How long DO YOU NEED TO visit Sri Lanka?
We recommend you to stay in Sri Lanka at least 2 weeks, and if you have the opportunity even 3 weeks or more! In two weeks, you can make the cultural center (Anuradhapura, Polonnawura, Sigiriya), then go to the mountains and tea plantations (Nuwara Eliya, Ella), do rafting in Kitulgala, then visit the national parks to see wild animals (Yala National Park) and end up at the beach for a few days of relaxation on the West and South coast of the country (Tangalle, Mirissa, Unawattuna, Hikkaduwa). And do not miss the big cities Colombo, Kandy or Galle! If you have more than 2 weeks, you can also go to the north and east which started to be more open to tourism in the last few years (these places were more affected by the war which ended in 2009).
UPDATE (April 2015): I spent a week on the east coast near Trincomalee, and it was gorgeous, actually very few tourists and 100% authenticity. The beaches are almost deserted and attended by local and as it is a region mainly inhabited by Tamils, religion is not Buddhism but Hinduism, so you’ll see beautiful and colorful living temples! So, if you have the time, definitely worth it!
Can we travel solo (without driver) in Sri Lanka?
The country is very safe and cities are well served by public transport, allowing you to prepare your own route rather than following one of the many local guides, if you prefer that kind of independant traveling. This is of course what we did And that’s one of the main advantage of Sri Lanka compared to other countries we have been: there are many ways to travel with local public transportation, to go wherever you want. They are very cheap, they are reliable and safe, and to be surrounded by local adds even more authenticity to the experience. Only bad side: they are a bit slow…
Recommended route to visit Sri Lanka in 2 weeks
Plan where you are going according to the weather also, to avoid periods of heavy rain. For example, the period of the monsoon occurs from May to August on the west and south coast and from November to January on the East Coast. The advantage is that you can enjoy the beaches all year round in Sri Lanka:-) After a deep analysis about how to optimize our trip in 2 weeks (because we wanted to see as much as possible), we followed this route from 17 January to 2 February 2014. We recommend to skip some of these destination to be more relaxed and allow you more time to discover each place:
- Day 1: Arrival in the morning and visit of Colombo
- Day 2: Early morning train to Anuradhapura (about 3h30 drive) and visit of the ruins. => If you want a slightly more relaxed trip, we would advise you to skip Anuradhapura which is a bit away from the rest of the “cultural triangle”. Choose instead Polonnawura which is quite similar, more easy to travel around and better preserved, but also more touristy.
- Day 3: visit of Polonnawura, bus to visit the ruins and then a bus late in the day to Sigirya. It is possible to visit the ruins of Polonnawura within 2 hours because all the ruins are close to each other.
- Day 4: Sigiriya visit early in the morning to avoid climbing the stairs in the heat and afternoon bus to Kandy via Dambulla, where we stopped to visit the temple. Arrival in Kandy late at night.
- Day 5: Visit of Kandy
- Day 6: we took the train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya, the train journey is absolutely beautiful! One of the highlights of the trip! Visit of Nuwara Eliya and a tea factory.
- Day 7: Day-trip to Kitulgala for rafting, by bus.
- Day 8: Departure at dawn to Horton’s Plain to see Worlds End before the arrival of clouds which block the view around 10am. Be careful, it takes time to get there because the roads are very small and sometimes bumpy. There must be minimum 2 hours by van or jeep with driver. The tour is on foot and lasts about 4 hours. In the afternoon, direction Ella.
- Day 9: Visit Ella
- Day 10: Visit Ella and drive to Tissamaharama
- Day 11: Visit the Yala National Park in the early morning, then go to Tangalle to enjoy big waves in the afternoon. Overnight in Mirissa. => Our advise if you have to skip one thing is to skip the Yala National Park which is expensive and didn’t allow us to see so many animals. But we met lots of wild elephants on the road to the Yala National Park from Ella (which is free, but then you have to take a driver).
- Day 12: Mirissa beach, snorkeling, evening and night in Unawatuna where you can finally enjoy a little nightlife.
- Day 13: Unawatuna beach, evening in the beautiful walled town Galle, a former Dutch colony.
- Day 14: Visit of Galle and evening in the big resort Hikkaduwa, to enjoy its lively nightlife.
- Day 15: Return to Colombo to fly back home.
Tangalle, Mirissa, Hikkaduwa and Unawatuna … which beach to choose in Sri Lanka?
If you want a more relaxing trip (without moving every day), then we recommend to pick one or 2 of the beaches and stay a bit longer over there. They are all very different, so choose carefully according to your preferences:
- Tangalle: peaceful, less tourists, but impossible to swim in the sea because of huge waves (well we spent 1 hour playing with the waves, so it can be fun also, but be careful because the waves are very strong).
- Mirissa : very relaxed, zen, with many restaurants and lounge bars overlooking the sea. Perfect for relaxing, ideal for backpackers approaching thirties
- Unawatuna : backpackers atmosphere, with lots of bars and small restaurants a little more animated than Mirissa at night, it is our favorite!
- Hikkaduwa : to avoid except if you want to party with backpackers, it is full of big resorts with a lot of tourists. Moreover, locals must pay a very high admission fee to get into the clubs (while it’s free for tourists).
I went only to the Northeast: Uppuveli, Nilaveli and Trincomalee. When it comes to turquoise water and waves, they are all quite equivalent. Of course, there are other beaches, including one in the Southeast well known for surfers backpackers: Arugam Bay.
- Uppuveli : peaceful ambiance, relax, with only a few guesthouses along the beach. It is in one of them that we stayed: a great hostel (Aqua Inns) on the beachfront, at the equivalent of 18 € for the double room with sea view, swimming pool and a bar with a backpacker atmosphere (more details on our Trincomalee page). Local personel was adorable. A little corner of paradise, not far from Pigeon Island and 10 minutes by tuk-tuk from Trincomalee!
- Nilaveli: it is the beach where the locals go on holiday. I did almost not seen any tourists, except those going to Pigeon Island, located 10 minutes by speedboat. This is the great advantage because Pigeon Island is really worth it for snorkeling. I saw 3 baby sharks!
- Trincomalee: there is a beach near the fort but is frequented mainly by locals so you may not feel totally comfortable in a bikini …