Sri Lanka got under our skin.
Before going, we devoted countless hours to researching and planning our Sri Lanka itinerary. We dreamed of climbing the rock temple of Sigiriya. Of roaming the fort city of Galle. Of snoozing under waving palms on a golden sand beach…
It’s quite the distance to travel from North America, so we wanted to make sure our trip covered the best places to visit in Sri Lanka. And, of course, we wanted to travel in style. (We’ve already written about Sri Lanka’s gorgeous hotels.)
So if you’re looking for the perfect way to spend a luxurious 2 weeks in Sri Lanka (without breaking the bank), you’ve come to the right place!
We actually spent a month in the country, but our Sri Lanka 2-week itinerary works just as well if you can only visit Sri Lanka for 2 weeks. If you have more time, you can be more leisurely in your visit.
First though, let’s start by getting to know Sri Lanka a little better and answering some questions about it.
The perfect 2-week Sri Lanka itinerary
Why should you visit Sri Lanka?
Perhaps you know Sri Lanka was named the best country in the world to visit in 2019 by Lonely Planet?
It’s so diverse that it ticks off most items on a traveler’s wish list.
A cosmopolitan capital city (Colombo) with museums and colorful markets? Check. Sacred Buddhist temples, cave paintings and ancient UNESCO-listed monuments? Indeed. Palm-lined beaches? Oh, yes.
Not to mention national parks with wild elephants for day safaris, colonial hill towns and epic train rides through tea plantations…
Plus, the people welcome visitors with open arms.
Warm and friendly, they’re proud of their country. Everyone we met asked: “How you like Sri Lanka?”
We were also pleased to find it so litter-free. Most hotels have embraced a green ethos. In our rooms, we typically found flasks of filtered water and glasses instead of plastic bottles.
Another pleasant surprise: We ate all kinds of fruits and vegetables with no hint of stomach issues. (Some people say that Sri Lanka is “India light.” We’ve not been to India, but understand that travelers invariably suffer a bout of “Delhi belly” – no matter how high-end they travel. But you don’t have to worry about eating the food in Sri Lanka.)
When is the best time to visit Sri Lanka?
Even though Sri Lanka is relatively small (about the size of Ireland), its two separate monsoon seasons mean there are very different climates across the island.
The best time to visit the west and south coasts and the central hill country – covered here in our two-week Sri Lanka itinerary – is during the cooler dry season from December to March. (April to June tend to be the wettest times.)
The temperature doesn’t vary too much throughout the year, as Sri Lanka is quite close to the equator. The average daily temperature is around 81 degrees F, with temps climbing into the low 90s in from February through May.
Humidity is high, averaging 70%. February is the least humid month.
Getting around Sri Lanka
Hiring a car and driver is the best and most convenient way to get around Sri Lanka.
Many visitors do just this – touring the country independently with a licensed driver guide. He chauffeurs you around on your trip (typically two weeks) in a private car. Hotels usually offer free driver accommodation.
Relatively affordable even for travelers with limited budgets, it’s a win-win for everyone.
Tourist jobs are given to knowledgeable locals eager to show off their country. And visitors are protected from the risk of rental car accidents on unfamiliar roads. (And believe us, you don’t want to drive on your own in Sri Lanka. Roads are narrow and traffic can be crazy. Plus, road signs are incomprehensible unless you speak the language.)
We arranged our chauffeur guide services with Red Dot Tours.
Athula, our driver, was a pleasure and a god-send. We relied on him not only to get us safely from place to place, but for other things too – where the “Western” loos were, which hill climb up to a temple was in the shade, where to buy wine for sipping on our hotel balcony…
And when we headed to the airport at the end of our trip, he gave us a package of Sri Lankan pastries that his wife had made that day to munch on while waiting for our flight.
Map of Sri Lanka
Ready now to start your trip!
Check out the Sri Lanka map below and read on…
Day 1 – Arrive in Colombo
International flights arrive in Colombo (actually in the nearby coastal town of Negombo).
After your long flight, you’ll want to relax. We stayed at the deluxe Shangri-La Colombo, which has a wonderful rooftop pool, perfect for lazing about in a sluggish state.
Day 2 – Explore Colombo
You may be tempted to head out of the capital immediately after spending a night in the city. But there are enough interesting colonial buildings and things to do in Colombo to warrant spending a day exploring the city.
Galle Face Green:
Shake off jet lag with a walk along Galle Face Green, a long stretch of waterfront lawn and urban park. Pop into the Galle Face Hotel, built in 1864, and soak up the very Victorian vibe – perhaps have a cocktail in the air-conditioned bar, decorated with photos of Ghandi, Harrison Ford, Vivian Leigh and other guests who’ve stayed here.
Colombo National Museum:
Established in 1877, the National Museum of Colombo introduces you to the country’s fascinating history – and whets your appetite for the cultural cities you’ll be visiting after Colombo.
After being greeted by a large stone Buddha, skip the pre-historic displays and focus on Rooms 2 through 5.
They cover Sri Lanka’s ancient kingdoms, featuring exhibits from the first capital at Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa to Kandy.
You’ll see ancient jewelry, paintings, masks and statues.
Don’t miss the gilded royal throne with velvet cushions made for King Wimaladharmasuriya II in 1693!
Housed in a beautiful 19th century building, the museum isn’t air-conditioned, but the dark rooms keep it reasonably cool.
Plan to devote a couple of hours to the museum to do it justice.
Dutch Hospital and Colombo Fort:
Later in the afternoon, when the heat has waned, stroll the Columbo Fort area.
Check out the Clocktower (once used as a lighthouse) and the 17th century Dutch Hospital (now a shopping and restaurant hub, with cobbled courtyards and colonnaded lanes).
Day 3 and 4 – Anuradhapura
Now that you’ve got a couple of nights’ sleep under your belt, you’re ready to begin exploring the rest of the country.
First up? Anuradhapura.
Athula, our driver, picked us up for the five-hour drive to Anuradhapura (which included a lunch stop).
A treasure trove of 2,000-year-old temples, the ancient city of Anuradhapura is one of five Sri Lanka UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the country’s “Cultural Triangle.”
The Cultural Triangle is so called because it spans three important historical sites that form a triangle.
Anuradhapura is the point to the north. Kandy is the point to the southwest (covered below in Day 6 and 7: Kandy). The third point, Polonaruwa, is to the east. (We didn’t visit Polonaruwa, deciding on Anuradhapura instead).
As well, there are several significant Sri Lanka attractions inside the triangle (like Sigiriya, also covered below).
Today, Anuradhapura is a sprawling laid-back city. Ancient ruins, massive bell-shaped stupas and crumbling temples are spread out far and wide among modern-day houses and buildings.
You can hit many of the important sights by car in a day.
For us, a highlight was setting out by bicycle late in the afternoon to pedal through fields of monastery ruins, past lakes the early kings built for irrigation.
We ended up just after sunset at the colossal Ruwanwelisaya stupa. Buddhist worshipers in white saris lay lotus flower offerings at its base. Incense wafted through the still-hot air. And the lyrical sound of chanting monks was hypnotic.
It was all so peaceful, we didn’t want to leave.
Day 5 – Sigiriya
Your next stop in the Cultural Triangle is Sigiriya, a must on any list of bucket list places to see in Sri Lanka.
Climb Sigiriya Rock:
Some 2,500 years ago, King Kasyapa built a remarkable royal palace (dubbed the “Sky Palace”) on top of a 660-foot rock pinnacle.
Today, you can climb Sigiriya, the “Lion Rock” – said to be the Eighth Wonder of the World.
Perhaps you’ve seen pictures of it? These images were what attracted us to Sri Lanka in the first place!
Set off early. You’ll be climbing some 1,200 steps and there’s no shade at the top.
We arrived at the site just after it opened at 7:00 am. Within an hour, a conga line of climbers behind us had started to form. And by 9:00 am, we were sweating with the humidity and heat of the sun.
The final ascent is not for the faint of heart though.
Many visitors turn around at the plateau about two thirds of the way up. Here, you must pass through two giant sculpted lion’s paws and climb a narrow metal staircase clinging to the vertical rock face to reach the summit.
We swallowed our fear of heights and made it to the top.
Our reward? Stupendous 360 degree views of the palace’s landscaped gardens below and green forests beyond stretching as far as the eye could see.
No doubt about it. Sigiriya truly is one of the most beautiful places in Sri Lanka!
Get an Ayurvedic massage:
Later, Athula suggested we try an authentic Ayurvedic massage treatment at Athreya Ayurvedic Spa in Habarana. “It’s the best in Sri Lanka – better than any 5 star hotel, and much cheaper too!” he enthusiastically cajoled.
Athula’s recommendation was a good one. The spa is basic, with wooden huts in a large garden planted with medicinal trees. But the powerful massages got the kinks out. And the novel “steam room” – a shack with leaves, herbs and mango branches on the floor – was fun, to say the least.
We certainly wouldn’t have found the place or tried this local experience without Athula!
Day 6 and 7 – Kandy
The drive from Sigirya to Kandy takes about 2-1/2 hours. This will give you almost two full days in the former royal hill capital of Kandy, another UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Kandy’s big drawing card is the Temple of the Tooth. Built in the late 16th century, it’s said to hold the sacred relic of the Buddha’s left tooth.
Thousands of worshippers come to pray at the here daily, and it’s humbling to be one with them, cocooned within the temple’s intricately crafted interiors.
You can’t actually see the tooth though – it’s enshrined in a casket guarded by two giant elephant tusks.
If you happen to visit Kandy during the 10-day Festival of the Tooth held each July or August, you’ll witness magnificent torchlight processions involving fire dancers, drummers, acrobats, musicians and more than 100 elephants decked out in lavish garments.
Also special? The Kandy Royal Botanical Gardens.
Read all about Kandy in our detailed “Kandy Travel Guide”: 9 Incredible Places to Visit in Kandy, Sri Lanka
Day 8 – Ride the train from Kandy to Ella
In Kandy, we temporarily said goodbye to our driver so we could experience the famous train ride from Kandy to Ella. (Athula kindly took our big suitcase with him, so we only had to haul carry-on wheelies onto the train.)
Truly one of the world’s most beautiful train trips, this 7-hour journey takes you through emerald tea plantations to the bohemian town of Ella, high in the cooler hill country.
Many blogs and guides will try to dissuade you from buying 1st-class tickets on this Sri Lanka train. You’re warned you won’t get an authentic heads-out-the-train experience unless you travel in 2nd or 3rd class, where the windows open.
But that’s not true.
We booked first-class seats for little more than the price of a song (okay, the price of a CD). And we got to hang out all we wanted through an open doorway at the end of the carriage.
When we wanted a break, we retreated to our seats in an air-conditioned carriage. (Bonus: We had access to two Western-style loos.)
This train ride is one of the best things to do in Sri Lanka! You won’t want to miss it.
Get all the details on this epic train ride, including how to buy tickets online in advance! Read our post: The Insanely Scenic Kandy to Ella Train: A First-Class Journey!
Day 9 and 10 – Taste tea and hike in Ella
Ella is the place to hike, soak up glorious mountain views and sip your way through gallons of tea.
Hike Little Adam’s Peak:
Start your first morning with a hike up Little Adam’s Peak.
The trails begins at the 98 Acres Resort. It’s well maintained and well marked, so there’s no chance of getting lost.
The path consists mainly of concrete steps leading up to a saddle at the top of the mountain, some 3,740 feet above sea level. (Don’t worry, because you start at a high elevation, the actual elevation gain is probably under 1,000 feet.)
There’s a small Buddha at the top, along with several viewpoints, all offering gob-smacking views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.
Even though the weather is cooler in the hill country, we were glad we set off about 7:30 am, as it still gets quite warm by around 9:30 am.
The whole roundtrip hike took us about two hours, with a good long break to take photos at the top. We made it back to our hotel in time for a late (and well deserved!) breakfast.
Visit Halpewatte Tea Factory:
Now you get to spend the afternoon tasting tea.
Did you know Sri Lankan tea is some of the best in the world due to the high altitude at which the tea plants are grown?
We hailed a tuk-tuk to ferry us to the Halpewatte Tea Factory, perched some 4,000 feet above sea level. The ride to get there – up a steep road, with hairpin turns, that clings to the side of a mountain slope – is knuckle-clenching and thrilling!
At the factory, built in 1940 during British rule, we joined a tour taking us through the process of tea production, from picking the tips of the tea leaves to drying, fermenting, sieving and grading the tea. Learning the science behind a perfect cuppa was quite enlightening!
Then we sampled various teas.
White tea (the youngest and least processed of all tea leaves) is the highest quality. But it’s a no-no to add milk. And as we like our tea with milk, we confess that we preferred trying the more traditional black tea varieties.
Hike Ella Rock:
Lace up your sneakers or hiking shoes again! You’re going on another trek – this time, a longer one up Ella Rock.
Our hotel arranged a guide and return tuk-tuk transportation for us (about $20 USD for the 5-hour excursion).
There are several routes up to the top of the rock; we started outside of Ella town at the Kithalella train station.
Threading our way along a narrow red-dirt path through fields of tall grasses, we came to a tea plantation, then finally a steepish hill, where tree roots and rocks helped to provide a foothold.
At the summit, our guide beckoned us to follow him on an intriguing side-path.
Lo and behold, we came to a cave with a couple of seated Buddhas facing the mountains. It felt like we had stumbled across a hidden secret! We certainly wouldn’t have found this cave were it not for our guide.
On the return – after blissing out on more views of soaring jagged mountains – we hot-footed it along the train tracks on the Black Bridge (not to be confused with the iconic Nine Arch Bridge). Peering down from the bridge into the canyon below is not for the faint of heart!
Day 11, 12 and 13 – Galle and beaches
After our time in Ella, Athula picked us up again for our onward journey to Sri Lanka’s south coast. Since our trip was lovely and long, we detoured off to Hambantota (see More Beach Time below).
But you’re going to end your 14 days in Sri Lanka by going straight to Galle.
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Galle’s fortified old city was built by the Dutch beginning in 1663.
Today, with its European vibe, it’s a huge contrast from the Buddhist cultural sights found up in the Cultural Triangle. Stroll its rambling lanes, and take in the restored boutique hotels, art galleries, shops and stylish cafés.
A highlight is to walk atop the thick ramparts surrounding the city.
Sri lanka boasts many sun-kissed beaches, like Bentota, Mirissa, Arugam Bay and Hikkaduwa, to name just a few.
Our favorite Sri Lanka beach was Dalawella Beach in Unawatuna, a beachside town.
A long crescent of golden sand, lapped by tranquil turquoise waters and fringed with palm trees, it’s the quintessential beach for swimming and lazing about. Restaurants tucked into the trees behind the beach rent out sun beds and umbrellas.
For delicious wood-fired oven pizza, pop into Wijaya Beach Restaurant.
There’s also a rope swing attached to a palm tree for snapping those cool Insta shots.
You probably want to see Sri Lanka’s iconic stilt fishermen too, right?
Empty wooden perches are strung along the southern shores, waiting for the fishermen to hop up on them and dangle their rods into the water. Sadly, though, stilt fishing is a dying art today. (Stilt fishermen earn more working other jobs.)
But you can usually find one or two who’ll pose for a photo for a fee :-).
When walking Koggala Beach our last afternoon, we stumbled across a special surprise. A wild sea turtle had crawled up the sand to lay her eggs. From January to April, green sea turtles nest along the beaches of Sri Lanka’s southern coast.
We watched in amazement as the mother turtle dropped her golf ball-size eggs. Staff from a nearby turtle sanctuary then gently helped her back into her ocean home.
Then we too turned around to pack up for home, feeling blessed by all the remarkable sights we’d witnessed in this seductive country.
Day 14 – Colombo and fly home
Oh, this is a sad day. Your 2-week Sri Lanka holiday is coming to and end, and today’s the day to fly home.
Depending on what time your flight is, you can spend the day relaxing by the beach and pool until it’s time to drive back to Colombo for your flight home. The driving time from Galle to Colombo Airport is roughly two hours. Many international flights leave at night, so you may very well have the whole day your last day to take it easy.
Extend your visit
You can have a fabulous holiday following our suggested 2-week Sri Lanka itinerary. But there’s so much more to the country than what we’ve covered here.
Can you spend three weeks in Sri Lanka? Here are a couple of suggestions for extending your visit.
More beach time:
With a 3-week Sri Lanka itinerary, you can hang out at more beaches.
Before Galle, we headed to Hambantota (east of Galle) for a luxurious three nights at the Shangri-La Hambantota Golf Resort & Spa. After spa-ing (is that a word?) and gazing at mesmerizing ocean waves from cushioned pool chairs, we were then recharged, relaxed and ready to hit Galle.
With more time, you could also tweak your Sri Lanka travel itinerary to include a visit to one or more of Sri Lanka’s 15 national parks.
Being popular, though, sections of the parks get more day-safari visitors than they can sustain. So staying at a park eco-lodge like the Wild Coast Tented Lodge is the responsible way to visit.
What’s an African safari like? Read this! A Big 5 Safari in Sabi Sands (Plus Other Africa Big 5 Safaris)
Practical things to know about Sri Lanka
The local currency in Sri Lanka is the Sri Lankan rupee (LKR). The exchange rate is about $1 USD = 182 LKR. See here for the latest exchange rate.
Visas for Sri Lanka:
Most visitors need a visa for Sri Lanka. (You’ll need one if coming from the U.S., Canada, the U.K. or Australia.)
You can apply online for an e-visa. Tourist visas are valid for 30 days and cost $35 USD.
The standard voltage in Sri Lanka is 230V. You’ll find different sockets in different places, mainly Type G (British style) and Type D (Indian style).
You’ll likely need an adapter; you can buy one from Amazon before you go.
Is it safe to visit Sri Lanka?
In general, it’s again safe to travel to Sri Lanka.
Most visits are trouble-free.
By way of background, Sri Lanka’s civil war ended more than ten years ago. And the country was ticking along beautifully, building up its tourism industry and showing visitors a marvelous time. Tragically, that peace was jolted by a series of bombings in Colombo over Easter in 2019, and dozens of suspects were arrested. After the bombings, tourist bookings were slashed.
Strict security measures have since been put in place, and travel advisories have been lifted. For example, British travelers (which make up the second largest market of tourists) are no longer warned against traveling to Sri Lanka. See the British government travel advisory.
The US government has a Level 2 advisory for Sri Lanka, saying tourists should exercise increased caution due to terrorism – the same advisory it has for France and the United Kingdom.
Now is a good time to go.
Tourists have returned to Sri Lanka.
Travel to Sri Lanka and you’ll help small businesses – chauffeur-guides, restaurants, dive shops – recover the livelihoods they lost in 2019. You may get some hotel discounts too! (But with more and more visitors booking holidays to Sri Lanka, this likely won’t last.)
Have a great trip! And let us know how you like Sri Lanka (you can comment below).
See our magazine article
Read our Sri Lanka travel article published in Cruise & Travel Lifestyles magazine.
Update July 22, 2020: We’re so excited! Our Sri Lanka travel article won “1st Place” for “Best Cultural/Historical Feature” in the 2019 Travel Media Association of Canada travel writing awards competition. See our travel writing and blogging awards.
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Photo credits: 3, 5, 16 to 25, 28, 29, 35 to 39, 42 to 47, 49 to 54, 56, 58 and 61 to 63 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase
Red Dot Tours provided car and driver services for us as media guests. And many hotels gave us complimentary or discounted stays. But all words, views and Sri Lanka love are entirely ours (we always write what we want, as we experience it).