Sri Lanka is a beautiful Island in the form of a teardrop located to the South of India, and throughout the years has become a great surprise to many travelers, as this country has it all!
This is a 10-day Sri Lanka itinerary based on my experience traveling across the country. This article includes a list of tours and the best hotels in Sri Lanka depending on the area, as well as recommendations to move around the Island and some key questions about the destination.
How many days are enough for Sri Lanka
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 between 13 and 15 days; also, depending on your vacation duration and budget, it is very common to combine this trip with an extension to The Maldives.
Best time to visit Sri Lanka
If you’re planning to spend the most part of your trip chilling near the coast, the best time for you to go to Sri Lanka will probably be sometime between December to April.
However, if your plan is to visit the entire country, traveling to Sri Lanka between September and December, is also a great time to discover the island despite the rain.
Is it safe to travel to Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is a safe country for travelers. Even during a political crisis, the country understands the importance of tourism in its economy, and most tour companies, hotels, and restaurants are open, trying to make things work as much as possible to provide the best services to visitors.
As for the majority of the countries in the world, it is always best to check stories and reviews of recent travelers to see what is the reality in the country as the media normally tells us one side of the story (typical)!
There have been several political crises in Sri Lanka in the last few years, but the positive side of the story (and what you won’t see much on the news) is how hard they actually try to keep their hospitality services operating despite the country’s internal issues as they need foreign money to continue evolving as a whole.
I was there during a political crisis in 2018 and none of my activities got interrupted. I know a few people who have been traveling around the entire country during the 2022 political coup and they reported no issues to travel and visit the country.
Sri Lanka Transport – Getting arround
Getting around Sri Lanka is not as hard as it could sound. Although traffic and driving could sound intimidating at first, the truth is that many travelers decide to self-drive during their trip to Sri Lanka. If you’re determined to go for this option, renting a bike is one of the best ways to get around the island. There are no tolls that I have heard of and this company can provide you with a good GPS device and they will take care of your required permits to drive in the country. Make sure you book your bike a few weeks in advance so they can have time to get all the permits.
Depending on the area you will find train connections, local buses, taxis, or tuk-tuks. Sometimes it takes no time to arrive at places, but others, just require more patience and being ready for unexpected changes on your route. This said, you can choose the means of transport that looks more convenient for you, and I would recommend you to check this Lonely Planet guide to getting around in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka Guided Tours
Sri Lanka has plenty of options for all kinds of travelers. This article suggests a detailed itinerary that you can follow while traveling on your own.
However, if you’re just searching for some guided tours to be well taken care of and have zero worries during your stay in the country, here are some of the best-rated multi-day tours by other travelers.
Sri Lanka Itinerary – What to see and do in the center of the country
Sri Lanka has more than wonderful beaches and infinite tea plantations. During my stay in the country, I visited several temples, climbed sacred mountains, rode a bike along an ancient Kingdom, and had the chance to observe wild animals in their natural habitat. The center of the country is truly fascinating, it is where all the history, nature, and culture merge and evoke in the outsider a sense of spiritual experience.
Day 1: Arriving in Colombo
Whether you are flying from Europe or any other continent you will probably be landing in Colombo, which is the capital city of Sri Lanka. That was exactly my case, and I was shocked by how nice was to fly with their national carrier SriLankan Airlines.
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 were driven directly to our hotel, the Cinnamon Grand Colombo.
Day 2: Colombo – Yapahuwa – Dambulla – Habarana
This day we moved to the center 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 stopping for a couple of 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 wild!
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 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 comfy shoes!
'Yapahuwa Rock Fortress, Sri Lanka'
'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. This totally 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 place is definitely a must-see in your Sri Lanka itinerary.
'Golden Cave Temple, Dambulla'
'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 fiery orange sunset that took our breath away for several minutes – what an incredible 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 the 1st century BCE. You can do this excursion with any of the several organized tours or you could get here with a rental car as well. In our case, we were on a tour and we were driven on a bus towards a secondary road, where we continued the adventure on a jeep towards the foot of the mountain. Climbing the ruins of the old monastery is not difficult, however, if you wish to continue ascending you will need a special permit and an experienced guide with you as this is home to 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!
'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. The civilization that once 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 includes the sacred tree of ‘Sri Maha Bodhi’. The legend says under this tree, Buddha attained Enlightenment. Also, it is believed to be the oldest human-planted tree to date. The Dagobas on this site, are comparable to the size of the Pyramids of Giza.
'Lovamahapaya (Brazen Palace), Anuradhapura'
'Ruwanweliseya Dagoba, Anuradhapura'
Despite the intense rain, I found this place quite 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.
'Isurumuniya Temple, Anuradhapura'
Day 4: Habarana – Sigiriya – Kaudulla National Park – Habarana
We drove for 30 minutes from Habarana and quickly arrived at Sigiriya. This day we climbed the famous ‘Lion Rock’ of Sigiriya. This immense rock is a World Heritage Site and is one of the most recognized 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.
'Lion Rock, Sigiriya'
The claws of a lion carved into 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 the ‘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 calm, but they are curious creatures, so make sure you have all your belongings secured with you.
'Top of the Lion Rock, Sigiriya'
'Monkey chilling, Sigiriya'
Again, we stopped for a traditional lunch at one of the hotels nearby, 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 truly special and delicious meal!
'Traditional lunch at Aliya Resort & Spa, Sigiriya'
After lunch, we swapped the bus again for a jeep that took us to Kaudulla National Park. Our goal: To see elephants in the wild! We left the jungle to arrive at an open area of fresh 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!
'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!
'Fruit stand at Dambulla Market, Dambulla'
'Worker at Dambulla Market, Dambulla'
'Supplier at Dambulla Market, Dambulla'
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.
'Spices at Cinnamon Lodge Habarana, Habarana'
'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.
'Watadagaya ancient ruins, Polonnaruwa'
'Ruins of the Royal Palace, Polonnaruwa'
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 ancient city.
'Gal Vihara Buddha, Polonnaruwa'
On the way back to the bus, we saw another outstanding sunset.
'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 it on the road, as we had a 4 hour and a half drive ahead. Palm trees, coconut stalls on the side of the road, and beautiful landscapes were all we saw during a few hours.
'Landscape in 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 once again. This was our last night as a group, so we had a special farewell dinner prepared for us while we enjoyed some traditional dances.
'Traditional dances at Cinnamon Grand Colombo, Colombo'
Day 7: Spend one day in Kandy
You now have two options, either spend two days in Kandy to experience the city and one of the most scenic train routes in the country or divide your days into different areas to visit as many places as possible. I went for the second, but I think both options are very reasonable. There is no wrong answer in Sri Lanka!
On this day, I joined a small group for a day trip to Pinnawala & Kandy. If you decide to go for it, you will have the chance to see the sacred tooth relic of Buddha at the Temple of the Tooth; walk among the orchids and spice plants of the Royal Botanical Gardens; get a panoramic view of the city and join a Tour to a tea factory.
Day 8: Join a Day Tour of Galle and Bentota
As a suggestion for a day tour, I couldn’t recommend enough visiting Galle. There is a well-rated tour that will take you to this area in one day. You will have the chance to experience The Madu River on a boat Safari, visit a local cinnamon garden, learn about local wildlife at a Turtle Hatchery, explore the Galle Fort and surroundings and see the stilt fishermen in action!
Day 9: Things to do in Colombo – Explore the capital city of Sri Lanka
There are several guided tours around the city. Note that I never joined any of these as I visited the city on my own, but if you still want to join a small group for a guided visit, here are some suggestions:
For my last day in Sri Lanka, I woke up early and decided to briefly explore the city – I couldn’t leave without seeing a bit of the capital, 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 of hours to explore the city. 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! This is definitely one of my core memories of my 10-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 as 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
This is a beautiful lighthouse from the colonial period and represents one of the symbols of the city.
I then decided to chill during the rest of the day as the previous days were a bit intense. As a recommendation, you can find a tall rooftop to have a cocktail or go get your souvenirs for the trip.
The three best places to find souvenirs in Colombo 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. You can also use Uber Tuk-Tuk and negotiate with the driver a price to take you around the city for a couple of hours.
'Seema Malaka Buddhist Temple, Colombo'
'Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple, Colombo'
Day 10: Leaving Colombo
The shuttle bus to the airport was already waiting at the reception of the hotel. Again, getting out of the city takes some time, so make sure you leave the hotel with extra time in case there is any traffic on the way to the airport. Luckily for us, 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.
Best Hotels in Sri Lanka
During my stay in Sri Lanka I was lucky enough to stay in some really good hotels, however, I must say, that the quality of the accommodation in this country is surprisingly good even for lesser pricey hotels. Here are some alternatives (from lower to higher category) of some of the best hotels to plan your trip to Sri Lanka, depending on the areas:
Best places to stay in Colombo
Best places to stay in the center of the country
Best places to stay in Kandy
Facts about Sri Lanka – A list of useful tips
- There is a big western influence in Colombo. You will be able to find brands like Mcdonalds, KFC, Burger King, etc.
- Uber Tuk (is the uber for tuk-tuks) The way to move around, especially in the cities!
- Food and essentials stalls on the sides of the road. Their way to market their local businesses across the island.
- Do not drink tap water during your trip to Sri Lanka. Always have a bottle of water handy.
- Roads are better than you expect, but the driving is chaos.
- You’re normally the one taking photos, but in Sri Lanka, you will be the novelty. Sometimes locals will take photos of you.
- You need to cover your knees and shoulders before entering sacred temples. You will also need to be barefoot.
- Respect Buda as a local. Do not take selfies with a Buda, or pose in front of one showing your back. Tattoos with the image of Buda are not that well seen, if you can hide them under your clothes, it is best.
- If you see a sign that reads no photo, try to respect it. Authorities are very serious about this and if you have a drone, make sure to get the mandatory permits.
- Be careful with the monkeys! They’re adorable but super sneaky. Make sure you have your belongings secured.
- There aren’t that many places to buy souvenirs. Only after your visits to Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa, and when in Colombo, you’ll be able to find souvenir shops.
Plan your trip: A quick guide to book your next adventure now
This is a detailed guide that will help you plan your trip from scratch and successfully prepare everything ahead of your departure. I follow these steps to book my trips and now you can do the exact same!
Purchase your flight
Book your accommodation
Don’t forget your travel insurance
Choose your tours
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