Sri Lanka itineraries

Located off the south coast of India, Sri Lanka is known as 'Teardrop Island' due to its shape. It is divided into nine provinces: Central Province with Kandy at its core, also known as the Hill Country. North Central Province, or the Cultural Triangle, is home to ancient kingdoms. North Western Province is the land of secret beaches unlike the Southern Province where crammed coastlines are rarely secrets. The tea plantation province of Ula is for getting lost in lusciousness in contrast with Western Province which is one big sprawling mass of Colombo. And, new to the tourist map, Northern Province, which is slowly recovering from post-war destruction and the Eastern Province, which surfers have known about for years with miles of beaches in Trincomalee now opening up thanks to peaceful times.

1. Anuradhapura

One of the ancient cities in the Cultural Triangle, you can feel immediately how stunningly beautiful and majestic this must have been over 2,200 years ago when it was ruled by Sinhalese kings. Coming here is a pilgrimage for many Buddhists, with people coming to honour the only live shoot of the tree under which the Buddha was enlightened in 544 BCE. Don’t miss the Twin Ponds for cool construction in both senses of the word.

2. Dambulla

Home to largest cave complex in Sri Lanka with, at one time, eighty caves packed into a giant rock which stands 160m over the town. Now five main caves packed with statues of Buddha, kings & also Hindu gods. Bit of a climb to get up there, but worth it for views across plains to Sigiriya. Visit the caves in reverse order for ‘stunning’ to ‘gobsmacking’ experience.

3. Ella

This charming little village turns quickly from sleepy to dreamy as you arrive into its luscious hill country by train. Take a two hour hike up to Ella’s Rock or Little Adam’s Peak for spectacular views, or to Rawana Ella Falls where you can also cool down with a dip. Plenty of small guesthouses serving some of the best food you will find.

4. Galle

Accessible by coastal train from Colombo its hub is the historic fort, founded in the 16th century by the Portuguese and now a maze of places to shop, eat, stay in funky little hotels or hang out and enjoy the cool, coastal café vibe. So badly hit by the tsunami, it is still refurbishing bits and pieces, but this fort town is strong and here to stay. Not surprisingly, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Horton Plains National Park

5. Horton Plains National Park

Get here early for that full on mountain-swathed-in-cloud experience, as you trek through misty forest, interspersed with grassland and meadows to arrive at World’s End. One of the most stunning viewpoints in Sri Lanka. with Baker’s Waterfall an added bonus. A hiker’s day out with 9km loop walk, but wear good boots. Plenty of bird watching and you might spot a deer or two as well.

6. Kandy

Sweet as. Ruled by the Kings of Kandy since 15th Century until it fell to the British in 1815, this still feels like its own kingdom. Majestic and revered, many come simply on pilgrimage to the Temple of the Tooth, a sacred tooth belonging to the Buddha, and main reason for its UNESCO World Heritage status. Also a natural haven with cooling hill country all around, mostly tea plantations, as well as jungle keeping it real. And accessible by train.

7. Mihintale

If ever there was a place to come and ‘sit’, in the Buddhist sense of the word, this is it. Because this is the hill top temple site where Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka. And of course it is a stunningly beautiful location for contemplation or, ideally, complete non-contemplation. Surrounded by lush green hills, this spiritual site takes your breath away, as might the 1,840 steps to see the giant white Buddha.
Minneriya National Park

8. Minneriya National Park

Most famous for its population of wild elephants and buffalo both thriving on the habitat marriage of jungle and savannah, coming out to waterholes to sup and be spotted by excited tourists. Best to stick with experienced park rangers to guide you responsibly around this home to Sri Lanka’s sacred creatures roaming in the wild, as opposed to being used as tourist toys as in other places.
The North

9. The North

Northern Sri Lanka is open for business, its natural and cultural beauty having survived many years of war which, thankfully, ended in 2009. Previously inaccessible treats include the beaches north of Trincomalee, great ancient city of Anuradhapura and Wilpattu National Park. A beautiful way to discover Northern Sri Lanka is by train between Anuradhapura and Jaffna. Also, the sun shines in the north when monsoon hits the south. It’s so not grim up north.

10. Polonnaruwa

One of Sri Lanka’s finest ancient kingdoms and another of its eight World Heritage Sites. The 10th century ruins of temples and palaces are from when Chola kings of southern India conquered nearby Anuradhapura. Many prefer it to Anuradhapura as the sites are more compact but still worth hiring guide to tell you all the ins and outs. The Topa Wewa lake adds natural beauty to already impressive cultural heritage.

11. Sigiriya

Cultural and natural wonders in close contact with ancient ruins on top of the 200m ‘Lion’ Rock. Follow in footsteps of many up the 1200 steps to find ancient palaces and gorgeous gardens. Bring water, as you can’t buy it inside. Don’t miss Pidurangala Rock with superb views back to the Lion Rock and beyond. Lovely eco lodges and treehouses in this area too.

12. Tissamaharama

AKA Tissa, was the ancient capital and now gateway to the Yala National Park. Walk along or rent a boat to paddle across man-made reservoir Tissa Wewa which dominates the town, where local people swim and wash. And have done forever, as this reservoir was built by King Kavantissa in 2nd century BC. Bring binoculars as this wetland wonder is birdwatching central. You won’t need them to spot the stunning Maha Stupa or Sandagiri Dagoba however.
Wilpattu National Park

13. Wilpattu National Park

The largest national park in Sri Lanka brimming with elephants, sloth bears, water buffalo, storks, crocodiles and a few elusive leopards. The name means Land of Lakes with 60 natural waterholes set into sandy wetlands, thus the proliferation of aquatic animals. The open scrub land is the safari hotspot with 75% of the denser forest inaccessible, and left to do what it does best.
Yala National Park

14. Yala National Park

One of the finest wildlife reserves in Asia with elephants, sloth bear, wild buffalo, sambhar elk and deer. And leopard, of course, with Yala boasting the highest, concentrated leopard population in the world. But at only 35, sightings are still rare. It also has over two hundred species of birds thriving in the mangroves, monsoon forests and marine wetlands. Biodiverse is an understatement.
Travel Team
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Sample Sri Lanka itineraries

14 day cultural highlights trip
Colombo > Anuradhapura > Wilpattu National Park > Trincomalee > Dambulla Caves/Sigiriya > Polonnaruwa > Nuwara Eliya > Kandy > Galle
7 day cultural and natural heritage highlights
Colombo > Sigiriya > Polonnaruwa > Kandy > Kitulgala > Sinharaja rainforest > Unawatuna > Galle
7 day blissful beach holiday
Colombo > Ahungalla > Galle > Unawatuna > Ahangama > Mirissa

Travel times in Sri Lanka

A rough idea of the travelling times between the main attractions in Sri Lanka.
Galle - Tissamaharama: 5 hours by bus Colombo - Trincomalee: 8 hours by sleeper train Colombo – Galle: 3 hours by train Negombo - Polonnaruwa: 6 hours by bike Colombo - Kandy: 3 hours by car Nuwara Eliya to Tissamaharama: 5 hours by bus
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: chuvipro] [Top box - train: dronepicr] [Anuradhapura: Francesc Genové] [Dambulla: Ronald Tagra] [Ella: yeowatzup] [Galle: Jérôme Decq] [Horton Plains National Park: Sankara Subramanian] [Kandy: McKay Savage] [Mihintale: sampath s] [Minneriya National Park : shankar s.] [Polonnaruwa: Patty Ho] [Sigiriya: Sudharsan.Narayanan] [Tissamaharama: Michael Shehan Obeysekera] [Wilpattu National Park: Hasitha Tudugalle] [Yala National Park: Kosala Bandara] [Itineraries: Jose Ozorio] [Travel times: sasha set]