Essential Itinerary For Short Trips
Sri Lanka, just off the tip of India, is a jewel in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Teeming with exotic wildlife, surfable beaches, and ancient temples, Sri Lanka is stunning with a capital "S."
With so many sites to see, this 2-week itinerary concentrates on the Top 10 Things to Do in Sri Lanka to help you focus on only the must-see attractions.
Day 1- Fly into Colombo but Stay at Negombo Beach
What Are Essential Itineraries?
These bite-sized guides focus on the Top Sights to See and Best Things to Do for New Expats.
Written in collaboration with my network of expats and experienced travelers, you get up-to-date first hand knowledge and local tips.
Perfect for short trips, these overviews for visiting a new city are available for download.
I prefer to lead with my best foot forward and talk about the coolest places first. But this time around, I'm going to start with a "lil meh." Negombo Beach isn't the best first impression for a Top Things to Do in Sri Lanka list. There isn't anything wrong with Negombo per se, but there isn't much right about it either. But, Negombo is closer to Colombo International Airport (only 5 miles away) than the city of Colombo. Proximity makes it the perfect place to land, recover from your flight, and get a feel for your new country.
Check your bags at any of the guesthouses, resorts, or villas on the main street. Almost any place you pick will be close to the waterfront. Next, jump into one of the green or red tuk-tuks crawling the road and head to the beach. Enjoy some sun or stroll the sand to watch the fisherman going about their day. End the first day of your tour with a sunset, then get some rest. You have a full schedule ahead.
INSIDER TIP: If you happen to arrive on a Sunday, Negombo has large Sunday Farmers Market with loads of cheap veggies and snacks. You can load up on the "3 Cs" (cabbage, carrots, and cilatro) for an easy Asian salad, then have a sunset picnic on the beach.
A Brief Intro to the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka
The triangle of Sirigiya, Dambulla, and Polonnaruwa was essential in developing Sinhalese Buddhism. The triangle also played a historical role in forming Sri Lanka as we know it. Some of the ruins you are going to see were once the capitals of kingdoms.
The culture and history of Sri Lanka has a rich, but sometimes mysterious past. Take your planned visit to Sigiriya as an example. This lava rock had a city built on top of it by King Kashyapa around 470 AD. Considered a progressive, but a mentally unsettled leader, Kashyapa killed his father and by burying him in a wall in his palace. King had some daddy issues to work through. If Sri Lanka's culture and history interest you, the Cultural Triangle tops any must-see list and the incredible nature of the area is a bonus.
You have a tough climb ahead of you to get to Sigiriya. But the climb is worth it to stand on Sigiriya rock and see the dense jungle of the cultural triangle in front of you. When exploring the ruins of Sigiriya or Polonnaruwa, tread quietly and keep an eye out for the wildlife. The jungle in the triangle is home to cheeky monkeys, deer, monitor lizards, and colorful peacocks. Not far from Sigiriya is Minneriya National Park. The biggest gathering of elephants in the world occurs in Minneriya every August.
Aside from wildlife, the jungle hides the temple ruins of Polonnaruwa. As one of the few places founded by Hindu kings, here you can find both Buddhist and Hindu statues. The cultural triangle isn't all about the past. This area is still an active place of worship. You will notice a collision of past and present visiting the Buddhist temples of Anuradhapura and the cave monastery at Dambulla. At the monastery, modern worshipers practice religious services surrounded by centuries-old Buddhist images. Anuradhapura is still one of the holiest sites for Sinhalese Buddhists.
Travel Contribution: Backpack Adventures
Day 2- Go for a Trek up Sigiriya
Sigiriya is UNESCO World Heritage site included in all the Top Things to Do in Sri Lanka lists. This ancient fortress, also known as Lion Rock, is located in the northern district of Matale, about 15 miles away from the town of Dambulla. During the 5th century, this ruined city was the capital of an ancient kingdom. The Royal Palace sits at the top of the rock, surrounded by curated gardens, enormous swimming pools, and beautiful frescos. Sigiriya's best-known feature is the colossal getaway built on the side of the rock in the shape of a lion.
Once you get to Sigiriya, it's time to climb. To reach this incredible cultural and natural wonder, you'll have to walk up more than 750 steps. Fortunately, it is not as steep as it looks from the photos. There are rest stops where you can catch your breath if you need a break. Though you may find it hard to stop, as the excitement builds with each step. You'll hear monkeys howling in the background and lizards skittering across your path. Your thighs may start to burn from the climb, but the unforgettable views will be so incredible. You won't even realize how tired you are until you reach the top.
Make sure you get to Sigiriya very early. It is one of Sri Lanka's top attractions, and tourists flood the place throughout the day. Plan on starting early to arrive with enough time to let the beauty of this magical place sink in and enjoy it all by yourself."
Travel Contribution: Temporal Globe
Day 3- Explore the cave temples of Dambulla
After your climb up Sigiriya, our next must-see stop is the cave temples of Dambulla. These ancient temples are built on top of a rock in the middle of the village of Dambulla.
Although the cave temples are often seen as part of the Golden Temple, these are separate attractions. These caves were the homes to ancient Sri Lankans and later in the first century, converted into a temple. The little temples are well-preserved. The temple's statues date back from the 11th century, then restored in the 18th century by the King of Kandy.
I recommend heading to the cave temples for sunset. The golden hour view of Dambulla with nature surrounding the town is picture-perfect. In the evening, you can see locals carrying flowers and other offerings, followed by curious dogs, making their way up to the cave temples to pray.
The fee is 1500 Sri Lankan Rupees, which is between $8 and $9. This money aids in the conservation of these incredible temples.Travel Contribution: Glitter Rebel
INSIDER TIP: If you are planning to visit the cave temples, approach them via tuk-tuk by the actual entrance. Do not head directly to the caves from the Golden Temple. Tickets must be purchased at the Dambulla Cave Ticket counter (Google Map it) at the bottom of the steps. If you come directly from the Golden Temple, you will have to walk down all the stairs to the ticket counter. Then you need to double back with a soul-crushing walk all the way back up to the entrance.
Day 4- Sunrise Hike Up Pidurangala Rock
As the two UNESCO World Heritage sites in the central region, Sigiriya and Anuradhapura, get all the love. There is another rock, off the beaten path, left off of most Must-See lists and travel blogs. In the middle of the jungle, in the shadow of Sigiriya, stands Pidurangala. Like, Sigiriya, Pidurangala has its own set of ruins, a 5th century Royal Palace, and equally insane views of the jungles and surrounding mountains. But, Pidurangala gets bonus points over Sigiriya for only having a one-tenth of the wait times, one-tenth of the crowds, and is one-tenth of the entrance price (500 rupees or $3).
Clocking in at about 30 minutes, the hike to the top of Pidurangala Rock isn't very long. Start walking about 1 hour before sunrise. Enjoy the sweeping views of the valley draped in golden hues. Get your requisite picture staring intently into the distance and be back down in time to grab an early breakfast.
The hike itself is straight forward and well marked. The last bit to the summit is a little tricky and will need some bouldering. Again though, the path is clearly marked with arrows and is easily doable. Watch your footing and take slow steps. Starting an hour before sunrise gives you plenty of buffer. The warm glow before dawn will let you know how much time you have- no need to rush.
Waking up at the crack of dawn for a hike may not have been on your list of Top Things to Do, but the 360-degree views at the top of Pidurangala are well worth it. You will hear folks describe the lush green trees reflecting the sun's golden rays from the Pidurangala summit as "magical." Many will argue that the view from Pidurangala beats the pants off the view from Sigiriya. I honestly wouldn't disagree with them.
A perfect overview for first time visitors, this Things To Do In Sri Lanka guide is available for download.
Day 5 Revel in the sights and sounds of Kandy
At about 3-hours away from Negombo, the Sacred City of Kandy is the perfect place to set up camp for the next couple of days. Kandy is a full sensory experience. The city attracts travelers from all across the world with its vibrant culture, history, and natural beauty. You will find a city with dramatic colonial architecture, lush forests, mist-clad hills, and a beautiful lake at its heart. Kandy is one of the most visually stunning places to visit in Asia. It deserves a place on everyone’s Top Things to Do in Sri Lanka list.
Perched on a hilltop overlooking Kandy is the immense Bahirawakanda Vihara Buddha Statue. Glance up from anywhere in Kandy, and you can find this 88-feet statue of Buddha looking over your shoulder. Think of the Buddha as your guardian angel while you are in Kandy. Make sure to climb the top of the hill for an Instagram-worthy shot!
Kandy Lake, with a palm-fringed island in the center, is an absolute icon of Kandy. I'd recommend a quiet stroll around the lake to discover its beauty. A beautiful way to end your Kandy exploration is by drinking in the panoramic views over the city from Arthur's Seat, aka Kandy Viewpoint.
Travel Contribution: Travel Melodies
INSIDER TIP: Try to visit between July and August. You can join one of the biggest Buddhist festivals ever, Kandy Esala Perahera. Everyone comes together to pay tribute to the Sacred Tooth Relic. The streets of Kandy come alive with a grand parade. With musicians, fire-breathers, acrobats, and jugglers flanking decorated elephants, it's a surreal spectacle.
Day 6- Tour the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic
The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic is the most revered Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka. Also known as Sri Dalada Maligawa, the temple deserves its own day of exploring. This UNESCO World Heritage site is an inspiring spiritual exhibition and an architectural marvel. Inside a royal palace complex, an elaborate temple preserves a vital relic of Buddhist culture- the sacred tooth of Buddha.
Devotees can attend one of three ceremonies conducted daily (6 am, 10 am, and 6 pm) to catch a glimpse of the sacred tooth inside a gold casket. The relic has political significance as well as religious importance. In ancient times, Kandyans believed that whoever held the Buddhist relic held the governing reins of the country.
Located close to the picturesque Kandy lake, four walls surround the temple. Entering feels like you are walking into a formidable fortress. The structures here remind me of similar temples in Ubud. If you have ever visited Bali, you will see similarities.
Look for the entrance called Mahawahalkada. Stone elephants carved on both sides of the door greet you at the main gate. Then a cave-like passage with beautiful frescoes on each side leads you to the main shrine. Appreciate the Kandyan influence in the architectural style. The style's grandeur is on full display with the extravagant drummer's chamber and the golden-canopied main shrine. Protected by golden gemstone encrusted stupa-shaped caskets, is the sacred tooth relic.
Sit in front of the main shrine to observe the temple's priests performing the pooja (prayer) ceremony. The sound of traditional music, combined with gorgeous dim lighting, gives a spiritual feel to the whole ambiance.
Don't miss out on exploring a small museum dedicated to the royal elephant "Raja," who served the King for several years. The stuffed statue inside will make you look twice. Made with incredible precision and detail, the figure looks like an actual living, breathing elephant. You can find incense sticks and candles at a small separate enclosure for your prayers.
The best times to visit the temple are mornings at 9 am and evenings at 5 pm. The entry fee per person is 1500 Sri Lankan Rupees (LKR).
Travel Contribution: The Wandering Vegetable
- I strongly recommend hiring a guide. Guides provide invaluable historical context to help you understand the significance of what you see in the temple. You can find guides at the temple entrance.
- Make sure to wear proper clothes covering your shoulders and knees. Sleeveless tops and shorts are not allowed. Remember to remove your shoes at the entrance.
Day 7- Learn about tea at a plantation in Nuwara Eliya
Leaving Kandy, we continue our Must-See Tour to the southern tea region. Did you know Sri Lanka is the world's fourth-largest tea producer? Visiting a tea estate and a tea factory is a quintessential Sri Lanka must-do. Nuwara Eliya is a perfect place for the trip. Charmingly called the "Little England of Sri Lanka," Nuwara Eliya resides in the colder hill country perpetually covered with blankets of mist. Nuwara Eliya has been the capital of Sri Lanka's tea industry since the early 19th century. Central Sri Lanka, with its plentiful rain and humid but cool temperature, provides an ideal climate for high-quality tea.
When in Nuwara Eliya, you start your morning with a fresh cup of brewed tea and a spectacular view. No matter where you look, endless waves of bright green leaves cover rolling hills. Nuwara Eliya's centuries-old tea estates and tea factories offer you the complete tea experience. You can see the entire tea making process, from plucking fresh tea leaves to packaging the tea. You can also interact with local tea pluckers, some of whom get genuinely excited seeing a traveler from far away land.
Nuwara Eliya is also known for its waterfalls. If you aren't tired from our earlier trips, check out the waterfalls (especially Ramboda Falls) in the area while you are here. A one-day trip is still enough time for exploring the tea factory, tea estates, and the waterfall.
Travel Contribution: Tanned Travel Girl
INSIDER TIP: There are no charges for the tea estates visit and tea factory tour in Nuwara Eliya. But as a courtesy, please tip your guide and any tea pluckers you meet.
Day 8- Watch the trains cross the Nine Arch Bridge
When visiting the beautiful town of Ella, the number one site to visit has to be the Nine Arch Bridge. It's a genuinely iconic attraction and one of the most recognizable scenes anywhere in the country. Situated in the middle of a pristine valley and surrounded by dense green trees, the view along the bridge is breathtaking.
The bridge dates back to 1941 when Britain ruled the country as a colony. The British originally commissioned the bridge to be made of steel. However, as World War 2 required steel for the war effort, the construction was changed to the stone design you see today. It's hard to imagine this magnificent bridge looking any other way.
Try to get there before sunrise. You can have the site for yourself and not have to battle crowds for space. Enjoy the calming scene, while you wait for the first passing train. But get your camera ready for an epic shot. Take your picture as the train filled with local workers and children on the way to school crosses the bridge. The sun peeking over the valley and shining through the trees will light your shot.
If you have your own scooter or moped, then it's best to drive yourself here from Ella. Alternatively, you can pick up a cheap tuk-tuk ride from one of the many locals waiting in town for tourists.
Travel Contribution: Dream Big, Travel Far
A perfect overview for first time visitors, this Things To Do In Sri Lanka guide is available for download.
INSIDER TIP: Trying to fit the entire span of the iconic Nine Arch Bridge into a single pic requires a wide angle shot. A landscape lens for a Sony A6000 can properly capture your Sri Lanka adventures.
Day 9-10 - Get up close to the elephants at an Udawalawe Safari
Diverse wildlife is the calling card of Sri Lanka. It's almost impossible to avoid wild encounters with a monkey, peacock, or occasional crocodile! But if you want to have a really memorable experience and see Sri Lankan nature in all its glory, you should visit one of the various national parks. The most popular ones, Yala and Udawalawe, are located relatively close to each other in the south-eastern part of the country. You can choose between the morning, afternoon, half-day, or full-day safari. If none of those times fit, negotiate a driver for a tour that fits your budget and timeline.
If you decide on Udawalawe, stop by the ethical elephant sanctuary right by the entrance of the National Park. The sanctuary, called Elephant Transit Home, raises injured or lost baby elephants, before releasing them back to the wild. Visit during feeding time to see dozens of elephant calves drinking milk and walking around. Timing-wise, it is a perfect stop there before Udawalawe afternoon safari. On safari in either of these parks, offer plenty of different animals and birds. Elephants, deers, water buffalos, peacocks, and crocodiles are the most common ones you can't miss. All the animals roam freely in their natural habitat, so every visitor's experience is different and unique!
Travel Contribution: Live Your Dream TODAY
INSIDER TIP: A private safari is 100% the way to go. You get the whole jeep for yourself. Your driver is entirely on your timeline. If you want extra time observing a buffalo or want to sneak up a photo of two elephants mating, whatever floats your boat, just ask. If you choose to stay in a homestay in Sri Lanka, the owner can likely organize a private safari for you.
Day 11 - Take in the view on Coconut Tree Hill
At the quaint little surf town of Mirissa, head toward the east end of Mirissa beach. Look for a small peninsula jutting up from the ocean. You will be hard-pressed to miss the unmistakable red soil and grove of palm trees at one of the most recognizable Instagram spots in Sri Lanka.
To get here, walk all the way to the east end of the beach. Walk through the Sunset Bar and climb a short and steep hill to reach the viewpoint. A hill of deep red earth and an orchard of palm trees growing out from barren soil make up the unique landscape. With no other vegetation in the area, the contrast of deep red dirt, lush green palm trees, and blue ocean with white foam is a dazzling color palette. Like most places you have visited in this Must-See tour, it is best to visit at sunrise or sunset as the golden light filters through the palm trees. Coconut Tree Hill used to be relatively undiscovered. Social media has changed all that; it is now quite the popular spot in Mirissa. To beat the crowds, you will have to wake up super early and catch the sunrise. The hill also offers an excellent vantage point to watch the surfers ride the waves below and to keep an eye out for turtles cruising through the water. With complete views of all of Mirissa beach, its no wonder Coconut Tree Hill is so popular.
Travel Contribution: The Coastal Campaign
INSIDER TIP: Make sure to stop at the Sunset Bar for a drink after your visit. It's only fair after walking through their place of business
Day 12 - Go Whale Watching off the Coast of Mirissa
Sri Lanka is on many all-time favorite country lists for the sheer amount of wildlife you can see on a small island. You've seen the wild elephants and buffalo during the Udawalawe safari, but did you know Sri Lanka also offers the chance to see blue whales? The experience of seeing the biggest animal in the world has to be on the top of every Things to Do in Sri Lanka list.
Whale watching season in Sri Lanka runs from November to May before monsoons hit. If you time your visit during whale watching season, you have over a 90% chance of seeing whales. Even when I missed seeing the blue whales during my previous safari at the tail end of a season, I still spotted dolphins and a whale shark. Butl, nothing beats the experience of watching the enormous blue whales sprout water from their blowholes or seeing their massive flukes raised high in the air before they dive underwater.
Make sure to book a safari with an operator that follows international standards for whale watching. The boats should keep a respectful distance to keep from distressing the whales. There are strict laws to keep people from swimming with the whales to protect them further.
The cost of a whale-watching safari from Mirissa starts at roughly 6000 rupees /$32.
Travel Contribution: Beach Bum Adventure- Visiting Sri Lanka as a solo female, check out my post with great advice as I've been there alone twice.
INSIDER TIP: The Indian Ocean is almost always rough. If you get a little nauseous in the back of a car, you are practically guaranteed to feed the fish during this trip. Take some seasick pills about 1-2 hours BEFORE getting on the boat. Eat a light breakfast. Stay ways from greasy foods. For other seasickness remedies, check our article on Sailboat Life.
Day 13-14 - Surf, Snorkel, and Play at Hikkaduwa Beach
Just south of Colombo by about 62 miles, Hikkaduwa is only stone's throw away from where we first started. Hikkaduwa is arguably the best beach in Sri Lanka. Leaning more toward surf-and-swim types vs. cocktails-by-the-poolside crowd, it's my bet to end your Top 10 Things to do tour.
Peak season is November to March, as that is the perfect intersection of warm sunshine and surfable waves. Don't let the words "peak season" scare you off, even at the peak, the cost of living here is affordable. If you don't surf, you still have plenty of things to do in the water. Turtles feed all along the shoreline here. Grab a mask and jump into the clear blue waters for a swim.
If you get tired of playing tag with the tortugas (just joking, don't touch the turtles), you can book a snorkeling trip to the coral reefs. One hundred seventy different types of colorful fish pack the reef system in Hikkaduwa. New to snorkeling? Even if you aren't the strongest swimmer, the water is 4m deep. Seriously, the reef is only a 200 yard boat ride away and is worth your $20.
INSIDER TIP: November to March is peak surf season for the West coast of Sri Lanka. Want to splash around the waves of the East coast? Head to Sri Lanka between May and October. With water temps in the 80s (F) you can leave you full body suits at home. Break out the board shorts and bikinis when surfing in Sri Lanka.
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