Dreaming of a tropical island paradise? One that also gives you lashings of culture, wildlife and safaris in abundance and mouth-watering food to satisfy even the largest appetite? Sounds like you are in desperate need of our 10 day Sri Lanka itinerary!
It’s become quite a fashionable destination of late but don’t let its trendiness deter you. The country is a feast for the eyes and the palate. So, other than booking your flight, the only thing remaining is to sort out your travel plans. And, to ensure you make the best of your trip to ‘Serendib’ (as it used to be known to Arab traders), we’ve got the perfect 10 day itinerary for your Sri Lanka trip. This is the itinerary we spent weeks planning for our honeymoon, so it’s entirely tried and tested and stands out as one of the best trips we’ve ever taken.
If you’re a fan of slower travel, this whistle-stop 10 day Sri Lanka itinerary could also easily be extended to two weeks.
The one thing that really puzzled us before spending 10 days in Sri Lanka was how to get around, particularly considering our hectic itinerary.
And the answer? Well, I can’t recommend it highly enough: hire a driver.
They are not as expensive as you might think. And considering the quality of Sri Lankan roads, the lack of reliability from their train system and the sheer terror of driving in the country, you will be glad you dropped a few extra coins on a private driver for your Sri Lanka tour.
If you are using a travel agent for your trip, they are usually able to book your driver. Otherwise, head on over to Sri Lanka Car and Driver Hire, for a searchable directory.
As an FYI, the driver usually is accommodated in ‘driver rooms’ at most hotels, for a nominal fee or often free of charge. Otherwise they will consider the cost of their accommodation in their quote to you. Also, its considered polite to leave them a tip at the end of your journey with them – about 500 rupees per day.
If you do decided that you’d prefer to sort out your own transport instead of a driver – check out the latest routes and prices on Bookaway.
This depends on your itinerary but usually the best time to visit the west and south coasts and the hill areas of the country (covered in this itinerary) is between December and March, although you can visit from October onwards. For the east coast you’re better off going between April and September.
After the Easter Monday terror attacks, many countries upped the warning on travel to Sri Lanka. However things have largely returned to normal – the local Tourism Bureau has reports that tourism has gone to previous levels and most countries, including the UK, USA and Australia have relaxed their advisories.
The best 10 day Sri Lanka itinerary
If you are only in Sri Lanka for 10 days, we’re sure you’ll want to see as many of the stunning sights that this country has to offer, so although a bit of a whirlwind tour, here what we believe is the best 10 day Sri Lanka itineray.
- Day 1 – Colombo to Balapitiya
- Day 2 – Madu River & the Cinnamon Islands
- Day 3 – Balapitiya, Galle and Ella
- Day 4 – Ella
- Day 5 – Ella to Kandy
- Day 6 – Kandy
- Day 7 – Kandy to Sigiriya
- Day 8 – Sigiriya
- Day 9 – Sigiriya to Chilaw
- Day 10 – Colombo
You’ll inevitably land in Colombo at the recently refurbished BIA Colombo International Airport. Our suggestion? Head straight out of Colombo to the town of Balapitiya.
Don’t worry – you’ll be back in Colombo at the end of the trip but, for now, it’s best to ease into the hectic pace and hit a quieter town to start your journey.
It’s about a 1:45 min drive to Balapitiya, depending on traffic (and there is always traffic!).
Suggested hotel: Roman Lake
If you crave some peace and quiet, the Madu River is a great way to start. Head out on a boat tour on a day trip to explore this remote area; including about 35 breath-taking islands. You’ll see traditional fishermen out trawling, encounter orange juice stands stationed in the middle of the lake and spend the day lazing in the sun.
Ask your boat driver to hop off at the Cinnamon Islands to see peeled cinnamon and cinnamon oil made by local traders or stop off at one of the ‘fish pedicure’ stands, if you dare!
We headed back to our hotel for lunch, so we don’t have any true lunch recommendations.
For the afternoon, I’d highly suggest getting an Ayurveda massage in Balapitiya – I still dream of the massage I had here!
Suggested hotel: Roman Lake
Catch an early breakfast and head out towards Galle Fort and the south coast. This is a fortified city built by the Europeans, and stands as an UNESCO World Heritage site.
On your way, stop in Ambalangoda, a town known for its traditional mask carving. Visit one of the mask museums and buy yourself a keepsake for your trip. Make sure to shop around though, since prices vary hugely from place to place.
In Galle, wind your way around the Green markets and the narrow streets of Galle. Collect street food from smiling vendors and eat some local cuisine. You’ll then be well-fed and happy to walk around the Galle Dutch Fort. If you’re still itching to explore more of Galle, you could head to the boutique shops around the Fort, or down to the natural harbour, the National Maritime Museum or St Mary’s Cathedral.
After lunch, get onto the coastal route so that you can make a stop at Weligama, which translates as ‘sandy village’. Here you’re able to head to the beach to find the famous ‘stilt fisherman’ of Sri Lanka.
While no-one seems to know where or how this type of fishing started, it’s an old tradition that still stands today. The fishermen spend 2-4 hours sitting on a thin plank on stilts, hoping to catch a fish or two for dinner.
Do keep in mind that any photos you take of the fishermen means a ‘donation’ to them. Their handlers can get a little aggressive so make sure you agree a price upfront and bargain hard!
Once you’re done, drive off to Ella, which you can explore tomorrow!
Suggested hotel: 98 Acres
Ask a Sri Lankan about Ella and they’ll tell you the town was ‘built for tourists’, and that’s definitely true. When you arrive, you’ll notice the queues of bright red and blue backpacks trekking up the streets of the hillside town. That said, Ella is one of the most magnificent stops in Sri Lanka.
Surrounded by towering mountains, you can just spy the ocean through a gap in the hills, known as the Ella Gap.
First, hike up to the Lipton Seat, located at the top of the Poonagala Hill. This unique viewpoint is quite literally where Scottish tea baron, Thomas Lipton, would sit and survey his tea plantations. You can also opt to drive most of the way, if you aren’t feeling that energetic.
Next, spend the afternoon at the Dambetenna Tea Factory. Built in 1890 by Lipton himself, this is the place where the term ‘ceylon tea’ was coined and where Lipton Tea was founded. Take a tour of the factory to learn how this special brew is made. You’ll experience everything from fermentation to rolling, drying, cutting, sieving and grading of tea. The tour ends with an authentic tea tasting (closed on Sundays).
Many people also go to the Nine Arches Bridge in Ella, for a great photo opportunity.
Suggested hotel: 98 Acres
Get up early and hike up Little Adam’s Peak, for the sunrise. It takes about 35-40 minutes. You’ll be rewarded with sweeping views across the valleys, tea plantations and waterfalls of Ella.
Now it’s time to make your way to the train station, to undertake one of the world’s most spectacular train journeys.
As with train trips in India, there are numerous classes that you can take, which will really define your train experience. Looking for quiet luxury and air conditioning? Take first class. Want an authentic (slightly less comfortable) experience, take second class. Want a truly realistic, pretty uncomfortable trip? Take third. Second class is a happy medium and allows you to chat to other Sri Lankans (rather than just be surrounded by tourists) and is our pick of the trip.
The train ride is spectacular, snaking through the plantations and hills of Sri Lanka. Don’t miss it. I’d suggest taking Ella to Nanuoya (rather than the Kandy train route), so you can stop off at Nuwara Eliya for a quick tour. Book with Bookaway for peace of mind, but note that you need to book your trains 31 days in advance!!
Then, back onto the road to Kandy, to settle in for the night.
Suggested hotel: The Theva Residency
The second largest city in Sri Lanka, Kandy is a historical site that was ruled by great kings until the British took over in 1815. I’ll be honest – Kandy was my least favourite place in Sri Lanka because of its crazy pace, but many will find the frenetic streets exhilarating and exciting.
There are 3 must-do items on the itinerary here: the Temple of the Tooth, the city markets and a Traditional Kandyan dance.
First up, the Temple of the Tooth. This impressive structure houses one of the most significant relics of the Buddha – the sacred tooth relic. It’s a must-visit but, you have been warned: It’s swarming with tourists at all times of the day. Be prepared to be crammed into the temple and inch slowly around the various sights. If you are skipping the traditional dance (coming up as #3 to visit in Kandy), then I’d suggest visiting at night. This is when the candles are lit outside and the entire estate has an almost ethereal atmosphere.
For the afternoon, it’s recommended to mosey around the city and markets, or take a walk around Kandy Lake. The markets aren’t for the weak of stomach (think raw meat on pavements), but does offer some delicious tropical fruit.
To round off the day, you can witness a traditional Kandyan dance. Rich in colour and agile in movement, you’ll see Sinhalese dancers, energetic drummers and fireproof firewalkers all in one spellbinding, almost hypnotic show. This is one of those recommendations that I’m not 100% confident in – many people swear by this experience but, for us, it was a bit of a let-down. The show was beautiful but the theatre itself was filled with bat dung and incredibly filthy. We’ll let you decide 😊.
Suggested hotel: The Theva Residency
After exploring the hustle of Kandy, it’s time to head off to a more peaceful corner of the country; the Cultural Triangle, as it’s known.
Today is another day of driving but you should undoubtedly stop en-route to see the incredible Dambulla Cave temple. The temple is a vast, isolated rock mass set about 150m above ground which includes a complex of five caves, boasting over 2000 square metres worth of painted walls, ceilings and statues. Think gigantic Buddhas carved out of rock or 150 life-size deities, scattered amongst the caves. There is also another lovely temple next door, if you are feeling energetic.
You should hit your hotel in the early evening, giving you some time to relax, especially since you have an early start tomorrow!
Suggested hotel: Aliya Resort
Proposed as the eighth wonder of the world, Sigiriya Rock Fortress (also known as Lion Rock) is an imposing rock, rising out of the jungle at 370 metres high. Set atop it is a beautiful monastic complex including caved temples, ponds and landscaped gardens, all built by King Kassapa between 477 and 495.
Head out early to beat the masses (ideally 7am or so), because this attraction can get incredibly crowded. It’s also not great for those with a fear of heights – the spiral staircase can get a bit packed and doesn’t have much in the way of railings, so can be stressful.
You can also head to another viewpoint of Sigiriya, called Pidurangala Rock, to get a gorgeous view across the terrain.
After lunch, most people will go to the Minneriya National Park. On the banks of the Minneriya reservoir, the park boasts an event known as The Gathering. Essentially 250 elephants coming together at once every few days. Hire a jeep for a safari and you’ll not only encounter elephants on every turn, but also bird species like Grey heron and painted storks, as well as gorgeous little pink-faced monkeys.
I’ll be honest here – the Minneriya safari was our least-favourite activity. Having been on safari in Africa many times, perhaps we’re a little bit spoilt. That said, Minneriya felt over-commercialised – heading to The Gathering, there were at least 30 other jeeps alongside us, racing to find the elephants. It felt much more like a zoo dressed up as a nature reserve. Again: we are very used to more sedate parks, so you might love Minneriya.
Suggested hotel: Aliya Resort
This morning you should leave Sigiriya and head to Anuradhapura. Seen as equal to the Pyramids of Giza in terms of architecture, this sacred city was the first Royal Kingdom and capital of Sri Lanka, and is filled to the brim with history. Have a walk alongside pilgrims to see Buddha’s fig tree or take a stroll to see the enormous white Dagoba.
Stay in the area for lunch and then make your way to Wilpattu. Now this was a national park that we loved! Far more authentic, the Wilpattu National Park (Land of Lakes), is one of the largest and oldest parks in Sri Lanka. If you’re lucky it’s also one of the best places to see the elusive leopard. Of course, we didn’t see one – a long-running joke considering how many safaris we have been on!
We loved Wilpattu – a more rustic jeep, bouncing around the winding dirt roads with dust in your nose and the wind in your ears. A good-natured, experienced guide. And teeming wildlife – elephants, sloths, leopards (apparently!), water buffalo, crocodiles and your standard list of birds, reptiles and insects.
We have been told by other travellers that Yala National Park and Uda Walawe National Park are also great ones to visit. If you’re keen to look into something really special, you should check out the 2 day Yala National Park tour – it looks incredible.
Suggested hotel: Anantaya
It’s now time to leave Sri Lanka, but you can’t do so without visiting the beating heart of the country: Colombo. We unfortunately didn’t have that much time in Colombo due to our connecting flight but that time we had, we maximised!
Do a lightning quick tour of the city, grab a tuk tuk to see the key sights of the National Museum, the Gangaramaya Temple, Beira Lake and definitely the colonial buildings of the Fort Area. If you have time, visit the Old Dutch Hospital or wander the streets of Pettah; a totally overwhelming experience!
And, when in Colombo, you must eat crab (it’s like a rite of passage). Book ahead with Ministry of Crab but beware – if they don’t catch enough crabs, you could see your booking cancelled. And, if that happens, our suggestion is the Gallery Café. Part of an upmarket complex called Paradise Road including arts and crafts and small retail stores. Eat the Black Pork Curry if you dare…
Suugested hotel: Marino Beach
I hope you enjoyed this 10 day take on Sri Lanka travel, and that you make your way to this beautiful country soon. And, if you’re looking to go for a bit longer than 10 days, we love this 3 week itinerary, which includes destinations on the gorgeous east coast, perfect for a longer jaunt.
Have your own tips to add or have a question? Get in touch with us, and we’d be happy to help.
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