Sri Lanka is one of my favourite Asian countries I’ve ever been so far. I only spent a week there but could’ve doubled or tripled that to extendd my holiday tour in Sri Lanka. For an island that has seen unrest for almost 30 years(until 2009), it shines with beauty, and it’s people are now smiling. They smile so much it’s contagious and heartwarming. Seriously, you could tell them someone stole their car, and they’d probably still smile. Local community makes you feel welcome and safe, and everyone around you seem so friendly.
I cannot say enough good things about the charm and beauty of Sri Lanka. The cities are like most Asian cities – chaotic and busy, with lots of honking and traffic, cables tangled overhead and sidewalks always full of people. Still, you find calmness on the stunning beaches along the entire coast in the water drop-shape island.
Colombo is the capital and busiest city in the nation. The nearby town of Negombo offers more attractions and an excellent start to your time in Sri Lanka. There is a beach, and wetlands to explore and have a smaller beach town feel.
Head inland and discover beautiful Buddhist temples hidden high on hills, or even old fortresses on an enormous rock. Enjoy a painless (yet unforgettable) day during an elephant safari or be paddled through a lake full of lily plants and sunken trees after a bull-cart ride on a ‘village safari’. Listen to drums and chants at the temple of the sacred tooth – buddha’s tooth – in picturesque Kandy then take the train ride of your life with locals and tourists alike through thousands of unreal hills planted with tea. Enjoy a sample of the famous ‘Ceylon tea’ after a tea plantation tour learning about the production of the countries biggest export, and Ceylon tea is one of the world’s best tea types.
Spend time in the mountains on hikes, or screw the exercise and lay lazily on the white sand beaches of Unawatuna in the south. no matter where you go in Sri Lanka, you’re bound to be amazed by a country that still faces a challenge to attract cautious travellers. The sooner you go, it’s to your benefit, as it’s only a matter of time before word spreads about this unbelievable country. I already can’t wait to go back.
Things to know before you land in Sri Lanka
The Sri Lankan currency is the ‘rupee’. Still, it is an excellent idea to bring a couple of hundred dollars worth of US dollars (in smaller bills) and take your debit/credit card with you( You can find ATMs in almost every town that supports any VISA or Master card.).
Easter Sunday incident did create some doubts, but it is pretty safe now. Anyway, we did take precautions by pre-booking a private driver and hotels to stay. It’s not usually my style, but we didn’t know what to expect. Would I do it again? Maybe cause it was easy, but on the other hand I think it’s fairly reasonable to say that you could probably get around the country without a driver. The public transit is pretty convenient and can get you where you’d like to go and in the city use tuk-tuks (locally referred to as ‘three-wheel’).
I don’t know if I would feel 100% safe being alone as a female traveller in Sri Lanka (or any unknown destination), even though I never really felt unsafe. You never know, and in any Asian country, there are still different views of woman compared to our western culture(Especially at night time and out of the capital ). So it is better to get a guide when travelling as they are familiar with local culture and safety ( at least go with your partner or as a group)
Where to go and what to do in Sri Lanka
1. Negombo Beach
Negombo is a lovely little town with a bunch of hotels with European clientele. The beaches are nice with great sand and warmish Indian ocean water. it’s a nice spot to chill for some days after probably a crazy long flight to get there, before heading out to explore the rest of the country
2. Muthurajawda Wetlands
If you have a few days in Negombo, the wetlands are a great place to go to escape the city and have a refreshingly relaxing few hours among nature. To get there, take a tuk-tuk or taxi from town and share with someone to reduce the price. The price for the wetlands is the same and includes a guided boat tour down the canal to the Negombo lagoon. The guide tells you about the birds you will see (cormorants, herons, egrets, kingfishers, kite eagles, etc.) and are very knowledgeable. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a giant water monitor.
3. The fish market
Check out the fields or anchovies and sardines drying on the sand. Then head to the market and wander between stalls of ladies selling their catch or men gutting their fish. It’s a smelly place, but you can get some great shots or fresh fish if you want to take some fish meat back to your hotel and grill up a feast.
We stayed in a small hotel close to the beach, and it is pretty decent. We received an excellent breakfast.
Kegalle / Dambulla / Polonnaruwa / Uda Walawe
1. Millenium elephant foundation – Elephant orphanage ( Kegalle)
There are several elephant orphanages on the route from Negombo to Dambulla, so we stopped at this one with our driver. The entrance is 2000 Rd. they had an interesting if not a little informal ‘museum’ (looked like a school project) to teach about elephants, the orphanage, and foundation in general. You get to meet the elephants and then take a ride around the grounds. It’s nothing fancy but if it’s your first time with an elephant its a great time. Lastly, we did the ‘elephant shower’ which was a blast. You sit bareback on the elephant, and it sprays you with the river water. It’s super fun and a great experience!
2. Rock temple & golden temple (Dambulla)
There is a massive buddha sitting on a museum than on the side there are 400 stairs leading up to the ‘rock temple’. The views as you climb are breath-taking. ( Be sure to leave your footwear at the main gate before heading into the temple). Monkeys are playing around everywhere, and it’s beautiful to see a long white temple sitting underneath an enormous boulder.
3. Bull cart ride & village safari (Dambulla)
It’s super ‘touristy’, but it’s a lot of fun. When else can you ride on an old school creaky cart pulled by a one-humped bull, this method of transport is still in use around rural areas of the island, and you see this as a local farmer passes by you on the narrow dirt road and smile and wave his hand The bulls drop you off, and you walk down a small path and take a boat ride (advertised as a sailing trip – which it’s not) on a small lake. It’s lovely and peaceful. When you get to the village, you climb up a tree that was used as a lookout to protect the area from wild elephants. Finish your ‘village tour’ with a fantastic meal served on leaves and eaten with your bare hands. as cheesy as the tour sounds, it’s super fun.
4. Polonnaruwa Temple
It’s very worth making your way here to see this place.
You have to get a pass for the incredible temple complex. It would be lovely if you have a few extra hours to make your way through all the sites. Polonnaruwa is a big deal – it was the 2nd capital of SL about 800 years ago, and now it retains its glory as a UNESCO heritage site.
5. Elephant safari (Uda Walawe)
‘Uda Walawe’ national park – is a popular choice for safari’s but not always the best place to see elephants. Like most animals, elephants migrate to new areas to follow food and water. Make sure you double-check where the elephants are at what time in which season. Some tours are up to 6 days long, but we did it in an afternoon. It’s super cool to see elephants; I don’t know if I want to do it for five days. in the park there are only a couple of other animals such as wild boars and a few types of deer.
Since most elephants were in a different area, we did our safari in the ‘minneriya’ park. After a little drive through the forests, you get through to an incredible expanse of land where you immediately see the enormous ‘minneriya’ lake. Your guide will take you around to find different elephant packs.
It hurt me to see some cars driving up too close to the elephants, which agitated the poor elephants. Be respectful of the animals, and don’t encourage your driver to get too close. Look and admire the gentle beast from afar. You’ll be impressed, no matter what.
Sigiriya is incredible and worth the journey to the middle of the country to see it. Visit as much early as possible in the morning before it gets too hot. It is a pretty intense climb up this huge rock. You will need 3-4 hours to discover the gardens leading up to the rock, the climb/descent and a few stops along the way, including the frescos halfway up. The views on top of the rock are phenomenal. Take your time taking it all in. who knows when you’ll be back!
Your Sigiriya exploration will take up your morning. in the afternoon session, you have enough time to make your way to Kandy. Either with a private driver or by transit. since we had a driver we stopped at a few places on the route.
on route to Kandy see:
1. Spice Plantations
If you’re into spices and natural oils, it’s worth a stop at any one of the spice plantations on the route. It doesn’t take long.
2. Alu Viharaya rock temple
Temple found on the Matale-Dambulla road; this temple is worth a stop. Alu Viharaya rock temple dates back to the third century BC. It’s not ideal for English speakers as a lot of signs are just in Sri Lankan (when we were visiting, but no problem if you go with a local guide). It’s nice if your driver comes with you (and they usually get in for free).
Temple surroundings are so pretty and calming. Each temple in Sri Lanka has three elements: 1. a dagoba, 2. at least one buddha, and 3. a bodhi tree. At the small museum on the hill, make sure to get the elderly gentleman to write your name on a piece of palm leaves called “ola”. It will last for 5000 years.
3. Kandy & Kandy lake
A reasonably big city – 5 million – is filled with traffic. But find peace near the Kandy lake, lying beautifully in the centre of the town. Plus as a very holy city for all Buddhists, this is a good stop for just a day or two on route south. the light green of the lake reflects the sun and the temple of the tooth stands out beautifully on the lake’s edge. Ask your driver/guide to take you to the viewpoint.
4. Cultural dance show
I always like to see the culture of a country through dance. The cultural dance show in Kandy is an excellent performance though in a drab building. Get there early to get decent seats. There are eight different dances, each with its unique instruments and costumes. The show finishes with fire eaters and fire walking.
The show is in the evening, after which you can walk over to the temple of the tooth.
5. The temple of the tooth
This temple is significant to Buddhists. It contains one of buddha’s teeth! It’s an exciting thing to build a temple over, but I guess it’s pretty important to them. The temple itself is beautiful, and they have viewings of the tooth which you stand in line for and walk by pretty quick. Pictures are not allowed. In the area, there are hundreds of pilgrims and devotees. They do have repetitive drumming and high pitched music, combined with the heat, can be hard to handle. Just embrace it and remember you are witnessing something extraordinary. Appreciate the religion and watch people bring lotus flowers as offerings, pray and meditate. Make sure to go to the ‘audience hall’ outside and the candle corridor. It’s beautifully lit up at night.
Where to stay:
Any good hotel or guesthouse is ideal to stay at night! The rooms are clean, and they had one of the best showers I’ve had on the road. In the morning you will awake to fantastic views of Kandy below. You can’t walk there, because it’s set high up on the hill. The couple running the place ( where we spent the night) are super friendly, and they set up a great breakfast on the balcony. Ask for a room with a view.
How to get to Nuwara Eliya:
You can travel by train (It is one of the best ways), bus or taxi.
1. Train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya:
first-class compartment: 1600 LKS. the ride is just over 4 hours
a train is the best way to get to Nuwara Eliya. not because the roads are terrible, but because the views are phenomenal. The train sneaks its way through the mountains. The mountains mostly consist of rows and rows of tea plantation. Make sure to head into the compartments where the locals are. They are a blast and so so friendly. Spend all your time outside for great shots of this incredible region.
2. Nuwara Eliya town:
The town itself isn’t extraordinary. There is a park called ‘victoria park’ which has a Japanese garden and is suitable for a stroll. Head to Gregory lake where you’ll find colourful houses scattered on the hills. Tourists and locals can row or paddle around the lake on boats. an entertaining activity to do on a nice day
3. Tea plantations
Around Nuwara Eliya, there are dozens of tea plantations. There are beautiful to explore and attractive to learn the process. Try to avoid the weekends, as the workers are off. I so badly wanted a photo of tea pickers, but they were out on Sunday we were there. We did get an exclusive tour of the tea factory, but nothing was going on since, again, it was the weekend. The largest plantation in the area is ‘mackwood’, but we opted for the smaller ‘blue field’ tea plantation. after the tour we enjoyed a cuppa tea at the cafe including a chocolate cake dessert.
Unfortunately, the Lipton plantation was too far from the area. Next time I guess.
4. Ramboda waterfalls or other waterfalls in the area
Stop at any given waterfall in the area and you ‘fall’ for it. It just enhances the beauty of the site. We checked out the ramboda waterfall near a hotel. It is a steep walk down and backs up. Good to get some exercise! ( Make sure to check with locals before you go close to any waterfall as some may have slippery areas and sudden increase in water level)
Stay at hotel in Nuwara Eliya:
It gets chilly at night, but you are in the mountains. Head up to the common area for a hot cup of Ceylon tea and enjoy some time on the balcony taking in the surrounding views. The breakfast is excellent here.
How to get there:
the drive from the tea fields near Nuwara Eliya to Galle is a solid 5 hours even by using a highway.
What to do in Galle:
1. The fort and walls – One of the top Sri Lanka tourist destinations
The clock tower is set on one of the walls and is a good starting point to exploring the old town of Galle. Stroll along the wall staring out into the clear turquoise ocean. Stroll by massive boulders scattered along the shore and watch local boys play cricket in the fields. Pass the lighthouse then crouch into the streets of the old town, peeking in and out of little shops along the way. You can visit the old churches, museums and hotels within the Galle fort as well.
Note about foods: I was not that happy about the food in most of the small restaurants around Peddlers street as they were expensive and not that good. But dishes at Galle Fort Hotel, The Bartizan and The Tuna & The Crab were pretty good.
2. Turtle hatchery
You can find several turtle hatcheries along the coast of Galle.
What to do:
1. Beach time
Unawatuna has a beautiful beach, great restaurants and shops, and you can use beach chairs if you order from the restaurant who owns them.
2. Stilt fishermen
near ‘Weligama’ you’ll find the beach where you can see stilt fishermen. Stilt fishing is a dying tradition, so who knows if they do it for real or just for tourist dollars. And trust me, if you take a picture they will come after you for cash. It’s frustrating. Don’t pay them what they ask. It’s a rip-off. The images are amazing though, so throw them a few hundred LKS to move on. The beach beside the fishermen is stunning. I’m sure if you went there for the day, you could take as many pics as you want. We went at sunset, and there was only one fisherman left. I’m assuming there’d be a lot more during the day!
Where to stay:
Any good hotel is a perfect place to stay in Galle. Specially close to the beachfront.
What to eat in Sri Lanka – Food Tour!
There is a lot of varieties of rice/noodle and curry, ‘Indian Food’, and ‘Chinese Food’ in Sri Lanka. It’s everywhere, it’s cheap, and it’s delicious.
Variety of Tuna fish is available close to the seaside. Also, prawns, cuttlefish, sailfish and crabs are tasty seafood on the island.
Try some seafood when on the coast in Galle or Unawatuna.
It is a coconut custard pudding (this one with chocolate) and is very popular in Sri Lanka. Be careful, though! It’s super high in calories.
Curd is a buffalo milk-based food you can eat it with Kithul Treacle or sugar.
I love the local Kithul Treacle. It is hard to find top quality treacle, but once you get the top quality one, you will love it.
Kottu in Sri Lanka
Cut-up roti with Chicken ( or beef, pork, seafood), eggs and veggies, this is a Sri Lankan speciality, and it’s delicious!
Ulundu wade (savoury doughnut)
Ulundu wade or “savoury doughnuts” made with undu or ulundu (black gram dhal)
Sri Lanka claims its black tea is best. Find out for yourself in the beautiful tea region near Nuwara Eliya or anywhere in Sri Lanka. ( Tip: Get Sri Lankan brands like Ceylonta, Dilmah or George Steuart as they taste fantastic. )
Suggestions for you when travelling in Sri Lanka
My suggestion is to use good tour operators in Sri Lanka. They offer Sri Lanka ready-made or custom holiday tour packages. Here are some types of tours that I came across
Discover Sri Lanka
Classic travel Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka budget tours
Culture trip Sri Lanka
Heli and 360 tours Sri Lanka
Tuk tuk safari Colombo
Honeymoon offers in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka family holiday packages
Sri Lanka city tour
Colombo food tours and sightseeing
Negombo lagoon tour
Nuwara Eliya city tour
Adventure Tourism and tours in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka luxury small group tours
Sri Lanka wildlife and safari tours
Sri Lanka train trip
Sri Lanka excursions
Sri Lanka hiking and trekking tours
By the way, If you are on a tight budget, use a Sri Lanka Chauffeur/Guide. Reason for saying that is they know the country better than us, so it will help you to go to most of the places and you will be very safe as well.
– Emily Arden –
( Photo Credits : Pixabay and Pexels )