Sri Lanka has definitely been one of our favourite places we’ve visited: the amazing contrast between beautiful beaches on the coast and incredible mountain views from inland, the friendly people and delicious food all made us fall in love with the country. One thing we struggled with was planning the logistics of our trip, there isn’t a well-travelled backpacker route as there is in other places, and aside from the trains we found it difficult to find much about public transport online. From what we had read before we arrived we thought we’d have to spend lots of money on private cars around the country. This wasn’t the case at all; everywhere you can’t get by train is reachable by bus – and best of all it is incredibly cheap to travel by public transport. We wanted to share with you our route around Sri Lanka, how we got from place to place, places we loved, and a few we weren’t so taken by, as well as a few other tips from along the way.
We visited Sri Lanka for 30 days from mid March to mid April. We found this to be a great time to visit weather-wise, although when we got inland we generally found there to be patches of rain in the afternoons. We each budgeted £900 spending money for the month (this covered everything but flights at either side and our visas), we found this pretty easy to stick to without missing out on anything we wanted to experience.
You’ll most likely be flying into Colombo, which is what we did. We actually spent a couple of nights in Colombo, as we had to restock after a month in India, and wanted to shop around for a new camera. Because of this, our time was mostly split between shopping and stopping to eat Kottu. Because of this, we can’t comment too much on the things to see and do in Colombo, but the rest of Sri Lanka is so amazing that we wouldn’t recommend staying much longer than a night or two. After our two nights in Colombo, we caught the train down to Galle.
- Old Dutch Hospital – For dinner/drinks
- Barefoot shop & café – Amazing shakes
- Galle Face Green – Street food and sunsets
We only stopped in Galle for one night; we paid a little more to stay in the Fort (which we’d definitely recommend doing, there are some bargains in the fort that aren’t online). We spent our day there walking around the fort, looking in the shops, and eating in the restaurants. Everything there is so picturesque, it’s definitely worth seeing, however it is relatively expensive, so if you’re on a budget it’s probably best to stick to one night.
- Poonie’s Kitchen – Pricey by Sri Lankan standards, but you’re getting what you pay for; amazing healthy food in a beautiful setting
We actually went back on ourselves to go to Hikkaduwa – we had heard mixed reviews of the beach (with the downside being how crowded it is) so initially missed it out, but while we were in Galle we heard that there are wild sea turtles that you can feed, so made a quick decision to get the train back there. The beach is pretty built up, however it did exceed our expectations – it’s a nice big stretch of beach with loads of beach bars where you can either grab a drink and some food, or chill on their sunbeds.
Overall we’re glad we made a stop there to see the turtles, from what we gathered, they’re wild turtles that must have been fed by locals, so now return to the same spot right at the shore every morning hoping for food. Locals collected and left seaweed out for people to take/buy and the turtles are very used to people so will come right up to you and eat out of your hand, which was an incredible experience. We’re aware that anything that disrupts wild animals feeding patterns isn’t good, but if you do want to interact with sea turtles this way I would still say this is one of the better options for the turtles, as they’re free to do as they please and seem content to come and feed from people at the shore. However, we got there early (7am) and I would definitely recommend doing this – the later it got the more tourists there were crowding around the turtles, which we didn’t want to be a part of.
- Feeding the sea turtles in front of Citrus resort
- Hikkaduwa turtle sanctuary – This is a really good one to see the baby turtles that have been rescued as eggs, and will soon be released into the wild. We visited near the end of our time in Hikkaduwa and it turned out we were just missing them releasing the babies into the wild, so it’s worth asking when they are next doing it as it would be great to see
Next up we took an hour bus ride along the coast to Ahangama. We’d recommend getting the busses where possible in Sri Lanka as it is ridiculously cheap and will cut down your spending so much – this bus cost us about 50p each. We headed to Ahangama because we wanted to learn to surf and had seen Sion surf camp online which looked amazing, you can only book a full week package there, but we decided to show up and see if they could let us stay for a few nights (all we could afford). Luckily they sorted us out staying in accommodation over the road for two days, and we were included in their breakfast, dinner, yoga and 4 hours of surf lessons for two days. This was definitely a highlight of our trip to Sri Lanka, everyone there was lovely – the food and atmosphere at the surf camp was amazing, and every day they would load up 5 ro 6 tuk tuks with surfboards and everyone would head down to Weligama where the waves are perfect to learn to surf. We learnt the basics of surfing and had an amazing time. If you’re looking to visit Ahangama, Midigama or Weligama its mainly about the surf; the waves aren’t great for swimming and the beaches are small and not very developed, but if you do want to surf it’s ideal as there are breaks for all levels, lots of surf schools and even more board rental/surf shops.
- Sion Surf Camp
- Shirani Homemade Rice and Curry – Amazing home cooked Sri Lankan food
Though we did enjoy our time in Mirissa, it didn’t live up to our expectations, which is mostly down to everything we’d seen online singing its praises so much. It probably was a beautiful beach a few years ago, but now we found it to be very built up with restaurants that seemed to cover the entire beach. So much so that while we were there the tide came in so far, with rough waves, that the sunbeds had to be evacuated and taken inside the bars.
Our favourite part of Mirissa was the happy hours; there are so many bars with good offers extending from late afternoon to late night. After alcohol being pricey in some parts of Sri Lanka, we really enjoyed sitting and having drinks and dinner along the beach, watching the sunset.
- No1 Dewmini Roti Shop
- Happy hour bars – Try going for the mid-range ones if you’re drinking cocktails, I found some of the cheaper ones to be very weak
- Aloha Coffee Gallery – Lovely smoothie bowls and other breakfasts, we also wanted to try Coco Loco but it was closed
Next we headed down to Hiriketiya. To get there we got the bus from Mirissa to Dikwella, and then a short tuk tuk ride to Hiriketiya. We found out about this little known beach from a friend who couldn’t speak highly enough about it. We were expecting paradise, and we think we found it. Hiriketiya is a beautiful small bay, with waves that are perfect for surfing at all levels (huge to left side of the bay, tapering down to beginner waves on the right, so there’s a spot for everyone), the board rental is very cheap (about £1.50 an hour) and the surf lessons are reasonable (and from our experience, really good). On our first day we did a lesson, then after that we rented the boards when we wanted to surf. There’s also loads of Yoga going on, which we heard was good but didn’t take part in as we spent our time and money surfing instead.
There are a mix of local beachfront restaurants, and a few pricier boutique surf café’s in Hiriketiya. As we were on a budget we mainly ate at the local restaurants, but if you’re on a holiday, the surf café’s all looked amazing. Overall we spent just over a week here, most mornings we woke up early to watch the sunrise and catch the morning waves, chill on the beach for the day, and then later on in the afternoon surf again before watching the incredible sunsets.
- Dot’s Bay Surf House – this was one of the pricier places to eat so we only went twice, but the second time it was for the live music and bbq night which was a real highlight for us, if it’s on when you’re there definitely check it out
- Hiriketiya Surf Homestay – amazing guesthouse where we stayed, it was slightly over budget for us but the amazing breakfasts, beautiful rooms and people there made it so worthwhile
After exploring the south coast we ventured inland, with our first stop being a safari at Udawalawe – we were debating between Udawalwe and Yala, and also looked into Pinnawala elephant orphanage, but after speaking to a few people and having a quick look online we thought Udawalawe seemed our best option. We were planning on getting a bus but our guesthouse sorted out a tuk tuk for us quite cheaply so we did that for convenience.
The safari was incredible, we went for a morning safari so were picked up at 5.30am by our driver, and got to see an amazing sunrise on the journey to the park. Once we were there we saw dozens of beautiful elephants, along with other animals such as peacocks, monkeys, deer, water buffalo, water monitors and eagles. It was so incredible seeing all of these animals roaming naturally, so we’d definitely recommend Udawalawe. We booked through our guesthouse and it worked out to about £30 each for the 4-hour morning Safari. We’d recommend this option as it seemed like the perfect amount of time, the sunrise was beautiful, it wasn’t too hot for the most part. Also in the afternoon of the day we went there was a huge downpour, which we managed to avoid.
- Happy Elephant Resort – this is where we stayed and booked our safari through. As we only stayed one night we called ahead before booking to check that we’d be able to arrive in the evening and do the safari the next morning. The staff at this hotel are amazing, and will go out of their way to make sure you’re happy. Make sure you get the dinner there; we were bought an amazing curry to our terrace with about 10 different dishes (which they kept refilling!) and it only cost about £2.50 each
We then set off on the bus journey to Ella. It’s really hard to find anything about bus routes in Sri Lanka online, but once we spoke to people there it was easy to get our route and locals along the way go out of their way to guide you onto the right bus (just don’t trust tuktuk drivers who tell you there are no busses or there’s a long wait until the next one – as other locals had warned us). Our guesthouse kindly took us to the bus stop, and we had to catch a bus to Wellawaya (50p each) and then a second bus to Ella (we ended up getting a private AC bus because it came first and we were keen to escape the rain, so this bus cost us £1.50 each).
Once in Ella, we fell in love and ended up staying a whole week. Our guesthouse was overlooking the 9 Arch Bridge and really did have the most incredible view, plus was run by a lovely family. It was unbelievable being in Ella amongst the mountains and at times the really surreal mist. There are lots of amazing treks and walks to go on and the town was so picturesque and not like anything we’d seen before. We’d often have afternoon downpours while we were there, so usually did most of our exploring in the mornings, and often relaxed upstairs in Chill bar in the afternoons, which is like a giant tree house full of beanbags to lounge on.
- Ella rock – One of our favourite hikes
- Senavi 9 arch homestay – We spent more on tuk-tuks to and from Ella town, but found it to be worth it for this amazing homestay
- Matey Hut – Seriously good roti
- Chill bar – It’s pretty touristy, but is very fun to chill and drink upstairs, and the food is great too
Hatton (Adam’s Peak/Sri Pada)
After overstaying in lovely Ella, we took the train towards Hatton to tackle Adam’s peak. The train ride was a highlight in itself; stunning views for 3 to 4 hours as the train snakes around the mountains, amongst tea plantations and through forests. We opted for the bus from Hatton to Nallathanniya, which was a scary ride – speeding at 70 miles an hour through twisty roads along the side of a mountain; we’d recommend a tuktuk. Other than Sri Pada there isn’t too much to see or do in Nallathanniya, the town is set up for the hike which suited us; we carb loaded with one of the cheapest but tastiest kottu’s ever, then got an early night in prep for our 1:30am wake up.
Climbing Adam’s peak was a tough one but definitely one of the highlights of our trip. The climb up is as hard as you’d imagine – about 3 and a half hours of climbing steps up the side of a mountain. However once you get to the top it’s really incredible, you’ll arrive at the mountain top temple looking down on the clouds and will get to see an amazing sunrise. It can get quite crowded up there though, so try to avoid weekends and our advice would be to get yourself a spot on the east side before the sun starts to rise. Oh and bring warm clothes, it gets very cold at the top. After a long walk back down we had a huge breakfast before heading back to Hatton station in a tuktuk and getting back on the train towards Kandy.
We only spent one night in Kandy so we can’t speak for the city as a whole but we have to admit that from what we did see, we weren’t the biggest fans. Maybe this wasn’t helped by the fact that we had just climbed Adam’s Peak so were pretty tired, but we found it really hectic, way too busy and generally not the kind of vibe we wanted, so were happy to move onto Sigiriya the next day.
That said we were staying in the city center. Friends of ours enjoyed their time in Kandy, staying on the outskirts in the hills.
- Empire café
From Kandy we got on a bus to Sigiriya. We had a bad experience with this as we got stuck in awful traffic, so the journey took us about 6 hours – however, this seemed to be a one off and should usually take less than 3 hours so we would still recommend the bus as it’s so cheap – just make sure you avoid peak times.
We stayed at a great hostel called Jungle Vista, between Sigiriya and Dambulla, which was the perfect mid-point for us to explore. On the first day we took the bus to the ancient city of Polonaruwa (1.5 hour journey), we rented bikes from nearby and cycled around the ancient city. The entry fee for this was just under £20 each, and the bike rental was £1.50 each. This was incredible and really cool to see, however, we were quite unorganized and ended up there in the mid-day heat which was unbearable at times. Definitely worth an early wake up.
On the second day we went with our hostel for a sunrise climb to Pidurangula rock. This had an amazing view of Sigiriya rock and the surrounding area. We chose this over climbing actual Sigiriya due to the price (Sigiriya entrance is £23 and Pidurangula is about £2.50) and also because we figured we’d rather have the view of Sigiriya than the view from Sigiriya.
Everyone we spoke to that did climb Sigiriya loved it, but did say it was hard work. If you’re happy to spend the cash and feel up to the challenge, we’d recommend watching the sun rise from Pidurangula then heading over to climb Sigiriya before it starts to heat up.
- Jungle Vista hostel – a great mid-point to explore from, has a cheap trip to Pidurangula rock, and is a lovely hostel with a great atmosphere
Sigiriya was our last real destination in Sri Lanka, so we then headed to Negombo for the night as it’s 10 minutes drive from the Airport. We first got a bus to Dambulla, and then another headed towards Colombo, getting off at Kurunegala to catch a third bus heading towards Negombo. The journey took between 2-3 hours total. We might have gone back to Colombo for the night had we not accidentally booked our flight out on Sri Lankan new years day. The country all but shuts down to celebrate, so we wanted to be as close to the airport as possible. We found a lovely guesthouse called Mango The Transit Home, which was run by the sweetest family who even drove us to the airport in the morning. When we woke up they invited us in for a traditional New Years breakfast spread. It was a lovely experience and the food was delicious – the perfect way to round off our trip to Sri Lanka.
- Mango The Transit Home
What we missed
As we prefer to travel with at least a little downtime rather than race around, there were a fair few things we missed this time round. Here are the other places we think you could consider:
Arugam Bay – The best surf in Sri Lanka but the season hadn’t started yet when we were there (relatively out of the way on the west coast)
- Nuwara Eliya – A town high in the mountains full of tea plantations
- World’s End – Amazing rock ledge/view point in the middle of a national park (we started planning this but with transport and entrance fee it worked out fairly expensive)
- Kitugula – You can do white water rafting and other activities here (between Colombo and Kandy)
Maps.me – We use this everywhere we travel. It’s an offline maps app, so once you’ve downloaded Sri Lanka you’ve got everything you need. It’s perfect for exploring without the worry of getting lost as all the attractions and most hotels/restaurants are on there, and the offline navigation works well.
We found it particularly useful for Sri Lanka because we used the app to pin all the areas we wanted to visit which made it so much easier to plan our route as we found the tourist maps online to be a little misleading/inaccurate (the ones with the pictures of the attractions dotted around the island).
www.railway.gov.lk & www.seat61.com – We found these sites to be really useful in planning our train journeys. We often double-checked at the station, but in our experience the information online was always accurate. Keep in mind that if a journey isn’t available via train, you can easily find a bus route by speaking to locals.
http://www.firedragonguesthouse.com/entrance-fees-for-tourist-sites-in-sri-lanka/ – We used this webpage to help us decide what sites we were going to see. Obviously it would have been amazing to see them all, but entrance fees are probably the highest cost in Sri Lanka, and being on a backpacking budget we had to cut some.
We hope that our Sri Lanka route blog post has been useful in helping you plan your trip to Sri Lanka. If you have any questions, or if there’s anything else you’d like to see us blog about Sri Lanka please comment below!