White sandy beaches, bright green tea farms, herds of elephants, perfect waves for surfing, impressive temple complexes, delicious curries and one of the world’s most beautiful train journeys. You can explore Sri Lanka’s endless variety in a relatively short time. It’s no wonder this beautiful island in the Indian Ocean is an extremely popular holiday destination amongst travelers. If you want to go on an individual tour of Sri Lanka, this itinerary will bring you past all of the country’s highlights in three weeks.
STARTING POINT FOR YOUR SRI LANKA ITINERARY: COLOMBO OR NEGOMBO?
When you fly to Sri Lanka you arrive in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital. To get straight to the point: Colombo is not going to make you fall in love with this country. Colombo doesn’t have any significant sights and it’s not the place to be if you’re looking for a nice atmosphere either. For this reason, many travelers choose to spend the night in Negombo. This town is not only close to the airport it’s also located on the beach, so it’s the perfect spot to spend the night acclimatizing after a long flight. But there’s no need to hang around here either. I would recommend traveling on as soon as possible and spending your time in the more beautiful parts of Sri Lanka.
WHICH ROUTE THROUGH SRI LANKA DO YOU CHOOSE?
Sri Lanka is an island, which makes choosing a route for your trip convenient. Although it depends on the amount of time you have to spend, you will roughly be traveling in a loop. At the start of your tour of Sri Lanka, it’s important to make the choice: clockwise or anti-clockwise? Both have their own advantages:
END UP ON THE BEACH IN THE SOUTH
The vast majority of travelers in Sri Lanka travel in a clockwise direction. This means you essentially start with culture, take the well-known train ride to the mountains through the tea farms, and end up at the beach. You’ll discover Sri Lanka’s wildlife in one of the national parks along the way. The advantage of this itinerary is that you finish your vacation on the beach. You’ll also get a varied impression of Sri Lanka right at the start of your trip, guaranteed to leave you with a good first impression.
FEWER CROWDS ON THE WELL-KNOWN TRAIN RIDE FROM ELLA TO KANDI
I always like to do things a little differently, so I chose to travel anti-clockwise and start my trip along the coast. I wanted to do some surfing and was curious about Sri Lanka’s beaches. I discovered the big benefits to this route later, when I had all the space in the world on the train from Ella to Kandi. Unlike what you read in every guidebook or hear from other travelers who make this well-known train journey through the tea farms from Kandi to Ella. When you travel from Kandi to Ella you have to fight for a seat by the window or door, but I had all the space in the world on the train from Ella to Kandi (other direction) and was able to enjoy the views on both my right-hand and left-hand or hang around in the doorway. And I ended up making a loop around Sri Lanka in such a way that I still ended up on the beach, except that it was the beach in the Northeast.
I was very pleased with the route I chose for my tour of Sri Lanka, so I will discuss it in more detail. Obviously, you can also do the clockwise loop, leaving things out or adding them.
DUTCH PRIDE IN GALLE
A two-hour train ride from Colombo brings you to the walled city of Galle. The Brits, then the Dutch, and later the Portuguese, had a big influence on this fortified town in the southwest of Sri Lanka, You can clearly see the influences in the architecture, which, combined with some Asian elements, gives the city a very characteristic feel. It reminded me a lot of Cartagena in Colombia, probably because of the Portuguese influence in the colonial architecture combined with the fortress walls, which are also very characteristic of Cartagena. It’s quite touristy in Galle, but this also creates a good atmosphere. There are nice shops and cozy restaurants within the walls of the historic center and unlike in Cartagena, all of the houses are white. It’s wonderful to stroll through the cozy streets of Galle for a few hours and then take a walk along the fortress walls late in the afternoon when the sun gives the houses a golden hue. And if you want to do some snorkeling or surfing, you can do that around Galle too.
ACCOMMODATION IN GALLE
Those who don’t have a lot of time on their hands can choose to visit Galle on a day trip and then continue on towards one of the surfing towns down south, You can do this quickly, easily and cheaply, by tuk-tuk or bus. I, however, really liked the idea of spending the night in Galle. I do recommend choosing an accommodation within the city walls. It’s a little more expensive, but the atmosphere is great. I stayed at Pilgrims hostel. A really fun and cozy hostel with comfortable beds and a cozy café that serves delicious curries. The location of this relatively new hostel is also quite perfect. If you want a more luxurious overnight stay, look for a nice accommodation in Galle here >>
SURFING IN THE SOUTH
From November to May, the south/southwest of Sri Lanka is the place to be for those who want to surf. During this period, you’ll find perfect conditions for both beginning and advanced surfers. Not a surfing enthusiast? The beaches are also well worth it all year round. There are long sandy beaches as well as small bays. Most tourists can be found in Marissa, which also has a large section of restaurants and bars. If you prefer to avoid the tourist masses, opt for one of the many other towns. Distances in the south are perfectly manageable and can be traveled by tuk-tuk, scooter or bus. You can easily stay in one place and go surfing or go out in one of the other towns.
SURFING AND YOGA IN CAMP POE
Even though I’m a beginning surfer, I spent two weeks in Ahangama. This is where you’ll find the beautiful Camp Poe; a cozy surf camp with lovely bungalows and even more atmospheric, luxury safari tents situated in a lush garden. The swimming pool and frolicking monkeys high up in the trees make this place picture perfect. You can choose to take part in the daily surfing and yoga sessions that take place in the mornings and afternoons. But you can also just relax by the pool and socialize with your fellow travelers. I took surf classes during my stay, which meant a tuk-tuk brought us to Weligama each morning. The more experienced surfers selected the best surf spots each day. Breakfast and dinner at Camp Poe are communal, which brings a great atmosphere. The young owners of Camp Poe work together very closely with a Sri Lankan family and their hospitality makes you feel truly welcome. They also prepare the most delicious meals for you. The elaborate breakfast after an intense surfing session in the morning is truly fantastic and the curries…yum!
You can spend several nights at Camp Poe during your tour of Sri Lanka. Surfing lessons, yoga lessons or surfboard rentals can all be booked separately, but you can also choose to book them as a package. Check the Camp Poe website for up to date offers. Things do vary depending on the season.
BEACH HOPPING IN THE SOUTH
Many travelers only visit one town in the south. I had enough time, so I spent several weeks hopping along the coast. This is something I would definitely recommend doing, even to those people who have less time to spend. I ended up swimming with turtles at the super cool hostel The Doctors house in Matara. And I enjoyed the beach in the beautifully situated bay of Hiriketiya, at Dots Bay House, where the surfing is also good and they offer daily yoga classes. Both accommodations have their own unique character. The Doctors house is an old doctor’s residence – demolished during the 2004 Tsunami – transformed into a super cool hostel by two Australian guys. They’ve retained the old ruins and built a hostel with an urban character around them. They use old materials and stranded wreckage to build lounge areas that make the large garden into a colorful place. If you go to The Doctors house don’t forget to try the homemade pizza! In Hiriketiya, an hour away, you’ll find the cozy Dots Bay House. This accommodation has that really beachy feel with its luxury white beach houses and a half open-air dorm. It’s the perfect place for those who want to enjoy an idyllic beach, some yoga and maybe a few surfing sessions. Oh, and the curries are truly fantastic here too!
If you’re traveling between May and October, you can choose to add Arugam Bay to your itinerary. It’s surfing season here during these months and you can fully enjoy good waves, a great nightlife, and a lovely beach. Outside of these months, most accommodations in Arugam Bay are closed and there’s not much going on.
ELEPHANT SPOTTING IN UDAWALAWE NATIONAL PARK
From Matara, you can take a bus towards Ella. If you’re interested in wildlife you should stop at Udawalawe. This nature preserve is on the route and you can also spot large herds of elephant here.
WALKING THROUGH ELLA’S TEA FARMS
Because of its green tea farms, Ella is quite possibly the most well-known place in Sri Lanka. Up until 1948, Sri Lanka was still called Cylon, the place where the famous Cylon tea originated. They once grew coffee in Sri Lanka, but large forest fires completely demolished the coffee plants and from then on the Sri Lankan people Sri Lanka started growing tea. The English eventually brought the tea to Europe and from then on Cylon tea became widespread across the rest of the world.
So it’s tea. And you can find a lot of it both in and around Ella. Make sure to reserve several days for Ella because you can go on several gorgeous hikes starting in this cozy, somewhat touristy town. All of them are relatively easy, even for inexperienced hikers. A definite recommendation is the hike to Little Adam’s Peak with beautiful views of the hilly, green landscape. Don’t stop at the first peak, but continue walking across the mountain ridge. Once you reach the second peak you will have a breathtaking view of the peak you were just standing on. Make sure you wear shoes with good traction because the path is very steep.
If you get good weather, I recommend you make a trip to Ella Rock. Make sure you reach the summit before sunrise because the sunrise from Ella Rock is meant to be spectacular. I got clouds and rain in the morning when I had planned to do the hike, so I wasn’t able to do it in the end.
SPENDING THE NIGHT IN ELLA
There are several good accommodations in Ella, but B&B Daban is an absolute must. €20 gets you a private room with French doors that give you a view of Ella’s green mountains. And you also get treated to a very elaborate breakfast. Who wouldn’t want to wake up to that?
ELLA TO KANDI
As I mentioned earlier, most travelers make the loop in the opposite direction and take the train from Kandi to Ella. In this case, I traveled in the opposite direction from Ella to Kandi, something I would definitely recommend. The train journey is known as one of the most beautiful train rides in the world and it attracts a lot of tourism. It can be difficult to get a good seat by the window. It’s possible to book tickets in advance, but it’s better to just hang out in the doorway. This will give you the most beautiful views. If you travel from Ella to Kandi like I did, none of this is really an issue. In my case, the train was far from full, especially for the first few hours, and I was able to enjoy the views from the window as well as the doorway. The train spends hours slowly meandering through the bright green tea farms. You get treated to the most beautiful panoramic views passing by during the 7-hour train journey. So it’s no punishment at all to have to sit on the train for that long! If you want to break up the train journey, you can spend the night in Nuwara Eliya. This small town is situated right in the middle of the tea farms. Make sure you get off the train at the Nuno Oyo stop to get there.
KANDI AS A BASE CAMP
For many travelers, Kandi is the starting point for their train journey, so there are a lot of tourists here. It also makes a good base camp if you want to climb Adam’s Peak, for example. If you’re in Kandi, it’s fun to visit the botanical garden and escape from the chaos of the city for a little while. There are a few other sights to see, but personally, I didn’t think Kandi was worth spending much time in.
SACRED SIGIRY ROCK IN DAMBULLA
A well-known Sri Lankan eye-catcher is Sigiry rock, also known as Lion rock. Dambulla makes a good base camp for exploring the area. You can climb Lion rock, but be prepared for large crowds. You’re better off climbing Pidurangala rock, which offers great views of Sigiry. From a distance, you can see the huge rock rise up from the otherwise flat landscape. Climbing Pidurangala rock does require a bit of scrambling on the last stretch, so you have to be prepared to make the effort. Once you reach the top, you are treated to an incredible view. And you only have to share it with a handful of people!
If you’re in Dambulla, you should visit the Golden temple and Rock caves. You’ll find the Golden temple’s huge golden Buddha by the side of the road, right before you get to Dambulla. You can also see the Rock caves here; a temple complex sculpted into the rocks. In a series of caves at the top of a mountain, you’ll find hundreds of Buddha statues and murals. Very impressive!
SPENDING THE NIGHT IN DAMBULLA
During my visit to Dambulla, I stayed in SA Village, a B&B run by a young family. The B&B is located across from the Golden temple and makes a good base camp for exploring the temple complex and perhaps also Polonnaruwa.
ROYAL CITY OF POLONNARUWA
Polonnaruwa is one of the ancient royal cities in Sri Lanka where a large part of the temples, tombs and stupas have been preserved. A visit to Polonnaruwa is a must for those who want to enjoy some local culture. You can visit Polonnaruwa from Dambulla or book an accommodation nearby. The ancient royal city is best explored in a tuk-tuk. Make sure to be clear on where you want to go because some drivers will skip many sights. They can often help you to find a good driver at your accommodation too. I visited Polonnaruwa in a tuk-tuk from Dambulla. This was a very long journey that would have been a lot shorter by bus. So I would recommend taking the bus from Dambulla to Polonnaruwa and exploring the royal city in a tuk-tuk from there.
RELAXING IN TRINCOMALEE
If you want to grab a few days at the beach, Trincomalee is a nice final stop on your tour of Sri Lanka. It takes about 2 hours on a bus from Dambulla to get there. A lovely white sandy beach, a few nice restaurants and a relaxed atmosphere are the perfect ending to your vacation in Sri Lanka! There are buses from Trincomalee to Colombo. This takes about 7 hours. If your flight is in the evening, you can choose to reserve a seat on the airconditioned bus that takes you straight to the airport. I took the regular local bus, but as it was followed by an overnight flight to the Netherlands, this was a long and, above all, hot journey. If you want a slightly more relaxed trip home, I would recommend taking the express bus with airconditioning. Ask about departure times and available seats well in advance.
SPENDING THE NIGHT IN TRINCOMALEE
Samara cottage is an affordable and nice accommodation in Trincomalee. The cozy cabins are walking distance from the beach and have a pleasant interior. The young, friendly owners will make you feel right at home.
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