Sri Lanka may look like a small drop in the ocean, but there's a lot to experience on this gem of an island! On this itinerary take in a mix of some of Sri Lanka's known and less-known highlights.
AsiaSri Lanka7 days / October 2017
Highs & Lows
The Knuckles Mountains are beautiful and without the crowds of Ella!
The best eco lodges will set you back a pretty penny - time to start saving!
Sri Lanka has always been a highlight of south Asia for me - it offers far more than you might think of a place that looks so small on the map. From great food, stunning landscapes, amazing train journeys and interesting history, Sri Lanka really does have something for all travellers. In recent years there's been a great increase in the number of eco-friendly lodges and resorts too, meaning it's never been easier to make your trip to Sri Lanka more sustainable.
In this itinerary, I'll share some of my favourite spots in central Sri Lanka with you, including Habarana (for Minneriya and Kaudulla), Kandy, the Knuckles Mountains Tea Estates, and Welligama, one of the best spots on the South Coast to catch some waves.
On day 1, take the early morning train from Colombo to Habarana (around 6 hours) to arrive in the heart of the 'Cultural Triangle' region and the perfect spot for your elephant safari in either Minneriya or Kaudulla National Park.
The attractions in this area are relatively close together (although you'll need to take rickshaws or taxis between them) and from your base you'll be able to cover both an elephant safari as well as a visit to Lion's rock at Sigiriya and the Dambulla Cave complex.
There are some beautiful eco lodges here in this area, and we highly recommend a stay at one of them, such as Kuwera eco lodge, which was constructed using only local materials, by local workers, and offers the chance to stay in what feels like a traditional Sri Lankan village (with a few extra creature comforts!). Located near Sigiriya, they also offer yoga retreats and classes.
On Day 2, head out on an elephant safari to either Minneriya or Kaudulla national parks. Minneriya is the largest national park in the area and is famous for its annual “gathering” – that is where hundreds of elephants and other wildlife migrate to the waterholes of the park during the region’s dry season that runs from June/July to September each year. Because of this phenomenon, visitors have flocked to Minneriya.
We visited Kaudulla for our jeep safari seeing as we were visiting in October – outside of the time of the “gathering”, and had a wonderful experience. Initially it was rainy and we drove for a few hours without seeing a single elephant. Eventually, we came upon a young male hiding underneath a tree, trying to stay dry! Then, as sunset began to approach, the skies cleared, the sun came out, and as we headed down to the lake we came across 20-40 elephants enjoying the sun and drinking away.
A note about seeing elephants in Sri Lanka - As tourism to Sri Lanka has increased, so have opportunities to get up close and personal with the country’s most famous mammal: the Elephant. Unfortunately places posing as “sanctuaries” or “orphanages” are usually catering to tourists who want photos rather than to the animals. Please stay clear of any interactive experiences with elephants (riding, bathing, selfie-posing etc) and opt to watch them in their natural habitat from a jeep at a respectful distance such as the ones at Kaudulla or Minneriya above.
On Day 3, get up early to climb Lion's Rock at Sigiriya before the heat of the sun makes it harder work! Sigiriya is an ancient rock fortress that is almost 200m high, towering over the plains and grasslands of the surrounding area. Listed as a UNESCO world heritage site, the area is rumoured to have been occupied by monks since prehistoric times. There are fantastic views from the top of Sigiriya rock, but it’s quite a climb up to reach it! We recommend going early in the morning while the sun is still (relatively) cool. There are some beautiful caves with paintings inside on the way up.
If you have energy left in the afternoon for more exploration, you can visit the Dambulla cave complex. The Dambulla Cave temple is another UNESCO world heritage site and is the largest and best-preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka. A couple of hours here also provides some respite from the midday sun as you explore the caves which have been well looked after.
Catch a bus or taxi from Dambulla to Kandy (about 2 hours).
Spend a day or two in Kandy exploring this city and its cultural gems. If you're less of a city person, you could spend 1 night in Kandy and move on to the Knuckles Mountains on day 2.
Kandy is Sri Lanka’s second city and is centred around its lake. Surrounded by mountains and tea country to the east, Kandy is home to important buddhist sites such as the Temple of the Sacred Tooth which is the number one visitor attraction. It’s also home to some tasty eating options for after your evening lake-side stroll!
Built in the 16th century, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth is best visited early in the morning before some of the crowds pour in – it’s a beautiful temple to wander for a couple of hours although please be warned that you won’t actually be able to see the Budha’s tooth (for VIPs only!)
For a view of Kandy from up above, climb the big buddha statue in the late afternoon for panoramic views of the city. If you’re in need of some tranquility, you could pay a visit to Kandy’s botanical gardens which are filled with exotic flowers.
If you love local, good and cheap food, we highly recommend No-Name Restaurant and the Kandyan Hotel.
Set a little away from Kandy itself, the Madulkelle Tea and Eco Lodge is a retreat in the Knuckles mountains that surround Kandy. Luxury glamping style bedded tents on wooden platforms have balconies that open up to panoramic views, there’s an infinity pool, and the resort also runs various community initiatives to provide welfare for its tea-pickers, workers and the local community so that they can benefit from tourism, too.
The Knuckles Mountain range is a short drive from Kandy (45 mins) and is a great option if you want to see tea estates but don't have time to make it to Ella, or you don't want to handle the crowds at Ella.
If Madulkelle happens to be full or is out of reach of your budget, we also recommend the beautiful Ashburnham Estate which is a boutique hotel with stunning views out over the mountains, great tea, and welcoming service.
Spend a day or two learning about tea growing, hiking in the hills or just relaxing with a book.
No trip to Sri Lanka would be complete without a few days on the beach, especially if you love surfing or yoga.
Head south to Sri Lanka's southern coastline from Kandy. There are no trains (unless you go back in and out of Colombo) so the easiest way to get here is by hiring a taxi, or you'll need to take a bus.
The south of Sri Lanka has seen rapid development over recent years as hotel chains have rushed to grab a slice of the Sri Lanka tourism boom pie. If you visit outside of high season (Dec – Mar) you should benefit from fewer crowds and better room availability / prices. The most popular beaches in southern Sri Lanka are Unawatuna, Mirissa and Tangalle, however they are also some of the country’s most crowded. Unawatuna has the benefit of being closer to pretty town of Galle, whereas Mirissa offers some of Asia’s best whale watching (Raja and the Whales offer responsible whale watching trips).
We fell in love with the small beaches in between Unawatuna and Matara which you could spend days exploring. For those looking to learn to surf in Sri lanka we loved the beach break in Welligama bay and highly recommend surf camp Soul & Surf who offer high-end surf camps and surfing lessons at international standards.
You may find yourself wanting to stay much longer than 2 nights!
Q & A
What would you have changed?If you don't like cities, then spend more time outside of Kandy and in the Knuckles mountains instead for fresher air.
Anything go wrong during the trip?Allow extra time for train and bus travel, as they can both get delayed!
Restaurant recommendations?Kandy is home to some great eateries for all budgets. No Name Restaurant and Kandyan Hotel were two of our favourites. Ashburnham Estate in the Knuckles Mountains does an amazing afternoon tea!
Tips you would give a friend?If you can, plan extra time to relax on the beaches afterwards
Packing tips?Women should pack a scarf or sarong to cover hair or shoulders when going into temples and for sun protection. Pack light if you plan to travel around by bus and train.
Transportation Tips?Trains are the best way to see Sri Lanka, but don't expect great suspension! Bring snacks and small-talk to connect with your fellow passengers.