2 WEEK ITINERARY
If you are planning to visit Sri Lanka, you are in for a treat. Formerly known as Ceylon, the small island, lying in the Indian Ocean is incredibly diverse. During our two weeks there we experienced ancient ruins and stunning Buddist temples in the country’s cultural triangle, we hiked mountain tops, saw leopards during a safari excursion and relaxed on pristine beaches - sipping coconut water and eating delicious food the entire time. Ready to go? Here is our recommended two-week itinerary to experience the best this country has to offer.
DAY 1: Colombo to Polonnaruwa
We landed in Colombo airport, and even though we had just spent over 10 hours in a plane, we immediately got in a taxi and headed to Polonnaruwa. The journey was long and arduous, but it is not a decision we regret as it meant we were able to wake up and explore Polonnaruwa straight away.
We used the airport’s taxi service and paid around £60 for the 4h30 min journey. The driver was kind and made a few stops for breaks along the way.
Getting a taxi in Sri Lanka proved to be both efficient and inexpensive. It is definitely easier than trying to understand bus routes and costs around £10 per hour. Taxi drivers were reliable and kind in our experience and were happy to wait for us when visiting a place or eating at a restaurant on the way. To ensure that we had fair prices that required little negotiating we usually asked the hotels we stayed at to book the taxis for us. It also ensured we were dropped off or picked up from the right place!
DAY 2: Polonnaruwa
The next morning after a quick breakfast we took a tuk-tuk and headed early to the city to avoid the heat. There, we hired bikes to get around the ancient ruins of Polonnaruwa as the complex is really huge and takes several hours to get around.
Some 800 years ago, Polonnaruwa was a royal capital where the country’s kings ruled around the 11th Century A.D and much evidence remains of the city’s old grandeur and glory. Highlights for us were the white pagoda and the headless buddha.
Where to stay: We stayed at the Lake Hotel and woke up to the pleasant view of the misty lake, where birds and buffalos were grazing. After a hot day visiting the ancient city the pool provided a welcome respite. We experienced our first taste of Sri Lanka as we tucked into the hotel's delicious buffet spread for dinner. The lentil dhal was one of the nicest ones we tried during our trip.
DAY 3: Lion's Rock - Dambulla Caves - Kandy
Starting our day early, we jumped in a taxi hired through our hotel and left Polonnaruwa, heading to Kandy, and stopping through Sigiriya and Dambulla along the way.
An hour or so’s drive south from Polonnaruwa lies Sigirya, also known as Lion’s rock. Once you arrive, you will be greeted by a lush green garden and standing tall at the far end, an enormous block of stone, that looks like it had been placed there by some invisible force. It actually served as the base for the Sultan’s palace, as he was escaping from his brother, that he had toppled. Quite the story there. Be prepared for a steep and hot climb up the narrow stairs. (At this point we should say that you might want to avoid this if you are scared of heights. We saw quite a few people that looked rather petrified). Once you reach the top, you are nevertheless rewarded with a magnificent view that stretches far away. We can see why it was a good hiding place for the king, although you will not see any of the palace remaining.
Our second stop for the day was the Dambulla Cave Temples, 20 minutes away from Sigiriya, which became a personal favourite. After a short climb up a few stairs, you enter through a gate into a courtyard, flanked by the side of a steep mountain. There you can walk into the five different caves which are lavishly decorated. The walls and ceilings were entirely covered in red and white illustrations, first created here over 2000 years ago, while the rooms were filled with around 150 golden Buddha statues.
We finished the day in Kandy after 2 more hours of driving. This journey was made effortless as it was done with one driver the whole way who kindly waited for us whilst we visited the sights.
DAY 4-5: Kandy
After a relaxing start to the day with a long breakfast of tea and a variety of Sri Lankan pastries at the Bake House, we headed to the town’s main attraction: the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. As the name suggests, it hosts the tooth of prince Siddhartha Gautama himself and is therefore of huge importance to the country’s largely Buddhist population. You won’t actually see the tooth in the temple, as it is covered by a golden casket. Nevertheless, you can learn about its story - quite a journey - and experience the atmosphere as many worshipers come there to pray.
If you prefer to visit the temple alone, beware of the many guides stationed outside the temple. They will start chatting with you as you buy your ticket, will show you around and ask for money at the end. If you are happy to go along with it, you shouldn't pay more than 600 to 800 rupees and let them know at the start.
Pack some socks with you as you will need to remove your shoes to enter the temple and the pathways outside become really hot in the sun! You will also need to wear clothes to cover your legs and shoulders to enter the temple.
We then had a memorable meal at the Kandy Muslim Hotel, which despite its name is a small traditional eatery and offers an authentic taste of Sri Lanka. We had a delicious chicken kottu - a classic Sri Lankan dish of chopped up roti, eggs, vegetables and spices.
After a wonderful stroll around Kandy Lake, we took a tuk-tuk and headed to Helga’s Folly, an eccentric and fascinating hotel, for a coffee. The unusual hotel is an attraction in itself, where all the ceilings and walls are covered with paintings and doodles.
The next day we headed to the animated Kandy market and picked up a few short eats for our lunch later. For us, one of the delights of Kandy was its street food. As we roamed the streets of the busy city our senses were assaulted with delicious smells emanating from tiny little metal stands.
We then hopped in a taxi to the Peradeniya Royal Botanical Garden.
Located just outside Kandy, the garden contains more than 4000 different plant species and is a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the city.
For dinner, we went to The Empire Cafe which served a tasty Sri Lankan curry selection amongst western dishes.
Where to stay: We stayed at Viyana Boutique Hotel and had a fantastic experience there, with beautiful rooms & facilities and kind staff.
DAY 6: Kandy - Ella
We headed to Ella the next morning via the popular scenic train ride: a 7 hour journey through beautiful mountain scenery and endless tea plantations. This memorable ride is a must in your Sri Lankan trip and is definitely the best way to get to Ella.
Booking your tickets in advance is advised as this is a sought after train ride. We pre-booked our tickets through the hotel as soon as we arrived in Kandy to make sure we had a spot, but you can also buy them online here. We had 2nd class seats which were comfortable, and not very different from the more expensive first-class seats.
DAY 7-8: Ella
Perched around 1000m above sea level Ella is a tiny mountain village with great scenery.
On our first day there we headed early to Little Adam’s Peak. The easy 2h hike passes through lush tea plantations before rewarding you with stunning views over the Sri Lankan countryside. After our efforts, we went to La Ella Breeze for lunch and were rewarded with some of the tastiest Kottu roti we had in Sri Lanka, and also some of the spiciest black pork curry! During the afternoon we went to visit the surrounding tea plantations and finished our evening at the lively Cafe Chill.
The next morning we hiked Ella Rock, which took around 4 hours and passed through a variety of landscapes, from tea plantations to forest, before ending with beautiful sprawling views of the region.
Later in the afternoon, we took a brilliant cooking class at Matey Hut which ended up being one of the highlights of our trip. We learnt how to recreate a variety of delicious Sri Lankan vegetable curries, as well as coconut rotis and sambal. We still enjoy making these easy and healthy meals today.