From rainforests to tropical beaches, Buddhist and Hindu temples, breath-taking tea plantations, and bountiful wildlife, Sri Lanka travel promises a world of beauty and adventure. When we saw flights from South Korea to Sri Lanka for Christmas vacation for $340 using Skyscanner, we jumped on the opportunity to visit this stunning teardrop-shaped island. Even if we only have one week.
One week is not a long time to spend in a country, even one as small as Sri Lanka. For our week of Sri Lanka travel over the winter holiday, we wanted to make sure we saw as much of the country as we could. Starting from our home-base on Jeju Island in South Korea, we first flew to Seoul, then to Shanghai, and finally to Sri Lanka. Our Sri Lanka itinerary took us from:
And all in about one week! We’re living proof that it can be done, and on a dime, at that!
- 1 Sri Lanka 8-Day Itinerary
- 2 Day 1: Start with Jaffna and the north (optional*)
- 3 *Day 1: Alternatively
- 4 Day 2: Anuradhapura to Dambulla
- 5 Day 3: Dambulla/Sigiriya to Kandy
- 6 Day 4: Kandy
- 7 Day 5: Kandy to Ella to Tissamaharama
- 8 Day 6: Tissa to Yala to Mirissa
- 9 Day 7: Mirissa to Colombo
- 10 Day 8: Colombo and Departure
- 11 Like this post?
- 12 You Might Also Appreciate…
- 13 Do you have any of your own Sri Lanka travel suggestions?
Sri Lanka 8-Day Itinerary
If you’ve only got a week or so in the country, here’s our Sri Lanka travel itinerary that you can use to help plan your trip. Keep in mind, this itinerary sacrifices time spent in any one location and takes advantage of the plentiful city bus (costing about $1 for a long-distance ride) and train lines (prices vary by class, but the most you’ll probably pay is $12 for first class). And if luxury is what you’re looking for, look somewhere else! This itinerary is nonstop, and will allow you to see as much of the country as you can with little time and money. But as we had little more than our TETON 60L Internal Frame Backpack, our Canon Rebel (now upgraded to a Canon 80D), and a GoPro for good measure, we were most certainly moving like backpackers!
Day 1: Start with Jaffna and the north (optional*)
Originally, we intended to take a night train from Colombo shortly after our arrival to Jaffna, at the northern tip of the island. Unfortunately, this didn’t work out for us due to flight delays, but we still think it’s a good idea to start your Sri Lanka travel in the north.
If your flight is arriving before 6-7 PM, consider taking the 8:30 PM train from Colombo Fort Station to Jaffna. It will arrive in Jaffna at about 5:10 AM on Day 2, saving you money as you won’t have to book a hotel room for that first night. This will also save you valuable time as the train travels overnight, taking advantage of otherwise unproductive time during the night.
Refer to the Sri Lanka Railways website for help in planning your train legs.
When you get to Jaffna on Day 2 you can spend some time exploring, digging into some pol sambol (a spiced coconut dish) or visiting a service at the Nallur Kandaswamy Hindu temple. You won’t need more than a few hours, as you’ll soon head to the next destination: the ancient city of Anuradhapura.
*Day 1: Alternatively
|Enjoy Colombo for the night. Stay at a cheap place located close to the train station, such as the City Motel, and on Day 2 take a train to Anuradhapura before the break of dawn (like we did).|
Day 1: Accommodation: Night train to Jaffna (or stay in Colombo)
Day 2: Anuradhapura to Dambulla
If you want to go to Jaffna, plan to spend a few hours exploring the city, perhaps visiting a Hindu temple. After you’ve spent some time in Jaffna, you can take a train to Anuradhapura at about 9:30 AM. The train will arrive in Anuradhapura at around 1:30 PM, which will give you plenty of time to explore the ruins in Anuradhapura.
After arriving in Anuradhapura, you”ll want to get a guide, as the ruins are spread out. To find a guide in Anuradhapura, just walk out the train station and hail a tuktuk driver. You’ll probably be overwhelmed with cab options, but keep your head on and be firm. Haggle as a rule, and establish the price before you step foot in any cab.
You will be offered two “tour” choices: the paid sites (which will require an additional entrance fee), or the free sites (so you’ll only be paying the driver for about 4-5 hours of driving services). Because of our time and budget crunch, we opted for the free sites, but this is definitely a personal choice. Once you decide on which ruins you’ll be taken to and for what price, your driver will take you around. When you’re finished, ask him where to catch a bus to Dambulla. Your driver will take you to the bus and help communicate to the bus driver.
Off you’ll go, and less than 2 hours later, you’ll be in Dambulla, where you can stretch your legs out with a Lion Beer in hand and spend the night before your next leg of Sri Lanka travel.
Day 2 Accommodation: (Dambulla) Relax Guesthouse, Dambulla: 265/1, 3rd Lane,Yapagama Side, Dambulla, Sri Lanka 21100
Day 3: Dambulla/Sigiriya to Kandy
Sigiriya and the Golden Temple/Cave Temple are the top attractions if you’re staying in Dambulla.
Headed to Sigiriya? Make sure to watch our Sigiriya videos on YouTube:
Sigiriya Monkeys (NOT FOR THE SQUEAMISH!)
After you return from Sigiriya, you can visit Dambulla’s famous cave temple, the Golden Temple. The best-preserved Sri Lankan cave temple, Dambulla’s Cave Temple boasts paintings that tell the story of the Buddha’s life and his teachings, as well as over 150 statues of the Buddha.
After spending the day in and around Dambulla (maybe try some Kottu, visit a local produce market, or watch some wild elephants in the local trash dump!), you can take an evening bus to Kandy. Kandy is about a 2 hour bus ride from Dambulla.
Day 3 Accommodation: (Kandy) Lakshmi Guesthouse, Kandy: 57 Sarankara Rd, Kandy Central, Kandy, Sri Lanka 20000
Day 4: Kandy
Check out our Sri Lanka travel guide, How to Spend a Day in Kandy, Sri Lanka for our suggestions on the best things to do while visiting the stunning colonial city. You’ll find tips for visiting the sacred Temple of the Tooth with its relic of the tooth of Buddha, and scoring cheap and delicious food like a plate of Sri Lankan curry and rice (with a free refill) for 60 Sri Lankan rupees/$0.41 USD for two people!
If you’d prefer a day trip out of Kandy, the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage isn’t too far, and would definitely be worth the trip if you can squeeze it in. It’s a great place to see elephants, even if they aren’t wild. The orphanage is home to dozens of elephants, forming the largest captive herd of elephants in the world. The best time to see the elephants is when they bathe in the river.
Enjoy your second night in Kandy! The next few days will be very busy!
Day 4 Accommodation: (Kandy) Lakshmi Guesthouse, Kandy: 57 Sarankara Rd, Kandy Central, Kandy, Sri Lanka 20000
Day 5: Kandy to Ella to Tissamaharama
Watch our incredible experience of this train adventure!
Kandy to Ella
This day was by far the longest Sri Lanka travel day, starting with a bright and early morning train from Kandy to Ella. It is very important to go to the station early, as the train will likely sell out. We grabbed a tuktuk and went to the station at about 7 am to wait for tickets to go on sale (we were the second group in line, behind another traveling couple). We were only able to get second class, which has no assigned seating. As this is a packed train, you will likely be standing for a huge chunk of the 7-hour journey!
However, the train ride from Kandy to Ella through the hill and tea country is stunningly beautiful, and we had many friendly Sri Lankans generously share their seats with us for a time. The scenic train ride through small Sri Lankan towns, forest sights and the remarkable tea plantations of Nuwara Eliya makes this ride, hands down, the most stunning train ride we’d ever been on. Standing on this train, you’ll have to get over your sense of “personal space” as you cram your body and bags between other bodies and bags. You’ll have a consistent stream of vendors squeezing past you with baskets and coolers stuffed with salty and sweet snacks for sale, their musical voices ringing through the train cars so packed that people hang out the car door and windows, snapping pictures and whipping their hair in the air. Personally, it was one of our favorite Sri Lanka travel experiences.
When you get to Ella, ask some of the people at the restaurants down the road from the train station how to catch a bus to Tissamaharama. There’s no direct bus to Tissa from Ella, but you can still get there.
Ella to Tissamaharama:
This is how we got from Ella to Tissamaharama.
First, catch a bus to Wellawaya, which is between 1 and 2 hours by bus. The bus ride from Ella to Wellawaya was the most exciting bus ride we’d ever been on, careening wildly down the hills, around hairpin turns past beautiful canyons and waterfalls. Once you get to Wellawaya, you’ll have to wait for the bus to Matara to come. If you’re ever feeling unsure of where you should go, don’t hesitate to ask people where to get the bus. In our experience, people were extremely friendly and helpful, and tried to guide us to the best of their ability. Even if they try to sell you a tuktuk ride, if you’re firm (not rude—there’s a difference) and refuse, most people will still help you. When you finally get on the bus to Matara, tell the ticket-taker that you’re going to Tissa, and they will tell you when to get off the bus. Again, it is about a 1-2 hour ride to your stop. You’ll get off at Weerawila, and from there you should be able to get a tuktuk to wherever you’re staying.
Day 5 Accommodation: (Tissamaharama) Victory Guesthouse, Tissamaharama: 54/1, Halambagaswala Road, Tissamaharama, 82600 Tissamaharama
Day 6: Tissa to Yala to Mirissa
The city of Tissamaharama is the launching point for any safari to Yala National Park, famous for having the highest concentration of leopards in the world.
If you want a safari in Yala to be a part of your Sri Lanka travel, the people working at your guesthouse or hotel should be able to arrange it for you. The owners of the guesthouse we stayed at were kind enough to wait up for us and arrange the safari tour the night before we went. Make sure to bring a good travel camera so you can capture all the animals! At the time, we had our Canon Rebel, but we have since upgraded to the Canon 80D and are in love with it.
We opted for the full-day safari, which ran until about 3 PM. Our guides picked us up at 5 AM so we could get to the park just before sunrise. This was one of the biggest splurges of the trip, but still quite affordable. To learn more about our experience, head on over to our Safari at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka travel guide!
The next step after your safari is to arrange transportation to Mirissa. You could take a bus going to Matara and then pick up a bus to Mirissa if you want, but it was New Year’s Eve for us, and we didn’t want to wait around for a bus. Instead, we hired a tuktuk to drive us, which took 3-4 hours because tuktuks are very slow, and at about $22, it cost significantly more than a bus. Still, we arrived in Mirissa on New Year’s Eve with time to find our next guesthouse, grab dinner and a beer, and then stumbled upon a mind-blowing New Year’s Eve Sri Lanka party taking place on the beach. The entire sprawl of beach was coated with people, bars, DJs, bonfires, floating lanterns, fireworks, sparklers, and streakers—a truly extravagant and (for us) entirely spontaneous end to the year and highlight of our Sri Lanka travel that we will always remember.
Day 6 Accommodation: (Mirissa) Nature Inn, Mirissa: Nushantha Sevana, Uswatta, Udupila, Mirissa Beach, Mirissa, Sri Lanka 0094
Day 7: Mirissa to Colombo
We didn’t spend any time on Mirissa’s big beach aside from New Year’s Eve. Instead, we decided to go to the much more secluded “Secret Beach” that’s just on the other side of the cliffs from the main beach.
The Secret Beach is well worth the effort to get there, and if you’re lucky you can have the entire beach to yourself, like we did! If you want to find it, make sure to check out our Mirissa Secret Beach Sri Lanka travel guide.
To get a bus to Colombo, it’s probably better to head back to Matara, as there are many more buses to Colombo from there. Simply catch a tuktuk to Matara’s bus station, and find a bus to Colombo from there. The owner of our guesthouse was kind enough to drive us there himself, so if you stay with him, he may do the same for you! Ask around at the bus station, and someone will certainly help you find the right bus—just make sure to always confirm with the bus driver when you get on the bus!
Day 7 Accommodation: (Colombo) City Motel, Colombo: 128 Old Moor St, Colombo 01200, Sri Lanka
Day 8: Colombo and Departure
Our flight from Colombo left at 8:20 PM, so we had most of the day to spend in Colombo. You could visit some of Colombo’s Hindu temples (seeing a Hindu temple service in Colombo was actually one of our favorite things on the trip!), spend time at Galle Face Green, or visit the Pettah district’s busy market.
Snag some last minute fresh-squeezed maracuya (passion fruit) juices for 50 cents at a juice stall, and hold back the tears as you prepare to say goodbye to this lovely country!
We left for the airport via tuktuk 4 hours before our flight (we were a bit traumatized from our recent flight mishaps), to be certain that we would avoid any last-minute stress, and that ride shouldn’t cost you more than $30-40.
So there you have it: our whirlwind Sri Lanka travel week. Ideally, you would want to have more than a week for your own Sri Lanka travel, but we feel that our itinerary covers many of Sri Lanka’s regions, and is entirely doable, exciting, and rewarding. The only part of our initial trip plans that didn’t work out was going to Jaffna, but everything else worked out almost perfectly. If you want to see as much of Sri Lanka as possible in a week, we hope that our itinerary is helpful to you!
Planning your own trip itinerary? Here’s a super helpful post for exporting your google map itinerary to your phone so you can use it offline!
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Do you have any of your own Sri Lanka travel suggestions?
Let us know in a comment below!