Sri Lanka has been inhabited for thousands of years and has numerous historical sites. Think ancient kingdoms, ruins and temples. Places where history becomes almost tangible.
In addition, the country also has influences from the colonial past. The Netherlands, Portugal and Great Britain have left their mark on the country. You will see colonial buildings, especially in large cities, but you will also find traces of colonial forts and canals along the coast.
Sri Lanka is one of those countries where you don't go to sit under a palm tree on the beach. While it is wonderful to spend an afternoon at the beach, the country has much more to offer than that. People sometimes say that Sri Lanka is a perfect first introduction to Asia. Wild nature, history, culture and perhaps the sweetest people in the world: do you need more reasons to pack your bags?
Know before you go
How to get there
Sri Lanka is an island in the Indian Ocean, right below the tip of India. The island is about 200 kilometres wide and 400 kilometres long. There are five international airports: one in the north, east and south and two in the west, near the capital Colombo. For this trip, it is best to fly to Colombo.
Traffic in Sri Lanka is chaotic. Buses, tuk-tuks, cars and mopeds move around like a swarm of bees. Not all driver's licenses are valid in Sri Lanka. The best way to travel through Sri Lanka is by public transport or with a private driver.
You can easily get around the country with public transport and for no money, but it is quite an adventurous option. Buses are often full, there is often no air conditioning and sometimes you have to jump on or off the bus without the bus really standing still.
A car with a private driver is a bit more expensive, but you do have your own, comfortable car with someone behind the wheel who knows the traffic and the country very well. Most private drivers also know how to find the best spots in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka has a warm and humid climate that has two rainy seasons. The southwest of the island has a rainy season in May and June, and the northeast from October to December. That tropical climate ensures a lush green nature full of tropical birds, wild elephants, leopards and sea turtles. In the jungle and the temples live three different kinds of monkeys that look quite cute, but can be aggressive. Do not leave your belongings unattended, because the monkeys are always looking for food.
The population of Sri Lanka is mainly Sinhala and Tamil, with a small proportion of immigrants from around the world. The main religions are Buddhism and Hinduism, but there is also a Christian and Muslim community.
Besides Sinhala and Tamil, most people speak a little bit of corrupted English. Important cities and tourist attractions are usually indicated in English. Many shops and businesses carry names or slogans in English, with spelling not so strict as long as it is phonetically correct.
You pay in Sri Lanka with the Sri Lankan rupee. Life in Sri Lanka is very cheap by western standards. So you can get a long way with a few euros or dollars. You can pay with your card in many places, but depending on your bank and card, that may cost you transaction costs. Even when you withdraw money, you pay transaction costs, but if you withdraw enough money, those costs are relatively small.
You are not obliged to tip people, but tips are a welcome addition to the usually low wages. So keep some change in your pocket.
Travel through Sri Lanka at your own pace
The itinerary described in this article will take you from the west coast to the east coast and back in a week. You will visit some of the country's most important landmarks.
You can complete this route in a week, but you can also set aside more time for it. Sri Lanka is a beautiful country, you will always discover things you want to see and visit. By taking a little more time, you can discover the country at your own pace.
Day 1: Arrive in Negombo
You may have had a long flight, so it is best to take the first day to recover and get used to Sri Lanka. From the airport, you drive to Negombo, a city on the west coast, not far from Colombo. Negombo is a city with a mix of Sri Lankan architecture and colonial structures, such as the Old Dutch Canal that cuts right through Negombo. Visit the lively Main Fish Market, where fishermen advertise their catch and St. Mary's Church. Relax on the wide, golden beach and watch the sun slowly sink into the Indian Ocean.
Must see: especially when the sun is high in the sky, it is wonderful to relax at the Negombo Lagoon. Enjoy a refreshing breeze and watch the boats on the water.
Where to stay in Negombo
Budget - Sylvester Villa Hostel
Mid-range - Ayur Ayur Resort & Ayurveda Retreat
Luxury - Jetwing Blue
Luxury - Jetwing Beach
Day 2: Negombo to Dambulla
The city of Dambulla is located in the interior of Sri Lanka. The country is relatively flat with some mountains and rocks. In one of those rocky outcrops, 160 meters above the plains, you will find the Dambulla Cave Temples: a temple with more than 150 brightly painted Buddha images, the oldest of which is over 2000 years old. There are two entrances to visit the cave temple. For both, you have to climb a few stairs and you have a great view of the surroundings.
Must see: Just north of the Dambulla Cave Temples is the Minneriya National Park: a vast nature reserve where several herds of wild elephants live. With safari vehicles, you can enter the park to see the elephants. Because the elephants live there in the wild, you also have a chance that you just see one trudging on the street.
Route: it is about 130 kilometres drive between Negombo and Dambulla. That will take you 2 to 3 hours.
Where to stay in Dambulla
Budget - New Dambulla City Hostel
Mid-range - Dambulla Hills Resort
Luxury - Jetwing Lake
Day 3: Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa to Passikudah
Sri Lanka is dotted with the remnants of kingdoms, of palaces and gardens that must have once been green and lush. Sigiriya is one of those lost kingdoms. The rocky mountain, which is 180 meters high, towers high above the flat land. On and around the rock, nicknamed Lion's Rock, are the ruins of a 5th-century royal citadel. Especially the gardens with ponds full of water lilies are still beautiful. Just like the view.
A bit to the east are the ruins of Polonnaruwa, another lost kingdom dating back to the 11th century. Be sure to visit the ruins of the royal palace, which is said to have had a thousand rooms, and the associated ponds that could only be used by the royal family. Also take your time to explore the many temples, some of which are still in use. Don't forget to take off your shoes: even ruins of temples can be visited barefoot out of respect.
Must see: Pasikudah, a small fishing village on the east coast, is known for its turquoise coastal waters for snorkelling and for its white-sand beaches. Get up early to watch the fishermen arrive after a night of sea fishing.
Route: It is approximately 130 kilometres drive between Dambulla and Pasikudah. That will take you 2 to 3 hours.
Where to stay in Pasikudah
Budget - Inn on the Bay
Mid-range - Amanda Beach Resort
Luxury - Maalu Maalu Resort & Spa
Day 4: Pasikudah to Kandy
Back inland, the city of Kandy is surrounded by green, misty hills. The city is one of the largest in Sri Lanka. Because the city is at an altitude of more than 400 meters, it is a bit cooler than in the lower areas. The streets are always pleasantly busy and you will often find stalls with fruit and juices. Near the temples, peddlers sell countless colourful flowers that you can place on the statues of Buddha.
In the suburb of Peradeniya, you will find the Royal Botanical Garden from the 14th century, where more than 4000 species of plants grow. The garden, which is almost completely surrounded by the river Mahaweli, is a green oasis in the city. A place to catch your breath. Be sure to look up when you walk between the trees because during the day there are thousands of bats sleeping on the branches.
Must see: The heart of Kandy is the Temple of the Tooth, one of the most important places in Buddhism. In this temple, Buddha's tooth is kept and worshipped. You can visit the temple, you can feel the unimaginable silence of the building. Often monks in orange robes pray in the temple and people offer lotuses and other flowers there.
Route: It is about 200 kilometres drive between Passikudah and Kandy. That will take you 4 to 5 hours.
Where to stay in Kandy
Budget - Kandy City Hostel 76
Mid-range - The Theva Residency
Luxury - Fox Kandy by Fox Resorts
Day 5: from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya
Just outside Kandy, in the town of Gampola, the spiral-shaped Ambuluwawa tower stands on a high mountain. The tower is part of a temple. Looks like it came straight out of a fairytale. You can walk up the mountain yourself or you can take a tuk-tuk to the entrance of Ambuluwawa. Of course, you have to climb the tower yourself. The spiral staircase on the outside is so narrow in places that you have to walk sideways. When people come in the other direction, you have to improvise.
It is a few hours drive from Gampola to Nuwara Eliya, but the route is the most beautiful of this itinerary. You drive on winding roads through the green, damp tea plantations in the mountains, past large colonial mansions and small villages, until you reach Nuwara Eliya. The mountain town is not that big, but it is attractive. Often there is a heavy downpour and when the rain stops, the mountains vaporize and fog hangs between the peaks.
Must see: Ceylon tea is famous and sold worldwide. You can visit most tea plantations. After a look at the plantation and the factory halls where the tea is dried and processed, you can taste the tea yourself.
Route: It is about 80 kilometres drive between Kandy and Nuwara Eliya. That will take you 2 to 3 hours.
Where to stay in Nuwara Eliya
Budget - Leisure Nest Hostel
Mid-range - Kent Cottage
Luxury - Jetwing St Andrew's
Day 6: from Nuwara Eliya to Colombo
Enjoy the tea-clad mountains of Nuwara Eliya one last time before heading back to Colombo, as busy Colombo is a very different experience. The city on the west coast is a noisy mix of west and east, of modern apartment blocks and traditional temples. Visit the floating market, where you walk on boardwalks between the stalls (recommended during hot days) and the Gangaramaya Temple, where monks sing between colourful statues and bless you with bracelets. Those who like modern architecture can visit the Lotus Tower, a hypermodern tower in the shape of a closed lotus. If you climb to the top, you have a beautiful view of the city.
Although Colombo is full of sights, it is also advisable to wander through the centre for a while. Colombo is primarily the home city of over half a million people. In the narrow streets, you will find shops and stalls where you can buy souvenirs or fresh fruit or even the famous cinnamon grown in Sri Lanka. Colonial buildings stand side by side with modern office buildings and between them, you will find temples and mosques, such as the beautiful red and white striped Jami Ul-Alfar Masjid Mosque.
Must see: instead of driving to Colombo, you can take the seaplane from Nuwara Eliya to the capital with Cinnamon Air. Along the way, you will be treated to beautiful views of the mountains and tea plantations.
Route: It is about 170 kilometres drive from Nuwara Eliya to Colombo. That will take you 5 to 6 hours.
Where to stay in Colombo
Budget - Wish residence
Mid-range - Lavonca Boutique Hotel
Luxury - Galle Face Hotel
Pack your bags!
Do you want to visit Sri Lanka? Beautiful! With this itinerary, you have everything you need to visit the country for the first time. Of course, you can easily adapt this route to your needs and wishes. For example, if you want to stay longer in Sri Lanka, you can easily extend your trip by booking more nights or by adding a few days to the beach. You have earned it after such a tour.