Sri Lanka is a beautiful tropical country in the middle of the Indian Ocean. And it has an amazing variety of places for you to visit.
In this article, there are three itineraries that will guide you through the country. You’ll get to see the best places based on the type of itinerary you choose.
For every itinerary included in this article, you will need at least 3-4 weeks.
As Sri Lanka is a small country, most places you’ll want to visit are located relatively close to each other. But keep in mind that there are many wonderful places you can visit. I spent about 6 months in Sri Lanka and didn’t get to see all of them, but I did visit every location in this list of itineraries.
Table of Contents
- Itinerary 1: Sri Lanka Essentials
- Itinerary 2: Sri Lanka Culture, History, Beach, Surf & Mountains
- Itinerary 3: Hindu Temples, Culture, History, more History and Beaches
Itinerary 1: Sri Lanka Essentials
You will need at least 3 weeks to see all of Sri Lanka’s essential hotspots. But giving yourself an extra week will allow you to take it easier and spend more time enjoying good food, a cold beer and an extra day or 2 at the beach.
1.1. Bandaranaike International Airport (Negombo)
Start in Bandaranaike International Airport, the biggest airport of Sri Lanka, which is located right next to Negombo. Book accommodation in advance in the area for a more comfortable arrival. I recommend Rico Shadow Guest House, but there are also many other good hostels and guesthouses in the area of Negombo.
Spend 1 or 2 nights in Negombo and enjoy your arrival with a lovely dish of Sri Lankan rice & curry, a cold beer or a fruity cocktail. Let your body absorb the tropical environment and take it easy. Make sure you’re around the beach area in the evening for a majestic sunset on Negombo Beach. If you’re an early bird, consider visiting the Negombo Fish Market in the morning.
In the morning after your stay in Negombo, take the highway coach bus around the western coast to Galle. In Galle, you will be able to behold the mighty well-preserved Dutch fort from the colonial times in Sri Lanka. You will need about 2-3 hours to explore the area. And, there are some great restaurants in the Old Dutch Hospital.
Book a Guesthouse or dorm room in Mirissa, a nice little ocean town on the south coast of Sri Lanka. During the day, spend some time on the beach, have some tasty bbq fish on the beach and go on a whale-watching trip. Mirissa is rather touristy, especially in the high season around Christmas, but a relaxed atmosphere sweeps in the village. There are many nice bars and restaurants in Mirissa, right next to the ocean on the beach. I had a great time hanging out there for a day or 2-3.
Take your time, but do visit Tangalle in between December and May. The village of Tangalle is quite something else than Mirissa, much quieter and more peaceful, with a long stretch of beach on the south coast for a nice walk. Amazing seafood is available in the many small restaurants on the beach next to the Indian Ocean. Tangalle is a perfect place on your trip to say goodbye to the ocean (for a while) and to prepare yourself to go inland to your next destination.
Continue your trip to lovely little Ella, a backpackers village set in a beautiful location amid tea plantations, breathtaking mountain views, and many other sightseeing activities. Ella is located right on the edge of the hill country in Sri Lanka and is a perfect first stop in the Mountains. The town of Ella has some great hangout places, good restaurants, and cozy bars in the city center. The 98 acres resort is a stay that I recommend most if you don’t mind spending some extra money for one night. Of course, there are also many other cheaper guesthouses in Ella.
1.7. Nuwara Eliya / Hatton
Visit either Nuwara Eliya, the so-called little Switzerland village based in the beautiful region of the central highlands of Sri Lanka. Or consider visiting Hatton as an alternative destination, where both pilgrims and tourists venture the mighty Adam’s Peak at night to see a sunset on the top over what seems te be half of Sri Lanka.
The next destination will be Kandy, the cultural capital of Sri Lanka, which is located in green tropical hills in the central highlands. The city features the superb temple of the tooth, which contains a relic with one of the remaining teeth of Buddha amongst marvelous Sinhalese religious art. Kandy has many great hotspots: the central lake, the fire dancers and beautiful architecture from the British colonial times. There are some nice hostels in the city, like Kandy City Monkey, but also other great guesthouses and hotels. The Kandy Royal Cafe is my favorite place for a good cup of coffee.
Take the stunning train ride from Kandy to Colombo, the vibrant capital city of Sri Lanka. Spend some lovely time on some of the rooftop terrace bars in the city and do sightseeing. Stay for 2 days before you leave.
1.10. Bandaranaike International Airport (Negombo)
Take a taxi, tuk-tuk or shuttle bus from Colombo straight to the airport near Negombo. Have a safe flight.
Itinerary 2: Culture, History, Beach, Surf & Mountains
You will need at least 3-4 weeks for this Sri Lanka itinerary that will show you a great deal of Sri Lankan Culture and History. This itinerary will also bring you to sandy beaches, the option to go surf some waves and the sight of magnificent mountains in the central highlands of Sri Lanka.
2.1 Bandaranaike International Airport (Negombo)
Start your trip in Bandaranaike International Airport, the biggest airport of Sri Lanka. Book your accommodation in advance in the area of Colombo, the Capital city of Sri Lanka. Take a tuk-tuk or taxi to your hotel or hostel from the Airport.
Stay one night in Colombo and spend the day sightseeing in the city. A recommendation for the evening is to visit one of the many rooftop terrace bars in the city like Sky Lounge. In the early morning of the next day go to Colombo Fort Railway Station and book a train ticket for next train to Kandy, the cultural capital of Sri Lanka.
After a marvelous train ride, you will arrive in the city of Kandy, located in a beautiful green setting in the hills of the central highlands in Sri Lanka. Keep in mind that you will need at least 2 full days to explore the city at ease.
Kandy has many great hotspots for sightseeing: the central lake, the fire dancers, the temple of the tooth and beautiful architecture from the British colonial times. A recommended hostel in Kandy: Kandy City Monkey. The Kandy Royal Cafe is my favorite place for a good cup of coffee. After Kandy, take a bus to Dambulla.
2.4. Sigiriya (Dambulla)
In Dambulla, look for a nice hotel or guesthouse in the city center.
Sigiriya, the magnificent lion rock, is a 15-minute drive in a tuk-tuk or bus from Dambulla. Two options here:
- Go to Sigiriya and pay the fee to climb the rock and see the historic ruins on the top.
- Go to Pidurangala, which is located next to Sigiriya and pay much less. Climb Ppidurangala for a great view on Sigiriya itself and get to see some historic monastery caves.
After seeing the rock, pay a visit to a spice garden in the neighborhood and have a nice dinner in the city center in the evening. Take a bus Anuradhapura in the next morning.
Anuradhapura’s UNESCO heritage site is a superb historic area with many old temples and ruins. Book your accommodation in the city center and rent a bicycle if the weather is good. The Heritage site is best to be explored by bicycle because it’s located in a flat ground area, and you will be able to stop wherever you want.
Spend one day or 2 days in the area and soak up the historic atmosphere of the area. From Anuradhapura, take the train to Trincomalee. Option: From Trincomalee take a bus or tuk-tuk to Nilaveli beach.
Nilaveli is a stunning beach destination on the East-side of Sri Lanka and, is an option in this itinerary. You either go to Trincomalee or you go to Nilaveli and Trincomalee.
I visited both destinations on my trip and I still don’t regret it. Nilaveli is a yet untouched beautiful stroke of sandy beach next to the aquamarine ocean. It isn’t that touristy yet and It’s an amazing location for diving or just for relaxation on the beach.
Tip: consider doing a half-day trip to Pigeon Island, which is close to Nilaveli. Pigeon Island will allow you to see many rock pigeons, but also small reef sharks, beautiful fish, and sea turtles whilst snorkeling around the island. Boats leave from either Nilaveli or Trincomalee.
The East coast of Sri Lanka has a unique atmosphere and natural environment. It’s different than the touristy South and West coast of Sri Lanka. Untouched beaches and small little towns decorate this beautiful destination in Sri Lanka.
Trincomalee is a good example of a typical city in the East of Sri Lanka. Book accommodation near the ocean (tip: the hobbit holes is a fun and cheap place to stay).
Trincomalee itself has a pretty awesome colonial fort with a Hindu temple on top, which is quite amazing to visit.
2.8. Arugam Bay
After Trinco, prepare for a long bus ride to Arugam Bay, which is a quiet, but vibrant little surfers bay on the lower East coast of Sri Lanka. Arugam Bay is a great place to hang around for a few days.
Catch some waves during the day, have some good food to enjoy life and a fresh fruit juice to cool off. There even is a small scene of nightlife in the town.
Continue your journey to Ella, a little backpacker village on the edge of the hill country in Sri Lanka. Away from the beach, the atmosphere up here is quite a change. Many activities, some great hangout places, good restaurants, and cozy bars are waiting for you in the area. Spend at least a 2-3 days in Ella before you take the train or bus to Kandy.
The train ride from Ella to Kandy is so called one of the most breathtaking train rides in the world. A magical trip through the evergreen tea plantations will bring you to the cultural capital of Sri Lanka, Kandy.
You will need at least 1-2 days to explore the city. In Kandy, there are many spots to visit like the central lake in the city center, fire dancers, the temple of the tooth and stunning architecture from the British colonial times.
Take the train to Colombo after your visit to Kandy.
Spend some more time in the city capital, or take a tuk-tuk to Negombo to relax during your last day(s) in Sri Lanka. Enjoy a sunset and have a cold beer on a rooftop bar in Colombo, or on the beach in Negombo.
2.12. Bandaranaike International Airport (Negombo)
Take a taxi or tuk-tuk from your hostel, hotel or guesthouse and go straight to the airport next to Negombo.
Itinerary 3: Temples, Culture, History, more History and Beaches
You will need at least 3-4 weeks for this Sri Lanka itinerary that includes a great package of culture, history and Hindu temples. If you choose for this itinerary, you will also have the chance to relax on some of the best beaches in Sri Lanka.
3.1. Bandaranaike International Airport (Negombo)
Start in Bandaranaike International Airport. Book accommodation in Negombo.
Spend 1 or 2 nights in Negombo to breathe in the atmosphere of Sri Lanka. Tip: Negombo fish market and a sunset on the beach are a must see.
Take a long coach bus in Negombo to Jaffna. Make sure you book the bus a day in advance. Get ready for a long sleepy ride, but keep in mind that the journey will be worth it because Jaffna is a unique destination.
Jaffna is the biggest city in the North of Sri Lanka. Scarred by a long recent war, but rich in culture. The city is a contrast to the rest of the country. Many Hindu temples, Tamil people, and small markets decorate the wonderful streets of Jaffna. You will need at least 1-2 full days to explore the area of Jaffna.
The city itself is surreal destination compared to the tropical environments on the rest of the island. The water lands that surround Jaffna are stunning to behold.
Take the train to Anuradhapura after your visit to Jaffna.
From Jaffna take the train to Anuradhapura, a UNESCO historic heritage site, which is perfect to explore on a bicycle. Book accommodation in the city center and rent a bicycle at your guesthouse. Spend at least 1-2 in Anuradhapura. From Anuradhapura, take an early train in the morning to Trincomalee.
Spend at least 1-2 days in Anuradhapura and take the time to explore the historic area.
From Anuradhapura, take an early train in the morning to Trincomalee. Then take a bus to Nilaveli.
Nilaveli is a yet untouched beautiful stroke of beach, just north of Trincomalee. Its a great destination for a few days of relaxing on an almost untouched beach with good restaurants. After Nilaveli, head back to Trincomalee.
Trincomalee is a small city next to the ocean that has some nice hotspots to visit. Book your accommodation close to the ocean for the best experience.
Tip: consider visiting Pigeon Island with a boat trip from Trincomalee (or from Nilaveli) for an amazing snorkeling experience. Make sure you arrange a boat trip a day in advance.
3.7. Sigiriya (Dambulla)
Sigiriya means ‘lion rock’ in Sinhala. It’s basically a gigantic rock in the middle of a tropical plain. Sigiriya is a 15-minute drive from Dambulla.
Tip: you have two options to choose from when visiting Sigiriya:
- Go to the gigantic lion rock itself and pay a larger sum to climb to the top.
- Go to Pidurangala and pay much less. Pidurangala is a rocky hill next to Sigiriya and will cost you about 5 bucks. The hill features a great view on the Sigiriya rock and surroundings. There are also some old religious caves on the way to the top of Pidurangala.
After visiting Sigiriya, you could visit a spice garden if you have some time left in the afternoon. Go back to your hotel in the evening and enjoy a lovely dinner after a full day of joy.
In ancient Sri Lanka, Polonnaruwa was the second largest city after Anuradhapura. Many historic ruins like the old royal palace and ancient temples are waiting there for you to be explored. Polonnaruwa is also on the UNESCO heritage list, same like Anuradhapura.
The area around Polonnaruwa also has many places of interest, so spend at least a full day in the region. Leave early in the morning from Dambulla, come back in the evening.
From Dambulla, take a bus to Kandy.
The next destination will be the cultural capital of Sri Lanka, Kandy. You will need at least 1-2 days to explore the city, which is covered in green and tropical hills.
Kandy also has many great places of interest: the central lake in the city center, fire dancers, the temple of the tooth and stunning architecture from the British colonial times.
Stay in a hostel or guesthouse in the hills next to Kandy, have a lovely lunch at the Empire café and the best coffee in Sri Lanka in Kandy Royal bar & hotel. Take the train to Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, after you’re done with exploring Kandy.
Spend 1-2 days in Colombo exploring the city. In the evenings: visit an ocean view rooftop bar like ON14. During the day visit the Dutch hospital or pettah flea market.
3.11. Bandaranaike International Airport (Negombo)
Your trip will end at Bandaranaike International Airport in Negombo. Take a tuk-tuk, taxi or bus from Colombo to get to the airport to catch your flight back home or to your next backpacking destination.