guarantee you’ll have a hard time leaving.  Welcome to Arugam Bay


THINGS TO DO | ARUGAM BAY

  • For experienced surfers: Rent a board and hit main point or one of the many other Arugam Bay Surf Spots
  • For novice and aspiring surfers: Drop by any of the many surf shops on the main street and hire a lesson or rent a board – aim for Baby Point, the beginner’s surf point to start out, and work up from there
  • Consider a safari of Lahugala Kitulana National Park: I personally prefer to use my beach town time at the beach, but this is a convenient option for seeing animals around the water, like birds, water buffalo, and crocodiles
  • Take your own tuk tuk and wander the east side of Yala for free to see crocodiles and water buffalo
  • Rent your own tuk tuk and drive around Arugam Bay making it easier to hit the surf breaks, wander, and shuttle friends around.  Tuk tuks are easily available for rental in Arugam Bay, just ask your hotel/hostel management

THE SURF BREAKS OF ARUGAM BAY


COSTS

  • Surfboard rental: $4-$6 per board
  • Tuk tuk hire for the day (with driver): ~$20
  • Renting a tuk tuk (for you to drive): 3000 LKR / ~$20
  • Rent a Scooter: $6-$8

WHERE TO EAT IN ARUGAM BAY

Cheap Eats In Arugam Bay | Trip Advisor’s Best Rated Restaurants


PRO TIP

Alcohol isn’t legally sold in most restaurants in Arugam Bay, and if it is then it is very costly…especially cocktails.  Be smart and bring a bottle of your own booze to save money and ensure have the island cocktail to suit your tastes

DAY 8 | TRAVEL TO ELLA

ENJOY A BEAUTIFUL ROAD TRIP AS YOU RIDE FROM BEACHES TO HILLY TEA COUNTRY

Count Day 7 as a travel day as you drive up to the cooler climate and highlands of tea country into Ella.  For hikers, trekkers, outdoorsy types, and those who prefer mountains over beaches, you’ll fall in love with Ella.


GETTING TO ELLA FROM ARUGAM BAY

From Arugam Bay: This is best arranged through your hotel as a private, air-conditioned shuttle will be much more convenient than the bus.  To find one, it is best to arrange the shuttle through your hotel management.

For those driving their own tuk tuk, follow Google Maps for the best route up and simply enjoy the ride.  Plan on your Tuk Tuk losing power as you go higher in altitude entering tea country.  Also, keep a rain jacket handy and know how to pull the rain flaps down on your Tuk Tuk as rains on the route are pretty common.  The drive is beautiful as you transition from the dry brush filled lands around Yala into the lush, green, mountains of tea country.

Drive time: 3 Hours – Arugam Bay to Ella


WHERE TO EAT

Ella is a town mainly built around tourism, meaning there are plenty of great places to eat that cater to tourists.  If you’ve been craving western food or a cocktail, Ella’s the place for it.  If you forget where this list is, just walk down the main street of Ella and you’ll see the clear cluster of western-style restaurants and rooftop bars. 

Of the many restaurants in Ella, these were my favorite:

  • Café Chill: Hands down my favorite bar and rooftop in Ella.  Great food. Awesome cocktails.  Bean bags.  What else do you need in life?  Perfect for relaxing after an active day
  • Ceylon Tea Factory Restaurant: Swanky and tasty
  • Café One Love: Bean bags, hammocks, and a chill ambiance

More Cheap Eats in Ella | Trip Advisor’s Best Rated Restaurants in Ella

DAY 9 | ELLA

HIKE TO LITTLE ADAM’S PEAK OR ELLA ROCK FOR VIEWS THROUGH MOUNTAINS TO PLAINS + THE 9 ARCH BRIDGE

Ella is a chill outdoor mecca and mountain town surrounded by the greenery of tea country highlands.

Though Ella is very much a tourist-centric city, that doesn’t kill the charm at all thanks to its beauty.  Use your first day in Ella to take one of its most notorious and very beautiful hikes (either the hike to Little Adam’s Peak or the hike to Ella Rock).  Then, grab some amazing pictures by sunset at the 9 Arch Bridge.

After an active day outdoors, the main street, filled with mildly touristy western restaurants, cafes, and rooftop bars, will be a bit of welcomed respite from all curry meals and beer free cities you might have experienced before. Treat yourself to a rooftop drink and tasty meal to end the day.  Start with Café Chill to get acquainted with Ella.

At night, you’ll find plenty of places to chill if you have the energy – so much so that you’ll likely end up stuck in Ella longer than planned like most travelers (including me).


THINGS TO DO | ELLA

This (awesome) itinerary includes a few days in Ella, as you’ll need the extra time to enjoy this place

  • Ella Rock Hike (Day 8)
  • Little Adam’s Peak Hike (Day 8)
  • 9 Arch Bridge viewpoint (Day 8)
  • Tuk tuk Ride to Lipton’s Seat – can be done from Haputale if you don’t have a Tuk Tuk (2,000-3,000 LKR) (Day 9)
  • UVA Halpewatte Tea Factory Tour in Ella (Day 9)
  • Train ride from Ella to Haputale (or Kandy) (Day 10)

THINGS TO DO | DAY 8 IN ELLA

  • Little Adam’s Peak Hike
  • Ella Rock Hike
  • 9 Arch Bridge

Little Adam’s Peak Hike (2 hrs)

A highlight of Ella, this quick hike is relatively easy and delivers some epic views in return.  The starting point is a 10 to 15-minute ride outside of town making it all around very accessible and something you could knock out before or after lunch.

A 1.5 – 2 hour round trip hike that ends over a ridgeline with unimpeded views to the front past hill country and into the flatlands.  On the way hiking toward the peak, you’ll pass zip-lining options if you want a quick bit of adventure.  Beware, there are a couple points walking along the steep mountainside which can be a little vertigo-inducing, but you can easily take the inside route (over the mountain) by walking through blade grass.

The hike isn’t too tough and is easily doable by most, just keep it slow and easy.

To do the hike, just look for the start point in Maps.Me and follow the hiking route in Maps.Me.


Ella Rock Hike (4 hrs)

Another fantastic hike and a bit longer, this 4 hour round trip hike gives you more of the same.  Fresh, cool air and highland views.

To make the Ella rock hike, head to the Ella train station and walk south (along the tracks) past the bridge and towards the Kithaella train station.  From here, continue walking along the tracks following the Maps.Me route to Ella Rock.


Hike to the 9 Arch Bridge

End the day by making a short hike to the 9 Arch bridge closer to sunset, allowing you to get amazing pictures of pretty epic view while the light is at its best.  A 15-minute ride out of town to the hike start point and a 10-minute hike to the 9 Arch Bridge.

DAY 10 | ELLA

TAKE THE UVA HALPEWATTE TEA FACTORY TOUR + RIDE TO LIPTON’S SEAT (IF YOU HAVE A TUK TUK)

Continue experiencing Ella and the tea country by sampling the best tea Sri Lanka has to offer while touring the Uva Halpewatte tea factory and taking the scenic drive from Ella to Lipton’s Seat if you’ve rented your own tuk tuk.


THINGS TO DO ON | DAY 10 IN ELLA


Ella Tea Factory Tour at the Uva Haelwatte Tea Factory

Tea is quite a complex creation, despite how simple a cup of tea may seem, and you’ll only realize that after taking a tour of a tea factory.  The Uva Hapelwatte Tea Factory offers a great tour of their factory, walking you through the types of leaves, the steps in processing, and how to tell a great cup of tea.  I found it to be much more interesting than expected.

Photo Credit: @martina.formankova

The post-tour cup of tea enjoyed on a high balcony overlooking tea country is an amazing perk too.

To take the tour of the Uva Halpewatte tour, simply show up anytime between 8 AM to 4 PM for the tours that run roughly every 30 minutes, proceed to the top floor (where the store is), pay your tour fee and hangout.


Take the Scenic Ride to Lipton’s Seat

After the tour, if you’re driving your own Tuk Tuk simply plug “Lipton’s Seat” into Google Maps as your destination and follow the direction.  The ride and scenery will be unreal, and you’ll be recommending the trip to everyone you find with their own tuk tuk.

If you don’t have a tuk tuk of your own, consider hopping on a tour to Lipton’s seat. Click here to check prices and availability for Lipton’s Seat tours

 

 

DAY 11 | ELLA

TAKE A BEAUTIFUL TRAIN RIDE TO HIPUTALE AND BACK OR ONE WAY TO NUWARA ELIYA

End your time in Ella with a portion of the legendarily scenic train ride on the route from Ella to Kandy, a train winding through the green jungle hills and tea country slowly enough that you can lean out of the doorway and take a selfie, with a feel from decades ago.

Photo Credit: @tompaulbyrnes

For most travelers, end the day with an arrival in Nuwara Eliya by taking the train one way to Nanu Oya and transferring via bus for a ~30 minute ride to Nuwara Eliya

If you have your own tuk tuk and are driving through the country, ride to Haputale then turn back to Ella to drive to Nuwara Eliya in the afternoon


DETAILS | ELLA -> KANDY TRAIN RIDE

No matter which approach you take (the short trip or the long trip), be smart and book your Ella -> Kandy train ride tickets in advance online with 12Go to ensure you get a seat…otherwise you’ll end up sitting on the floor like I did.

Short Option: For Tuk Tuk Drivers: Short Option Ella to Hiputale, 3hrs round trip

Book tickets for the Ella Train ride in advance via 12Go to ride the train from Ella to Haputale, getting off, and taking the same train back to Ella.  This leg (though it seems short) will give you the amazing experience that travelers talk about.

About Ella – Kandy Train Ride FOMO: If you’re driving your own tuk tuk you may be wondering if you’re missing out by not riding the full Ella to Kandy train route. Absolutely feel comfortable that you’re not missing out.  The views from your tuk tuk, between the south all of the way to Kandy, match what you would see on the train.

Long Option: Train Ride 1: Ella to Nanuoya, connect to Nuwara Eliya

For those travelers not driving their own tuk tuks, extend your railway adventure by taking the scenic train from Ella train station Nanuoya, and then transferring to bus to travel to Nuwara Eliyah where you’ll spend the night.

I’ll repeat, book your tickets to Nuwara Eliya in advance because though tickets don’t sell out, seats sell out very quickly and you’ll end up sitting on the ground for a 4 hour long train ride

DAY 12 | NUWARA ELIYA

HIKE WORLD’S END IN HORTON’S PLAINS NATIONAL PARK

Nuwara Eliya is a charming little town that offers 3 things: cool weather, views that resemble England a lot, and some nice, long, scenic hikes.  On Day 11, you’ll knock out an epic hike with an epic view: the “World’s End” hike.


THINGS TO DO | NUWARA ELIYA DAY 11

  • Hike to World’s End in Horton’s Plains National Park for views from a sheer 880 meter tall cliff
  • Visit the Grand View Hotel

Hike to World’s End in Horton’s Plains National Park (3 hrs, 9.5km)

World’s End is an aptly named viewpoint as it is a cliff face with a sheer 880 meter drop, making for one of the most dramatic views in Sri Lanka.

Photo Credit: @allearoundtheworld

How to Get to World’s End

Keep in mind that it tends to be chilly and wet at times in Nuwara Eliya, and it will be moreso in Horton’s Plains National Park and on the hike.  Come prepared with a rain jacket and something to stay warm, especially if you’re riding up in an open air tuk tuk.

Leaving from Nuwara Eliya, the drive is 1-1.5 hours by tuk tuk (3,000 LKR / $20 USD) or private van (4500 LKR /$30 USD).  If you’re driving your own tuk tuk simply head to the park (using Google Maps), and after reaching the ticket station, then follow the signs another 15 minutes to the trailhead.

The entrance fee to the park will be roughly $25 per person

At the trailhead, start walking!

The entire hike forms a loop converging at a fork in the road ~10-15 minutes after you start walking.  Going to the left is the faster, more strenuous route.  Going to the right is the slower, easier route. Both trails connect back around the viewpoint.

On the way back, be sure to take the opposite route to vary your views on the walk home


Visit the Grand View Hotel and Coffee Bar

End the day by dropping into the Grand Hotel for a very British view and the best coffee in tea country at the Coffee Bar located right next door.  The hotel and its grounds are grand and beautiful and the coffee shop has the best coffee in Nuwara Eliya at a very reasonable price.

 


NUWARA ELIYA | DETAILS

RECOMMENDED TOURS

WHERE TO EAT

Cheap Eats in Nuwara Eliya | Trip Advisor’s Best RatedRestaurants in Nuwara Eliya

DAY 13 | NUWARA ELIYA

HIKE ADAM’S PEAK + WANDER “LITTLE ENGLAND” + DRIVE TO KANDY

Finish your visit to Nuwara Eliya with a big day, by waking up early to hike to the religiously significant Adam’s Peak, wandering around “New England”, and leaving for the city of Kandy, history, and Sinhalese culture experiences.

THINGS TO DO | DAY 12 IN NUWARA ELIYA

  • Hike to Adam’s Peak
  • Wander “Little England”

Adam’s Peak Hike | Sri Pada Mountain (7-8 hrs round trip)

Adam’s Peak is a religiously significant spot for Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus, making it a point of pilgrimage for some 20,000 Sri Lankans each year.

Viewed from above, Adam’s Peak bears a crater shaped like a footprint.  Buddhists believe this crater is the footprint of the Buddah. Hindu’s believe the crater is the footstep of Shiva.  Christians and Muslims, however, believe this crater is the footprint of the first place Adam stepped after leaving the Garden of Eden – thus giving the mountain its name – Adam’s Peak.

The 7 kilometer and ~8 hour hike takes you up 5500 steps. Most hikers start at the trailhead in the town of Delhouse/Dalhousie (Nallathanniya on Google Maps) around 2:30AM, aiming to reach the summit by sunrise. 


Getting to Adam’s Peak: Delhouse is a 3 hour 20 minute ride from Kandy and a 2.5 hour ride from Nuwara Eliya, so plan accordingly.  If traveling to Adam’s Peak by train take the train 2 hours and 45 minutes to Hatton station, then hop a local bus or Tuk Tuk from there.  Train tickets are available online for the ride, so book in advance to ensure you have a seat.


When to Hike Adam’s Peak Hike | Sri Pada Mountain: December to March is the optimal time.  Outside of this window, expect bad weather in the form of cold, clouds, and rain.  Though some adventurers with rain jackets may feel froggy, more rain makes those 5,000 steps a lot more slippery and treacherous, and makes those leaches a lot more mobile on the hike.  The tea and snack shops that normally provide warmth and respite also close down during this season.

Guides: Odds are people will try to sell you a tour or offer guiding service.  Don’t bother.  The route is simple with one way up and one way down with plenty of other hikers/pilgrims on the trail.


Tips for Hiking Adam’s Peak

  • Bring a headlamp to make hiking in the darkness easier
  • For the leeches, do a quick search on how to remove leeches properly (with something flat, like a credit card)
  • There are many routes you can take to the top of Adam’s Peak based on your starting point – check out the Ratnapura route, the Hatton route and the Kuruwita route as alternatives
  • Beware of leaches on the route as they’re everywhere


View England’s Footprint in Nuwara Eliya…and a few extra sites

After the hike, head into town for grub and wander through the Nuwara Eliya’s preserved architecture from the British colonialization.

For the quick tour, simply plug these landmarks into Google Maps or Maps.Me and walk between them.

The “historically British” points to include in your Nuwara Eliya tour:

  • Ceylon Bank
  • British Post Office located in front of the bus station
  • Victoria Golf Course
  • Grand Hotel and Coffee Bar

Other sites in Nuwara Eliya

  • The Single Tree Viewpoint: Located next to the Single Tree Monastery, this spot gives a great view of Nuwara Eliya
  • Rumbada Waterfall, Nanu Oya Waterfall, Lover’s Leap Waterfall
  • Oak Ray Tea Factory: If you didn’t get to visit the Uva Hapelwatte tea factory
  • Seethe Amman Hindu Temple


MOVING ON FROM NUWARA ELIYA

If you’re traveling by train continue the beautiful, scenic ride from Nanuoya to Kandy, and don’t forget to book your train tickets to Kandy in advance. 

To get from Nuwara Eliya to Nanuoya, take the bus at the bus station near “Black Pool” in Nuwara Eliya for a cheap ~30 minute ride to Nanuoya’s train station.

If you’re traveling by tuk tuk simply follow Google Maps for another beautiful ride to Kandy

DAY 14 | KANDY

SEE THE TEMPLE OF BUDDHA’S TOOTH AND THE CULTURAL DANCE SHOW

Don’t get your hopes up for Kandy as it likely won’t match the beauty, charm, and allure of the other places you’ve seen in Sri Lanka.  Just count on Kandy to be a stop off between Nuwara Eliya and the cultural triangle that you should skip if you can – to give yourself one more day elsewhere.


THINGS TO DO | KANDY

If you do decide to stay in Kandy for the day and want to make the most of things, squeeze the following experiences into the day

DAY 15 | DAMBULA (ENROUTE TO SIGIRIYA)

TRAVEL TO SIGIRIYA, STOP AT DAMBULA ROYAL CAVES ON THE WAY

Continue on toward Sigiriya, but be sure stop at the Dambula Royal Caves on your way.  The Dambula royal caves make up a monastic complex and UNESCO world heritage site adorned with over 150 shrines and paintings of the Buddah, some of which are more than 2000 years old.  After seeing the caves, stop off and see the gigantic golden Buddah near the caves

THINGS TO DO | DAMBULA (BRIEF STOP)

  • Dambula Royal Caves + Cave Monastery [UNESCO World Heritage Site]
  • Large Golden Buddah Statue

Dambula Royal Caves

The largest and best preserved cave temples in Sri Lanka, this UNESCO world heritage site is a living Buddhist site that has been used by forest dwelling monks since the 3rd century BC. The inside of the caves are filled with amazingly well preserved Buddhist statues, shrines, and frescos that cover nearly all of the walls.  Over 150 statues and pictures adorn the space, some more than 2,000 years old.

After hiking the 160 meters up to the temple and down from the Cave Temple, feel free to check out the huge gold Buddah, just north, walking distance from the caves.

After the caves, continue on to Sigiriya.  If you have a few hours of daylight left, head straight for the Pidurangala cave monastery, jumping into the Day 15 itinerary


DAMBULA CAVES| DETAILS

Hours: 7AM to 7PM Daily

Cost: 1,500 LKR (~$8.50 USD)

Getting to Dambula: Stopon the way to/from Sigiriya/Kandy or take the bus, ~500 LKR for a bus with aircon

If you don’t have time to stop in Sigiriya on the way to Anuradhapura, you can easily take a day trip to Sigiriya, Pidurangala, and Dambula from Anuradhapura cheaply and easily.  Click here to see Sigiriya and Dambula day trip pictures, prices, and availability.

DAY 16 | SIGIRIYA

VISIT PIDURANGALA ROCK MONASTERY FOR A VIEW OF SIGIRIYA’S LION FORTRESS

In impressive geological feature towering above an otherwise flat landscape, home to a fortress built by a bastard prince after killing his father.  The Sigirya rock, or “Lion Fortress” is an impressive view and structure with an equally impressive back story.

You must absolutely see this site, but, not the way most tourists do – read on for how to save yourself $30 and enjoy the same magnificent view

THINGS TO DO | SIGIRIYA

  • Sigiriya Rock | Lion Fortress | Sigiriya Museum
  • Pidurangala Cave Monastery and Viewpoint of Sigiriya

 


Sigiriya Rock | The Lion Fortress

Sigiriya, the UNESCO World Heritage site and fortress that sits atop a prominent rock is absolutely beautiful and significant in Sinhalese history.  However, paying $30 for the experience of walking to the top of the rock is a nearly unjustifiable tourist trap that can easily leave a bitter taste in your mouth, with the $30 USD entry fee and the 3-hour wait to get in.

Many travelers question whether the Sigiriya Fortress is worth the wait and price tag.  I’ll save you the struggle – it is absolutely not.  Because nearby Pidurangala rock gives the same vast views (at $3.50), and Anuradhapura (your next stop) is filled with even more impressive ruins, there is no real reason why Sigiriya rock is worth $30.

At the top of Sigiriya there is a series of structures, somewhat similar to Macchu Picchu in much a scaled-down version and much more dilapidated.  Simply peruse Google briefly and you’ll have enough of an idea.

Skip the FOMO itinerary of Sigiriya and instead hike to the top of Pidurangala rock for a much more enjoyable experience.

Sigiriya Rock Info

  • Hours:
  • Cost: 4,500 LKR | $25 USD
  • Getting to Sigiriya: Take the local bus to Sigiriya from Kandy or Anuradhapura for $7

Tips for Sigiriya Rock

  • Go early (at first opening) to avoid crowds and have the site to yourself
  • Pair the experience of Sigiriya with a hike to the top of Pidurangala rock at sunset, for a sunset view of Sigiriya Rock

Pindurangala Rock (and a view of Sigiriya)

A mere mile from Sigiriya rock sits the Pidurangala monastery.

To enter, simply follows the directions on Google maps until you arrive at the parking lot for Pidurangala – on the road in you’ll see a handful of archeological sites to your left and right, similar to the grounds around Sigiriya rock (that you would have to pay to see) and freely open for you to wander through.

After parking, simply head into the small monastery (taking off your shoes and covering up accordingly), pay the $3.50 entrance fee, and start hiking!  The hike leads up around Pidurangala rock, passing by the remains of a large reclining Buddha and the remains of rooms where monks once lived.

The last 20 meters of the hike is “interesting” and fun as you’ll have to climb through a hole in the rock – but – on the other side you’re rewarded with expansive views of the landscape in all directions, and an exquisite view of the fortress at Sigiriya.

Tips for Sigiriya and Pidurangala

  • Wear soles with good shoes worthy of hiking
  • If you’re on a budget, skip Sigiriya and hike Pidurangala instead

 

SIGIRIYA| DETAILS

COSTS

  • Sigiriya Entry Fee: $30 USD
  • Pidurangala Entry Fee: $3.50 USD

TIPS

  • Skip the entry to Sigiriya if you’re on a budget and opt for just Pidurangala instead

WHERE TO EAT

Cheap Eats | Trip Advisor’s Best Rated Restaurants in Sigiriya

HOW TO GET THERE

  • From Kandy, head to the main bus station and ask around for the appropriate bus as there is no train into Sigiriya
  • For those traveling by tuk tuk, follow the Google Maps directions and you’ll be just fine

DAY 17 | TRAVEL TO ANURHADAPURA

Make Day 17 an easy travel day by following Google maps to Anuradhapura and then taking it easy the remainder of the day

Photo Credit: @little_chef_nilaksha

ANURADHAPURA | DETAILS


WHERE TO EAT

Cheap Eats in Anuradhapura | Best Rated Restaurants in Anuradhapura


HOW TO GET TO ANURADHAPURA

Public bus, or luxury bus, is the best way to go – cheap, frequent, and efficient.  Head to the main bus terminal in Kandy and start hunting for the Anuradhapura bus.

For the Train from Kandy to Anuradhapura, take the train from Kandy station to Polgahawela Railway Station and transfer at the Polgahawela Railway Station to the train headed for Anuradhapura Station.  The route may not come up in 12Go so search Google Maps directions from Kandy to Anuradhapura with the public transportation feature or search Rome2Rio’s routes from Kandy to Anuradhapura specifically using the trains function.

For Tuk Tuk riders, trusty old Google Maps’ driving directions are all you need.  The road will be smooth and calm as you cruise through jungles, plains, and wetlands along the way.


WHERE TO STAY IN ANURADHAPURA

The Why Not Palace – clean, modern rooms with aircon at a great price

DAY 18 | ANURHADAPURA

WANDER THE 1500-YEAR-OLD RUINS OF THE SINHALESE KINGDOM

Tucked away in the north, in the cultural triangle is Anuradhapura – the former seat (and third) of the Sinhala Kingdom of Rajarata, from ~400 BC to ~1100 AD, and UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Phot Credit; @thais_trip

Though Anuradhapura doesn’t get nearly the press and attention deserved outside of Sri Lanka, this city and vast complex is a must-see because of its well preserved ancient ruins from the Sinhala civilization covering over 16 square miles (41 km2) and a former center of political power and urban life in South Asia.

Photo Credit: @skykandianan_travels

(For more background I highly recommend reading the Anuradhapura Wikipedia article)


SITES TO SEE | ANURHADAPURA

The common tour of Anuradhapura includes the “Eight Sacred Places” or “Atamasthana”, which are the eight places in Anuradhapura that Sri Lankans believe were visited by the Buddha on his three trips to Sri Lanka.  If this interests you, consider reading up on the “16 Sacred Places” in Sri Lanka visited by Buddha (Wikipedia Article)

Photo Credit: @donchamantha

Whether or not you’re Buddhist you’ll appreciate these sites.  Grand, magnificent structures built over 1000 years ago share the story of a vast, urban civilization long past that many haven’t even heard of.  A day of wandering in awe will add some learning to your trip and a new appreciation for Sinhalese history and culture.


The Eight Sacred Places in Anuradhapura

  1. Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi (The Sacred Bodhi Tree) (click to see the Wikipedia article on this site)
  2. Lovamahapaya (Palace Ruins)
  3. Mirisaveti (Stupa)
  4. Ruwanwelisaya (Stupa)
  5. Jetavanaramaya (Stupa)
  6. Thuparamaya (Stupa)
  7. Lankarama (Stupa)
  8. Abhayagiri Dagaba (Ruins of Monastery)

For efficiency and enjoyment, I recommend visiting the following sites in the order listed below:

Full Itinerary of Anuradhapura Sites

  1. Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi (The Sacred Bodhi Tree) (click to see the Wikipedia article on this site)
  2. Lovamahapaya (Palace Ruins)
  3. Mirisaveti (Stupa)
  4. Ruwanwelisaya (Stupa)
  5. Jetavanaramaya (Stupa)
  6. Thuparamaya (Stupa)
  7. Lankarama (Stupa)
  8. Abhayagiri Dagaba (Ruins of Monastery)
  9. Samadhi Statue [of Buddha]
  10. Kuttam Pokuna (Bathing and Reflecting Pools)
  11. Isurumuniya (Buddhist Temple) (Link to Wikipedia Article)
  12. Sandakada Pahana (Moonstone)

For full background and history of these sites, I recommend reading the Wikipedia Excerpt on Atamasthana which provides descriptions and history of all the “8 Sacred Sites” of Anuradhapura, allowing you to do a robust tour solo.


HOW TO EXPERIENCE ANURADHAPURA: MAPS.ME AND CHART YOUR OWN PATH

Doing your own tour of Anuradhapura is very easy, as long as you’ve downloaded Maps.Me.  Simply save all of the following landmarks beforehand and follow the roads in between each site, stopping at anything that catches your eye along the way.

Photo Credit: @bee_sarah_

Getting a guide for Anuradhapura

With the Wikipedia articles available for the Anuradhapura sites, a guide isn’t totally necessary. However, if you would prefer to get a guide, I recommend booking this day tour of Anradhaprua’s Sacred Sites with hotel pickup and dropoff.

Click here to see pictures and check availability for the Anuradhapura Day Tour

If you’re pressed for time, consider a Day Trip to Anuradhapura Ruins from Colombo (click here to see pictures, prices, and availability)

Getting around Anuradhapura: Tuk Tuk, Bike, or Tuk Tuk

The ruins complex of Anuradhapura is so vast that seeing it all merely by foot is nearly impossible. 

To best experience the ruins, renting your own tuk tuk and driving yourself through Anuradhapura is by far the best option.  I wandered in my tuk tuk and not only saw the major sites but stopped at random forests and wandered through centuries-old castles that aren’t marked on the map.

The second best option is to hire a tuk tuk driver for the day as your personal driver. This offers the convenience of relaxing between sites without worrying about peddling around.  Plan on this costing 7,000 LKR/~$38 USD for the entire day if booked locally (just ask the management at your accommodation for suggested drivers for the best price and most reliable drivers). 

Also, consider the Anuradhapura Day Tour that visits the 8 sacred sites with hotel pick up and drop off, and is just as cheap (~$25). (Click here to see pictures and availability               )

The last option is simply renting a bike and riding through Anuradhapura.  Cheap, simple, and adventurous, Anuradhapura by bike is a fun experience.  Pack plenty of water and plan on it costing ~1500 LKR / ~$8.50 to rent for the day.  Bike rental is best arranged through your hotel.

Be sure to pack water and snacks as the days are hot, the drive back to a mini-mart can be long, and the kiosk vendors can overcharge foreigners at times


ENTRANCE FEES TO ANURADHAPURA

This is an interesting one, and one that you’ll find quite some debate on across the internet…not because of the fee, but because of what you’re charged…or not charged.

The fee to enter the Anuradhapura ruins complex is $25 per person – for foreigners.  Members of “SAARC” countries pay half that.  In my opinion, that is quite steep considering the “local price”, which isn’t even published for many places on the internet.  For the similar city of Polonnaruwa, the entry fee for foreigners is $25 as well…and locals are free. At Sigiriya, the cost for foreigners is $30 for entry…local entry is $1. 

I’m all for paying to preserve culture, but I get a bit irritated when there is a 3000% cost difference because of my passport, but there are still locals living in poverty just outside of these sites.

So, I’ll explain what I did, and the options available to you.

The complex of Anuradhapura is so vast that, if you’re in local transport (tuk tuk, private car) you can drive right in without paying…which is exactly what I did.  From there, I took the $25 I would have paid to the tourism arm of the government, and placed it in the donation boxes for the religious sites and purchased items from the local vendors – ensuring that the money went to a place I’m comfortable with considering the 3000% tax for being a foreigner.

Whether or not you pay the entrance fee is (at current) your choice and can be paid in the sum of $25 USD at the front entrance.

A note to starving backpackers and a personal opinion – if this $25 price tag is standing between you and entering the Anuradhapura complex, skip the fee and just go in.  The positive ripple effects achieved by your awareness of Sinhalese culture, learning their history, and traveling on to tell others does a service to the culture, their history, and the reputation of Sri Lanka that is worth more than $25.  So, if you cash strapped, I recommend just going.

TIPS FOR ANURADHAPURA

  • Wear long pants and a long shirt to respect (and be allowed into) the beautiful religious sites or bring a sarong to cover-up

ANURADHAPURA VS. POLONNARUWA

When making travel plans, sometimes we ask, “is it worth it?” and rightly so.  Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa are both listed on many itineraries, but being so similar, is it worth visiting both cities?

The simple answer:

Go to Anuradhapura, skip Polonnaruwa

Few travel writers had gone to both cities, so I decided to, just to see how they measure up.  There are 4 reasons I recommend Anuradhapura over Polonnaruwa.

  • The ruins complex of Anuradhapura is much larger, religiously and culturally relevant, and beautiful
  • Anuradhapura has many more hidden gems set back along hiking trails in forests, making it more fun to wander
  • Broke travelers still interested in experiencing the culture and history can easily walk past the “$25 foreigner entrance fee” in Anuradhapura – if you do sneak in, try to pay it forward some other way down the road
  • Anuradhapura is 2 hours closer to Colombo, making your eventual drive home much easier

Polonnaruwa is an impressive site within a smaller complex that can be bicycled easily but does not have enough to warrant visiting instead of Anuradhapura or in addition to Anuradhapura.  Some have chosen Polonnaruwa because it is slightly cooler with fewer mosquitoes, but for me this wasn’t significant enough for me to choose Polonnaruwa over Anuradhapura and the extra 2-hour drive.

The Bottom Line: Absolutely choose Anuradhapura.

Whichever destination you choose just know that you do not need to go to both.  Both experiences and sites are so similar that it is worth spending that extra elsewhere…unless you really love history and archeology.


ANURADHAPURA| DETAILS


COSTS

  • “Entry Fee”: $25 or free (depending on your approach)
  • Tuk Tuk Hire for a Day: 7,000 LKR / ~$38 USD (not negotiated)
  • Bicycle Hire for a Day: 300 LKR / ~$1.75
  • Tour: $25 (Click to see availability)

Tips for Anuradhapura

  • Wear a long shirt and pants to respect the religious sites and be allowed access
  • Bring water – its pretty hot in Anuradhapura
  • Don’t count on walking between sites or it will be a very  long day
  • Wear socks if walking barefoot bothers you – you’ll need to remove your shoes at most sites

RECOMMENDED TOURS

WHERE TO EAT

Cheap Eats in Anuradhapura | Best Rated Restaurants in Anuradhapura

WHERE TO STAY IN ANURADHAPURA

  • The Why Not Palace

DAY 19 | OPTION DAY

This Sri Lanka itinerary is packed with places and experiences and you will absolutely fall in love with at least one.  Know that with these two open days in your itinerary, you have the leeway to stay in a place you love for a bit longer

I highly recommend using one day to lounge and rest in Ella and a second day to lounge in the beach town of your choice.


DAY 20 | BACK TO NEGOMBO

Start the end of your trip by making your way back to the capital and bedding down for the night in Negombo.  Treat yourself to a beer and pat yourself on the back for taking on such an adventurous location and travel experience.

Bed down for the night in Negombo (instead of Colombo) to place yourself conveniently near the airport.


 

DAY 21 | FLY OUT

Book your Uber to the airport early.  Catch up on Instagram on the way.  Start planning your next adventure

 

ALTERNATE ITINERARIES FOR SRI LANKA

Though a Sri Lanka Itinerary of 3 weeks is the perfect length to experience everything the country has to offer in an adventurous, memorable way…not everyone has three weeks…and the lucky ones have more.

Here are my recommendations for tweaking this itinerary for 1, 2, or 4 weeks, and also focusing your itinerary on just surfing and beaches.


SRI LANKA ITINERARY | 1 WEEK

If you’re limited to 1 week in Sri Lanka, go with the approach of “we can always come back later” focusing on a single region or activity.  The experience is so rich that a rushed, FOMO driven experience can spoil it.

For your 1 week Sri Lanka itinerary, simply pick either 1) the beach and coastal region, or 2) the tea country and highlands with a touch of the “cultural triangle”, or 3) focus on only the cultural triangle around Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura, Dambulla, and Sigirya, while adding Trincomalee for a beach experience, and Jaffna for history, culture, and food.


2 WEEKS IN SRI LANKA | ITINERARY

For a good 2 week Sri Lanka itinerary, you can experience it all, you’ll just have to move quickly and pick the right season. 

First, go between November and April, when the easily accessible beach towns of the southwest coast and weather are at their best.  Being so close to Colombo/Negombo makes for easy and cheap transport via public train and bus.  This will allow you to squeeze in more beach time, parties, and surfing with less travel, making great use of your time.

From here, take the rail up to the highlands, hit the hotspots of Ella (amazing) and Nuwara Eliya, then quickly move into the cultural triangleAvoid wasting time in Kandy.

Rent your own Tuk Tuk to make the most of the two weeks, allowing you to move when and where you please.

If you do choose to go by rail, reserve your train tickets well in advance via 12Go to ensure you get a comfortable seat, making the most beautiful train ride in the world much more enjoyable.


4 WEEKS IN SRI LANKA | ITINERARY

Four weeks in Sri Lanka can easily be burned while still feeling like you could use more time.

For the perfect four week Sri Lanka itinerary, simply take the 3 week itinerary and add more time in either Arugam Bay, Weligama/Unawatuna/Hikkaduwa, or Ella, and add a few extra hikes in Nuwara Eliya.

Also, consider doing an additional safari tour and making your way up to the northern capital of Jaffna for a more unique taste of culture and history along with uniquely delicious dishes (like Sri Lankan crab curry).


THE SRI LANKA SURF ITINERARY

If surfing is what you aim for, then make the mega spot of the season your first stop after Colombo, Arugam Bay for April to November, and Hikkaduwa (to start) for November to April.  Surf to your heart’s contentment then make your way to Ella and a national park as you continue your adventure

Be sure to check out our surf guides on the following locations as they offer the best info available on surf breaks, conditions, and what to take with you

MORE GREAT SRI LANKA CONTENT

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