5 itineraries for your next trip to Sri Lanka

Don’t let its diminutive size deceive you – Sri Lanka has more to see and do than you could comfortably squeeze into one trip. It can be tricky to know where to start, so we’ve come up with five itineraries to help you out. Words by Hanna Lindon
Fishermen from Mirissa in a traditional Sri Lanka's boat for fishing at sunset. Photo: Shutterstock
Fishermen from Mirissa in a traditional Sri Lanka's boat for fishing at sunset. Photo: Shutterstock
By Hanna Lindon

Sand, surf and spas

Most trips to Sri Lanka begin in Negombo, which is just a short tuk tuk ride from Colombo Airport. Stroll through the hectic fish market here and shake off your jet lag on the golden sands before heading south to the hippy mecca of Hikkaduwa.

Nearby is Galle, with its Dutch colonial fort and famous cricket ground. As you round the coastline towards Matara, the beaches get more beautiful and the ocean choppier – perfect for the surfers who flock here year-round. Less adventurous types will enjoy relaxing in one of the luxurious wellness resorts that dot the south coast.

If you can make it off your sun-lounger, enjoy a spot of whale-watching from Mirissa or see turtle hatchlings on Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery.

The east coast is trickier to get to, but it’s well worth the effort. Join the pro surfers at Arugam Bay or head further north to explore the uncrowded white sands of Uppuveli.

Mahatupa stupa at sunset, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. Photo: Shutterstock

The Cultural Triangle

Sri Lanka isn’t all about beaches and relaxing. At the heart of the country is a tapestry of ancient cities, crumbling rock temples and lofty citadels that stand testament to the country’s fascinating history.

Start at Anuradhapura, the island’s capital from the 3rd century BC to 993 AD and now an atmospheric ruin scattered with sprawling palaces, monasteries and stupas. Another ancient capital, Polonnaruwa, lies a two-hour drive west from Anuradhapura. Why not combine a day spent exploring its beautifully-preserved remains with a safari at Minneriya National Park?  

Journey south-west from here, stopping to see the sunrise from the awe-inspiring Sigiriya Rock fortress. The cave paintings of Dambulla mark the Cultural Triangle’s southernmost point; however, if you're really into culture, you should continue down to Kandy to glimpse the golden-roofed Temple of the Sacred Tooth, home to the relic of the Buddha's tooth. 

Tea pickers near Maskeliya. Photo: Shutterstock

Tea with a twist

The drive from Kandy into the heart of Sri Lanka’s tea-blanketed hill country winds past endless head-swimmingly scenic waterfalls. Make Nuwara Eliya your first stop – this immaculate little town has been dubbed ‘Little England’ thanks to its mock Tudor hotels and cottage-style gardens. It’s the perfect base for a tour of the nearby tea plantations, with famous estates such as the Pedro Tea Factory right on its doorstep.

Next, hop on the train for the stunning four-hour journey to Ella. Take a tuk tuk up to Lipton’s Seat and drink in the views over the famous tea merchant’s huge estate, then strap your hiking boots on for a walk up to Little Adam’s Peak.

If you’re feeling adventurous, Adam’s Peak and the wild mountains of the Knuckles Range are within easy reach of the hill country. Try a home stay in Meemure, Sri Lanka’s most remote mountain village, for a true taste of the country’s traditions.    

Sri Lankan elephants in Yala National Park. Photo: Shutterstock

Stellar safaris

There’s no better place to begin a discovery tour of Sri Lanka’s wildlife than Yala National Park, which is home to the planet’s greatest concentration of leopards. Quieter Kumana National Park is right next door – the game density is lower, but there are still elephants and crocodiles, alongside a kaleidoscope of birdlife.

Head south to spot more migratory birds around the sand dunes and salt pans of Bundala National Park. From here it’s around an hour’s drive to Rekawa Beach, where you can watch five species of turtle struggle ashore to lay their eggs. Don’t miss the chance to join a whale-watching tour from Mirissa or Galle to a pod of blue whales congregating off Dondra Point.

Now loop north via the wildlife-rich rainforest reserve of Sinharaja to reach the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage near Kandy. If you have time, it’s worth finishing your trip with a safari around Wilpattu National Park in the northeast.    

Valipura Aalvar Vishnu Kovil, a Hindu temple near Jaffna. Photo: Shutterstock

Northern wonders

Most visitors never venture north of Anuradhapura, but the Tamil-dominated region around Jaffna showcases a completely different side of Sri Lanka – quieter, wilder and more culturally complex.

Stop off at the fishing town of Kalpitiya on your journey north to see spinner dolphins playing around the coral reefs offshore. Wilpattu National Park, with its thriving populations of leopard and water buffalo, is right on Kalpitiya’s doorstep, while the ruined city of Anuradhapura is another must-see en-route to Jaffna.

The Northern Province’s capital itself is dotted with fascinating Hindu temples. Use it as a base for exploring the sand dunes and mineral springs of the Jaffna Peninsula, then hop on a boat to visit the remote islands of the Palk Strait. You’ll have the satisfaction of setting foot in a place where few tourists have gone before.  

Taking a trip to Sri Lanka: how to get started

Insight Guides can help you with the planning and booking of your trip to Sri Lanka. You can browse our existing trips to Sri Lanka here. Alternatively, simply get in touch with us, tell us your interests and budget, and our local experts will tailor a Sri Lankan itinerary to your suit your individual tastes. You can then adjust your itinerary until you are completely happy with it!

Looking for more things to do in Sri Lanka? 

When to go to Sri Lanka

11 essential Sri Lanka experiences

Top 5 beaches in Sri Lanka

7 best boutique hotels in Sri Lanka