Sri Lanka is a country that is constantly offering hidden surprises, and for those who travel here, it feels like your own private discovery.
There are the crumbling ruins of ancient civilisations, baking in the midday sun. Friendly tuk tuk drivers who are thrilled to discuss the latest cricket match. Fields of glossy tea leaves, being picked and placed in wicker baskets.
And that’s not even mentioning the elephant sotting, great food, and surfing beaches! Somehow, this small teardrop-shaped island off the coast of India has such diversity in its landscapes and people.
2 weeks to visit Sri Lanka is just a taste of this incredible place, but it’s enough to give you a memorable trip that is jam-packed full of experiences.
So, where to begin?
A classic central/south Sri Lanka route
This popular route covers much of the centre and south of the country, covers Sri Lanka’s most wonderful sights, and is a great mix of beaches, national parks, and cultural sights. It’s roughly a circular route, and this example goes in the clockwise direction.
- Start in Colombo
- Head north-east towards Sigirya, Dambulla and Polonnaruwa to explore the ancient ruins, and see elephants on safari.
- Make stops in Kandy, to observe the temple of the Buddha’s tooth, and Ella, for tea plantation hiking.
- Cross to Arugam Bay, a beach town on the east coast to relax.
- Return to Colombo, stopping along the south coast at Mirissa for beach time, and Galle, to photograph the lovely colonial fort.
Pretty much anyone who visits Sri Lanka will start and end their trip in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital on the west coast.
Traffic jams, skyscrapers, and manic tuk tuks – it’s not surprising that this hectic city is just the necessary transit stop onto other destinations in the country. But for those who choose to linger and look a little closer, there is plenty to see and do.
What to see in Colombo
- Dutch and British architecture in the Fort area – Sri Lanka’s history is in the bricks of many of these colonial era buildings, such as the Old Galle Buck Lighthouse, and the wonderful Lloyds Building.
- Galle Face Green – an urban park and picnic ground that follows the beachside for 500 metres, a peaceful place to escape the noise of the city.
- Gangaramaya Temple – not far from Beira Lake, the temple encompasses a large cluster of buildings in various architectural styles. Inside, it seems to have everything, such as a museum, a library, a replica of Indonesia’s Borobudur, even a taxidermied elephant!
- Wander the stalls at Pettah markets, with a huge section for fruit and vegetables.
Hike the to the top of Sigirya
Getting out of the city, head north about 4-5 hours by bus or private car to the north-east to Sigirya.
Sigirya is probably Sri Lanka’s most impressive sight; it is a single massive standalone rock feature, two hundred metres high, that rises from a flat landscape like a giant fist.
Sigirya is not just an impressive geographical feature; it has important cultural significance, too. The remains of an ancient kingdom are built upon the summit, and water gardens and other ruins surround the site.
The best part? You can climb to the very top, a sweaty (but not too difficult) hike up a series of stone steps, metal staircases and shaky handrails. The view from the top is magnificent, as you look down upon the water gardens, neighbouring hills and endless forests.
Dambulla Temple Caves
For those staying in the Sigirya area, there’s another UNESCO World Heritage site which is just a short drive away. With a tuk tuk driver to help guide you, the Dambulla Caves are a wonderful half-day trip.
The caves are on the top of one of the conical hills that sprout up from the forest landscape, and it’s a short but steep hike to reach them.
Dambulla caves are decorated with beautiful frescoes and cave art. Gigantic Buddha statues (some as long as 12 metres) and murals cover every inch of the walls and ceiling in this amazing UNESCO site.
Spot herds of wild elephants at Minneriya National Park
The hotels in the Sigirya are great at organising everything you need, from meals to bicycles to tours. Let them arrange a safari car for you to visit Minneriya National Park, about an hour to the north of Sigirya.
The highlight of Minneriya NP is the large elephant population, which migrates between watering holes at Kaudulla and Wasgomuwa National Parks.
The wetlands are buzzing with life when the elephants congregate in large numbers here. There are also buffalo to be found, foxes, sloth bears, deer, crocodiles, monkeys, and leopards (if you’re really lucky!).
Safari jeeps tend to build up at the elephant watering hole, but once they disperse, you feel like you have the whole park to yourself.
The ruins of Polonnaruwa
Keeping Sigirya as your home base, there’s another wonderful day trip to take to explore ancient Sri Lankan ruins.
The city of Polonnaruwa is in ruins now, many temples collapsed and bricks eroding. But with so many temples to admire, and many with strangely unique styles, Polonnaruwa is a place to let your imagination go crazy.
There are stupas, lotus-shaped baths, ruined palaces and handcrafted stone motifs. The most incredible sight might be the stone carved Buddhas at Gal Vihara, carved into the rock face with the natural striations of the rock incorporated into them.
The Polonnaruwa site stretches for kilometres, and getting from place to place by tuk tuk or bicycle is a necessity. The ticmets are bought at the visitor’s centre, which is also an interesting museum with artefacts, as well as photos of the excavations.
Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Kandy
Leaving the centre of the country, we begin heading south.
Kandy is a large city in central Sri Lanka with an idyllic location (and a wonderful name!), just next to Kandy Lake. All around, it is hemmed in by mountains. Along the lake is a pleasant walking path, and near the waterfront is the famous Temple of the Sacred Tooth.
A Buddhist artefact believed to belong to the Buddha himself, his tooth, is believed to be on this site (but it isn’t on display to the public). But the rest of the temple is open to visitors, including a very cool Buddhist museum, that breaks Buddhism down bu country.
If you visit during certain dates in July, you might be able to catch the Esala Perahera. This festival and parade is a wonderful riot of colours and costumes. Even the elephants are dressed in full-length ceremonial blankets leading a musical parade down the street!
Hiking in Ella, and trainspotting at the Nine Arches Bridge
The town of Ella is not much more than a collection of cafes and restaurants along the highway, with hotels popping up like mushrooms in the surrounding forestland.
But you wouldn’t come here for the town – no, the beauty of Ella is up the walking trails, into tea plantations and dramatic rocky summits.
Unlike the crackling hot lowlands of Polonnaruwa, there is a different climate altogether up in the Sri Lankan mountains. Its wet, and tropical, with a short dry season. Its it’s perfect for growing tea, so the hills are filled with the shiny green leaves of Sri Lankan tea.
Hikes in Ella
- Little Adam’s Peak (4.5km, 2.8 miles, 1 hour). This is an easy hike that would suit casual trekkers, as only the last 20 minutes or so get reallysl steep. You can spot tea pickers at work here, plucking leaves and putting them in a basket on their back.
- Ella Rock hike (10km, 6.2 miles, 4 hours) – takes about half a day, and is a more challenging trek up to some truly spectacular 360° sights.
- The Nine Arch Bridge is about 30 minutes walk from Ella. It is a picturesque spot to photograph the Kandy-Ella train as it passes over the lovely British-built Nine Arches Bridge. There’s only about 6 trains per day, so if you arrive way too early, sit down for a mango shake at the nearby shop!
Relaxing at Arugam Bay
From Ella, the surfer beach of Arugam Bay on the east coast is reachable by two buses (there is no direct route). Change in Siyambalanduwa for the connection.
Once you arrive, Arugam Bay is a very slow, relaxed beach haven. The beach is long, and curls around to a point where the surfers take advantage of the great waves. Bring a Coke, take a seat on the sand dunes and dig your toes in, and watch them go.
Many accomodations are beachside resorts, for good prices. And a long main road parallel to the beach is filled with fun local restaurants, T-shirt shops and bars with ocean views.
Yala National Park
An east coast day trip from Arugam Bay is Yala National Park. There is big game here, such as elephants and crocodiles, but Yala is spectacular for bird watching enthusiasts as well.
Standing on the viewpoint tower overlooking the wetlands, watching spoonbills and rosy pelicans fishing and swimming is a beautiful experience.
Leaving Arugam Bay, its a long bus journey along the south coast back to Colombo. So, stopping at some beachside towns along the way is a great idea.
Mirissa is a small crescent shaped bay with sand to relax on and palms to photograph. It’s a nice enough place to relax, but Mirissa beachfront is in danger of becoming overdeveloped with cheap hotels, fighting for space on the beach.
Walk the fortress walls in Galle
The last stop on this itinerary before Colombo is the great UNESCO fortress of Galle Fort.
Built on a promontory that reaches into the sea, the Portuguese coastal fort started life in the 16th century. In 1640, the Dutch took the fort by force, a major factor in expelling the Portugese from the country. The fort was expanded, warehouses and administrative buildings erected, and churches established. Then finally, the British took the fort, expanding on the walls even further.
On three sides, the ocean laps up against the strong fort walls. A close inspection reveals a delightful detail; fragments of coral and shells are mixed right into the masonry. Along the ramparts are the shadows of palm trees, giving a unique tropical look.
Inside the walls, there is a grid of European-style mansions with paintwork faded by the sun and the sea, and classic antique cars. There is a museum of antiques here, seafood restaurants, and collections of wonderful painted masks for sale.
For the best views, visitors can walk the entire perimeter of the fort walls and catch an amazing sunset over the sea.
Sri Lanka – a 2 week itinerary
There we have it, an action-packed itinerary that gives a cross section of some of Sri Lanka’s wonderful and diverse sights. Ancient sights and rare wildlife, relaxing beaches and gruelling hikes – Sri Lanka is an incredible country that will make you want to immediately plan your return visit!