When we decided to quit our jobs, sell most of our stuff and pack just a few belongings into a backpack each, one of the destinations that had been on our bucket list for a while was Sri Lanka. So without a doubt, here’s the biggest Sri Lanka guide that you won’t find anywhere else on the net with more details than right here!
Why we wanted to visit Sri Lanka
The view from our guesthouse, Villa Eden Paradise in Ella
We wanted to visit Sri Lanka because we had only heard amazing things about it; the hikes, the tea plantations, the tropical landscape, the beaches, the food and of course the people were all highlights which had us excited about exploring this country.
I’m going to show you everything we learnt about Sri Lanka; what we did, what we wished we’d done and what we would have done differently. I’ve also made note of how much we spent to give you an idea of pricing for someone on a budget trip. Accommodation ranged from mid to low end as well as homestays and also some places we wished we stayed in if we planned it a bit better.
Contents (and shortcuts to the sections you want to read)
- Things to know before going to Sri Lanka
- Time of year to visit
- What are other tourists like?
- Single travellers
- The locals
- Why you should visit Sri Lanka
- Getting around Sri Lanka
- Internet & mobile plans
- Elephant safari
2. Our Itinerary: how we got there, where we stayed, highlights, what we wish we had done
- Nuwara Eliya
- How much we actually spent
Things to know before going to Sri Lanka
Finding the stunning Silent Beach near Tangalle
You’ll need to get a visa before you arrive but it takes like two minutes from here. From what we could see, you can only get 30 days but it’s not too hard to extend if needed.
Book your travel insurance below
Time of the year to visit
Honestly, I never in a million years thought planning the right time of the year to visit would make such a huge difference to the trip. We went in peak season between Jan-Feb 2018. To be honest, I wish we went in the shoulder/low season because it was just overwhelmingly busy with tourists.
The peak season for each area is below:
The hill country and southern coast beaches: December – March
The West Coast beaches: April – September
The North: June – August
What are other tourists like?
Find out where all of the popular instagram worthy spots are in Sri Lanka here
If you’re not aware tourism in Sri Lanka has completely exploded. Steve and I met in India and absolutely loved it, and somehow thought it would be similar but a bit more chilled out. You honestly couldn’t compare the two. The main thing I noticed was there were all types of tourists everywhere, from your parents travelling on their own, or with friends, to teenagers off on their first adventure, to holiday makers on their two week break from work, couples and a few single travellers passing through.
The beach town of Mirissa seemed like all of the young instagrammers had congregated there to take their best selfies or the insta husbands to do the job. I think Steve then appreciated me for the odd photo I ask him to take every so often because this was on another level. If you live in Sydney, think of all of the bride & grooms which line the harbour for their photoshoots on a Saturday but put it on Mirissa beach and it would be about right. But if Instagram is your thing then check out this post.
We didn’t see many single travellers because to be honest Sri Lanka was full of couples or friends. There were a good few hostels dotted around, most notably the Hangover Hostel and plenty in the seaside town of Mirissa. That’s not to say single travellers won’t enjoy Sri Lanka, because Sri Lanka is popping up on all sorts of top places to travel lists and is currently being regarded as the new Thailand. It didn’t surprise me either.
We found all of the locals in our guest houses to be amazing and most people speak good English. All were lovely, kind and helpful. Sri Lankans were friendly but in Tangalle and Hiriketiya, it honestly felt like we had gone to another country because their hospitality was exceptional. We couldn’t walk down the street without everyone saying hello to us in those two places.
One weird thing I noticed was Sri Lankan men would only talk to Steve and not me. For example, when I was in hospital (after stepping on a sea urchin), the doctor kept saying to Steve ‘you’re discharged now’. We were like ‘whaaat? You’re discharged or I’m discharged?’ It was actually quite funny as it happened all the time and other tourists mentioned it to us as well. I’d love to know how single female travellers got on.
There also didn’t seem to be a huge amount of poverty either from what we saw (we didn’t go to the North or West), and we weren’t asked for money by anyone expect by some five year olds in Mirissa, and no one hassled us to buy anything like you might see in some beach destinations around the world (like necklaces and random stuff etc). Actually, no one was selling anything like that in Sri Lanka so it was nice to be able to walk down a street or beach without having to say no a million times. It was also very safe and we never felt any worry with our big camera’s out or had to lock any of our camera equipment away in our room when we went out.
Why you should visit Sri Lanka
Drone shot of Silent Beach near Tangalle
Sri Lanka is a country which is perfect for the first time traveller, that first time you’re off to explore a new culture, a country that’s also perfect for the oldies who’ve probably seen The Secret Exotic Marigold Hotel and people off on a holiday from work. Here’s the reasons why:
- It’s super easy to get around Sri Lanka. Trains and buses are cheap and easy to find unless you want to make it even easier and get your own driver (more on this later).
- Sri Lanka has something for all – the culture, the hikes, the temples, the beaches, and of course the elephant safaris.
- It’s a chilled out country, you won’t get hassled a lot apart from the tuk tuk drivers but they leave you alone once you say no.
- It’s pretty clean too, we only saw dirty areas along the beach from Mirissa to Unawatuna. The rest of the country we saw was clean. Also the air was very fresh and clean apart from the fumes from the vehicles on the streets, especially in Colombo.
- The food is great and it will be rare to get any sort of tummy bug, but only drink bottled water even when brushing your teeth.
- Sri Lankans are super punctual, if you arrange for a tuk tuk to pick you up at 4am, they will be there on time. We were super impressed with this!
- It’s very cheap, expect to pay around AU$20-AU$30 a night for a decent room, AU$2 for a good local meal of rice & curry. If you go to a tourist restaurant, prices are around AU$10 for a meal. Read to the end of this guide to see how much we actually spent.
Getting around Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is pretty easy to get around in terms of getting trains and buses but although the country is small, it can take a lot longer to travel a short distance on both buses or trains. We got a combination of trains, buses, tuk tuks and private cars around the country.
Kandy – Ella train
Train stations aren’t huge so it’s not difficult to buy tickets and find the platforms. Best of all, the trains are super cheap. It cost us 60R (AU80c) for a two hour journey from Colombo – Kandy. For a comparison, the tuk tuk then charged us 500R (AU$4) for a five minute journey up to our guest house.
Trains are in a class system. Don’t buy 1st class because you can’t open the windows and every single tourist wants to get that open window/door shot. Just make sure you buy the train ticket a day early for Colombo – Kandy because they have designated seats.
The reality of the train from Kandy-Ella
The other trains from Kandy – Ella was just horrendous for us. There weren’t any designated seats so the train guys were just selling loads of tickets to the long line of tourists. There wasn’t any structure or control so as you can imagine, it was chaos. It’s known as one of the highlights visiting the country but for us standing squashed up next to a million other tourists for five hours was horrible. It was honestly one of the worst transport experiences I’ve ever had. I would recommend going in the opposite direction from Ella to Kandy. I noticed those trains weren’t as busy. But someone on Instagram went on the train just a couple weeks after us and had no problem whatsoever in finding a seat and they said it wasn’t busy.
But I have a good tip when it comes to the trains – if the train is busy, move into the aisle of the seating area, don’t bother to stand around the doors because that’s where we went wrong. The door area is just jammed packed. You’re more likely to get a seat by standing in the aisle instead in the hope someone gets off before you do.
I found buses actually better than trains. I know other tourists talked about how mental the bus drivers are and to be honest, when we were in tuk tuks or cars and we had buses flying towards us, it did seem scary but we had no problem in the bus ourselves. Best of all, the bus guy always gave us a seat so we never had to stand. Buses are also super cheap too. We paid 100R from Kandy – Dambulla which was 1.5 hour journey.
Tuk TuksI found the tuk tuk drivers quite exhausting. You always have to negotiate the price because it’s like they just look at you and test to see how much you’ll pay. We constantly had to do the OK, fine, we’ll go to someone else, then start walking away until they came running after us to agree on the price.
You’ll also get asked the three standard questions on every single tuk tuk ride you take:
- Where are you from?
- How long are you in Sri Lanka / this town?
- What are your plans, do you want a driver for tomorrow?
I also found tuk tuk drivers to be really nice in Tangalle and Hiriketiya but only in these places. Also, it turned out that none of the tuk tuk drivers can read maps at all, so if you show them your google maps, and they look at you funny, it’s just because they can’t read it. Best thing to do is just direct them along the way. Mention landmarks or places that are near that they might have heard of, then direct them on how many metres away and whether left, right or straight on.
Renting your own tuk tuk
Tuk tuk fun in Tangalle
I also found out during our time in Sri Lanka that you can actually rent your own tuk tuk and drive around Sri Lanka yourself. To me this sounded awesome but the reality looked a lot more scarier. People are a bit psycho on the roads and over take constantly, even if there is traffic coming the other way. See here for more information.
Hire a private car
This is the one thing I would have done different in the trip was hire a private driver from Colombo until we got to Ella. Many people do this and we met one couple who hired a diver for a week and paid US$200. To me, that sounds pretty good. The only catch is, you might have to pay for their accommodation which is a lot less than your own at like $12 a night if the guest house or hotel doesn’t give them somewhere free to stay (many do this).
The perks of hiring a driver is many people have told me that they became friends with them, that the driver took them to some amazing off the beaten places that would be so unique to that person on their holiday. Sometimes I’m a bit sceptic about these oh the driver took me to an off the beaten place kind of story because I wonder if there was a random tourist shop that magically appeared at the place or some sort of scam involved but from what I was told, nope, they just got taken to some cool places.
You can hire a car at the airport or your guest house can organise one for you at any part of your trip. You don’t necessarily need to arrange a driver from Colombo.
I was also told about the app called pick.me. It’s basically Sri Lanka’s version to Uber and is super cheap. You can pick the quality of car and it’s a great app to use between the major cities, so like between Colombo – Dambulla for example. I definitely wish we used this as it looked amazing!
Internet and mobile plans
When we came out of arrivals at Colombo airport, a random guy sent us to Mobitel to get our SIM cards. We also had a look at Dialog but Mobitel seemed to do the best deal for us as we had planned to be in the country for a month and wanted loads of data in case the wifi didn’t work in places. We learnt later on that Dialog is the best company to go with.
7GB day time
8GB night time
20 minutes of local calls
100 minutes of local calls
100 minutes of international calls
To be honest, wifi and mobile data was really good in Sri Lanka and it was much better than in Australia so we were more than happy with it.
Amazing breakfast at Villa Eden Paradise, Ella
The food in Sri Lanka is great at first and it’s always huge! The fresh fruit, the rice & curry dishes, it’s all great but that’s pretty much it. You’ll hear Beethoven’s Fur Elise blasting out on the streets everywhere and you’ll find yourself singing along. I initially thought it was an ice cream van as it has that similar sound but it’s actually a bakery van. Items range from samosas, loaves of bread and other Sri Lankan pastries which are super cheap (20R each) and delicious.The bakery vans will stop for you anywhere. The food is cheap and awesome!
You’ll also be able to buy food on the train which are a range of the pastries and are from what we found won’t give you any stomach problems. I was always weary of locals selling food on trains in other countries but have had no problems in Sri Lanka.Local food on the trains is absolutely fine and delicious too!
If you need to pop to a shop to buy anything to cook for yourself (if you’re lucky to have a kitchen) then go to Food City. It’s a westernised supermarket found in every city.
You’ll find many Western style restaurants in the tourist areas. The best western food was in Mirissa although you’re looking at between 1000R-1600R for a dish (around AU$15). We ate mainly at local places for like 200R (under AU$2) for a huge rice & curry and it was always much better than in the tourist restuarants and then splashed out more cash towards the end along the beaches.
Breakfast was included in most of the places we stayed in and a Sri Lankan breakfast is not only massive but really good. The best breakfast we had was at Villa Eden Paradise in Ella. You’ll get a big pot of tea, pancakes (I loved Sri Lankan pancakes!), roti and curry, egg any way you want, toast, fruit plate, and papaya juice.
Yoga in Hiriketiya
We found a good few yoga places along the beach towns in Sri Lanka mostly offering up yoga twice a day at 8am and 4:30pm. We found one in Medaketiya (Tangalle), three in Hiriketiya (we went to one and loved it) and loads in Mirissa.
One of the highlights of visiting Sri Lanka is to go on an elephant safari. We actually didn’t go on one because we’ve already been on one in the Masai Mara in Kenya, we just thought it wouldn’t match up and we’d be spending the whole time comparing it. Obviously if I hadn’t seen elephants before in the wild, I would have 100% done it.
Here’s what I learnt:
Yala is the most popular National Park to see them although the busiest too. We spoke to one couple who said that there were 50 trucks behind them all waiting to get into the park when it opened. They said it wasn’t too bad when they got in there and even saw 2 leopards as well.
Udadwale – this is another popular park to see the elephants and is usually done after people have visited Ella. I know this is a really busy park but I can’t provide any more info on it as we didn’t meet a lot of people who went there.
Minneriya (near Dambulla) – There’s another national park near Dambulla and we met a girl in Maldives who told us that she went there and it was amazing with hardly any other tourists because most go to the two above. We were going to go and it would have cost us only US$30 each for the entrance fee.
Pinnawala – Be careful of this park. Lonely Planet mentions how the elephants are mistreated here and I’ve read a few posts on it too. We even saw an elephant chained up at a bizarre elephant ride place next to Sigiyria Rock which was upsetting. I have no idea why tourists think it’s a good idea to go on elephant rides.
Elephant Freedom Project – If you want to get up close to the elephants and give them a bath whilst still be ethical and not going for an elephant ride then check out the Elephant Freedom Project. If I’d known about this place before, I would have probably checked it out.
To be honest, we only found two beaches in Sri Lanka that we really liked. The others we saw were either filled with litter, busy with tourists or not swimmable due to the waves. Living in Australia didn’t help as you can’t even compare the beaches. We loved Hiriketiya in Dikwella and Silent Beach in Tangalle the most.
Here’s a tip – Mirissa was packed, and had at least 1,000 people on there when we went. Up the coast from Mirissa towards Unawatuna, the majority of beaches are right next to the busy main road so don’t think they will be secluded. Instagrammers have a habit at making beaches and places look much better than they really are. Speaking of, the famous rope swing is on Dalawella beach near Unawatuna but we didn’t visit it.
Well known beaches include:
- Tangalle – quiet beach
- Silent Beach – our second favourite beach!
- Dikwella and Hiriketiya – good for beginner surfers and our favourite beach
- Mirissa – busy tourist beach
- Weligama – good for beginner surfers
- Unawatuna – mixed bag but better vibe than Mirissa
- Hikkaduwa – where Sri Lanka’s top nightclubs are
- Bentota – busiest beach near Colombo, I think it has more of a local vibe
- Aragum Bay – backpacker beach for surfing but only go in season
- Casuarina Beach in Jaffna
Our 3 Week Itinerary
So, I’m going to share with you everything we did in Sri Lanka, what we would have done differently and other places we wished we went to. Then you’ll find out how much we spent in three weeks. We actually did the very much standard tourist route. There were loads of places we would have gone to if we were feeling it more and of course if the weather was better.
And, I’ve also written more detailed posts about everywhere we went to. You’ll find them in the Read more links below!
Day 1 – 2: One night in Colombo
Where did we stay: ACA B&B
Highlights: Galle Face Hotel
Most tourists stay in Negombo which is a little tourist area just 15 minutes away from the airport. This is perfect place to stay in on the way out of Sri Lanka as by that point you won’t want to be stuck in traffic to catch your flight. It’s also a beach area but don’t be fooled, the beach was dirty and you wouldn’t want to sit on it no matter how much of a last bit of tanning you want to do.
We spent the first night in Colombo which is an hour from the airport. It cost us 3000R for a cab which is loads but I prepared for us to be ripped off when we first arrived.
Colombo is hectic and the air is polluted and hot. But we found the Galle Face Hotel and spent the afternoon admiring the history and beauty of it. I’m glad we stayed in Colombo because we were able to sort out our train tickets to Kandy for the next day.
Day 2 – 5: Kandy
Where did we stay: Kandy Waters
Highlights: Buddha’s Tooth Relic, Helga’s Folly
Quick summary: We spent too long here, it’s only worth a night’s stay. It’s a beautiful city but we didn’t meet another traveller that liked it. To us, there was nothing exciting about this city although I loved visiting Helga’s Folly, an amazing hotel.
What we wished we did: Go to the botanic gardens as well.
Where did we stay: Sundaras Resort & Spa
Highlights: Sigiyria Rock, Pidurangala Rock, Dambulla Cave Temples
Quick Summary: We spent two nights at a resort which was a little haven for us and spent one morning climbing the Pidurangala rock before going to see the cave temples which were amazing but over crowded. Go see the temples as soon as it opens in the morning to avoid the crowds.
What we wish we had done: spent 1 night there instead. I also wished we just went up to the very north from here to Jaffna. It’s one of those places I really wanted to see because it’s only been open to tourists in the last few years since the war ended. It still makes me wonder what it would have been like and I do regret it now.
How we got there: by bus to Kandy, then the dreaded train
Where did we stay: Charlie’s Place
Highlights: Known as Little England, tea plantations, waterfalls, Horton Plains National Park, hikes and afternoon tea
Quick Summary: Nuwara Eliya was the first town we visited which was cold and a sigh of relief seeing as we had been in the heat for a while. It’s 2000 metres above sea level and we loved going for afternoon tea, and although we didn’t get to see the waterfalls I wanted to, the tea plantations were beautiful.
What we wish we had done: I wish the weather was better (it rained a lot), got a better driver to take us to the waterfalls we actually wanted to visit and also went to Horton Plains.
We would have also stopped at Hatton before Nuwara Eliya to climb Adam’s Peak but the weather was bad and we heard from others that when they eventually climbed the 5,000 steps which took four hours to the top to reach sunrise, they couldn’t actually see anything but fog.
Day 9 – 11: Ella
Where did we stay: Villa Eden Paradise
Highlights: Lots of hikes like Little Adam’s Peak, Ella Rock and visiting the Nine Arches Bridge
Quick Summary: When we got to Ella it was raining so we spent the first day in a Westernised restaurant. The next day we went on a loop hike from the town to Little Adam’s Peak (took 1 hour) then through some tea plantations and over to the famous Nine Arches Bridge (took another 20 minutes) before catching a pricey tuk tuk back.
What we wish we had done: I wish we had stayed longer and done more hikes. Ella is a really beautiful place and chilled out compared to the other towns we visited previously. There were also loads of waterfalls I wanted to visit but because our driver in Nuwara Eliya has shattered my heart, I felt defeated at attempting to see anymore.
I also wished we went and stayed at the Kumbuk River Eco Lodge as staying in a Troy like Elephant would have been incredible.
Day 11-14: Tangalle
How did we get there: because we found the train rides so exhausting and a bit on the traumatic side, we paid a hefty 9,000R and hired out a private car to drive us 3 hours to the beach town of Tangalle.
Where did we stay: The Mars Hotel
Highlights: Goyambokka Beach, Silent Beach
Quick Summary: There’s a good mix of Sri Lankan culture and holiday vibes in the quieter Tangalle. One of the best beaches we saw in Sri Lanka was Silent Beach. It had the clearest water, barely any tourists (a rarity for the time of the year we visited) and it was stunning.
What we wish we had done: We would have stayed in Mediketiya as it’s where the tourist area was but there wasn’t a lot of vibe going on. I am glad we went to Tangalle purely to find Silent Beach.
Day 14-16: Rekawa
How did we get there: 20 minute tuk tuk ride east of Tangalle
Where did we stay: The only guesthouse I can’t remember the name of
Highlights: Canoe trip around the lagoon and turtle hatching
Quick Summary: I couldn’t believe how different it felt to only go 20 minutes out of the city to stay in the Sri Lankan countryside in the peace and quiet, surrounded by secluded beaches. Unfortunately it went all a bit wrong for me there when I stepped on a sea urchin and had to go to hospital. We therefore didn’t get to do much but we did manage to see the turtle hatching.
What we wish we did: I honestly wish we didn’t bother wasting our time at this place and wish we just left Tangalle for Dikwella instead. The turtle hatching wasn’t as exciting as you think it would be and a friend said a turtle came right up to her restaurant on Mirissa beach to hatch there instead.
How did we get there: We got a tuk tuk from Rekawa straight to Dikwella which took an hour and cost us 1800R. We could have spent 700R on a tuk tuk to Dikwella, then got the local bus from there.
Highlights: Hiriketiya Beach, learning to surf, yoga, co-working space
Quick Summary: Dikwella and Hiriketiya beach are right next to each other and in walking distance. We stayed on Dikwella beach for two nights and then after looking around, we found a lovely homestay for AU$20 a night right next to Hiriketiya beach. For us, Hiriketiya had by far the best beach in the whole of Sri Lanka. It was a beautiful bay and we just fell in love with it immediately. We also checked out Talalla beach as well which reminded us of a big Aussie beach. It was lovely but not somewhere we would spend more than a day at.
What we wish we did: I wish we just spent most of our time in Sri Lanka at this beach because it was just gorgeous and I actually got upset when we had to leave.
Day 20-23: Mirissa
How did we get there: We spent 2000R on a tuk tuk to drive us 1 hour to Mirissa.
Where did we stay: Moon Glow Guest house
Highlights: Whale watching, turtle hatching, baby turtles, more turtles, western food (and smoothie bowls!!), nightlife scene, stilt fishermen (although it seemed to look fake and just set up for tourists to take a photo)
Quick Summary: To be honest we were horrified when we arrived in Mirissa. The beach was absolutely packed full of at least 1,000 tourists all sat on sunloungers and we thought we’d been transported to Magaluf, Spain. It was full of the two week holiday makers and wasn’t our scene at all. Although we embraced it, found ourselves a great little local restruarant just off the beach and of course splashed out as well and had some great western food too. We also loved the visit to the Blue Whales with Raja & The Whales. I also found an awesome Aussie/Sri Lankan cafe on Airbnb (as they also had rooms) serving up actual decent smoothie bowls. When you’re in the heat, you need something to cool you down and I was over eating ice cream, so this was a blessing.
What we wish we did: I would have spent one night in Mirissa purely to go there, get a smoothie bowl and some western food, then see the Blue Whales in the morning before getting out of the what would have once been a gorgeous beach town and I would have stayed in Unawatuna instead. I would have also visited Galle up there too as well as the famous rope swing on Dalawella beach. I also wish I went to Hikkaduwa to see the turtles on the beach too.
How did we get there: we got a tuk tuk from Mirissa to Weligama train station for 500R, then the train to Colombo Fort Station. We then paid a tuk tuk 3000R to take us on an hour and a half journey to Negombo.
Where did we stay: Sri Lankan Negombo Lighthouse
Highlights: No highlights on this one as we were flying out.
Quick Summary: Negombo is a bit of a funny place. It’s like a little tourist haven from the craziness of Colombo even if it’s over an hour’s journey away. It’s a good spot to stay for your flight out of Sri Lanka. We stayed at a lovely new guest house too which was the best value for the standard of room we had ever seen in Sri Lanka AU$31.
What we wish we had done: We should have just got the train from Colombo Fort to Negombo but we couldn’t be bothered to wait an hour.
How much did we spend?
In total we spent AU$1174 each for 24 days which worked out as AU$49 (approx £25) a day each. We didn’t actually pay for any tours except for the whales and the driver to take us to the tea factory and waterfall. Most of our money went on transport towards the second half of the trip. The train ride to Ella broke me and I now wish I didn’t spend so much on tuk tuks and just caught the bus along the coast. You can easily get the daily rate down to about $30 a day if you got a room for $20 and just ate locally for about $10 a day.
Have you read my other guide yet about how we backpacked the Maldives? If you didn’t know, it’s super cheap to get to from Sri Lanka too!