The perfect 3 week Sri Lanka itinerary: how to visit the best of Sri Lanka
Enjoy the best of this island paradise, including all the major sights and attractions, with our in-depth three-week Sri Lankan itinerary
When it comes to awesome travel destinations, Sri Lanka must be number one.
Endless white-sand beaches with pumping surf dot the southern coast, while lush tropical jungle and misty mountain towns occupy its green centre. Ancient World Heritage sites are littered throughout the country and Asian Elephants and Leopards roam in abundance across the safari plains to the east, while enchanting train rides roll through verdant tea plantations and a vibrant cultural heritage thrives.
Then there are the friendliest locals you could ever hope to meet plus curry, spice, and all things nice.
So where do you even start with planning a trip to this incredible, bite-sized utopia?!
That’s where our three-week Sri Lanka itinerary comes in.
Having now experienced just about every corner of the country on multiple trips (we’ve spent over two months in Sri Lanka!), we’ve put together what we think is the ultimate 3-week route guide through Sri Lanka.
From the beautiful beaches of the southern coast (looking at you, Hiriketiya and Unawatuna) and the stunning hill country of Ella, to the cultured heart of Kandy, Polonnoruwa, and Sigiriya and the colourful Hindu temples and swaying palms of Jaffna and the north; this three week Sri Lanka itinerary has you covered, no matter whether you’re an adventure seeker, culture vulture, or total beach babe.
three week Sri Lanka itinerary | what to know, see and do in Sri Lanka
SRI LANKA itinerary | SRI LANKA Facts + TRIP PLANNING ESSENTIALS
Where is Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is an island country located in the Indian Ocean, south of India and the Bay of Bengal, east of Africa and the Middle East, and west of Indonesia and south-east Asia.
SRI LANKA WEATHER, AND THE BEST TIME TO VISIT
Sri Lanka’s weather, much like its politics, is a complicated beast. Punctuated by two seperate monsoons affecting different parts of the island at different times of year, you trip will require a little pre-research to know what’s ‘in season’. The good news though, is that at least one part of the island is guaranteed to have good weather during your trip!
If you’re wanting to visit the incredible sights of the south and central areas, December to March is the best time to visit Sri Lanka.
Alternatively, if you’re keen to hit the surf breaks of Arugam Bay and Trincomalee, April/May to September is the best time to visit Sri Lanka.
HOW TO GET TO SRI LANKA
Being an island in the middle of the Indian ocean, pretty much the only way to get to Sri Lanka is by plane.
Right now, the main gateway to the country is Bandaranaike International Airport, at Katunayake, 30km north of the capital Colombo. The main frustration with the airport is the distance to Colombo - in traffic it can take over an hour to arrive into Colombo Fort.
Sri Lanka is obviously well serviced by major Asian airlines, including budget airlines such as Air Asia, and increasingly by world-wide airlines.
Prices can be competitive, so it’s worth using Skyscanner to find the best price.
TRANSPORT IN SRI LANKA | HOW TO GET AROUND SRI LANKA
Due to Sri Lanka’s small size and abundance of transport options, getting around the island is easy, if not a little time consuming and uncomfortable.
Buses and tuk tuks are the most common form of transport on the island, and service even the most remote corners.
Buses, however, are a fraction of the cost of tuk tuks and oftentimes make for a much faster journey from A to B.
The most picturesque form of transport, however, is Sri Lanka’s train network. The network may be slow, cumbersome, and somewhat unreliable, but it services all the main areas of the island and provides travellers with rich cultural experiences that just aren’t as common in western countries.
If public transport isn’t your thing or time is of the essence, it is possible to arrange a private transfer, however the cost is often prohibitive for a backpacker budget.
If you want to know more, we’ve extensively covered how to get around Sri Lanka in our Sri Lanka travel guide.
READ | Our comprehensive Sri Lanka Travel guide
READ | Our guide to the Kandy to Ella train ride
Sri Lanka Travel Tips
If you’re planning your own travels to Sri Lanka, we’ve put together this list of Sri Lanka travel tips we really think you should know before you visit.
Includes the good and simple stuff that will help you travel better and more responsibly in the teardrop isle.
Safety in Sri Lanka (yes, you need travel insurance!)
Despite having been through a tumultuous few decades during the bitter civil war that raged between the Tamils and Sinhalese, Sri Lanka is an incredibly safe destination to travel to. In fact, we’ve often commented that both of our trips through the country were probably the safest travels we’ve ever had.
To ensure you’re adequately covered for your travels, we recommend you purchase travel insurance. We travel with World Nomads and find they’re the best when it comes to providing a good range of cover and service, at affordable rates.
BOOK | Buy travel insurance here
ACCOMMODATION IN SRI LANKA | WHERE TO STAY IN SRI LANKA
Accommodation to suit any budget can be found in Sri Lanka, from luxury hotels right through to dorms in budget backpackers.
We recommend staying in guesthouses, which you can find just about anywhere on the Island. Conversely, if money isn’t an issue, Sri Lanka is home to some incredible luxury hotels waiting for your visit.
Generally, the standard of accommodation in Sri Lanka is very good, and compared to the west, quite cheap.
If you’re travelling on a budget, USD$20 per night should cover you, however if money is no issue, luxurious hotels can cost anywhere between USD$50 - $200 per night.
HOTELS + GUESHOUSES | Use HotelsCombined to find the best deals on your Sri Lanka guesthouses
HOSTELS | Check Hostelworld for the best hostels in Sri Lanka now.
AIRBNB | Use our Airbnb code to get £25 off your next booking!
Our 3-week Sri Lanka Itinerary | a map
Here’s a detailed map of our three-week Sri Lankan itinerary, broken up into the south, and the central and northern areas. It covers each aspect of our three week Sri Lankan itinerary below, and will help you plan the ultimate Sri Lanka trip.
Our day by day three week Sri Lanka itinerary
DAY 1 | Arrive and explore Sri Lanka’s capital city, Colombo
First point of call on your Sri Lanka itinerary is the capital, Colombo, where the international airport is located (well, technically it’s located in Negombo, an hour from Colombo). We’d recommend spending a night here to get your bearings.
Honestly, Colombo is a hard city to love; it’s big, chaotic and has little in the way of must-see attractions.
We’ve spent a lot of time there on two different trips, exploring the best things to do in Colombo, desperately trying to dispel the notion that travellers should skip over it and move onto better things elsewhere. A mission that ended up altogether unsuccessful.
That said, it’s worth a day of your trip, if not to see the crowded bazaars of Pettah, then just to experience the kamikaze style driving of the city’s famed tuk tuks. A few other sightseeing tips are:
Pettah markets | in one of the oldest parts of Colombo, these markets are the best place to get initiated with the hustle and bustle of local life in the city. Selling everything from fresh produce to clothing, the chaos is intoxicating if not a little draining. Make sure you eat from one of the street food vendors!
Jami Ul-Alfar Masjid (red Mosque) | Located in Pettah (meaning ‘outside the fort’), this is a must-see in Colombo. Built in 1908, the mosque’s tall minarets and domes can be seen from quite a distance and its mesmerising colour patterns and architecture is enough to take your breath away. It's possible for both men and women to enter, but you need to cover your arms, legs and hair.
National Museum | A good place to get an understanding of Sri Lanka’s rich and diverse history, from ancient kingdoms to colonial times. We’d recommend going earlier in the day, although you only need to allocate a couple of hours.
Galle Face Green | Do as the locals do, and head to Galle Face Green for sunset. This is an ocean-side urban park, stretching along the coast in the heart of Colombo. Pack with vendors selling everything from cooked crabs to sliced mango and chilli (a popular Sri Lankan street food!), it’s a great place to grab an afternoon ice cream and watch the locals indulge in their favourite pastimes.
Food tip | When you hear the noise and rhythm of metal on metal, stop! It means one thing: Sri Lanka’s famous street food, kottu roti. A delicious mash up of roti, onions, leek, cabbage, eggs and sometimes chicken, mutton, beef, or our fave, cheese, Kottu roti is basically the best food ever. Chefs use two metal spatulas to mix and cut the ingredients on the grill with a rhythm, hence the noise.
COLOMBO | THE DETAILS
Where to stay in Colombo | Drift Hotel and Hostel in Colombo 3 has affordable rooms in the heart of the action.
How to get around Colombo | Colombo isn’t easy to get around, however trusty tuk tuks are your best bet. Always use the ‘Pick Me’ app to book a tuk tuk, or hire a tuk tuk off the street (but always ask for the driver to put the meter on - this is a common travel mistake)
The ultimate Sri Lanka bucket list: 31 incredible things to see and do
DAY 2 - 3 | Head south to stunning Galle Fort
From Colombo Fort train station, catch an early morning train along the picturesque Sri Lankan coastline towards Galle (around 2-3hrs). It’s one of Sri Lanka’s many beautiful train rides so make sure you get the window seat to take it all in.
Galle Fort is one of the unmissable places to see in Sri Lanka (learn all about Galle Fort with our guide). Narrow, bustling laneways and crumbling colonial relics, an ever-present scent of exotic spices and the incredible tropical setting; there’s just something about this UNESCO World Heritage site that charms and captivates.
Morning | Explore the Galle Fort walls and ramparts, starting at the historic Clock Tower, before moving onto the Main Gate. There’s a heap of historic buildings to see within the Fort, including the Dutch Reform Church and the restored Old Dutch Hospital. Finish at the famous Galle Fort Lighthouse. Alternatively, head outside the Galle Fort to the local fruit, spice and flower markets to embrace some authentic Sri Lankan culture.
Day | Escape the incessant heat and shop in some of the local boutiques, art galleries, spice and gem stores, or pick yourself up a retro Ceylon poster from Stick No Bills (our favourite shop in Galle Fort). Don’t forget to stop by Poonies Kitchen, home to colourful, nutritious and progressive food fused with Sri Lankan flavours. Their signature dish, the super instagrammable Thali salad (LKR 1300), is an absolute must eat. Based on an Indian 'thali', it's a mish-mash of deliciously fresh flavours and as Mim says, is like "eating a rainbow".
Afternoon | Join the locals and tourists alike and head to the fort walls to watch the sunset over the Indian Ocean (Triton Bastion or Galle Lighthouse are your best bet). We’ve now visited Galle twice on two separate trips, and watching a sunset from the Fort walls remains one of our favourite things to do in Galle.
Night | There are a myriad of great restaurants to choose from, from local rice and curry haunts to upmarket fine dining. We loved A Minute by Tuk Tuk at the Old Dutch Hospital, where they served a delicious contemporary Sri Lankan food. Try 'Batu Moju', an eggplant moju with roti and curry dips, washed down with the local brew, Lion Beer.
While the Fort is rapidly gentrifying, it really is one of the best places to visit, and a must on any Sri Lanka itinerary.
GALLE FORT | THE DETAILS
How to get from Colombo Fort to Galle Fort | Train. It’s a scenic 2.5-3.5 hour train ride from Colombo Fort to Galle
Trains depart 10 times a day (check out our Galle Fort guide for all the details)
How to get around Galle Fort | By foot. Alternatively, tuk tuks are a cheap alternative
Read more | Our comprehensive Galle Fort guide
Sri Lanka highlights
The UNESCO World Heritage-listed Galle Fort
THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN GALLE FORT, SRI LANKA’S HISTORIC SEASIDE FORTRESs
DAYs 4 - 5 | Unawatuna and surrounds
Just a short bus, tuk tuk, or taxi ride south of Galle Fort is Sri Lanka’s famous beachside town of Unawatuna.
Although we’re not the biggest fans of Unawatuna town itself, it’s a great base for exploring the surf breaks and little towns along the coast, and it’s probably the most ‘happening’ place in Sri Lanka if you’re after a party.
Morning | First things first, you’ll need a photo at one of the famous rope swings of Sri Lanka, which are both located nearby at Dalawella beach and Mihiripenna beach. Although a little gimmicky, it really is a heap of fun and, considering the location and stunning tropical setting, is definitely one of the best things to do in Sri Lanka!
Day | On top of its rope swing, Mihiripenna beach is also one of the best beaches in the area, with a cool natural pool protected by a coral barrier. Alternatively, chill at Unawatuna main beach. You can rent a sun bed and relax, order cocktails and curries from the beachside bars, or take an afternoon stroll up to the pagoda at the north of the beach and watch the sunset.
Hit up Skinny Tom’s in the centre of Unawatuna for brunch/lunch. Skinny Tom’s has a bit of a cult following on the southern coast, serving Sri Lankan/Western infusion brunch, including our favourite - poached egg hoppers. Delicious.
Night | Kingfisher Hotel is probably your best bet for a proper party. They hold a beach party every Saturday night, which fills with tourists, expats and locals ready to boogie to house music. Be warned though, the booze here is insanely expensive - we paid more than London prices for a 330mL beer at the bar.
UNAWATUNA | THE DETAILS
Where to stay in Unawatuna | Search and book Unawatuna accommodation here
How to get from Galle to Unawatuna | Catch a local bus (LKR 60) or tuk-tuk (LKR 300) the 7kms from Galle to Unawatuna
How to get around Unawatuna | By foot. Tuk tuks are also a cheap alternative
Read more | All the best things to do in Unawatuna
Parties and paradise: the best things to do in Unawatuna, Sri Lanka’s popular beach town
DAYs 6 - 7 | Stay at the stunning Tri Lanka (or surf in Weligama)
The best thing about Sri Lanka being so small is that the distances required to travel between destinations are small and easy to manage, particularly on the southern coast.
From Unawatuna, we recommend splashing out and spending a few nights at one of the islands’ most beautiful resorts, Tri Lanka.
A five-star sustainable, luxury retreat nestled into the jungle that surrounds Koggala Lake on Sri Lanka’s southern coast, Tri Lanka is truly one of the greatest accommodation experiences we’ve ever had. The entire hotel is designed to be in, and of, the nature that surrounds it. It’s absolutely beautifully appointed, with attention to detail like nothing we’ve ever seen.
Nurturing body, mind, and soul is at the core of Tri’s values, which means there are plenty of activities available, including: yoga, cycle tours of the local village, boat trips out to Cinnamon island, a beautiful organic spa and glass-walled library and reading room, and as well as that insta-famous infinity pool too. Bliss!
This is the ultimate splurge, but trust us, it’s worth it (read all about our time at Tri Hotel here).
TRI LANKA | THE DETAILS
How to get from Unawatuna to Tri Lanka | Private transfer (LKR 3,500) or tuk tuk (LKR 500) to Tri Lanka from Unawatuna
Book | Check prices and availability on Mr & Mrs Smith here
Read more | Our review of Tri Lanka, Sri Lanka’s best eco-hotel
Sustainable luxury on the shores of Lake Koggala: why you need to stay at Tri Hotel
Alternatively, if you’re on a backpacker budget (like us 99.9% of the time!), head instead to the super cool surfing town of Weligama. A short bus ride from Unawatuna (LKR 100), or a cheap tuk tuk ride (LKR 1000), Weligama is built for surfers, with hundreds of surf schools located right on the beach - just turn up, speak to a tout and you’ll be learning your way around a board just a few minutes later.
For beginner surfers like us (we know, we’re terrible Australians!), Weligama is a great place to learn, with warm waters, cheap boards and easy waves the perfect combination to catch that first wave.
A 1 - 1.5 hour lesson costs around LKR 2,500 per person, and will teach you the basics of surfing including how to stand up, paddling for a wave, surfing etiquette, and safety. We went with Freedom Surf LK, and they were awesome.
We recommend basing yourself at Ceylon Sliders, a boutique hotel/cafe/surf store celebrating surf culture in Sri Lanka. It’s basically the coolest place on the southern coast, where surfers and yogis come to enjoy the best of Sri Lanka in an environment that wouldn’t be out of place in Bali. They also happen to have some of the best food in Sri Lanka, as well as the coolest staff we've ever met.
WELIGAMA | THE DETAILS
Where | Weligama, Sri Lanka
Cost | 2hr learnt to surf lessons cost around LKR 2,500pp
How to get from Unawatuna to Weligama | The cheapest transport is via local bus (LKR 100).
Alternatively, hire a tuk tuk (LKR 1,000)
Sri Lanka highlights
the white sands and epic surf breaks on the southern coast
DAYs 8 - 9 | Chill in Hiriketiya, Sri Lanka’s relaxed beach paradise
After learning to surf in Weligama, the stunning beachside paradise of Hiriketiya is where you can take your skills to a whole new level.
What was once a sleepy hidden gem on Sri Lanka’s south coast, Hiriketiya is fast becoming the ‘it’ place for bronzed surfers riding waves all day long, digital nomads and their acai bowls, and salty-haired wanderers chilling into a new level of zen. We suspect it feels a little like Bali did 30 years ago, and we’re secretly hoping it stays this way.
Morning | Start your days at The Grove, which serves exceptional coffee, delicious breakfast tacos, and rosti eggs benedict which are to die for. You’ll be in foodie heaven here (and enjoy a welcome respite from rice and curry!).
Day | Surfers can hire boards from the water’s edge for around LKR 250 ($1.50!), which is an absolute bargain. Be warned though - the waves get very busy from mid-morning to sunset, so we'd suggest surfing just after sunrise. Also, please remember to use surfing etiquette and respect the locals and their waves.
For the ultimate zen, join a yoga session (or two) set amongst the jungles of Hiriketiya at Salt House (where you can also stay - they have beautiful rooms!).
Although Hiri is amazing and you'll never want to leave, we do suggest you set aside a day to check out some of the main sights around Hiriketiya, including Dondra Lighthouse and Wewrukannala Viharaya. Completed in 1890, Dondra lighthouse is Sri Lanka's tallest, and in our opinion, most impressive (although the Galle Fort lighthouse pushes it hard!). The stunning coastal setting, beautiful palms, and lack of tourists means it'll be worth the effort to visit - trust us.
Wewrukannala Viharaya temple draws visitors from all over the country to see the giant Buddha statue, which at 50m in height, is the tallest in Sri Lanka. However, the most unique (and frankly terrifying) part of the temple complex is the Buddhist hall of horrors, a long corridor illustrated with ghastly depictions of Buddhist hell. It’s worth a visit, just for this.
HIRIKETIYA | THE DETAILS
Where | Hiriketiya Beach
Where to stay in Hiriketiya | Search and book Hiriketiya accommodation here
How to get from Weligama from Hiriketiya | The cheapest and most effective transport is via local bus (LKR 200).
Alternatively, hire a tuk tuk (LKR 2,000). The journey should take around 2.5 - 3 hours
Read more | Our ultimate guide to Hiriketiya
Where jungle meets the sea: a guide to Hiriketiya, Sri Lanka’s dreamy coastal paradise
DAY 10 - Leopard spotting in Yala National Park
Hiriketiya is the kind of place you’ll never want to leave, except to travel to Yala National Park for safari and leopard spotting!
Jump on the bus (or tuk tuk) towards Tissamaharama (Tissa to the locals) for around three hours, before making your way to Kirinda where the majority of Yala National Park accommodation exists.
The impressive Yala National Park straddles the south-eastern coastline of Sri Lanka and is a must-see on any Sri Lanka itinerary. The 1268km² park is home to a rich array of dunes, forest, open plains and lush lagoons, which also attracts a huge diversity of wildlife; 44 mammals species (including elephants) and over 215 bird species, to be exact, and leopards, lots of leopards.
Morning | Book a safari (pick up at 5:30am, park opens at 6:30am) for the best chance to spot the rare and incredible animals of Sri Lanka. Although you’re not guaranteed to see a leopard, the chances here in Yala are much higher than elsewhere, so keep your eyes peeled.
It’s worth noting that the safari routes can get very popular and crowded, especially during high season. To avoid this, we'd suggest visiting during shoulder season, or joining a safari tour group.
You can book a safari through your accommodation, or when you arrive into Kirinda. There are a number of Jeeps that roam the streets looking for tourists, so enquire with one of these and negotiate a price you’re comfortable with. We negotiated LKR 5,000 for the jeep hire, guide and morning safari, however this price does not include the park entry fees, which are LKR 3500 per person, nor a tip for your driver if you feel their service was worth it!
Day | After your morning safari, check out and start making your way towards Ella.
YALA NATIONAL PARK | THE DETAILS
How to get from Hiriketiya to Yala National Park | Bus is the easiest and cheapest option.
Head to Tissamaharama (LKR 150 - 300), then change and catch another local bus to Kirinda (LKR 35).
The journey should take around 3 hours.
Alternatively, a tuk tuk should cost LKR 6,000
Cost | LKR 3,500 per person
Sri Lanka highlights
Leopard and elephant spotting in Yala National Park
TRIP PLANNING ESSENTIALS: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE TRAVELLING TO SRI LANKA
Days 11 - 13 | Exploring the hill country and Ella
From Yala National Park, head north towards Sri Lanka’s hill country and the town of Ella. Take the bus from Tissa towards Wellawaya, before changing to the bus bound for Ella town. The trip should take around four hours, so if you’re after a quicker (yet slightly more expensive) journey, hire a taxi or tuk tuk.
Tucked away in the misty Sri Lankan high country, amongst idyllic green hills and gushing waterfalls, lies Ella: one of this tear-shaped island's most appealing destinations. The centre of all things outdoors, there’s so much to see and do in Ella that you could easily spend a month here, however three days will allow you to see the best of the town and its lush surrounds.
Morning | Ella Rock is one of Ella’s most popular attractions, and sunrise is the best time to summit. You’ll enjoy spectacular views over Ella, Little Adam's Peak, and Ella Gap, illuminated by the golden morning sun. Treat yourself to a well-earned fresh coconut at the summit.
The best time to visit the mystical Nine Arch Bridge is also in the early morning, just after sunrise, when you’ll have the place to yourself (minus a few instagrammers like us!). The Nine Arch Bridge, a must-see in Ella, is flanked by verdant forests and tea plantations, standing proudly across the valley below. On misty days, low cloud hangs in the valley, giving the whole area a moody, mystical feel. It’s just a bridge, but a bloody beautiful one at that.
If you’re keen to get ’that’ shot, of the train going over the bridge, be there around the following times 9:30, 11:30, 15:30, 16:30, and 17:30 (train times are notoriously unreliable in Sri Lanka, so it may be a little late!).
Day | Jump aboard the famous Ella to Kandy train for a short trip to Haputale and the stunning tea country (book your tickets the day prior at Ella station). After snapping away to get ‘that’ photo on the train, arrive in Haputale and head via tuk tuk (LKR 2,000 - 3,000) to visit the famous Lipton Seat, as well as the Lipton tea factory, where you can learn all about Sri Lanka’s most famous (and delicious) export.
Sri Lanka’s second tallest waterfall, Diyaluma, may be a little off the beaten track, but the epic views and natural infinity pools make the 1.5-2-hour journey more than worth the effort. During the summer months when the water levels have dropped, you can enjoy a refreshing swim at the falls' various natural pools, including right on the edge of the main waterfall. Alternatively, there are larger, safer pools at the upper Diyaluma falls. Tuk tuk drivers in town will be able to take you there for around LKR 3,500.
Afternoon | These are best spent hiking Little Adam’s Peak. The trek takes about two-hours roundtrip from Ella town, and starts in the lush tea plantations before slowly snaking its way to the first set of viewpoints. From here, you'll have 360-degree views overlooking the giant Ella Rock and Ella Gap towards Udawalawe National Park, perfect for photos. Hike up late afternoon and watching glorious sunset unfold before you.
Night | Finish your time in Ella by doing a traditional Sri Lankan cooking class at Lanka's. Run by Lanka himself out of a purpose-built kitchen area at his family home, and using traditional clay pots over a fire; this is about as authentic a cooking experience as you can get in Sri Lanka. You’ll learn how to cook an assortment of curries, including potato, okra, beetroot, pumpkin, and jackfruit curries in no time at all - and they were pretty amazing, if we do say so ourselves!
ELLA | THE DETAILS
Where to stay in Ella | Search and book Ella accommodation options here.
Alternatively, Book an Airbnb using our code to receive up to £30 off your booking
How to get from Yala National Park to Ella | Bus from Tissamaharama north to Wellawaya (LKR 200), before changing onto the Ella connection (LKR 150). The journey should take four hours.
Taxi or tuk tuk hire is also available
How to get around Ella | By foot, or via the many tuk tuks that service the area.
Remember to negotiate + agree prices before getting in
Misty mountain adventures: your ultimate guide to Ella, Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka highlights
The world’s greatest train journey from Ella to Kandy
DAYs 14 - 15 | Exploring the cultural city of Kandy
The journey from Ella to Kandy will probably be the highlight of your three week itinerary.
Winding through misty forests, verdant tea plantations; over gushing waterfalls and streams, and past colourful towns and excitable locals, this train ride is, in our opinion, one of the world’s most picturesque. Grab a window seat (on the left) for the seven hour ride and watch the lush countryside roll by.
Day | Nicknamed the City of Kings, Kandy is Sri Lanka’s second city and the island’s undisputed historical and cultural capital. The best-known of these sites is the Temple of the Tooth relic; Buddhism’s most important religious shrine, and said to be the location of a piece of Buddha’s tooth. Spend half a day here to fully appreciate the temple and the surrounding Royal Palace.
Spend the rest of the day walking Kandy’s stunning city lake, and meandering through the streets, laneways and market areas of the old town.
The Temple of the Sacred Tooth relic might be the most important of Kandy’s temples, but it’s definitely not the only temple worth visiting. Jump in a tuk tuk and visit the three-temple loop, Gadaladeniya Viharaya, Embekke, and Lankathilaka. Each serves as a living history to Sri Lanka's extensive buddhist heritage and craftsmanship.
Afternoon | Visit the Royal Botanic Gardens of Peradeniya, the largest and most extensive in Sri Lanka. The gardens are amongst the best in the world, and home to the impressive and insta-worthy avenue of royal palms. When you’re done sightseeing, there are also a number of expansive lawns in which to relax and escape the Sri Lankan heat.
KANDY | THE DETAILS
Where to stay in Kandy | Search and book hotel options for Kandy, Sri Lanka.
Alternatively, Book an Airbnb using our code to receive up to £30 off your booking
How to get from Ella to Kandy | The Ella to Kandy train (2nd class: LKR 310, 3rd class: LKR 175).
Read our Kandy to Ella train guide for all the details
How to get around Kandy | Kandy is a very walkable city, however use Pick Me or Uber for attractions further away.
Beware of Kandy’s tuk tuk mafia who are notorious for overcharging unsuspecting tourists
City of Kings: why you need to visit Kandy, Sri Lanka’s capital of culture
DAY 16 | Explore the rock cave temple of Dambulla
Just north of Kandy, in Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle, lies the famous Royal rock temple complex of Dambulla, home to some of the most impressive historical artwork in Sri Lanka, and a must-see on any Sri Lankan itinerary. It’s an easy ride from Kandy, at around 2 hours by bus or tuk tuk.
This UNESCO World Heritage site proudly sits atop a 160m rock and contains five separate caves with over 150 Buddhist statues and paintings, some dating back over 2,000 years. Murals cover over 2,100 square metres of cave walls, depicting Buddha’s life, including the temptation of the demon Mara, and Buddha's first sermon.
The views from atop the rock are incredible, overlooking the surrounding valley, with Sigiriya in the distance; just watch out for the monkeys as they can be rather vicious! Dambulla is a great stop to break up the journey to Sigiriya.
Where | Dambulla cave temple complex, Dambulla
Opening hours | 07:00am - 19:00pm every day (ticket counter closes 17:00pm)
Cost | LKR 1,500
Where to stay in Dambulla | Search and book Dambulla accommodation here
How to get from Kandy to Dambulla | Direct bus from Kandy to Dambulla route (LKR 200)
This departs from Kandy Central bus station, adjacent to Kandy Railway station.
Alternatively, an express bus, with air-conditioning, costs around LKR 500
DAY 17 & 18 | Sigiriya, Pidurangala + Polonnaruwa- 2 nights
Next stop on this Sri Lankan itinerary is one of the 'must see' places on any Sri Lankan bucket list, Sigiriya.
It’s a short bus ride from Dambulla to Sigiriya where you can drop your bags at your accommodation (we recommend Back of Beyond Pidurangala, a sustainable eco-lodge in the heart of the national park), and organise yourself for an afternoon at Lion Rock.
An ancient palace and fortress built in 480AD atop a unique rock island that rises 200m above the jungle below, Sigiriya is often referred to as the eighth wonder of the world.
There’s plenty of debate around as to whether the (admittedly, very steep) entrance fee of USD $30 for Sigiriya is worth it. We visited in 2016 and splurged on visiting the fortress with absolutely no regrets - it really is a super unique and interesting site.
Starting in the gardens, the hike to the summit of Sigiriya is demanding; it is 1200 steps after all. You’ll then pass through ancient frescoes, the 1600 year-old Mirror Wall, and the famous lion paws. From here, it’s more stairs up to the top. Although arduous and a little sweaty (even at 8am we were drenched!), the hike is absolutely worth it - the view from the top is awe-inspiring; weathered stone ruins overlook the dense jungle, surrounding plains, and the incredible fortress grounds below.
Night | Watch the sunset from the top of the rock before making your way back to your accommodation for the evening.
Morning | Hiking Pidurangala rock (entry LKR 500 per person) for sunrise has become something of a right of passage for backpackers visiting Sri Lanka, and we definitely recommend waking up early for this - it's a truly magical experience. Located adjacent to Sigiriya, Pidurangala rock provides equally epic views of the surrounding area, a historic cave complex of its own, a tenth of the crowds, and the most incredible view overlooking the famous Sigiriya rock.
Day | From Pidurangala, hire a tuk tuk and head towards the capital of ancient Sri Lanka, Polonnaruwa (LKR 4,500 ($25 USD) entry fee to Polonnaruwa). Built between the 10th and 12th centuries, it quickly became the thriving commercial and religious epicentre if the country. Made up of a series of temples and religious buildings, the ancient site looks and feels like the Angkor temples of Cambodia, just not as grand or well preserved.
The best way to explore the Polonnaruwa complex is via bike.
Cost | Sigiriya entry: LKR 4,500, Pidurangala entry: LKR 500 per person, Polonnaruwa entry: LKR 3,750
How to get from Dambulla to Sigiriya | From the centre of Dambulla, catch the frequent bus to Sigiriya for LKR 50
Sri Lanka highlights
The ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya
DAys 19 - 20 | Explore the northern capital of Jaffna
We really loved our time in Jaffna, but weren’t sure whether to include it on this Sri Lanka itinerary, given its position in the north of the country and the time it takes to get there.
But we really feel it’s a vital place to visit in order to understand this diverse little island better. To get Jaffna from Sigiriya, you’ll need to catch a bus back to Dambulla before jumping aboard the direct bus between Kandy and Jaffna. It’s around a five hour trip, but well worth it.
This was where Sri Lanka’s bloody and brutal civil war played out for over 26 years, and the first thing you'll notice upon arriving into Jaffna is just how different it is from the rest of Sri Lanka. These northern realms of Sri Lanka beat to their own drum, lead by the Tamil population and a strong Hindu culture so entirely separate from the Sinhalese and Buddhist culture of the south.
Despite the lack of rope swings and insta-famous locations, Jaffna has an incredible amount of unique things for you to see and do, including ancient forts and temples, isolated islands, and truly amazing food.
Day | Spend a day exploring the sights and sounds of Jaffna proper. The city centre is surprisingly beautiful - towering palmyra palms, colourful Hindu temples, vibrant local markets, cute laneways, and of course, friendly smiles from surprised locals. The perfect way to see it all is on foot, stopping at the ancient Jaffna Dutch Fort, the colourful and ancient Nallur Kandaswamy Hindu temple, Jaffna Public Library and Jaffna Clock Tower.
If you’re up for a true ‘off the beaten path’ adventure, spend the day Delft Island, an outlying coral and limestone island with a long history dating from the Chola Dynasty, Portuguese, Dutch and the British Colonial Period. It's absolutely not your stereotypical postcard-worthy island, but that's all part of its uniqueness.
Visiting Delft Island was like stepping wayyyyy back in time, with tiny villages, windy dirt roads, rock walls, and swaying palms making up the island.
Alternatively, hire a tuk tuk and head north to Keerimalai and Kankesanthurai beaches (KKS). The north is dotted with colourful Hindi Kovils, spiritual abodes for local devotees. Ask your tuk tuk driver to take you to the most important Kovil's in the area.
Night | Finish the day by watching the sunset over Jaffna from Jetwing’s hotel rooftop, accompanied by a happy hour cocktail or two.
Food tip | The cuisine in Jaffna is very different to the southern reaches of Sri Lanka - think more South Indian in flavour, with heavier curries, biryani, dosas, and parathas. And Lassis... so many lassis! For the best Masala Dosa in town, head to one of Jaffna’s food institutions, Mangos.
Where | Jaffna, Northern Sri Lanka
Where to stay in Jaffna | Search and book Jaffna accommodation here
How to get from Dambulla to Jaffna | From the central bus station, catch the Colombo to Jaffna direct bus (7hrs - LKR 370). Be at the station around 11am in anticipation, and ask a bus attendant when the bus may arrive
DAY 21 | Jaffna to Colombo and fly home
Morning | Leave early, and catch the train from Jaffna to Colombo.
This is definitely the quickest and most scenic way to get back to Colombo, as the train runs through the heart of Sri Lanka via Anuradhapura, passing the infamous Elephant Pass, a slip of land connecting the Jaffna peninsula to the rest of Sri Lanka, which played a critical role in many battles throughout the the civil war.
Sadly, it’s then time to head to the airport and say goodbye to this wonderful country after an epic 3-week adventure.
How to get from Jaffna to Colombo | Direct train from Jaffna station to Colombo Fort (7hrs, LKR 600),
Trains depart at 06:10, 08:20, 09:35, 13:45, and 19:00
Read more | Our guide to the best things to see and do in Jaffna, plus how to get to Jaffna
WHy not book a tour of sri lanka?
Although we’re definitely advocates for independent travel, we understand some travellers may want to experience Sri Lanka with a guide, and with all the nitty gritty travel details taken care of.
Below are selection of tours in Sri Lanka, and the best day tours around the Island.
Sri Lanka Encompassed with G Adventures | A 14-day small group tour visiting major cultural sights within Sri Lanka, including the most scenic train ride in the world from Kandy to Ella. Includes expert guides, meals and transport.
Essential Sri Lanka with Intrepid Travel | An 11-day tour package for 18-29 year olds, focused on seeing all the major sights in this incredible country.
TRAVEL INSURANCE | Stay safe in Sri Lanka
Whatever you do, don’t travel through Sri Lanka without travel insurance. Whether it be Delhi belly, theft, or lost baggage, things can go wrong in Sri Lanka, and insurance is your only way of mitigating the issues!
SRI LANKA BACKPACKING ESSENTIALS | Everything you need for your Sri Lanka itinerary
Travelling through Sri Lanka comes with a unique set of needs. To help you have a comfortable, happy journey, we recommend bringing the following items with you:
Reusable water bottle | THE BEST INVESTMENT WE’VE EVER MADE! We use the Grayl water purification bottles, which allows us to fill up from any water source, anywhere in the world (including train taps!).
Biodegradable Wet Wipes | Keep clean without destroying the planet!
Hand sanitiser | not something we’d actually recommend normally, but in Sri Lanka it can be a bloody great investment.
A spork | to cut down on unnecessary plastic usage at meal times
Power bank | don’t get caught out without power for your devices
READ | check out our eco-friendly packing guide to travel through Sri Lanka consciously and comfortably
EXPERIENCE MORE OF SRI LANKA WITH THESE ESSENTIAL POSTS
THINGS TO DO IN SRI LANKA | 31 incredible things to do in Sri Lanka (this is THE definitive guide on the internet!)
SRI LANKA TRAVEL TIPS | Everything you need to know before you visit Sri Lanka (39 essential tips!)
KANDY TO ELLA TRAIN | Our definitive guide to the Kandy to Ella train
TRAVEL INSURANCE | Don’t leave home without travel insurance (seriously, don’t!). Click here to get the best deals with World Nomads, our trusted travel insurance provider
PHOTOGRAPHY | Love our photography? Wondering what gear we use to get all of our photos around the world?
RESPONSIBLE TRAVEL | Responsible travel is important. REALLY IMPORTANT.
Learn our top responsible travel tips to help you, your family and friends travel more consciously around the globe
ECO FRIENDLY PACKING ESSENTIALS | Don’t leave home without our favourite eco-friendly travel essentials
Have you been to Sri Lanka yourself?
Share any tips or destinations you think we’ve missed on this Sri Lanka three-week itinerary with other readers in the comments below!
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