Are you ready for a sensory overload? A tear-drop-shaped island sitting just off the southern tip of India, Sri Lanka has soared up the list of must-visit destinations for a reason. Vibrant colors, lush jungle, sublime mountain ranges, and azure waters – plus regular opportunities to catch that perfect wave – yes, this is one country.
The heart of the Indian Ocean, as Sri Lanka is often referred to, had to endure lengthy occupations by Portuguese, British, and Dutch explorers – but, today, shines brighter than ever.
You could easily spend months exploring this exciting country, but in this Sri Lanka itinerary, I share how to get the most out of the island in just 12 days.
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day 1 | Beachside Jetlag Cure
Your trip to Sri Lanka will most likely start at Colombo Bandaranaike Airport. You might want to skip the buzz of the capital and rather start curing your jet lag right away.
The resort town of Negombo (just north of Colombo) provides excellent beachside resorts for a relaxed first day by the Indian Ocean.
day 2-4 | Sigiriya & The Central Province
Once you’ve adjusted to the tropical climate, leave the beach (for now!) behind and head to Sri Lanka’s Central Province. Here, almost right in the island’s geographical center, lies one of the nation’s most sacred, and likely most photographed, sights: Sigiriya Rock.
“Lion’s Rock” comprises remainders of an ancient city, that – as legend has it – was designated as early capital of Sri Lanka by king Kashyapa.
Can’t get enough of that view? Hike up Pidurangala Rock (located directly opposite) during sunset hour and spoil yourself with even more dazzling perspectives.
Before you leave the Central Province, make sure to make one more stop at the impressive Dambulla Cave Temple (1,500 LKR / 7 €). I know, the many stairs leading up to the temple’s main entrance might not look very welcoming at first. But the slightly strenuous hike is definitely worth it and observing the many curious monkeys along the way will ease the pain.
day 5-7 | The Cultural Heart of Sri Lanka
Even though Kandy is located only 1.5 hours south of serene Sigiriya, the cultural heart of Sri Lanka has a very different feel. Kandy is busy, loud, and colorful. But not less stunning! The Swiss Residence Kandy offers prime lodging during your stay.
The city is nestled in between tea plantations and mountain ranges, plus it sits right by the large Kandy Lake. Why not start your explorations of the city with a stroll around the basin?
At its northern shore lies the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (1,500 LKR / 7 €). Why worship a tooth, you ask? In fact, the complex is said to house a tooth of Buddha himself.
But – don’t get too excited. Various small golden boxes will shield it from your curious looks. Nevertheless, the pomp and ornamental decor of the pagodas will undoubtedly leave an impression.
Also not to be missed during your stay in Kandy is a visit to the Royal Botanical Garden (2,000 LKR / 10 €). A short Tuk-Tuk ride from Kandy center, the oldest gardens in Sri Lanka are home to several thousand species of plants.
If you’re not into the large orchid and spice collection, walking along the iconic avenue of palm trees will satisfy your inner botanist.
day 8 | Ella & The Central Highlands
Get ready for a highlight of any trip to Sri Lanka: a train ride from Kandy to Ella. Sounds boring, you say? I’d second that. The route regularly ranks among the world’s most scenic rides – so hop on the blue wagon and brace yourself for a visual overflow. The trip takes about 3 hours – but I promise you won’t be bored.
En route, nature provides unobstructed views of endless tea plantations, mountain ranges, and local rural life – while the wagons navigate steep climbs, sharp curves, and several tunnels. Looking for a more adrenaline-laden experience? Then change your seat for the open door. Yes, you read that right. Hold on tight, though.
Ella is a special place. In fact a mountain village, temperatures are slightly cooler and the atmosphere is even more relaxed. Here, backpackers mingle with locals and travelers in need of a remote mountain hangout. Acclimate yourself with a visit to the central Cafe Chill. Afterwards, fall into your comfy bed at the recently opened BBQ HUB ELLA.
The Central Highlands of Sri Lanka hold many treasures – and given your limited time in Ella, you clearly need to prioritize. First and foremost, you don’t want to miss the stunning Nine Arches Bridge. And getting there is already half the fun.
From Ella Station, walk along (or on) the train tracks towards Badulla for about 30 minutes. Don’t worry, there’s only a couple trains per day slowly rattling along those tarcks – and they make themselves heard from afar. Once you reach the architectural masterpiece, take a breath, relax, and enjoy this view.
Before you leave the Sri Lankan Highlands, there’s one more thing left for you to do. And while your legs might scream NO, hiking up Little Adam’s Peak (leave its big brother for next time) is not to be missed. The hike starts at Ella’s southern exit and leads through seemingly endless tea terraces.
The 1-hour-hike can be done as an afternoon „stroll“ and will provide dramatic views – for little effort. Doesn’t sound too bad, right? From the peak, the views across lush meadows and misty hills might suggest otherwise – but you’re still in the tropics!
day 9 | Elephant-Spotting at Udawalawe National Park
By now, you might have noticed that Sri Lanka is an incredibly diverse place. And as if pristine beaches, green countryside, and breathtaking cultural sites weren’t enough, the island nation also holds a rich wildlife that can be observed in several national parks.
Yala National Park in the very south of Sri Lanka attracts the biggest portion of international visitors – but you don’t always have to go with the flow.
If you want to increase your chance of spotting elephants, rather head to the smaller (but equally impressive) Udawalawe National Park. The trip from the Central Highlands of Ella to the bushland of Udawalawe takes about two hours by car.
Are you in for the full safari experience? Then treat yourself to a glamping tent at Athgira River Camping. Another bonus: The front desk can arrange individual (and affordable) tours though the park on short notice.
day 10-12 | Sri Lanka’s Southern Coast
Finally, it’s time to hit the beach again! And southern Sri Lanka awaits with a sheer abundance of sublime golden stretches of sand. During your last few days in tropical paradise, beach-hopping is the name of the game.
But where to start? After these intense days of exploring Sri Lanka’s backland, Talalla Retreat is a great intro to the southern coast. You will instantly fall in love – not only with the impeccable rooms and their open layout – but most importantly with Talalla Beach.
Should you grow tired of this lonely stretch of sand (not sure if this is possible), make your way further west along the coast. There’s no way around Mirissa, a locals’ and tourists’ favorite, featuring fantastic seaside (and seafood) restaurants plus a perfect stretch of tropical sand. Make Paradise Beach Club your home if you want to stay here longer – trust me, you will.
If you crave some more physical activity, Weligama Beach – a surfer hotspot – is just a short Tuk-Tuk ride away. Here, waves roll endlessly into the wide bay. No wonder why the beach is lined with surf schools. The beach break is just too tempting, even for the bloody beginner.
Let’s just assume that you would want to soak up just a little bit more culture besides hefty doses of vitamin sea. Galle, located at the southwestern tip of the island, is an excellent excuse to get away from the beach.
Built by the Dutch and the Portuguese in the 16th century, Galle Fort today houses several little shops, restaurants, and bars. Roaming these picturesque alleys will make for a fine ending of your tour across the pearl of the Indian Ocean.