The ultimate Sri Lanka itinerary - How to best spend 10 days in Sri Lanka

A precious drop in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka glimmers as India’s less-visited island neighbour, heaving under the weight of national parks and UNESCO-approved treasures. Overshadowed as it is, few people realise that Sri Lanka is a multi-faceted vacation destination, boasting safari parks to rival South Africa and long stretches of paradise coastline to measure up to any Caribbean Island. In amongst it all, Sri Lanka’s colonial past and multicultural present is a joy to explore, particularly in breezy Kandy and hill country’s Nuwara Eliya where tea plantations and waterfalls make for the perfect backdrop. Pick our brains on where to visit with our list of the top 10 places to visit in Sri Lanka or read on for our ultimate 10-day itinerary Sri Lanka.

Tailor Made Journey

Tailor-Made Sri Lanka: Leopards & Tea Country

Explore the breadth of Sri Lanka, from its lush tea country to the rich game viewing of Yala National Park, taking in striking temples, lush highlands and historic cities with time to unwind along the way.

Sri Lanka | Photo: Daria Dyachenko

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See elephants, leopards and primates on Sri Lanka safari, moving across the lowlands with ease to reach opposite ends of the island in just one day’s travel

Why visit Sri Lanka?

There’s so much to see and do on this island, with few crowds and near-perfect weather, that the real question should be: why not visit Sri Lanka? Besides its score of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, spanning 2,000-year-old ancient ruins, cave temples and colonial fortresses, Sri Lanka is also abound with nature across its 26 national parks and beyond. See elephants, leopards and primates on Sri Lanka safari, moving across the lowlands with ease to reach opposite ends of the island in just one day’s travel. Along the way, you’ll see a diversity of attractions, including the world’s oldest living human-planted tree (Anuradhapura), Colombo’s colonial architecture and rural tea plantations up in the central hill country. Then of course, there’s the beaches which can easily capture your attentions anew with surfing, diving and paradise views.

Photo: Patrick Fransoo

LGBTQ situation in Sri Lanka

Understanding the gay situation in Sri Lanka requires some knowledge of the nation’s history as a British colony from way back in the 1800s. Laws written during this time criminalised ‘carnal intercourse’ and the penalty for such was up to 10 years in prison. Locals will tell you that those British laws no longer apply and while there is some truth to this, the current Sri Lankan government refuses to repeal anti-gay laws has made some amendments of its own, adding ‘gross indecency’ charges to the Penal Code. Yet – and it’s a big yet – the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka has simultaneously declared that these laws are now unenforced meaning that convictions are rarely made. Add to that the recent decriminalisation of homosexuality across the waters in India and the progression of anti-discrimination laws, and you’ve got yourself an island on the brink of great change.

Unofficially then, Sri Lanka is becoming both more tolerant and accepting of gay people, thanks to active organisations such as Equal Ground which fights for gay rights and plays a role in changing outward perceptions of the gay community over time. The local gay community remains somewhat in the closet, stifling the gay scene in the country. For couples this won’t be too much of a problem, though gay singles may need to make use of apps such as Lanka Love, Gay Romeo or Grindr in order to meet like minds. Public gay meet ups do take place at beaches and parks across the country, though these tend to come with increased risks. While LGBT foreigners are often left alone, corrupt police officers may take a chance to harass or bribe LGBTQ locals at these events.

Ella | Photo: Egle Sidaraviciute

Photo: Ale Romo Photography

Best time to visit Sri Lanka

When planning an itinerary for Sri Lanka, you should take into account the seasonal differences in certain areas. Overall, the island is a year-round delight with average daytime temperatures between 25-30°C along the coast and 15-18°C up in hill country, but heavy rainfall during the two separate monsoon seasons could scupper your plans. With this in mind, the early part of the year is best spent on the west and south coasts (between December and March) – with February and March being perfect for a drier hill country – followed later in the year by the east coast which is best between April and September.

Getting Around Sri Lanka

Getting from point to point on your Sri Lanka tour is easy with the nation’s accessible public transport system of buses and trains that will connect you to anywhere you need to go. While insanely affordable, buses and trains run on old infrastructure meaning they are not as fast or as comfortable as they could be. As an alternative for short journeys, try taking a taxi or tuk-tuk or even hiring a private car with your own driver for the easiest trip. Though the latter is the most expensive option, a group of 5 to 6 people can fit in one van and split the cost of around $100 (USD) per day. As well as being super convenient, another notable benefit is having a knowledgeable local to learn of all the best stopping points and entrances to each famous site. Be aware before travelling that most visitors will require a 30-day ETA (Electronic Travel Authorisation) Sri Lanka visa, though flights don’t need to be booked before applying online here.

Photo: Alex Azabache

Photo: Marvin Meyer

Colombo (1 day)

We hit the ground just outside of the capital of Colombo at Bandaranaike, the country’s only international airport. Recoup from your jetlag with an easy one or two days in Colombo, a cosmopolitan city of 5.6 million that almost always gets overlooked on shorter trips. Don’t be too quick to follow suit however as Colombo is a worthy city to see, fast-developing in recent years with a boom of skyscrapers, upscale hotels and a fresh new harbourside to contrast with the old colonial buildings and ruins of British Ceylon that date back to 1815. The city’s history goes back farther still, as far as the 5th century in fact, when the place became a key point for trade between Asia and Europe, helping shape the country into a multicultural hub led by Arab, Portuguese and Dutch traders.

To discover old Colombo, make sure to visit Pettah, one of the city’s most charming districts, uncovering various markets and religious sites on the way. The Red Mosque is an impressive spot, as is the Gangaramaya Temple, while the Independence Memorial Hall and the colonial-era Fort Railway Station are also just a tuk-tuk ride away. Cap off your day in the capital with sunset viewing at Galle Face Green, chowing down on the first of many Sri Lankan curries.

Colombo | Photo: Brian Kyed

Colombo | Photo: Kanishka Ranasinghe

Trincomalee (2 days)

One of the east coast’s top draws (particularly in the late summer) is Trincomalee, a seaside town boasting both beach and greener pastures inland. Before arriving in Trincomalee however, the Ridi Viharaya or the Silver Temple in Ridigama village are key stop-offs, showcasing the legend of King Dutthagamani of Anuradhapura (161 to 137 BC).

After all that history, Trincomalee’s beaches will come as a blissful reprieve, tempting visitors to stick to the coast the whole day through. If you can resist that urge, in town you’ll find some intriguing points of interest, including Fort Frederick, Koneswaram Hindu Temple and the Kanniya Hot Springs, with boat ride opportunities along Kunchikumban Aru Lagoon or towards Pigeon Island. On day two, catch the sunrise from Nilaveli beach, exploring the heritage harbour that was attacked by the Brits in 1795 and changing hands several times thereafter. Also, legend has it that the city gave life to the Gokana of Mahavamsa (Great Chronicle) while the hilltop Shiva temple is said to have been referenced in the ancient Hindu text, Vayu Purana.

Trincomalee, Sri Lanka | Photo: Mohamed Nuzrath

Habarana & Sigiriya (2 days)

Heading inland from the coast, we mourn the lack of sea air for just a split second before realising that Habarana comes with its own selling points. This is the city that will connect us to outlying attractions, including the ancient kingdom of Polonnaruwa and the locally named ‘eighth wonder of the world’ Sigiriya Rock, both listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Aim for Polonnaruwa on your first day trip out of Habarana, exploring the tombs, temples, statues and stupas of Sri Lanka’s second kingdom with the expert guidance of a local. In addition to its long list of impressive sites, including the Royal Palace, the Council Chamber of King Nissankamalla, the Quadrangle and the Rankot Vihara, you’ll also enjoy getting to know Polonnaruwa’s current residents; a large colony of monkeys that has set up home in the ruins.

Wildlife lovers who are stretched for time may opt to stay in town (or the more developed Kaduruwela) in order to go on elephant safari in nearby Minneriya National Park nearby the next morning. If visiting during the dry months (from July to October) prepare to witness one of the country’s greatest spectacles known as ‘The Gathering’ when herds of wild elephants descend on the park’s man-made lakes to drink each day around dusk.

As an addition (or an alternative), the Sigiriya Rock complex is too close to miss and one of the great heritage sites in the region. An ancient Buddhist monastery turned royal palace dating back to 3 BC (and returned to the monks in the 14th century), Sigiriya is not your average royal residence, set into a cliff at the centre of a vast jungle. Scaling the rock and entering the fortress of Sigiriya is no mean feat but, if you do, you’ll be rewarded with remnants of this early history, including fountains, gardens, lakes and King Kashyapa’s Mirror Wall. Turn to face the landscape below meanwhile and be greeted with breath-taking views as far as the eye can see.

Sigiriya | Photo: Dylan Shaw

Kandy (2 days)

Centred beside a lake upon a series of misty hills, Kandy brings a hill country mood to its colonial-era city centre, cooled by the breeze that enters through the forests surrounding. Once you can pull your eyes from the beautiful landscape, UNESCO-listed Kandy offers more by way of colourful houses and shaded alleys bearing freewheeling vendors and their three-wheeled carts skidding past colonial builds. One of the finest examples of Kandyan architecture meanwhile is the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, known to Buddhists worldwide as an important pilgrimage site. If in Kandy around July and August, seek out celebrations for the Kandy Esala Perahera festival (also known as the ‘festival of the tooth’) when the city comes alive with costumed processions, traditional Kandyan dance and cultural expressions.

With extra time, make sure to see Kandy Lake and the Royal Botanic Gardens of Peradeniya up close before boarding one of the world’s most scenic train rides from Kandy Station to Nuwara Eliya. Before or after Kandy, another UNESCO World Heritage Site lies back on the path to Habarana, named the Dambulla Cave Temple. While you might feel templed-out at this point, Dambulla one-ups the rest with its unique location in a series of five caves all adorned with paintings and statues, above the more gaudy Golden Temple.

Kandy, Sri Lanka | Photo: Eugene Dorosh

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The journey to Nuwara Eliya is a spectacle in itself, taken aboard an old-school blue train that passes through tea plantations, waterfalls and a number of small villages based among Sri Lanka’s highlands

Nuwara Eliya and Ella (2 days)

The journey to Nuwara Eliya is a spectacle in itself, taken aboard an old-school blue train that passes through tea plantations, waterfalls and a number of small villages based among Sri Lanka’s highlands. Eventually, after a fun few hours leaning out of train windows with your fellow passengers, Nuwara Eliya will come into view. A town founded by the British in 1846, the spot remains a cool outpost and important tea growing site preferred by those who dislike the hotter weather below. Influenced heavily by the colonists, this genteel town has been nicknamed Little England for its country village feel and 19th-century bungalows as well as design of the Nine Arch Bridge and Pedro Tea Estate in particular. Enjoy a solid cup of tea on the estate or play a round of golf nearby, getting out into nature at Victoria Park and Lake Gregory before climbing to Lipton’s Seat for vistas across the region.

After a stay in one of Nuwara’s Tudor-style hotels, reboard the blue train and continue onto Ella; another hill stop offering a blissful day or two of tea plantations, waterfall trails, and lofty viewpoints.

Nuwara Eliya | Photo: Tharaka Jayasuriya

Ella | Photo: Adam Vandermeer

Negombo (1 days)

Returning to the coast for one last day in Sri Lanka, this time we go to Negombo, conveniently based just 10 kilometres from Bandaranaike International Airport. Though long, the journey to Negombo from Nuwara Eliya is a good one, passing back through the hills where myriad waterfalls and tea fields make for perfect stopping points along the way. On arrival, you’ll find a range of decent hotels – from budget to all-out luxury – lining the main road north of the heritage town centre, as well as additional beachfront hotels for those who want to stick close to the ocean. Laidback and interesting, Negombo has a unique story as a busy trade port fought over by the Dutch, Portuguese and the English for centuries. Now the old quarter is where you’ll find remnants of its past, along with breadcrumbs that tell of the town’s Dutch-era cinnamon days.

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Kandy, Sri Lanka | Photo: Kanishka Ranasinghe

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