Sri Lanka is one of my favorite countries I have ever been to. I was surprised by how quickly I fell in love with the country, and how it felt like no matter how long I spent there, there was always something new about every day. On any given day, I could be cycling through ancient ruins in the morning and then seeing elephants in the afternoon. Or hiking up a mountain for an epic sunrise then trying to catch the perfect wave by sunset.
I would say that three weeks is an ideal amount of time to spend in Sri Lanka, although a lot of people will agree that even that can feel far too short. The suggested itinerary is pretty identical to the one that I did, give or take a few days and locations. I’ll admit, this is a very fast-paced and action-packed itinerary for three weeks. However, Sri Lanka is a country that is often underestimated due to its small size. You will find yourself wanting to do and see as much as you possibly can once you get to the country.
Sri Lanka has a lot to offer, and this three-week itinerary will give you a very complete experience of the country. From hiking, wildlife, culture, surf, and relaxation, this will give you a great balance of all of them in three weeks.
Day 1: Colombo
Colombo is the main hub of Sri Lanka, and likely the starting and ending point of all travelers looking to go on a Sri Lankan adventure. Despite being seen as merely a stopping point for most travelers, it isn’t a city to be entirely overlooked. There are a few attractions to see throughout the city, mostly religious sites and museums, but enough to fill at least a day. There is also a nice little beach and boardwalk in the city that has a great vibe during the day and especially at sunset.
Colombo is the perfect spot to travel to anywhere in the country from. The public transportation network in Sri Lanka is extremely reliable and efficient, although from an outsider’s perspective, pretty crowded and hectic. Colombo Fort Railway Station is the best way to get to anywhere in the country for cheap. If you’ve got three weeks in Sri Lanka, I recommend starting off heading north and then making a loop back to Colombo via the east and south coast. If you have a little more time than three weeks, you might want to consider heading all the way north to Jaffna, but if not, Anuradhapura is the place that you will want to start.
Days 2-3: Anuradhapura
Anuradhapura is one of Sri Lanka’s most significant cultural and religious destinations. It has been around for thousands of years, with the ancient civilizations that founded Anuradhapura being dated back to before 300 BC. The new town of Anuradhapura is a very small and rural city, but the main attraction of Anuradhapura is the massive archaeological complex that houses many ancient and still-functioning religious sites and monuments. Some of these include stupas and dagobas that rivaled only the Pyramids of Egypt in height and grandiosity when they were built.
A full day is enough to explore the wonders of Anuradhapura, although you will want to get an early start if you want to see all that the complex has to offer. I started my adventures at around 8 AM and managed to fill the entire day, even having to cycle back in the pitch blackness in the countryside.
Check out my complete guide of Anuradhapura here.
Days 3, 4, 5: Dambulla/Sigiriya with day trips to Minneriya and Polonnaruwa
About an hour south of Anuradhapura is the big hub of Dambulla. Just a few kilometers from Dambulla is the more touristic hub of Sigiriya. You can stay at either city with no real difference, although Dambulla will have more semblance to civilization a la ATMs, restaurants, and other stores.
The main things to do in Sigiriya are hiking Pidurangala Rock at sunrise and visiting Lion Rock. However, it is also a good place to kick off a few different day trips. Two of the best ones are the archaeological site of Polonnaruwa and the national parks of Minneriya and Kadulla.
Polonnaruwa is one of the most impressive archaeological complexes I have ever visited. Where Anuradhapura shone in its sheer size of its monuments, Polonnaruwa’s attractions shine in its intricacy, diversity, and detail.
For more on Polonnaruwa, here’s my complete guide of things to do and see in this marvelous city.
Minneriya and Kadulla National Parks are renowned for their herds of elephants. The elephants often hop from one National Park to the other, so just ask around to see where the elephants are currently at. You can pay about $40 for a safari, depending on how many people you are with.
Here’s my complete guide to seeing the elephants at Minneriya National Park.
Days 6 and 7: Kandy
After lounging around rural Sri Lanka for nearly a week, Kandy will be a pleasant change. They even have a Pizza Hut, which is how I began to measure the levels of civilization while I was in Sri Lanka. Anything without a Pizza Hut was classified as rural. Anything with a Pizza Hut was modern civilization. Kandy was a perfect place to do all of the admin stuff that I neglected to do before coming to the country.
There is not much to do in Kandy itself aside from the Temple of the Tooth, but the city itself is surrounded by stunning scenery. Hanging out at Kandy Lake, hiking up to the Buddha overlooking the city, and exploring Uduwattakele Sanctuary are all beautiful ways to spend the day. Don’t feel too pressured to do too much here. The rest of Sri Lanka is full of adventures and if you go too nonstop, you might burn yourself out.
Aside from things to do, Kandy also just makes a good spot to hang out and relax. The bustling street scenes and the hustle of the city make for a good vibe. With lots of restaurants and cafes, it is one of the best cities in Sri Lanka to feast on all sorts of food. Kandy is definitely a perfect spot to recharge, especially as you are about to head into mountain country.
Day 8: Hatton (Adam’s Peak)
Adam’s Peak, or Sri Pada, is one of the most beautiful hikes you can do in all of Sri Lanka, if not the best. If you’re up for a challenge, taking on Adam’s Peak’s 5,500 steps to chase a sunrise is a reward unlike any other. If you want to make it up there for sunrise, Adam’s Peak warrants a 2 AM start, as if it wasn’t daunting enough already.
Adam’s Peak stands at a towering 2,243 meters tall, or 7,359 feet, making it one of the tallest mountains in all of Sri Lanka. At the summit of the mountain is believed to be the footprint of Buddha himself. This makes it a popular site for pilgrims to visit. People of all ages and backgrounds will be attempting the hike, from young children to elderly women.
Up for the challenge? Here’s my complete guide to hiking Adam’s Peak, as well as a few sneak peeks of what you can expect to see from the top.
Days 9, 10, 11: Ella
Hightail your booty out of Hatton to make it to Ella for some more beautiful Sri Lankan countryside. I highly suggest taking the iconic blue train from Hatton to Ella, as it is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful train rides in the world. It takes you through lush forests, deep valleys, and mountains up above the clouds. Once you get to Ella, the scenery is just as stunning.
Some highlights of what to do in Ella include the famous Nine Arches Bridge, Little Adam’s Peak, Ella Rock, Ravana Falls, a visit to a tea plantation, and a day trip over to Diyaluma Falls. Ella is also one of the best vibes you will find in all of Sri Lanka. It is much more relaxed and laid-back, although admittedly much more touristy than the rest of Sri Lanka.
There is a bustling strip of restaurants and bars with live music, which is a welcome change from the much quieter rural areas of Sri Lanka. If you are looking to experience a little nightlife along with your adventures, Ella is as good of a place as any in Sri Lanka.
Day 12: Arugam Bay
I unfortunately didn’t get a chance to make it to Arugam Bay as I was just a couple of weeks short of surf season on the East Coast. For surfers, this is a world-class surfing destination that is famous across the globe. I’ve heard it’s got a great vibe, as most little surf villages tend to have. You do have to go a bit out of your way to get there, so if you aren’t too into surfing, you could skip Arugam Bay and opt to tack on a different beach town along the way.
Day 13: Tissamaharama (Yala National Park)
Yala National Park is world-famous as one of the best places to spot a leopard. I came in fully expecting to be disappointed but managed to get a glimpse of one prowling through the woods. Other highlights of Yala include elephants, crocodiles, water buffalo, wild boars, and a ton of crazy looking birds.
Days 14, 15, 16: Mirissa/Weligama
Ahh, finally. Some rest and relaxation. The neighboring beach towns of Mirissa and Weligama are the perfect spots to unwind after the hectic adventures you’ve had thus far in Sri Lanka. Mirissa has a trendy, Bali-esque vibe with its beautiful beach, street art, and abundance of cafes and restaurants. Weligama is more of a surfer’s haven, with a long bay where you will find surfers of all levels trying to catch the perfect wave.
Mirissa is home to Coconut Hill, Parrot Rock, and Turtle Bay. Coconut Hill is a beachside hill with a horde of towering palm trees, making for Mirissa’s most popular Instagram spot. Parrot Rock is a little hill jutting into the sea between two bays, making for a great sunset spot and giving you a great view of Mirissa. Turtle Bay is a cool spot close to Coconut Hill where you can swim with sea turtles.
Weligama is mostly dedicated to surf, although it also boasts a lot of trendy restaurants, hotels, and bars. It is home to probably the best nightlife you will find in all of Sri Lanka, with some parties not stopping until well into the morning. As someone who brands himself ~ the partying traveler, Weligama was my first actual party in Sri Lanka. Where there is surf, there is bound to be a party.
Days 17, 18: Galle and Unawatuna
About an hour away from Mirissa is the famous old city of Galle, featuring the iconic lighthouse and Galle Fort. It is a much different vibe than the rest of Sri Lanka. The Dutch colonial city of Galle feels much more like medieval Europe than Sri Lanka, as do the confines of the colonial city. The restaurants, stores, and hotels here are generally much fancier and more luxurious than what you will usually find in Sri Lanka. As a backpacker, untamed Sri Lanka was more of my scene. However, it’s hard to deny that Galle was a pleasant change where we could properly treat ourselves to some nice meals and shopping.
In Galle, you are never too far from a beach. The neighboring Unawatuna is a quick bus ride away, and has a long strip of stunning beach. It boasts some iconic Instagram spots, like the swing attached to the palm tree on Delawella Beach. It is definitely your best bet for a beach day if Galle is your base.
Day 19: Hikkaduwa
One last stop before you loop back up to Colombo. Hikkaduwa is another beach town that is home to some giant sea turtles. It is a great place to see sea turtles nesting or just hanging out on the beach. You can also try and find a reputable company to do a baby sea turtle release with. I didn’t actually get to make it here because of the Easter terrorist attacks, but I’ve heard great things about it.
Days 20-21: Colombo or Mount Lavinia
Congratulations, you’ve conquered Sri Lanka and have made it back to Colombo! If you feel like you haven’t explored it enough the first time around, now you’ve got an extra day before you leave to explore the city further. If you feel like you’d rather spend an extra day or two on the beach, the southern part of Colombo is home to Mount Lavinia, one of the more famous golden beaches of Sri Lanka. It is the perfect spot to relax and look back on what has definitely been a perfect adventure through Sri Lanka.
Need more information on Sri Lanka before you book that plane ticket? Here’s everything you need to know before you visit Sri Lanka, compiled by yours truly.
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