Our 10 days in Sri Lanka unearths ancient temples, golden beaches, misty hill-towns and tasty local flavours. Taking twisting trains, scary buses and great hikes, it’s a fantastic voyage of discovery.
Sri Lanka, the Island gem perched just above the equator, is stunningly beautiful and culturally fascinating.
From beautifully atmospheric ancient ruins to exotic temples with moving ceremonies, Sri Lanka delivers those moments that make you realise travel is a precious experience.
Despite endless beaches and lush tropical forests, Sri Lanka is more than just a beauty queen. Recently divided by war, shocked by terrorist attacks and embattled by global pandemics, Sri Lankan’s are surprisingly friendly; resilient yet welcoming. A trait exposed on iconic train journeys, local bus trips and crazy tuk-tuk rides where you’ll learn about local culture as you race from one exotic site to the next.
Just 10 days in Sri Lanka is enough to get a taste of this quirky and interesting place. Watch monkeys scurry over the temples and jungle-cloaked ancient capitals, soak up the sun on golden beaches and understand local Tamil life in the cool mountainous tea-growing region.
Since it all comes at a reasonable price, there are few better ways to spend time than 10 days in Sri Lanka.
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DAY 1 – TRAVEL TO THE CENTRAL PLAINS
If your flight arrives early in the day, take the 3-hour, 30-minute taxi ride to the central plains that afternoon. However, if your flight lands in the afternoon or evening, book a night in Negombo before heading to the central plains the following day.
In the central pains we recommend staying at Cinnamon Lodge in Habarana. Habarana is not the most fascinating town but it’s excellently positioned with good transport links to the surrounding sites.
After arriving in Habarana, check-in and book yourself a Thrimal Ayurvedic massage. Ayurvedic medicine began in India and is the oldest medical institution in the world. It’s a great way to wind down after your long journey.
Habarana Stay / Cinnamon Lodge, Habarana
Travel / 3 hour, 30-minute drive by private taxi, about SLR 13,000
DAY 2 – SIGIRIYA ROCK & DAMBULLA TEMPLE
Rise early and take a taxi to Sigiriya Rock, one of the iconic images of Sri Lanka. A large rocky outcrop with near vertical walls rises out of the jungle and sitting on its flat top are the ruins of the ancient Kassapa kingdom. It’s a stunning climb through gardens, passed frescoes and up steps to get to the top. But the views alone make it worthwhile.
Next get a taxi to Dambulla. Explore the bustling morning produce market before heading up to the Dambulla Cave Temple. In these caves carved into the rock resides 150 remarkable Buddha statues of all shapes and sizes.
The first statue was placed here about 2,000 years ago. Knees and shoulders must be covered, a sarong can be hired at the entrance. Exit by dropping down the hill and passing by the Golden Temple, a gaudy modern structure with a huge Buddha. Get your driver to drop you at the entrance to the Cave Temples (at the top of the hill) and pick you back up from outside the Golden Temple (at the bottom).
In the afternoon, organise an Elephant Safari to one of the three local National Parks. The elephants can be found in different parks at different times of the year. The guides will know which park to visit. We headed to Kaudulla National Park and saw herds of up to 30 – 40 elephants.
Habarana Stay / Cinnamon Lodge, Habarana
Travel / 1 hour 30-minute drive Habarana – Sigiriya – Dambulla – Habarana
DAY 3 – POLONNARUWA
On day 3 of your 10 days in Sri Lanka itinerary, catch the 1-hour local bus to Polonnaruwa (SLR 100) which departs just east of the main roundabout in Habarana. Local buses are a Sri Lankan institution, packed to the rafters, pumping with techno music and oozing local charm. Strike up a conversation, settle back and enjoy.
The ancient city of Polonnaruwa, deep in the central plains of Sri Lanka, was the playground of kings and the capital of the country. But time has taken its toll. What was once the centre of an empire is now a mix of ancient ruins, crumbling temples, and mischievous monkeys.
It’s the perfect site for cycling around its ancient treasures. Hop of the bus, hire a bike (SLR 400) and spent the next 4 hours uncovering the temples and monuments of this remarkable place. You can read about our full day cycling around Polonnaruwa here.
Habarana Stay / Cinnamon Lodge, Habarana
Travel / 1-hour bus ride each way between Habarana and Polonnaruwa
DAY 4 – KANDY
Get a taxi to Kandy, check in your bags and take a tuk-tuk up to the Ceylon Tea Museum. There is no working factory here and the tour is a little pricey, but it is very informative about different types of tea and how they are made.
Head back into town for lunch at the Olde Empire Hotel, washed down with one of their excellent smoothies. Spend the afternoon exploring, making sure you visit the market and stop by the station to pick up your train tickets for tomorrow. If you’re in need of a caffeine hit, the nearby Natural Coffee does the trick.
As evening approaches, go to the Kandy Cultural Show. Make no mistake, this drum banging, plate spinning, fire eating, crazy dancing spectacular is for tourists only. But sometimes a cheesy tourist attraction works its magic.
After the show head to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth for puja. Puja is a ceremony that occurs 3 times a day. During the ceremony you can walk past the tooth of the Buddha, the most sacred relic in Sri Lanka, secured in a gold box. The ceremony is a bewildering atmosphere of sounds, colours and smells and was one of our top moments on our 10 days in Sri Lanka itinerary.
Kandy Stay / Ozo Hotel, Kandy
Travel / 2 hour, 30-minute drive from Habarana to Kandy
DAY 5 – KANDY TO NUWARA ELIYA TRAIN
Over the next two days of your 10 days in Sri Lanka take the slow train from Kandy to Ella. This 6 hour, 30-minute train journey passes through manicured tea plantations, cool misty mountains and the local towns of Tamil tea pickers. It is a unique and essential Sri Lankan experience (and the highlight of our trip to Sri Lanka) which you can read all about here.
Begin at Kandy station and hop on the train for the first part of the journey. After 4 hours of leg dangling, tea-drinking, photo-taking magnificence leave the train at Nanuoya and take a taxi to Ramboda Falls. The hotel here is a bit average, but it is excellently positioned for superb views over the valley as waterfalls crash over the cliffs behind you.
Ramboda Falls Stay / Ramboda Falls Hotel, Ramboda
Travel / 4 hours train; 1-hour taxi
DAY 6 – ELLA
After breakfast, leave the cafeteria through the side door and explore the area. Enjoy the dappled morning light reflecting on the bright green leaves as Tamal tea pickers work in the spray of the falls
Next head up to the Blue Tea Factory and get a free tour of the operational factory (closed on Sundays). Meander their tea fields, explore their garden and grab a tea and surprisingly good cakes at their shop.
Time to make your way back to Nanuoya station for the second half of your journey to Ella. Hop in a taxi, stopping at Damro Labookellie Tea Factory for some of the best views of the valley, before arriving at the station and hopping back on the train. The second leg of the Kandy to Ella train is even more picturesque than the first. Sit back, relax, grab your sweet tea, spicy peanuts and watch the world go by.
Ella is a small hill town, with spectacular views, and a backpackers haven. It has a cool vibe and a slow pace. Spend the evening upstairs at Chill, a relaxing hangout with beanbags on the floor, good cold beer, excellent cocktails and even better curries.
Stay the night at Ella Mountain Relax Cottages. The standard rooms are functional but the views from the balconies are stunning and an attentive crew offer an excellent breakfast. Take a tuk-tuk from the station to avoid a tricky walk with baggage.
Ella Stay / Mount Relax Cottage, Ella
Travel / 2 hours, 30-minute train; 1-hour taxi
DAY 7 – LITTLE ADAM’S PEAK & DRIVE TO MIRISSA
Wake early and walk to Little Adams Peak (45 minutes) one of our favourite hikes in Sri Lanka. The walk takes you through the tea plantations and past a Tamil village, before rising to the summit and magnificent views over the southern plains. Being there at sunrise is traditional but our bodies weren’t listening so we got there a little later and found ourselves almost completely alone.
Grab breakfast and a coffee and chill out in town before taking one of the many taxis lined up on the street to Mirissa. Get the driver to stop at Rawana Falls, a few minutes outside Ella, before the mist-shrouded hills give way to flat plains and paddy fields flanked by coconut trees.
Take an evening stroll along the sweeping golden beach of Mirissa before digging your feet into the sand at the candlelit tables at Salt Restaurant. Try ‘Today’s Fish’ which are on display on a board out front.
Mirissa Stay / Peacock Villa, Mirissa
Travel / 4 hour taxi from Ella to Mirissa
DAY 8 & 9 – MIRISSA
It’s time for some rest and relaxation on your 10-day Sri Lanka itinerary. Mirissa beach is neither a virgin beach nor a 5-star resort. While it is still busy it retains a local feel and vibe. The beach is a golden arc of sand backed by local restaurants and bars. Loungers are on offer to those that want more comfort than a towel. The sea is a beautiful blue-green.
The town itself does not display its charm too easily. The main street is a busy thoroughfare. The streets off the main road are often walled guesthouses or hotels. But with a bit of exploration, you’ll find some hidden gems.
Aloha Coffee Gallery and Shady Lane, are tucked off the main road and offer excellent breakfasts. The Spice Roti Hut serves great food from a tiny venue on the main road and Salt is the pick of the restaurants on the beach. All in all, Mirissa offers a more Sri Lankan experience than many other south coast resorts.
Make sure, if you are in season, to join a whale watching boat tour. Sri Lanka lies close to a continental shelf and has an unusual abundance of large marine life and is a fantastic place to spot blue whales, the largest animals on the planet. Prices are controlled by the government (6,000Rs each for 3 hours and can be booked from the beach).
Mirissa Stay / Peacock Villa, Mirissa
Travel / From lounger to water and back
DAY 10 – GALLE
This morning take a taxi to Galle. This charming old city, crammed inside the walls of a fort, was originally founded by the Portuguese, then expanded by the Dutch.
Walking the walls brings fine views of the lighthouse and coast, as the salty wind cools you in the heat. Meandering the insides is an intoxicating mix of old colonial past and modern Sri Lankan present. It is crammed pack of charming boutique shops, cute laneways and cool cafes.
For lunch try Spoon’s Cafe. A tiny curry place serving up delicious well-prepared food. The Heritage Café offers a fine spot for coffee and dinner at Lucky Fort Restaurant is a delicious way to end your 10 days in Sri Lanka itinerary. For more great food options in Galle, read this article for great advice from a local.
Mirissa Stay / Fortaleza Lighthouse Street, Galle
Travel / 1-hour drive, Mirissa to Galle
To complete this 10-day Sri Lanka Itinerary hire a taxi to Bandaranaike International Airport, just outside Colombo. The journey will be roughly 2 hours and 30 minutes and should cost around Rs 11,600. Your accommodation should be able to provide a reliable taxi company.
WHERE TO STAY IN SRI LANKA
Sri Lanka has everything from budget beach huts to luxurious 5-star accommodation. The top-end hotels in Sri Lanka come with all the pampering trimmings with the added bonus of being relatively friendly on the budget.
If budget-friendly is your primary focus, Sri Lanka has a vibrant backpacker market with excellent quality digs at very affordable prices.
But accommodation in Sri Lanka is probably best delivered via local guesthouses where the hosts will go out of their way to make you feel welcome. They’ll also ensure you don’t go home without trying some traditional Sri Lankan food.
GETTING AROUND SRI LANKA
International flights arrive and depart from Bandaranaike International Airport, just outside Colombo. Traffic into Colombo can be bad, so if you land late, spend the night in Negombo instead. If you arrive early, here are some great places to visit in Colombo.
One of the joys of travelling to Sri Lanka is to use its magnificent range of transport, so don’t hire a car and take advantage of what’s on offer. The train journey from Kandy to Ella is magnificent, short bus journeys are fun (although awkward with large baggage), tuk-tuks are cheap and easy, and taxis can be hired everywhere. Our 10 days in Sri Lanka used a combination of all the above.
Buses are an adventure in themselves and you should take at least one on your trip. Luggage space is limited, making them hard work if you are moving between hotels. Buy your ticket on board.
Taxis are readily available on the street or from local travel agent. Both are much cheaper than booking through your hotel and we never had a problem even short notice. Some require haggling while others have set prices.
APPROXIMATE TAXI CHARGES
Rs 13,000 | 3 hour, 30 minutes
Rs 7,000 | 2hour, 30 minutes
Rs 12,000 | 4 hours
Rs 4,000 | 1 hour
Rs 11,600 | 2 hour, 30 minutes
Private drivers over multiple days cost about SLR 11,000 ($60) a day, with possible extra charges for long journeys and for hotels that will not put the driver up for free. We decided it would be easier and cheaper to hire day taxis as we needed them.
MAP / SRI LANKA ITINERARY
All the stops on our 10-day Sri Lanka itinerary are detailed on the below map to get some perspective as to how much area you can cover in just under 2 weeks.
BEST TIME TO GO TO SRI LANKA
Sri Lanka has two monsoons seasons, the Maha (October to January) occurs in the north and east of the country and the Yala (May to August) in the south and west. So the best time to go depends on your itinerary.
For our 10 days in Sri Lanka, the best time to go is December to March, trying to avoid the Christmas holidays. But if you go between May to August, miss Mirissa and the south coast and instead head Trincomalee on the east coast.
IS SRI LANKA SAFE?
The April 2019 terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka which claimed 259 lives were a blow to tourism in Sri Lanka. Understandably, travellers were cautious about going to Sri Lanka after these horrible incidents.
However, other destinations we consider safe have had similar terrorist attacks, so it’s difficult to assess safety based on this one terrible event.
In truth, the risk of crime in Sri Lanka is relatively low. Compared with the United States – for example – you are less likely to be a victim of violent crime and much less likely to be assaulted.
The risks that do present themselves in Sri Lanka are most commonly petty crime and tourist-based annoyances. These may include street hustlers outside hotels offering special deals or Tuk-Tuk drivers offering special rates to unheard of tourist attractions.
As with most travel, it’s important to stay aware of regular scams.
WHAT WOULD WE DO DIFFERENTLY?
We are still unsure whether it is better to stay in Habarana or Sigiriya while in the central plains. Habarana has better transport links making it easier to get to Polonnaruwa, Dambulla and Kaudulla but Sigiriya has a better vibe.
We loved our 2-day train journey from Kandy to Ella, but if two days on the train and an hour each way taxi to Ramboda Falls, does not appeal, you could complete the 6 hour, 30-minute journey in one day. Another option is to take a taxi from Kandy to Nanuoya (2 hours, 45 minutes), stopping at Ramboda Falls and Nuwara Eliya, before boarding the afternoon train to Ella for the most scenic part of the journey. Both options would reduce this section of the trip from 2 days to 1.
If you have an extra day, stop at Uda Walawe National Park (between Ella and Mirissa). If you get to the National Park by early afternoon, you can take an evening safari drive, stay the night, then do a morning safari before completing the journey to Mirissa next day.
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