Sri Lanka has yet to experience the backpacker boom that other places in Asia have, but it still has a solid infrastructure to cater to travelers. That makes now one of the best possible times to visit this stunning country. Nowhere more-so than Ella. Ella is Sri Lanka’s trendiest and most popular destination among younger travelers. Its location up in the mountains, bustling strip of restaurants and bars, and, let’s be real, plethora of Instagram hotspots makes it one of Sri Lanka’s main backpacker hubs.
How To Get To Ella
If you have been on Instagram at all in the past year, you would know that the iconic blue train is the way to go for people traveling to Ella. With a price tag of about $2-3 USD for a second-class ticket, you can’t go wrong with the local train. The trains start from Colombo but that is a lengthy journey. With stops in Kandy, Hatton, Nuwara Eliya, and Haputale, you can take your sweet time getting to Ella.
Other options include taking a private car, shared taxi, or the local bus, in order from most expensive to least. None of them offer the incredibly scenic views of the train ride though. There’s a reason why it’s widely considered to be among the most beautiful train rides in the world. It takes you through the vast valleys and clouded green mountains, views that you might not have expected from a country like Sri Lanka.
Where To Stay in Ella for Backpackers
Ella has an abundance of hostels, guesthouses, and fancy hotels suiting whatever budget you’re on. Since this is a backpacker’s guide, I’m going to assume you’ve got a pretty meager budget. Hostels in Ella typically range around $10-15, sometimes cheaper if you’re willing to go as basic as possible. If you are looking for a little more privacy, guesthouses on the lower end can be just as cheap as hostels. Those that include breakfast, Wi-Fi, and other amenities will usually be about $20-30 per night.
The best location to stay in Ella would be in Ella town itself. With close proximity to the transportation hubs, restaurants, bars, and supermarkets, it serves as a good home base for your Ella adventures. If you are looking for something more scenic and secluded, there are a number of options tucked away in the mountains as well. You can take a tuk-tuk from in town to pretty much anywhere for under 1000 LKR ($6 USD).
The Best Things To Do in Ella
Ella is mainly known for its hiking, waterfalls, and tea plantations. I’m going to save you the annoying filler that other travel blogs do when they want to meet a word count quota. Like when you read a guide that’s like “12 amazing things to do in Ella” but then list things such as “walk through Ella town” or “eat food” as if you weren’t going to inevitably do that anyway. There are six things in Ella that I would absolutely recommend doing. But also, don’t forget to eat food just because I didn’t list that as one of these ~ things you need to do in Ella ~ !
This is the Pride Rock looking behemoth that you can see from pretty much anywhere in Ella Town. It is a lengthy hike that will take up about four or five hours of your day but it is one that never gets boring. The trail to the top of Ella Rock will have you skipping along railroad tracks, frolicking through tea plantations, and a lot of self-loathing as you trudge up the final, brutal uphill stretches to get to the epic viewpoint.
The trail to Ella Rock isn’t straightforward, and some would say that you need a guide to get to the top. There’s nothing wrong with hiring a guide, since I’m all for money going back to the locals and as of now, most of the best things to do in Sri Lanka are completely free, Ella Rock included. However, if you want to run it solo, it is pretty doable. I had a guide on the Internet pulled up the entire time but still managed to second-guess our route several times.
These waterfalls are some of the most impressive I have ever seen. With a height of like 600 feet or something like that, it is as majestic as it is terrifying. From the bottom of the waterfall, feeling the spray drench your sweaty face, there is nothing more invigorating. From the top of the waterfall, looking down at certain death were you to fall, there is nothing more petrifying. Do both, of course.
Diyaluma Falls is about an hour drive from Ella’s city center. You can start at the bottom or at upper Diyaluma. At the bottom you can climb your way as close to the waterfall as your heart desires to get up close and personal. Upper Diyaluma is about a ten minute drive from the base of the waterfall and then a twenty minute hike to get to the viewpoint overlooking the vast Sri Lankan countryside. You can keep going up from the viewpoint to get to the swimming holes, where you can jump into natural pools or slide into rivers. Also worth it.
This is another waterfall that you will pass on your way to Diyaluma. It is super crowded but also impressive. Its location literally right on the road makes it a must-see by default. I mean, you couldn’t miss it if you tried.
Little Adam’s Peak
Hiking Little Adam’s Peak for sunrise provided me with at least a month’s worth of artsy Instagram content. It gives you some incredible, panoramic views of Ella’s absolutely stunning surroundings. Once those golden, pink, and purple hues begin to drape the soft mountains, you won’t be able to name a damn thing more beautiful.
Little Adam’s Peak is about a 45-minute to an hour long hike, depending on where you’re taking off from in Ella. You basically follow a road for the entirety of the hike until you get to the hill itself and then just climb stairs for the next ten minutes. It’s a good workout in the brisk early morning and like I said, Instagram pics galore.
Nine Arches Bridge
Speaking of Instagram pics, this is the bridge so nice that I went twice. From the tea plantations below to the unique architecture of this bridge, Nine Arches Bridge might be the most Instagram-friendly spot in all of Sri Lanka. You can get your pics sitting on the bridge, strolling through the tea plantations, hopping on the railway tracks, and so on. The world is yours, really. There’s even a little tunnel with Ella spray-painted on the walls. The bridge is still actively used by trains, by the way. So if you’re lucky, you might catch one of the iconic blue trains passing by.
You can take a tuk-tuk here or you can go on a short hike from Ella town through the jungle. The hike would be about thirty minutes or less depending on where you are taking off from. The trail starts on the curve of road just before Art Cafe. Follow the dirt trail and it will eventually take you to the Nine Arches Bridge. Anyway, here’s my artsy Instagram pic.
Visit A Tea Plantation
Ella is also well-known for its beautiful tea plantations all throughout. The idea of visiting a tea plantation didn’t really have me jumping out of my seat, but I relented because of my friend who had a strange obsession with tea. It turned out to be quite the cool experience, highlighted by a tea tasting of over 50 teas and a little tea party in the forest with cake like we were in Alice in Wonderland or something.
I mean, despite my love for tea, it never really piqued my interest to find out how it was made, but with Sri Lanka (Ceylon) being world-renowned for its tea, it is probably the only place where visiting a tea plantation can feel more like visiting a drug cartel. When we saw all the Mercedes parked outside the tea plantation, we joked that it was just a front for a drug cartel. Then we found out that the plantation I visited had its best tea selling for $1,600 USD for a kilo. Seriously, this stuff was fascinating beyond belief. Visit a tea plantation if you can.
Where To Party in Ella, Sri Lanka
Ella was such a welcome change from the rest of Sri Lanka that I had encountered so far. After over a week of considering myself lucky if I found a restaurant open past 8 PM, Ella’s bustling strip of restaurants and bars made me feel spoiled. That’s not to say that there are booming mega clubs to party your face off until 6 AM, but hey, when you’ve been so used to being home by 7 PM, having a drink at 9 PM can feel like proper nightlife.
A walk down Ella’s main road will tell you all you need to know about the nightlife. You can pretty much tell which places are poppin’ just by looking from the outside. The best places will have live music, such as Spice and 360 Bar. However, my favorite was Chill Cafe. The three-story bamboo structure made me feel like I was in Bali. Despite literally wanting to get out of Bali for most of the six weeks I spent there pre-Sri Lanka, it made me feel a little bit at home. Tropical house, flashing lights, and proper cocktails were all the party I needed, even if I did end up home before midnight anyway.
Random Things I Feel Like Telling You
The massage parlors in Ella straight up suck. They are pricy and they never massage you for the actual amount of time that you pay for. They’ll stop about five minutes short and most of what they do is actually nothing. You might be tempted after all of the hiking you’ve been doing, but seriously, just don’t. Paying $20 to be covered in the smelliest massage oil and being absolutely repulsive to everyone you encounter isn’t worth the slightest bit of relaxation you might get. I would rather book a roundtrip flight to Bangkok to get a Thai massage and then go back in the morning than get another massage here.
Okay, I just needed to get that off my chest. Hmm, other important things to know… Yeah, that’s about it.
Where To Go After Ella
There are a number of different ways you can go after Ella. If you are looking to hit up waves, Arugam Bay on the East Coast is a popular spot for surfers. If you are looking for some more relaxed beach time, Mirissa is the closest thing Sri Lanka has to Bali. It’s trendy, beautiful, and has a surprisingly poppin’ nightlife scene. Other beach towns to consider would be Matara, Tangalle, Talalla, and Hiriketiya.
If you want to do some more hiking up in the mountains, you can hit up Haputale or Nuwara Eliya if you haven’t already. If you have, then wildlife-spotting might be the best option for you. Yala National Park is renowned for its leopards. I actually saw one, a miracle considering my usually awful luck. Udawalawe National Park is a popular stop after Ella to see their herds of elephants, numbering somewhere around 250 elephants.
The world is your oyster. Go where you want. Sri Lanka is a dream destination especially because of how diverse it is. See a leopard in the morning and go surfing in the afternoon. Just another casual day in Sri Lanka, whatever.