The best things to do in Ella: exploring Sri Lanka’s hill country
A must-see on any Sri Lankan itinerary; there’s plenty to do in Ella! Here’s our selection of the best activities, plus our short guide to the city on where to stay, eat, and how to get around!
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.
From scaling the heady heights of Ella Rock, to laying eyes on the mystical Nine Arch Bridge for the very first time; standing on the edge of the roaring Diyaluma Falls (the second tallest in the country), and winding through the tea plantations and mountains passes on the famous Kandy to Ella train; many of our favourite Sri Lankan adventures can be found right here.
At its heart, Ella is a charming and laid back village perfect for relaxing, hiking and escaping the searing temperatures of the southern coast. It's a place where Sri Lanka's colonial heritage coexists with its rich Sinhalese and Tamil culture, and where abundant natural experiences can be found alongside plentiful cultural ones. And it's a place where learning to cook the delicious Sri Lankan cuisine is an absolute must (NOM!).
We do have to warn you, that this once simple hamlet in the hills has transformed into a major tourist stop since our first visit in 2016. Growing in popularity and in size has lead to a number of concrete eyesores now dotting every corner of the village, which has taken away some of the peaceful, rural charm that made the area so incredible. But there’s still so much to discover in Ella - if you’re willing to go deeper than just the touristy pretty sights and epic landscapes.
After two visits to this lush hill-country village, we've put together our list of the best things to see and do in Ella, Sri Lanka; a town we feel should be firmly embedded on your Sri Lankan itinerary.
The best things to see in Ella, Sri Lanka’s misty mountain paradise
#1 Ride aboard the Kandy to Ella train
Hotter than the London Underground in a summer’s day, takes eight hours yet only costs £5. Sounds a little like hell, but trust us, the train ride from Kandy to Ella is the best thing you'll do in Sri Lanka.
Winding through misty forests, verdant tea plantations; over gushing waterfalls and streams, and past colourful towns and excitable locals, this is, in our opinion, the most picturesque train ride in the world. But it's not just the scenery that makes this train ride so incredible. It's also the vibe.
Every person you encounter seems to greet you with a genuine smile; groups of local boys play sing, dance and play drums; vendors rush through the train spruiking sweet chai and snacks, while tourists hang their heads out the windows to stare in amazement at the sheer beauty. Literally everyone is wide-eyed and happy, which in this day and age is hard to find.
The most scenic part of the journey is from Nanu Oya to Ella, through the dense forest of the Horton Plains national park, so we recommend getting the window seat or standing in between the doorways, and enjoying the views as they pass by.
When we first visited Sri Lanka is 2016, the Kandy to Ella train ride was yet to really hit the big time, however due to its currently popularity, you need to book your travel in advance (usually 1 - 2 days prior). The train may also be quite crowded, especially during peak season, so be warned you may need to push your way on.
Third class may be the cheapest option, and in our opinion it's also the best as it allows you to sit/hang out of the doorways. You’ll also find it’s filled with friendly locals keen to help you enjoy your experience.
Where | Ella Train Station, Ella
Cost | 2nd class: LKR 240 per person, 3rd class: LKR 175 per person
Kandy to Ella train times | Express trains depart Ella to Kandy - 0640 and 0924 (subject to change)
#2 Admire Ella’s famous Nine Arch Bridge
It's astonishing to think that a bridge could drive tourists in droves to Ella, yet the Nine Arch Bridge, just outside the town, has done just that.
The Nine Arch Bridge 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.
Completed in 1921, the Nine Arch Bridge is built entirely out of brick, rock and cement, with no metal used in its construction - an engineering feat back in those days. Spanning 91 meters at a height of 24 feet, the bridge is on the famous Kandy to Bandarawela (via Ella) train line, with trains passing around five times a day, depending on the ever changing Sri Lankan train timetable.
Although train times are notoriously unreliable in Sri Lanka, trains tend to pass the Nine Arch Bridge around the following times: 9:30, 11:30, 15:30, 16:30, and 17:30.
There are many places to view the bridge from, with the most popular being from the actual bridge itself, and below from the tea plantation (this is private land, so please ask for permission before entering). But for us, the best views are from above, either looking from the forests surrounding the bridge, or from one of the cafe platforms in the surrounding hills. Watching the train slowly make its way across the bridge is a wonderful sight. Just get there early, as the Bridge and surrounding viewpoints fill up VERY quickly!
Where | Nine Arches Bridge, Ella
Cost | FREE
How to get to Nine Arch Bridge, Ella | You can catch a tuk tuk from Ella town to the Nine Arch Bridge for around LKR 200-300, which is the quickest and easiest option.
Alternatively, you can walk there by following the Ella - Passara Rd, turning left at Sri Kanaser Temple (where all the street food stalls are). Follow the signs, which will take you past multiple guesthouses until you arrive at the Nine Arch Bridge.
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#3 hike up the famous Ella Rock
For those who seek spectacular views everywhere they go, the summit of Ella rock, with its views over Ella, Little Adam's Peak, and Ella Gap, is one vantage point you don’t want to miss out on.
Starting at the famous Ella train station, you’ll follow the Ella to Kandy train line past many beautiful waterfalls, bridges, tea plantations, and homes, before starting your ascent towards the Ella Rock summit - hopefully with a King Coconut in hand for some extra energy. We definitely needed it; the hike to the summit under that fierce sun is tough!
Once at the summit, we enjoyed the incredible views for at least an hour, munching away on our vegetarian roti and some well deserved water.
The route to the summit can be a little complicated, however if you follow the clearly marked paths and ignore the (sometimes deliberately misleading) touts, you shouldn't have too many issues (this in-depth post will help you get there). All up, the hike takes around 2 hours round trip, but remember to pack enough water and snacks to power your journey.
Where | Ella Rock, Ella
Cost | FREE
How to get to Ella Rock | We used this guide, and made it without any hassles!
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#4 Admire the views of Ella Gap from Little Adam's Peak
If a strenuous hike in the sun doesn’t really appeal but you’re still keen to get the legs moving and explore the Sri Lankan countryside, the easier hike up to Little Adam’s Peak is absolutely worth checking out.
Named after its similarly shaped, yet far taller older brother, Adam’s Peak, the Little Adam’s Peak hike 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.
We'd definitely advise continuing the hike further down the ridge, as the views become more spectacular and less busy. The return route follows the other side of the mountain, overlooking the incredible 98 Acres resort before slowly making its way back to Ella. Stop at the little wooden juice hut on the return journey back to relax and grab a refreshing king coconut.
We recommend hiking up during late afternoon and watching glorious sunset unfold; and definitely advise against hiking during the middle of the day as there's little shade to hide from the glaring sun - one of our worst ever travel burns happened right here!
Where | Little Adam’s Peak, Ella
Cost | FREE
How to get to Little Adams Peak | It’s possible to catch a tuk tuk to the base of Little Adam’s Peak, before following the sign posted pathway to the peak.
It’s also a very easy walk from Ella town. Walk the Ella - Passara Rd, turning right at Ella Flower Garden resort before following the signs to Little Adam’s Peak.
#5 Witness the beauty of Diyaluma Falls
Forget what the pop songs tell you, Sri Lanka's second tallest waterfall, Diyaluma Falls is so impressive that you absolutely do need to chase waterfalls here.
Cascading from high in the Sri Lanka mountains, 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.
To get to Diyaluma, we jumped in a tuk tuk from Ella to Poonagala, through quintessentially Sri Lankan tea plantations. Once we’d arrived in the small village of Poonagala, we set off hiking downhill through long, dry grass for around 30mins before getting our first glimpse of the upper Diyaluma falls. A short walk further and there we were, standing above a sheer 220m rush of water to the valley floor below.
It was amazing.
At this point we need to warn you that safety barriers do not exist, so if you're adrenaline junkie (like Mark), and like to stand on the edge of just about anything, please be careful.
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, but again, take precautions before diving in.
There are two ways to get to the top of Diyaluma falls - either hiking from the bottom, which is rather strenuous and hard to follow, or from Poonagala village, which is far shorter yet less popular.
Where | Diyaluma Falls, Ella
How to get to Diyaluma Falls | Take a tuk tuk from Ella town to Poonagala (LKR 3,500 - 5,000 return) and hike from the car park down to the falls.
Alternatively, take a tuk tuk to the town of Koslanda and hike up to Diyaluma falls.
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#6 Admire the rushing Ravana Falls
Just outside of Ella, on the road winding south towards Wellawaya, lies one of Sri Lanka’s most easily accessible attractions: Ravana Falls.
According to local legend, King Ravana is said to have kidnapped princess Sita and hidden her in the secrecy of the forest-protected caves behind the waterfall, to avenge the slicing off of his sister’s nose by Sita’s husband (Rama).
Today, the 25,-high, multi-tiered waterfall is less hidden, given its location right next to the road into Ella from the south, but it’s no less impressive, particularly if you make the effort to hike further up to the second and third-tier falls. From the top of Ravana falls the views over the valley below are majestic, and worth the somewhat tough and precarious hike up.
To get to the top, follow the tracks to the right of the waterfall and slowly make your way up, following the well trodden paths. Be warned though - due to the sheer volume of water this hike should only be completed during the dry months, and with the assistance of a local guide. During the wet months, the torrent that flows down this waterfall is a sight to behold, showering the road and local area in spray.
We recommend visiting early morning or late afternoon, as the area can get pretty busy during the day. Also, be sure to grab a King Coconut (LKR 50) or boiled corn (LKR 50) at one of the street vendors before heading back to Ella!
Where | Ravana Falls, Ella
Cost | Free
How to get to Ravana Falls | We recommend catching a tuk tuk from Ella, which should cost around LKR 200 - 400 and take around 15mins. Alternatively, you can hike there, following the Wellawaya-Ella-Kumbalwela Hwy until you reach the falls, however we don't recommend this due to the length and slight chaos of the traffic!
#7 Party, eat and chill in Ella town
If you’re coming to Sri Lanka looking for a full-on party destination like Thailand or Bali, we need to let you down now because this country is definitely NOT your place. That said, Ella is the one place in Sri Lanka where western food and a small, but decent, night out exists for those who seek it.
Central to Ella’s backpacker scene is the main street, which has seen a radical transformation (for the worse, in our opinion) over the last few years. What was once a sleepy, quaint main street filled with local markets and restaurants is now a throbbing hub home to hip new cafes and bars, boutique shops, and a vibe that feels slightly more like that of an asian backpacker town.
If you’re keen to get into the mix, the best place to take it all in is at Cafe Chill, located right in the centre of town. Serving delicious western-style food, cocktails and a decent soundtrack, Cafe Chill is where the cool kids hang. At night, the upper deck becomes a bar/lounge, perfect for a few Lion Beers. We can highly recommend the vegetarian burger, which was our western-style treat during a month of eating rice and curry.
Further towards the train station are a number of relaxed bars serving beers and cocktails, some of which are open 24-hours, including the Bob Marley inspired Cafe One Love.
Where | Ella town
Cost | Mains start from LKR 650
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#8 Enjoy the famous views from Lipton Seat
Tea is synonymous with Sri Lanka, and the name Lipton is synonymous with tea, so it was only natural that our Sri Lankan travels would eventually bring us to Lipton Seat. This is the famous viewpoint where entrepreneur and tea mogul, Sir Thomas Lipton, used to sit and contemplate his vast plantation and the magnificence of Sri Lanka's high country, and sample some of the world's finest tea straight from the source.
Unfortunately, we weren't able to enjoy the panoramic views as we would have liked thanks to heavy rain and dense fog surrounding the summit upon our arrival, however we’re told (by our tuk tuk driver) that on a clear day you can see as far as Udawalawe National park and beyond to Hambantota port.
Despite the inclement weather, we definitely enjoyed our fresh cup of Sri Lankan tea (LKR 50 per person) at the top, while watching the clouds roll by. The tea, we both agreed, was by far the best we've ever consumed. The drive from Haputale station through the verdant tea fields and colourful towns was also stunning, so if the weather’s looking a bit iffy, we’d still recommend venturing at least part of the way there just for the scenery.
If you're looking to visit Lipton Seat from Ella, we’d advise taking the 6am Ella to Kandy train and jumping off at Haputale (let’s face it, any excuse to spend additional time on that train is well worth it - it's amazing!), and then paying a tuk tuk driver to take you to Lipton Seat from the station (LKR 2000 - 3000 for a return trip).
A visit to Lipton Seat and tea plantation tour (more on that below) should take around four hours, providing you with enough time to return to the station for the 11am return train to Ella. Alternatively, book this day tour from Ella via private car, which includes Lipton Seat and a Dambatenne Tea Factory tour. Check prices and availability here.
Where | Lipton Seat, Haputhale
Cost | LKR 100 per person. If arriving via tuk tuk, an additional LKR 50 charge applies
Opening hours | 06:00am - 17:00pm daily
How to get to Lipton Seat | Catch the Ella to Kandy train to Haputale, then tuk tuk to Lipton seat.
Total cost should be LKR 2000 - 3000.
Alternatively see Lipton Seat on a day tour from Ella
#9 take a tour of a tea factory
Did you know that Sri Lankan tea is some of the World's best due to the altitude at which it is grown? Or that tea bushes cover 25% of Sri Lanka's surface? Nope, neither did we until we toured the tea factory in Haputale.
Considering Dambethenne factory was built by the great tea man himself (Lipton), it’s a pretty darn good place to learn all about what makes this country (and most of the world) tick. Just north of the town of Haputale, this tour will take you through the whole tea production process in great detail, from the picking, rolling, drying, fermenting, cutting, sieving and grading of the tea, through to the final auction process (80% is on sold to Colombo, and exported to the world).
For an avid tea drinker like Mim, learning the science behind a perfect cuppa was enlightening and something we definitely recommend for any traveller visiting Sri Lanka.
Where | Dambethenne tea factory, Badulla
Cost | LKR 250 per person
Opening hours | 09:00am - 17:00pm, Mon - Sat. Closed Sunday
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#10 Learn how to Cook Sri Lankan style in a cooking class at Lanka's
In our humble opinion, Sri Lankan cuisine is amongst the absolute best in the world, so we recommend joining a cooking class in Ella to learn how the deliciousness is made!
Ella seems to have become quite the hub for (overpriced) cooking schools, judging by the signs that dot the entire main road and its surrounds. But skip over the super touristy options and head to Lanka’s Cooking Class instead, about 15 minutes walk from the centre of town.
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. Under Lanka’s (sometimes gruff) tutelage, our class of eight was whipping up 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!
Where | Lanka Cooking Class, Ella
Cost | LKR 2,000 per person
Opening hours | 5 - 8pm daily - must book in advance
Reviews | Read Tripadvisor reviews of Lanka’s Cooking Class
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Where is Ella?
Despite feeling world’s away from the popular beaches and tropics of Sri Lanka’s southern coastline, Ella is only about 200km north-east of Colombo.
Perched at an elevation of 1,041m Ella can be found on the south-eastern ledge of the Uva Province, in the Badulla district. It’s height gives it a (very welcome) cooler climate than the southern lowlands, and with its beautiful forest-covered hills and tea plantations, it’s the perfect starting point for many Sri Lankan hill country adventures.
When to visit Ella, Sri Lanka
Due to Ella's elevation at 1,041m and its position on the south-eastern edge of the Uva province, the average temperatures of Ella vary little over the course of the year - it's a comfortable 20 - 30 degrees all year round, although it does get rather cool overnight. The wet season occurs between September to December, although there's a pretty high chance of rainfall from April to December, with storms occurring almost every afternoon.
The absolute best time to visit Ella is during the months of January to May, when the temperatures are slightly warmer and the chance of rain at its lowest. It's also peak season for tourists, which can make the town and its attractions feel a little crowded.
We did visit in late October and found the weather to be seriously damp, but otherwise fine. Afternoon storms occurred almost everyday, however the mornings were generally clear and perfect for hiking.
Where to stay in Ella
Honestly, in our view AirBnB is your best option when looking for cheap accommodation in Sri Lanka. We’ve used it almost exclusively throughout both of our trips to Sri Lanka and have met so many incredible local families in the process.
If you’re a fan of AirBnB, there are heaps of options available in Ella. You can book a locally run guesthouse close to town for less than £25 per night.
Book using our code and receive up to £30 off your booking.
We’ve written a comprehensive guide to Airbnb to help you book the best, cheapest and safest accommodation, every time.
Despite being the centre of a tourism boom, accommodation in Ella is quite easy to come by and is literally teeming with low to mid-end hotels.
How to get to Ella, Sri Lanka
COLOMBO to ELLA | The direct train from Colombo Fort to Ella encompasses the world famous Kandy to Ella train ride, however we’d highly recommend breaking up the journey and spending time in Kandy. If you’re keen to get straight to Ella, be prepared for a 10+ hour train ride.
Where | Colombo to Ella Train Station
Cost | 2nd class: LKR 600 per person, 3rd class: LKR 400 per person
Colombo to Ella train departure times | 0555, 0830, 0945, 2000
KANDY to ELLA | One of the great train rides in the world, and one of the best things you’ll do in Sri Lanka. Expect the train ride from Kandy to Ella to take between 6-8 hours. We recommend booking 3rd class for the most authentic experience.
Where | Kandy to Ella Train Station
Cost | 2nd class: LKR 240 per person, 3rd class: LKR 175 per person
Kandy to Ella train departure times | 0847, 1110
COLOMBO to ELLA | If you’re on a very tight budget, it’s possible to take the local bus from Colombo’s Pettah bus station to Ella, however it’s a long, arduous journey or around 7 - 8 bumpy hours.
From Colombo/Pettah bus station, take the bus to Bandarawela (around LKR 200 - 700), where you’ll need to change and jump on a connecting bus to Ella (LKR 50 - 100). Or, for the final part of the journey, hire a tuk tuk to Ella town (LKR 500).
KANDY to ELLA | To be honest, don’t even think about taking a bus on this route - the train ride is too beautiful to miss.
THE SOUTH to ELLA | The best way to travel from the south (Unawatuna, Mirissa, Hiriketiya) to Ella is to take a local bus to Matara bus station (LKR 50 - 200), and then change onto the Matara - Bandarawela bus (#31, or 31-1 bus), which will stop in Ella via Wellawaya.
This 5-6 hour trip should cost around LKR 200 - 500.
Have you been to Ella yourself? Help your fellow travellers our by sharing your favourite things to do in Ella, Sri Lanka in the comments below!
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