After talking to a few friends and reading about Sri Lanka, we quickly had our eyes set on this island east of India. It was the diversity, affordability, and a low number of tourists which attracted us the most. The island is a paradise for backpackers and many visitors stay about 2-3 weeks, letting you discover the most interesting parts of the island. You will hardly find any families or more sophisticated travelers since most of the accommodations are still very basic and places underdeveloped. But these are what made Sri Lanka really attractive to us.
- Best time to go: This is debatable 🙂 High season for the “tourist trail” (south-west), is from December to May. However, we prefer traveling in the shoulder season because there are far fewer tourists, prices are lower, and you can be more flexible. November is the end of the south-west monsoon and even though it rained nearly every day, it was easily doable.
- How to get there: There are plenty of airlines going to Colombo, most will stop in Abu Dhabi, Doha or in our case (KLM) in Amsterdam. Flights for the end of October were very reasonable from Munich (around 500 EUR round-trip).
- Medical considerations: There are no special vaccinations required, however, you be sure to have typhus, Hepatitis A and B. Tollwut is recommended if you plan to interact with animals (be aware there are many stray dogs and monkeys everywhere). Sri Lanka is declared malaria-free, however, Dengue is a threat. Bring plenty of mosquito repellent (about 1 bottle of Autan or Nobite per person for 2 weeks).
- Visa: Apply online for your ETA (35 USD, 30 EUR) and bring a print-out (your airline will check before you are allowed on your plane). You should receive your approval within a few hours.
- For more Infos, also read our previous post about the 30 key facts about Sri Lanka 🙂
Here you can find an overview of our suggested route around the island, including the cultural triangle, the hill country, national parks, and of course the beach:
Day 1: Colombo – Exploring the capital
Day 2-3: Habarana – Sigiriya rock, Pidurangala Rock, Polonnaruwa Ancient City
Day 4: Kandy – Temple of Tooth
Day 5: Hatton/Dalhousie – Train ride, Adam’s Peak
Day 6-7: Ella – Ella’s rock, tea factory, Nine Arches Bridge
Day 8: Udawalawe – Safari
Day 9: Tissa – Safari at Yala
Day 10: Tangalle – Beach, Lagoon
Day 11-12: Mirissa – Beach, Galle, Diving
Day 13: Hikkaduwa – Surfing
Details To Our 2-Week Sri Lanka Itinerary
Day 1 – Explore Colombo: An introduction to Sri Lanka
Since we arrived very early morning and were unable to check into our hotel until noon, we decided to first get our train ticket for the next day to Habarana and then walk around downtown. Colombo is not too special honestly and if you are not too exhausted from the flight to Sri Lanka you may even consider taking off to your next destination directly.
- Some noteworthy sights: Colombo Fort, Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple, Independence Memorial Hall, Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque, Viharamahadevi Park, Pettah Market, Galle Face Green.
- Where to stay: The Highbury Colombo was great, especially after our long flight, the humidity and heat. Super nice owners and a real gem and oasis hidden from the bustling streets. The place even features a solar roof and the owner uses electric cars. We were pleasantly surprised. The room was also perfect.
- Where to eat & drink:
Day 2 – Travel to Habarana, the Cultural Triangle
We had an early wake-up call since the train to Habarana only goes twice a day and we had tickets for the 6:00 am ride. The train was pretty much on time and during the 6-hour ride, we passed small villages, rice terraces, and very lush landscape. Habarana itself doesn’t have much to offer but it serves as the perfect starting point to explore the cultural sights of the area. If you would like to stay in a bigger city, you might consider Dambulla or even Kandy and do a day trip up north.
We debated on whether to pay the hefty price tag to climb Lion’s Rock (35 USD; 30 EUR) or the nearby Pidurangala Rock (3,3 USD; 2,80 EUR), which is a bit harder to climb but from which you have the same view plus a view of Lion’s Rock. Lion’s Rock is a picturesque rock and stands at about 200m. The site was selected by the former king for his new capital and he built his palace on top of the rock. After the king’s death, the royal palace was abandoned. Today, it is one of the best- preserved examples of ancient urban planning.
We decided to conquer Pidurangala rock which also features a small temple and large lying Buddha statue and we certainly didn’t regret our decision. The hike wasn’t too bad at all and we easily made it to the top in about 15-20min.
- How to get around: Take a tuk-tuk to get to Pidurangala and Sigiriya which takes about 15-20min.
- Where to stay: We had a very basic tree house and a nice (but shy) host.
- Where to eat: Since there weren’t too many options for eating out and it was pouring down, we decided to eat at our host who served us traditional food including fish curry, papadam, and veggies.
Day 3 – Biking around the Ancient City Polonnaruwa
The Ancient City of Polonnaruwa has been declared a World Heritage Site and is best visited by bike. About 800 years ago, Polonnaruwa was the thriving commercial and religious center of Sri Lanka. The grounds are big but compact, perfect for exploring the many temples and religious buildings. For three centuries it was the royal capital of both the Chola and Sinhalese kingdoms. However, in the early 13th century Polonnaruwa’s glory was fading and the grounds later abandoned.You can easily spend 2 to 3 hours discovering the ancient city, temples, and old palace grounds.
- How to get there: 1h from Habarana with public transport, about 2 USD/1-2 EUR round-trip
- Costs: 25 USD/21 EUR entrance fee (incl. museum), 3 USD/2,50 EUR for bike rental
- Clothing: Cover your knees and shoulders when you enter sacred places such as temples. Consider some (ugly) strap-on sandals as you also need to remove your shoes for these temples.
Back in Habarana you can take a stroll at the Habarana lake or have an Ayurveda treatment at one of the Spa centers nearby.
Day 4 – More Culture at the Dambulla Caves and Kandy
The Dambulla cave paintings are a truly unique sight and the largest and best-preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka. They were easily accessible on our way to Kandy, about 1 hour south of Habarana. You can store your bags at the entrance if you don’t want to carry them on the 10-15min uphill hike. Five of the 80 documented caves are accessible. There are a total of 153 Buddha statues, three statues of Sri Lankan kings and four statues of gods and goddesses. From the temple and caves, you can also enjoy a great panoramic view of the surrounding flatlands.
- Costs: 10 USD/8,20 EUR entrance fee, a few pennies for leaving your shoes on a shoe rack outside the temple (foreigners are required to pay).
- How to get there: Take any bus from Habarana going south towards Kandy and get off at the entrance of the caves. Be aware, the entrance is NOT at the main temple structure at the bottom of the hill but another 500m down the road and then left up to the hill.
After this stop-over, we took the bus another 2 hours to reach Kandy. From our first impression, Kandy is loud, lively and has a lot of traffic. It also sported poor air quality. Additionally, a lot of tourists come here directly from Colombo and skip the Cultural Triangle or just go there for the day.
We recommend walking through the local market and buying some amazingly fresh fruits. You can never go wrong with mangos, avocados, papayas, passion fruit or watermelon. For the brave among you, try a piece of Durian. Next, have a relaxed drink and enjoy the sunset before heading to the Temple of the Tooth (10 USD/8,20 EUR entrance fee) once it gets dark. In the evening there is a unique atmosphere and the drum ceremony started around 7:00 pm. The temple is known to hold the relic of the tooth of the Buddha and many locals come here in the evenings for prayers. The relic has played an important role in local politics because it is believed that whoever holds the relic holds the governance of the country. You won’t ever be able to see the actual tooth, however, you might see the box in which the tooth is said to be held. The temple is not too big and it won’t take you longer than 1 hour to see everything, even if you take your time seeing the drum performance.
- Where to stay: Depending on whether you want to stay in noisy and dirty downtown or further up the hills with a view and away from the crowds. We stayed at the Kandy Backpackers Homestay Eagles which was run by a lovely family and had some really nice rooms, however, the hang-out area wasn’t the cleanest. However, for 12 USD/10 EUR for a room, you can’t really complain. We enjoyed the serenity, and didn’t have a problem walking downtown for about 40min downhill — but we took a tuk-tuk back uphill.
- Where to eat & drink:
- If you are in need of good internet or just want to relax at a chilled cafe, check out the “Secret Alley Cafe”. They offer great coffee, smoothies, breakfast bowls, avocado toast, etc.
- We had a tasty dinner at Cafe Divine Street and would definitely go back again.
- Don’t miss the Cool Corner Fried Ice Cream behind the train station, even if you have to go there in the mornings before your train (as we did :P)
- Enjoy a drink and sunset from the Slightly Chilled Lounge Bar, which is pretty popular with the Western crowd and offers cheap beer for happy hour.
- Get out: If you – like everyone else – want to take the train towards or to Ella you should either try to pre-book it or get to the station about 1h before the train leaves. However, this won’t guarantee you a seat unless you are lucky enough to hold a 1st class ticket.
- Other Sights:
- Botanical Garden
- Traditional dance show (not sure if this is really worth it as it may be more of a tourist trap)
- Bahiravokanda Vihara Buddha Statue on the hill
Day 5 – An Epic Journey to Adam’s Peak
There are several trains leaving Kandy to Ella and we took the one at 11:15 which was fairly on time. Unfortunately, we were unable to catch a seat and had to hang out in the aisle, facing a 3-hour journey to Hatton from where we planned to take a public bus to Dalhousie, the starting point for the hike to Adam’s Peak. The train was packed with foreigners and we had a good time with two British dudes. We enjoyed the breathtaking journey through small villages, around lush mountains, tea plantations, and eucalyptus trees.
After arriving in Hatton, we unknowingly met our German travel buddies for the next 7 days. Together with Stefan and Stefanie, we made our way through the little town to the bus stop, where we quickly found the right bus. Unfortunately, there was no direct bus to Dalhousie that time, so we were warned to change buses again in an even smaller village. Off we went, on this very picturesque ride up and down the hills along tea plantations passing two beautiful lakes. After about a 1h30min into our ride, we got really impatient though since the distance between Hatton and Dalhousie is a mere 35km and our end destination was still far away. The bus stopped at almost every corner, picking up school kids until the bus as more than packed.
After 2h30min we finally arrived in Dalhousie and quickly found our cute little hostel – Singh Brothers. Nothing too special but super nice hosts, good food, big bed, hot shower, and perfect location for the hike in the early morning. What else can you ask for in that sleepy village 😉
We bought some snacks, had dinner, and went to bed fairly early since we wanted to see the sunrise at the top of Adam’s Peak the next day.
Day 6 – Hiking the Sacred Mountain and Journey to Ella
Our day started at 3:00 am with a close to 2-hour hike, conquering over 5,500 stairs to the reach the top of the Sacred Mountain, Adam’s Peak at 2,243m. Adam’s Peak is known for the Sri Pada (“sacred footprint”), a 1,8 m rock formation near the summit, which in Buddhist tradition is held to be the footprint of the Buddha, in Hindu tradition that of Shiva, and in Islamic and Christian tradition that of Adam, or that of St. Thomas.
Since it wasn’t full moon, nor high season, there luckily weren’t that many pilgrims. The moon was quite bright but we were glad to borrow a torch from our hostel since the path next to the river was still pitch black. It was a long straight path with moderate ascent until a sharp turn towards the top. From then on, the path was super steep and slippery at times, especially when we hit the fog line. About 30 min from the top you will reach a small hut where you can get hot tea and roti in case you are too early and don’t want to wait at the top for too long. The sunrise was scheduled to be at around 6:15 am so we had some time to kill and met up with the other backpackers there.
Once at the top, we could see quite a lot of clouds hanging over the hills around us which were moving quickly due to the strong winds. The sunrise was nice but brief and we stayed a few more minutes before descending again. We really enjoyed the views of the valley, rising sun and blue skies (a rare sight this time of the year).
- Conclusion: Overall we thought the hike was moderately difficult and doable for the average person. Most people leave between 2:00 am and 2:30 am. We definitely recommend doing the sunrise hike, however, we are not sure if we would have done it in the pouring rain.
- What to bring: torch, rain/wind jacket, 1,5l of water per person, snacks, shirt to change at the top
- Costs: 0 USD (unless you want to donate to the temple, but you don’t have to)
We rewarded us with a big breakfast at our hostel and managed to get on a private van with 4 other backpackers to Hatton which we reached in about 1h10min (remember the 2h30min journey by bus the other day?). Leaving around 11:30 am gives you enough time to catch the train at 1:26 pm to Ella.
This section of the train is supposed to be even more picturesque and indeed it was! It was similarly packed than last time but we managed to sneak a seat. After some time the usual rain started and we the 4h train ride was quite tiring. We couldn’t wait to get to Ella at that point and just eat, shower, and sleep.
- Where to stay: Country House, the rooms are quite big and they offer some really nice views from the upper-level rooms.
- Where to eat:
- Nilmini Restaurant was our absolute favorite and is run by a cute granny who cooks you the most delicious meal. Order the egg curry and definitely the mango shake while you wait for the freshly cooked dinner. You will definitely don’t leave this place hungry.
- We had some lovely cheese and chicken roti at Lounge 360 which offered some cozy live music.
- Also, Ice Cube Bar & Restaurant offers some nice dishes.
- Where to drink: The coolest hangout spot is probably the Chill Cafe which serves great drinks and food. Every backpacker will probably end up here at some point in his or her stay. Get there early to get a seat. The bar on the top is very cozy.
Day 7- Exploring Ella: More Hiking and Tea Tastings
In Sri Lanka, you just have to start your day early as the afternoons are usually rained out. So again, we got up early to meet our new travel buddies Stefan and Stefanie at 6.15 am. Today’s mission was to hike to the top of Ella’s Rock, which provides a fantastic view of the valley below unless it’s foggy. Starting on the train treks we left Ella and reached the team plantation after about 45 min. There are always some people who try to veer you off the right path and try to confuse you. These scammers would show you the real path once you got lost and pay them a fee. Luckily we were prepared and confident enough to find the right path.
We wandered through the tea plantation, high grass, and finally reached the eucalyptus forest where we faced a steep ascent to the top. There were hardly any hikers at that time and we were almost the only ones at the top enjoying the views and the sun before the fog came in. You can walk further to another lookout to see the Ella Falls from the distance which was quite nice as well. We then walked down the same way we came from and enjoyed an early lunch.
Ella itself basically consists of one main road where you can find a lot of restaurants, cafés, and bars as well as tea shops. There is also a supermarket and 2 ATMs in town. Ella is a lot more touristy and has more bars than any other town we have been so far.
After relaxing for a bit we decided to head out the other direction of Ella and walk to Halpewatte Tea Factory. The walk was nice but also very steep down and up another hill and we could see the rain clouds coming in already. We have to admit, this factory tour was really interesting and informative even though the factory was not running since it was the day after full moon where hardly anyone works in Sri Lanka. We saw the different stages the tea leaves are dried, rolled, fermented, heated, sorted, and packaged. The science behind Ceylon black tea is really fascinating and we learned a lot about the use and effect of the various types of tea. At the end of the tour, we enjoyed a tasting of the various teas and got some as souvenir.
Quick facts about Ceylon black tea:
- The plants can be picked about every 7 days.
- Sri Lanka grows tea in about 6 to 7 regions with different tastes.
- In the mornings you brew the bigger leaves which have a much stronger and more bitter taste, perfect to wake you up (usually drunk with milk).
- In the evening you brew the tiniest leaves which provide you a mellow and relaxing tea.
- The medium-sized leaves are for the afternoon to give you a little kick.
After a big downpour, we managed to get back into town for dinner and drinks at the expat’s favorite hangout spot and bar.