When I decided to visit Sri Lanka for a month, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I had heard it was a combination of India and Thailand — two countries I happen to adore, so I was excited. But planning a month-long trip to a country you haven’t yet visited is difficult. What do you deem as a spot worthy to include? To skip? How to get from A to B? How long to spend in each place?
When organizing our itinerary, I took into consideration that we wanted a little adventure, a little safari, and a little history and a lot of relaxing on the beach. So this particular guide would be amazing for those with a lot of time that want to chill on the beach. If you don’t like the beach or are very much into the outdoors, you may want to consider spending less time in Arugam and Trincomalee and more time in Ella and the highlands, or in Sigiriya. We also skipped the south coast as it was mostly rainy at this time of year (we went in August). Although we wanted to vist Jaffna all the way in the North, we also skipped this area because it was just a bit too far away. In the end, our itinerary was as follows
- Two nights in Colombo to begin (and settle into the new time zone)
- Train to Kandy, two nights there
- Train to Ella, two nights there
- Car and driver to Arugam bay, six nights there
- Car and driver to Paskikudah, four nights there
- Car and driver to Sigiriya/Habarana, three nights there
- Car and driver to Trincomalee, seven nights there
- Car and driver to Anurahadapura, three nights there
- Car and driver to Negombo, one night there
I found a Facebook group that I highly recommend called Sri Lanka Car and Driver Hire, where you put your travel date in and where you want to go seven days or less in advance and drivers will send you messages with the cost and information for your transfer. I loved this idea — cutting out the middle man and the agencies and instead, giving your rupees directly to the drivers. We ended up using this several times (anytime you see the phrase car and driver above, we found one using this group) and had three excellent drivers, one who we ended up using for a few different trips — we even met his family!
Below I’ll share a bit on each spot, with where we stayed, relevant info and photos.
Colombo (two nights)
Accommodation: The Hilton Colombo was gorgeous and a perfect way to settle into our stay. We used points to stay, so it ended up being entirely free, except for breakfast, which was $10 per day. The staff was wonderful and the food was delicious — I love a breakfast buffet with roti!
Relevant Info: Colombo is not a beautiful city. I don’t recommend being here for more than one or two nights. There are a few temples, but not much else to do. Although I loved the Hilton there, I wish I’d stayed in Negombo instead, which is much closer to the airport and has beautiful beaches.
Kandy (two nights)
Accommodation: We stayed at Kandy Green Garden Villa, a mini-mansion renting out five or six rooms to guests. This was located on a hill away from all the hustle and bustle, and we enjoyed a peaceful stay here. Staff was very kind, and they had egg hoppers for breakfast!
Relevant Info: The train ride from Colombo was two hours, and the end part of it was beautiful, high up in the mountains and the tea plantations. It was a little teaser to whats was to come when we rode from Kandy to Ella! Kandy was actually much larger than I thought it would be, and although the lake in the middle of the city was gorgeous, I found the city to be too busy and the area around the lake had excessive traffic.
That being said, it’s worth checking the city out for a day or two, and heading up to see the Buddha on the hilltop has excellent views of the city (if you forget to cover your knees or shoulders, you can rent a sarong there).
Kandy is also home to the Temple of the Tooth, one of the most important spiritual spots in the country, home to a tooth belonging to the Buddha himself. Visiting the ice cream shop Cool Corner was a highlight — they have very unique flavors. I tried the wood apple with cinnamon and cardamom and it was fantastic.
Ella (two nights)
The Train: The train ride from Kandy to Ella was nothing short of magnificent. Truly wondrous, I found myself glued to the window for seven hours straight — I actually had a kink in my neck after the trip.
I rode through jungles, villages, tea plantations and mountains. I rode over bridges, past giggling children flying kites, past locals with hollowed eyes and gaunt figures moving sacks of potatoes, past tired moms sweeping the dust off their front porches. I rode by monkeys and birds, through rice fields and temples and over bridges, stopping in stations which names I couldn’t pronounce.
I still remember sitting on the vinyl seats, the wind blowing in my hair through the open windows, the smells of sweat, burning leaves and fresh rain — an introduction to Sri Lanka I will never forget.
The logistics of the train weren’t super easy, but doing some pre-research can definitely help. My post for The Points Guy will assist in case you’d like a full review and advice on booking the route.
Accommodation: I fell head over heels for Chamoyda Homestay, booked on Airbnb, was one of the most special and unique places I’ve ever laid my head to rest. For $35 a night — I definitely couldn’t complain. A homestay located up high the hills, the view of the peaks beyond was mesmerizing. The owner was lovely and helpful, cooking us a wonderful breakfast — staying here was a real treat.
Relevant Info: Ella is beautiful town, surrounding by tea plantations, rolling hills and some of the highest peaks located in Sri Lanka. During our stay, we hiked Little Adam’s Peak (30 minutes up) and checked out the incredible Nine Arches Bridge from up high and down below.
Be careful at the top of Little Adam’s Peak– it’s really windy! For the bridge, if you’re lucky, you may get to see a train go by. I found Ella to be a magical place. Hikers could spend more time here, but two nights was enough for us — we were ready for beach time.
Arugam Bay (six nights)
Accommodation: We chose a small hotel called Shell Resort. A little far from the beach, we enjoyed this spot, as it had a pool and a cool lounge area with huts and hammocks to hang out in. We rented a scooter here to get around at 1300 rupees per day (negotiating, of course). It’s worth noting that while in Arugam, one of our motorcycle helmets was stolen, but luckily this was the only negative encounter we had in the country. Our hotel was very understanding, and only charged us $10 for the missing helmet, which I felt was more than fair.
Relevant Info: Arugam is the area that most reminded me of Thailand. A backpacker style town, the town beach as well as others are famous for their surf. We indulged in daily yoga, surf lessons and were able to relax quite a bit here, even though it was extremely hot.
The waves at Pottuvil point were perfect for beginners, and we also embarked on a lagoon tour on what was basically a homemade raft, where we saw many local bird species and our first elephant in the wild crossing the lagoon.
The restaurant scene in Arugam was probably the best we experienced in Sri Lanka We especially enjoyed the beachfront restaurant Secret Garden (part of the Cozy Bay hotel), but we really never had a bad meal in any of the restaurants along the main street.
Pasikudah (four nights)
Accommodation: This was the biggest splurge of our stay at an all inclusive resort stay beach spot, Amethyst Resort. For just over $100 per night, we did half board, which included a beachfront cabin and breakfast and dinner for two. While this was one of the most luxurious spots we stayed at, I felt far removed from the local culture and my main issue is with the people that usually do all-inclusive stays. I often find them rude, loud and pushy, especially at the buffet. However, it was so beautiful to have the beach front room, the staff went above and beyond and the food was spicy and delicious. I would really only recommend this to honeymooners or families, and only for a few days. The beach, though beautiful, is very removed from local culture and restaurants, with really only nice resorts, making it great for a beach holiday, but culturally, no fun at all.
Relevant Info: This was the super relaxing part of the trip. Days were spent lounging at the pool, reading in the hammocks and walking along the beach. There’s not much else to do here. We did see a crocodile on the grounds of our resort near the river though. I saw several signs saying that may be roaming around, and I didn’t think it was true — until I spotted a huge one!
Sigiriya/Habarana (three nights)
Accommodation: Hotel Wild Air was one of the most unique places I’ve had the pleasure of staying in. With single cabins accessible by a walkway that runs through the treetops in the jungle, it was a very original spot. Elephants roam wild in the jungle and we actually saw some behind some of the cabins, which was absolutely incredible. The hotel itself is new, and had some kinks to be worked out, but it was a fun stay.
The only issue is that it’s far out in the middle of basically nothing with a dirt road, so getting anywhere is a pain. They have to call a tuk tuk for you, and it takes forever. One day, ours never showed, so the owner, who was super sweet, actually drove us (2 people!) on the back of his motorcycle into town so we could get one there. Always an adventure! While it was pretty awesome to be out in the middle of nowhere, staying in central Habarana is actually a better idea if you want to be able to easily get to restaurants and tourist attractions.
Relevant Info: We chose to climb Pidurangala instead of the more famous Lion Rock. Why? Well, for starters, it’s less crowded and less touristy. There’s also a super fun part at the top where you have to scale rocks (not good for anyone with mobility issues) which I thought would terrify me, but it was actually awesome. It also costs $20 to climb Lion Rock and $3 to climb Pidurangala. $20 is like five dinners in Sri Lanka, so we choose to save the funds and trek up Pidurangala instead. You also have magnificent views of the Lion Rock from the top of Pidurangala, and obviously, you can’t see Lion Rock from Lion Rock, so I think we made the right choice.
Tips for Climbing The Rock
- Wear the right footwear. Yeah, this is a dumb thing to have to say, but I saw some many people trying to scale rocks in flip flops. Where locals do it barefoot, our spoiled little legs aren’t used to this, and you should wear gym shoes or hiking boots.
- SUNBLOCK. Wear it. Or go at dusk, which is less hot, and gorgeous.
- Bug repellent. Wear that too.
- Don’t be an idiot. Apparently like hundreds of people die each year taking selfies so don’t dangle off the rock. As I write this, Jorge (my husband) is probably somewhere dangling off a rock taking a selfie.
- It took us about 30 minutes to go up and about 20 to go down. If you aren’t used to hiking or go at a slow pace, it could take you an hour. Plan accordingly.
- There’s a shop at the bottom where you can buy water and refreshments
- If you plan to visit the temple, cover your shoulders.
The other day we contracted a safari from a guy we bought mango juice at the Prasanna Guesta House along the main road in Habarana. I recommend heading over there and talking to them. These types of transactions are normal in Sri Lanka and it ended up being perfect. Take the advice of the locals on which park to visit (there are two in the area, and depending on elephant migration and time of year, one is always better than the other) and at what time of day to go. We dragged ourselves out of bed at 4 am to get to Kaudulla National Park by 5:30 am and it was worth it — we were completely alone in the park at many points. Some other people reported going in the afternoon — with hundreds of jeeps in tow.
We were able to spot over 200 elephants in the wild (as well as many different birds, monkeys, water buffalo and reptiles) and I can say with complete honestly this is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever done.
DO THIS. Get up early, beat the jeeps and go. We ended up spending about $50 total for a private Land Rover. The car was old, but it had great visibility and our driver/guide was really cool. Bargain for a good price and don’t pay in full until after — you’ll likely be asked to leave a deposit of 1000 Rupees.
Our third day was spent taking the local bus to the ancient city of Poḷonnaruwa, the second oldest ancient city in Sri Lanka (but the best conserved, in my opinion). The local bus was easy and so cheap (maybe 80 rupees per person each way, which is like 50 cents). I got a little carsick on the bus at first, but then felt better. The bus was full of locals, but we go seats, and in typical Sri Lanka fashion, music started blaring and lights began flashing midway through.
We got off about 50 minutes later in Poḷonnaruwa and immediately rented bikes, which are for rent everywhere for about 300/400 rupees per day. We bought the entrance tickets (3000 rupees each) and spent the day biking to different ruins, exploring them and simultaneously approaching and avoiding mischievous monkeys.
We made the mistake of not getting up early enough. It’s extremely hot midday, and riding your bike around in the hot sun is borderline unbearable. Do yourself a favor and wake up earlier. Before you return your bikes, head to Banana Leaf restaurant for a lunch of local flavors.
In my opinion, you should choose Poḷonnaruwa over Anuradhapura. The latter is a nice experience, but poorly conserved and the ruins are far apart so you have to go by car or tuk tuk. The one thing I wouldn’t miss is Mihintale, which I’ll detail out later.
Trincomalee (seven nights)
Accommodation: Our first four nights were spent at a hole in the wall called the Secret Garden. I don’t recommend this spot. It was only about $25 per night for a room with a private bathroom, but it wasn’t super clean. We survived, and moved on the Golden Beach Cottages ($65 per night) which were simple, but had a great location right on the beach.
Trincomalee is a spot that was ruined during the war and the tsunami, so tourism is relatively new and the town is still growing. Don’t expect big resorts or fancy hotels, this is a low-key, beach bum destination.
Relevant Info: This was one of my favorite parts of the trip. The beach is gorgeous and I loved the relaxing vibe. I loved watching the fisherman pull in their nets every day, and petting the beach dogs that roamed the beach. Jorge did a few dives and saw some giant sea turtles and a lot of tropical fish. The area is also known for whale watching. I could have spent forever here! We loved hanging out at the hippie cafe Fernandos and eating dinner at Gomesz’s Pasta Hut. The red snapper is the way to go at Ceylon Seafood Cafe, and I got a great ayurveda treatment at the Seth Madura Ayurveda Center. Seven nights may be too long for the average traveler, but I loved this special little beach and it was perfect for us.
Anuradhapura (two nights)
Accommodation: Full disclosure: I feel a stay here isn’t totally necessary if you visit Poḷonnaruwa, especially since it costs another $30 (3000 rupees) to enter the ruins. However, I stayed in the loveliest boutique hotel called Sacred City Tourist Resort. It’s basically a little secret rooftop garden in the middle of the busy city. It was also $25 per night, with large rooms, new bathrooms, and strong AC. The staff was a family and there were so sweet and helpful. What’s not to love?
Relevant Info: Our driver, Nuwa, was so awesome. We booked a few trips with him between some of the cities and he offered to drive us around the ruins of Anuradhapura for free for a day, as it was his hometown. (If you want Nuwa’s contact info to drive you, feel free to message me on Instagram @travellikelori and I will pass his number along.)
He took us first to Mihintale, which was a series of Buddhas and statues on top of hills, with a famous rock that is known for being the birthplace of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. You’ll have to walk up a lot of stairs, and watch out for the crazy monkeys that steal your stuff. We saw some adorable mom and baby monkeys too.
The rest of Anuradhapura could be skipped if you plan to see the other ruins and have to choose between. If you really want to do both, get a driver — the ruins are too spread out to bike or walk.
Negombo (one night)
Accommodation: We spent one night in a fabulous homestay with the kindest family. Prosperity Villa isn’t on the beach, but tucked away in a local area, nice and quiet. We had a private room, rooftop deck and bathroom and the most glorious breakfast before we headed to airport. You can book this on either Airbnb (save $29 by using my code here on your first booking) or Booking.com (save $20 on your first booking by using my code here). Room rates range for $35/45 per night depending on which room you select.
Relevant Info: Negombo is actually the town where the airport is located, just a 15 minute drive vs. Colombo, which is almost an hour. The beach is gorgeous and the town is really cute, with lots of restaurants, coffee shops and stores. I wish I’d skipped Colombo entirely and just stayed here!
I hope this post helps you if you’re planning a trip to Sri Lanka. Remember, my trip was largely influenced by weather patterns as we wanted to maximize sunny beach time during our trip in August. If you go in winter, you’ll want to avoid the east coast and instead visit the south coast. Our trip wasn’t necessarily backpacker budget, but it wasn’t wild splurge either, it would be ideal for a mid-range budget, with a few splurges and saves within. Happy Travels!