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Complete Guide to Sri Lanka 2019| Where to Stay and where to go.

We couldn’t recommend the sights, sounds and flavours of Sri Lanka more. It is such a diverse country with cool, rainy hills in the centre, hot sunny beaches around the edges, a varied and vibrant capital city and even a scorching desert in the north (though we didn’t get there). Below is a complete guide to Sri Lanka 2019 with the top things we think you must do when visiting for 3 weeks or more, plus a good budget for the trip. (Spoiler: We spent 174,000 LKR about 730 GBP in 21 days for a couple).

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Table of Contents (click to expand)

Background

Skip below if you want to see the top things to do in Sri Lanka. Firstly, apologies for those enjoying the daily blogs, we thought we would be able to keep them up, but it has just been a bit too much what with planning the trip as we go. Instead, we thought we would put out this post to cover all the things to do in Sri Lanka as we loved pretty much everything we did.

Top things to do in Sri Lanka 2019

If you want to skip to any of the places click on each of the items below.

  • Sigiriya – Lion Rock
  • Kandy – Tooth Temple, Market
  • Nuwara Eliya (Little England) – Lovers Leap, Tea
  • Haputale – Lipton’s Seat
  • Ella – Bars, Waterfalls, Little Adam’s Peak
  • Tangalle – Turtles, Beach, Relaxation
  • Mirissa – Beaches, Coconut hill
  • Galle – History, Shopping, Luxury
  • Colombo – Citylife, Museums, Markets

Arriving in Sri Lanka

We flew from Heathrow, London to Bandaranaike International Airport, Colombo via Zurich on Swiss Air. The tickets cost about £320 each and the flight was qute comfortable and easy.

Complete guide to Sri Lanka 2019: Red Sri Lankan Buses are the easiest way to get around Sri Lanka. Red and blue, just shout the name of where you are going near the bus, the conductor will allow you on if it is the right bus.
Buses in Sri Lanka are either red (like this) or blue – we never worked out the exact difference, but they both seemed cheap and at the same level of comfort. The buses are the easiest and cheapest way to get around the island.

Getting from the airport to Colombo is also pretty easy as there is an air-conditioned coach which costs 200 LKR each (about 0.75 GBP) and takes an hour to the central bus station (Colombo Fort). We even picked up a SIM card in the airport for 1000 LKR (~ 4 GBP) including enough data for our stay. Do this after security as it is a lot cheaper (though about 50% more expensive as in the city) and you are sorted for your entire stay. Buses run from Colombo Fort to the whole island, we got one to Dambulla (4 hours, 215 LKR each, ~1 GBP) and then another to Sigiriya (40 mins, 40 LKR, <0.20 GBP).

Sigiriya

Complete guide to Sri Lanka 2019: The view from the top of Lion Rock in Sri Lanka is well worth the walk up and the 30 USD price tag.
One of the most expensive, but also worth it attractions in Sri Lanka. There is a full 360 degree view of the surrounding area.
  • Time spent: 1 day, 1 night
  • Accomodation: Dinsuhan Lodge (2,180 LKR, ~ 9 GBP) – ok, maybe better places around.
  • Total spend: 15,810 LKR (~67 GBP) – Mostly 10,860LKR (~ 45 GBP) spent on Lion Rock

Lion Rock, often just called Sigiriya Rock, is a huge fortress-palace built on the top of a towering rock surrounded by water gardens. When on a budget you may consider skipping this rock (and it’s 30 USD price tag) and instead visit the nearby Pidurangala rock. However, we would not advise you do. Sri Lanka as a country is so cheap, so spending a little extra on this attraction is definitely worth it. The views and history are amazing, and there are some beautiful rock paintings on the way up as well.

Apart from visiting the rock and gardens and walking to the top, there is not much else to do in Sigiriya. So after getting down we had some lunch and made our way towards Kandy.

Bonus tip: we didn’t have time, but we hear that the nearby Dambulla cave temples are a pretty cool destination too. Getting there and back and then to Kandy by bus would have been possible, but seemed a bit complicated to fit in our schedule.

Eating recommendations

Ahinsa Restaurant: this was a fine place for Lunch and the breeze was a welcome addition. We wouldn’t rush back for the food but the atmosphere was good.

Kandy

Complete guide to Sri Lanka 2019: Jenny looking out across the lake in Kandy.
Wandering around the lake in Kandy is so relaxing, free and a must for any visit.
  • Time spent: 3 days, 3 nights
  • Accommodation: The Best Hostel (3 nights, 5,500 LKR, < 25 GBP) – nice place, good price, good location
  • Total spent: 21,000 LKR, ~ 90 GBP

Kandy is one of the largest cities in Sri Lanka, of which there are not many. It has a very peaceful, friendly and relaxed feel to it. The main attraction for most visitors is the Temple of the Tooth Relic along the banks of the man-made lake. This is a temple housing a tooth of Buddha and is revered highly. People queue for hours to get into the inner sanctum.

The rest of the city is also lovely and there are a few other attractions that you absolutely should not miss; the big Buddha on the hill, local market, walking around the lake and the brilliant Botanical Gardens. We recommend you just take time strolling around. Use the PickMe app if your legs get tired to get a cheap tuktuk.

Possible itinerary:

  • Day 1: Tooth Temple, wander the city and the lake, visit Botanical Gardens
  • Day 2: Walk up Buddha Hill, visit the market and soak up the local environment

Eating recommendations

  • Siri Ramya: some of the best food we had in SL. Curry served on a banana leaf with such friendly service. Location is wrong on google maps, it is next door to this place.
  • Balaji Dosai: Believe this is a chain, but the simple, tasty and reasonably priced food will fill you up for sure. Their juices here as well are superb.
  • Kandyan Muslim Hotel: Recommended on many websites and guidebooks, this busy looking restaurant allowed us to get our first taste of Kottu, which is a dish of roti chopped very loudly on a hot griddle with your choice of meat, vegetable and spices. The spicy beef and cheese kottu is amazing here.

Nuwara Eliya (Little England)

Complete guide to Sri Lanka 2019: Rob walking through tea-fields having a closer look at the plants.
The walk through tea fields to Lover’s leap is probably the best part about a visit to Nuwara Eliya.
  • Time spent: 2 days, 2 nights
  • Accommodation: Lake View Holiday Home (2 nights, 4,200 LKR, <20 GBP – Probably better places close to town, but the host was lovely.
  • Total spent: 12,395 LKR, ~ 50 GBP

Nuwara Eliya offers so much more than we were able to take from it. Also known as “Little England” it is relatively cool (~10°C) at night, but still reaches the high 20s in the day (we visited in March), and is located near to a large long lake.

We took the train from Kandy to the nearby Nanu Oya station, then a taxi to the town. We would absolutely recommend this route which is voted one of the most beautiful train rides in the world. Our advice would be to book your train tickets in advance so you can guarantee yourself a seat, Seat61 has literally every detail you could desire. If, like us, you are disorganised, you are in luck. You can turn up to the station 2 hours before the train is due (sometimes 5am) and wait in line for the unlimited quantity of unreserved tickets. This gives you a ticket which you use to shove yourself (and belongings) onto an already packed train of tired, grumpy and hot travellers. Highly recommended nonetheless, so much so that we did it twice more; to Haputale and to Ella.

Complete guide to Sri Lanka 2019: Jenny had to sit on the floor in the doorway of the train. Rob is standing on the foot plate of the train (the only space available for his feet).
The Sri Lankan trains have great scenery, but it is very likely you will be squashed in with your luggage sitting on the floor.

Our top visit was to Lover’s Leap waterfall, not really for the waterfall itself, but for the walk up there. Our advice is to walk from the centre of town following maps directions, eventually, you will find the way and the experience is well worth it. The route through the tea fields, local residential areas and through the woods is totally charming.

Other excellent things to do in Nuwara Eliya are:

  • Visit the Tea Museum, it’s in a bit of an odd location on the top floor of a shopping arcade, but it really is worth a visit as the tea and setting are both lovely.
  • Visit the winter market; about 10/15 stalls selling warm “genuine brand” clothing at very cheap prices.
  • Look in and at the Old Post Office, very reminiscent of the UK.
  • Wander around Victoria Park, it costs 500 LKR but is a nice and peaceful area to explore.

Possible itinerary:

  • Day 1: Enjoy some breakfast at one of the nice bakeries. Make the long but rewarding walk out of town and up the hill to Lover’s Leap waterfall. Walk back to town (or take a bus/tuk-tuk). Enjoy lunch in town before visiting the tea museum.
  • Day 2: Visit the post office, wander around the town looking at the market stalls. After Lunch stroll through Victoria Park and around part of the lake.

Bonus tip: Although outside of our budget it is easy to get to the Horton plains national park and other waterfalls in the area. We heard this is a brilliant day out, though it often starts at 5am and doesn’t finish until late at night, so it is not really a relaxing day.

Haputale

Complete guide to Sri Lanka 2019: Jenny looking out across lush green tea plantations on the walk up to Haputale
The walk through tea fields up to Lipton’s seat for the gorgeous view was almost as good as the view itself.
  • Time spent: 1.5 days, 2 nights
  • Accommodation: Grand View Guesthouse (2 nights, 5,750 LKR, ~ 25 GBP) 🙂 – highly recommended, best place we stayed in Sri Lanka
  • Total spent: 11,525 LKR, < 50 GBP

Haputale is a small village. In honesty, there isn’t a huge amount to do here, the main attraction is walking up to Lipton’s Seat which can be done in a few hours in the morning. However, we loved our hotel so much that we decided to stay an extra night here before moving on. Getting here is simple, we bought another unreserved ticket from Nanu Oya (the station that serves Nuwara Eliya) to Haputale, then the hotel was only an 800m walk away.

The area is simple, spread around a square of small shops, restaurants and guesthouses. The bus runs from the centre of town up to the Dambatenne Tea Factory very frequently. This bus ride alone is worth visiting Haputale for, as the views are incredible. The walk up to the top of Lipton’s seat took about 2 hours each way. Many/most people take a tuk-tuk one or both ways to the top, but we think walking was much more pleasant and rewarding.

Eating recommendations

  • Spice Hotel and Bakehouse: a bit dingy from the outside, the staff were lovely and the kottu was tasty, worth a visit for a cheap dinner.
  • Sunrise restaurant: highly rated on tripadvisor, we decided to visit. It is ok, the service was a bit slow and the food was fine, but the price was a lot higher than anywhere else we had been and there were no locals in there at all. Only foreigners. I would go again, but only because Haputale has limited choice.
  • Everything you see: On the train people will walk past with food and drink, buy it. Some of it you may not like, give it away or share it with a nearby squashed in traveller or local (this is common, both the squashing and the sharing). The rest of it will be delicious and all of it will be very cheap.

Possible Itinerary (you really only need one day)

  • Day 1: wake up early (6am), take the bus to Dambatenna and then walk to the top of Lipton’s seat. Make it back to town for an afternoon train departure.

Ella

Complete guide to Sri Lanka 2019: Jenny is sitting on the edge of the nine arches bridge in Ella. A train comes whizzing through before she  can move from her seat making a lovely photo.
Jenny was caught off guard while posing for a photo. The train arrived before she could move from her seat.
  • Time spent: 4 days, 4 nights
  • Accommodation: Nature Village Inn (4 nights, 13,300 LKR, ~ 55 GBP), highly recommended, great WiFi, great host.
  • Total spent: 36,530 LKR, ~ 155 GBP

Ella is really a backpackers paradise. There is a lot on offer here from all the bars, restaurants and massage parlours in the town to all the surrounding hills, waterfalls and valleys to explore. This is one of the destinations in Sri Lanka where it is worthwhile to spend a few days exploring and getting comfortable.

The most Instagrammed spot in Sri Lanka, the nine arch bridge, is just outside of the town and it makes any trip to Ella worth it. The hugely pretty, impressive and popular location draws hundreds at a time and is best visited when a train is coming through. In addition, we hiked up Little Adam’s Peak, took a cookery class and got a traditional massage.

Possible Itinerary

  • Day 1: Settle into your accommodation, there aren’t many street lights so familiarise yourself with your route back in the dark. Organise a local cookery course to agree a price and time. Enjoy some good food and drink in town.
  • Day 2: Don’t have breakfast. Attend a brunch cookery course, we highly recommend “Ella Rocks”. It is owned and run by Lank and it is so enjoyable to learn from him and listen to his funny jokes/stories. You will not need food for the rest of the day. Make the walk from town to nine-arch bridge aiming to arrive just before sunset. If you want to take a tuk-tuk you can, but we recommend you walk the last bit through the woods, this is accessible from here.
  • Day 3: Have a leisurely morning, soaking up the cafe culture in town. Have a look at some of the local shops for any souvenirs. If the weather isn’t too hot make the leisurely stroll up to the top of Little Adam’s Peak. The views from here across to Ella rock and down the valley are stunning.
  • Day 4: Investigate options and book a massage. Although not the home of Ayurvedic medicine, Sri Lanka still practices the art quite significantly. Enjoy the food and generally relaxed atmosphere of the area.

Eating recommendations

  • Reincarnation Rainbow Inn: This place does mexican and other similar food. It is quite expensive, but the setting is quite nice since they try to give it an exclusive romantic feel.
  • Cafe C: This is one of the top restaurants on Tripadvisor and you can see why. It is reasonably priced, friendly and extremely delicious. You can even use one of their pens to draw on the walls.
  • Cafe Chill: Not the most authentic of restaurants, however, it has quite a range of non-Sri Lankan dishes. The burger there was delicious. Much more expensive than other places in Sri Lanka, but worth it for a little treat.

Tangalle

Complete guide to Sri Lanka 2019: Jenny standing on the beach admiring the waves, warm sand and cool sea.
We were so excited to make it down to the ocean and splash in the sea.
  • Time spent: 3 days, 3 nights
  • Accommodation: Oceangate (3 nights, 10800 LKR, ~45 GBP). – Atmosphere a little odd, but otherwise well sized, reasonably priced, well located. Would recommend.
  • Total spent: 26,260 LKR, ~110 GBP

Tangalle is mostly just a beach destination. Made famous for its long expanse of bright white sand, it has featured in many blogs and travel guides. It has to some extent been a little bit overrun by hotels, bars and restaurants laying out sunbeds and umbrellas, but the feeling of a beautiful destination is still there. We spent a while walking up and down the beach, exploring the different restaurants and beaches.

We hired a scooter and explored the nearby blowhole, a couple of surfing beaches and, best of all, a visit to the Turtle Watch Centre. This is one of the most amazing things as we got to watch 3 turtles laying eggs, including an Olive-Ridley, which are often difficult to see.

Possible Itinerary

  • Day 1: Wander down the road running down the front of the bay. Find a place to hire a scooter (aka. Scooty in Sri Lanka)
  • Day 2: Hire a Scooter. Visit Goyambokka Beach – lovely and peaceful, you must walk down a narrow path to get there. On the way back, stop in at the blowhole – try and time the visit for high tide when the show is better.
  • Day 3: Back on the scooter. Visit Hikkaduwa Beach. Maybe learn to surf, we didn’t try, but hundreds of others were giving it a go and it looked fun. Make sure to pick up something to eat before driving up north to Rekawa Turtle Watch. It starts at 8pm and you wait until turtles come up the beach, at times it feels a bit disorganised, but it is absolutely worth the visit and the 1,000 LKR fee.

Eating Recommendations

  • Ceylon Excel: One of the best meals and best service we had in Sri Lanka. Very affordable and excellent wifi.
  • Shanty Town Cafe: Delicious Sri Lankan Breakfast on the beach.

Mirissa

Complete guide to Sri Lanka 2019: Orange sun setting behind coconut palm trees over a calm Indian Ocean.
Although very crowded, it is still worth a visit to Coco Palm Hill to watch the sunset.
  • Time spent: 2 days, 2 nights
  • Accommodation: Feathered Nest (2 nights, 5,630 LKR, < 25 GBP) – Location was fine for the bus, but about 15 minutes walk to the beach. Probably better places available.
  • Total spent: 12,705 LKR, < 55 GBP

In our view, if coming to Sri Lanka I would choose either Mirissa or Tangalle and stay an extra night in one place rather than moving between two beach locations. Saying that Mirissa does have a few things to offer which Tangalle does not. Firstly, the people in Mirissa seem to be a younger crowd, looking for a bit more of a party scene, we did not personally see any of this, but this is what we are told.

There are also a few things to see which are on many people’s Instagram list. Coco Palm Hill (Coconut Tree Hill) is an area where many people go to watch the sun setting through tall palm trees. It is lovely, but I think the charm has been lost a little in recent years. We were here in low-season and it was already very difficult to find a space to sit. The next spot on people’s lists for this area is “The Secret Beach”, a secluded beach which can be reached only by foot. There is now a cafe (along with growing number of sun loungers) here. We got there about 10am and there was noone else around, but when we left about midday there were already a few dozen.

Possible Itinerary

  • Day 1: Get moving early to get a good spot on the beach (if you do not want to pay for a sun lounger, there are only a few places to find good shade). Wander down to Parrot Rock to take in views of the surrounding area.
  • Day 2: Get a tuk-tuk as far as possible to secret beach. Walk the rest. The water is a lot calmer so it is very pleasant to swim here. Head back to Mirissa Beach for a late lunch at one of the beach restaurants. Don your best outfit and make-up for your sunset trip to Coco Palm Hill (you’ll be wanting to capture all those Insta shots).

Eating recommendations

  • Our World Wifi Cafe: barely a shack on the beach, provides good respite from the heat and sun. Enjoy their juices and fried rice meals (big enough for two).
  • Mum’s Kitchen: basic looking lean-to on the side of a local home. The food is delicious, the service is friendly and the prices were reasonable.
  • Samagi: Great Kottu and scrumptious banana pancakes. Low prices. Only downside is the noisy road.

Galle

Complete guide to Sri Lanka 2019: Rob looking over the bay at Galle Lighthouse and Fort.
Galle is one of those places in Sri Lanka which is quite different and the quiet streets are delightful to wander around and soak up the atmosphere and history.
  • Time spent: 2 days, 2 nights
  • Accommodation: Ibur Hostel Galle (2 nights, 5,230 LKR, < 25 GBP), a bit out of town but easy to get a bus to the city or walk. The rooms and staff were really great though.
  • Total spent: 9,748 LKR, ~40 GBP

Galle is most known for its fort. This is definitely by far the most important and interesting thing to do in Galle and you can easily spend a whole day wandering around, especially if you dip into some of the museums. In addition, Galle City provides a bit of retail therapy after the small towns of the hill country and beach resorts. There are many ex-pats and Dutch descendants (Burghers) living here which gives the area a quite different feel, we saw many classic cars and minis on our walks around.

Possible Itinerary

  • Day 1: Wander the whole way around the fort taking in the mosque, battlements and lighthouse on the way. Then make sure to walk up and down the streets looking at the old buildings, the Dutch Reformed Church and All Saints Church. After lunch at any of the cute restaurants, visit one of the museums. The Maritime archaeology museum and the maritime museum are in the same building, we went to the latter but have since been told the former is much better.
  • Day 2: Visit the Galle Dutch Market; be careful, this is the only place in Sri Lanka where there were people trying to scam us. Do not follow anyone to any shops. Take in the fish market, the spice stores and the vegetable market. Make sure you do not miss Stylo Tailors and Textiles, an iconic bright blue building in the centre of the market. If not booked in advance, try to buy a reserved second class ticket to Colombo.

Eating recommendations

  • The Blockhouse: Fairly basic rooftop eatery offering some Sri Lankan and some European options. Worth the visit for the view over the ocean.

Colombo

Complete guide to Sri Lanka 2019: Rob and Jenny standing in front of the market vendors, porters and tuk-tuks of Pettah market
Pettah Market is such a colourful, interesting and enjoyable experience. We spent hours wandering around the streets.
  • Time spent: 3 days, 2 nights (+1 night waiting for our flight)
  • Accommodation: Steps Backpackers hostel (2 nights, 6,720 LKR, <30 GBP) +5 hours in dorm @ 1000 LKR, < 5 GBP.
  • Total spent: 22,625 LKR, ~95 GBP

Colombo is the commercial capital of Sri Lanka and therefore offers a whole range of things to see and do. We only scratched the surface of this magnificent city by visiting a few temples, walking around the old areas of town and experiencing the chaos of the market streets of Pettah. Many people say to miss out Colombo entirely when visiting Sri Lanka but we would disagree, it is a friendly, small and enjoyable city to be in.

Possible Itinerary

  • Day 1: Visit some of the temples in the city. Gangaramaya temple has a wide range of historical items and artefacts and some beautifully colourful paintings and statues in the grounds. Nearby, the Seema Malakaya Temple is not quite as impressive but is still great to visit as it appears to be floating on a lake. If that is not too much history and culture for one day then visit the Colombo National Museum.
  • Day 2: Head to Pettah, there are a whole number of streets in a grid pattern. Each has its own specialty; electronics, clothes, shoes, etc. Wander up and down soaking up the loud and busy environment, we started on 2nd Cross Street. Before you leave the area, make sure you visit the Jami Ul Afar Mosque, it is very impressive, free to enter and the staff are very friendly and helpful. Finish off the day by visiting the Old Dutch Hospital, now converted into an upmarket courtyard of cafes, bars and restaurants.

Eating recommendations

  • Sriyani: Simple local eatery serving Thali for lunch. The best thali we have had, including some of those in India.
  • The Food Station: Food Court offering a range of options from Kottu to Curry to Tandoori at reasonable prices.

Expenses/Budget-Summary

Overall costs in Sri Lanka are very low and you can easily budget less than 50 USD a day for a couple staying in relatively low budget accommodation and getting around by public transport. Costs would likely be a little higher if travelling alone, or if staying in nicer accommodation and taking taxis.

Shows the summary of all expenses spent on the trip. Complete guide to Sri Lanka 2019: Budget for a trip to Sri Lanka. Cost to visit Sri Lanka.
Complete guide to Sri Lanka 2019: Budget for a trip to Sri Lanka. Cost to visit Sri Lanka.
Complete guide to Sri Lanka 2019: Budget for a trip to Sri Lanka. Cost to visit Sri Lanka.

Top Expenses

Of course the flights were the most expensive thing, however, after that the below 5 items were the highest cost of the trip, at least the top three are in the “fun” category. We always knew Sigiriya would be at the top

Complete guide to Sri Lanka 2019: Budget for a trip to Sri Lanka. Cost to visit Sri Lanka.
Complete guide to Sri Lanka 2019: Budget for a trip to Sri Lanka. Cost to visit Sri Lanka.

Typical prices

  • Water: 70-80 LKR, 30-35p
  • Bananas(4/5): 40-50 LKR, 15-20p
  • Bus journeys: wide range, average: 150 LKR, ~65p
  • Tuk-tuks: 350 LKR, ~1.50 GBP

Complete guide to Sri Lanka 2019

We hope you enjoyed our complete guide to Sri Lanka for 2019. There is so much to see and do at affordable prices and the people are some of the friendliest we have ever met. Book your tickets now and get out there before it is spoiled. If you are interested in our travels, then please subscribe to this blog and consider having a look at our Instagram too!

More tips for Sri Lanka

  • Do not take a selfie with your back to a Buddha statue – this is considered very rude.
  • If required to eat with your hands, please only use your right hand. The left hand is used for… toilet things.
  • Generally locals do not show PDAs including holding hands and kissing. This is however much more accepted in local parks.
  • Tuk-Tuk drivers may try to charge per person. Make sure the price agreed is for the whole group upfront. Infact, download the PickMe app and order there, it is much easier and with a fixed price. Available for IOS and Android.
  • Meals can be quite big in Sri Lanka. For lunch consider sharing a main meal unless you are quite hungry.
  • Take the bus everywhere. They go to every corner of the island, are very cheap and you get to spend time with the locals.
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Rob & Jenny

About Rob & Jenny

We are a married couple from London taking a break from the 9-5 to travel the world and soak up new experiences. Follow us to find out more about the places we go, the things we see and the experiences we have.
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