Sri Lanka’s reputation for natural beauty is not overstated. Perched just above the equator, this balmy island has lush tropical jungles, cool misty hill country and some of the most beautiful beaches you could hope to find.  On this 10-day Sri Lankan itinerary, we discover bustling, dusty towns, friendly, welcoming locals and a relaxing vibe that engulfs the whole country.

The central plains with their ancient history and exquisite ruins are a pleasure to visit. The temples are atmospheric and filled with character, charm and monkeys.  The food is tasty, cheap and prepared with local, honest flair in even the most touristy places.  But the best thing about Sri Lanka: just getting around.  Their crazy, local buses and iconic trains were some of our top highlights on this 10-day Sri Lankan Itinerary.

Trip Overview

2 Days
1 Day
2 Days
1 Day
2 Days
1 Day
Exploring the ancient temples of the Central Plains
Investigating the cultural capital of Kandy
Riding Sri Lanka’s iconic train through the mountains
Catching the back-packer vibe in hilltop Ella
Whale watching and relaxing at Mirissa beach
Strolling the boutique streets of Colonial Galle

Alfresco dining on golden beaches
Glorious ancient cities with atmospheric ruins
Beautiful temples alive with evocative religious rituals
Lush paddy fields and immaculate tea plantations
Cheap and delicious Sri Lankan curries
Friendly, smiley locals always willing to help
A clean, safe country with good roads

Why we loved Sri Lanka

Trip Overview

2 Days
1 Day
2 Days
1 Day
2 Days
1 Day
Exploring the ancient temples of the Central Plains
Investigating the cultural capital of Kandy
Riding Sri Lanka’s iconic train through the mountains
Catching the back-packer vibe in hilltop Ella
Whale watching and relaxing at Mirissa beach
Strolling the boutique streets of Colonial Galle

Why we loved Sri Lanka

Alfresco dining on golden beaches
Glorious ancient cities with atmospheric ruins
Beautiful temples alive with evocative religious rituals
Lush paddy fields and immaculate tea plantations
Cheap and delicious Sri Lankan curries
Friendly, smiley locals always willing to help
A clean, safe country with good roads

Exploring beautiful Sri Lanka in 10 incredible days.

Our 10-day Sri Lankan Itinerary starts in Habarana, the scene of many of Sri Lanka’s big tourist attractions. Habarana is about a 4-hour drive from the international airport.

If your flight arrives early in the day make your way to Habarana that afternoon. However, if your flight lands late at night, book a night in Negombo before driving to Habarana the following day. Negombo is much closer to the airport than Colombo and has a more relaxed vibe. Find a hotel somewhere on Lewis Pl and grab dinner at Mr Crab (285 Lewis Pl) – a delicious and cheap introduction to Sri Lankan food.

Day 1 | Making your way to Habarana

The best way to get to Habarana is with a private driver. The drive takes about 4 hours and cost us 13,000Rs. It’s possible to get a local bus or a combination of car and train for a cheaper price, but the connections aren’t great and you end up consuming a lot more holiday time.

Hiring a private driver in Sri Lanka is a straightforward affair. Just ask your hotel or a travel agent on the street for a taxi and they’ll usually give you a price on the spot and organise a pick-up time for you. Once you’ve found a driver, sit back, relax and watch the Sri Lankan scenery whiz by. The driver will stop for lunch somewhere – it’s custom to buy his lunch as well as your own. We stopped at Perera & Son’s near Dambulla for an excellent local curry in a large warehouse by the side of the highway, packed with locals. Perfect.

Habarana is the ideal spot to visit Sri Lanka’s ancient heritage sites. But there are a couple of accommodation options you should consider. We went for Option 1 and stayed at Habarana Village by Cinnamon.

Option 1:  Stay in one of the resorts close to Habarana. Habarana is a local town at a major. It offers a genuine feel for real Sri Lankan life and the transport options to the major sites are very good. The downside is you may find yourself eating at your hotel more often than you would prefer, given the small number of eating options in town.

Option 2:  Stay in one of the resorts close to Sigiriya. Sigiriya is the major attraction in the area and there are a few accommodation options right at the entrance to the archaeological park. While not actually a town, it does have a number of different cafes aimed at tourists. The downside is the transport options will be more limited (it would be difficult to get a local bus) therefore you’ll be restricted to hiring a private driver.

STAY
TRAVEL
HIGHLIGHT
Habarana
Negombo – Habarana:  3 hours, 30 minutes
Beautiful Sri Lankan Countryside

Day 2 | Iconic Sigiriya, Buddhist Temples & Elephant Safari

Organise a local driver for this morning, and head for Sigiriya as early as possible (park opens 7 AM). These impressive grounds with notable gardens and the giant Sigiryia rock are full of history and atmosphere. The entry fee of 4,600Rs per person (cash only) makes it one of the more expensive things you’ll do in Sri Lanka. But, it’s well worth it. Start at the very good museum, before making your way past the gardens to commence the climb up the rock. Make sure you check out the incredible frescos along the way and capture some shots of the resident cheeky monkeys.

After looking around Sigiriya, ask your driver to take you to Dambulla Cave Temple (entrance: 1,500Rs per person). Dambulla is the largest and best-preserved cave temple in Sri Lanka. While there are around 80 caves in the complex, only 5 are open to the public. Knees and shoulders must be covered. (Sarongs are available for hire at the entrance). Following the cave temple, your driver will probably take you to his favourite lunch spot. We went to a large tourist-bus friendly, buffet style dining warehouse. But, as with most places in Sri Lanka, the food was very good.

Our driver for the whole morning cost 4,000Rs. The return trip including Sigiriya, Dambulla Cave Temple and lunch, took around 5 hours.

In the afternoon, organise an Elephant Safari to one of the three local National Parks. The elephants migrate from park to park, and the guides will know which park to take you to and where to find them. In December, we headed to Kaudulla National Park and saw a number of herds of up to 30 – 40 elephants just begging to be photographed. Apparently, leopards are a possibility as well, but these sightings are very rare. The safari tour cost 7,000Rs for both of us including park entrance fee and shared use of high clearance safari truck. We were picked up at 2:30 pm and returned to our hotel at 6:30 pm.

All the travel for this day was organised through Rana’s Travel Counter & Information Centre. These friendly people are very reliable and provided the driver for the morning and the safari in the afternoon.

In the evening, have dinner at Hot Dish in Habarana, a local no-frills restaurant with a good selection of very cheap items.

STAY
DRIVING
HIGHLIGHT
Habarana
Morning sightseeing: 1 hour, 30 minutes driving time
The stunning views and frescoes at Sigiriya

Day 3 | Cycling the ruins of Polonnaruwa

If yesterday felt like you were chauffeured around in too much style, fear not. Today is true local Sri Lankan travelling. From just east of the main roundabout in Habarana, catch the local bus to Polonnaruwa. (One-way bus ticket: 100Rs per person). These local buses are packed to the rafters, pumping with techno music and oozing local charm.

Track yourself using GPS on your phone or wait for the bus driver to tell you where to get off, they know where the tourists are going! Once at Polonnaruwa, hire bicycles from the first vendor that grabs your attention and spend a fantastic day exploring this impressive site. (Bike Hire: 400Rs each). Polonnaruwa was one of the ancient capitals of the central plains of Sri Lanka. Today it’s an archaeological gem, packed with interesting ruins, temples and picturesque grounds. It’s the perfect spot to meander around on bike at your own pace.

After exploring the ruins, grab a delightfully cheap lunch in town somewhere. Then, if you have time and energy, go for a final cycle along the rice fields towards the edge of town. The scenes are beautiful and it’s an interesting insight into local rural life.

Catch the bus back to Habarana, flagging it down from the same spot they dropped you off. You need to be quick to catch the bus, I don’t think it actually came to a complete stop. Luckily the co-driver is on hand to drag you up if you’re a bit slow.

STAY
TRAVEL
HIGHLIGHT
Habarana
Habarana to Polonnaruwa by bus: 1 hour each way
Cycling around the beautiful Polonnaruwa ruins
FOLLOW US

Day 4 | Culture & temples in Kandy

Today, organise another driver to take you to Kandy. Home to tea plantations, lush cool mountains and some of the most sacred Buddhist monuments in the country. Kandy is a 2-hour 30-minute drive from Habarana. We used Rana’s Travel Counter & Information Centre for this trip as well. The man himself – Rana – was our driver in his brand-new car, which was the dowry from his wife’s family. Make sure you ask for a quick stop at the Hindu temple in Matale as you drive down.

Once you arrive, grab a Tuk Tuk and head up to the Ceylon Tea Museum. While the tour was a little on the pricey side and the tea factory is no longer operational, the explanation of the tea-making process is very good and it includes a complimentary cup of their drop.

After your education in all things tea, spend the afternoon strolling around the centre of town. Make sure you collect the market. This very local shopping area is an interesting insight into real Sri Lankan life and great for atmospheric photo opportunities. It’s also conveniently close to the train station, so pick up your tickets for travel tomorrow. Next, grab lunch at the Olde Empire Hotel, washed down with one of their excellent smoothies. If you’re in need of a caffeine hit, the nearby Natural Coffee does the trick.

In the early evening, embrace your inner tourist at the Kandy Cultural Show which begins at 5 pm and is tucked behind the Temple of the Sacred Tooth. Make no mistake, this drum banging, plate spinning, fire eating, crazy dancing spectacular is for tourists only. But sometimes there’s nothing better than blending in with all the other tourists like we did, which you can read about here. It’s also not too expensive (1000Rs each) and a lot of fun. It also positions you well for tonight’s other event, the evening ceremony at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth, which starts at 6.30pm (1500Rs each). This fantastic ceremony created a bewildering atmosphere of sounds, colours and smells and was a real highlight of this 10-day Sri Lankan itinerary.

STAY
TRAVEL
HIGHLIGHT
Kandy
Habarana to Kandy: 2 hours, 30 minutes
The atmospheric ceremony at the Temple of the Tooth Relic

Day 5 | Kandy to Nanu Oya on Sri Lanka’s iconic train

The train journey through the lush mountains of Sri Lanka is nothing short of stunning. It conjures up some of the most iconic images on any Sri Lankan Itinerary. We were travelling from Kandy to Ella, which is 7 hours in total, and decided to take it at a more leisurely pace by splitting the trip up over two days. The first day (today) from Kandy to Nanu Oya and the second (tomorrow) from Nanu Oya to Ella.

The Sri Lankan Trains are slow, bouncy and a whole lot of fun. You should buy your tickets online before you leave for Sri Lanka so you’re one step ahead of the game. Tickets can be collected from the train station the day before you travel. We booked first class but in hindsight, second class would have been better. The overhead luggage space is actually bigger in second class making storing luggage easier. Also, the windows open – unlike in first – giving you the opportunity to snap amazing scenery shots from the comfort of your seat. The only downside of second-class travel is the lack of air-conditioning. But, on this journey, high up in the hills, it’s really not necessary.

The scenery is pure travel bliss. Luminous green tea fields and intricately maintained vegetable patches light up the scene the whole way to Nanu Oya. A fun way to take the trip is to sit in an open door, legs dangling out, feeling like a little kid playing with an oversized train set. Also, don’t forget to stop one of the food sellers that jump on at regular intervals and try their delicious sweet tea and very spicy peanuts.

The purpose of our stop at Nanu Oya was to visit the nearby town of Nuwara Eliya, which is a former colonial resort known for its classic hotels and British style gardens. While a nice enough town, it wasn’t particularly interesting.

STAY
TRAVEL
HIGHLIGHT
Nuwara Eliya
Kandy to Nanu Oya train: 4 hours.  Drive Nanu Oya to Nuwara Eliya: 20 minutes
Sweet tea and amazing views on Sri Lanka’s ageing trains

Day 6 | Waterfalls, tea fields and train to Ella

This morning, organise a driver to take you to Ramboda. Ramboda is a small village with great views over the valley, a rather impressive set of waterfalls and a collection of tea factories to explore. The drive out to the waterfalls takes you past more beautiful scenery that you collected on the train, with the added bonus of being able to stop and take photos when you like.

The waterfalls are a picturesque and well worth the trip. The best views are obtained by entering the Ramboda Falls hotel and walking down a few flights of stairs and out through their cafe. A short path leads from the cafe to the falls passing a tea plantation and, if you’re lucky, local Tamil tea pickers working their magic. Just remember, they don’t like having their photo taken.

Next head to the Blue Field Tea Factory and get a free tour. While the tour is not particularly informative its great to see a working factory (closed on Sundays). Grab a tea and surprisingly good cakes at their shop.

Next, get the driver to drop you back at the station to continue your Sri Lankan train voyage to Ella. The second leg is just as picturesque as the first, if not better. So, sit back, relax, grab your sweet tea and watch the world go by.

Ella is a small hill town – actually more of a community – that’s become popular with tourists looking for a slower pace. The views down the valley are spectacular and there are a number of small walks in the area. Spend what’s left of the afternoon strolling around the town and relaxing at Chill, a local cool hangout with beanbags on the floor and excellent cocktails.

We stayed at Mount Relax Cottages, a small basic guest house, which seems to be run by a group of teenage boys. The views are spectacular and the lads do a fine job of making their guests feel right at home. You’ll need to get a short tuk-tuk from the station to the Cottage as it is a steep climb with the bags.

STAY
TRAVEL
HIGHLIGHT
Ella
Nanu Oya to Ella train: 4 hours
Chilled out, relaxing vibe at Ella

Day 7 | Mini Adam's Peak and Drive to Mirissa

Start early this morning and take in the amazing views from your room. Before breakfast, walk up to mini Adam’s peak (1hour, 30 minutes up and back). It’s a popular spot to see sunrise, but it’s just as good anytime in the morning. The path takes you past the accommodation of the Tamil tea pickers, highlighting the different standards of living in Sri Lanka. The views at the top are spectacular as the early morning light cuts through the valley below.

If you stayed at Mount Relax Cottages last night, you’ll be treated to their traditional Sri Lankan breakfast on your return from the walk. Fresh local fruit, homemade coconut bread and eggs are their specialities. After breakfast, have a coffee at Barista Coffee in town and organise a driver to take you to Mirissa.

The drive takes around 4 hours and cost us 11,000Rs. You’ll quickly pass Rawana Falls a few kilometres outside Ella (get your driver to stop) before the scenery gradually changes from cool mist-shrouded hills to flat paddy fields framed by coconut trees.

Once you get to Mirissa, watch the sun go down over this fantastic beach. Try dinner at Salt Restaurant with your feet in the sand. ‘Today’s fish’ are on display out the front for you to go and select from. Delicious.

STAY
TRAVEL
HIGHLIGHT
Mirissa
Ella to Mirissa: 4 hours
Stunning sunset and fresh seafood on Mirissa Beach

Day 8 and Day 9 | Whale watching and relaxing on Mirissa Beach

Mirissa isn’t a town that displays its charm too easily. The main street is a busy double lane thoroughfare. The streets off the main road appear completely residential. Everything else appears to be the back of guesthouses. But with a bit of exploration, you’ll find some hidden gems. They just take a bit of searching out. Some of the best cafés and restaurants are tucked behind buildings, hidden beside courtyards or bang on the main highway. It gives Mirissa a very local and relaxed feel, but it does mean you’ll need to do a little research.

To get started today, take a whale watching boat tour. Prices are controlled by the government and at the time of our visit were 6,000Rs each. It’s a fantastic opportunity to spot blue whales, the largest animals on the planet. As Sri Lanka lies close to a continental shelf – the point where the floor of the ocean drops dramatically – it has an unusual abundance of large marine life.

The whole trip takes around 3 hours and comes with a 90% guarantee of spotting a whale. Which certainly worked for us. Over the 3 hours, we saw a number of blue whales putting on a show for the boats in the area as well as a small pod of dolphins. It’s a fantastic tour and the guides will do their best to follow whales and get you in the best position for a good viewing. A word of caution to the weak of stomach, like myself. It’s rough. It was very rough. At some points it was difficult to hold yourself steady enough to take a photo, let alone get to the other side of the boat! I spent a good deal of time throwing up with some of my new chucking buddies.

After the boat trip, spend the rest of the day enjoying Mirissa’s beach.

The next day is full beach relaxation. Golden sand, beautiful water, on-beach feet in the sand dining and an assortment of well-priced cocktails. There are a number of beaches on the southern coast of Sri Lanka that all have their own appeal. We chose Mirissa because many of the others have no facilities at all, or they are very built up with lots of 5-star resorts. Mirissa looked like a good compromise between the two. So, if you are looking for a nice beach, not too built up, but with good facilities, Mirissa is the one for you.

STAY
TRAVEL
HIGHLIGHT
Mirissa
From lounger to the water
Incredible whale watching boat trip

Day 10 | Colonial Galle

For the final day in Sri Lanka, organise a driver to take you to Galle. Galle is best known for the Fort. This charming old city, originally founded by the Portuguese, then expanded by the Dutch is compact and easy to explore in a day.

The fort is best discovered by an amble about on foot. It’s full of charming boutique shops, cute laneways and numerous cafes and bars. They appear to be doing their utmost to hold onto that colonial feel with several relics dotted around the town. Take a walk along the old wall for some impressive views across the ocean.

For a fantastic lunch, head to Spoon’s Café. A tiny curry place – only four tables – serving up delicious well-prepared rice and curry. A delicious way to end our 10-day Sri Lankan Itinerary.

STAY
TRAVEL
HIGHLIGHT
Galle
Mirissa to Galle: 1 hour
Exploring the fort area on foot
Share this article
Itinerary Amendments

  • Nuwara Eliya was a bit underwhelming, so we recommend either staying the night in Ramboda (50 minutes from Nanu Oya train station) which has great views over the countryside.  Alternatively, you could complete the 7-hour train journey in a single day and spend an extra night in Ella, which was a charming town with good walking and a great vibe.
  • Sri Lanka has two monsoons seasons, the Maha in the North and East (October to January) and the Yala in the South and West (May to August). We travelled in December and went to Mirissa Beach (in the south) to avoid the Maha.  If you take this trip between May to August, the beaches on the east would be a better option. Trincomalee came well recommended by many of our guides.
  • If you have extra time, add in a day at Uda Walawe or Yala National Parks. Either can be easily added between Ella and Mirissa. If you get to the National Park by early afternoon, you could take an evening safari drive, stay the night, then do a morning safari before completing the journey to Mirissa.
Guide Books & Reading

The Sri Lanka Lonely Planet guidebook was a great resource for restaurant recommendations, local information and tour operators. It’s also handy for opening times of the major attractions which can run to a unique schedule.

For an interesting read and a good fit for a generally positive, Buddist country like Sri Lanka,  we recommend The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt.

        

Booking Tips & Checklist


  • Book your train tickets in advance and collect from the station before you depart (or the day before if possible.)
  • Book the whale watching the afternoon before you want to go from one of the many vendors on Mirissa beach.
  • While it’s possible to organise a driver for your whole trip, we found it very easy to book drivers as and when we needed them. This also enables us to take buses and trains which was one of the highlights of the holiday.
  • Sri Lanka is a middle-income country. Everything is about half to a third the price of western countries, but this changes significantly based on whether you are in a tourist town on the south coast or in the more remote and cheaper hills.

Hotels to Book


Our accommodation in Sri Lanka was in good value establishments with good facilities and clean, comfortable rooms. Every hotel had air conditioning and pretty good WIFI. There are no top-end pickings in this list. Click on the hotel name for booking details.

3 nights Habarana | Habarana Village by Cinamon
1 night Kandy | OZO Kandy
1 night Nuwara Eliya | The Tea Garden
1 night Ella | Ella Mount Relax Cottage
3 nights Mirissa | Wavelength
1 night Galle | Thambili House By Edwards Collection