There is a dot on the map right next to the southernmost tip of India. Looking closer, one realises that it’s not actually a dot but a teardrop-shaped island. This is Sri Lanka, the precious hidden gem of the Indian Ocean. Less popular than other Asia destinations, Sri Lanka is an authentic island country waiting to be discovered. With 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, 26 national parks and endless stretches of enchanting coastline, Sri Lanka has something for everyone. In this Sri Lanka 10 day itinerary of ours, we have included a little bit of everything the country has to offer so as to help first-time visitors get a real taste of the dream that is Sri Lanka.
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Table of contents
- Best time to visit Sri Lanka
- Getting around Sri Lanka
- Is Sri Lanka safe?
- Sri Lanka 10 day itinerary for first-timers
- What to pack for Sri Lanka?
- What to buy in Sri Lanka
- Mini Sri Lanka Guide
Best time to visit Sri Lanka
With constant temperatures all year round and two separate monsoon seasons, Sri Lanka is indeed the perfect destination to visit any time of year. Coastal areas enjoy average temperatures of 25-30°C while the hill country has an average of 15-18°C with temperatures dropping as low as 5°C at night. Necessary adjustments should be made to one’s Sri Lanka itinerary so as to make the best of the island’s beaches without coming across heavy rainfalls. In other words, the best time to visit the west and south coasts is from December to March while the east coast is perfect from April to September. The driest months to enjoy the hill country of central Sri Lanka are February and March.
Getting around Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is a very compact country yet distances from one place of interest to the other are quite long. This is because the majority of the island’s roads are narrow, two-lane ones. Means of public transport such as buses and trains can get you literally everywhere you want on the island. They are also incredibly cheap. That said, they are quite old and slow and, sometimes, somehow uncomfortable. For short distances, taxis or tuk-tuks seem to be better options. However, all this can be quite overwhelming for first-time travellers to Sri Lanka. In our opinion, the most convenient and efficient way to get around Sri Lanka, especially during one’s first trip to the country, is hiring a private car with a professional driver.
Hiring a private car for your entire trip to Sri Lanka is, obviously, the most expensive way to get around the island. Still, though, it’s not as bad as it sounds. For a group of 5-6 people in a big van, expect to pay about 100-120$ (90-110€)/day. Not to mention that there is one priceless bonus that comes with this option. You get to hang out with a knowledgeable local for the entire duration of your trip who will not only be your guide at the various sites you will be visiting but also let you in into Sri Lanka’s secrets in a unique and fascinating way.
We saw Sri Lanka with Jetwing Travels and we have nothing but praise for their services. Looking back, we know for a fact that our first trip to Sri Lanka would never be the same without the deep historical and cultural knowledge as well as the utter kindness of our two drivers, Pradeep and Fernando. We are now happy to call both of them our lifelong friends on the other side of the globe.
Is Sri Lanka safe?
In the light of the atrocious recent (April 2019) terrorist attacks that claimed hundreds of lives and planted the seed of fear in an otherwise peaceful and easy-going destination, we understand that safety is a huge concern for travellers thinking to visit Sri Lanka. We spent 10 full days in Sri Lanka and never did we feel unsafe or even uncomfortable there. Not even in crowded Colombo where most of these horrible attacks took place. Strict security checks are still carried out everywhere but all travel advisory warnings have now been lifted.
The current situation with terrorism is a worldwide affair and any place is as safe or unsafe as any other. Travellers, thankfully, never stopped visiting London, Paris or Berlin although all three of them have suffered terrible attacks too. Therefore, there is no valid reason why people should turn their backs on Sri Lanka either. The antidote to terror and darkness is love and light. Sri Lanka is a country blessed with tons of bright light and it has nothing but love to give its new friends from all over the globe.
The only thing we didn’t like and got us a bit worried in Sri Lanka, which is totally unrelated to the recent attacks though, was the large number of stray dogs in the streets. Apart from the fact that we hated how skinny and unhappy they looked and although they seemed generally friendly, they may potentially be a threat so we’d advise against touching or trying to feed them. Other than that, as with any other destination, one needs to be respectful of local laws and traditions, use one’s common sense, especially regarding dress codes and PDA and stay clear of remote and/or dark locations.
Sri Lanka 10 day itinerary for first-timers
Before planning one’s first Sri Lanka itinerary, there are a few things to keep in mind. First of all, we’d like to point out that 10 days is the absolute minimum time to spend in Sri Lanka. No matter its compact size, Sri Lanka is an incredibly diverse country with unmissable treasures scattered across the entire island. Secondly, it is important to remember that a lot of time is spent en route to any given destination. Tiring though this may sound, it is actually part of the magic of Sri Lanka. Last but not least, for a Sri Lanka 10-day itinerary that includes as many places of interest as possible, there can’t be one single base from where you will explore nearby locations. Expect to move to different accommodation every one or two days. Following a circular route is the best possible way to see more in less time.
Day 1: Colombo
Located about 30km north of Sri Lanka’s capital, Bandaranaike is the country’s only international airport. Taking into consideration factors such as long flights and different time zones, it makes perfect sense to spend the first one or two days relaxing in the capital city of Colombo before moving on to see the rest of the country. Although Colombo hardly ever makes it to lists of best places to visit in Sri Lanka, it’s well worth a stop in our opinion. Some of Colombo’s highlights include a walk around Pettah, one of the city’s oldest districts, home to vibrant markets and the impressive Red Mosque, a visit to Gangaramaya Temple and the Independence Memorial Hall as well as a stroll around the charmingly old-fashioned Fort Railway Station.
DON’T MISS: Mingle with locals at the markets in Pettah district.
TOP TIP: Save time by joining a sightseeing tour of the city on an open top double decker bus operated by Colombo City Tour.
WHERE TO STAY: Situated along the tranquil banks of Beira Lake, Cinnamon Lakeside features an amazing swimming pool and views to Colombo’s magnificent skyline.
DISTANCE/TRAVEL TIME (BY CAR): 32,5km/45′ from Bandaranaike International Airport to Colombo city centre
Days 2-3: Trincomalee
Visiting Sri Lanka in August, like we did, means that you need to get to the east coast in order to enjoy the beach. As far as seaside towns on Sri Lanka’s east coast are concerned, Trincomalee is perhaps the best choice for one’s first trip to the country. Why? Because, apart from stunning beaches, Trincomalee also boasts a significant number of the most interesting things to see in Sri Lanka. Not to mention that the entire route from Colombo to Trincomalee is a feast of lush green landscapes alternating with huge artificial lakes or tanks as Sri Lankans prefer to call them.
Departing from Colombo, Ridi Viharaya or the Silver Temple in the village of Ridigama is an essential stop on the way to Trincomalee. The Silver Temple was built during the reign of King Dutthagamani of Anuradhapura (161 BC to 137 BC). Legend has it that a silver ore was discovered on that very spot. Therefore, the king built this temple out of gratitude for that great find. Nowadays, Ridi Viharaya is an important religious site for Sri Lankan Buddhists.
Once in Trincomalee, you will most certainly be tempted to spend the entire day on the beach. However, make sure to check out some of the town’s highlights such as Fort Fredrick, the Hindu temple of Koneswaram and the Kanniya Hot Springs. We would also suggest a stroll along the local market as well as a boat ride either to Pigeon Island or at the Kunchikumban Aru Lagoon. For a picture-perfect, endless sandy beach, head to Nilaveli, perhaps the best spot to enjoy sunrise in Sri Lanka.
DON’T MISS: Watch the sun rise at Nilaveli Beach while local fishermen pull their nets from the sea.
TOP TIP: Keep hydrated during the long car journey by stopping along the way to drink fresh King Coconut water, which, as we found out the hard way, is also an excellent hangover cure.
WHERE TO STAY: Choose one of the hotels right on Nilaveli Beach.
DISTANCES/TRAVEL TIMES (BY CAR): 124km/2h 40′ from Colombo city centre to the Silver Temple
153km/2h 45′ from the Silver Temple to Trincomalee
14km/20′ from Trincomalee to Nilaveli Beach
Days 4-5: Habarana or Sigiriya
You won’t know it yet but this is where you will be swept off your feet by this tiny gem of a country. Both Habarana and Sigiriya are excellent bases to easily explore this fascinating area and all of its wonders. For the sake of slow travel and happy feet, you may consider adding one more day at this point on your Sri Lanka trip so as to take it a little bit easy and visit one major site at a time rather than stuff a couple of them on the same day.
The most popular of all tourist attractions in Sri Lanka and certainly one of the reasons why we wanted to visit this country in the first place is the Sigiriya Rock Fortress. The Eighth Wonder of the World, as locals like to call it, the Sigiriya complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1982.
Sigiriya was a Buddhist monastery since the 3rd century BC. Eight centuries later, it became a royal palace when King Kashyapa chose to call home this seemingly inaccessible rock in the middle of the jungle. Why? Well, he had this crazy idea to snatch the throne from the hands of the rightful heir. The latter was no other than his own brother, Maggallana. Oh, I almost forgot. Kashyapa had also killed their father. Daddy was not one of the good guys either but let’s not get into THAT much detail. So, Kashyapa thought that building his palace on a 200m high rock would guarantee his safety from any potential invasions. As it turns out, he didn’t stay safe for long as he was killed by his brother’s army during battle. Following this event, Sigiriya became a Buddhist monastery again only to be abandoned by monks in the 14th century.
Sigiriya means Lion Rock and the entire fortress was designed as a huge lion. Sadly, only the lion’s paws at the main entrance of the fortress have survived. Considered a marvel of architecture and ancient urban planning, Sigiriya is home to gorgeous remnants of its glorious past such as pools, fountains, gardens, lakes and dams.
There are also beautiful frescoes as well as the amazing Mirror Wall. Legend has it that the latter was so polished that the king could see his reflection on it. The most impressive feature of the Mirror Wall though are the inscriptions written on it which prove that Sigirya was already a popular tourist destination more than a thousand years ago.
Climbing the Sigiriya Rock is no piece of cake. However, once up there, the feeling one gets and the breathtaking views to Sri Lanka’s hill country in the distance are absolutely rewarding. There are many stone steps as well as some iron ones towards the end of the climb. This last part of the climb is kind of scary, especially for people who are afraid of heights. That said, we promise that, surprisingly, the way down is a lot easier. Katerina, who is terrified of heights herself, can vouch for this.
UNESCO World Heritage Site Polonnaruwa was the second ancient kingdom of Sri Lanka. The ancient city of Polonnaruwa is famous for its advanced irrigation systems which were responsible for the blossoming of agriculture in Sri Lanka. The archaeological site is quite big and abundant in architectural treasures so it can be quite overwhelming to visit without a guide. Even with a guide, it’s unlikely that you can see everything in a single visit but make sure to check out some of Polonnaruwa’s most impressive sites. These include the Royal Palace, the Council Chamber of King Nissankamalla, the Audience Hall, the Quadrangle and the Rankot Vihara. The large population of monkeys that inhabit Polonnaruwa is undoubtedly yet another fun reason to spend a day among the ruins of this impressive ancient city.
Elephant Safari at Minneriya National Park
Long before we actually planned our Sri Lanka trip, we were thrilled at the prospect of going on an elephant safari there. Seeing these utterly cute animals up close in their natural habitat sounded like the best idea ever and the absolute highlight of our 10-day Sri Lanka itinerary. In case the most important detail of what I just said went unnoticed, let me repeat. We loved the prospect of seeing elephants in their natural habitat. Visiting an area where they live free and happy is the only acceptable way to observe wild animals. Even then, one needs to be 100% respectful of both the natural environment and the animals’ space, habits and well-being. We should never forget that it is THEIR home we’re visiting and, let’s be honest here, we’re not even invited.
Sri Lanka is home to many national parks which are perfect for elephant safaris. However, since we were there in August, Minneriya National Park was indisputably the best option. Minneriya, alongside neighbouring Kaudulla National Park, host a stunning annual event known as The Gathering. During the dry months of July to October, herds of elephants from many surrounding areas head to Minneriya and Kaudulla tanks, the large man-made lakes that dominate the parks, in order to drink water and feed on fresh grass. The best time to see large numbers of elephants is late in the afternoon, a couple of hours or so before sunset.
There are many tour companies that operate jeep safaris to Minneriya National Park. The ride on the jeep is a fun experience in its own right. First, we drove through a thick forest spotting monkeys climbing trees all along the way. But it was when we reached the tank, about 20′ later, that all the beauty of the world unfolded before our eyes. To say that the landscape itself is breathtaking would be an understatement. Add to this the sight of numerous elephants suddenly emerging from behind tall trees right on time for their evening stroll towards the tank and you can understand why we had to pinch ourselves to make sure we weren’t dreaming.
Asian elephants are a lot smaller in size than their African cousins. They are, reportedly, friendlier than them too. This is why jeeps tend to get quite close to them without worries. All along the drive towards the tank, Katerina and I hoped that we would get to see at least one elephant, even from a distance. In the end, we saw way too many of them and they were literally walking right next to our jeep. If this doesn’t qualify as THE experience of a lifetime, then what does?
DON’T MISS: Rent a bike and go cycling among ancient ruins in Polonnaruwa.
TOP TIP: Climb Sigiriya Rock as late in the afternoon as possible to avoid queues and the scorching sun as well as enjoy one of the best sunsets from the top.
WHERE TO STAY: We stayed at Sorowwa Resort & Spa in Habarana which enjoys gorgeous views to the Habarana Lake. For unique views to the imposing Sigiriya Rock Fortress, choose Hotel Sigiriya instead.
DISTANCES/TRAVEL TIMES (BY CAR): 85km/1h 30′ from Trincomalee to Habarana
17km/25′ from Habarana to Sigirya Rock
47km/1h from Habarana to Polonnaruwa
9km/10′ from Habarana to Minneriya National Park
Days 6-7: Kandy
On the way from Habarana to Kandy, the Dambulla Cave Temple is an essential stop. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is by far the most impressive and beautiful Buddhist temple we saw during our entire 10 days in Sri Lanka. The Dambulla Cave Temple is a complex of five caves adorned with fantastic paintings and statues. This is the largest cave temple in the country and it is situated in a setting of unique natural beauty. Just downhill from the ancient temple, one can also see the more recent Golden Temple. Compared to the masterpiece that is the Cave Temple though, the Golden Temple looks quite tasteless and a bit too loud.
Once in Kandy, there are many fascinating things to see and do in the so-called cultural capital of Sri Lanka which enjoys UNESCO World Heritage Site status since 1988. The most popular place of interest in Kandy is the Temple of the Tooth Relic, one of the most sacred places of worship for the entire Buddhist world. Apart from the temple itself, the promenade that passes right in front of it is also splendid. Other places that are definitely worth one’s time are Kandy Lake and the Botanic Gardens of Peradeniya. Moreover, Kandy is the ideal destination to attend a cultural show of traditional Kandyan dance. Last but not least, Kandy is the starting point for one of the world’s most scenic train rides.
If you happen to be in Kandy during July or August, you will most probably stumble upon the Perahera Festival celebrations. Also known as the Festival of the Tooth, the Perahera Festival is a huge annual procession in honour of the Sacred Tooth Relic. Celebrations involve numerous dancers who perform traditional dances in elaborate costumes. Sadly, they also involve large numbers (about 70-80) of elephants.
Remember when we said earlier that we loved seeing elephants in their natural habitat? Well, this is exactly the opposite. Elephants parade in chains, all dressed up and carrying people on their backs. We do understand that having elephants at the procession reflects a very old tradition which may be hard to change. But we hope that it will eventually. After all, from a simple spectator’s point of view, elephants add absolutely no value to the show itself. It’s the energy of the dancers and musicians that render the festival an otherwise magnificent and super impressive event.
DON’T MISS: Stroll around the Botanic Gardens on a fine day and acquire loads of knowledge about trees and plants of Sri Lanka and the world thanks to super informative signs that are placed everywhere.
TOP TIP: If you decide to attend the Perahera Festival, keep in mind that the procession lasts for about 4h. During that time, it is next to impossible to leave the area as nearly all roads are closed. Not even pedestrians are allowed to cross from one side of the street to the other. Hence, don’t try to get back to your room before the show is over. Just relax and enjoy the procession. Oh, one more thing. No alcohol is neither served nor sold throughout the entire region during the Perahera Festival.
WHERE TO STAY: Mahaweli Reach Hotel boasts gorgeous rooms and a swimming pool to die for.
DISTANCES/TRAVEL TIMES (BY CAR): 24km/30′ from Habarana to Dambulla Cave Temple
71km/2h from Dambulla Cave Temple to Kandy
Days 8-9: Nuwara Eliya and Ella
Undoubtedly, one of Sri Lanka’s highlights is getting on board an old-fashioned train for a scenic train ride like no other. It is possible to travel by train all over the country. However, the most scenic route of all is the journey from Kandy to Ella on the iconic blue train. From Kandy to Nanu Oyo Station (Nuwara Eliya) the train ride is one of breathtaking scenery and great fun alike. Waterfalls and dreamy tea fields alternate with tiny villages and picturesque walking paths. As far as the fun part is concerned, imagine a train full of people hanging outside its open doors so as to get that perfect Instagram shot. It’s not as easy as it seems, as the ride is quite bumpy. Yes, it’s scary but also hilarious.
Nuwara Eliya is one of Sri Lanka’s most charming towns and among the most important tea growing locations in the country. It is also the area with the coolest weather on the island. Founded by the British in 1846, Nuwara Eliya was a favourite among colonists. Their influence is omnipresent in the city, especially in terms of architecture. No wonder why Nuwara Eliya’s nickname is Little England.
Nuwara Eliya would be well worth a visit for its unique beauty alone. However, there are many fantastic things to see and do in the area too. This is the ideal place to visit one of many tea factories and learn everything there is to know about the entire process of tea production. Not to mention that you’ll get the chance to walk around a dreamy tea plantation as well. We visited Pedro Tea Estate and we loved being shown around the factory which could easily be a museum, packed with 19th century equipment as it is. At the end of the tour one can enjoy a cup of superb tea at the estate’s teahouse which overlooks gorgeous tea plantations as far as the eye can see. Other places of interest in Nuwara Eliya include Victoria Park and the quaint Lake Gregory.
After spending time in Nuwara Eliya, one should continue to Ella by train. This part of the train journey is probably what earned this route its fame as one of the most scenic ones in the world. Once in Ella, one shouldn’t miss climbing up Little Adam’s Peak, admiring the Nine Arch Bridge or taking in the views from Lipton’s Seat among others. Unfortunately, we haven’t been to Ella ourselves yet but we plan to do so soon.
DON’T MISS: Ask your driver to take you to Kande Ela tank for beautiful views and to Ambewela Farms. There you MUST try fresh yoghurt with kithul honey.
TOP TIP: For the train journey between Kandy and Ella there is the 1st class train option (air-conditioned, reserved seats, 1200LKR/person, passengers almost only tourists) or the 3rd class train one (non air-conditioned, no reserved seats so high chance to travel standing, 80LKR/person, authentic experience with almost only local passengers). The choice is yours!
WHERE TO STAY: Araliya Green City Hotel is one of the best luxury hotels in Nuwara Eliya.
TRAVEL TIME (BY 1st CLASS TRAIN): 3-3.5h from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya
Day 10: Negombo
It’s incredible how time flies, right? So, this is the final day on what is definitely one unforgettable 10 day Sri Lanka itinerary. Instead of going back to Colombo to catch one’s flight though, why not visit yet another beautiful seaside town before kissing this amazing country goodbye? Negombo is a quaint laid-back town and is actually a lot closer to Colombo International Airport than Colombo itself. The town’s highlight is its gorgeous sandy beach. The latter is ideal for long walks rather than swimming as there are almost always huge waves. The drive from Nuwara Eliya to Negombo is a long yet marvellous one. You will be tempted to stop at every turn so as to marvel at the various waterfalls or take a photo of the iconic ladies picking tea leaves at the gorgeous tea fields.
DON’T MISS: The glorious sunset on Negombo Beach.
TOP TIP: Start your car journey from Nuwara Eliya to Negombo as early as possible. This way, you’ll have plenty of time to make many much needed stops.
WHERE TO STAY: There’s nothing better than falling asleep at the sound of the waves crashing on the beach. Jetwing Sea Hotel boasts an incredible location so make sure to choose a room with sea view.
DISTANCES/TRAVEL TIMES (BY CAR): 163km/5h from Nuwara Eliya to Negombo
9km/20′ from Negombo to Bandaranaike International Airport
What to pack for Sri Lanka?
- Flip flops are life-saving in Sri Lanka. Apart from the heat, flip flops are the ideal footwear for yet another reason. With so many Buddhist and Hindu temples to visit across the country, one’s required to take their shoes off quite often. In these occasions, flip flops are ridiculously easy to put on and take off and they are a lot easier to clean afterwards as well. Other than hiking, which requires trainers or hiking boots, you’ll be better off wearing flip flops pretty much everywhere else. That’s what locals themselves do after all.
- Linen or cotton clothes, which are ideal for spending long hours in the heat.
- A swimsuit.
- Sunscreen and sunglasses for the obvious reasons.
- A warm sweater or jacket for when you visit the hill country.
- A raincoat for sudden and, inevitable, downpours.
- Tissues and hand sanitiser because, sadly, it’s not a given that you’ll find toilet paper and/or soap in washrooms. By the way, locals use this word for this kind of facility: washroom.
- A large scarf or shawl to cover your body before entering temples. Keep in mind that not only women but also men need to cover up.
What to buy in Sri Lanka
We rarely pay too much attention to shopping while we travel. However, Sri Lanka has such a wide range of authentic and affordable gifts to bring back home that we simply couldn’t resist.
Mini Sri Lanka Guide
CURRENCY: Sri Lankan Rupee (LKR). Exchange rate (September 2019): 1USD=180LKR, 1EUR=200LKR.
One can exchange money in all big hotels yet it’s commonest to do so at jewellery shops. If you travel in the company of a driver/guide, ask them to join you on this quest for optimal rates of yours.
WATER: Do not drink tap water. It’s OK to brush your teeth with it though. Make sure your bottled water comes with an undamaged cap seal.
WEATHER: With the exception of Central Sri Lanka’s hill towns, the weather is very hot and incredibly humid everywhere else in the country. Surprisingly, it doesn’t get much better in the evening. Avoid direct sunlight, take it easy and have a bottle of water with you at all times.
LANGUAGE: Sri Lanka has two official languages: Sinhala and Tamil. Road signs etc are always written in both languages. English is widely spoken by Sri Lankans who are somehow related to the tourism industry. In rural areas, people may not be fluent in English. That said, everyone in Sri Lanka is so kind-hearted and helpful that you’ll definitely find a way to understand and be understood.
DRIVING: On the left.
SUNRISE & SUNSET TIMES: Sri Lanka has almost constant sunrise (06:00) and sunset (18:00) times throughout the year.
COSTS: Other than flights to and from Sri Lanka, everything else is remarkably cheap. Sri Lanka is a seriously budget-friendly destination with many opportunities for affordable luxury as well.
So, we’ve come to the end of our suggested Sri Lanka 10 day itinerary for first-timers. Although we did see a lot during our first trip to the country, we definitely want to go back for more. Until then, we keep looking at the photos we took in beautiful Sri Lanka while listening to one of our favourite songs of all time.
අපි නැවත මුණගැසෙන තුරු, ලස්සන ශ්රී ලංකාව
நாங்கள் மீண்டும் சந்திக்கும் வரை, அழகான ஸ்ரீலங்கா
Until we meet again, beautiful Sri Lanka!
Disclosure: We travelled to Sri Lanka on a press trip organised by Sri Lanka Tourism. That said, we always share our very own and personal opinions about places we visit and services we try. Under no circumstances would we ever recommend something we didn’t actually enjoy ourselves.