3 Weeks in Sri Lanka: the perfect itinerary
In June we spent 3 weeks in Sri Lanka. A country with bustling cities, lush green mountains, endless beaches, herds of elephants, a paradise for surfers, sweet chai, and kind people. We learned that when you visit this magnificent country, with amazing food, beautiful nature and awesome train-rides, you need the best route that will encompass everything you need to experience in Sri Lanka.
Before diving into this guide to Sri Lanka it is good to note that the country knows two monsoon seasons: The Maha monsoon season, lasting from October to Januari covering the east and north of the country, and the Yala monsoon season, lasting from May to August and covering the south and west of the country.
As it is a relatively small country, three weeks is the prefect amount of time to see half the island. We decided to go to the east and northern parts because they are less explored and more off-the beaten track than more popular south and west. Additionally, the months between May and August are considered low season, making it the perfect moment for a budget Sri Lanka trip. Here is our 3-week itinerary of North and Eastern Sri Lanka:
Day 1 - 2: Arrival in Colombo and/or Negombo
Negombo is closer to the airport than Colombo. It is a very relaxed beach town, with a couple of restaurants, beach bars and an awesome beach. We decided to stay in Negombo, as it is especially nice to rest a bit and take it easy after a long flight, escaping the hustle and bustle that Colombo brings. However, due to a problem with our booking, we could not spend another night so we decided to go to Colombo for our second night, as we were planning on taking the train to Kandy the next day anyways. Colombo, the capital city of Sri Lanka, is a thriving and busy city and we loved it. The food there will be in your top three, there are lots of historical sights to visit and the whole city has a kind of cosmopolitan feel to it. There are lots of markets and it is fun to walk around and get introduced to Sri Lankan Culture.
Day 3 – 5 Explore Kandy and surroundings
The train that originates in Colombo and takes you all the way to Ella is a must. No matter where you go off, the views of rolling lush tea plantations will be amazing and it will most likely be one of the best train-rides you can have anywhere in the world. We got off at Kandy, a city with a huge lake at its centre and the famous temple of the sacred tooth relic, which are all worth a visit. Additionally there are many options to see a Kandyan dance performance, which is interesting at the very least, with fire breathing stunts and elaborate costumes. Not necessarily our jam, but if it's something you're interested in, this is the place to be. Besides all the cultural things that you can do, leave enough time to explore to hills that surround the city, as this is what really makes this area shine.
On our second day asked the staff at the hostel we were staying which bus we could take to see the hills and villages outside the city and trekked for a full day. It was beautiful: we walked past mountain villages, tea plantations and Buddhist temples. We went east of Kandy as our hostel was situated in that direction, but you can pretty much take a bus to any direction and have an amazing time. We would recommend to just have a chat with the people that run the place you are staying in.
Day 6 – 7: Spotting herds of elephants in Kaudulla National Park
After Kandy, we took a bus to Polonnaruwa. It was inside this bus that we saw our first elephant, just strolling along the highway. We couldn't be more excited. Because, besides harbouring lots of archeological treasures, Polonnaruwa it is the perfect place to visit one of the national parks in Sri Lanka to see giant herds of elephants. For elephant lovers: Sri Lanka is one of the best countries in the world to have close encounters with wild elephants. Not one or a few, but hundreds of them can be spotted in the parks of Sri Lanka. Ask for advice on which parks are best to visit when. Most hotels have a couple of guides linked to them that keep an eye out on the whereabouts of the elephants. We stayed in Hotel Ancient Village and the guy owning the place advised us to go to Kaudulla instead of Minniraya National Park because the latter is often overrun with jeeps and there is not so much chance of seeing large herds of elephants. A great piece of advice because we saw so many elephants in Kaudulla Park, ranging from babies to giant bulls. It truly was an experience we will never forget.
Day 8 – 12: Beach-hopping on the East Coast
The East Coast is perfect for soaking up those beach vibes. If, like us, you like to have a couple of days of doing nothing except eating, relaxing and beach bumming the small fishing villages that dot the coast are perfect for you. We choose to stay at Pasikudah: a small seaside village with a few beaches nearby which can easily be explores by foot. We stayed at a wonderful ashram which included two flavourful meals a day. If this is too quiet for you and feel like more people, bars and fisher boats again; head north to natural harbour town Trincomalee, or nearby beach towns Uppuveli and Nilaveli. The one downside to these beautiful places is that some spots have sandflies. And these bugs have a nasty way of ruining your day at the beach. So come prepared with some products containing DEET or keep moving when you see them.
Day 13 – 16: Rich Tamil Culture in Jaffna and the North
Experience rich Tamil culture in the ultimate North of Sri Lanka: Jaffna. As this region has only been opened for tourists recently, it is truly off the beaten track and makes for an interesting stop, especially when you want to understand more about Sri Lankan history and culture. Dotted with colourful Hindu temples, the city thrives with Hindu culture, which sets itself apart from predominantly Buddhist Sri Lanka. The dusty, sand coloured city is great to explore by foot or bike. Go and visit one of the temples in town, visit the local market and eat some great Indian influenced food. The next day you can visit the Public Library and the Clock Tower and head to Jaffna Fort, a coral stone fort build in 1618 overlooking the Jaffna Lagoon. A couple of other interesting sights are on the islands to the west of Jaffna’s. The ride there is beautiful and taking a ferry to the Nainativu is wel worth it. On the one side of the island there is a Buddhist Stupa and on the other side a towering colourful Hindu complexes, signifying the differences between the religions and the struggles between the Hindu Tamils and Singhalese Buddhist. We were super lucky as there was a ceremony going on at the Hindu temple, which prepared us somewhat for what we would encounter later on in India.
Day 16 – 18: Visit one of Sri Lanka’s ancient cities
From Jaffna you can easily take a train to Anuradhapura, a city sprawled with monuments, stupa's and other holy sites. The best and most fun way to explore the countless temples and ruins is by renting a bike. Cruising the streets from site to site felt like home for us Dutchies. The top two places to visit for us were Isurumuniya, a magnificent temple built in a cave, or the huge, white Ruwanwelisaya Stupa. Another tip is to catch sunset at mountain peak Mihintale, a 45 minutes busdrive away from Anuradhapura. This is a pilgrim site with several religious monuments plus ruins. Due to its higher altitude this place offers spectacular views over green fields, small villages, and towering stupas, making it a fantastic spot for sunset. There is actually a secret spot behind the buddha statue in the picture, where you need to follow a little path that leads up to a rock with a breathtaking view. You can easily spend an hour there looking at all the stupas and greenery you see, if you bring some snacks. One word of caution, as it officially does not belong to the site, there are no railings or whatsoever in place, making it not the safest place to hang out.
Day 19 – 20: Back to Colombo
We spend our final days in bustling Colombo. Go for a hostel near the coast, meet nice people, party, and finally but potentially most importantly; indulge on as many samosas, kottu rotis and mango with salt and pepper as you can for the last time. We would definitely recommend going to Galle Face Green for a sunset and some people watching. Some other sights that are worth your while are the fort area in the north and the shops, stalls and markets in ancient Pettah.
Day 21: Return home or continue to India
With a full stomach and countless new memories.