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What to do and where to stay in Sri Lanka

Lying like a jewel in the Indian Ocean south of India, Sri Lanka is flourishing after 26-years of civil war the fighting ended in May 2009. Almost 10-years on the country is not without its political problems but – ultimately – is thriving and tourists are finding out how diverse this island nation is.

It’s a country with a vast array of unforgettable experiences on offer. From climbing UNESCO World Heritage Sites to incredible beaches; wild animal encounters and you’ll never be far away from some tasty new treat to try!

I made my second trip there only a few weeks ago and I’m already planning my third! I’ve put together a little guide to all the places I’d recommend to those considering visiting Sri Lanka and where to stay once you get there.

What to do and where to stay in Sri Lanka

There are so many incredible things to do in Sri Lanka, but some of the main things you will want to consider are:

What to do and where to stay in Sri Lanka: Galle Face Green, Colombo

Colombo

What to do: You are bound to find your way to the capital of Sri Lanka at least once during your trip as the countries main airport – Bandaranaike International Airport (CMB) – is on its outskirts.

Colombo is great for shopping and history. Admire the colonial-era buildings in the Fort area and explore the cities many temples. Gangaramaya Temple, a Buddhist temple built-in the 1800s and home to the smallest statue of Buddha in the world, was definitely one of the highlights.

Come sunset wander down to the Galle Face Green if the weather is nice. Dotted around the park you’ll find dozens of food stalls for you to grab a cheap but delicious bite and watch the sun sink into the Indian Ocean.What to do and where to stay in Sri Lanka: Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple, Sri Lanka

Where to stay: I booked into Cinnamon Grand, a five-star hotel, during my latest stay. It’s quite a business hotel but it’s dripping in high-class glamour! Away from the grand entrance, you’ll find spacious rooms, free fast WiFi and several on-site restaurants just add to the ease of staying here. Also, their pool is stunning; it’s more a lagoon than a pool!

Seeking a cool boutique hotel in Colombo? Try Cinnamon red. I stayed here on my first visit to Sri Lanka and love how funky this hotel is – and the price! Only a few years old and is within easy walking distance of great food and plenty of sights. While there be sure to take advantage of the free WiFi for guests.
Oh, and you must bring your bathers because their rooftop pool on the 26th floor has a spectacular view of the city!

Find more hotels in Colombo, Sri Lanka

What to do and where to stay in Sri Lanka: Sigiriya in north central Sri Lanka

Sigiriya & the Cultural Triangle

What to do: If you only have a few days in Sri Lanka and want to experience the countries cultural heritage, I suggest you start at Sigiriya.

My Sri Lankan friend put it best: “Sigiriya is to Sri Lanka as Uluru is to Australia.” Yet unlike Uluru, you should climb to the top of Sigiriya to see the remains of the ancient rock citadel and lush lands surrounding.

The other points of Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle are the ruined city of Anuradhapura, one of the countries most significant Buddhist sites, and the remains of Polonnaruwa, extensive and well-preserved remains from Sri Lanka’s medieval times.

While you are in the area Minneriya and Kaudulla national parks are close by. These are two of the best places to see wild Asian elephants in Sri Lanka!
Personally, I recommend visiting Kaudulla to see elephants as it acts as a thoroughfare between the two larger national parks. Also, it’s the least populated by tourists which means the elephants are likely to be less stressed.

Where to stay: The best luxury hotel near Sigiriya has to be Jetwing Vil Uyana. Rooms overlook the lake or surrounding forest, with many featuring their own private pool. Oh, and you can sleep in because Sigiriya is basically right next door to the property. You can see it from their lake!
One of the highlights of your stay at Jetwing Vil Uyana will be taking the Loris Night Trail experience. Accompanied by the resident naturalist you’ll find these elusive little nocturnal primates scavenging for insects and berries.

If you want to be centrally located within the cultural triangle, I highly recommend the 5-star Cinnamon Lodge Habarana. Built in the style of an ancient palace-turned-monastery, each room is designed to be a peaceful retreat overlooking thousands of trees that have been planted on the property. All rooms are fitted with king or twin beds and complimentary WiFi. Oh, and a little hint: try the Hoppers at the buffet. So good!

For a more luxury-on-a-budget in Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle that will give you plenty bang for your buck, I also really enjoyed Habarana Village. Their rooms are comfortable and their pool is the perfect place to unwind after spending the morning exploring north central Sri Lanka!

Both of these hotels are at the doorstep of the town of Habarana so I was able to pop out to have a meal at a local restaurant and stock up on snacks at the supermarket. The locals are lovely and will often say “Hi!

Discover hotels near Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

What to do and where to stay in Sri Lanka: Elephants in Kaudulla National Park, Sri Lanka

What to do and where to stay in Sri Lanka: Temple of the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Kandy, SriLanka

Kandy

What to do: The train to Kandy takes just 3 hours but is so different from Colombo. Kandy is a great city to base yourself in if you want to explore the best cultural experiences Sri Lanka has to offer. From my base here, I hiked in the Knuckles Ranges and took a day trip to the tea plantations in Nuwara Eliya.

While in Kandy you must visit the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located in the heart of the city and housed in the former royal palace complex, it was believed that whoever held the tooth – a tooth of Buddha – ruled the country.
While you won’t see the actual tooth – that’s kept in a gold casket, within another gold casket, within another gold casket… – you get the picture – but you can explore the intricate and beautiful temple complex, admire the floral offerings that devotees bring, and even join in prayer.

There are two other museums in or near the complex. The first is a museum dedicated to royal elephants. In particular, Raja, who served in Buddhist processions in Sri Lanka for 50 years. So well-known and loved that when he died in 1988 the government ordered it a day of national mourning. Also, the International Buddhist Museum (Sri Dalada Maligawa), the first of its kind.
Tickets are free for people who have a valid ticket to the Temple of the Tooth, so hold onto your ticket stub!

If you want to escape from the city bustle, Udawattekele is an oasis of calm. Lush plants, plenty of animals (think monkeys, deer and wild boar) and birds (mainly hornbills and flycatchers) can be found. It’s so peaceful you won’t believe you are still within the city. Just watch out for leeches!

Also a shout out to Care Feet Reflexology. After hiking in the Knuckles Ranges I set off to find a good massage downtown. This small, very clean massage parlour in Kandy came highly recommended on Google, and believe me when I say they are good. I enjoyed the head massage but lived for their signature foot massage. All served with a cup of tea – bliss!

Where to stay: I spend a week based out of the best luxury hotel in Kandy: Cinnamon Citadel. Located just beyond downtown Kandy (about an AU$4 tuk-tuk ride) alongside the Mahaweli Ganga (river), the rooms are spacious and – I believe – almost all of them come with a balcony.

The on site buffet is memorable. Unlike other hotels that fill their buffets with western food, Cinnamon Citadel is all Sri Lankan cuisine. It’s great! If they serve it, be sure to try their incredible cashew curry. My friend Emma from My Darling Lemon Thyme liked it so much she remade it when she got home from our trip!

The only thing I didn’t like about this hotel was the tiny gym… but with all the walking I was doing I didn’t really need to use it.

On my next trip the OZO Kandy, a boutique hotel with incredible views, is on my list too.

Find your perfect hotel in Kandy, Sri Lanka

What to do and where to stay in Sri Lanka: Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Kandy, SriLanka

What to do and where to stay in Sri Lanka: Plucker at Dilmah Tea Estate - Holy Rood Tea Factory, Sri Lanka

Nuwara Eliya & Ella

What to do: No visit to Sri Lanka is complete without taking one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world from Kandy through the Hill Country.

Experience an unexpected taste of ‘little England’ in Nuwara Eliya. The town has many historic Tudor-style bungalows and a country club boasting one of the countries two golf courses. Then there are tea plantations. Hundreds of them lining the twisting roads and surrounding the train tracks. Dilmah and Lipton have plantations here (though cannot be visited) but there are still many welcoming travellers through their doors.

Read next: How to visit a tea plantation in Sri Lanka

Those choosing to travel a little further to Ella can spend their times climbing Little Adam’s Peak or the slightly more challenging climb at Ella Rock.

While in the region be sure to trek Horton Plains. The World’s End is a point at the southern tip of the park where the hills drop 700m but the view is incredible.

Where to stay: I stayed at Jetwing St Andrew’s during my stay in Nuwara Eliya. Inside one of the historic Georgian-style country mansions, each of the rooms have been restored so you have a touch of history alongside the modern.
Sri Lanka has the richest density in diversity for amphibians in the world. To showcase these creatures and promote ecotourism (a pillar of the hotel), St Andrew’s resident naturalist holds regular frog watching tours on site!

I am hoping to stay at Thotalagala Bungalow, a stunningly restored boutique hotel nestled alongside Lipton Estate (yes, that Lipton!) With just 7 suites that overlook the tea plantation it sounds like just my cup of tea.

Find a great hotel in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

What to do and where to stay in Sri Lanka: Train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya & Ella

What to do and where to stay in Sri Lanka: Streets of Galle, Sri Lanka

Galle

What to do: Built by the Dutch in the 1600s, Galle is a UNESCO World Heritage Site giving visitors a taste of old Europe along the southern tip of Sri Lanka. At the heart is the Galle Fort. Surrounded on three sides by ocean, this beautiful place is enjoyed by locals and visitors alike.

For the best sunset views head to Flag Rock, a former Portuguese bastion at the southernmost end of the Fort. It’s also a popular place for food carts to set up shop and brave locals to go cliff diving.

It’s common to see Sri Lanka’s famous stilt fishermen at work if you head to Koggala. A practice that started during WWII when overcrowded fishing spots prompted fishermen to devise a way to fish out on the water.
While in Koggala, head to Kathaluwa Buddhist temple. The gorgeous temple is known for its murals and as the home to the first printing press brought by the Dutch to Sri Lanka.

Where to stay: A 17th-century Dutch merchants mansion, Galle Fort Hotel is a 5-star boutique hotel located in the heart of the city but minutes away from the waterfront.

If beachside is a must then check into Jetwing Lighthouse. Mixing heritage with modern Sri Lankan design, the beautiful hotel is just a short walk from the city centre but rooms overlook the water. Be sure to take advantage of Spa Ceylon on-site for a soothing massage; you can never relax too much, right?

More hotels in Galle, Sri Lanka

What to do and where to stay in Sri Lanka: Fisherman in Galle, Sri Lanka

Mirissa & the South West Coast

What to do: Chilled vibes and whale watching tours are not the only thing that makes Marissa and the South West Coast so popular. It’s the miles of virtually unspoiled beaches!

The best time to spot whales is from the end of November until March. If you haven’t pre-booked a tour, head down to the beach to find people offering whale watching tours. You’ll head out on the Indian Ocean for a few hours to see whales, dolphins and even turtles!

Mirissa Beach is also popular with those wanting to go surfing in Sri Lanka. The crowds are small and there are two breaks at either end of the beach.

If you visit during peak season skip Marissa and consider staying in Weligama or Unawatuna. Both much smaller and less touched by tourism means you’ll be able to grab a coconut and hammock along the beach and chill.

Where to stay: I haven’t stayed in Marissa yet (that’s for my next trip!) but on the advice of my local friends, I’ve been told to skip the resorts and stay in local, independent accommodation in Marissa.

They recommended Number ONE Mirrissa Hotel, the only boutique hotel in Marissa. The suites are large (24sq ft. minimum) and all have a terrace with gorgeous views of the water. Even their pool overlooks Marissa Beach!

The other hotel in Marissa they suggested I stay at is The Lantern Hotel. Located just outside Marissa, this boutique hotel has just six rooms giving each guest personalised service during their stay.

More hotels in Mirissa, Sri Lanka

What to do and where to stay in Sri Lanka: Leopard spotting in Yala National Park

Yala

What to do: Sri Lanka is home to some incredible wildlife experiences. There is no place better to take a safari experience in Sri Lanka than Yala National Park.

Yala is known for its leopard populations and while you might not always spot these elusive big cats you are almost guaranteed to see plenty of elephants, monkeys, crocodiles, water monitor lizards, deer and rare birds.

Where to stay:

You are perfectly situated for your safari when staying at Cinnamon Wild Yala. Located right on the border of Yala National Park, this luxury eco-hotel has only 68 bungalow chalets offering the ultimate personal experience.
You don’t even need to leave your hotel for the Sri Lankan safari to begin! The hotel has a tribe of resident grey lemurs. There’s also a lake some of the bungalows overlook where you might spot elephants, buffalo, and a variety of birds.

If you want to try something a little different, why not go glamping in Yala? While you can’t camp within the borders of the park, just outside is Noel Rodrigo’s Leopard Safaris campsite. Each stylish tent is fitted with a king or twin beds, hot showers, jungle bar, pool, and the chance to dine under the stars.

More hotels in Yala, Sri Lanka

What to do and where to stay in Sri Lanka: Cinnamon Wild Yala

What to do and where to stay in Sri Lanka: Negombo Fish Market | Negombo, Sri Lanka | Fish market in Asia | What to do in Negombo | Local fish market Sri Lanka | Third biggest fish market in Sri Lanka

Negombo

What to do: On the west coast of Sri Lanka, Negombo is a fishing village turned into a modest beach town. This is the place you come if you want to sit back, relax, and enjoy the beach.

If you choose to venture beyond your resort, there are reminders of European colonisation along the waterfront. Negombo was an important source of cinnamon during the Dutch era, and you can wander around the remains of the old Dutch fort.

Be sure to visit the Negombo Fish Market while you are in town. The catch of the day is bought in early, really early, at around 4 or 5 am; but if you don’t find your way til a little later there will still be plenty of people around at 9 am.
People will be laying out fish to dry on long woven mats along the beach. Locals will be selling their catch inside the market. Expect to find more than just the usual fish; I spotted barracudas, sharks and things I didn’t recognise at all!

Where to stay: Located just 10km from the countries main airport, Bandaranaike International Airport, Negombo is a fishing village now home to some of the countries most beautiful beachside resorts. If you want to skip the bustle of Colombo this is where you should begin or end your Sri Lankan adventure!

I stayed at Jetwing Blue. Their deluxe rooms are huge and come complete with a view of the Indian Ocean (if it’s not obstructed by the palm trees as mine was!). The glass-walled bathroom is a feature but does come with a curtain for those who prefer to have a bath or enjoy the rainforest shower in privacy.

When deciding on your day’s activities you have the choice between the stunning infinity pool surrounded by palms and lazing in a Balinese-style cabana or the beach, the water’s edge is just steps away from the pool. The hotel is located on the main street of the town so you can easily get out and explore, and you’ll find Negombo is in a great location to get you to the best things to do in Sri Lanka!

More hotels in Negombo, Sri Lanka

What to do and where to stay in Sri Lanka: Negombo Fish Market | Negombo, Sri Lanka | Fish market in Asia | What to do in Negombo | Local fish market Sri Lanka | Third biggest fish market in Sri Lanka

When to travel to Sri Lanka

For such a small island, the weather in Sri Lanka is a little complicated. While it’s hot all year round, monsoon season brings rain to the west and southwest coasts and hill country from May to September. This rainy weather will hit the east coast from November to March.

The best time to visit the west and south coasts (including wildlife spotting!) and hill country are from December to March, while the best weather on the east coast is from April/May to September, with whale watching best from November to May.

Regardless of when you go, bring a warm jacket and even a pocket umbrella if you plan to visit the hill country, including destinations like tea country of Neuwa Eliya or Ella.

How long should I spend in Sri Lanka?

How long is a piece of string?

It’s important to note that many visas (including Aussies) are 30-days long. With so much to see and do across the country, you could easily spend a full 30 days or more here!

Although Sri Lanka is small, distances take a long time to drive due to the condition of most of the roads (other than the freeway between Galle and Colombo), so it’s wise not to overcommit to your itinerary. Many a holiday has been ruined by sitting in the car for 8 hours a day! Here’s my advice for a medium paced trip:

Less than 4 Days: Sigiriya & the Cultural Triangle or Galle and surrounding beaches only
Around 8 days: Sigiriya & the Cultural Triangle/Kandy/Tea Country or Galle, Tea Country and Yala
Around 10 Days: Sigiriya & the Cultural Triangle, Kandy, Galle, Tea Country, Yala, and Negombo or Colombo, Kandy, Tea Country, Galle, Mirissa, Yala
More than 10 days: Colombo, Sigiriya & the Cultural Triangle, Kandy, Galle, Tea Country, Yala, Mirissa, and Negombo

Sri Lankan Airlines

How to get to Sri Lanka

The best way to get to Sri Lanka from Australia is onboard Sri Lankan Airlines 10.5-hour flight from Melbourne to Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport (CMB) in Colombo operating 6 times per week.

If you want to make a stopover, I would fly with Qantas, Emirates, Singapore Airlines, Scoot or Jetstar via Singapore; Malaysian Airlines or AirAsia via. Kuala Lumpur; Thai Airways via Bangkok or Phuket; or Cathay Pacific via Hong Kong.

READ: Sri Lankan Airlines economy review

How to get around Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka is full of tuk-tuks, buses, trains, and private cars.

Around the cities, I love travelling by tuk-tuk. They’re an easy way to see city sites. Be sure to agree upon a price before starting your journey. I’ve been told it’s common for drivers to take detours to friends souvenir shops though have never had this happen to me.

For longer journeys, such as the trip to Galle, Nuwara Eliya, and Ella, consider taking the popular and super cheap trains.
Trains are popular, cheap and tickets can be pre-purchased for all classes.

In summer, the economy class can be stifling despite the open-air “airconditioning”. But views along the coastal routes and through the tea country around Ella and Kandy are spectacular. You can even sit in the doorways, dangling your legs outside the carriage.”

For popular routes, like that to Nuwya Eliya, consider booking well in advance.

On my last trip, I hired a personal driver through the hotel chain I was staying with who acted as both driver and tour guide. It was great to be able to stop where we wanted or change the itinerary to suit our needs.
On top of the price charged, tipping is encouraged at the end of your tour. I paid about US$20 p/day and it was worth every cent.

I highly discourage you from renting a car or motorcycle.

 

Planning a trip to Sri Lanka? Read these next:

First impressions of Sri Lanka

A Guide to North Central Sri Lanka

Climbing Sigiriya: Sri Lanka’s most famous sight

Inside the Golden Temple of Dambulla

Seeing Elephants at Kaudulla National Park, Sri Lanka

Morning walks at Negombo Fish Market

Life on a Sri Lankan Tea Plantation

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This article does contain some affiliate links.
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Please note: I have stayed in all the hotels mentioned unless specified otherwise.
This is based on my experience in Sri Lanka. I am so excited to go back for round three very soon!

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2 Comments

  • Reply
    Adam
    January 9, 2019 at 3:21 pm

    This the best guide I’ve come across recently. I’m planning to go to Sri Lanka this year and doing a lot of research and you helped me a lot. Thanks

    • Reply
      Nicole
      January 10, 2019 at 5:51 pm

      Thanks Adam! 🙂
      Hope you have a great trip to Sri Lanka. Please let me know if there’s anything else I can help you with.

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