Sri Lanka is well-known for its train travel. It is simple, scenic, and let’s face it, Instagram-worthy. It is also by far the best way to get around the country. I just wrapped up my first long train ride in Sri Lanka and was amazed at how much smaller it made this already relatively small island country. It basically makes Sri Lanka feel like one big metro system.
Most likely, the first train ride people will take once they fly into the country is going from Colombo to Anuradhapura. Colombo is Sri Lanka’s main travel hub, and the closest major city to Sri Lanka’s only international airport. Anuradhapura is one of Sri Lanka’s most historic and cultural cities, and also serves as a good kick-off point for any itinerary doing a north-to-south loop.
Like I said earlier, train travel in Sri Lanka is very easy to figure out and very affordable. It may seem overwhelming at first since it is also a popular form of transportation among locals. Walking into Colombo’s Fort Station was definitely sensory overload. Thankfully, there is a traveler’s information center right near the entrance that you can go to if you need to double check anything. Anywhere you need to go in Sri Lanka, you can get to from Colombo.
Anuradhapura will be along the northern line and you will have to buy your tickets at counter 4. When I went, the second-class tickets cost 380 rupees, or just over $2. There are a number of trains heading to Anuradhapura so you have a couple of choices. There are the first class trains that have air conditioning. These are nicer than the second-class trains, but I like to think that the second-class trains also provide a much more entertaining experience.
Schedule of Trains from Colombo to Anuradhapura
The trains leave throughout the day with some even being overnight hauls. The earliest one leaves at 8:45 AM which is the one that I took. It is the only second-class train that leaves from Colombo to Anuradhapura daily. For an air-conditioned train, there is one that leaves from Colombo at 10:30 AM and one that leaves at 1:45 PM. The overnight train leaves at 10 PM and arrives at around 5 AM. Here is the full schedule of trains leaving from Colombo Fort.
The second-class tickets, you can buy right at the station. I recommend getting there about 30 minutes early to guarantee that you get a ticket and make it to the platform before the train leaves. However, this is Sri Lanka and the train will probably not leave on time anyway. Mine was over an hour late.
For the other trains, you might have to buy a ticket in advance. It is much safer to do that to guarantee that you’ll have a seat. For well-worn routes like Colombo to Anuradhapura and especially anywhere to Ella, you will definitely have to buy a ticket in advance if you want to guarantee a spot on the first-class trains.
What To Expect on the Train Rides
The train is the cheapest and most efficient way to travel through Sri Lanka. That being said, it definitely won’t be the most comfortable. With dozens and dozens of stops between Colombo and Anuradhapura, the train will take at least an hour longer than if you were traveling by car at your own pace. However, it can be a scenic and relaxed journey. Just watch the lush Sri Lankan scenery roll by until you arrive at your destination.
Also, this is Sri Lanka. A lot of weird stuff can happen on these trains if you aren’t used to it. This was my first time in Sri Lanka and I feel like it is giving me almost a sneak peek of what to expect if I were to ever go to India.
What To Bring On The Train Rides
Colombo to Anuradhapura is a nearly six hour train ride. Bring snacks, water and entertainment. There will be local people selling snacks and drinks throughout the ride, many of which are delicious. However, I know a lot of people who are fussy about food so if you are one of those people, bring stuff you are comfortable with. The most normal thing I saw people selling was popcorn and cotton candy. The others were strange fried, breaded, or sugary snacks, or a combination of all three. Most of them were delicious, although I still don’t know what most of them were.
Bring a book, music, work, or whatever on the train. If you’re lucky, a bunch of Sri Lankan people might decide to start a band in your carriage and you can pass a few hours by joining in the singing and dancing. I don’t know if that usually happens on these train rides but I genuinely hope they do. The Sri Lankan people are very friendly and love to have fun. I resisted for about five minutes before giving in and joining them as they put on masks, beat on their drums, and sang songs that I couldn’t even remotely understand.
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wrapped up the first of many iconic train rides through Sri Lanka 🚂 ended up missing most of the scenery since there was a wildly entertaining dance party and jam sesh going on in my train car 😂 spent six hours with an insanely fun group of locals who couldn’t speak English so we just communicated through the universal languages of music, dancing, and food 💃🏽🇱🇰 Sri Lanka has been exactly the adventure I’ve been needing post-Bali 🤪
It was an experience. Sri Lankan trains overall are just an experience. It was my first time doing something like this and it was my first time in months where I felt myself gleaming at finding that new adventure that I had been yearning for. Sitting on that train watching life happen both inside and out is such a unique way to travel and I beyond recommend it.