A large rock fortress with a path leading to it
Sigiriya Rock, Sri Lanka

Travel Sri Lanka Itinerary: 7 Days to See the Best Places

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Is Sri Lanka a country you have wondered about visiting?

Maybe you’ve listened to stories from fellow travellers about its beauty and its friendly people.

For us, it was our Indian friends who recommended we travel to Sri Lanka. Saying it was a softer approach for this part of the world. 

Not knowing how diverse Sri Lanka was, our planning slipped into the too-hard basket.

Luckily, we have found an excellent way for you to see Sri Lanka.

How to Travel Sri Lanka with a Local

For our return trip to housesit in London from Wellington, New Zealand, we wanted a new travel destination instead of the usual stopovers of Singapore and Hong Kong.

As we started planning an itinerary for Sri Lanka, we considered whether to go alone, choose a tour, or find a driver.

You might hear stories about Instagram with its flashy selfies, influencers making millions, or unrealistic places to see.

However, Instagram has become a social platform where we connect with fellow travellers, make friendships, and support each other on our travel journey.

It sounds a bit teary-eyed, but maybe rediscovering travel at 50 encourages more people to slow travel.

Three people at the back of as van sign written with travel information
With Nishi, our excellent driver / Tour Guide for our trip around Sri Lanka

So, through our Instagram followers, we came across Driver Sri Lanka, a private driver named Nishantha based in Colombo. 

We worked with him to plan a seven-day adventure that would cover the must-see places of this diverse country, Sri Lanka.

If you are considering a trip around Sri Lanka, we can recommend Nishantha (Nishi). Contact him on his Facebook page.

How many days is enough to visit Sri Lanka?

Ideally, your tour of Sri Lanka should allow 10-14 days because of the driving required to see each place. 

Sometimes, the roads and the drivers can make a journey a “hair-raising” experience, so forget Google Maps and allow more time.

A map of a road trip around Sri Lanka

But if you only have seven days in Sri Lanka, you can mix up the places you want to see, like:

  • 1 – Dambulla Rock Temple and Sigiriya Rock
  • 2 – Polonnaruwa ancient city
  • 3 – Drive Matale to Kandy 
  • 4 – Tea Plantations, Nuwara Eliya train to Ella
  • 5 – Safari at Yala National Park
  • 6 – Mirissa Beach
  • 7 – Fort Galle and Colombo

Getting to Sri Lanka

Kuala Lumpur (KL) or Singapore are options for connecting flights to Sri Lanka. We used Skyscanner to search for the best flights to travel to Sri Lanka.

Bandaranaike International Airport (situated 30 km north of Colombo) is the main airport for Sri Lanka.

On arrival, the aircraft was fumigated for bugs, which reminded us of the 1980s in New Zealand when they did the same process.

To determine if you need a visa to enter Sri Lanka, we always check iVisa.

With iVisa, you enter the country of your issued passport and the country you want to visit. Within a minute, iVisa will let you know if a visa is required. 

If a Visa is required, use IVisa to organize your visa online. Otherwise, you will need USD cash to get a visa at the airport.

After a day of travel, our driver, Nishantha, was waiting for us to help with bags, changing money, and finding an ATM. 

Our guest house this evening was in Negombo, only 11 km from the airport.

Day One – Negombo to Sigiriya and everything in between

Starting your Sri Lankan tour at Negombo instead of Colombo will give you a head start on your Day One itinerary.

Travelling from Negombo via Dambulla and onto Sirigiya has stops at:

  • Athagala Samadhi Buddha Statue (White Buddha)
  • Dambulla Caves

We also took breaks for lunch and tasted golden coconuts.

Dutch influence in Negombo

Negombo was one of the most important sources of cinnamon during the Dutch era, and there are still reminders of European days, including the Dutch canals that are still used today.

The Dutch captured Negombo from the Portuguese in 1640, but they lost possession until it was recaptured in 1644. The British then took it from the Dutch without a struggle in 1796. 

Hotels populate the beach area next door to local fisherman drying their fish, a local delicacy we tried at lunch. 

And like our next stop at Elephant Rock, we loved our Sri Lanka experience.

Take in Views from Elephant Rock

Arriving in the city of Kurunegala is the famous Athagala Rock (shaped like an elephant).

Kurunegala is a local stopover for visitors to visit the 20-meter Athagala Samadhi Buddha Statue (White Buddha) and shrine.

You can walk the 400 stone steps to the shrine or drive the 1.9 km to the top for spectacular views.

From Kurunegala, it is 55km to Dambulla.

See Paintings at Dambulla Rock Temple

Colourful paintings inside a cave
Paintings at Dambulla Temple Rock

The Dambulla Rock Temple was constructed during the reign of King Wattagamani Abhaya (103 BC and 89-77 BC ) after he used the caves to hide during a South Indian invasion 

By constructing drip ledges suitable for withstanding rainy weather, he created walled partitions under the rock overhang spanning the entire large cave.

What is unique about the caves is that every inch of them is covered in paintings.

There are three cave temples named:

  • Devarajalena
  • Maharajalena
  • Paccimalena

Entrance Fee: USD10 per person plus a small gratuity to a local helper to mind your shoes.

If you walk up from Dambulla, you’ll pass by the new shrine of the Golden Buddha, which has a Buddha museum.


Climb the Sigiriya Rock Fortress

A large rock standing up from the flat earth
Sigiriya Fortress Rock

One of the best things to do in Sri Lanka is to climb Sigiriya Rock, the UNESCO heritage site.

Rising 370m above sea level, Sigiriya Rock, formed from the magma of an extinct volcano, provides views out and across the jungle below.

Locals call it the eighth wonder of the world, as this ancient palace and fortress complex has significant archaeological importance and attracts thousands of tourists every year. 

How many steps are there in Sigiriya?

The climb up is a spiral staircase of 1,250 steps will pass by:

  • frescoes of Kasyapa’s wives and concubines
  • the Mirror Wall, polished granite so the King could see his reflection
  • inscriptions dating back to the 8th century

The time it takes to climb to the top depends on the medium or languid pace of tour groups. Ideally, you want to allow 1.5 to 3 hours to climb and enjoy the panoramic views.

At the top is an ancient gateway, originally designed as a huge stone lion. But you’ll only see the lion’s feet as the rest of the lion was destroyed. The term Sigiriya originates from the word Sīnhāgiri, i.e., Lion Rock.

Within the grounds of the fortress are:

  • palace ruins
  • fortifications
  • ancient ponds
  • canals
  • fountains
  • gardens (one of the oldest landscaped gardens in the world)

The history of Sigiriya spans time:

  • A monastery in 3BC
  • Royal residence for King Kasyapa in the 5th century until his death
  • Buddhist monastery until abandoned in the 14th century

Our visit in March was very hot, with the temperature at 35 degrees. We climbed later in the day for sunset but still wished we had bought more water. We were pleased to rehydrate on our return to the vehicle.

Opening time: Daily 7:00 to 17:30

Entrance Fee: USD30 per person (includes Sigiriya museum).

Nearby, you can visit the Pidurangala Monastery and climb to get more views of Sigiriya.

Where to Stay in Sigiriya

Our stay was at Sigiriya Cottage, amongst the trees, with an open communal dining area. The staff was great at organizing breakfast and evening meals. 


Day Two – See the Best of Polonnaruwa

An ancient building with statues
Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

Sigiriya bullock carts were scattered along the road this morning, reminding us of their history, carting rice to the ports of Colombo. They are still in use, but only to take tourists by bullock and cart to visit local villages. 

It is not the option we wanted to use to get to Polonnaruwa.

How do you get to Polonnaruwa from Sigiriya?

Your best option is to use a private vehicle for the 55km journey. Otherwise, to take a bus, you would have to return to Dambulla for the bus to Polonnaruwa. 

Having a private vehicle means you can cover the ancient city of Polonnaruwa more efficiently and get a reprieve from the heat between the various sites.  

Our seven-day Sri Lanka itinerary was a day trip from Sigiriya Cottage.

The Ancient City of Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa is the second-largest ancient city in Sri Lanka. A UNESCO heritage site, it dates back to the 10th century Chola dynasty.

If you were in awe of Angkor Wat near Siem Reap, Cambodia, visiting Polonnaruwa is just as magnificent. 

The entrance fee is USD25 and is payable at the museum’s starting point, where you have an overview of the different sections of the historical ruins to visit.

Three kings dominated the chronicles of Polonnaruwa city and the period. 

You can visit:

  • The Lion Throne first on the artificial lake often referred to as the Sea of Parakrama
  • Ministerial chambers
  • Monastery ruins, with its library and surrounding nine residential quarters
  • 12km rectangle city wall
  • Palace ruins of pools, official rooms, temples, stupas
  • Tooth Relic temple ruin

Tasting Local Dishes at Polonnaruwa Restaurant

About 6kms from Polonnaruwa ancient city is the family-run Jaga Restaurant.

Jaga Restaurant is an organic garden-to-table restaurant with delicious food. The owner explained each vegetable curry dish and the chicken dishes. 

Before leaving, we were invited to leave a message on the restaurant wall.

Location: D9 Ela Wel Para, Jayanthipura, Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka


Day 3: Driving Sigiriya to Matale and Kandy

Depending on traffic, it takes about three hours (91 km) to leave Sigiriya for the historic city of Kandy.

Driving in Sri Lanka is similar to Vietnam. At times, there are 3-4 vehicles across a two-lane highway. So, having a private Driver in Sri Lanka is a safer option than taking a local bus.

Our first stop of the day was in the spice region of Matale.

Diana Spice and Herb Garden, Matale

Matale is the leading spice production region in Sri Lanka. 

Traders from India and Arabic countries would buy pepper, cardamom, and cloves. 

Visiting the Diana Spice and Herb Garden, you can learn about the medicinal properties of spices produced in the Matale region and see spices in their natural state.

You can purchase items from their shop or buy online.

What to See in Kandy in One Day

Palm trees reflected in a lake
Kandy Lake

Kandy, in the centre of Sri Lanka, was the last capital of the Sri Lankan King.

The city is surrounded by mountains along Sri Lanka’s longest river, the Mahaweli River. 

But the British struggled to pronounce the Sri Lankan name of the city, Kiri Muhuda. So it became known as Kandy. 

The city is vibrant. The main train line stopping here makes it easy to explore the region.

In Kandy, the best places to visit are:

Bogambara Lake 

You can see the former Royal Summer House (now a bathhouse) on the island in the middle of the lake. 

Buddhist Temple of the Tooth

A UNESCO World Heritage Site with a sacred relic within the Buddhist Temple of the Tooth (Sri Dalada Maligawa). 

Entrance Fee: USD10 

The Royal Botanical Gardens

A large number of bats hanging upside down from branches in a big tree
Botanical Gardens, Kandy Bats hanging in a tree

Kandy’s Royal Botanical Gardens were established with plants from Kew Gardens, London, in 1843. The garden covers 59 hectares with walkways, ponds, trees, and fauna. The highlight is the greenhouse of orchids.

Entrance Fee: USD10 

Kandyan Dancers

The hour-long Kandyan dance performance is colourful for a cultural experience of Sri Lanka. The performance includes several dances, a drum recital, and finishes with fire walking.

Dancers on a stage in red and gold clothing
Dancers in traditional clothing at Kandy

The performance is held at Kandy’s cultural centre near the lake. 

Entrance Fee: USD10 

Shopping for Indian Silk Sari or Gemstones

Shopping is always fun in new countries, as is looking for souvenirs or unique items.

Choose the right shop, and you can dress in a Sri Lankan sari for a photo. Or visit a gemstone jeweller to pick our exquisite sapphires.


Day 4: Tea Plantations and Nuwara Eliya Train Ride to Ella

Two ladies picking tea on a plantation
Picking Tea at Glenloch Tea Plantation near Kandy

Growing up as kids, we often heard the name Ceylon Tea, referring to the name the British had given Sri Lanka.

To our surprise, many tea plantations have Scottish origin, including Glenloch Tea Plantation.

Picking Tea at Glenloch Tea Plantation

The drive from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya takes you through some stunning scenery of Sri Lanka. Dotted along the road are tea plantations over a century old.

Glenloch Tea Plantation will organize a guide to explain the tea process, from gathering to drying, sorting, and finally, the fermenting phase. 

You even get to taste a variety of teas, including silvertip, green, and black. And if you want to pick the tea yourself, they organize this for you, too.

A gratuity to our tea guide, and we were on our way to Nuwara Eliya.

Sir Lanka’s Famous Train: Nuwara Eliya to Ella

A little dog next to a train filled with passengers
Is there room for one more passenger? Train to Ella in Sri Lanka

The roads between Kandy and Nuwara Eliya are windy and steep, making a stop for lunch breath-taking, with a vista out across the valley.

Nuwara Eliya, often referred to as “Little England,” is a quaint town with colonial houses. Everywhere you look, you should sit and have a cup of tea. Even the Post Office is a classic building.

Travellers come to Nuwara Eliya to catch the iconic train to Badulla, a 2.5-hour trip that takes in spectacular scenery.

Sit on the right side of the train for the first hour. Then, sit on the left side as you leave the tunnel and emerge with a vista over the valley.

The final house and a half has views of tea plantations and the famous train station in Demodara. This is where the track travels 360 degrees back on itself. Great for photos.

Our driver was at Badulla station to meet and transfer us to Ella for the night. 

Day 5: Things to Do in Ella and a Safari for Later 

Ella is a tourist town in the hill country. It has the feel of a resort town buzzy with backpackers enjoying a beer, a curry, or a pizza. 

Where to Stay in Ella: Shadow Inn. The owners are lovely; the accommodation feels more like a homestay. 

Location: Grand View, Pasara Road, Ella 90090, Sri Lanka

Watch the Train at Nine Arches Bridge at Ella

A blue train crossing an arched bridge
Nine Arches Bridges near Ella

One of the iconic photos of Sri Lanka is the train crossing the Nine Arches Bridge.

To get the photo, it was a 20-minute bush walk from near where we were staying.

The bridge is a viaduct made of bricks and cement. It is over 91 meters in length at a height of over 24 meters.

We wondered if our mid-morning walk to Adam’s Peak would be that high.

Climb up Little Adam’s Peak

Little Adam’s Peak is a vigorous hour’s walk to three peaks with views across the hill country valley. 

There are around 350 steps to the first peak. But for the next two peaks, you need a good pair of shoes to navigate the rocky paths.

A view of a peaked hill through bush
Little Adam’s Peak near Ella

Bring a water bottle to stay hydrated under the early morning sun.

It was a busy morning, and we still had more of Sri Lanka to see; our next stop was Yala National Wildlife Park.

Book Yourself a Safari in Sri Lanka

A pair of elephants at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

One of the best things to do in Sri Lanka is a safari at one of the National Parks. 

Yala National Park is the second-largest national park in Sri Lanka.  It is an area of 979 km square kilometres of monsoon forests, grasslands, and wetlands.

The park is popular with tourists who want to see elephants and the elusive leopard.

Where to Stay at Tissamaharama

The Grand Yala Hotel – is a 40-minute drive from Yala National Park in Tissamaharama.

The large, clean, comfortable rooms have a private outdoor patio or balcony. The hotel also has an outdoor pool and a restaurant that serves amazing Sri Lankan dishes. 

Location: Gunawardana Mawatha, Debarawewa, Tissamaharama

Yala National Park Entrance Fee 

Our driver organized a local guide and truck for our afternoon safari. And with more than 20 years of experience, he was adept at finding wildlife in the park.

We were collected from the hotel for the 40-minute drive to the park.

Entrance Fee: 7,000 rupees (USD50) 

The wildlife of Yala National Park is spectacular

A white bird near a crocodile next to water
What’s for dinner? A crocodile and a heron at Yala National Park.

Inside Yala National Park, the roads become dusty dirt tracks. Within five minutes, you are spotting birds and reptiles. 

Crocodiles lazying by waterholes, elephants feeding on bushes and beautiful coloured birds flitting about.

The park may seem busy with other tour guide trucks, but it’s how the drivers coordinate for animal sightings. Especially when trying to find the leopards.

What makes Yala National Park popular with tourists is the wildlife they get to see. As the second-largest safari park, you can cover a large area to see:

  • Elephants
  • Crocodiles
  • Water Buffalo
  • Deer
  • Monkeys
  • Birds like egrets, kingfishers, and hornbills

And if you don’t get to see the leopard, then maybe you may glimpse the big tusker.

A large male elephant with tusks
A large male elephant with tusks at Yala National Park

A male elephant with tusks is rare. To protect the male elephants, their tusks are removed to stop poachers from killing them.

Safari Sunset at Yala National Park

What better way to end a fantastic safari than at sunset? Leaving the animals arriving at water holes to feed is memorable.

Sun setting over pools in a rocky landscape
The sun setting over rock pools as we left Yala National Park

Yala National Park is a fantastic experience. Relaxing at the hotel for a swim and aperitif before a delicious Sri Lankan meal.

We were off to the beach with only two more days of our Sri Lankan 7-day itinerary.


Day 6: Relax and Unwind at Mirissa Beach 

Visiting Sri Lanka in March means the southern beaches are chosen for relaxing and unwinding.

A group of people in a pool in the sea
One of the beaches near Mirissa

Leaving the excitement of our wildlife safari at Yala National Park, day six of our 7-day itinerary was a beach stay.

Mirissa Beach was the perfect spot to dip our toes into the Indian Ocean.

Our three-hour journey had one stop at Budu Raja Maha Wehera Wewurukannala, Dickwella. Sri Lanka’s largest seated Buddha is 50m high.

It is a place of pilgrimage, and the temple has beautiful frescoes.

But the Tunnel of Hell, on your way to the Buddha, has some very ugly scenes. These life-size figures show the consequences of temptation, and they are not appropriate for young children.

Where to Stay at Mirissa Beach 

A view towards a beach with a building and palm trees
Mirissa Beach, Sri Lanka

To be right on the beach, with the sea at your door, Giragala Village is the place to stay.

It is a very relaxed setting with easy beach access and Parrot Rock access.

A lady lying in a hammock under palm trees next to a beach
Relaxing at Mirissa

You can take in the sunsets from here or walk along the beachfront for a drink or meal at one of the bars or restaurants.

Location: Giragala Village, Mirissa

Things to Do at Mirissa Beach

There’s always swimming or reading a book as you sunbathe. Otherwise, book a whale watch or visit a fishing village along the coastline. 

Mirissa Whale Watching Best Time of Year

If you arrive between March and April, book a whale watch to see the magnificent blue whales—the largest marine mammal on the planet.

The whale-watching season runs from November to April to avoid the monsoon season, so you have an enjoyable experience.

Freshest Seafood at the Local Fishing Village

If you love your seafood, the village markets along the coast have daily supplies. Tuna is a favourite, but so are kingfish and calamari.

A man in front of a table with a variety of fish
We chose fish from this selection, and they cooked it for us

Watching villagers bring in the haul shows how hard some people work for a living.

Staying near the coast, our final day in Sri Lanka was to explore the capital, Colombo.

Day 7: Explore Galle Fort and Colombo

A white lighthouse surrounded by palm trees
The Lighthouse at Galle Fort

The drive from Mirissa Beach to Colombo is just over two hours. Enjoying a leisurely morning at the beach, our drive to Colombo included stops at:

  • Fishing village
  • Galle Fort
  • Tsunami Memorial
  • Colombo

Wander the Old Dutch Fort at Galle

The UNESCO heritage site Galle Fort was built on a rocky peninsula by the Portuguese in 1584. The Dutch fortified it during the 17th Century until the British seized it in 1796.

Galle Fort was an important port between the East and Europe. Within the 52-hectare fort, buildings reflect each nationality.

The pedestrian-friendly fort is easy to walk through while you admire the colonial buildings, mosque, and Dutch Reformed Church.

But if you walk along the outer sea walls, you may be surprised to see young couples making out under their umbrellas. Luckily, it is not near the iconic lighthouse.

Fort Galle, only 2 hours from the capital city, Colombo, makes a great day trip.

Pay your respects at Tsunami Memorial

A very tall white statue memorial
Tsunami Memorial Honganji Vihara

When driving along the coast from Galle, make sure to stop at the Tsunami Memorial Honganji Vihara and the Boxing Day Tsunami.

The devastation of the area is shown at a small photo gallery museum.

This Tsunami Memorial Honganji Vihara is 18 meters high. The height of the second tsunami wave that swept through this area. Behind the monument is where the wave hit a train, claiming 1,700 lives. 

Approximately 50,000 Sri Lankan people died in the Boxing Day tsunami that impacted countries around the Indian Ocean.

Feeling overwhelmed by the memorial, we continued to Colombo.

What to See in Colombo Capital of Sri Lanka

A large white building with a domed roof and columns
National Museum of Colombo, Sri Lanka

Travelling inland between Fort Galle and Colombo are low-level tea plantations, rubber and palm oil plantations, and moonstone mines.

Sri Lanka is famous for producing the most beautiful blue moonstone gem. The Canbuy Gem Museum in Kandy has some exquisite pieces for you to see the gems.

As we arrived near Colombo, the road became a four-lane highway. Having a driver with knowledge of the back roads helped us avoid traffic while visiting Colombo.

Colombo, like Galle, was also an important port on the east-west trade routes for the Portuguese, Dutch, and British.

A statue on a tall base with
The monument of the first Prime Minister of Sri Lanka in front of the Independence Hall.

Any stay in Colombo will have a mix of heritage buildings, temples, and modern architecture.

What is there to do in Colombo?

  • New Parliament buildings at Kotte – built on an artificial island
  • National Museum – exhibits of ancient Sri Lanka
  • Gangaramaya Temple – more of an antique curiosity shop 
  • Independence Memorial Hall – underground museum
  • Monument to Independence – 1948 from the British
  • Old Dutch Hospital – cafes, shops, and restaurants 
  • Pettah Market – chaotic, busy streets to experience
  • Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque – exquisite red and white brick
  • Sri Kailawasanathan Swami Devasthanam Temple – oldest Hindu temple
  • Galle Face Esplanade – food stalls, families and fun

We ended our day walking along Galle Face Esplanade. 

With waves crashing the foreshore, families enjoying food stalls, and the odd tourists enjoying the warm temperatures, it was an enjoyable way to spend an evening in Colombo.

And as we watched the lowering of the Sri Lankan flag at sunset, this was our goodbye to Sri Lanka.

Choosing a 7-Day Itinerary to Travel Sri Lanka

When you are researching for a new country to visit in Asia, Sri Lanka is a wonderful destination.

When you book a local driver to travel, Sri Lanka opens up more of the country to explore. You are with someone who knows special places to visit. Some of them you didn’t even know about.

If you are looking for an alternative stopover to Europe, Sri Lanka easily connects to Kuala Lumpur or Dubai.

A vacation in Sri Lanka, an island country, is a diverse country of highlands, tea plantations, safari parks, and beaches. You’ll find friendly people who love to show you the best of their country.

Sri Lanka is a wonderful travel destination.