So you’re planning an itinerary for Sri Lanka? That almost feels self-defeating. Both a part of South Asia and an island paradise, time has a certain way of taking its own flow here—locals lovingly refer to it as ‘Sri Lanka Time’.

But perhaps you’re visiting Sri Lanka for a quick-blast holiday? Or maybe you just want to explore it fully before you kick off to the next grand destination? Either way, it’s good to know exactly where to go in Sri Lanka before you arrive.

Though not as big or as difficult to travel as its bigger brothers further up the subcontinent, you’re still looking at slow transit times and unpredictable occurrences of deeply-structured chaos. That’s why it’s important to be clued in on the ins-and-outs of executing a Sri Lanka itinerary seamlessly.

And that’s exactly why I present to thee a seamless itinerary for Sri Lanka… Two in fact!

Using these travel routes for Sri Lanka (as marked by the varying monsoon seasons), you’re going to see a lot of the country! All the best parts in fact, plus some sneaky bonus stops you’re probably not going to find out about anywhere else. I’ll be covering the coolest destinations in Sri Lanka, what to do there, and, of course, the best and brightest places to stay.

In one seamless guide.

The boys playing Carom at my favourite place to stay in Sri Lanka
A perfect shot.

The Best Time to Visit Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is an all-year-round destination… in that it’s always raining and always sunny simultaneously somewhere on the island. The pesky alternating monsoon seasons make planning a trip to Sri Lanka a wee bit more complicated. In that sense, Sri Lanka is also a year-round monsoon destination!

  • Northeast “Maha” Monsoon (December to February): Over the Christmas holiday period, the north and east take a refreshing shower, Arugam Bay all but shuts down, and the south coast of Sri Lanka is in full tourist swing.
  • Inter-Season “Dryboi” Monsoon #1 (March-April): You’ll catch some rains in the southwest quadrant of the island during this period while everywhere else stays mostly dry.
  • Southwest “Yala” Monsoon (May-September): This is when Sri Lanka’s south and west coast highlights really start to get soaked. The Yala monsoon period is easily when to go to Sri Lanka’s east coast—spending a surf season “stuck” in Arugam Bay in particular.
  • Inter-Season “Sadboi” Monsoon #2 (October-November): It kinda just rains everywhere during this period… a lot. Have fun with that!

Right, so that may look way too complicated, but it’s not so bad. Except for when it really pours, the rains in Sri Lanka are pretty typical Asian-style monsoons: they rarely hang around for more than a couple of hours max. You can still expect frequent catchups with Mr Blue Sky even during the rains.

Realistically, the best time to visit Sri Lanka depends on where you want to go. Keep in mind the rough timing of seasons (and my even rougher attempt to break them down), and you’ll find that crafting a primarily dry itinerary for touring Sri Lanka will be easy. Just avoid the ‘Sadboi’ season; that shit sucks.

Weather in Sri Lanka

Monsoons aside, the climate in Sri Lanka is a much more straightforward ordeal. Expect serious thigh chafing conditions—hot and humid. Sometimes it may be just hot, and sometimes it may just be humid, but it’s probably always going to be at least one of the two.

Stormy weather in Sri Lanka's Knuckles Mountain Range
Mmm, there’s nothing like being soaked in the rain yet STILL sweating. | Source: @themanwiththetinyguitar

The exception is in the hill country (central highlands). Up here, things cool off considerably and even get properly cold in the right places. I’d actually go so far as to say it’s my sweet spot; blissful sunny mornings cooled off by drizzles of afternoon mist leading into a full night’s rest snuggled betwixt the blankets.

Check out the table below for some average temperatures in Sri Lanka. I’ve chosen Colombo (Sri Lanka’s west coast capital) and Nuwara Eliya (the balmy capital of the mountainous tea country) to contrast the two distinct climates.

MonthAverage Temperature (Colombo)Average Temperature (Nuwara Eliya)Raining...
January27°C/81°F0°C/32°FEast and north (medium-heavy)
February27°C/81°F1°C/34°FEast and north (medium-heavy)
March28°C/82°F6°C/43°FSouthwest (medium)
April29°C/84°F9°C/48°FSouthwest (medium)
May29°C/84°F14°C/57°FSouthwest (heavy)
June28°C/82°F16°C/61°FSouthwest (heavy)
July28°C/82°F19°C/66°FSouthwest (heavy)
August28°C/82°F19°C/66°FSouthwest (heavy)
September28°C/82°F16°C/61°FSouthwest (heavy)
October27°C/81°F11°C/52°FEverywhere (medium-heavy)
November27°C/81°F5°C/41°FEverywhere (medium-heavy)
December27°C/81°F1°C/34°FEast and north (medium-heavy)

2-Week Sri Lanka Itinerary: The South In-Season

So, before we start the 14-day Sri Lanka itinerary extravaganza, I wanna talk about arrival and Day 0. For any and all backpacking routes in Sri Lanka, you’ll be landing at Sri Lanka’s international airport—Bandaranaike—which is near Colombo but not in Colombo. This is a blessing in disguise.

Colombo is beautiful on the inside… probably. It’s hard to tell because it’s so ugly on the outside. I spent a week here: the only redeemable thing I found was UberEats so I could just stay in my hostel in Colombo.

Instead, I present to you… Negombo!

Dutch canal in Negombo - an alternative place to stay to Colombo, Sri Lanka
Smell that? That’s the distinct lack of garbage and sewage overflow. | Source: emzet70 (Shutterstock)

Negombo is a fine alternative to staying in Colombo’s gridlocked mayhem. It even sounds similar!

Negombo is a whole lot more chill, the beaches are nicer, and it’s closer to the airport. Maybe I sound like a vacuum salesman pitching the newest model, but suck it up, princess! Any and all times you can skip Colombo, do it.

Colombo is yesterday’s soggy street roti disappointing my mouth.

Where to Stay in Negombo: YoYo Beach Hostel

Where to Stay in Negombo: YoYo Beach Hostel

There are actually two YoYo sister hostels in Negombo—this one and the airport hostel. The YoYo Beach Hostel is aimed more at a party vibe; you can expect to crack open the arrack by night and sleep off the migraine on the beach by day.

The YoYo Airport Hostel (which is closer to the airport than the beach) is more setup for one-night stayovers when flying in and out of Sri Lanka. You'll get quiet vibes and a soundproof room with the option to transfer to the Beach Hostel if you wanna partake in family dinner. Truth be told, they're both pretty mint places to stay, and you can't really go wrong with either!

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Sri Lanka in Two Weeks: The Breakdown

Map of Sri Lanka 2-Week Itinerary

[su_row][su_column size="1/2" center="no" class=“"]1. Bandaranaike International Airport
2. Negombo
3. Sigiriya
4. Kandy[/su_column][su_column size="1/2" center="no" class=""] 5. Ella
6. Yala National Park
7. Mirissa (South Coast Beaches)
8. Galle Fort[/su_row]
December to January is the peak; March and April is a comfortable shoulder season.
  1.  Looking at Sigiriya Rock
  2. The train ride to Ella
  3. The hill country

Stop 1: Sigiriya (Days 1-3)

Lion's Rock and Sigiriya Fortress - a must-see in Sri Lanka in 14 days
Have my babies. | Source: Madrugada Verde (Shutterstock)

Next up is Sigiriya. You’d be hard-pressed to find a single suggested itinerary for Sri Lanka that didn’t include the majestic wonder of Sigiriya: the ancient rock fortress.

Set in the central, dry, and hot lowlands region, Sigiriya sits inside the Cultural Triangle area (which I’ll cover more in the ‘3-Week Sri Lanka Itinerary’). Beneath the hulking behemoth of Lion’s Rock (AKA Sigiriya), is a relatively sleepy and tourist-lite village (comparatively to Sri Lanka’s other famous places to visit). I actually really dig the town; tourists float in, but it’s not overdone. Plus there are some endearing strange ones kicking around town.

The rock fortress of Sigiriya is the main draw to this area (not to mention one of the most famous tourist attractions in Sri Lanka).  If you're only in Sri Lanka for 14 days, it's a must-see thing. Powerful yet humbling, the supposed tomb of the God-King Ravana himself, it's also mega-touristic and a tough price to swallow for those travelling Sri Lanka on a budget.

There are, however, other options...

You can potentially find a direct bus, but the train runs from either of the ‘-ombos’ to nearby Habarana. It’s an easy bus ride or tuk-tuk to Sigiriya from there.
The choice is as follows:

  1. Pay $25, climb Lion's Rock with a horde of tourists and locals (it's a very sacred site), and experience the admittedly very impressive ancient fortress and UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  2. Or... climb the nearby Pidurangala rock for about $3 with a smaller swarm of tourists and locals, and watch the sunset (or sunrise) set the hues of Sigiriya ablaze.

Ultimately, the choice is yours, however, I do recommend the latter. And at sunset. Alternatively, just do both!

  • Shenadi Restaurant - Yummy local food at cheap pricesit's just that simple.
  • Rastarant Sigiriya - The juices are bangin' and the slackline's a' hangin'!

Where to Stay in Sigiriya: Jungle Vista

Where to Stay in Sigiriya: Jungle VistaWhen I rolled in here, I almost leapt for joy. From the slackline and makeshift exercise area to the outdoor dorm beds (mosquito nets included) and the feeling of being tucked away hiding in the secrets of the jungle, it really is such a cool place to stay in Sri Lanka.

The family who runs the hostel are also mega-lovely, can easily organise safaris and tours, and cook up a mean Sri Lankan feed every night. It's a bit out of Sigiriya town (about 10 km) but absolutely worth the tuk-tuk fare (the family can organise you transport anyway).

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Stop 2: Kandy (Days 3-5)

Kandy City Centre - an overlooked destination on a Sri Lanka backpacking itinerary
C'mon, Kandy is kinda dope. | Source: @themanwiththetinyguitar

Ok, ok, Kandy… most tourists I meet travelling Sri Lanka are pretty unenthused by Kandy. I can’t necessarily blame them. It’s, admittedly, a bit like chewing bubble gum—fun for a brief period, but the magic quickly wears off.

Yet, still, I like Blandy. It’s a normal but pretty city where normal people do normal boring things. There’s a mall with an ice-cream parlour, a lake for moonlit romantic strolls, and heaps of cheap food around.

If you’re a backpacker, Kandy is similar to Colombo (albeit way more chill and lacking in a proper nightlife); there’s not much reason to go there except to start the unbelievable train journey to Ella. If you’re visiting Sri Lanka for the first time, or on a whirlwind 5 to 7-day itinerary, you can just book a hostel in Kandy, stay a night, rest up, and catch the train right on out the following morning.

Unless you're lucky enough to score a direct bus, chances are it will be one bus to Dambulla (30 mins approx.) followed by another bus to Kandy (hopefully < 3 hours).
Honestly, I scoped a few attractions out, and it really is the kind of city where you’re better off just wandering and seeing what secrets you find. That said…

  • Temple of the Tooth - Easily the most famous thing to see in Kandy, this temple holds a very sacred artefact: the alleged tooth of Lord Buddha himself. Personally, I’d say it’s not really worth the price of entry since you don’t even get to see the tooth, but it’s a mention for the temple-nutters.
  • To the Batcave - This is something special. I’m not sure if it’s seasonal (I visited Kandy in September) but at twilight, the sky fills with a myriad of bats—truly innumerable. Find a high spot in the hills, roll up, and enjoy the show.
  • Licenced to Grill - Delicious puns aside, you get wraps and burgers at mean prices with chips that are really more like wedges (which makes them better).

Where to Stay in Kandy: Hipsters Hideout Lounge

Where to Stay in Kandy: Hipsters Hideout Lounge

You know when something is not particularly special, but it just kinda appeals to you. That's how I feel about Hipster's Hideout Lounge.

It's cheap and the walls have got some cool art going on, but it was also pretty quiet every time I visited Kandy. The dorms are basic too—no lockers. That said, I like the vibes, and it's always my go-to place every time I stay in Kandy.

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Inter-Stops: The Kandy to Ella Train

This is why you have to at least pass through Kandy: the train to Ella. The Kandy to Ella train is a must-do thing on any and all Sri Lanka itineraries. It’s not a journey to be missed.

Chances are you’ve already heard of the train ride from Kandy to Ella. If not, you’ve at least seen pictures, even if you don’t know it. Winding train tracks elegantly slice paths through the jungles, tea plantations, and misty slopes of the hill country. It's one of those types of train journeys where you get to do this:

Hanging out the Kandy to Ella train - a must-do when visiting Sri Lanka for the first time
Just like this. | Source: @themanwiththetinyguitar

You don’t have to actually board the train at Kandy. There are stops before and after, and you can even board the train at Colombo. That is a bloody long ride though.

Kandy is about the right distance to Ella (roughly an 8-hour train ride plus the margin-of-error for the Asia effect), and there are a few extra spots you can stop along the way in Sri Lanka’s hill country if you can smush it all into your travel itinerary route. Since we're already smushing a lot in, I'll cover the extra places to go in the 3-week itinerary: check the hill country section.

Stop 3: Ella (Days 5-8)

A man who forgot his itinerary for Sri Lanka in an Ella hostel
Itinerary...? What itinerary? | Source: @themanwiththetinyguitar

Man, cutting only 4-days from your Sri Lanka itinerary for Ella hardly even seems like enough! Ella is easily my favourite place to go in Sri Lanka: I collectively spent around 2 months there staying it what used to be one of the best hostels in Sri Lanka (R.I.P. and bless).

I wouldn’t suggest staying in Ella town itself. There’s some good food in town, and some souvenir/Goa-lite shopping, but, otherwise, it’s an over-capacity tourist bubble. The real draw of Ella is everything around the bubble.

Smack-bang right in the middle of the emerald sea of the hill country, Ella is surrounded by gorgeous tea plantations, stunning valley panoramas, and plenty of aimless wandering opportunities. If you’re not staying outside town in the fairytale fields of cloud forests and shifting mists, you’re missing out.

From Kandy, I'm only going to tell you to catch the train every time.
  • Little Adam's Peak - An easy walk with a grand payoff. For people that like eating the cake but don't wanna bake it.
  • Ella Rock - A more challenging and dynamic hike with, arguably, less viewing payoff. There are heaps of backtracks here making it a fave for anyone that likes exploring. For those that like baking the cake but don't want to eat it because the calories will ruin their trim walking figure.
  • Nine Arches Bridge - It's a pretty bridge that the trains runs across with people selling drinking coconuts nearby. I don't really get it, but it's mega-touristy and a super popular attraction in Sri Lanka, so I thought I'd be remiss not to mention it.
In Ella itself:

  • Matey Hut - There are some blessed dank eateries in town (shoutout to the nameless roti shop on the south edge of town), however,  Matey Hut serves up high-quality Sri Lankan cuisine in a tourist restaurant setting.
  • Cafe Chill - It's not really my jam—a proper tourist joint through and through. The prices are high, the food top-notch, and the music is usually on-point too! Along with Cafe One Love, it's one of the two main watering holes in town.
  • MozarElla - No matter where you go in the world, you will always find three things: pigeons, pizza, and Australians.

Where to Stay in Ella: Ella Escapade Hostel by Nomadic

Where to Stay in Ella: Ella Escapade Hostel by Nomadic

As I said, it's better to stay outside of Ella, and this is a sweet spot. Getting into town itself will take some forethought, however, in the surrounding area of the property, there is heaps to explore.

You've also got free breakfast here saving you the trek into town (although walking the train tracks into town is always a blast). Ella Rock is also super close and easy to access. Once you get to Ella town itself and feel how touristy and packed it is, you'll be glad you booked this peaceful place outta town in the mountains.

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Stop 4: Yala National Park (Days 8-10)

Sightseeing Sri Lanka's wildlife from a safari in Yala National Park
"Tourists..." | Source: Saranga (Shutterstock)

We’re heading south towards the beach, but first, stop 4 and a disclaimer! Listen, there are three things nearly all backpackers travelling Sri Lanka will do:

  1. Go surfing
  2. Go on a safari
  3. Get an elephant tattoo (probably shortly after the safari)

On point two, Yala is arguably the best place to visit in Sri Lanka in your 14 days of adventuring for a safari; it’s Sri Lanka’s biggest national park. Personally, though, I wouldn’t recommend it.

The animal tourism in Sri Lanka has a less than sterling reputation. Even on my own personal backpacking trip to Sri Lanka, I saw multiple instances of animal abuse both inside and outside the tourism industry.

Many safaris in Sri Lanka are not at all in line with responsible and ethical wildlife tourism, and nearly all are contributing to the greater issue. In Yala alone, safaris are overbooked, traffic is frequent, drivers are reckless and endanger the wildlife, and wild animals are (and have been) killed as a result.

Chances are, if you’re planning a trip to Sri Lanka, you’re already considering booking a safari. Ultimately, you do you. Just consider this the counter-perspective.

Unles you want to organise a driver or shared tourist taxi (which is easy from Ella), you'll need to catch the bus. There are a few options for where you can go close to the national park, but Ella to Kataragama is a standard route and base for exploration.
A safari or not—s’up to you. Fair warning though, you’re not really permitted to explore the national park at your own duress like other places in the world. I'd really just suggest outright skipping Yala and the moral bankruptcy to go just soak up the beach for longer.

Where to Stay in Yala: Leopard Trails

Where to Stay in Yala: Leopard TrailsIt's a luxury glamping experience inside Yala National Park proper. I'm presuming that if you ignore everything I just forewarned about the safaris in Yala, then you're probably not too concerned about staying somewhere kitschy and questionable.

When I say luxury, I do really mean luxury: it's an expensive, high-end tent accommodation with all the trimmings of a modern-day resort. And, of course, they'll set you up for all your safari shenanigans.

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An Ethically-Sound Alternative to a Sri Lankan Safari: Millennium Elephant Foundation

Millennium Elephant Foundation - best place to go in Sri Lanka to see elephants
A little bit of magic. | Source: @millennium.elephant.foundation

That's right - you can get up-close-and-personal with some of the most majestic beasts in Sri Lanka and not even feel a drop of moral anxiety about it! Millennium Elephant Foundation is ethical elephant tourism, and they're so damn upstanding and squeaky clean that even the boss-man Mr Hatton is willing to get behind them.

These guys don't even let you ride the elephants. They used to let you ride them bareback, but now they've exchanged that program for their much more whimsical and respectable Elephant Walk Experience. It's kinda like a first date: you get to hang out, go for a romantic stroll with your partner elephant, and even help them bathe at the end if you're lucky. 😉

Was the first date divine? Then it's time to commit because the Elephant Foundation accepts volunteers too! Not only will you get to hang out, care for, and bathe with the lovelies, but you'll help out around the property too with farming, veterinary work, and teaching!

Honestly, there's zero reason not to drop the cash you were going to spend on booking a safari on this instead. It's 1000 times more of an authentic experience, 1000 times less morally reprehensible, and 100,000 times better than sitting in a jeep staring slackjawed at wild animals that really just wish you'd piss off...

CHECK THEM OUT, AND GET INVOLVED!

Stop 5: South Beaches (Days 10-13)

And it’s time for the beach! We’ve spent nearly 14 days in Sri Lanka already, and we still haven’t hit the beach—shameful.

Photographing the famous stilt fishermen while on a south Sri Lanka itinerary tour
"Psst, Shanna-boy... got any ciggies?" "Stfu, Gayan." | Source: SamanWeeratunga (Shutterstock)

Instead of sending you along Sri Lanka’s south coast, however, I’m going to lay out the beach destinations here for you (southeast to southwest direction) and who they’re good for:

Where...For...Vibe...
Tangalle-Big beaches
-Sunsets
-Chills
On the southeastern side, Tangalle presents much less touristic beaches with much wider and more open spaces but not much swell.
Hiriketiya-Surfing
-Yoga
-Smoothie bowls
Though starting as something of a sleepy secret, it’s taken off as a digital nomad/smoothie bowl/mason jar destination jar over the last few years. There’ also good surf in Hiriketiya—particularly some powerful left-handers for more veteran carvers.
Mirissa-Surfing
-Yoga
-Backpacker Vibes
Backpacker hub of the south coast. If it’s your first time in Sri Lanka surfing, then it’s a good place to go for beginner waves and everything else that comes with a backpacker beach town.
Weligama/Midigama-Surfing
-Semi-local
-Stilt fishermen!
Somewhat backpacker-y and somewhat local-y, the surf at these two south Sri Lanka beach towns is good for both beginners and intermediates. You’ll also probably catch a glimpse of the famous stilt fishermen of Sri Lanka here!
Unawatuna/Hikkaduwa-Surfing
-Snorkelling and diving
-Nightlife (in Hikkaduwa)
The family holiday area of Sri Lanka’s south coast (and now essentially an overseas Russian territory). The surf is tight though crowded, and there are plenty of activities, resorts, and beachfront developments. Unawatuna is a lot more low-key than Hikkaduwa, however.
You'll find a bus from Kataragama no sweat. Once you're on the south coast, the train runs from Colombo as far east as Matara (between Mirissa and Tangalle), and the buses run straight along the coast from town to town. Getting around Sri Lanka’s south coast is super easy!
Pretty much anything associated with beaches and tourists:

  • Surfing
  • Yoga
  • Diving/Snorkelling
  • Kayaking
  • Drugs, backpackers, and parties

Where to Stay in Sri Lanka's South (Mirissa): Colours Hostels

Where to Stay in Sri Lanka's South (Mirissa): Colours Hostels

A good atmosphere and a pumping little piece of backpacker accommodation in Sri Lanka's south. To be fair, there are heaps of cool areas stay (just see above), but Mirissa is pretty central, close to lots of good beaches, and has a neato tourist-friendly scene going on.

Good people generally float in, the family feeling is high, and breakfast is a killer. Expect good vibes.

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Galle and the Fort (Days 13-14)

Woman posing for photos of Sri Lanka in Galle Fort on a honeymoon holiday
...Sri Lanka? | Source: Aleksandr and Lidia (Shutterstock)

Galle Fort—so pretty yet so strange. It is the perfect spot, however, to round off your southern Sri Lanka tour. Inside the fort proper—Galle’s main tourist hub—there’s an almost timeless bubble quality (even if the tuk-tuk bois are too thirsty); it's easy to decompress here before heading back towards the madness of Colombo (or, ideally, straight to the airport).

Galle is an oddball. Outside the fort in Galle city things make sense in that they make no sense: the typical South Asia craziness ensues. It’s a Sri Lankan city through and through.

Once you step inside the fort though, the game changes—rice and curry goes out the bathroom window and barista coffee and cake come right on in. It’s like a little slice of Europe in Sri Lanka (right down to the narrow alleyways lined with Volkswagens and Portuguese/Dutch-era colonial architecture).

Personally, I’m not a big fan of staying in Galle Fort. The lack of street food and vendors peddling single cigarettes feels too inauthentic. But if you’re wondering where to stay in Sri Lanka for 2-3 days after a whirlwind highlight itinerary route, it’s a very beautiful place to tie it all up with some fine-dining and a romantic moonlit stroll.

Both the main bus station and the train station are situated right out front of the fort—easy peasy!
Depending on your style of travel, you'll either find heaps to do or not much:

  • Shopping - And heaps of it! Tea, spices, souvenirs, art, gems (watch for scams) are all on ample display.
  • Dining - Much like shopping, there are heaps of restaurants functioning more on a Western schema.
  • Early morning/late night strolls - Galle is easily prettiest when the tuk-tuk mafioso and touts are sleeping off a hard day's harassing. And, honestly, it's kinda charmingly quaint.
  • Galle Lighthouse - I just think it's super pretty.
  • Abacate - I simply CANNOT recommend this place enough. Genuinely authentic food inside the fort coming in at a fair price (which is also unheard of in the fort). I know the cook and his family personally, and there isn't a single person in Sri Lanka I would rather send me into a blissful kottu-induced food coma on the whole damn island.
  • Street eats - For street food and hole-in-the-walls, you'll have to leave the fort. Once you cross the big intersection back to the city main, you'll find the good stuff again.

Where to Stay in Galle Fort: Fort Sky House

Where to Stay in Galle Fort: Fort Sky House

Well, Galle Fort is super upper-class and when in Rome... rent a swanky apartment with an open-air kitchenette/lounge bar terrace! The whole apartment is most definitely continuing that whole Sri Lanka meets European village neighbourhood feel.

It's in a sweet location in the fort—conveniently located but still in a private spot—with a very gracious host. Honestly, you're about to leave Sri Lanka, so why not pimp out and just treat yo'self for the remaining nights!

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Getting Home: After Galle, getting to the airport is pretty simple. One option is to ride the train to Colombo and make your way from there, however, you'll also find buses that go direct from Galle's main bus station to the airport. Just ask around, and you'll be fine.

The Best Travel Backpack?!

Pssssst! Not picked the perfect travel backpack yet? The Broke Backpacker team has tried out over thirty backpacks this year! Our favourite carry on backpack is the Nomatic Travel Backpack.

Check out this post to read our full review!

3-Week Sri Lanka Itinerary: Culture Hotspots and Backpacker Sticky Places

Okely-dokely, you’ve got an extra week, and the rains are pissing down in the south. There are a few crossovers between this suggested Sri Lanka itinerary and the last, however, I’ll elaborate further on a few areas. Besides, Sigiriya, Ella, and the train are absolutely necessary things to do in Sri Lanka even in just seven days.

I’ve given you a few extra bonus stops too, but mostly I’ve bumped this up to a 3-week itinerary for Sri Lanka to give you extra time to spend in Arugam Bay. Arugam Bay is one of those places that people get stuck.

Sri Lanka in 3 Weeks: The Breakdown

Map of Sri Lanka 2-Week Itinerary

[su_row][su_column size="1/2" center="no" class=“"]1. Bandaranaike International Airport
2. Negombo
3. Sigiriya
4. Polonnaruwa
5. Anuradhapura
6. Wilpattu National Park
7. Jaffna[/su_column][su_column size="1/2" center="no" class=""]
8. Trincomalee
9. Arugam Bay
10. Ella
11. Nuwara Eliya
12. Adam's Peak (Sri Pada)
13. Kandy
14. Meemure Village[/su_row]
March through to September with the summer months being the busiest.
  1. Mad munchies in Arugam Bay
  2. Still the hill country
  3. An adventure to Meemure

Stop 1: Sigiriya and the Cultural Highlights (Days 1-4)

Well, we already talked about Sigiriya, so instead, I’m mentioning a few other notable places to travel to in Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle. I still recommend staying in Sigiriya and soaking that yumminess up though (potentially with some side-adventures to explore the local landscapes).

Polonnaruwa ruins and monkeys - a major historical site in Sri Lanka to visit
Feeling cheeky. | Source: Nuwan Liyanage (Shutterstock)

But, since you’re spending a few more days touring Sri Lanka, there are a few extra bonus day trips from Sigiriya you could consider:

  • Polonnaruwa - The ancient city of kings. It’s a $25 entrance fee, but, honestly, if you were considering dropping that on Sigiriya Fortress, just visit Polonnaruwa instead. Think of Polonnaruwa as a historical theme park.
    Once, 800 years ago, it was a thriving city, a hub of culture and commerce, and the seat of power for one of Sri Lanka’s ancient kingdoms. Now it’s a playground for lovers of archaeology, history, and ruins. It’s a large space—you’ll need to hire a tuk-tuk driver or a bike to explore it—but if you’re a sucker for old-world goodness, it’s worth the trip.
  • Dambulla cave temple - It could be worth the trip if you’re really into temples. Dambulla town itself is a waste, but the cave interior temple (another extremely sacred site in Sri Lanka) is very impressive. It’s also extremely commercialised and carries that whole “God is dead” feeling… so… up to you!
  • Jathika Namal Uyana (Rose Quartz Mountain) - Dude, I missed checking this out, and I hate myself so much for that. It’s exactly what it purports to be: five bucks and you’ll be standing on a mountain of pink rose quartz. Don’t be like me—go.

Where to Stay in Sigirya (again): Nethmini Leege Cottage

Where to Stay in Sigirya (again): Nethmini Leege Cottage

It's another place to stay in Sigiriya and a damn cool bit of accommodation in Sri Lanka—a treehouse! Nestled in the jungle, you'll be surrounded by the gorgeous nature of Sri Lanka's lowlands.

It's very close to Sigiriya town and walking to Lion's Rock is even an option. It's still a homestay, however (treehouse or not), so expect some damn good home cooking! A mum-cooked meal when you're so far away from home is always a blessing.

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Stop 2: Anuradhapura (Days 4-6)

Anuradhapura temple lit up - a beautiful cultural attraction in Sri Lanka
The higher your electricity bill, the more Buddha-points you win. | Source: SamanWeeratunga (Shutterstock)

If you’re feeling the temple/history burnout, you can leave Anuradhapura off your itinerary in Sri Lanka. There’s not much else to see there except more of Sri Lanka’s historical attractions.

Well, that’s a lie—there is one thing that’s pretty dope: Sri Maha Bohdi. Thought to be the oldest-living human-planted tree in the world, the tree started as a cutting from the original tree that Lord Buddha gained enlightenment beneath. Planted as a sapling by one of the kings of old, now it’s an incredibly revered place to visit in Sri Lanka.

Past that, you’re looking at a similar concept to exploring Polonnaruwa, albeit slightly different in the execution. Another archaeological park with a $25 entrance fee and another archaic kingdom, however, this time it’s the cradle of Buddhism in ancient (Sinhala) Sri Lankan civilisation.

Enormous towering dagobas (brick stupas) and sprawling monastic complexes fill the area. Much like Polonnaruwa, it’ll be a matter of renting a bike or tuk-tuk driver to explore Anuradhapura to its fullest.

From Sigiriya, your options are:

  1. To travel to Dambulla and catch the direct bus from there.
  2. Or you should, theoretically, be able to catch a train from Habarana (or any other station) to Anuradhapura (since the train runs through it). I can't properly confirm this through my sources, however.
  • Abhayagiri Vihara - One of the major monasteries in Anuradhapura and the biggest in Sri Lanka for a long while. Topped by a towering dagoba, there is some complex architecture on display here including the pools and intricately carved Moonstone.
  • Isurumuniya Vihara - Another monastic complex except this time, it's carved out of rock!
  • More of the same - Yah, seriously, throw a rock in Anuradhapura and you'll hit a ridiculously impressive dagoba or stupa (and probably a one-way ticket to Sri Lankan jail). A couple of other key players in Anuradhapura's stupa scene include Jetavanaramaya and Ruwanwelisaya.
Check out Mango Mango for some cheap local cuisine in a restaurant setting. Failing that, the shopping centre has some other snackeries.

Where to Stay in Anuradhapura: Heaven Upon Rice Fields

Where to Stay in Anuradhapura: Heaven Upon Rice Fields

Well, to start, there's aircon, and in the mugginess of Sri Lanka's central region, that really is a little slice of heaven (upon rice fields). Honestly, it's just a nice place to stay in Anuradhapura.

A cute little Sri Lankan bed and breakfast with a darling outlook of—yup, you guessed it—rice fields! Yummy brekky, yummy dinner, bike rental (which is perfect for exploring Anuradhapura), and a damn nice room.

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Booking a Tour in Sri Lanka

Usually, I'm not much of a tour guy, however, for some of these major historical sites in Sri Lanka—Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura in particular—you can see why booking a tour is smart. With such a complex and deep history locked behind such an esoteric culture and language, booking a tour is really the only way to fully comprehend these ancient wonders of Sri Lanka.

Organising a tour once your there is always easy; there's always a bare minimum of 36 touts lurking in the bushes at any given time. However, if you want to pre-book, or want to ensure that you get a legitimately insightful and professional guide, I'd advise booking a less off-the-cuff tour through the links below.

BOOK A POLONNARUWA TOUR    BOOK AN ANURADHAPURA TOUR

Safari Stop-or-Not: Wilpattu National Park

Wilpattu National Park monkey - bonus safari stop on the 3-week Sri Lanka itinerary
Let me eat in peace! | Source: HTurner (Shutterstock)

Wilpattu National Park is northwest Sri Lanka’s answer to Yala. The largest national park in Sri Lanka, Wilpattu is also potentially an even better choice than Yala for seeing leopards (they’re still mighty rare, however).

Pretty much everything I said about Yala National Park still holds true here. It’s not so much a matter of the park-to-park context as it is the wildlife tourism in Sri Lanka as a whole.

That said, with two different Sri Lanka itineraries, two different monsoon seasons, and two different routes, this your alternative place to go if your heart is really just that set on a safari.

Where to Stay in Wilpattu National Park: Base Camp Wilpattu

Where to Stay in Wilpattu National Park: Base Camp Wilpattu

More ethically questionable luxury glampingwoo! This one is allegedly reported, however, to abide by a strict set of environmental policies and be run by some upstanding peeps. Whether that's true or not I can't say, but I can say that you'll be comfortable!

Fancy beds, fancy meals, fancy trimmings, and they'll probably even deck you out with you own emblazoned fancy pants. Jokes aside, the reports are in that this is a dope place to stay and start your safari from. Apparently the staff really do care.

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One Last Note on the Ethics of Wildlife Tourism in Sri Lanka

You can find reasonable or even positive forms of animal tourism in Sri Lanka (and low-impact safaris too). This is more a callout to be shrewd. Extremely shrewd.

You're travelling in a region of the world with a historically poor (and earned) reputation for the mistreatment of animals. A lot of backpackers and tourists kinda just roll in and assume that because a man in khakis told them it's ok, that's it's ok. That's usually not the case.

So be critical; taking the hypothesis that it's a case of unethical tourism until given proof to the contrary is a good method. It's better to be safe than sorry on this topic.

Oh, and for the love of God, please, do not ride the elephants.

Bonus Stop: Jaffna (Days 6-8)

Jaffna ruins - an uncommon place to visit in Sri Lanka
Darkly intoxicating. | Source: shutterlk (Shutterstock)

Now, this is certainly an uncommon place to visit off the standard Sri Lanka backpacking itinerary. I’m saying it’s a bonus stop because:

  1. It is going to add some distance to your travel route.
  2. It’s a bit more challenging to travel.
  3. You honestly may just be busting to hit the beach after spending a week in the hot, humid, booze-less cultural epicentre of the island.

It’s impossible to really understand Jaffna without knowledge of the history of Sri Lanka. The tl;dr is that there are actually two subgroups of Sri Lankan people—the Sinhala and the Tamils. In modern times, there was an ungodly civil war that ripped these two peoples lives apart for more than two decades, and in the primarily Tamil northern area of Sri Lanka, you’ll still see traces of the horrors that occurred.

It’s not all doom and gloom though... Jaffna is also super pretty! It’s a change in architecture to a more South Indian style and, if your spice palette has refined enough to notice the subtle differences, it’s a change in cuisine too.

You don’t need to spend too many days in Jaffna. Mostly, you’ll be concerned with checking out some (more) temples and finding a soulful spot in the ocean to cool off during the midday heat. The remaining eleven days on this Sri Lanka itinerary is going to leave the historical stuff alone mostly in exchange for the blissful beach days. But if you're interested in rounding off your experience by meeting the other half of Sri Lanka’s people before getting lost the bikini-booty-bods, travel to Jaffna.

There’ll be a bus—there’s always a bus in Sri Lanka—but the train also runs all the way north to the Jaffna peninsula.
  • Island tour - From the tip of the Jaffna peninsula, there are a couple of choice islands to visit: there's Nainativu Island with its gorgeous Tamil-Hindu temple while Delft Island has both colonial and natural delights.
  • Off-beat travel - There are plenty of official homages to the civil war in Jaffna, however, look hard enough and you’ll start to see darker examples of what transpired. Crumbling ruins, forts, and even old bullet holes are there for those willing to look.
  • Malayan Cafe - Cheap and proper local grub where they won’t even bother giving the whiteys cutlery. An absolute gem.
  • Jaffna mangos - Not to be confused with the restaurant in Jaffna called ‘Mangos’ (who serve killer dosa). The mangos in Sri Lanka’s north are rumoured to be the best on the island, and you’ll find plenty of street food ops to eat them with a seasoning of chilli, sugar, and salt.

Where to Stay in Jaffna: Sky Park View Guesthouse

Where to Stay in Jaffna: Sky Park View Guesthouse

First up, I like the location; it's right across from a park! There aren't any dorms here, but the private rooms are cheap (the same prices as a dorm in a lot of other hostels around Sri Lanka).

You've got scooter rental, super friendly and helpful staff, and plenty of local food around. It's not ultra-flash, but it is home and a good bit of budget accommodation in Jaffna.

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Stop 3: Trincomalee (Days 9-12)

Nilaveli Beach - where to stay in Sri Lanka in 3 days in Trincomalee
Outside of Trinco's tourist bubble, you'll find something special. | Source: Sergii Rudiuk (Shutterstock)

The warm-up to the inevitable time-sink of Arugam Bay. There’s no good swell in Trincomalee if you’re chasing the ultimate surfing holiday in Sri Lanka, however, everything else is on point!

You’ll find long sandy beaches lined with deckchairs and drinking holes. A Lion Strong, a round of beach volleyball, and an escape from the insane midday heat in the sparkling water is a guarantee. It’s also considerably quieter than Arugam Bay—like everybody left their mutual chaos behind along with their binge alcoholism.

That’s what Trinco feels like: Arugam Bay all grown up. Arugam Bay in its 30s when it started showering regularly and stopped sleeping with everything with a pulse. It’s cleaner, a bit more refined, a bit more expensive, and also a bit more boring. It’s either the warm-up to Arugam Bay or the place to come down afterwards.

From either Anuradhapura or Jaffna you can catch the train, but it will require a backtrack to the Maho Junction. There are also direct buses from both cities which would be your better option.
The train actually alights closer to the centre of town where you almost definitely won’t want to stay considering all those beautiful Sri Lankan beaches hanging around.

  • Uppuveli is the main tourist hub (Sarvodaya Road specifically). It’s one long street filled with restaurants, shops, and various bits of accommodation with plenty of beach access.
  • Nilaveli to the north of Trinco is a much quieter area. There are still plenty of Sri Lanka’s beautiful beach hotels and resorts, but the actual area (and beach) is way more local.

As I said though, Trincomalee is noticeably more expensive than a lot of other places in Sri Lanka that I visited. If you’re budget travelling in Sri Lanka, the best way to keep the costs down is to step outside the tourist bubble. One foot off of Sarvodaya Road back into the real Trinco and everything gets a lot cheaper.

Where to Stay in Trincomalee: Wanderers Hostel

Where to Stay in Trincomalee: Wanderers Hostel

And it's back to the hostel life! Dorms with aircon (boom, Buddha),  plenty of travellers to chill with, private rooms for sex after the beach! (Na, Trinco is wayyy too hot for banging.)

It's a chill hostel although I do wish they would actually fill that plunge pool up. There's free tea and coffee but no food served, and the WiFi is inexplicably good. Like, really damn good—I don't get it either.

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Stop 4: Arugam Bay (Days 12-?)

Arugam Bay Main Beach - the number one place to go for backpackers exploring Sri Lanka on an itinerary
Somebody wake-and-baked! | Source: @themanwiththetinyguitar

We maaaade it. Here’s a season in Arugam Bay in a nutshell:

  1. Surfing
  2. Doobies
  3. Cheap food
  4. Drugs
  5. Parties
  6. Sweet wonderful vacuous meaningless backpacker sex
  7. Surfing

Personally, it’s not my vibe (except the doobies-munchies). But any way you swing it,  this is undeniably a backpacker haven—anywhere the Israelis congregate en masse usually is. If you’re planning a trip to Sri Lanka, and particularly a first-time visit, plan to lose track of your holiday itinerary for an indeterminate amount of time. Arugam Bay is the surf mecca of Sri Lanka as well as the backpacking mecca. Arugam Bay is one of those places.

It’s a sticky place.

You may want to consider a taxi if you’re not a fan of long stints on the bumpy bus. Otherwise, from Trincomalee, it’s a bus to Batticaloa and a change for Arugam Bay.
Wednesdays are also a party night, but it’s a dumb party and no one goes:

  • Blue Wave Hotel Pool Party (Thursdays) - An Israeli pool party (legitimately) featuring Tel Avivian Ibiza vibes and next-level trash music. It’s easily the best place to get laid in Arugam Bay.
  • Whiskey Point (Fridays) - The traveller-fave of Arugam’s throwdowns. A beach bar a bit out of town featuring house and techno.
  • Mambo’s (Saturdays) - It’s another beach bar featuring techno and house except that this one is in town and there’s a slackline—yay!
My happy place:

  • Mama’s Restaurant - Welcome to Sri Lanka at it’s finest! All-you-can-eat rice and curry buffet, 6 types of curry, full-power papas, and no end or regrets in sight until you puke.
  • Blue Vans/Trucks - On the south side of town, there’s a row of them all serving up street eats, and they all kick ass!
  • Bites - Go here, get yourself a brookie It’s a brownie-cookie—eugenics done right.

Where to Stay in Arugam Bay: The Long Hostel

Where to Stay in Arugam Bay: The Long HostelI tousled with this recommendation. Some people love this hostel, others hate it, but ultimately, there's no place that signifies Arugam Bay more.

The amenities are tight, and the dorms get the job done, but you're more staying here for the vibe. It's backpackery, young, 100% party-surf focused, and, honestly, kinda cliquey. Like I said, love it or hate it, it's Arugam Bay to a tee.

Oh, and the iced coffees will blow your mind wide open.

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A Final Note on Backpacking Arugam Bay

Jokes aside, Arugam Bay really is backpacker central and a place people “get stuck”. It’s like a little slice of Thailand backpacking with a South Asian twist. Whether you love that or not is ultimately up to you.

If you’re not so much on a backpacking Sri Lanka tour as vacationing there, it may not be your vibe. Despite the copious amounts of joints being rolled, it definitely doesn’t feel chill. With such a high concentration of travellers, there’s the level of madness that you’d expect from other similar bubbles in the world like Pai, Pokhara, or Goa (though nothing competes with Goa).

Sleeping off the night in the main party place in Sri Lanka
The only way this picture could be more Arugam Bay is if we drew dicks on him with a permanent marker. | Source: @themanwiththetinyguitar

Even if you’re a backpacker through-and-through but, perhaps (for example), one who's grown into quiet living and out of many elements of the Southeast Asia backpacking scene, it still may not be your vibe. Unless you’re like me and will go anywhere there’s cheap food and doobs. Then it’s kickass for a week.

...Or if you’re a surfer. Then you’ll definitely be fine.

Stops 5-6: Ella, Kandy, and the Hill Country (Days 16-21)

Yup, the same as the 2-week Sri Lanka itinerary except in reverse! I really cannot stress enough how much this part of the country and the train journey are a must-see in Sri Lanka in any itinerary.

Ella really is the ultimate detox to skip the bends leaving Arugam Bay. There is a tranquil majesty to Sri Lanka’s hill country (outside of Ella town) that will make even the most crushing wipeout a gentle ride to shore. If you can take a few extra days to hike, explore the valleys, or even just smoke and watch the sky, definitely do it.

Dog examine's Sri Lanka's hill country from a beautiful viewpoint in Ella - Little Adam's Peak
Look, Simba. Everything the light touches... is a good spot for a smoke. | Source: @themanwiththetinyguitar

When you do catch the train to Kandy, there are a few extra stops you can consider to break up the trip, provided you have the time:

  • Nuwara Eliya - One of several points of interest in Sri Lanka that still heavily carries the colonial remnants. The racecourse, the architecture, the tea, and definitely the post office all feel like cracking open a city-sized time capsule the British colonialists left behind. You're up high in the hills here though, so expect it to get cold and rainy.
  • Haputale - Speaking of tea, at Haputale you'll find Lipton's Seat (yes, of that Lipton) which is really more like an imperialist's throne overseeing the incredible sweeps of plantations, hills and even right down to the south coast on a clear day!
  • Hatton - I'm not so much suggesting that you stick Hatton on your Sri Lanka itinerary as what's near it: the mighty and majestic Adam's Peak (AKA Sri Pada AKA Samanalakanda AKA Bob's Your Uncle AKA a million other things). One of the most sacred places in Sri Lanka, Adam's Peak is an absolutely exquisite climb to venture above the sea of clouds. The climbing season for both pilgrims and tourists runs from December to May, however, it's a much nicer climb in the shoulder season before it gets crazy.

When you do arrive in Kandy, and since you’ll be departing shortly, forget the dorms! Take a nice accommodation in Kandy out of the city or up in the hills, and soak up the last few days spent with Sri Lanka.

Where to Stay in Sri Lanka's Hill Country

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Idyll Homestay

Beautiful Accommodation in Ella: Idyll HomestayYou're getting the best of both worlds here: it's far enough from Ella to feel like you're deep in the jungles, but it's still just a short walk to town!

The view is incredible, the bed is incredible, the visits from the local critter-cuties are incredible... the breakfast is super incredible! What ties it all together though is the host: he really goes above and beyond for his guests. Short of languishing within a hippy mountain palace, it's undoubtedly one of the nicest places to stay in Ella.

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Laughing Leopard Hostel

Crazy Party Hostel in Nuwara Eliya: Laughing LeopardIt's certainly an odd spot for a pumpin' party hostel, but that's what it is! Drinks are served hard, beats are served juicy, and breakfast isn't served at all (I mean, it probably is, but also probably after noon).

Truthfully though, the staff who run this place are warm and friendly to a fault; they really do create a space for people to relax in whatever capacity. If they also happen to enjoy some late night drinks and techno bangers, can you really blame them for that?

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The Cliff Lodge

Incredible Mountain Retreat and Resort in Haputale: The Cliff LodgeStaying here is super expensive, and you could arguably achieve much the same results by pitching a solid backpacking tent in the mountains. All the same though, it's a pretty damn unique accommodation.

High up in the hills above Haputale is The Cliff Lodge: a place to retreat to, ditch the WiFi for a few days, and reset. Calling it a "lodge" is generous—you're given a tent set up in an old tea picker's hut, but that's part of the charm. For nighttime fires, unreal starscapes, and a complete digital detox, this is where to stay in Sri Lanka.

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Private Rooftop Villa with a Plunge Pool

Amazing Airbnb in Kandy: Private Villa with a Plunge PoolA private rooftop villa with a plunge pool—

Stop! You had me at skinny dipping!

I didn't say skinny dipping...

Well... now you did!

It's a private top floor villa outside of Kandy surrounded by lush greens and splatterings of colonial architectural charm. Breakfast is complimentary, the hosts are mega-chill, and, again, there's a private plunge pool. Finish Sri Lanka with a bang... 😉

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The Ultimate Boss: Meemure and the Knuckles Mountain Range

Lakegala mountain from Meemure Village - off the beaten path Sri Lanka itinerary
Lakegala Mountain, Meemure: a special place. | Source: @themanwiththetinyguitar

Mmm, yum. Mountains—my happy place (other than joints and buffets). This is about as off the beaten path in Sri Lanka as you can probably get. The unquenchable, untameable, and unabashed Knuckles Mountain Range hiding Sri Lanka’s most remote village—Meemure.

You’ll need to dedicate at least 3 days in Sri Lanka from your itinerary for the trip: one day there, one day to explore, and one day to return. If you can spare more time, then that’s even better.

Travelling to Meemure is one of those things where it’s about the journey. It may not be as hardcore as some other South Asian adventures (*cough* backpacking Pakistan *cough*), but it’s still the most hardcore thing and hidden place I could unearth on my trip to Sri Lanka.

I really can’t break that down concisely here; you’ll have to read my Meemure Village Cheeky Adventure Guide for the deetz!
Again, check the guide. Even reaching and experiencing Meemure (and laying eyes on that absolutely magnificent Lakegala) is a feat and reward together.
Outside of that, the Knuckles Mountain Range is so, so yummy and missing out on hiking them would be a damn shame. If you happen to see a leopard too, congrats! You’re a real traveller: stuff the safari up the industry’s left nostril.
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Sri Lanka Itinerary - Travel Guide Tips and Pointers

Holy mother of box-ticking, Batman! Those are some blessed Sri Lanka travel itineraries.

Now, you're probably going to have a cracker of a time no matter where you go; there are heaps of beautiful places to see in Sri Lanka. There are also heaps of beautiful feeds to feast upon in Sri Lanka! (I've failed to mention it thus far, but get yourself a kottu—Sri Lanka's answer to greasy hangover food.)

However, before commencing on that ultimate holiday vacation to Sri Lanka, get yourself keyed on the insider knowledge. I didn't live there for three months just so I could not share this stuff!

How many days should I spend in Sri Lanka?

Truthfully, I’d say anything less than a month just really isn’t doing it justice. You could, however, potentially smush it all into a 3-week trip to Sri Lanka. My initial route backpacking around Sri Lanka was similar to the above-listed 3-week itinerary and weighed in somewhere between 3 and 4 weeks in execution.

If you’re not really the smoke, surf, and turf kinda human, the beaches may not slow you down as much as they would a typical backpacker. For everyone else though, Sri Lanka’s beautiful beach destinations—Arugam Bay in particular—will more than likely initiate “Actually, I’ll leave tomorrow,” syndrome.

Cows chilling a on beautiful beach in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka
The i-moo-vable object. | Source: @furysuri

When you’re planning your trip to Sri Lanka, ease up on the allotted time in your itinerary for the historical and cultural sites, and free up more for the ‘fun’ stuff. The historical sites in Sri Lanka are dope, no doubt, but every traveller I met at the beach or in Ella expressed regret over not having gotten there sooner.

Besides, for the same cost as entry to Sigiriya Fortress or Polonnaruwa, you could rent a surfboard for 7-8 days. You do the math.

...Wait, nevermind, I just did it for you.

What kind of travel budget do I need for touring Sri Lanka on an itinerary?

Obviously, that’s a highly variable question dependent on the length of your itinerary and travel style. I was able to live pretty comfortably on a daily budget of $20 a day in Sri Lanka, however, this is The Broke Backpacker and so that should give you an idea of how cheaply I travel.

If you travel like a backpacker, but it’s more of a holiday itinerary for Sri Lanka (as opposed to that sweet, sweet slow travel life), upwards of $40 a day should be plenty. That’s an extra $20 of wiggle room a day on top of the necessities (sleeping, eating, smoking) for activities, partying, and whatever else.

Some dogs napping after a tiring trip exploring Sri Lanka
Lehitkalev - the dog's life. | Source: @themanwiththetinyguitar

BUT, if you’re more the quick vacation type, say a budget for 2 weeks in Sri Lanka, $60 a day is a cool max. You can set yourself up in a few top hotels around Sri Lanka and leave the dorms behind.

Finally, if you want to scoot around the island quickly, maybe a whirlwind 5 or 7-day itinerary through Sri Lanka’s highlights, you’ll be relying on taxi services or even a private driver. Honestly, that could run you up to $100 a day or even more depending on how you eat and sleep.

Folks, slow travel is cheaper.

How to Get Around Sri Lanka

Right, so I’ve mentioned a lot of buses and trains, and the truth is that they’re simply the cheapest way of getting around Sri Lanka. But they’re also slow. And uncomfortable. And prone to the South Asia effect (it once took me 11ish hours, 6 bus changes, and one after-dark breakdown to go the 200 km from Unawatuna to Ella).

That said, I still love the public transport in Sri Lanka! It’s chaotic and an adventure every time. And... it’s super cheap:

  1. Bus from Trincomalee to Arugam Bay (via Batticaloa): < $7
  2. Versus a private taxi: $85-$90 (contingent on you haggling ability)
Several public transport buses in Sri Lanka on a busy city road
So. Much. Fun! | Source: @themanwiththetinyguitar

Taxis are, otherwise, going to be the main form of tourist transport services in Sri Lanka to utilise. You can save money by hooking up with a crew and sharing transport to the next destination; it’s always easy to find peeps in the tourist bubbles. Taxis are faster, but they’re expensive; you're going to need to haggle like a pro.

You could also consider renting a bike in Sri Lanka. Cost-wise, that’ll run you about $5-$10 a day (though you can definitely get it cheaper if you rent for an extended period), however, Sri Lanka is a phenomenal road trip country! Just make sure you dot your i’s and cross your t’s with licencing and legalities.

And wear a bloody helmet—dem buses will smoke ya!

Tuk-Tuk Rental in Sri Lanka

Aww, yeahhh—and now we're talking about the best way to travel in Sri Lanka. Cross the whole damn thing in your own mighty three-wheeling steed!

Can you rent your own tuk-tuk in Sri Lanka? Damn, right you can, and it don’t get much better than this. Well... unless you pay the few extra bucks for the optional boombox!

It really isn’t as confronting to learn to drive a tuk-tuk as you may think. I started to get the hang of it within 5 or 10 minutes. Plus, the looks the other tuk-tuk drivers give you when you overtake them are just so damn delicious.

Our tuk-tuk rental - the best way to travel Sri Lanka
Chandler: our stallion, our hotbox, our friend. | Photo: @furysuri

It’s definitely not the cheapest form of transport in Sri Lanka—$25-$30 a day including rental costs, food, etc.—but that’s not really the bloody point! You’re driving a goddamn tuk-tuk in Sri Lanka! No matter what happens, it’s gonna be a journey you remember for the rest of your life, guaranteed.

All I can say is that I did it (well, hitched a ride with some peeps who did it), it was hella fun, I made some blessed life-long friends along the way (love you guys to the moon), and it’s a top recommendation for travelling around Sri Lanka without a shadow of a doubt.

Check out tuktukrental.com for more info. Use the code brokebackpacker at the checkout when you decide to take the plunge, and let the good times roll out!

What to Pack for Sri Lanka

Packing for Sri Lanka is pretty straightforward; take whatever your usual backpacking setup is. There aren’t too many other nuances speak of.

DEFINITELY DO, HOWEVER, take a high-quality rain jacket. Even if you’re doing your best to avoid the monsoon, chances are that you’ll get rained on at some point during your visit to Sri Lanka.

Oh, and the mosquitoes are assholes. Take something from home or, better yet, just buy some Odomos when you arrive. It’s cheap there, and the best damn mosquito repellent I’ve ever used!

AR Security Belt

1. Security Belt with Hidden Pocket: The sneakiest money belt around! This is a regular looking belt with a concealed pocket on the inside—you can hide cash inside and keep it snug on your waste. This is hands-down the best way to hide your cash while travelling around Sri Lanka.

 2.Travel Water Bottle: Always travel with a water bottle and reduce your plastic footprint on our planet. AR bottles are tough, lightweight, and maintain the temperature of your beverage so you can enjoy a cold coffee, hot coffee, or lukewarm coffee no matter where you go! For every AR bottle sold, we donate 10% to PlasticOceans.org—an initiative to reduce plastic in our oceans!

AR microfibre towel

3. Microfibre Towel: I literally never hit the road without a microfibre towel—I adore these things. Microfibre towels dry quickly, are compact, lightweight, and just plain sick. You gotta get in on the microfibre towel game.

Headlamp4. Headtorch: Every backpacker should have a head torch! A decent head torch could save your life. If you want to explore caves, unlit temples, or simply find your way to the bathroom during a blackout, a headtorch is a must. The Petzl Actik Core rechargeable headlamp is an awesome piece of kit! It’s USB-chargeable, so you'll never have to buy earth-polluting batteries again!

Hammock for backpackers

5. Hammock: Taking a tent backpacking is not always practical but hammocks are lightweight, cheap, strong, sexy and allow you to pitch up for the night pretty much anywhere. Can you bang in it? I dunno, but you can bloody well try! There are plenty of beautiful beaches in Sri Lanka where you can vibe out with a killer view!

Active roots Toiletry bag 6. Toiletry Bag: A hanging toiletry bag... why not? It’s a super-efficient way to organise your bathroom stuff. Hang it from a tree whilst camping or hook it to a dorm bed; it helps to have quick access to all your stuff.

Still wondering what to take to Sri Lanka? Then check out our full backpacking packing list more more ideas on gears, gadgets, and goodies for the road!

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Staying Safe in Sri Lanka

So… Is Sri Lanka safe? Yup! I mean, it’s not perfectly safe, but you can also choke on your toothbrush if you’re not careful so…

It’s easiest to think of it as India-lite. The same travel rules you’d apply for backpacking in India, apply it here and then just dial it back a notch.

  • If someone asks if you’d like to take a photo of them, or they’re behaving like a tourist attraction (eg. a stilt fisherman or tea picker), then they’re almost definitely going to ask for money if you do take that snap. Kids will too!
  • Never trust a tuk-tuk driver—GPS out and money is exchanged only after you’ve confirmed you’ve arrived at the correct destination.
  • Travellers of the feminine disposition won’t have nearly as hard a time as in India but should still be wary, smart, and be careful where they’re walking alone at night. And get used to being stared at—take it in stride.
  • Don’t leave your valuables unguarded on the beach (or anywhere for that matter).
  • Your shoulders and knees need to be covered at sacred sites. No iconography of Lord Buddha-san (tattoos, shirt logos, etc.) and no turning your back on the Buddha statues or taking selfies with them.
  • Watch out for scams but also don’t spit the dummy every time someone overcharges you 20 rupees. Therein lies the road to insanity.

Honestly, it’s a standard South Asia affair. Sri Lanka is pretty chill, and out of the three major backpacking destinations of the Indian subcontinent (Nepal, India, and Sri Lanka), I’ve found Sri Lankans (the Sinhala people specifically—maybe it’s the Buddhism) to be the most scrupulous and sincere.

Map of Sri Lanka 2-Week Itinerary

Beaches and backpacker places tend to also attract sticky fingers and trashbags. Keep your valuables and money hidden or you'll regret it. You should always have emergency cash hidden on you—this awesome security belt with its hidden pocket is perfect for hiding money, and a passport photocopy.

GET IT HERE

Get Insured for Your Trip to Sri Lanka!

Because not getting good travel insurance coverage before taking off would just be plain silly. You might take a surfboard to the face or you might take it to the groin, but either way, it gonna hurt!

In all seriousness, travelling is not a right, it’s a privilege. If something goes wrong and you end up with a crippling medical bill (and injury), it’s your friends and family that will be picking up the tab for you. Get your house in order and be an adult before you go be Peter Pan.

Shoutout from Will – The OG Broke Backpacker: Have fun on your backpacking adventure, but please do get insurance – take it from someone who has racked up tens of thousands of bucks on an insurance claim before, you need it.

world nomads insurance banner

Concluding Your Itinerary in Sri Lanka

Y'know, when I started writing this itinerary, I was all like "Man, itineraries are lame".  And now...? Well, I still think itineraries are lame.

But it was also an absolute pleasure to write about travelling Sri Lanka again. I get a little blast of candy-nostalgia every time I return in my mind's eye to that gorgeous island. Cloud forests rolling through plantations and emerald hills, the chaotic madness of any and all bus rides, dawn on sunkissed beaches watching lone fishermen drag their laden nets in.

Sri Lanka is both the gem of the Indian Ocean and subcontinent itself. Whether it's one, two, or three weeks in Sri Lanka, every moment is a blessing. If you can give yourself 3 months, that's even better!

Plan your trip with my perfectly crafted itineraries for Sri Lanka; there is a lot of love and care in them. See all there is to see, but also, remember to stop and smell the kottu. And to meet the peeps.

And to ride the trains, take a big slow breath, and, most of all, to appreciate the sky.

An angry buffalo stares menacingly at a holidayer in Sri Lanka visiting Meemure on their itinerary
"Imma fuck yo' face." | Photo: @themanwiththetinyguitar

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