As one of the top destinations to visit, Sri Lanka has quickly become a tourist mecca for many. Although known for years as a fantastic surfing destination, the country has only started to become more widely known among the average tourist. The country is still not overly saturated with tourism (especially the harder to reach areas inland) so there are many areas that tourists can explore while enjoying local culture.
Depending on your interests, Sri Lanka can be done in a week or months. For a fairly small island country off the coast of India, it really has a lot to offer because of its diverse climates due to elevation. Hopefully this itinerary will give you some idea of where to go, what to see, and how to do it.
Arrival in Sri Lanka
Arriving in Sri Lanka is simple. As a US citizen, you will need to get a visa before your arrival but it can be filled out very simply online and costs $35 USD. Check out the link HERE for the official Sri Lankan government website for E Visas.
Upon arrival in Sri Lanka, you’ll walk toward the immigration desk and present your visa. It doesn’t take very long but make sure you line up in the correct area. However, depending on your arrival time, it may not make much difference since the airport itself isn’t the large and many passengers transit through Colombo to go to the Maldives or other destinations.
Once through, you’ll need to figure out where it is you need to go. Know that Colombo International isn’t actually in Colombo but about 30 mins north in Negombo. If your first stop is in Colombo, you’ll need to find a taxi to drive you.
One popular option in Sri Lanka is to hire a car and driver for your stay. In my view, this is a FANTASTIC way to visit the country because it means you have a stress free trip and you’ll be on your own timeframe without having to rely on public transportation. Also, hiring a car and driver isn’t that much more expensive than just renting a car. Sure, it’s a bit more expensive but you do get to travel at your own pace. Most hotels have separate spaces for drivers to sleep at a very low price (about $10/day I think) and you’ll have to chip in about $5/day for meals. So, if you’re only going to be traveling for about a week or so, this could be a great option.
For those who are more adventurous, you can rent your own car. You can read my full review on what it was like driving in Sri Lanka HERE but it really wasn’t too bad. For those from the US, you just need to remember that you’re driving on the opposite side of the road (driving on the left) and if you’re not used to driving a manual, you’ll definitely want to pay for the automatic to make it easier. The one thing to note is that automatics will cost almost double the price of a manual but considering you’ll have to drive through some really chaotic areas (especially in towns), I don’t think it’s worth the stress to save a few bucks.
If you do decide to drive, you’ll just need to make sure you get an international driver’s permit from your local AAA office. The rental company will charge a few bucks to get your Sri Lanakan permit but at least you don’t have to waste time getting it at the AAA office in Colombo (yes you need both). The whole thing is very simple and the thing that takes the most time might be the photos you’ll need to take.
If you want to go via the trains, that’s doable as well. Just know that you’ll be limited to the areas you can visit and depending on where you want to go, you’ll probably be forced to backtrack. Also, know that you’ll be surrounded by tourists for the most part because you’ll more than likely all be stopping at the same stations and going to the same cities/attractions. There’s nothing wrong with that but just be aware that there may not be much in terms of local feel.
Going Inland and Points of Interest
If you like visiting old, historic places like I do, you’re going to love Sri Lanka since there are some absolutely fascinating sites to visit. However, remember to look at the train and buses if you’re going to be using public transportation. I got the impression that bus service on the island was very good and covered the entire island so it shouldn’t be too difficult, but that doesn’t mean the bus stop is always near the train stop (and vice versa).
One of the main temple complexes, if you’re going inland from Colombo, this will probably be your first stop. It’s about a 4 hour drive from Colombo and is easily served by buses and the train as well.
Getting to the site is simple since you’ll just have to follow the throngs of worshipers to the site. However, finding the main ticket booth can be a bit tricky since their streets aren’t marked. That said, you’ll really only need a ticket for the most touristy of tourist areas and if you don’t have one, I’m sure they’ll be able to point you in the right direction.
You will also be approached by multiple tuk tuk drivers who say they’re willing to take you to all the sites without having to buy a ticket. There are a ton of hidden roads that the locals use that aren’t marked on the map so it’s very possible that they could take you. Since the site is so large, you really won’t be able to walk from one place to the other without some sort of ride so it may not be a bad way to go. I was asked to present my ticket multiple times but maybe they won’t be as strict if there are more tourists. That’ll be a decision you’ll have to make. You can read more about it HERE.
This was easily my favorite site to visit but without a car, it can certainly be difficult. If you’re staying in the Dambulla area, it’s about a 90 min drive to the gate. You can read my full review HERE. I would say that if you don’t have a vehicle, you may want to strongly consider a driver for the day since it’s a bit of a drive and you’ll certainly be tired by the time you’re ready to leave. If you can get there via bus, you may want to consider hiring a tuk tuk for the day or even a bike so you don’t have to walk all over the place in the humidity.
This might be the most easily reached site in Dambulla since it’s right off the main road. You’ll be able to get here very easily since tuk tuk drivers know you’ll be going and know where to drop you off. The good thing here is that you can get a tuk tuk at the exit as well which is really handy since the entrance and the exit are not in the same area.
From the outside, it may seem pretty unassuming and you may wonder if it’s worth the trek. However, once inside the caves, you’ll see that it’s certainly worth the trek up to the top to check out. You can read my full review HERE. The setting is magnificent and once you enter the caves at the top, it’s amazing how many Buddha statues and drawings there are. I thought it was well worth the price of admission.
By far the most popular and well known tourist attraction in Sri Lanka, Sigiriya is an impressive site (you can read my full review HERE but you’ll want to make sure you get there early. It doesn’t take too long to visit but just know that there are a ton of tourists who visit the site. The problem is there is only one way up and one way down so if you get stuck behind a large group of obnoxious tourists, you may be stuck there for quite some time. I got there very early and although I wasn’t the first, I was thankful that I got there as early as I did. There is really a serene quality to Sigiriya when it’s nice and quiet that I really enjoyed.
Kandy, Nuwara Ella, and Ella
I’m going to lump these three towns together because although they are points of interest, you can really skip any or all of them depending on your tastes.
Kandy is a small town that has the temple of the Sacred Relic. If you want to go, you’ll have to remember to make sure you’re wearing long pants since you won’t be allowed onto the grounds with shorts on. Outside of that though, I really don’t think Kandy is that much to write home about. The town is fine and interesting but there really isn’t much to do there. I’d recommend using Kandy as a rest stop if you’re driving or if you’ve had a long journey but I don’t see any reason to stay for more than a night.
Nuwara Ella and Ella
Visiting the tea country of Sri Lanka is probably on everyone’s to do list and you can do either in Nuwara Ella or Ella. That said, there’s really no reason to go to both since they’re both small towns and really exist to show the tea industry to tourists.
If you want the less popular option, Nuwara Ella is your choice. Although both are touristy towns, Nuwara Ella seems far less touristy. You can stay in multiple tea farms (if you’re looking for a place to stay, I’d highly recommend the Heritance Tea Factory HERE) and you can not only see the tea farms but take tours and even learn about the tea making process.
I didn’t stay in Ella but I did have to drive through it on my way south and to be honest, I didn’t think there was much to do there before I went and I’m actually glad I didn’t stay there. I was hoping to drive to see the nine arches bridge but due to the heavy weather and unsafe road conditions, I was unable to see it. But my impression of Ella was that it was a complete tourist town and as I drove through, I saw way more tourists than locals. I think both towns will give you the same experience for the most part so you’ll have to make that decision on what’s more important to you.
Both towns are very tourist oriented. More than the other towns that catered more to access to the historical sites. To be fair, I could have spent less time in the mountains but that may have had more to do with the weather than anything. When there was a lull in the rain, it was very beautiful but unfortunately I was a prisoner in my hotel because the rain was so bad it was causing landslides and blocking roads.
Along the coast is the town of Weligama. You can really stay anywhere you want along the southern coast since it’s just miles and miles of beaches. You’ll see tons of surfers in the water and it’s a great place to learn to surf if you’re in the mood.
I would say this setting would rival any beach resort in the world, so if you’re in the mood for your honeymoon to be somewhere other than Hawaii, Mexico, or all the other beachfront properties that countless others have gone before, this might be a great idea.
I stayed at the Weligama Bay Marriott Resort (you can read my review of the hotel HERE) and I had a wonderful stay. I honestly can’t recommend this property enough so hopefully you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.
The town itself has a lot of restaurants and stores for you to check out and you can certainly find a lot of odd knick knacks throughout the town. However, if you’re staying in the Weligama area, you might be more inclined to spend it lounging around in the hotel and relaxing.
The easiest UNESCO site to visit, it’s a great day trip from either Weligama or Colombo. The train station is right across the street from the site and it’s a great place to visit. You can read my full review HERE. If you’re in Sri Lanka, I think it would be a terrible shame if you didn’t visit Galle at the very least. It’s so easy to get to and very well preserved. Also, it’s location along the beach makes it a beautiful setting as well.
I spent about 15 days in Sri Lanka and although I could argue I could’ve easily spent more time, I think that was just the right amount of time. Remember that regardless of which mode of transportation you decide, getting from point A to point B is going to take a bit of time. The roads aren’t really the best and getting through the mountain roads really limits your speed. If you’re taking trains, there’s a good chance you’ll have to backtrack. For example, if you take the train all the way to Ella and want to go to Weligama later, your only option would be to take the train back to Colombo and then go south. That said, when I drove, it was about a 7 hour drive so it really wasn’t fast either way.
Overall, I thought the people were warm, friendly, and very appreciative of seeing tourists in their country especially since tourism took a nosedive after the terrorist bombing in 2019. The country has something for everyone with countless options for accommodations. Regardless of if you’re looking for hostels, short term rentals, or luxury hotels, this island has something for everyone’s budget.
The next time you’re looking for a vacation that’s slightly different than where everyone else is going, give Sri Lanka a chance. I think you’ll like it.