Despite recently being named Lonely Planet’s top destination for 2019, Sri Lanka still remains a bit of a “hidden gem” in South Asia. However, this won’t be the case for long, as more and more travelers are heading to the little tropical island to explore its stunning beaches, impressive historic ruins, and epic wildlife safaris. To see it all for yourself, follow this perfect two-week Sri Lanka itinerary covering all the best highlights!
6) Let’s Go.
Despite having been on my bucket list for quite some time, Sri Lanka still managed to blow my expectations out of the water. The landscapes were more beautiful and diverse, the food tastier, and the people kinder than I could ever imagined. You could spend a month in Sri Lanka and still not see all it has to offer, but this two-week itinerary covers all the best highlights!
This itinerary covers 14 days in Sri Lanka, making a loop around the middle and bottom half of the island, and beginning and ending in Colombo. If you want a slower paced trip, just add a day or two to destinations that are especially interesting to you!
Day 1: Colombo
Most likely your flight to Sri Lanka will land you in the country’s capitol, Colombo. It’s about a 30 minute drive to the city. Your best option is to take an Uber for about 1500 Rs (10 USD).
After checking into your hotel and resting up after your flight, be sure to catch sunset at Galleface, a massive ocean-side park with a buzzing nightly social scene.
Day 2: Anuradhapura
From Colombo, drive to Anuradhapura, which takes about a 3.5-4 hours.
Anuradhapura was the first kingdom of Sri Lanka, and is home to some of the most impressive archaeological sites and relics in the country, some dating back before the 5th century BC. You can explore Anuradhapura by tuk tuk or private car, but I recommend a bicycle to give you the most pleasant and flexible experience.
Most hotels will be able to set up bicycle rentals for you for around 1500 LKR (10 USD).
Be sure to stop at the famous Dagobas (including Abhayagiri Dagoba, Jetavanaramaya Dagoba, and Ruwanweliseya Dagoba), Sri Maha Bodhi (the famous ancient fig tree temple which is an additional 200 LKR, or 1.30 USD), and the ancient Isurumuniya Rock Temple.
Day 3: Dambulla/Polonnaruwa
Today you’ll visit two historic sites in north central Sri Lanka. Expect to spend around 1-1.5 hours at Dambulla Cave Temple, and several hours exploring the ancient city of Polonnaruwa.
From Anuradhapura, drive to the Dambulla Cave Temple, which takes about 1.5 hours.
Tour the Dambulla Cave Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the country’s best preserved relic. The 1st century BC temple was built into a dug-out “cave” on the side of a rock, with five separate shrine rooms and an astounding 150 well-preserved Buddha statues and several gilded pagodas.
Bring water, small cash to pay for shoes storage, and clothing that covers your shoulders and knees.
One your way down from the Dambulla Cave Temple, stop at the Golden Temple for a quick photo of the giant golden Buddha statue.
From Dambulla, drive to Polonnaruwa, which takes about 1.5 hours.
Polonnaruwa was the second royal city after the destruction of Anuradhapura. The grounds are massive and you can travel between spots via car or bicycle; in some areas you can wander from site to site by foot.
Entry to Polonnaruwa is a pricey 3750 LKR (25 USD), but it’s worth every penny. This was one of my favorite places in Sri Lanka and the temple ruins, lakes, and beautiful wild green landscapes were absolutely stunning.
I spent a couple of hours here but could have spent longer touring the different sites. Before heading to your next destination, be sure to catch sunset at the lake!
Stay overnight in Sigiriya to get an early start on your hikes the next morning.
Day 4: Sigiriya/Pidurangala
From Polonnaruwa, drive to Sigiriya, which takes about 1.25 hours.
Wake up early to hike Pidurangala Rock for sunrise. You’ll get to see the sky light up in beautiful colors with Sigiriya Rock in the distance. Although less popular than Sigiriya, there will still be a group of others joining you for sunrise, so please be respectful and quiet to respect the peace.
Next, head over to Sigiriya Rock next door to explore this ancient fortress built on top of a giant towering rock — considered to be an 8th Wonder of the World. Be sure to get there as early as possible to beat the heat and large crowds.
Day 5-6: Kandy
From Sigiriya, drive to Kandy, which takes about 2.5 hours.
Stop at a spice garden on your way, to learn more about Sri Lanka’s famous spice production. Most spice gardens offer free tours, but tipping is appreciated (avoid the gift shops if you don’t want to spend a lot of money).
Once in Kandy, get oriented to the city by taking a street food/walking tour of Kandy (get 15 USD off your first Airbnb Experience with this link!), climbing to the Big Buddha, and catching sunset at a hillside bar.
You also won’t want to miss a visit to the famous Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic or the Kandy Royal Botanical Gardens, which are two of the best and most picturesque things to do in Kandy.
Spend an evening watching a cultural dance show which features all the traditional types of Sri Lankan dances on one stage, including the famous fire walkers.
Read More: 9 BEST THINGS TO DO IN KANDY, SRI LANKA
Day 7: Nuwara Eliya
From Kandy, take the famous Ella Train to Nuwara Eliya, known as Sri Lanka’s “Little England,” which takes about 3 hours. The stop is called Nanu-Oya.
This is one of the most scenic train rides in the world and one of the best things to do in Sri Lanka. Be sure to read up on all the logistics and know what to expect before making the trip.
There’s plenty to do in Nuwara Eliya to keep you entertained, but be sure to start with a tour of a local tea plantation to taste some Sri Lankan tea and learn about how one of the area’s biggest imports is grown and harvested.
Next, explore the colonial homes around the historic part of town, which gives Nuwara Eliya a really unique look & feel from the rest of Sri Lanka. Stop at the Grand Hotel for afternoon tea and enjoy the beautiful gardens, letting yourself be transported to a different world.
Day 8-9: Ella
From Nuwara Eliya, hop back on the Ella Train for the most scenic section of the ride. Exit the train in Ella.
Spend the afternoon exploring charming Ella town — sip a latte in one of its cozy cafes, grab a healthy meal in a trendy restaurant, and pick up some unique souvenirs in one of its many cute shops.
You’ll also want to visit some of the amazing waterfalls in the area. Ravana Falls is just a short 15-minute drive from town, but you can spend a couple of hours hiking it if you want. I also recommend making a half-day trip to explore Diyaluma Falls, which is about an hour from town.
While in Ella, you also won’t want to miss a visit to the Nine Arch Bridge. Go early in the morning to avoid lots of other toursts, and plan in advance to make sure you arrive in time to see the famous blue train crossing the tracks!
Don’t miss an epic sunset from Little Adam’s peak, followed by a well-deserved dinner at Cafe Chill (healthy juices and delicious pizza) or Cafe C Ella (delicious Sri Lankan food for really low prices) in town.
Day 10: Udawalawe
From Ella, drive to Udawalawe, which takes about 2 hours.
Check into your hotel and enjoy a delicious local lunch at Niwahana Restaurant.
Head out on an afternoon safari to search for Asian elephants, exotic birds, wild water buffaloes, and more! Udawalawe National Park is one of the best places for a safari in Sri Lanka and is one of my top recommendations for your trip.
Don’t miss a stop at the Udawalare Elephant Transit Home to watch the baby elephants get their daily feeding, which is not only adorable, but also one of the few ethical elephant experiences in Sri Lanka.
Day 11: Yala
From Udawalawe, drive to Yala National Park, which takes about 2 hours.
Check into your hotel and head out on an evening safari around the national park. The landscape here is entirely different from Udawalawe, and you’ll even find some unique animals in each park. Yala is famous for its leopards, so if you’re lucky, you might be able to spot one (or a few!) on your safari.
If you have the time and budget, schedule a second safari in Yala for the following morning to increase your chances of spotting a leopard!
Day 12: Mirissa
From Yala, drive to Mirissa, which takes about 3 hours.
Wander the cute beach town in Mirissa, enjoying the cute cafes, pretty beaches filled with surfers, and lively beach bars. Don’t miss Secret Beach (which definitely isn’t a secret anymore, but is still beautiful) and Coconut Tree Hill with its iconic ocean view through a dome of palm trees.
Mirissa is one of the most popular places in Sri Lanka for surfing, so be sure to sign up for a surf class or rent a board and head to the waves while passing through this town.
You’ll find tons of local and international cuisines here due to the large expat population, so if you want a break from curry, you’ll have plenty of options here! I recommend Shady Lane for fresh and healthy smoothies bowls, avocado toasts, and coffees.
Day 13: Galle
From Mirissa, drive to Galle, which takes about 1 hour.
Galle is a charming historic town with great cafes and restaurants and fantastic shopping. You can find interesting souvenirs, unique antiques, and high-end clothing here, in addition to almost any cuisine you could want. I recommend The Heritage Cafe & Bistro for a delicious meal by an environmentally- and socially-conscious company.
Spend some time wandering the fortress walls surrounding the Old Town, and don’t miss the iconic lighthouse with its beautiful views of the sea.
If you can afford to splurge, you’ll find some really stunning historic colonial hotels in Old Town Galle, which I highly recommend. You will hardly feel like you’re in Sri Lanka, aside from the incredibly warm hospitality and traditional dress than most hotel staff wear.
Day 14: Unawatuna
From Galle, drive to Unawatuna Beach, which is about 20 minutes.
Unawatuna is another charming, hip beach town with tons of great cafes, beach bars/restaurants, and little shops. It’s the perfect place to relax after a whirlwind Sri Lanka trip, and to soak in a final dose of good vibes and epic sunsets.
Spend your day going dolphin/whale watching, scuba diving, body boarding or surfing in the ocean, or touring the visiting the turtle hatchery. Or if you’re feeling lazy, feel free to just lounge at the beautiful beach beach.
Be sure to catch sunset at Unawatuna Beach, and don’t forget to take a turn on the famous rope swing at Pearly’s Dream Cabana on Dilawela Beach, which is just as fun as it looks in the photos! (Note: this is the original, famous rope swing. Others have popped up and will tell you that Dream Cabana’s swing is “broken” so that you don’t go there. Don’t listen to them — Dream Cabana’s rope swing is alive and well!)
For dinner I recommend Wijaya Beach restaurant, which is owned by the brother of Dream Cabana, and makes arguably the best homemade pizza in the area cooked in their very own beach-side brick pizza oven. Have a cocktail (the gin fizz is delicious!) and enjoy some homemade ice cream for the perfect end to your Sri Lanka trip.
Stay overnight in Galle because it’s so close and those hotels are just so so pretty, you’ll want at least two nights there. Or if you’re short on time, head back to Colombo to catch your flight!
Day 15: Colombo
From Unawatuna, drive to Colombo, which takes about 2 hours.
Depending on when your flight is, you may have time to pick up some last-minute souvenirs such as gems, porcelain, weavings, and batik. Stop by Laksala, a state-run handicrafts emporium, to find a huge selection of locally made gifts (it’s closed on Sundays so plan accordingly).
Say Ayubowan (“goodbye”) to beautiful Sri Lanka, and head to the airport to return home.
Where To Stay
Luxury: Ulagalla by Uga Escapes (one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever stayed! tons of activities on the grounds, like archery and kayaking and horse-back riding, and each villa is given bikes to ride around the property)
Luxury: The Theva Residency (amazing sunset views from restaurant)
Budget: China Red Manor
Mid-range: Luxe Wilderness
Budget: Udawalawe Nature House (spacious, modern, chic rooms for surprisingly low rates)
Mid-range: Gaga Bees Udawalawe (luxury tented chalets)
Luxury: Mahoora Tented Safari Camp (all-inclusive)
Luxury: Chena Huts (all-inclusive, stunning beach restaurant with sunset views)
Mid-range: D Canal House (luxury bed & breakfast for budget prices)
Sri Lanka uses the Sri Lankan Rupee (LKR). The current exchange rate is around 180 LKR/1 USD, but this fluctuates so check for updates. You’ll be able to withdraw cash at ATMs at the airport or in major cities, however small towns and more rural areas might not have available ATMs.
Although some places in Sri Lanka accept credit card, you will need cash for many restaurants, shops, taxis (unless you take Uber), private drivers, and tours/activities. Some hotels only accept payment in cash, even if booked online, so double check the fine print and bring enough cash to cover your accommodations.
The easiest way to get around Sri Lanka is by hiring a driver. Generally, drivers will cost anywhere from 50-100 USD per day. If you’re traveling with a friend or group, this can end up being quite affordable and extremely convenient, allowing you the most flexibility and comfort, and making it easy to leave belongings in the car during stops, rather than carrying your backpack or suitcase around with you all the time.
If you’re looking to hire a driver, I recommend my friend Hilmy, who was so kind and accommodating, and made sure my girl friend and I were always safe when touring certain areas. You can contact him on WhatsApp at +94-77-781-2323.
Sri Lanka also has a bus and train system which will take you to most major tourist spots. The routes are pretty thorough and extremely cheap, albeit highly unpredictable and not as safe. I recommend bus and train only if you have lots of time and flexibility in Sri Lanka and are on a tight budget. If traveling by bus or train, always be sure to keep your belongings close by and within eye-sight, as theft is a common problem.
Taxis between cities are also available, although are often much more expensive than just hiring a driver.
Within major cities, tuk-tuks or Uber are very easy and cheap ways to get around.
Is Sri Lanka Safe?
Sri Lanka is overall a very safe and peaceful country. Here’s what you need to know about your safety concerns when traveling in Sri Lanka.
Easter Sunday Bombings
Following the recent bombings on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka, which targeted several hotels and churches, much of the world is wondering whether it’s safe to visit Sri Lanka.
Although this decision is entirely up to you, I can tell you I felt extremely safe exploring the country as a young woman, and most locals I encountered were kind, welcoming, and helpful when I was in a bind. I fell in love with the people and culture here and believe you will too.
At present, tensions are a bit heightened from the bombings, as would be expected following such a horrible tragedy. Security has increased and you should expect delays at airports. Many areas are subject to on-and-off mandatory curfews (usually only from around 10pm to 4am), although the country-wide social media ban imposed following the attacks has now been lifted.
Many travelers have reported feeling safe and protected in Sri Lanka following the attacks, and in some areas it seems daily life has continued in fairly normal fashion.
Locals have expressed eagerness to have foreigners continue to visit the island, noting that the economy depends on tourists which is exactly what terrorists aimed to impede. However, the local culture is overwhelmingly peaceful, welcoming, and eager to show hospitality to foreign visitors, and rather than resorting to retaliation or rioting, the Sri Lankan community has come together in support, peace, and humanitarian efforts which I hope will speak much louder than the violence of a small minority.
General Safety Notes
Just as you would anywhere else in the world, and especially in cities, be mindful of your surroundings, keep belongings close by, and basically just exercise general common sense in terms of safety.
Be especially cautious of your surroundings and don’t leave belongings unattended on buses, trains, or in large pubic areas.
Final Notes on Terrorism and Safety
The reality is that no country is “safe” in today’s world climate of arbitrary violence, hate, and terrorism. Some of the most modern, peaceful, and low-crime countries in the world have fallen victim to atrocities in recent years. However, terrorism and hate win when we give into the fear it aims to create.
Make a difference
With its impressive variety of national wildlife parks, stunning beaches, vibrant cultural cities, lush highlands, and well-preserved relics of ancient history, it’s no wonder Sri Lanka is one of the most popular destinations of 2019. Follow this itinerary for the perfect trip that allows you to experience all of the best parts of Sri Lanka!
You’ll be met with heart-warming hospitality, delicious local cuisine, enough photos to fill up your Instagram feed for the next year, and memories of a lifetime. And there’s a good chance you’ll leave already planning your return.
For more information on traveling in Sri Lanka, check out these posts:
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