Every time I visit an entirely new part of the world I try to visualise and compare the new destination to other places I have already experienced. After 8 days travelling round Sri Lanka, I came to the conclusion that this country is a more relaxed version of India, a less touristy option than Thailand, and is equally rich in culture as Vietnam and Cambodia. The food is flavoursome and unique, and the landscapes are truly unforgettable. For such a compact island this idyllic country has a lot to offer; tea plantations and temples in the Northern provinces, Safari adventures in the lush jungle or blissful beach breaks on the palm tree populated coast if you venture further South. It is a country of kind and generous people, proud to show off their beautiful country that feels like it is just at the beginning of its tourism boom.
Day One: Colombo
Most international flights will arrive into Colombo Airport, which is a 45-minute drive to Sri Lanka’s busy capital city. Many visitors bypass Colombo but I recommend spending 24 hours here observing local life, wandering round the colourful Pettah market and marvelling at the spectacular Red Mosque.
In the evening, take a sunset stroll along Galle Face Beach before enjoying a vibrant dinner at Shangri-La Hotel Colombo where some of the countries best restaurants are. We loved the seafood and hoppers at Kaema Sutra eatery.
STAY – Shangri-La Hotel Colombo
Day Two: Colombo to Sigiriya
We hired a driver for our week exploring the island, and it seemed to be a popular way to see as much as possible, both with private chauffeurs and for group bookings.
Wake up early and have a luxurious breakfast in the hotel before heading North East to the cultural triangle. We drove for two and a half hours to Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. It is an ideal halfway stopping point between Colombo and Sigiriya and a useful, if touristy, place to have lunch. The elephant orphanage costs Rs. 2500 each (£23 each) to enter and here you will see the elephants bathing in the river, feeding and walking through town. Try to arrive between 10am-12pm or 2-4pm when the large herd of elephants have their bathing time.
Following lunch, drive two hours to Dambulla Rock Temple. After a beautiful 20-minute climb, make friends with the cheeky monkeys and leave your shoes before venturing into the painted caves with beautiful buddha statues and old frescoes on the walls.
STAY: Jetwing Vil Uyana Hotel
Day Three: Sigiriya to Nuwara Eliya
Check out early after a quick traditional Sri Lankan breakfast and make the short 10-minute drive to Lions Rock in Sigiriya National Park. (The climb is tiring in the heat, so it’s best to get there as early as possible.) It took us around 1-1.5 hours (in total to go up and down) and entrance tickets cost £25 per person. You’ll see the remains of the ancient rock fortress and magnificent views of the surrounding countryside.
Stop for a relaxed lunch at Kandy House. This beautiful boutique hotel is just outside Kandy, an old Dutch colonial building with just 9 rooms and very attentive service. We enjoyed Thai-inspired curry, a grilled vegetable mezze and rice.
If you are feeling up to it in the heat, Kandy is a fun and energetic city to wander round. Here you can visit the sacred and important Temple of the Tooth, buy fruit from the market and stop for a decent coffee and doughnut at Buono.
Then it was time to make the long and winding drive up to Nuwara Eliya, through the endless tea plantations. If you are keen to learn more about the expansive tea trade in the area, visit Glenloch Tea Factory for a free tour and tasting (though tour guides will expect a small tip). We particularly liked the ‘Golden Flush’ tea at Glenloch.
STAY: Jetwing Warwick Gardens
Day Four: Nuwara Eliya to Ella
We had a leisurely morning, enjoying breakfast with a view at Warwick Gardens. I wouldn’t bother too much leaving time to visit Nuwara Eliya town, although there are a few interesting ‘British style’ buildings in the Little England area of town (for example the Grand Hotel).
Drive on to Nanu Oya train station (10 minutes from Nuwara Eliya) seeing more tea plantations on the way. Here you can get the scenic train ride from Nanu Oya to Ella. It takes approximately 3 hours, which is longer than driving but is an unforgettably beautiful journey. I recommend sitting in 2nd Class to have windows that open – you can’t move between carriages and will need to book your ticket in advance in peak months. For the best views sit on the right from Nanu Oya to Ohiya, then on the left from Ohiya to Haputale, then back on the right from Haputale to Ella.
From Ella station take a Tuk-Tuk to the Nine Arch Bridge, and if you are feeling energetic you can climb Little Adam’s Peak (1 hour total for up and down).
STAY: Jetwing Kaduruketha (35 mins from Ella)
Day Five: Ella to Yala
From Jetwing Kaduruketha it is a 2 hour drive to Yala National Park. In this jungle area of Sri Lanka you can see leopards, sloth bears, elephants and crocodiles among many other mammals and bird species.
We visited the newly opened Wild Coast Tented Lodge for lunch. This luxurious design hotel has a brilliant chef who cooks up some of the best food in the country. I loved the varied curry and rice dish, and freshly made cardamom ice-cream for dessert.
After lunch we took a very short transfer to Chena Huts hotel next door. This special property is very popular with honeymooners and is the ultimate way to experience Sri Lankan safari in style. (The hotel organise Safari tours twice a day: 6.30-10am and 3.30-7.30pm).
STAY: Chena Huts
Day Six: Yala to Unawatuna
After an exciting early morning Safari (spotting leopards and elephants) we enjoyed a final delicious morning meal at Chena Huts before driving 2 hours along the coast.
We stopped at Amanwella for lunch, one of the most prestigious hotels in the country. The beach here is spectacular with crowds of palm trees and creamy white sand. The restaurant was very quiet when we visited, with a menu of local and international dishes, priced highly but made with the highest quality ingredients. After lunch we relished the opportunity to have the private beach to ourselves, and walked along in the sand soaking up the midday sunshine.
We continued our sea drive to Owl and the Pussycat Hotel, near Unawatuna Beach. This area is known for its turtle hatcheries, small patches of beach where wounded turtles are rescued and cared for, and baby turtles are protected and released back to the wild.
STAY: Owl and the Pussycat
Day Seven: Unawatuna to Galle
Rise early and go to beautiful Dellawela Beach famed for its picturesque coconut tree rope swing (outside Dream Cabana, pay 500 rs. for a go). We also walked along the train track, which is deserted (most of the time) and surrounded by lush greenery.
Those interested in the finer details of the country’s cuisine can have a cooking demonstration at Owl and the Pussycat Hotel… my favourite part of which was scoffing the incredible lunch afterwards!
From Unawatuna it is just a 20 minute drive to Fort Bazaar Hotel in Galle. Our driver took us a scenic route via Unawatuna Beach and a viewpoint over Jungle Beach.
STAY: Fort Bazaar Hotel
Day Eight: Galle to Colombo
Whether you are staying at Fort Bazaar Hotel or not, I highly recommend visiting the hotel for the appetizing breakfast offering. The eatery, Church Street Social, serves indulgent classics like French Toast and Eggs Benedict.
We then spent a few hours to wandering around the whole Galle Fort area, a UNESCO world heritage site. Buy a King coconut juice and walk along the old Fort walls stopping by the Old Dutch Hospital, the lighthouse, lots of other pretty colonial buildings.
For visitors who have a little more time in Galle I’d recommend The Heritage Café for good quality coffee, treat yourself to bespoke jewellery from M.M. Ibrahim Jewellers (one of the oldest in Galle, since 1909), buy locally made clothes at Stolen Paradise, relax with a massage at Fort Spa and in the evening listen to jazz piano with a cold beer on the balcony at Prince of Galle.
When it’s time to catch a flight home it is a two and half hour drive back to Colombo airport.
Other Recommendations: As is common with many tourists visiting Sri Lanka, we hired a chauffeur/driver for our whole trip. We were recommended to Tennacoon by an English friend, and he was very friendly and knowledgable, and gave us complete flexibility to choose what we wanted to do each day – I would highly recommend him. His modern Toyota Prius was comfortable and cool, and he was a very safe driver. He speaks good English and was easy to communicate with both ahead of our visit and while we were in Sri Lanka. Tennacoon works for Walkers Tours and is often booked by UK travel agents (such as Kuoni, Trailfinders and Audley Travel) but can also be hired privately, as we did. Our 7-day round trip cost £415 with unlimited mileage and all of his food and accommodation included. He can be contacted via WhatsApp on +94 77 602 1700.