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Elephants Wandering at Kaudulla National Park, Sri Lanka

Who here hasn’t dreamt of traveling to Sri Lanka? In my case, I had dreamt of visiting this beautiful country so many times! This little Island in the form of a teardrop is located to the South of India and to many travelers it has become a great surprise, as it has it all!

Years ago, I used to work in a travel agency and I would create tailor-made itineraries to this country, hoping I would visit one day. When I finally had the opportunity to explore Sri Lanka for over a week, I had clear that the choice for my first visit would be the center of the country, where all the history, nature and culture merge and provoke in the outsider a sense of spiritual experience. This is a 7 day Sri Lanka itinerary based on my experience traveling across the country – I think it is safe to say that I enjoyed every minute of my trip!

This post summarizes the places to visit in a 7 day Sri Lanka itinerary, throughout a detailed day-by-day route across the north central area, also known as the country’s ‘Cultural Triangle’. Sri Lanka has more than wonderful beaches and infinite tea plantations; during my stay in ‘Old Ceylon’, I also visited several temples, climbed mountains, rode a bike along an ancient Kingdom and had the chance to observe wild animals in their natural environment.

If you are planning to visit Sri Lanka for more than a week (which I would totally recommend), bear in mind that the perfect amount of days to explore the Island, would be from 13 to 15 days; also, depending on your vacation duration and budget, it is very common to combine this trip with an extension to Maldives.

Day 1 in Sri Lanka: Arriving to Colombo

Whether you are coming from Europe or any other continent you will be probably landing in Colombo which is the capital city of Sri Lanka. I flew in with their national carrier SriLankan Airlines – click here to see my experience flying with them

If you arrive in Colombo around midday, I would recommend staying the night in the city to shake off the jet lag and start with fully charged batteries on the next day. This time, we got picked up by a shuttle bus at the airport and driven directly to the hotel for the night

Day 2: Colombo – Yapahuwa – Dambulla – Habarana

This day we moved to the centre of the island, where we would establish our base for the week. Typically there is a 3 hour and a half drive from Colombo to Habarana but I would recommend to stop for a couple visits on the way there. Colombo’s traffic is pure chaos, so prepare to spend some time stuck before making it out of the city. I had the constant feeling that cars and tuk-tuks were about to crash all the time, but to my surprise they all knew what they were doing and seemed to have a car horn system that they use to communicate their intentions to other drivers – pretty amazing to my eyes!

As we left the city, we made our first stop in the middle of the road, to refresh ourselves with King Coconuts, this typical yellow Sri Lankan coconut is known for its sweet taste and for containing more water inside than other types of coconut.

'King Coconut stand on the side of the road, Sri Lanka'

Our second stop on the day was to visit Yapahuwa, the former capital of medieval Sri Lanka. The location of these ruins is without a doubt, spectacular. After walking for several minutes towards the entrance of this ancient city, you’ll find a steep staircase that you’ll need to climb to see the main ruins. Once there, you can continue climbing the mountain to be able to have a 360 degrees view of the rainforest, tea plantations and more mountains in the distance. I would definitely recommend climbing to the top, but don’t forget to bring water and a pair of good shoes!

Images shows entrance of Yapahuwa rock fortress, Sri Lanka
'Yapahuwa Rock Fortress, Sri Lanka'
7 Day Sri Lanka Itinerary: What to see and do in the center of the country
'Views from the top of Yapahuwa, Sri Lanka'

This might be the perfect time for a meal. You can either stop by one of the several small restaurants on the side of the road or search for a hotel that has an open kitchen for visitors passing by. One thing I have realized about Sri Lanka, is that many people build up their little businesses just right on the sides of the road, which makes sense as they become visible to people commuting and traveling around the country. This time, we stopped for lunch at Yapahuwa Paradise Hotel which was very convenient as it was raining and we needed some energy boost to continue our journey. 

Almost 2 hours later, we arrived at the so-called Temple of Gold of Dambulla. This place has been a World Heritage site since 1991 and you’ll know it is a well deserved title at first sight. There are five different caves with more than 150 Buddha statues and several frescoes narrating the different stages of Buddha’s life. Their origin dates back to prehistory; over the years, these caves have been used by Buddhist monks as a place for worship and nowadays, they are also open to tourist visits. This was definitely a must-see in our 7 day Sri Lanka itinerary.

7 Day Sri Lanka Itinerary: What to see and do in the center of the country
'Golden Cave Temple, Dambulla'
Sunset at Dambulla Golden Cave Temple, Sri Lanka
'Sunset at Dambulla Golden Cave Temple, Dambulla'

After a rainy day, it was wonderful to step outside the caves to this beautiful sunset. The rain had left its place to a fire orange sunset that took our breath away for several minutes – what a very first day! We finally arrived at the hotel where we established our base for the week. The Cinnamon Lodge Habarana was by far the best hotel of the trip, but there are other hotels in the area with different ranges of prices. 

Day 3: Habarana – Ritigala – Anuradhapura – Habarana

Less than 1 hour from Habarana stands the highest mountain in northern Sri Lanka, this is the Ritigala Mountain and what makes this peak interesting is that it is home to the ruins of an ancient Buddhist monastery, dating back to 1st century BCE. You can do this excursion with any of the several organized tours existing or you could get here with a rental car as well. In our case, we were driven on a bus towards a secondary road, where we continued the adventure on a jeep towards the foot of the mountain. The climb to the ruins of the old monastery is not difficult, however if you wish to continue climbing you will need a special permit and an experienced guide as this is home for some protected wildlife. 

PRO TIP: Take into account that the place is quite humid and the heat here is intense so it is highly recommended to use mosquito repellent – better safe than sorry!

Me at ruins of Ritigala, Sri Lanka
'Ruins of Buddhist Monastery of Ritigala, Ritigala Mountain'

After a brief stop for lunch, we arrived in the spiritual city of Anuradhapura. This city was also one of the former capitals of Sri Lanka. A must-see gem you cannot miss if you spend a week in this area of Sri Lanka. The civilization that inhabited here is considered to be one of the largest in Asia; the archeological area itself is one of the largest in the world and it is a Unesco Heritage site since 1982.

Today Anuradhapura is a place of worship for Buddhism as it helds some of the best preserved Dagobas (dome-shaped architectures that contain relics of Buddha). The city complex also holds the sacred tree of ‘Sri Maha Bodhi’; legends say under this tree, Buddha attained Enlightenment. Also, it is believed to be the oldest human-planted tree until the date. This site also holds important Dagobas. It is said that these monuments are comparable with the size of the Pyramids of Giza.

7 Day Sri Lanka Itinerary: What to see and do in the center of the country
'Lovamahapaya (Brazen Palace), Anuradhapura'
7 Day Sri Lanka Itinerary: What to see and do in the center of the country
'Ruwanweliseya Dagoba, Anuradhapura'

Despite the intense rain, I found this place especially magical – spirituality is in the air! To protect myself from the rain, I visited one of the temples in the surroundings and was surprised to see that I was the only foreign person there. I walked barefoot around the place with the biggest smile on my face as this was my first time ever inside a Buddhist Temple.

7 Day Sri Lanka Itinerary: What to see and do in the center of the country
'Isurumuniya Temple, Anuradhapura'

Day 4 in Sri Lanka: Habarana – Sigiriya – Kaudulla National Park – Habarana

The visits prepared for this day were the main reason I chose to travel around this area when I learnt I had to choose amongst several options for a 7 day Sri Lanka itinerary. We drove for 30 minutes from Habarana and quickly arrived at Sigiriya. This day we climbed the ‘Lion Rock’ of Sigiriya. This immense rock is a World Heritage Site and is one of the most famous monuments in the country. Keep in mind that the climb takes about an hour to be completed and it is important that you first get the required permits (you can get them online) also drone and photography need special licenses.

7 Day Sri Lanka Itinerary: What to see and do in the center of the country
'Lion Rock, Sigiriya'

The claws of a lion carved in the rock are very impressive and during the climb, you’ll find several frescoes on the rock that well deserve to be admired for a few minutes (no pictures allowed). At the top, you’ll get 360-degree views of the jungle and the opportunity to walk freely through the ruins of the old palace that used to stand there. An alternative is to climb ‘Pidurangala’ rock, which is in front of the previous one and from which you get a perfect view of the ‘Lion Rock’ of Sigiriya. 

TIP: You’ll find monkeys throughout the entire climb, they are normally quite calmed and they used to interact between them, but they are curious creatures, so make sure you have all your belongings secured with you.

7 Day Sri Lanka Itinerary: What to see and do in the center of the country
'Top of the Lion Rock, Sigiriya'
7 Day Sri Lanka Itinerary: What to see and do in the center of the country
'Monkey chilling, Sigiriya'

Again, we stopped for lunch at one of the hotels nearby, this time we stopped by the spectacular hotel, the Aliya Resort & Spa. Before lunch, cooks at the hotel made a demonstration of the traditional cuisine and explained to us all types of ingredients contained in their local gastronomy. That was truly a delicious meal!

7 Day Sri Lanka Itinerary: What to see and do in the center of the country
'Traditional lunch at Aliya Resort & Spa, Sigiriya'

After lunch, we swap the bus again for a jeep that took us into Kaudulla National Park. Our goal: To see elephants in the wild! We left the jungle and arrived at open land,  where we could already see herds of elephants wandering at their own pace, enjoying their food and their baths. For me, this was one of the highlights of the trip, especially because we weren’t 100% sure about finding the elephants! Mission accomplished!

7 Day Sri Lanka Itinerary: What to see and do in the center of the country
'Kaudulla National Park, Habarana'
'Elephants wandering around Kaudulla National Park, Habarana'

Day 5: Habarana – Dambulla Market – Polonnaruwa – Habarana

This morning we visited Dambulla’s Market in order to buy some vegetables and fruits that we would cook in a traditional way, later at the hotel. Have I already mentioned that food in Sri Lanka was definitely one of the surprises of the trip? I didn’t know what to expect and it turned out to be absolutely gorgeous!

7 Day Sri Lanka Itinerary: What to see and do in the center of the country
'Fruit stand at Dambulla Market, Dambulla'
Worker at Dambulla Market, Sri Lanka
'Worker at Dambulla Market, Dambulla'
Supplier at Dambulla Market, Sri Lanka
'Supplier at Dambulla Market, Dambulla'

The Sri Lankan cuisine is based on spicy flavors, mixtures of meats and fish with curry; the coconut has an important presence, just like the rice and the different spices. Fruits are abundant, especially in desserts, although they are also used in the preparation of some main dishes.

7 Day Sri Lanka Itinerary: What to see and do in the center of the country
'Spices at Cinnamon Lodge Habarana, Habarana'
Woman making traditional Kokis, Sri Lanka
'Woman making Kokis at Cinnamon Lodge Habarana, Habarana'

This evening we visited the ancient kingdom of Polonnaruwa, located an hour away from Habarana. Polonnaruwa was the capital of Sri Lanka for almost two centuries and is part of the considered ‘Cultural Triangle’ of Sri Lanka. This complex of temples and ruins, was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1982. If you have the opportunity to do so, I would highly recommend renting bicycles at the beginning of the visit, since the territory comprising Polonnaruwa is extensive and its ruins are spread around several kilometers in the area. Here, we visited the Royal Palace or the Polonnaruwa Vatadage, which was created to house the Buddha’s tooth during the heyday of this kingdom.

Images shows the Watadagaya ancient ruins at Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka
'Watadagaya ancient ruins, Polonnaruwa'
Images shows ruins of Royal Palace of Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka
'Ruins of the Royal Palace, Polonnaruwa'

Also Polonnaruwa holds the best preserved Buddhas in all of Sri Lanka. These are carved into the rock of the Gal Vihara Temple, a must-see in this city.

Gal Vihara Buddha at Polonnaruwa
'Gal Vihara Buddha, Polonnaruwa'

On the way back to the bus, we saw another impressive sunset.

Sunset at Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka
'Sunset at Polonnaruwa'

Day 6: Habarana – Golden Temple – Colombo

This day, our guide decided to take us back to see the Golden Temple of Dambulla once again, but this time during daylight. We enjoyed a little bit of free time in the surroundings and had better views of both the Golden Buddha and the Dagoba at the entrance to the temple area. This visit was on our way back to Colombo; the rest of our day we spent on the road, as we had a 4 hour and a half drive ahead; palm trees, coconut stands on the side of the road and beautiful landscapes was all we saw during a few hours.

Landscape in Sri Lanka
'Landscape in Sri Lanka'
Business on the side of the road, Sri Lanka
'Probably a Tuk-Tuk business on the side of the road, Sri Lanka'

Upon our arrival in Colombo, we checked in at the Cinnamon Grand Colombo hotel and took advantage of the two hours spare time we had, to buy some souvenirs. The three best places to find souvenirs in the city are: «Odel» in Alexandra Place, which stands as the main outlet, «Laksala», mainly for souvenirs & «Majestic City», a shopping mall where you can also find some souvenirs. To be able to move easily around the city, we took a tuk-tuk; this mode of transport is widely used by locals and the prices are ridiculously cheap, even for tourists. You could plan an entire itinerary around the city for very little money. In fact, some people hire a tuk-tuk to make entire routes through Sri Lanka. 

That night we had a special farewell dinner prepared for the group. Again, we had more super tasty traditional food, while enjoying some traditional dances.

Traditional dances at Cinnamon Grand Colombo, Sri Lanka
'Traditional dances at Cinnamon Grand Colombo, Colombo'

Day 7 in Sri Lanka: Colombo City Tour – Colombo Airport – London

This morning I woke up early and decided to briefly explore the city – I couldn’t leave without seeing a bit of the capital! I had some spare time before my flight back home, so I ventured into the city to get to know Colombo a little more.

At the beginning of the trip I made friends with a local guy who worked at the hotel where I was staying and I decided to text him and check if he would join me for a couple hours on my last day in the country. He was happy to come with me so I traced on a map the main places I wanted to visit that morning and he ordered a tuk-tuk by uber so we could move around easily! You can read here all about this crazy little tour around Colombo – this is definitely one of my fond memories of my 7 day Sri Lanka itinerary. As a summary, here below I highlight three of the main visits I got to do that morning:

  • Buddhist Temple of Seema Malaka

This is one of the most famous temples in the city – Do you recall the photo of the golden Buddhas by the lake – it is in many tourism brochures! Well, don’t look for them anymore, they are no longer by the lake and they now lay above the temple! Not as instagrammable as before, but beautiful anyways.

  • Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple

Simply stunning! A mixture of modern and classical architecture with influences from at least four different Asian countries. The complex consists of 3 temples, each of them built in a totally different style.

  • Colombo Lighthouse

A beautiful lighthouse from the colonial period that is one of the symbols of the city.

 

Buddhas at Seema Malaka Buddhist Temple, Sri Lanka
'Seema Malaka Buddhist Temple, Colombo'
Image showing Buddha at Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple, Colombo, Sri Lanka
'Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple, Colombo'

After the improvised city tour in Colombo, the shuttle bus to the airport was already waiting at the reception of the hotel. We all made it safely to our different flights worldwide.

That’s how I put an end to my very first trip to Asia; I would have loved to explore more of Sri Lanka, but I didn’t have more days off from my 9 to 5 job at that time; however, I left the country with a huge smile knowing that I will be back in the future.

Sri Lanka definitely is the pearl of the Indian Ocean

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