Sri Lanka is a small tear dropped shaped island just off the coast of India. Due to its small size, it is easy to get around and has lots of great attractions in a compact area. With culture in the center and stunning beaches surrounding the island, it has a little bit of everything. However, as an up and coming destination there is not a whole lot of information online about it. Before, we left for Sri Lanka I was pulling my hair out trying to find information.
Tourism only returned to Sri Lanka with the end of the civil war in 2009. Furthermore, what information there is, is based on using private transport which was not an option for us: it is surprisingly pricey. Instead, we used public buses which never cost us more than a quid, even for a five hour journey. Due to this lack of information, we have put together this Sri Lanka itinerary. This is the itinerary we followed because all the destinations were connected by local buses. Therefore, making Sri Lanka a perfect budget destination for backpackers who want to get off the beaten track.
So, here it is, our budget backpacker Sri Lanka itinerary.
Sri Lanka Itinerary
Colombo or Negombo
Sri Lanka’s international airport is in Colombo, the capital. However, from the airport it is over an hour to the city center where the accommodation is located. Furthermore, based on the reviews we received from other travelers you do not want to be spending time in this overcrowded and noisy city. Therefore, we would recommend heading first to Negombo for a night to orient yourself and prepare for the first leg of your journey.
I cannot really give Negombo the most glowing recommendation. Its sole attraction is the beach which is unattractive compared to Sri Lanka’s other beaches. Nevertheless, its convenient location makes it the perfect spot to recover from your flight.
From Negombo you are a four hour bus journey to Kandy the second largest city in Sri Lanka. This journey is very pretty and will take you through the winding hill roads. Although prepare yourself for their crazy Asian driving techniques! Once in Kandy you can visit the botanical gardens, a beautiful legacy of the British Colonial period. Also, visit the most sacred site in Sri Lanka, the Tooth Temple, so- called because it holds one of the Buddha’s teeth. Or, take a stroll around the lake at dusk to see some enormous flying fox bats. While in town you can pre-book your train ticket to Ella, this is pivotal because the tickets sell out fast and if you arrive on the day to buy a non-reserved ticket you risk not getting a ticket. Trust me you do not want to miss this experience.
The cultural center.
It is then time to head further north to the cultural centre of Sri Lanka, where the ancient cities are located. We chose to stay in Dambulla and then make a day trip by bus to Sigirya. This worked out well but bear in mind that Dambulla town lacks charm. Dambulla is not a tourist town, we struggled to find a restaurant to eat in! If you are on a tight schedule then it might be possible to squeeze the caves and Sigirya Rock into one day but we took two days to complete these two attractions. If you are in Dambulla overnight then head up Dambulla caves to see a stunning sunset.
A short bus ride from Dambulla is Polonawara. We found Polonawara a pleasant surprise, our accommodation was out of the way but we rented bicycles and had a gorgeous ride down the river every time we went out. From here you can spend a day exploring the ruins by bicyle or tuk-tuk. Imagine a smaller version of Angkor Wat or a nicer version of Ayuthaya in Thailand. While in town you can also go on a safari but we did not have time to do this.
A note of caution: a common scam in this area is tuk-tuk drivers offering you cheap tickets to Polonawara. They are reselling old ticket stubs, which is not only illegal but you will not have access to all three sections of Polonawara. My advice would be: buy your own ticket at the museum and cycle around the historic area. It will be more enjoyable than a rushed tuk-tuk tour.
Just as an aside, prepare yourself for some serious tourist prices at Sigiriya and Polonowara. You will be paying around $30 for entry to these places while locals will pay 30 cents. This tourist pricing is the most extreme we have experienced in any country.
From Polonawara we headed back to Kandy where we had to spend a night before catching the train to Ella early the next morning.
The train from Kandy to Ella has been dubbed the most scenic train journey in the world. Well, let me tell you they aren’t exaggerating! The seven hour train ride through hill country and tea plantations is the stuff of wanderlust dreams. It is unbelievable. I never thought I would say that a train journey could become the highlight of three weeks in a country but it was. If you do one thing in Sri Lanka, make it this train journey. Also, third class is fine. Don’t let anyone tell you differently! In addition, riding third class will give you a chance to interact with the locals, but, the drum playing became annoying by the fifth hour.
So, after a train ride through heaven you arrive in Ella. Oh, Ella, how I loved you. Ella is a backpacker’s paradise. It is spectacularly beautiful, super chilled and because of its raised altitude it is cooler than the rest of the country. While in town complete at least one of the two famed treks: Ella Rock or Little Adams Peak. If you only have time for one then pick Ella Rock but this is the far more strenuous option.
From Ella, it is an easy bus ride to Mirissa, a coastal town that is over flowing with charm. The beach is beautiful, lined with palm trees and small shacks selling food. In addition to the beach, there is the opportunity to go whale watching. Make sure you only go whale watching if it is the right season. We were one month out of season and in seven hours we saw the back of one whale for about six seconds!
We wished we had spent longer in Mirissa. Unfortunately, we left Mirissa thinking there would be better beaches further north but nothing we found compared to charming Mirissa.
Galle Fort annd lighthouse is one of the images that grace every postcard of Sri Lanka. It is a stunning area despite being very touristic. However, we found that an afternoon/evening at the fort was enough and ended up going to Unawatuna beach on our second day in Galle. The snorkelling in Unawatuna was insane and I even saw a turtle (even if James doesn’t believe me).
We headed to Hikkaduwa after Galle and I hated it there. It was dirty, it was over crowded and the locals were unpleasant. In fact, they gave other Sri Lankans a bad reputation, acting drunk and disorderly on the streets during the day. There was an unpleasant edgy feeling there.
However, it is worth visiting Hikkaduwa, even just for the day from Galle to visit the Tsunami museum. Located near the railway tracks where a train with 1,300 people on board was washed away leaving only ten survivors. This harrowing museum will help you understand the trauma Sri Lanka experienced during and after the 2004 tsunami. It is a must visit to fully understand Sri Lanka’s people went through. You cannot speak to a local in this area without them having been effected by the Tsunami. It is a heartbreaking place to visit.
Because we hated Hikkaduwa we headed north sooner than anticipated and ended up spending three nights at the 5 star Cinnamon Bay resort in Berwula. This is not a resort that is in a budget backpackers price range. However, we found a bargain deal online that we simply could not turn down. Hey, you must treat yourself every once in a while! So, we spent our final nights in total luxury before heading up to Colombo to spend a night before flying out early the next morning.
If you don’t manage to find a bargain deal like us, then we would recommend spending longer in Mirissa or maybe stay a couple of nights in Unawatuna. But the entire coast is so well connected by bus you can get off or flag down a bus anywhere on the Galle-Colombo Road. So, why not check out a different coastal town.
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