The ancient sites, scenic routes and serene beach... this 10-day itinerary helps you make sure you don't miss any of the recommended highlights of a trip to Sri Lanka.
Traveling in Sri Lanka, you realize it is a resplendent island with a diverse landscape and experiences. We will begin near the airport for a mini city break in Colombo, journey through the mist-wrapped Hill Country where some of the finest tea in the world is grown, down to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Galle on the south coast, and finish on a serene beach on the west coast.
Those who travel to Sri Lanka often head straight to the beaches, safari tours and tea estates, without stopping to appreciate the island’s commercial capital city, Colombo, which has been recently pipped for a big-ticket renovation meant to rival Hong Kong and Dubai, and the modest beach town of Negombo just 10 km from the airport, the opposite to the hustle and bustle of Colombo.
Explore Negombo City
The old fort, old rest house, the famous canal and St Mary’s Church in town center are among the well-preserved remnants of the Dutch reign that make the beach town of Negombo a popular tourist draw, aside from the surf and the sand.
Haggle along at Negombo Fish Market
There are quite a few interesting places to visit in Negombo even if you only have a day to spend in the beach town near the airport. The fish market is known for the daily fresh catch of lobsters, crabs and prawns.
As they sweep home into the end of a lagoon on outrigger canoes (which one has to get out of bed at 6 to see), it is a fine sight, as are the fish auctions on the beach and sales at the beach market near the fort. As the crowds haggling over massle piles of prawns, mullets and other seafood the city is renowned for, the beach is a great place to catch a glimpse of the lifestyle of the locals.
Bathe an elephant at Millennium Elephant Foundation
You don’t have to be on the safari trail to see elephants in Sri Lanka. Set up by local volunteers to care fo captive elephants, MEF provides an alternative to elephant riding – they offer elephant walks, a personalized, educational tour guided by a tour, walking with elephants around their grounds while observing them.
Taste garden-fresh tea at Glenloch Factory
Glenloch is now the fourth largest producer of tea in the world. Its plantation enjoys a serene location in Katukithula, halfway between Nuwara Eliya and Kandy, offering excellent conditions for growing quality leaves thanks to the temperate climate, in addition to stunning landscape to drink in.
It is open for guided tours and tasting sessions – you will get walked through the entire process of how a leaf becomes a beverage with the factory’s old-fashioned machinery at work.
Make a Vesak Lantern
Celebrate an important Buddhist holiday with the locals by taking part in the making of a Vesak lantern. Next celebrated on 19 May 2019 for the birth and passing of Lord Buddha, it will be a visually stunning affair as the streets in the city are strung with hundreds of paper lanterns and lights. And making a lantern is one easy way to get involved, not to mentioned a great pastime for the kids.
Light one up on a cigar factory tour
The journey begins in the tobacco fields. From the arrival of the leaves to packaging for export, you can follow the whole process of cigar processing at a factory in nearby Katunayake, just a short drive from the airport. The 2000-staffer estabalishment has been operating in Sri Lanka for 30 years, and a guide would be happy to let you savor some of their finest blends, showing you how to cut and light a cigar, and the proper storage.
Paddle through Muthurajawela Wetlands
Home to some 75 bird species, unique wildlife including some rarely seen otters, endemic animals including crocodiles, monitor lizards and Sri Lanka’s native python, the marsh was declared a sanctuary by the government in 1996, recognizing its bio-diversity.
A canal and lagoon boat trip makes a fantastic way to explore the 6000-hectare Muthurajawela Marsh, just south of Negombo, meandering through a long, narrow waterway that links Negombo and Colombo, originally built to transport spices in the 18th century. As part of the profits goes toward local agriculture and forestry, you will also be contributing to the community’s conservation efforts, while learning about a variety of mangroves and flora along the way.
Explore Colombo City
Staying in Colombo, everything is essentially a 5- to 10-minute drive away provided that you are sensible with the timing to avoid traffic.
The capital city is loved for its thriving dining scene, featuring the best of Sri Lankan food culture, with something for every budget. Be sure to stop by the World Trade Center, Sri Lanka’s tallest building and the fourth tallest twin tower in South Asia, standing at 152m, with 75000-sqm of retail space to explore. Maybe you aren’t here for the shopping, but just for the glimpse of the island’s commercial and professional community makes it worth a visit.
WHERE TO STAY
Set in 200-year-old tropical gardens just 15-minutes’ drive from Sri Lanka’s main international gateway, this award-winning 18-bedroom country house hotel The Wallawwa comes with gourmet food, jungle pool and heavenly spa, carved out of an atmospheric 18th century manor house, exudes style and serenity.
Characterized by little villages amidst misty hill ranges, the quaint town of Dickoya is a place where the stresses of everyday life seem to melt away.
The natural wonder of Castlereigh Reservoir easily makes the top of places to visit in the area, so is the 180-year-old Warleigh Chirch and tea plantations, which make for relaxing day exursions. And lovers of a good hike wouldn’t want to miss the sunrise at the summit of Adam’s Peak!
Hike up Adam’s Peak
Bring your torch light and set off on an overnight climb to Sri Lanka’s most sacred mountain Adam’s Peak. It is a tough hike, one that guarantees a real sense of achievement when you get there just in time for the most spectacular sunset!
And going down is almost just as tough. Standing at 2243m, the mountain has been a site of pilgrimage for the last 1000 years, for its summit, a 1.8m rock formation known as the Sacred Footprint holds significances in a few major religions.
Visit colonial-era Warleigh Church
Set in Wanarajah Estate where some of the first colonial rulers came from Britain to settled in Sri Lanka, the famous Warleigh Church is where visitors come to appreciate its quaint British church architecture, the original bible gifted to the church, and even the few tomb stones of tea statesmen at the cemetery, and of course the simply out-of-this-world views of Castlereagh Reservoir that can be enjoyed from the church’s cliffside location.
Ride on a boat through Castlereagh Reservoir
The commute to the reservoir alone, through wilding roads amid tea plantations, is a fantastic experience. And a peaceful day out won’t be complete without a scenic canoe ride.
If you don’t have time for a city break (day 1-2), there is always the option to hop on a seaplane straight from Colombo airport to Castlereagh Reservoir – the journey takes less than an hour, and features some of the most beautiful views in Sri Lanka.
Nuwara Eliya “Little England” is a key area for tea production in Sri Lanka, blessed with its hilly surroundings and cooler climate. This is also where the British flocked to for a staycation, which explains why this genteel highland community still retains a quaint British-country-village feel.
Explore “little England” Nuwara Eliya
Surrounded in verdant tea plantations and craggy hills, Nuwara Eliya is blessed with cool, alpine-like highland climate and makes a fine base for a day of relaxation. In fact, the British used to come here for a Christmas retreat during the colonial era.
Though there is a number of urban buildings in town due to a recent reconstruction boom, this tea country hill city often known as “little Engling” still retains a vaguely British village feel, with its colonial-era bungalows and well-tended gardens. Treat yourself to a visit to the Ramboda Falls while you are there.
Play botanist at Hakgala Botanical Garden
This one is a treat for plant lovers and cool escape for all! Situated 1745m above sea level, the 28-hectare garden, with many carefully divided sub-gardens, is home to more than 10000 species of flora and attracts thousands of visitors every spring for the blooms, local and exotic, tropical and alpine alike.
Adding variety to the experience is the Hakgala Nature Reserve connected to the main garden via a woody trail, where you can see a number of endemic mammals, like the fishing cat, wild boar, sambar deer and Sri Lanka leopard.
See the end of the world at Horton Plains National Park
This is where where the greenery, abundant flora and fauna plains and rivers all merge together: Horton Plains makes up the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka, along with the nearby Peak Wilderness Protected Area and the Knuckles Conservation Forest.
Trek through the protected area often described as “a super biodiversity hotspot”, you can reach the end of the world – which is a sheer cliff also known as the World’s End, with a drop of some 1200m. What makes it a key tourist attraction is the spectacular views all across the island and beyond the shore, accessible by an easy circular hike that takes about 3 hours.
Take a stroll or bike around Gregory’s Lake
The lake is a main attraction in town for its scenic environment, a decent offering of water sports, complete with a stretch of green grass and grazing horses where kids can enjoy pony rides. The dreamy panorama of is not to be missed, so be sure to save some time for the lake park.
These old-fashioned trains depart Colombo for Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Ella and Badula, and the ride to Ella is the most famous stretch, for the spectacular scenery along the way.
WHERE TO STAY
Few locations in Sri Lanka can match the panoramic splendor of the Castlereagh Valley, in the island’s western hill country, and this is the setting for five-bedroom Camellia Hills.
The bungalow hotel has a dining room, two lounge areas, and a swimming pool. The bungalow boasts breathtaking views across the Castlereagh Reservoir.
Ella is a picturesque, laid-back town dense filled with nature, the greens of tea, plus a good variety of flora and fauna. Stop by for the waterfalls, colonial-era railway architecture, and work up a hiking-inspired appetite by dinner time. On a guided walk, the 3 key attractions – Ella Rock, Little Adam’s Peak and Nine Arches Bridge can be covered in one day.
Catch some morning breeze at Ella Rock
The approximately 2-hour hike up to Ella Rock from town is one good for beginners and families for some lovely outdoor time in cool alpine temps, best done in the morning with an early start. There is a good walk along foliage-flanked railway tracks before reaching a narrow path to the Ella Rock. Appreciate the village that seems so petite once you reach the top, and the fascinating silhouette of the Little Adam’s Peak!
Appreciate old-timey railway engineering (and train-spot) at Nine Arches Bridge
The majestic century-old Nine Arch Bridge, also called The Bridge In The Sky, is the a lot of travelers’ main reason to visit Ella town. It was an engineering masterpiece for its time, built with stone and cement bricks, but without steel, an idea that seems pretty unthinkable to many in the modern world.
It is a 30-minute tuk tuk ride from town (if you skipped the morning hike, otherwise it can also be a scenic walk past tea plantations down here). Walking along the tracks and across the bridge, while taking in the views of the tea plantations in the valley below is pleasant enough, you can also hike down a track to be underneath the bridge, which would really put in perspective how magnificent the bridge is.
Hike up Little Adam’s Peak for sunset
Compared to its big brother Adam’s Peak, this 1141m-high little brother (named so because of the similarity in shape) makes for a fairly easy trek should take about an hour, as most of the way up follows a foot path and is covered in stairs. There are a number of nice cafes and resorts along the way to stop for an al fresco lunch. Soak in stunning views over the central highlands, after passing through tea plantations to the top.
While the bustling cobbled streets of Galle Fort are fascinating to explore, south coast’s best beaches are only 15 mins away by Tuk Tuk.
Walk through Sri Lankan history in Galle Fort
400-year-old Galle Fort and its own town bustles with boutique shops, unique cafes, galleries and colonial hotels.
Days are easily spent here wandering at random. However, to see a clear cross section of the historic city in half a day without missing a major site, a personal walking tour is a great way for the full Galle Fort experience.
Find yourself a guide that knows how to vividly present the politics, the culture, the food and the history of Sri Lanka, almost like talking to an old friend.
Shop for exquisite gems at local jeweller
Often referred to affectionately as the gem island, Sri Lanka is well known for its production of natural gemstones (including the largest blue sapphire in the world) and designer jewellery. Ayura is a family name known for their designer pieces crafted with rare gems, all on display in their showroom on Galle Road.
WHERE TO STAY
This newly refurbished colonial home is located about 30 minutes from Galle in the coastal town of Ahangama within close proximity to world class surf breaks and Sri Lanka’s famed stilt fisherman.
A short distance to Ahangama, Midigama, Kabbalana, Weligama and Mirissa – make Wijaya Giri an excellent base for keen surfers as well as those looking to see whales and dolphins, the stilt fishermen or take a boat trip on Koggala Lake.
The coastal town of Balapitiya on the south west coast boasts some of the best surfing on Sri Lanka. Just to the north of the town is Kosgoda, a turtle nesting beach with hatcheries for visiting. It is also the nearest town to Madu Ganga River, where boat trips through wildlife-filled wetlands await and visits to serend temples and cinnamon estates await.
Support sea turtle conservation at Kosgoda Hatchery
You can volunteer for a day or just stop by for a tour, either way well-wishers are welcome to support the Kosgoda Hatchery’s efforts to protect Sri Lanka’s turtles from extinction, run by a team of volunteers.
The hatchery counts babies of the Green Turtle, the Leatherback, the Hawksbill, the Loggerhead and the Olive Ridley as their temporary residents. New born hatchlings spend the first 2-4 days of their life in their huge tanks, fed and taken care of, before being released to the sea furing the safer hour of darkness.
You can also see their hatch nests up close, and a few grown-ups they aren’t fit to return to the wild, and now call the hatchery their forever home.
Save through Madu Ganga River’s massive mangrove forests
Home to a complex and unique wetland eco-system, Madu Ganga River is a estuary spreading over 900 hectares, inhabited with 64 islands and a pristine mangrove forest, best explored on an eye-opening speedboat ride.
There are bright open stretches of water, dark caverns, breathtaking tree tunnels and canopies and curve playfully rowards the watercourse, not the mention the sight of wildlife in their natural habitat, like storks and cormorants that flock here to hunt for their prey, and water snakes and wild boars that step out of their hideouts for some fresh air. It will make a fun day out on serene waters. A visit to the outdoor fish massage parlor (where fish nibble your feet) is optional!
See the Longest Reclining Buddha in South Asia
Past cinnamon plantations through a winding road uphill, and a long flight of stairs later, you will find the largest sleeping Buddha statue in South Asia – the Galagoda Shailatharama Viharaya, which is believed to date back 800 years! The shrine is well restored and still in great shape. There are meditation sessions led by the monks.
The quietness of its hilltop location strikes a contrast to the island’s bustling tourist towns. Whether you are here as a traveler looking for a beautiful view, as a religious pilgrim, as a culture junkie or even an archaeologist, this is a site to be enjoyed by all who visit.
Catch some waves in Hikkaduwa
Home to golden sandy beaches with favorable surfing conditions, all bustling and full of life, the coastal town of Hikkaduwa has been popular with surfers with good reason. Top off a sunny vacation with an exhilarating surf session, or take a dip and bumping into one of the neighborhood turtles in the water. It is said that they swim quite close to the shore sometimes!
WHERE TO STAY
Balapitiya Beach is a fine swathe of sand on Sri Lanka’s sunset coast – a splendid palm-fringed shoreline home to nesting marine turtles, water sports in Bentota, boat trips along the Madu Ganga river, mask museums in Ambalangoda and easy access to the colonial-era fort of Galle.
On that serene boulder-sprinkled seafront sits Kumu Beach, a contemporary beach hotel in Balapitiya, home to 10 indulgent bedrooms, chic living and dining areas basking in the open air, and a generous lawn with infinity swimming pool.