Sri Lanka is a small island just south of India with an abundance of things to experience. Sri Lanka offers a little bit of everything: beautiful beaches, lots of wildlife, gorgeous hikes, serene countrysides, epic train rides, and tasty (spicy) food.
I recently spent 10 days in the beautiful island nation zipping around to experience as much as I could. It was a little hectic to be constantly moving, but I saw and did so much in the little time that I had.
This Sri Lanka 9-day itinerary is for those who are ambitious to see a big amount in a little time frame. It is not for those who like to relax and stay in one spot the whole time. I cut out one day off the suggested itinerary for a specific reason (which you will see below).
What NOT to do in Sri Lanka
I strongly urge you to skip Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. I admit I was lured in by the dreamy pictures that some of my favorite Instagrammers posted from here. It sounded to perfect to wake up to elephants bathing in a river right from your hotel room. But it was everything but dreamy.
The straight up ABUSE that I saw was extremely disturbing. I saw them use these sharp spears to force the elephants to do whatever they wanted and some were chained around their necks. The elephants did not seemed “loved” at all. In fact, they seemed terrified at their “caretakers”. I teared up and left early because I could not stand there for another second and watch these poor loving creatures get abused any longer.
I must say that I am extremely disappointed at these huge “influencers” posting pictures from here glorifying it just to get a couple hundred liked on Instagram. It was sickening. Here is my Instagram post from there which you can scroll through to see the “real” pictures from this terrible “orphanage”.
My advice would be to please research a place thoroughly before you make a decision to go. Just because a place has the word “sanctuary” or “orphanage” doesn’t mean the animals are being treated kindly.
Sri Lanka 9-Day Itinerary
Day 1: Kandy
Day 2: Day trip to Sigiriya Rock
Day 3: Train ride from Kandy to Ella
Day 4-5: Ella
Day 6: Yala National Park
Day 7: Mirissa
Day 8-9: Galle
Kandy honestly did not impress me that much. It was hectic city with only a few things to see. I knew this going in, but I stayed here 2 nights for a reason. The first is because this is where you start (or end) the famous train ride through the tea plantations in the countryside. The other reason is because this is where you can take a day trip to Sigiriya Rock.
What to Do in Kandy
Temple of the Tooth-an important symbol of Sri Lanka. It is believed that whoever holds the tooth relic, holds the governance of the country.
Kandy Lake-a peaceful lake in the center of the busy city that’s a good way to escape the madness and noise.
Botanical Gardens (25 minutes outside of the city)-I didn’t have time for this but photos of this place looked lovely.
Where to Stay in Kandy
I had the please of being hosted by Theva Residency while in Kandy and it was incredible. This boutique hotel is set amongst the beautiful hillside in Kandy, overlooking the lush countryside.
The most alluring part of Theva Residency is the infinity pool plunging into the green Sri Lankan mountainside. The views were incredible and the ambiance was super relaxing. It was so refreshing to be able to get away from the crazy noise and crowds from Kandy and sleep in a quiet paradise.
The floor to ceiling windows in the onsite restaurant is another attractive feature of this hotel. What could be better than enjoying a great meal with a glass of wine with a 180 degree view of beautiful nature? I can’t think of anything. The restaurant has indoor and outdoor seating and the food was quite delicious.
The view don’t end at the infinity pool and restaurant. The executive rooms come with a walk out balcony with table and chairs and unobstructed views of the hillside.
Other unique features of the boutique hotel include a game room with a pool table, board games, DVDs, a sauna, and a steam room! If relaxation and peace and quiet is what you are looking for, Theva Residency is the perfect place to stay in Kandy.
Day Trip to Sigiriya Rock
High on my Sri Lanka list was hiking up Sigiriya Rock. I decided to squeeze it in my short trip by taking a day trip from Kandy. I took a private car from Kandy to Sigiriya for 8000 Sri Lankan Ruppes(SLR) ($50) for an all day trip. This also included a stop at the Dambulla Caves on the way back (which I ended up skipping due to heat exhaustion).
The journey takes 3 hours each way. My only mistake was not going early enough because it was deathly hot during the hike. I would recommend leaving around 6am to beat the heat (I left at 8:30).
The hike takes about 30-45 minutes to the top and it’s uncovered so make sure to wear sunscreen and a hat if you have one. There is no water or snacks inside so make sure to bring some of your own.
The entrance fee was very steep at $30 USD, which was very surprising since overall Sri Lanka was on the cheap side.
Train from Kandy to Ella
This journey was voted one of the prettiest train rides in the world, and thus a very popular ride. As such, if you’re looking for first class seats, buy the tickets about 2 weeks in advance. But the fun part is sitting with the locals in 3rd class and hanging out of the opened doors, so I wouldn’t bother with trying for first class!
Keep in mind, the train ride is 7 HOURS long. The first 1.5 hours and last 1 hour were very busy with locals and we were packed in there like sardines. Not quite the idyllic train ride I was imagining. When it finally cleared up and I got a seat at the door, it was great!
You can buy 3rd class tickets on the day of the departure about 1 hour before. The tickets cost less than $2 USD. Try to get on the train while there is still daylight so you don’t miss the views!
TIP: If you’re going from Kandy to Ella, sit on the RIGHT side of the train til about Nuwara Eliya, then switch to the LEFT side for the best views. Trust me on this one.
Note: bring some food as its a long ride! There are some vendors coming through selling fruits and nuts, but nothing major.
Ella is a backpacker’s town set in the tropical countryside surrounding by nothing but greenery and tea plantations. In other words, its breathtaking! Most people come here to do the hikes they have on offer. The town of Ella itself is just one dirt road with a few restaurants and shops, so not much to do there. I would suggest staying near the Demodara 9 Arch Bridge so you can get the views of the train and the beautiful curved tracks from above. You can take a tuk tuk to get around for cheap so don’t worry about being away from the town.
What to To Do in Ella
Little Adam’s Peak-this is the easiest hike with breathtaking views. It’s only a 15 minute hike for the entrance (or 45mim-1hr from Ella town). It had just rained so it was very misty and foggy when I went, but still pretty. Go at sunset!
Ella Rock-this hike is a little more difficult at 2 hours each way, but affords amazing views at a higher elevation (I didn’t have time for this one unfortunately).
Demondora 9 Arch Bridge-possibly the most picturesque spot in Ella. Photograph this bridge from above and right down on the tracks. Ask your accommodation what time the trains come so you can get a glimpse of the red or blue train coming through. You can also walk on the tracks all the way back to town. The view below is from my Booking.com homestay!
Ravana Falls-these falls are less than a 15 minute drive form Ella. There are upper and lower falls and I went to the lower falls that can be accessed right from the road. You can also do a hike to the upper falls. The lower falls was a gorgeous cascading waterfall that was super impressive. Try to get to it on your way out of Ella on your way to Yala.
Where to Stay in Ella
I found this homestay on Airbnb with an incredible view of the 9 Arch Bridge from my bedroom and the balcony where we eat breakfast. The room was simple but the views made it 100% worth it.
The host was one of the kindest people I have ever been hosted by and he offered me discounted tuk tuk rides whenever I needed. I highly recommend this place! You can check out the listing here. And if you’re new to Booking.com, you can get $20 OFF your fist stay here.
Where to Eat in Ella
AK Ristoro–serves curry, pasta, and sushi. They even had gluten free pasta so I was in heaven. The restaurant has a nice atmosphere and is away from the busy main street.
Adam’s Breeze-a great local restaurant with a view. They serve traditional curries which were really good. They give you many different small dishes kinda like tapas style. It was very cheap at around $4.50 for my whole dinner (pictured below).
How to Get from Ella to Yala National Park
A private taxi from Ella to Tissamaharama (close to Yala National Park) costs 6000 SLR ($38) including a stop in Ravana falls. The journey takes 2 hours and 15 minutes.
Yala National Park
There are a few national parks in Sri Lanka but my goal was to see leopards, which is what Yala National Park is known for. I stayed in the town of Tissamaharama (aka Tissa) and took the “5-12 safari Leopard Safari” which meant a 7 hour safari from 5am-12pm. The cost was only $36 and included pickup and drop off from all hotels in Tissa. The pickup is at 4:15-4:30am so get some rest! The company I went with is called Janaka Safari Jeep tours. The drivers drive a little wild, but I noticed that most the drivers in the park were driving like that, so hold on tight!
While I wasn’t lucky enough to see a leopard, I did see a bunch of other animals including a bunch of elephants, crocodiles, buffalo, some colourful birds, mongoose, and warthogs. I had alton of fun and it was definitely worth it! My safari vehicle only had 4 seats so there was no overcrowding and trying to fight to get photos.
How to Get from Tissa to Mirissa
Take a private taxi from Tissa to Mirissa for 7000 SLR ($44) and it takes 2 hours and 30 minutes. The safari company I used above also had a taxi company, so I just used them for the journey (Janaka Taxi Service). The telephone # is +94 77 297 2639.
There is also a bus with 3 connections which takes about 3+ hours and costs a few dollars, but I was short on time so I just wanted to get there ASAP.
I heard Mirissa was touristy and was apprehensive about going, but I’m so glad I did. Mirissa was one of the prettiest places I saw in Sri Lanka. It’s the perfect place for relaxation, sunbathing, and surfing.
What to Do in Mirissa
Parrot rock-here you can see views of the twin beaches from above. Make sure to go at low tide so you can actually see both beaches separated by the sandbar.
Palm tree heaven-(not sure the actual name of it but that’s what it felt like to me). To get there, it’s about a 15 minute walk all the way to the left of Parrot Rock (keeping the beach on your right side). If you get lost, you can put in Sea Star Hotel in google maps and enter the beach through this hotel then turn left.
Surf-I’m not a surfer but this is a very popular thing to do in this area. It was fun to watch!
Mirissa Beach-take a walk along the coastline or lounge around and get a tan. Mirissa is very relaxing and pretty so take some time to enjoy it.
Where to Stay in Mirissa
Glamour Mirissa-this little boutique hotel was adorable and in a quiet area right across the street from the beaches. My room came with a lounge area with kitchen and washer. At $38, it was a great deal! You can check out the listing on booking.com here.
How to get from Mirissa to Galle
- Train: There are 3 trains a day which takes 50 minutes and cost about $1.
- Tuk tuk from Mirissa to Galle fort is 2000 SLR ($13) and takes 1 hour.
- A private taxi costs around 4000 SLR ($25).
Galle was my favourite city I visited in Sri Lanka. Galle fort is an enclosed Dutch fort built in the 1500s and occupied by Portuguese, Dutch, and later the British. It’s now a UNESCO world heritage site. It was such a cute little town with colonial architecture and adorable boutique shops.
What to Do in Galle
Lighthouse-the most picturesque part of the city with a beach nearby where you can swim and/or sunbathe.
Shopping-Galle definitely had the best shopping in Sri Lanka with cute little boutique shops with unique clothes and souvenirs.
Jungle beach-an excursion 20 minutes from Galle. It requires less than a 10 minute hike to get down. Once you arrive, you’re greeted with beautiful green waters (it feels more like a bay as there aren’t much waves). There isn’t much there besides some fruit juice stands.
Unuwatuna Beach–From Jungle Beach, you can walk 25 minutes to Unuwatuna Beach, where they have an abundance of water sports, surfing, lounge chairs, and lots of beach side restaurants. There is also some cute shopping on the streets. A round trip tuk tuk ride from Galle should cost you 1000 SLR ($6).
Where to Stay in Galle
I stayed in the cutest little boutique hotel with the sweetest staff. It was right in the middle of the Galle Fort and walking distance to everything. The room was huge with a strong AC. Breakfast was served in the colorful courtyard pictured below. You can view the listing here.
Where to Eat in Galle
Chambers restaurant– If you get sick of curry (which I did after day 5), Chambers restaurant has good Moroccan tagine.
Poonie’s Kitchen -serves healthy foods like granola and yogurt bowls, salads, and juices. It had a cute and cozy little courtyard inside. Note: it’s closed on Sundays and closes all other days at 6pm/
How to Get from Galle to Colombo
The train from Galle to Colombo is 180 rupees ($1.15) 2nd class. The journey takes 2.5 hours. The last train leaves Galle at 3:35pm.
Sri Lanka Quick Tips:
- I had trouble with getting money out of some ATMs as my card kept getting declined. But when I tried other ones, they seemed to work. So if you’re going to a remote area, I would suggest stocking up on cash beforehand. I did notice that HNB Bank worked the best for me.
- Ask you accommodation host for a taxi ride to your next destination. I always got the best rates from them and they set up the whole thing which made it easy.
- Train rides are very cheap in Sri Lanka, but tuk tuks and private cars arent that bad, especially if you are traveling with several people.
- They drive a bit crazy in Sri Lanka (and on the left side), so make sure you’re prepared for that and have a lot of experience if you plan on renting a motorbike.
- It’s pretty common for your taxi driver to randomly get pulled over by police (and then pay them off), so don’t let that alarm you. (note: the locals confirmed this and told me it’s a regular occurrence there).
- ALWAYS negotiate beforehand before getting into a taxi.
- Safety: I felt pretty safe as a solo female traveler in most places. I did feel a little uncomfortable walking the dark streets alone in Kandy at night (many cat calls from men). I never really felt unsafe though.
Disclaimer: Some links in this article may include affiliate links, meaning I may receive a small commission if you book through these links, at NO extra cost to you. It’s what keeps this site ad free (I hate ads!). Also, I was a guest at Theva Residency. However, all opinions are my own and I am in no way obligated to leave positive feedback. I had an amazing time in the beautiful secluded property and I highly recommend staying here if in Kandy.
I just returned from a trip to Galle myself! Galle was definitely one of my top places (I think I even took the same photo!). Next time try Pinnawala elephant orphanage and Dambulla- 150 Buddha’s in a cave
I went to that elephant “orphanage” and it was disgusting (as i mentioned in this article). All the elephants were chained and they were using sharp spears to control them. The elephants were visibly terrified and the whole thing made me sick. Please don’t encourage people to go there.
These set of photos look incredible.
Sri Lanka isn’t often talked about in the travel world but it’s a beautiful country with an inspiring culture.