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.
Or was it the contrast of scenery throughout Sri Lanka that piqued your interest?
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
As we started planning an itinerary for Sri Lanka, we considered; do we go it 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.
But for us, Instagram has become a social platform where we connect with fellow travellers, make friendships, and support each other on our travel journey.
Sounds a bit teary-eyed, but maybe rediscovering travel at 50 is encouraging more people to slow travel.
So it was 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 covering the must-see places of this diverse country, Sri Lanka.
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.
At times, the roads and the drivers can make a journey a “hair-raising” experience, so forget google maps and allow more time.
But if you only have five days or 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
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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 fumigated for any 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 for 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 Lanken tour at Negombo instead of Colombo allows you a head start for your Day one itinerary.
Travelling from Negombo via Dambulla and onto Sirigiya has stops at:
- Athagala Samadhi Buddha Statue (White Buddha)
- Dambulla Caves
As well as breaks for lunch and tasting 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 the European days, including the Dutch canals still used today.
The Dutch captured Negombo from the Portuguese in 1640, then lost possession until recaptured in 1644. The British then took it from the Dutch in 1796 without a struggle.
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 stopping place to visit the 20-meter Athagala Samadhi Buddha Statue (White Buddha) and shrine.
For spectacular views, you can either walk the 400 stone steps to the shrine or drive the 1.9 km to the top.
From Kurunegala, it is 55km to Dambulla.
See Paintings at Dambulla Rock Temple
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 to withstand rainy weather, he created walled partitions under the rock overhang spanning the entire single large cave.
What is unique about the caves is every inch of the caves is covered in paintings.
There are three cave temples named:
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 with its Buddha museum.
Climb the Sigiriya Rock Fortress
One of the best things to do in Sri Lanka is to climb Sigiriya Rock, the UNESCO heritage site.
Rising 370m above sea level, formed from the magma of an extinct volcano, Sigiriya Rock provides views out and across the jungle below.
Locals say it as 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 to climb to the top depends on the medium pace 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
- ancient ponds
- 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 for more views of Sigiriya.
Where to Stay in Sigiriya
Our stay was at Sigiriya Cottage, amongst the trees, with an open communal area for dining. The staff was great at organizing breakfast and evening meals.
Day Two – See the Best of Polonnaruwa
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.
Not the option we wanted to use to get to Polonnaruwa.
How do you get to Polonnaruwa from Sigiriya?
Your best option is by private vehicle for the 55km journey. Otherwise, to take a bus, you would have returned 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 starting point, the museum, 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 has an organic garden-to-table restaurant with the most delicious food. The owner explained each vegetable curry dish to us, along with the chicken dishes too.
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
Leaving Sigiriya for the historic city of Kandy is about three hours (91 km), depending on traffic.
Our first stop of the day was in the spice region of Matale.
Diana Spice and Herb Garden, Matale
Matale is the leading region of spice production in Sri Lanka.
Traders from India and Arabic countries would buy pepper, cardamom, and cloves.
Visiting the Diana Spice and Herb Garden is where you learn about the medicinal properties of the spices produced in the Matale region. This exotic garden is where you can see spices in their natural state.
You can purchase items from their shop or buy online.
What to See in Kandy in One Day
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 it was the British who 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:
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
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
For a cultural experience of Sri Lanka, the hour-long Kandyan dance performance is colourful. The performance includes several dances, a drum recital, and finishes with fire walking.
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, looking for souvenirs or unique items.
Choose the right shop, and you can dress for a photo in a Sri Lankan sari. Or visit a gemstone jeweller to pick our exquisite sapphires.
Day 4: Tea Plantations and Nuwara Eliya Train Ride to Ella
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 of the 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 process of tea. 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 have a go at picking the tea, 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
The roads between Kandy and Nuwara Eliya are windy and steep. Which makes 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 taking in spectacular scenery.
Sit on the right side of the train for the first hour. Then the left side as you leave the tunnel and emerge with a vista over the valley.
The final house and a half are views of tea plantations and the famous train station 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
One of the iconic photos of Sri Lanka is the train crossing 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 the 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 to have a good pair of shoes to navigate up the rocky paths.
And bring a water bottle to stay hydrated under the early morning sun.
A busy morning with more of Sri Lanka still to see; our next stop was Yala National Wildlife Park.
Book Yourself a Safari in 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 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.
Rooms are large, clean and comfortable, with a private outdoor patio or balcony. The hotel has an outdoor pool and restaurant serving 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
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:
- Water Buffalo
- 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 male elephant with tusks is rare. To protect the male elephant, their tusks are removed to stop poachers from killing them.
Safari Sunset at Yala National Park
What better way to end an amazing safari is at sunset? Leaving the animals arriving at water holes to feed is memorable.
Yala National Park is a fantastic experience. Relaxing at the hotel for a swim and aperitif before a delicious Sri Lankan meal.
With only two more days of our Sri Lankan 7-day itinerary, we were off to the beach.
Day 6: Relax and Unwind at Mirissa Beach
Visiting Sri Lanka in March means the southern beaches are chosen to relax and unwind. 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 at 50m high.
It is a place of pilgrimage, and the temple has beautiful frescoes.
But the Tunnel of Hell to get to the Buddha has some very ugly scenes. These life-size figures show the consequences of temptation. Not appropriate for young children.
Where to Stay at Mirissa Beach
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 access to the beach and Parrot Rock.
Take in the sunsets from here or walk along the beachfront for a drink or meal at one of the bars and 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.
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 to pick your own seafood, then the village markets along the coast have daily supplies. Tuna is a favourite, but so are kingfish and calamari.
Watching villagers bring in the haul gives you an appreciation of 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
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
Wander the Old Dutch Fort at Galle
The UNESCO heritage site, Galle Fort, was built on a rocky peninsula by the Portuguese in 1584. It was later fortified by the Dutch during the 17th Century until the British seized the fort 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 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
Driving the coast from Galle are 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. And 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 on to Colombo.
What to See in Colombo Capital of 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. To see the gems, the Canbuy Gem Museum in Kandy has some exquisite pieces.
As we arrived near Colombo, the road became a four-lane highway. And having a driver with knowledge of the back roads came in handy to avoid traffic to visit Colombo.
Colombo, like Galle, was also an important port on the east-west trade routes for the Portuguese, Dutch, and British.
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 – crazy, 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 tourist 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.
Flights to Sri Lanka as a stopover on the way to Europe or as a destination connect from 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 the people are friendly and who love to show you the best of their country.
Sri Lanka is a wonderful travel destination.