Sri Lanka Itinerary Essentials: A First Timer’s Guide to Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is a beautiful, teardrop shaped island off the Southern tip of India that has only recently been rediscovered by tourists and travellers. Having recovered from a long civil war and devastation from the 2004 tsunami, the tourist industry is now booming again in this incredible country. I wanted to highlight some of the essential info and best bits for any first time travellers planning their Sri Lanka itinerary!
Know Before You Go
Regardless of how long you plan to stay, you’ll need a visa to enter Sri Lanka! Head to the Electronic Travel Authorisation site to find out exactly what you need to do & submit your application.
The visa isn’t free and the price varies on the nature of your trip: business or tourism.
According the site you can apply and pay for your visa on arrival in Colombo, but it’s cheaper to do so online in advance.
Here’s the table of prices from the site:
Unfortunately you’ll need a couple of jabs for Sri Lanka!
Check it out first with your GP or pharmacy, but the main ones are: Typhoid, Hepatitis A, DTP (1 injection for Diphtheria, Tetanus and Poliomyelitis) & MMR (Measles Mumps and Rubella).
You can also opt for the Rabies jabs too.
For up to date vaccination advice, check out Fit for Travel, which will tell you everything you need to know about health precautions for any country around the world.
Currency: Sri Lanka Rupee (LKR)
Approx rate of exchange:
- GBP: £1 = 210 r
- USD: $1 = 155 r
- EUR: €1 = 190 r
Religion: Predominantly Buddhist, with smaller numbers of Muslims, Hindus and Christians.
Language: Sinhala, Tamil and English.
Best Time to Go
Sri Lanka has two different monsoon seasons, which impacts the best time to visit.
For South, West and Hill country, go between December and March; for the East coast, go from April/May to September. The temperature remains fairly consistent due to its proximity to the equator.
Here’s Rough Guide’s full piece about the best time to visit: https://www.roughguides.com/destinations/asia/sri-lanka/when-to-go/
Here are my picks of places that should be on anyone's Sri Lanka itinerary!
Sri Lanka’s main airport (Bandaranaike International) is in Colombo, so it’s more than likely that you’ll land in the capital city anyway upon arrival.
That’s no bad thing.
Colombo is a cool, bustling place, heaving with activity at all times and well worth exploring.
The remnants of Sri Lanka’s colonial past (it was part of the British Commonwealth until 1972) are evident in many of the attractions in the city.
For instance, there’s the old 17th Century Dutch period museum, Dutch Hospital (now a shopping centre), the Victoria Park (now Viharamahadevi Park) and the National Museum.
Other sights worth seeing are the Federation of Self-employees Market and Galle Face Green, the sandy promenade along Colombo’s impressive coastline. The beach and sea make for a lovely backdrop to the city.
If you’re planning on travelling using public transport, Colombo’s train station and bus stop make it a prime location from which to explore the rest of the country.
On the South Eastern side of the country is Aragum Bay, a stunning stretch of sandy beach and popular tourist stop.
Aragum Bay is definitely a touristy destination. So, for people after a taste of authentic Sri Lanka, it might not be up your street.
However, it’s no Magaluf and its natural beauty and chilled out beach vibes make it a tropical paradise that provides a great location to let your hair down.
Golden sands are lined with beach bars, restaurants and cafes; the waves of the Indian Ocean make it a great place to surf too and people come from all over the ride the waves here.
Also known as the 8th wonder of the world, Sigiriya Rock is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
It’s a marvel to behold: a giant rock plateau formed from the magma of an extinct volcano, rising 200m above the surrounding jungle, dominating the area.
You navigate your way up and along the staircases and walkways (some far more precarious than others) of the rock, passing frescos of almost 1000 years of age as well as a ‘mirror wall’ that was once so polished the Kings could see their faces.
You eventually get to the top, from where the view of the surrounding area is breathtaking. Explore the ancient ruins and grounds that once stood; gaze out over expanses of jungle to the horizon all around.
It’s an incredible place to be.
But at the equivalent of $30 for admission (paid in rupees), it isn’t a cheap stop for a budget traveller. However, in my opinion it’s well worth it, despite having to share the space with reams of other tourists.
When else will you get to experience and explore a place like this?!
I have a lot of love for Trincomolee. It’s another stunning beach location, this time on the North Eastern side of Sri Lanka.
Trincomolee was ravaged by the Tsunami in 2004 and when I was there in 2013, it felt like an undiscovered treasure. It was the archetypal paradise beach: white sands as far as the eye could see and turquoise blue waters stretching to the horizon, with barely another soul in sight.
As tourism has massively increased in Sri Lanka since my time there, I can imagine it being slightly busier these days.
However, please don’t let that idea put you off.
There’s a host of awe inspiring things to do in Trincomolee, such as dolphin and whale watching (go at sunrise!), reef swimming with sharks and turtles around Pigeon Island, lazing on white sands...
It’s a special place.
A large town in central Sri Lanka, Kandy is well known for its beautiful surroundings, ancient temples and picturesque central Lake.
Visit the sacred Buddhist ‘Temple of the Tooth’, so named because it houses the relic of Buddha’s tooth (remember to cover your knees and shoulders out of respect), stroll around the outside of scenic Bogambara Lake (Kandy Lake), visit Memorial Garden, or simply explore the town.
A popular thing to do from Kandy is to take the train to the next place on this list- Ella.
The train journey takes you through stunning scenery, running along hillsides through bright greens of tea country and showing off the best of Sri Lanka’s landscapes.
Ella is a tiny town in the central-south-east area of Sri Lanka- the sort of place you intend to go for a day and stay for a week.
It’s simply another beautiful part of Sri Lanka, but with a very distinctive feel.
Set quite high up in tea country, the greens of the area make it visually stunning; rolling hills offer amazing views over the land. The atmosphere of Ella is friendly and chilled out, with a host of laid back bars, restaurants and cafes catering for the travellers who roll in droves through the area.
There’s plenty to do in Ella too.
You could climb Little Adam’s Peak (I’ll get to the actual Adam’s peak in a second!), take a natural shower in Ravana Falls (a popular waterfall for bathing among travellers and locals alike), or walk along the rails of the 99 foot high, Nine Arch Bridge.
Despite its small size, you aren’t short of things to do in Ella.
Mirissa and Unawatuna
On the South Western side of Sri Lanka are another two beachside towns that are well worth a visit.
Golden sands abound, as do the beachside bars and cafes. As tourism increases these places are apparently becoming ever more commercialised and Westernised. However, they’re perfect for more chilled vibes and nights out next to the sea.
It’s not all about the beach though. The beautiful, white Japanese Peace Pagoda is in Unawatuna and provides stunning 360 degree views over the surrounding area. This is the perfect spot to watch the sunset and take a step back from the buzz of the beach.
Galle is just next door to Unawatuna too and well worth exploring. It’s an old fortified colonial town with origins going all the way back to the Portuguese in early 16th Century.
Walk the walls of Galle fort, enjoying the colonial architecture situated on the doorstep of the swathes of golden sands.
This is also a great area to see Sri Lanka’s famed stilt fisherman. Perched at the top of Bamboo poles, these amazing guys catch small fish swimming in the clear waters below them.
Haputale and Lipton’s Seat
In a similar region in Sri Lanka to Ella (about an hour’s drive South), is one of my favourite places: Haputale.
Haputale is situated relatively high up in the hill country of Sri Lanka, the air feels wonderfully fresh here and the night skies are sublime; on a clear day you’re meant to be able to see all the way to the South Coast.
You feel high (in terms of altitude...) in Haputale: the land falls away on either side of the ridge its situated on, which creates views of immense beauty, overlooking wide open expanses all the way to the horizon.
High up in the tea country of Haputale is Lipton’s seat, so called as this was where Sir Thomas Lipton (of Lipton’s tea) sat to overlook his tea plantations. He chose a good spot.
Get a ride to up top of the hill and sit in the peace and quiet, overlooking the vast swathes of land (and tea) that stretch out before you; you can even buy a cup of tea while you’re up there!
After you’ve taken in the view, go for a walk through the plantations; befriend the locals work in the tea fields and visit the tea factory to learn just how the tea is picked and produced.
Adam’s Peak (Sri Pada)
In central Sri Lanka lies Adam’s Peak, the country’s 5th highest mountain.
This impressive 2243m high conical mountain has been a pilgrimage site for over 1,000 years.
Sri Pada means ‘sacred foot’ due to a foot shaped rock formation near the summit, hailed to be the footstep of Buddha or Shiva, depending on your religion. It is also said to be the place where Adam (of Adam and Eve) first stepped from heaven to Earth.
It’s easy to see why this mountain could become associated with godly interpretations. There’s something profound about it.
To avoid cloud cover, it is best summited on a clear day. Wake at 3am to make the climb, up thousands of steps, in time for sunrise.
When you’re finally at the top, admire the small temple that’s there (maintained throughout the year by monks), and gaze out over the mountains and hills that rise and fall all around you, interspersed with expanses of mist and cloud that extend away to the horizon.
Adam’s peak is another must do for any Sri Lanka trip.
Towards the North of the country is Anuradhapura, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the World and famous for the ancient Sri Lankan ruins that are situated there.
It’s one of eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka and a sacred place for Buddhists, with monasteries absolutely everywhere.
The Great Stupa (Ruwanwelisaya Stupa) is the second highest in Anuradhapura (91.4m high; 290m circumference) and was commissioned in 161BC. That’s pretty flipping old and considering it’s still used as a place of worship, mightily impressive.
Another ancient, sacred must see here is the Bodhi tree, which was planted in 288BC. That’s an old tree- the oldest in the world, in fact. This fig tree, grown from the tree under which Buddha achieved enlightenment, is a holy place, where people worship every day of the year.
For a remarkable glimpse into an ancient civilisation, Anuradhapura is not to be missed.
And that brings to a close my suggestions for your Sri Lanka travel itinerary!
As with my idea for things to do on New Zealand's North and South Islands, this is absolutely not a complete list- there’s a tonne of other incredible things to do and places to visit in this amazing country.
However, hit any or all of these spots and I reckon your trip to Sri Lanka is guaranteed to be that bit better.
If you’re off to Sri Lanka I’m incredibly jealous- it’s one of my favourite places in the world. Have an amazing trip and enjoy all that this beautiful country has to offer.