Sri Lanka is an island country located off the coast of South India. It is one of the most underrated countries in the world due to the generalization people make about Sri Lanka that they are the same as India.
From the outside, it may look similar but from the inside, nothing could be further from the truth. I had the opportunity to travel to Sri Lanka for 2 weeks in April 2016 and in this article, you will learn everything you need to know about this awesome country and how you can spend 2 weeks on the island with our suggested itinerary. Let's begin, shall we?
- Sri Lanka Itinerary Map
- Sri Lanka Travel Video
- Why Visit Sri Lanka?
- How to Get to Sri Lanka
- How to Get Around Sri Lanka
- When to Visit Sri Lanka
- Where to Stay in Sri Lanka
- Internet in Sri Lanka
- Travel Insurance
- Is it Safe to Travel to Sri Lanka?
- 2 Weeks Itinerary for Sri Lanka
- Further Reading for South Asia
Sri Lanka Itinerary Map
Sri Lanka Travel Video
Why Visit Sri Lanka?
This question often came up when I told people that I was traveling in Sri Lanka so here is a simple answer to sum up my experience: Sri Lanka is like a lite version of India. If you are intimidated by India, Sri Lanka is the place to be.
The best part about the country is the unmatched hospitality I have received while I was traveling in the country. The locals are one of the friendliest people you will ever meet. How friendly? Well, I was walking around the central market in Kandy and everyone was greeting me all the time, inviting me into their stores and giving me free fruits.
Apart from the fact that the people are unbelievably friendly, Sri Lanka has a lot of other things to offer as well such as going on an elephant safari, whale-watching, hiking, temple hopping and all the awesome food you can try.
How to Get to Sri Lanka
The best way to get here is to fly into Colombo. There are several airlines that connect the US, Europe, and Asia to Sri Lanka. From the US or the EU, there is no direct flight but you can fly to Sri Lanka with transit in either the Middle East via Emirates, Qatar or Turkish airlines or East Asia via Japan, Korean airlines or Cathay Pacific.
If you are within Asia, it will be easier and cheaper for you as AirAsia offers quite a few routes to Colombo via cities like Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo, Hong Kong Seoul and many more.
If you are looking for the cheapest flight for your trip, I would recommend you browse through Skyscanner or Momondo to find a cheap flight from where you live to Colombo that best fit your itinerary.
How to Get Around Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is very well-connected by trains and buses. Some areas are a little harder to reach either due to its mountainous terrain or military checkpoints but nothing is impossible. Trains are a good way to slow-travel through the countryside while buses are fast but can be hectic at times.
I had the opportunity to take both modes of transportation and I like them both. The scenery from the trains was outstanding especially the route from Kandy to Ella (a must do) where the train goes through tea plantations hugging along the side of cliffs all the way.
One of the routes I would highly recommend you to take the train is the one that connects Kandy and Ella. The railway goes through some of the most stunning landscape in Sri Lanka, going up and down the hills of Ella, through the tea plantations and scenic bridges. It is slow but extremely scenic and rewarding.
Seats are free for all so be sure to get on the train first to get the best window seats so you can see the view or you can sit at the door of the train as I did 😉.
One of the problems with the train is that they do not offer online booking so you will have to get the ticket the day before and you will have to visit the train station to do so. Be sure to spare a few hours if you are planning to travel by train the next day.
If you are short on time and you would rather be reassured by reserving the tickets before you arrive then you will need to go through an online agency like 12go.com.
Important: If you decided to go this route, you will need to book the ticket with them 30 days before your arrival date so they will have enough time to process your tickets for you.
Within this itinerary, you will have to take 2 trains, the one from Colombo to Habarana and Kandy to Ella. For the one from Colombo to Habarana, you will have to go to Fort Railway Station in Colombo and you can reserve the ticket at the kiosk in front of the train station in the white building.
For the one connecting Kandy to Ella, visit Kandy Railway Station the day before and get your tickets
For more detail on Sri Lankan train and its schedule, visit: Train travel in Sri Lanka by Seat61.com.
Local Buses are fast, cheap and quite reliable but it can get a little hectic as they pick more and more people along the way. Many times, I had to squeeze myself and my backpack together to make rooms for other passengers. These buses are also quite old and lack air-con so keeps in mind about the number of people and the humidity before getting on one.
Personally, It was part of the experience of traveling in Sri Lanka and it was fascinating for me to see how 90% of the people actually travel in the country.
The price is often very cheap with local buses, some are as low as 0.15 USD per ticket. They do have a rough schedule that is almost always not followed, changes often and impossible to find reliable information online so it is best you ask your hotels/hostels to help you at organizing one, or you can just flag them down from the main road.
For local buses, I would recommend you get one for shorter routes like the one from Habarana to Polonnaruwa where you can simply go to the main road and flag the B294 bus down easily.
There are also modern private company buses that connect big cities together like the one from Welligama to Colombo Airport via Southern Express Highway which you can take if you end your trip in Mirissa.
For private buses, the price doubles that of the local buses going the same route but still affordable than taking a taxi.
This is only possible when you want to travel somewhere near like to visit a tourist attraction nearby Colombo or a day trip to Sigiriya from Habarana. For big cities like Colombo and Kandy, you can easily flag a tuk-tuk from the road to get to places or you can hire a driver for the day via your hostel/hotel.
For going to places further away like visiting Sigiriya or Polonnaruwa from Habarana, you will need to hire the driver for the entire day. The price will depend on how far you are going and how long they will have to wait for you. There are no fix price so negotiate hard when they offer you the first price.
Make sure to also agree upon a price before you get on one to prevent from disagreement of the price at the end.
When to Visit Sri Lanka
Since Sri Lanka is an island with a variety of terrain, the weather is all over the place no matter which season you are here during. October - March is considered to be a high season and if you are like me and want to avoid high season at all cost, April is a good time to be because the high season ended a month before and you will not only get discounted accommodation prices due to low season, but you will also get the attractions to yourself as well.
When I was in Tangalle, I was able to have the guesthouse and a deserted beach to myself because no one was there.
Temperature varies a bit from place to place. In the hill country, the temperature could go as low as 20°C whereas all the other places will maintain its temperature at 30+°C.
Where to Stay in Sri Lanka
Ella: Ella Escapade Hostel by Nomadic (Budget) - 8 USD/night (Dorm) | Grand Peak Ella (Mid-Range) - 20 USD/night (Double Room) (The owner is super nice and he speaks perfect English. You can ask him anything and he will find the best way for you.)
Internet in Sri Lanka
WiFi at hostels and guesthouses are not reliable at all in Sri Lanka so if you are required to be connected all the time, I would suggest you get a local SIM card to stay connected throughout the country.
I got a 2GB one from Mobitel and the 4G coverage is good in big cities (Colombo and Kandy) but in small towns, it often diverted back to 3G or EDGE. Not the fastest but quite manageable. Definitely better than relying on just WIFI alone.
You can find more information about the local sim card here: Sri Lanka Prepaid Data Sim Card.
If you are looking for travel insurance to go along with your trip to Sri Lanka, I would recommend WorldNomads.com, which is what I use to look for travel insurance that fits my kind of adventure. They have a simple and flexible search system that allowed me to find the right insurance for the right amount of time at an affordable price in seconds. If you need travel insurance, give WorldNomads.com a try.
Is it Safe to Travel to Sri Lanka?
Due to the recent tragic event in Colombo in April 2019, the safetiness of Sri Lanka has been tarnished due to the attack on Christian Churches and some 5-star hotels that left over 300 people dead. It's not an easy reality to comprehend but safety concern for traveling in Sri Lanka is now a legit question that needs to be answered.
For most of this itinerary, you will mostly be in a safe area with only a few days in Colombo where the tragic bombing happened. Big cities are always riskier with petty thefts and terrorist attacks like this but once you are out and about, you should be fine.
So would I recommend you cancel your trip to Sri Lanka? I would say, if you are only planning to visit, maybe it is best to postpone your trip for now until everything settles. If you have booked everything already, I would say, you can still stick to your plan but avoid being in a crowded area during public holiday seasons.
All in all, the chance that you will witness something horrific like in April 2019 is pretty low but it is best not to ignore it and stay vigilant.
2 Weeks Itinerary for Sri Lanka
Colombo (2 nights)
To tell you the truth, Colombo is not a place you should stay more than a day when you are in Sri Lanka. It is a big city with some notable temples and museum but the highlight of Sri Lanka cannot be seen from the city.
But since most of you will have to fly into Colombo anyway, I would suggest you to at least give the city a go. If you have a day here, do go to the National Museum to learn the history of Sri Lanka.
A great temple that I would recommend you visiting is the Kelaniya buddhist temple located only 15 minutes away from the city. The temple dated back to 5th Century BC and you can find some nice sculptures and paintings that will give you a sense of how rich the Sri Lankan history is.
There are other temples that are worth visiting like the Gangaramaya Temple but these can all be done in one day.
Traveling in Colombo is pretty straight-forward. You can get around the city by taking getting a tuk-tuk to take you around for a day with a fixed price or you can minimize cost and flag one down from the street each way.
As I always recommend, when dealing taxis and tuk-tuks no matter where you are, they may want to squeeze money out of you so be sure you agree upon a price before you get on one. You can also ask your hotel to find one for you if your hotel is not located on the main road.
Giving you one day in the city also allows time for you to plan your next step like getting a train ticket at the train station or finding the bus route to take.
Getting from Colombo to Habarana: You will have to take the train for this route and you will have to visit Fort Railway Station one day prior to your departure to get the train ticket. The train leaves very early in the morning and it should take around 6 hours to get there. Like with most trains in Sri Lanka, the view along this route is quite a sight to behold, so be sure to get a window seat for this one.
Habarana (3 nights)
After a day in the city, it's time to head into the countryside and witness the true beauty of Sri Lanka. Habarana is a small town in central Sri Lanka and it is the perfect place to use as a base to explore all the cultural sights around the area.
There are several other places that people like to use as a base to explore central Sri Lanka such as Kandy, Anuradhapura, or Dambulla but I prefer Habarana more as it is quiet, small and relatively unknown to tourists. It is also located less than an hour away from the famous Sigiriya rock and the ruin of Polonnaruwa, and these are what we will be doing in the next 2 days in Habarana.
On your first day, hire a driver or a tuk-tuk to take you to Sigiriya Rock in the early morning to beat the crowd and hike to the top of the rock for a grand vista of the Central Sri Lankan landscape.
You can hire a tuk-tuk via your hotel/hostel in Habarana the day before and they should have no problem picking you up very early in the morning.
Sigiriya is a 200m high ancient rock that was used as a fortress in 477 CE and in hiking the rock, you will be able to see the beautiful landscape of Sri Lanka from the top.
Sigiriya is so much more than just a rock in the middle of nowhere. This place has so much more to offer than just hiking up to see the view. There are several ancient ruins around the rock that you can explore on foot. I spent almost half a day in Sigiriya alone.
After half a day in Sigiriya, you can come back to Habarana and explore the forest and landscape around the area. I especially enjoy walking around Habarana Lake. To get there, you can walk through the Cinnamon Lodge Habarana and you will find a vast lake where you can sit and enjoy the view.
If you are looking for a nice restaurant to indulge yourself in, I couldn't recommend Dewata Villas Village Restaurant enough. They open in the evening and they serve local food at a reasonable price. They can get packed fast in the evening so be sure to be there early to beat the crowd.
For your second day in Habarana, I would recommend you hop on a B294 bus from Habarana main road in the morning and go to Polonnaruwa, rent a bike and spend the day exploring the archeological site.
Getting from Habarana to Polonnaruwa: You can stand on the main road in Habarana and flag down the B294 buses. It should run twice per hour starting at 6 AM (check with your hotel before) and cost you around 40 LKR per trip.
Polonnaruwa is the royal ancient city of the Buddhist Kingdom of Polonnaruwa and you can find massive structures of the kingdom's remnants like a 170m height ancient stupa and a huge standing headless Buddha, scattered all over the site.
The site is quite large with many sites to visit and since you only have one day there, I would recommend you rent a bike to explore Polonnaruwa. There are several shops you can rent a bike from.
Once you arrive in Polonnaruwa, you will see plenty to bikes in front of a store, simply go in there and rent one for the day. I rented one from Pramod Cycle Depot just off the main road when I arrive in Polonnaruwa. It should cost around 1 USD (200 LKR) to rent the bike for a day.
Once you rent a bike, be sure to buy the entrance ticket at the Archeological Museum before you start exploring so you don't have to backtrack when you realize you need a ticket to enter these sites as I did.
The ticket is 4500 LKR (25 USD) which is a tad bit expensive but that is why we want to maximize our time here by renting the bike, and see as much as possible.
There are many sites to see and it can get quite confusing as to where to visit so above, I have mapped out all the significant sights you should visit when you are in Polonnaruwa so you don't have to waste time getting lost as I did.
To get back from Polonnaruwa to Habarana, you will have to get the same bus back by simply standing on the opposite side of the road where you were dropped off and flag down the same bus (B294) and you will be on your way back. It is recommended to start making your way back at 4 PM so be sure to be at the road before then.
Getting from Habarana to Kandy: There are no trains that connect these 2 towns so you will have to get a bus which you should have no trouble finding as Kandy is a big city and most buses that run along the main road in Habarana are mostly going to Kandy. Bus 41, for example, connects Polonnaruwa with Kandy so you can get on that one to go to Kandy.
If you are not sure which bus to take, ask your hotel for a recommend bus number or you can simply ask the conductor. You can also pay the conductor for a ticket once you are on the bus.
The journey should take around 2 - 3 hours depending on the traffic and the road condition at the time as you will be going up and down hills quite a bit before arriving in Kandy.
Kandy (2 nights)
Kandy is the second biggest city located in the hill country of Sri Lanka, home to the famous Temple of the Tooth, a sacred Buddhist temple that houses the relic of the tooth of the Buddha.
I think Kandy and the temple were overrated but that said, the city itself has quite a lot to offer if you are interested in the Kandyan culture. Kandy also serves as a good starting point for one of the most scenic train ride in Sri Lanka which we will discuss in the next section.
I did not go into the Temple of the Tooth because it does not appeal to me but even so, I had to appreciate the architecture of the the complex. It is very well done.
If you want to go inside, be sure that you dress appropriately with your shoulders and legs covered or else, you will be turned away as I did rocking my short 😅.
If you are interested in the history of Buddhism, I would suggest you visit the World Buddhist Museum in Kandy. This is the only museums I found that dedicated each room to different types of Buddhism practices from other countries around the world.
They have dedicated rooms for Thai Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Afghanistan Buddhism and many more. It is fascinating to learn the mutual connection between each country, all through this one religion.
Another thing to do in Kandy is to see the Kandyan traditional dance. Every evening, you can attend one of these shows and the show lasts around an hour.
Your hostel/hotel will have the schedule and price for you if you are interested to see this Kandyan dance. As of 2019, the price almost doubled since I was there in 2016 to 1000 LKR which is quite expensive for a one-hour dance show but I like to think that this money will go on to support the local artists in the end.
If you are interested to see the Kandyan dance, you can buy a ticket via your hostel/hotel and simply get a tuk-tuk and show up at Kandyan Art Association on time to see the dance.
I am not usually a fan of traditional shows but this one captivated me the whole time. The dance is really intense and energetic with a fast-paced drum beat that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
The dance also involves FIRE dancing!
Another place I like to go waste my time people-watching is at the Kandy Central Market. If you are in Kandy and want to see the best side of Sri Lankan people, simply walk inside the market and you will see why Sri Lankan are one of the nicest people in the world.
Getting from Kandy to Ella: The most scenic way to get to Ella from Kandy is by trains as the railway goes through some of the most scenic landscape in the country, hugging along the side of a mountain through many tea plantations.
I highly recommend you book your ticket as early as 2 days before your departure from the Kandy train station as this is a popular route for tourist to take and it can get fully booked real quick, especially during the high season.
The journey will take you about 7 hours so expect a full-day experience for this train trip. Fortunately, the view will keep your mind occupied for most of the days and the weather becomes cooler the higher up you go which is great on an open-air train.
You can check the recent train schedule from Kandy to Ella here: Kandy to Ella train schedule timetable.
Ella (3 nights)
When people said the train from Kandy to Ella is one of the most scenic things you can do in Sri Lanka, they ain't wrong.
The train ride from Kandy to Ella is about 6 hours and the route will take you through a variety of areas you wouldn't normally see if you take a bus like urban areas of non-touristic cities, along mountains sides, and through the tea plantations that birth one of the best tea in the world, the Ceylon tea.
While you are on the train, don't bother sitting in your seat. Find an unoccupied door, hang your legs off, sit and enjoy the ride.
Once you are in Ella, go on a hike to the Little Adam's Peak and watch the sunset at the top. The hike is super easy and it will take you no more than 2 hours round trip.
At the end of the trail, you will be surrounded by the rolling hills of Ella. Little Adam's peak is best seen at sunset so you will be right on time to see witness such beauty by the time you arrive in Ella in the afternoon.
The next day, spend the whole day hiking the Ella's rock which will take you through some of the most stunning walks you can experience in Ella. One minute you are walking on a railway track, the other you are hiking through tea plantations.
Having a guide for this particular trail is recommended as the way was not clearly marked. The hike will take around 4 - 6 hrs round trip. It is relatively easy to hike except the last part where the trail will get steeper as you approach the summit.
Your hotel/hostel should be able to organize a guide for you the day before so be sure to inquire them the day you arrive so you can hike Ella's Rock the next day.
You can do it solo, but be very sure that you have a hiking map with accurate designation as we found quite a few people getting lost along the way. Maps.me (Android | iOS) does have a good reliable hiking map for you to save offline so be sure to have that app installed on your phone before you embark on the hike.
There is not much I can say about the summit except that it is beautiful. Just look at the photo above!
Once you arrive at the top, you will have to backtrack your way back to Ella and spend the rest of the evening, relaxing or go off and find the Nine Arches Bridge, beautiful colonial-era railway construction in the middle of the lush green forest of Ella.
Getting from Ella to Udawalawe National Park: This is a bit tricky as there is no direct connection between Ella and the national park so you will either have to take a private taxi which cost 7000 LKR (flat rate so you can share the cost with others), a mini-van that leaves from Ella bus stand which cost around 1500 LKR or you can take a local bus via Thanamalwila which is the cheapest way to get to Udawalawe but most hectic.
I would recommend getting a minivan or a taxi if you have people to share it with but otherwise, you can take the bus from Ella at 8:45 AM (be sure to check the schedule with your hotel before you embark) to Thanamalwila and from there, you can get a bus that is heading to Colombo that should pass through Udawalawe where you can get off.
Udawalawe National Park (day trip)
A Sri Lankan trip will not be completed without going on an Elephant Safari tour. Why? Well, Sri Lanka has the highest number of wild elephants in Asia, and it would be a shame if you did not see any elephant when you are here.
After Ella, rent a car or take a public bus to Udawalawe National Park and go on a 3 hours safari trip through the park. You are guaranteed to see at least 10+ elephants and a bunch of other animals like the peacocks and wild buffalos all hanging out near a watering hole.
You can hire a jeep driver to take you on a safari trip at the entrance of the national park and it should cost you around 3500 LKR (20 USD) excluding the ticket price which is another 3000 LKR (17 USD) per person.
Getting from Udawalawe to Tangalle: If you came to Udawalawe with a taxi, they should have no problem dropping you off in Tangalle but if you are traveling with public transportation, you can get a south-bound bus at the Udawalawe junction bus stop to get to Tangalle.
Buses that are bound for Matara should pass through Tangalle so you can get on one of that at the Udawalawe junction bus stop and get off when you arrive in Tangalle.
Tangalle (2 nights)
After 2 days of hiking in Ella and relaxing in the Udawalawe national park, it is time for you to loosen up and chill at the beach. Tangalle is a quiet fisherman town located on the southern coast of Sri Lanka.
Here you can find many beachfront accommodations for as cheap as 20 USD per room. The beach in Tangalle is mostly empty due to its strong tides but what people may not know is that there are some places you can swim as well. There was even a natural pool near my guesthouse which eliminates the problem with the tides entirely.
You can also spend your time walking around the quiet Tangalle town and go try some local dish like the delicious Kottu Roti and all kinds of fresh fruit you can find at the market.
Getting from Tangalle to Mirissa: There is a direct bus you can get from Tangalle to Colombo that should pass through Mirissa. There is no need to change at Matara. The bus (Line #32) runs quite frequently (2 - 3 times per hour) from the Tangalle main bus stand and it should take around 1 - 2 hours.
Mirissa (2 nights)
And last but not least, Mirissa, the final stop of your epic trip in Sri Lanka. There are several cool things you can do in Mirissa from whale-watching to tracking down the stilt fisherman and getting a photo of this dying tradition.
There are many whale-watching tour operators in Mirissa but one that stood out the most was the Raja & the Whale. It is a bit more expensive than the others but the way they marketed themselves is certainly very noble.
For example, they will give you a free ride if you don't see a whale that day, or they don't chase the whales as most cruises do. They will be on the side instead so the whales don't feel threatened by our presence. Free breakfast, snacks and drinks throughout the 6 hours trip.
The guides were well-informed of how the whales behave and they would tell us when was the best time to get that perfect picture. I really enjoyed my time with them and I highly recommend you to support their cause.
It took me ages to find these stilt fishermen and it broke my heart to discover that most of them will only do it if you pay them.
That said, my friend was able to find a group of them a little bit north of Mirissa so if you take your time, you might be able to find a genuine stilt fisherman somewhere around Mirissa. The tuk-tuk driver usually knows where to find them so ask them if you have trouble finding one yourself.
There were also some nice spots on the beach near Mirissa like this rock or a giant swing roped to a coconut tree for you to jump in the ocean in style.
Getting from Mirissa to Colombo Airport: If you are wondering how you can get back to Colombo from Mirissa, don't worry. You can get a direct airport bus from Welligama, a city just north of Mirissa and you will be at the airport in time for your flight that same day. The trip should be around 6 hours through the new highway that connected Mirissa to the capital city.
And that is all for Mirissa and the 2 weeks itinerary in Sri Lanka. Have you been to Sri Lanka yet? What do you think about the itinerary? Let me know in the comments below.
Further Reading for South Asia
Looking for more information for your trip to South Asia? Here is a collection of articles about Myanmar that might help you with your trip planning:
- Pakistan is rich with culture, history and stunning landscape. It is after all the place where the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush, and the Karakoram mountain range meets. Here's the ultimate guide and one-month itinerary for backpacking in Pakistan.
- One of the best road trips you can do in the world is to traverse the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan that connects the country with China. Here's the ultimate guide to traveling the Karakoram Highway.
- Looking to do some trekking in Nepal? Check out my Complete Guide To Trekking Everest Base Camp Independently with 15 days itinerary.
- There are also some short treks in Nepal for you to do such as the Annapurna Base Camp. Here's a complete guide on how to hike the Annapurna Base Camp in 7 days solo.
- I have also written a bit about my trip to India. Here is the 2-part photo essays of my journey: Incredible India Part 1 and Incredible India Part 2.
- You can also watch my travel videos about South Asia here: Sri Lanka travel video, Nepal travel video and Pakistan travel video.
- Want to know where to go after Sri Lanka? How about exploring the Golden Triangle in India, do some trekking in Nepal or go off-the-beaten-path and backpack through Pakistan?
- For all articles about Sri Lanka, visit Sri Lanka Travel Guide page.
- You can see all my South Asia related articles on my South Asia Travel Guide page.
- For more of my travel guides like this, visit my Destinations page.
The Solo Traveler’s Journal is a series of posts by BucketListly where we will follow our founder, Pete Rojwongsuriya around the world as he singlehandedly travel alone and experience different cultures, people, and historical locations one country at a time.
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