10 Days in Sri Lanka: Perfect Itinerary for First-Time Visitors

This blog post features links and information which have been obtained on a press trip. However, as always, all opinions shared in this post are my own.

Having recently spent ten days in Sri Lanka, I crafted this itinerary covering the highlights of central and southern Sri Lanka. Exploring as much of Sri Lanka as possible in ten days means moving hotels a lot, which can quickly become tiring.

I’ve therefore done my best to include two nights in the same place without compromising on the experience. I’ve also offered alternatives depending on your interests and the speed you like to travel.

Regarding travelling around Sri Lanka, I’ve predominantly focused on taxis. I suggest using the PickMe app, Sri Lanka’s version of Uber, to find a private driver.

While a taxi for multiple hours sounds expensive, it’s relatively affordable relative to Western prices. Plus, it’s a reasonable trade-off, considering your limited time in the country. 

Day One: Colombo

Commercial flights to Sri Lanka arrive at Bandaranaike Airport, a 45-minute from Colombo. Thus, the capital city of Colombo is the natural first stop on most trips. 

I’d only recommend spending a day in Colombo as you arrive and leave Sri Lanka. That’s not to say Colombo isn’t great; it’s more that Sri Lanka has so much more to offer.

Some of the best attractions and activities in Colombo include:

  • Lotus Tower — South Asia’s tallest tower at 356m or 1,168 ft
  • Gangaramaya Temple — A blend of modern architecture and cultural essence
  • Galle Face Green — A beautiful promenade for a sunset stroll
  • Pettah Market — Bustling market for local snacks and souvenirs

Day Two: Colombo to Sigiriya

On day two of your ten nights in Sri Lanka, I suggest heading north to the ancient city of Sigiriya.

Google Maps suggests it takes four hours by car from Colombo to Sigiriya, but it’s more like five. You can take public transport from Colombo to Sigiriya. However, with just ten nights in Sri Lanka, I suggest a private driver instead.

A private driver sounds expensive, but relative to Western prices, it’s very affordable. In my experience, the PickMe app, Sri Lanka’s version of Uber, is best. Using the app, you should be able to get a taxi from Colombo to Sigiriya for around 19,000lkr (£50 or $65).

If you leave Colombo in the early morning, around 6am or 7am you should arrive in Sigiriya in time for lunch. 

20km north of Sigiriya is the town of Habarana. This is one of the best places to go on safari in Sri Lanka and has three incredible national parks:

  1. Minneriya National Park
  2. Kaudulla National Park
  3. Hurulu Eco Park

If you arrive in Sigiriya around lunchtime, you should be able to take a safari that afternoon. I took a two-hour safari around Hurulu Eco Park, which costs roughly £20 – £30 ($25 – $40) per person.

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Day Three: Sigiriya

Your ten-day trip to Sri Lanka won’t seem like a vacation when your 4am alarm goes off. But trust me, it’s worth it to hike Pidurangala Rock.

Pidurangala Rock is just across from Sigiriya Rock and offers incredible views. The hike to the top takes about 30 minutes, so you end up spending about 2 hours here in total.

I suggest hiking Pidurangala Rock rather than Sigiriya Rock. The Sigiriya Rock hike is significantly more difficult and takes a lot longer. On this hike, you’ll see frescoes and ruins, but still, the best photo of Sigiriya Rock is from Pidurangala Rock.

If you are interested in hiking, you may want to stay in Sigiriya another night. This way, you can hike Sigiriya Rock on the evening of day three or the morning of day four. However, due to the heat and humidity, I would not suggest hiking Sigiriya Rock during the day.

By 10:00am, you should be well rested after your hike and ready to travel to Kandy. The popular city of Kandy is located 90km south of Sigiriya. Again, I suggest getting a private driver to maximise time on your short trip around Sri Lanka.

A taxi from Sigiriya to Kandy using PickMe should cost around 12,500lkr (£35 or $45). The journey is suggested to take around 2.5 hours; in reality, it’s more like 3.5. You should arrive in Kandy early afternoon and are free to spend the rest of the day relaxing.

Day Four: Kandy

Kandy was the last capital of Sri Lanka’s ancient kings’ era and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. There are many attractions from which you can fill your day here; some of my favourites include:

  • Sacred Tooth Relic Temple — Revered Buddhist temple
  • Peradeniya Botanical Gardens — Beautiful gardens with diverse flora
  • Kandy Lake — Scenic lake located in the heart of the city
  • Kandy Market — Bustling market great for local crafts, spices, and souvenirs
  • Udawattakele Forest Reserve — Historic forest known for its rich biodiversity
  • Bahirawakanda Vihara Buddha Statue — Giant Buddha statue
  • Kandy Garrison Cemetery — Offers insights into Kandy’s colonial past
  • Royal Palace of Kandy — Now houses the National Museum of Kandy

With a visit to the Sacred Tooth Relic Temple, you’ll often be invited to watch a Cultural Dance Show. I don’t suggest spending time waiting or watching this show. Don’t believe me? Check the Google reviews… 

Day Five: Kandy to Ella

The train journey from Kandy to Ella has long been known as one of the most beautiful in the world. This ride takes you through stunning landscapes, lush tea plantations, and charming villages.

There are three trains between Kandy and Ella daily, and the journey takes between 6 and 8 hours.

I suggest taking the morning train as the public transport system in Sri Lanka is known for delays. By starting early, you can make the most of the daylight and enjoy the breathtaking scenery.

There are two ways to buy tickets for the train:

  1. Online from the Sri Lanka Railways website
  2. In person at the train station

There’s no limit to the number of people allowed on the train – and at times, it shows. As such, I found getting tickets in person at the train station easier.

While the views from the train window here are beautiful, the journey can be tiresome. The route is favoured by tourists but is also the main form of transport for locals. As such, the train can be incredibly busy, and seats can be hard to come by—and we’ve not even got into the heat and humidity.

If you’re older and/or have limited mobility, research this train thoroughly. If you decide against it, you can once again take a PickMe. A PickMe taxi from Kandy to Ella takes around 5 hours, costing about 16,000lkr (£45 or $60).

As of spring 2024, taking a taxi no longer means missing a train ride in Sri Lanka. That’s because the new Calypso tourist train is now available. This train runs between Badulla and Bandarawela and stops in Demodara and Ella.

Day Six & Day Seven: Ella

I suggest spending two days in Ella, even on a ten-day trip. Some of the most popular things to do in Ella include:

  • Nine Arches Bridge — An iconic viaduct surrounded by lush greenery
  • Little Adam’s Peak — An easy hike with panoramic views across Ella
  • Ella Rock — A more challenging hike with breathtaking views from the summit
  • Ravana Falls — One of the widest waterfalls in Sri Lanka
  • Demodara Loop — An engineering marvel where the track spirals around a hillside
  • Tea Factory Tour at Demodera Estate — Learn about the tea-making process
  • Visit a Spice Garden — Learn about the different spices grown in Sri Lanka
  • Ravana Cave — Historic cave linked to the legendary King Ravana from the Ramayana

Whatever you decide to do in Ella, be sure to plan your days accordingly. Due to the heat and humidity, you only want to hike Little Adam’s Peak and Ella Rock at sunrise.

Plus, the best photos of Nine Arches Bridge are always going to be in the early morning before the crowds arrive.

Again, if you opted against taking the train between Kandy and Ella, now is also a great time to take the Calypso. I took the train from Ella Station to Demodera. Once here, you can go on a Tea Factory Tour at Demodera Estate.

Day Eight: Tangalle

After exploring central Sri Lanka, it’s time to head south to Tangalle on the coast. Again, I suggest getting a driver to take you from Ella to Tangalle; a PickMe should cost about 18,000lkr (£50 or $65).

The drive from Ella to Tangalle takes about three hours, so you can either:

  1. Leave in the afternoon of day seven
  2. Leave on the morning of day eight

Tangalle is known for its white sandy beaches and crystal clear waters, making it the perfect place to relax. 

There are no plans here other than to enjoy the beach, so consider splurging on a luxury hotel. One of the best hotels here is the Amanwella Resort. Here, you’ll find elegant suites with private plunge pools, stunning ocean views, and direct access to a pristine beach.

Day Nine: Galle

After relaxing in Tangalle, head along the coast to Galle, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Again, I suggest a driver on PickMe. A taxi from Tangalle to Galle should cost about 10,000lkr (£25 or $30) and take about 1.5 hours

Galle is a fantastic historical city, so I suggest taking a guided tour here if you are fond of history. Some of the most popular sites include:

  • Tour of Galle Fort — Explore the historic Dutch fort
  • Galle Lighthouse — Iconic landmark within the fort
  • National Maritime Museum — Learn about Galle’s maritime history
  • Unawatuna Beach — Relax or swim at one of Sri Lanka’s best beaches

Day Ten: Galle & Colombo

You have two options on day ten:

  1. Travel from Galle to Colombo, and spend time in Colombo before your flight.
  2. Travel direct from Galle to Bandaranaike Airport.

You will pass through Colombo on your journey from Galle to Bandaranaike Airport so it is on route. However, some prefer the laid-back atmosphere of Galle and find it the perfect place to end the trip.

Also, going to Colombo requires you to pack up and change hotels again. A novelty that is no doubt wearing thin at this point.

If you decide to head to Colombo, you could either leave Galle on the evening of day nine or the morning of day ten. 

The journey from Galle to Colombo takes about 2.5 hours in a taxi, costing about 12,000lkr (£30 or $40). If you’d like to take a bus in Sri Lanka, this is one of the best routes; the journey should take 4 to 5 hours.

You’ll then need to take a taxi from Colombo to Bandaranaike Airport about 4.5 hours before your flight. The journey to the airport should take around 45 minutes, so you should arrive with 3 hours to spare.

If you want to travel directly from Galle to Bandaranaike Airport, the journey takes 2.5 hours. As such I suggest leaving 6 hours before your flight to give plenty of time. In this case, a PickMe is going to be the best option and should cost about 17,000lkr (£45 or $60).

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