Why hello there!
I suppose you’ve been wondering what we’ve been up to over the last 3 weeks? I mean of course we’ve teased (tortured) you with a few pictures and made you cringe with our hashtagging, but the important questions like ‘how cheap is Sri Lanka?’, ‘what’s the best way to get around?’ and ‘how big WAS that sea turtle you swam with?!’ remain unanswered.
Well it’s your lucky day, because here lies the truth behind the instas, and our official 3 week tour of Sri Lanka broken down into a nice itinerary for anyone planning on doing the same trip themselves.
We had exactly 3 weeks in Sri Lanka, which is a good amount of time to explore this relatively small island, or at least the well trodden route many other travellers take…
Similarly to India, we moved quite quickly to begin with, concerned that we might not be able to fit everything in however given the island’s size and the ease at which you can travel around it, we needn’t have worried. You can definitely do Sri Lanka’s hotspots in 2 weeks, but equally take your time or explore the east or north in 3-4.
Most people tend to go clockwise around this route and head straight to Kandy from Negombo – understandable if you want to end up on beaches. However we found going anticlockwise did us a favour when it came to booking the more popular train route between Ella and Kandy – but that might just be us!
It’s also incredibly cheap and easy to travel by public transport and Sri Lankans in general are enormously helpful when it comes to knowing which bus or train to get on and when to get off.
Not only are the journeys fairly slick in the way they operate, but they are also incredibly beautiful – the train from Colombo to the coast passes alongside the sea on one side all the way down, and the views on the journey between Ella and Kandy is unrivalled (see here for more info). Careful of the buses though! While they cost you 50p, they can feel more like a rollercoaster as they tear around blind corners and take some pretty risky overtakes – perhaps not for the faint hearted…
Tuk-tuks and taxis are also a great way of getting around if you aren’t on a super tight budget, in fact we met a number of holidayers who had hired a driver for a week to take them to their chosen destinations or attractions and there are plenty of tour operators working with the guest houses and hotels if you just fancied a day trip.
Costs and Spending:
Over the course of 3 weeks, we both spent around £500 each. This sounds like a lot, but when you include 21 nights accommodation, travel and 3 meals a day WITH some left over for activities, it’s not so bad!
There are plenty of basic (aka shabby) but functional guest houses available for less than £10/night but travelling in a pair meant that we could split a slightly more upmarket accommodation which included things like free toiletries or breakfast (someone hold us back), which were available for between £10-20/night.
When it comes to food, generally the more touristy the area, the more expensive the meal. The beachfront restaurants might pull you in with their sea-facing views and fresh fish on display but you can expect to pay double the price of their neighbours on the road behind. That said, on average we paid the following for our daily meals:
- Breakfast – £4 total
- Lunch – £8 total
- Dinner – £10-12
We also tried to stay in accommodation with a kitchen where possible so we could cook our own meals.
3 WEEKS – £530 TOTAL SPEND
🚂 x 5
🚌 x 2
✈️ x 2
🚕 x 40 (Tuk Tuk and Taxis)
🐋 x 1 Whale Watching Trip
🐘 x 1 Udawalawe National Park Safari
🗺 x 1 Waterfall and Tea Tour by Taxi
⛩ x 3 Entries to Temples etc.
DAY TO DAY
🛏 x 21
🍴 x 80 ish
And now for the meaty bit…
1 Night: Colombo
After flying into Sri Lanka’s main airport situated in Negombo, we took an Uber (yes, a useful thing to know!) straight to Colombo city with the intention of getting our bearings and making a plan for our onward journey.
In all honesty, you don’t need to stay in Colombo unless you’re really into cities or perhaps shopping. We ventured out to Victoria Park which is by the National Museum and wandered around it, and ate at a lovely cafe called Life Food. We attempted to tick off some tourist recommendations by foot, but 21k steps later, we were left hot, sweaty and fairly unimpressed…
We did however have a delicious peanut butter smoothie in the courtyard of a cool Sri Lankan shop called Barefoot which is full of beautiful handmade clothes, made by workers at home or local craftsmen or artists (there are no factories).
1 Night – Hikkaduwa
For our next stop, I pretty much googled ‘Where to see turtles in Sri Lanka‘ and Hikkaduwa was one of the top results. Hikkaduwa itself is a little beach town, with a row of bars, restaurants and dive shops separating the beach from the main road – nothing too exciting but well worth the trip if turtles are on your bucket list!
It’s pretty easy to get from Colombo to any of the towns/beaches along the coast – you just jump on the train towards Matara which takes you down the coast and along the seafront.
We’d heard that while the best part of the beach to relax on is the right, the coral reef was to the left so we headed straight there and sure enough, spotted a huge sea turtle popping his head up to breathe! You can rent snorkels all along the beach (Rs.500), so we grabbed a pair and hurried into the water where we were able to swim with the giant and a couple of his smaller pals.
Tip: Turtle nesting season is in Feb – March so during this time, and a couple of weeks either side, you might be lucky to see some mums-to-be come to shore to lay eggs.
Be warned though – this part of the beach provides far from ideal snorkelling conditions. It’s very wavy with some strong currents and shallow waters, but this does mean that not many tourists venture in, allowing you some alone time with the turtles (if you can keep up!).
1 Night: Galle
Galle is a large city on the west coast of Sri Lanka which was built by the Dutch in the 16th Century with a huge fort in the middle of it, the walls of which are surrounded by sea.
Not only are the remains fort particularly beautiful to walk around, the streets inside the walls are quaint and cobbled and mimic that of a dutch town. The little shops and cafes throughout are unique and it’s easy to fill an afternoon wandering around with an ice cream from one of the Gelatos (check out Pedlars Inn)
We spent a night near the fort, but you can easily do a day trip from one of the beach towns or stop on your way back to Colombo.
Tip: Eat at Lucky Fort – a 10 curry sharer for Rs 1500 (£7)
2 Nights: Unawatuna
Another popular turtle nesting site, Unatwatuna was far better than Hikkaduwa for relaxing due to the beach being much more sheltered and the sea being a lot calmer.
The water is also clearer which is great for snorkelling off shore, or taking a boat trip to nearby diving sites. Many of the beach shacks rent or sell boogie and surf boards too but there were barely any waves when we were there.
Unawatuna is big enough that you don’t feel cramped among the tourists, but if you’re looking for something even more quiet, you can walk to or stay near Jungle Beach which is a lot more secluded. It takes about 20 – 30 minutes to get there by foot and there’s not a lot there when you reach Jungle Beach, but it is very pretty with even better snorkelling conditions than Unawatuna!
2 Nights: Mirissa
Known as one of Sri Lanka’s party beaches, Mirissa offers a combination of chill and chatter. The crescent shape of the beach is lined with plenty of bars and stylish white washed and wooden cafes and restaurants, but at the same time the pale sand and gentle waves lapping at the shore are incredibly calming. Again, many shops rent surf boards, but you’d be better off stopping at Weligama (just north of Mirissa) for more substantial waves.
To the left of the beach is also an ‘island’ called parrot island which you can clamber up for a great view, and a nice lagoon to paddle or snorkel in around the corner.
Mirissa is also one of the prime locations for spotting whales and dolphins, and many agencies offer these excursions. We went with a company who partnered with our guesthouse called ‘Whale Watching with Duminda’ – formerly ‘Whale Warriors’ (I wonder why they changed their name…) who were very good.
We were very happy to see a blue whale, a couple of turtles and three pods of dolphins however I was and still am on the fence about whether this form of tourism is harmful to the animals which tainted the experience slightly. A couple of the boats got very close and emitted black smoke around a single whale, so I’d advise doing your research about who to go with, or else don’t go at all if you’re unsure.
Tip: Go to Dewnini No. 1 Roti Shop and try the Banoffee Roti – it’s divine!
1 Night: Tangalle
By far the most picturesque beach we visited was Silent Beach in Tangalle.
In comparison to its neighbours along the southwest coast, this beach is smaller and as there’s a resort set at the back of it (but far enough back that it doesn’t encroach on the shoreline), there aren’t lots of bars and restaurants fighting for your attention. In fact there is only one, which is family run with a limited but tasty menu.
With a fairly steep gradient from sand to sea the waves rather chuck you down with some force, making it tricky to get in and out the water, but once you’re in it’s dreamy!
There’s also an irresistible rope swing hanging from a palm tree – holiday snap anyone? (watch out for that rope burn!).
1 Night: Udawalawe National Park
We did a bit of research into which National Park to do a safari in and Yala and Udawalawe came out on top, but the latter felt more convenient from Tangalle and also seemed an almost guarantee to see elephants.
We took 2 buses up from Tangalle, which only took us around 2 hours to get there and cost us very little!
Udawalawe National Park is home to a huge range of flora and fauna as well as animals including elephants, deer, peacocks, sloth bears, monkeys, crocodiles, leopards and more. While there are around 300 elephants in the park, Udawalawe is over 300 square kilometres in size, reassuring us that there is plenty of space to roam around freely.
The brother of the host of our accommodation (Adambari Safari Villa) was a tour guide in the park so we organised our Safari through them, which gave us a jeep of 4 (max 6) people and entry to the park for a good price. Our guide was hugely knowledgable with eyes like a hawk and was able to point out a whole range of smaller animals and birds as well as the beautiful elephants, of which we saw around 60 in 4 hours!
Udawalawe also has an ‘elephant orphanage’ (supported by the Born Free Foundation) or elephant transit home where orphaned ellies are homed and looked after before being released back into one of the parks. It’s a highly rated attraction with good reviews of the care towards the elephants, but having seen so many we didn’t feel the need.
2 Nights – Ella
My favourite place! Ella lies in central Sri Lanka in what is known as the ‘Hill Country’ which becomes obvious as soon as you start winding up the very steep roads to get there.
Ella is an outdoorsy person’s dream with huge rocks to climb, hills to conquor, waterfalls to chase and panoramic views to take your breath away.
The town of Ella itself is small, with lots of nice places to eat and drink (I recommend ‘The Chill Cafe’) but it’s worth staying in a guesthouse/hotel in the surrounding hills so you can look down into the valleys and across the beautiful tea plantations. The valley that Ella is nestled in is called Ella’s Gap, with Little Adam’s Peak sitting to the left and Ella Rock to the right.
While we’d been through some really tough days lying on beaches, we managed to muster up the energy to venture up Little Adams Peak on the first day – the easier little brother to Adam’s Peak. As I’m still recovering from knee surgery, we weren’t sure how challenging the walk would be but most of the way is a tarmac slope and steps so we reached the top within 25 minutes. Sadly it was cloudy so we missed sunset, but was 100% worth venturing up anyway!
The following morning, we also got up at 4am (ugh!) to climb Ella Rock for sunrise. This walk is verging on a hike and takes a bit of forward planning, especially in the dark. We used a friend’s advice and followed the directions on this blog as best we could, although ended up tagging along with a couple who had organised a guide (usually rs. 40,000). Unlike Little Adams Peak, there are multiple route to the top of Ella Rock, and the last part is much trickier to both navigate and execute.
However, once you’ve used a few tree trunks to pull yourself up and got your hands dirty scrambling up the rock face you’ll be pleased you did!
Ella is also home to a famous nine-arch bridge – an impressive huge stone structure connecting one side of the green valley to the other. It doesn’t sounds too exciting but it’s pretty picture perfect, especially when the blue train crosses over.
Finally, MAKE SURE you do the journey to Kandy by via “The most beautiful train journey in the world!”
1 Night – Nuwara Eliya
We’d heard that some people break up the journey to Kandy by stopping off at Nuwara Eliya (Little England) which is in the middle of the tea country.
As you come into Nuwara Eliya by train, you’ll pass hundreds of acres of tea plantations lining the hills – the names of some you might recognise like ‘Edinburgh’ and ‘Inverness’ mounted on the hillside.
Tip: It’s pretty chilly around the lake in Nuwara Eliya, so if you’re staying there bring a jumper with you!
Like the name suggests, Nuwara Eliya has a somewhat British air to it. Throughout the town are a number of red postboxes and around the lake and racecourse are ponies, either roaming free or giving children rides. It felt a little like the New Forest to me!
Being British and with a love for tea, we looked around to see whether any form of tea tasting was available and stumbled across ‘High Tea‘ at The Grand Hotel. This was essential a Sri Lankan afternoon tea with unlimited tea top-ups (how many times can I say tea in a paragraph?), and cost Rs. 1,300. We were served mini sandwiches, samosas and cakes as we looked over the lawns on a sunny day – it was like a fancy home from home 🙂
You only need a short time here to tick off all there is to see, but I’d recommend taking a taxi to the surrounding areas to see the nearby waterfalls (a couple of which you can bathe in) and take a tour of a tea factory.
2 Nights – Kandy
In all honesty, we weren’t as enamoured with Kandy itself as we thought we would be given that it’s on the popular route around Sri Lanka. However, as cities go, Kandy was quite enjoyable with a number of interesting attractions for tourists, such as the beautiful lake at the centre which lies beside the famous Temple of The Tooth and near to the giant Buddha statue.
Our highlight though was the Botanical Gardens of Kandy, which were about half an hour outside the city. It cost us Rs. 1,500 (£7 ish) to get in and we spent a good 4 hours wandering around the beautiful grounds, stopping for a picnic that we bought with us – a perfect way to spend a lazy afternoon.
Again, it probably doesn’t need more than a couple of days, but it’s a nice injection of culture!
Tip: Go and have a brownie milkshake from ‘Cafe Secret Alley’ – AMAZING!
1 Night – Dambulla
Since we’d now become experts of temples and large rocks, we hopped on a 2 hour bus to Dambulla, home of the Cave Temple and neighbour to Sigiriya where Sri Lanka’s ’Lion Rock’ (Sigiriya Rock) is found.
Sigiriya Rock is an UNESCO heritage site where the ruins of an ancient city lie on the summit of the steep granite slopes. The rock stands in the middle of and high above the surrounding jungle and looks like the face of a huge lion, hence the name.
We learned that there is a $30 fee to visit it and while it looked interesting, we also heard that you get equally amazing views OVER Sigiriya from the rock next door for free, which was a lot more in line with our budget. So again, we set the alarms early and set off in time to climb Pidurangala Rock for sunrise.
It’s an easy enough walk for the most part but wear sensible shoes as the last part requires a bit of climbing over smooth rock face using both your hands and feet!
Tip: Lots of places outside of Dambulla and Sigiriya offer day trips to the rock/temples if you don’t have time to stay the night
3 Nights – Bentota
We debated for some time whether to venture up to Jaffna or an unexplored area of Sri Lanka, but decided to head back to the west coast and stay in a little studio apartment where we could cook our own food and enjoy our own space.
Bentota is much more of a resort beach than we’d been to in Sri Lanka, with beautiful fine sand and turquoise waters. The Bentota River’s estuary meets the Indian Ocean here, forming a large lagoon upon which you can find an array of water sports or river tours if swimming and sunbathing aren’t your thing!
2 Nights – Negombo
Our Sri Lanka adventure ended with two nights in Negombo, mostly because we had an early onward flight booked and it was the easiest place to get to the airport.
Negombo was once held by the Dutch, Portuguese and British and is another beach town with a large fishing community. If you head to the north of the beach you’ll find many families bringing in their nets and preparing their catches on the sand together.
The main street along the beach is lined with hotels and restaurants, which caters for the holidayers and stop overs like us.
What would we do differently?
We’d be cheating if we said nothing, but there are plenty of places we missed off that we debated at the time and better ways of doing things…
- Jaffna and the North
- The East Coast
- Spent longer in places we liked before moving on e.g. Unawatuna and Mirissa
- More snorkelling and maybe a boat trip!
- More research into whale watching organisers – find ones that don’t go at peak times if possible
- Take buses from the very beginning to save ourselves money on tuk-tuks we took between beaches
- Potentially do a day trip to Dambulla/Sigiriya rather than stay a night in Dambulla
✌ Until next time!
Jess and Ed x