Sri Lanka has plenty to offer from tropical beach vibes, cool surfing spots to amazing wildlife, lush tea plantations and colonial architecture. It’s only a small island but its biodiversity is really incredible and the ease of travelling around to witness the changing landscape is an enormous advantage.
In the past 10 years, Sri Lanka has certainly flourished as a tourist destination but it’s important to mention that it’s still not as developed as some spots in Southeast Asia. The country opened up to visitors since the end of the civil war with more flights and various accommodation options ranging from family guesthouses and bungalows to surfer hostels and mountain-view hotels. You won’t find any high-rises with fancy rooftop bars, Sri Lanka has a more laid back atmosphere and is a perfect destination for people who love to embrace a local vibe at slow pace.
Despite the fact that the country’s thriving tourism industry came to a halt with the Easter Sunday attacks in 2019, Sri Lanka is now on the right path to sustainable recovery.
I’d also recommend Sri Lanka to anyone who wants to visit Asia for the first time. English is one of the official languages, which is always reassuring when checking the post signs or asking for directions. Most importantly, local people are friendly and helpful. If you are travelling with kids they will even go the extra mile for you to make things comfortable for you. I travelled on my own and felt safe, relaxed and my trip, although previously planned and organised was very uncomplicated allowing me to enjoy every moment.
In my opinion, an ideal length of stay in Sri Lanka is around 2 weeks. I wouldn’t go for less if you’re flying from Europe but of course it’s possible to rush things through or opt only for the beach part.
I found Sri Lanka reasonably priced. It’s possible to have a nice meal for around 3-5 Euros and spend a night at a nice guesthouse for 15 Euros and that’s for a double room. Getting around by local buses cost peanuts so if you have the time – go for it! It’s an experience in itself.
Here’s a list of places that I visited during my stay with some highlights and recommendations. I also relied on useful tips from my friends so it’s only fair that I share mine.
Typically tourists start their travels around Sri Linka with either Colombo or Sigiriya. If you’re like me, always starting your longer holiday exhausted after stressful run up to organise handovers at work or just simply tired from the flight, you might want to head for the beach first.
Situated on the southwest coast, Hikkaduwa was my first stop and for sure a jet lag recovery spot. Luckily, I organised a pick up from the airport so it was hassle-free to get there. Although public transport is a great option for travelling around Sri Lanka, when the route is longer and requires some changes along the way, it can get sweaty and tiring.
I heard that in Hikkaduwa it’s possible to see giant turtles that swim up very close to the shore. I didn’t manage to see any, which was a bit disappointing but overall I enjoyed myself. There were not that many people relaxing on the main beach (probably due to high waves) so that was certainly a huge plus point. After two days though I was ready to hit the road and head to Galle.
Eating at Home Grown Rice & Curry would be my top recommendation for Hikkaduwa. The curry there was delicious and the restaurant is slightly off the main road, with some pleasant surroundings.
Visiting Galle Fort is a must. I completely fell in love with that place. The fort was built in the 16th century by the Portuguese, and later extensively fortified by the Dutch during the 17th century. There is plenty of reconstructed and well-preserved colonial architecture to admire when strolling around. It ranges from school and administration buildings to churches and temples. I also loved the lighthouse and walking around the fortified walls when the sun was about to set.
Recognized as the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Galle Fort is a perfect one day trip destination and my strong recommendation even if all you want to do is to chill hard on the beach. I decided to stay for a night in Galle but I could have equally come for a day from Hikkaduwa or any other village situated on the coast.
What I thought was an interesting fact, amidst the terrible tragedy, is that the Galle Fort withstood the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. Part of the coastal area of town was badly damaged but luckily it has been restored since.
Mirissa is famous for whale watching. I had it somewhere at the back of my mind when I included it on my travel itinerary but it was only when I met Sarah and Patrick, a lovely couple from Germany, that I actually decided to join a whale watching tour. Sceptical to begin with, I was loving it later.
If you are there in season I really recommend that you do it. The concentration of blue whales around Sri Lankan shores is very high as due to fairly warm waters they can find plenty of plankton there. That is usually a resting place of females with their young once before leaving for other parts of the world. Just make sure that you do your research and pick a company that plays by the rules. It was extremely upsetting and annoying to see the boats that were either “chasing” the whale or coming very close to it. Seeing a blue whale, the largest mammal on this planet has been truly breathtaking!
Surf and Yoga
Mirissa was a fantastic place and I enjoyed it a lot. Everything was accessible over there. There was a big supermarket, local shops and restaurants and even very fancy ones. Although the place was a bit crowded, it was easy to hop on a bus and go slightly out of town to lesser known beaches with literally no one there.
I stayed at an amazing boutique hostel called JJ’s Hostel and I couldn’t recommend it more! It was fantastic and offered yoga classes, which were a good option after my surfing sessions. There were also other nice places in Mirissa that offered morning and evening yoga sessions.
The Coconut Hill, an Insta-famous spot is also there. It’s nice to go there to watch the sunset but be prepared – it will be packed with people wanting that perfect shot for their feed.
Dikwella and Hiriketiya
Although I spent my happiest and most relaxed moments in these two villages the beginning was not the best. I only have myself to blame as I picked the wrong surfing hostel. Instead of leaving it straight after I arrived I decided to stay for the night. People there were extremely nice but the place was extremely filthy! Needless to say that I ended up covered in bites from bed bugs and it took me some time and a series of antihistamine tablets to get better.
The hostel where you want to be spending your time and mingling with people, who also came there to surf, is the Lazy Monkey Hostel in Hiriketiya. Please take a mental note! A really nice couple runs it and I’m crossing my fingers for their little business.
A small bay of Hiriketiya is perfect for surfing. During my stay I would just rent a board in the afternoon and try to catch some waves. Whenever I wanted to have a quiet moment I would head for Dikwella (by tuk tuk or walking) as the beach there is much bigger and there are less people there. That was my reading place. I would also visit Verse Collective from time to time for some cool vibes and a stable internet connection. You can also book a room there but for Sri Lankan standards that is rather a pricey option.
Nature in Sri Lanka is stunning and going on a safari in one of the National Parks is an unforgettable experience. If you want to stay on the coast it might be easier to head to Yalla National Park. I decided to go to Udawalawe together with lovely Fliss, who I met in Mirissa.
We stayed at Kottawatta Village in luxury tents that had en suite bathrooms with hot showers. I highly recommend it as they sorted out a morning safari tour for us and it was well-organized and we had an amazing guide. Although it was raining heavily during the night, which kept me away and worried that animals would be hiding away, we were lucky to see many wild animals. Udawalawe National Park is known for its elephants and yes there were many of them and we even spotted some baby elephants. Some as young as a few days old! That was for sure one of my top highlights!
After spending some time on the coast it was great to finally change the scenery and head to Ella. It’s a popular hiking spot famous for its Nine Arch Bridge. Although it’s a small mountain town there are few things that you can do there.
The most well-known hikes that can be easily done without a guide are leading to Little Adam’s Peak and Ella Rock. They both give a chance to admire beautiful views of the countryside and tea plantations.
I opted for a hike to Little Adam’s Peak, which was easy and really enjoyable. At the end I relaxed with a cup of tea at nearby 98 Acres Spa and Resort where the views are also incredible. If anyone craves a touch of luxury I heard that spa treatments (especially massages) there are out of this world. They come at the price but if you want to treat yourself, I reckon that this is your place.
When in Ella, it’s a must to see the Nine Arch Bridge. This viaduct bridge is one of the best examples of colonial-era railway construction in Sri Lanka. It’s also certainly one of the most iconic sites in the country. I enjoyed watching from the nearby hill how the train rolls onto the bridge to later disappear into the tunnel. Just please don’t be that person who behaves irresponsibly to take the perfect shot or selfie possible.
Cafe Chill is really nice and seems to be the place where everyone goes for some indeed chilled vibes and tasty food.
Nuwara Eliya, also known as Little England, is a city of beautiful tea hills, Lake Gregory and British-like village feel. During the colonial times many British would have their holiday bungalows here as they preferred the less tropical climate of this hilly area.
I got there by train from Ella and as soon as I arrived I had a feeling that maybe it was a mistake to stop here. I wanted to give it a try but I honestly didn’t like it. There were so many things going for the place, like the lake, the park but somehow the atmosphere was strange. Visiting Pedro Tea Factory and walking by the tea plantations was great and probably the only reason why I didn’t regret going there. The factory operates only during the night to benefit from cooler temperatures. I was able to find out more about production and the processes involved in getting the tea into the shops.
Royal Turf Club was also an interesting place to visit and another mark of the colonial past. I was impressed with its massive race course. It’s surprising that still today it’s a home to the country’s horse racing tournaments. It’s possible to get a little tour around it and learn more about its history and also how horse racing is done today.
If you visit a tea factory in Ella, you might as well skip Nuwara Eliya. I feel like there are nicer places in Sri Lanka that are worth exploring.
With my train severely delayed I reached Kandy late at night. It was still worth taking the ride in the afternoon to see the sun setting down from the train over lush fields of tea. The views were spectacular.
I arrived in Kandy with no expectations and was surprised that it’s actually a fairly large city. In fact, it’s the second largest city after Colombo, the capital. Luckily the city center is small and compact and it was not a problem to find my way to the hotel. A very scenic Bogambara Lake and the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, an important Buddhist site, are the main attractions and situated right next to each other. When visiting the temple keep in mind the modest dress code – arms and knees need to be covered.
Beautiful architecture combined with nice surroundings made my stay in Kandy very enjoyable but you don’t need more than a day there, unless you wish to venture out of town.
Sigiriya and Dambulla
Sigiriya, is home to the Lion Rock, an ancient and absolutely amazing rock fortress. Before I even considered travelling to Sri Lanka I heard about this natural phenomenon and archaeological wonder. This huge square shaped rock is one of the top UNESCO World Heritage Sites and indeed a major landmark of the country.
The climb is not difficult but I would recommend doing it early in the morning to avoid the heat. The start at the terrace gardens gives a great perspective of the rock. During the climb up you can also admire colourful frescos, the Mirror Wall and see the lion claws carved out of the rock. The panoramic views from the top are spectacular!
Lion Rock is probably the most expensive tourist attraction in Sri Lanka. The entrance fee is around 30 US Dollars so be prepared.
If you like to see a different view of Lion Rock opt for climbing the Pidurangala Rock. Luckily the entrance is just 5 US Dollars so you can go there to either see the sunrise or sunset in addition to visiting the main attraction.
When in Sigiriya I also recommend jumping on a bus and visiting Dambulla Cave Temple. I really loved it, although climbing that steep hill in the middle of the day after I went up the Lion Rock in the morning was a bit of a killer. The temple has some amazing artwork, statues of Buddha and a peaceful vibe.
Beyond the Lion Rock Sigiriya doesn’t have so much to offer so once you have a chance to see it, it’s best to move on and explore other places.