This article is a proposal for a 3-week-long itinerary for a round trip in Sri Lanka. Probably you already have your flight tickets to Sri Lanka or at least you seriously consider going. For sure you would like to have a quick overview on the odds and assets of that magic Asian country. Keep reading, this is your place!
The present itinerary is thought to spend 3 weeks in the island. Here, we won’t do that practise of over exagerating the number of days that you need on every place. Of course, you could spend three or four days on every spot but it could be done in less in order to enjoy more place on the island.
Check all the best places of Sri Lanka on Besides the Obvious!
Airport to Negombo beaches
Most likely, you will arrive in Sri Lanka via Bandaranaike International Airport. This airport is just there in Negombo, a tourist town located North of Colombo.
In the beginning, Negombo will look chaotic, messy and dirty to you. This is just because you may have never been to Colombo yet. Negombo is a popular beach destination with plenty of bars and restaurants and good enjoyable options for accommodation. Since that is a tourist place, it is therefore a bit spoiled and the coast can be quite contaminated where there is not a taken care and clean beach. Browns Beach is to us the best option to stick around and enjoy relaxing with all the services around. You may pay 100 rupees to get in with your vehicle.
Besides the beaches in Negombo you can catch up with a genuine mixture of cultures, as the outcome of the history of the territory. You can find Buddhist temples, Christian churches, and Dutch colonial buildings in the old town of Negombo.
Negombo – Anuradhapura
It may be a long journey. Even though the road conditions are quite good on this route for the local standards be prepared for at least four hours long. You will leave the coast and you will go into the cultural shock of inner Sri Lanka.
Anuradhapura is all about traditions and buddhism. The mixed culture of Negombo will vanish and turn out in a buddhist dominance. Anuradhapura doesn’t seem like a proper town since the estates are wide and they look like they were eaten by the jungle. You will follow your map or your guide from temple to temple and from complex to complex to discover the next big ancient stupa on a never ending list.
People dress in white and pray at any corner. As a visitor, you will receive many invitations for conversations or explanations. Just try not to interfere with those ones who don’t want to be disturbed.
Anuradhapura – Jaffna
From Anuradhapura to the North you would realize about big cultural and social differences in the country. The North is much more unpopulated, wild and underdeveloped than the South or the West.
Jaffna is a must on your trip to Sri Lanka. Not because of its general beauty but for its cultural interest. Jaffna is the capital of the Tamil territory and that means Hinduism and all the related cultures. You will be able to find a lot of Hindu temples, Indian food cooked by Indian expats and a vibrant city proud of its tradition and identity.
Jaffna – Point Pedro
This is more a recommendation to take a round trip along this amazing peninsula than a short way to go from A to B. Indeed, from Jaffna to Point Pedro the distance can be short but you would miss a lot at the shortest way. Take the the occasion to make a trip along the whole coast, exploring the Northern island and enjoy the wild.
The islands of Jaffna are the quintessence of the rural Tamil culture with many Hindu temples around and isolated anglers’ communities. You will feel that you are in a different country, less dense, more wild and quite poor. The villages are just some spread houses where the visitor can barely figure out a proper center. This territory is authentic and very much far away from any beaten path.
Point Pedro – Mullaitivu
This stage of your trip will be a trip to the unknown. Culturally, you will be able to discover some about the recent history of the country. Just pay a bit of attention to any of the many war memorials you will find on your way. Probably, you will cross to the mainland via the elephant path where an important episode of the recent civil war took place.
After that, the way to Mullaitivu could be long. To have a break from the heat of the path you can stop at many places on the coast to have a bath. You will start finding wonderful spots to swim on the Eastern Coast. This coast is indeed more pleasant, clean and beautiful than the crowded and contaminated Western one. Be careful with the currents and the strength of the waves at some points and ask the locals before getting into the water if there is any extra danger, like sharks or corals.
Mullaitivu – Nilaveli
This is the perfect route for beach hunters. The piece of coast from Mullaitivu to Nilaveli is very beautiful and almost unspoiled. The villages are small and very similar to each other on the route. Many of them have some bath spots where to get into the turquoise water.
Nilaveli is perfect to rest near Trincomalee, where you can find a proper city with all the services and cultural attractions. Instead, Nilaveli offers calmness and nice resorts to enjoy the perfect vacation on the Ocean. If you want a bit more of people around to interact with, you can just get to Uppuveli Beach.
Nilaveli – Polonnaruwa
On our way to Polonnaruwa, we will jump again in the inner Sri Lanka. Definitely, in the interior of the country what you can expect is very much different in terms of culture and fun options. You will be in the middle of a jungle with many options of catching up with wild animals and spot spectacular landscapes.
Polonnaruwa is a holy town, very important for Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Besides the religion, Polonnaruwa is an ancient very important city with a very interesting archaeological complex declared in the World Heritage List by UNESCO. As the rest of the archaeological sites in the country are expensive for the local standards, but that one in Polonnaruwa is worth it.
Polonnaruwa – Sigiriya
The way to Sigiriya is a trip to the heart of the jungle. The temperatures seem to want to break the termometer, the humidity seems to be even higher and the mosquitoes bigger and smarter. Giant geckos cross the road, there are elephants around and everybody greets and smiles when you pass by.
The icon of Sigiriya is its beautiful rock. On the top there is an archaeological site but to climb can be hard because of the heat and from the top you won’t have the rock views anymore. In Sigiriya there are many accommodations and you will be able to hunt a nice resort according to your budget to enjoy a nice rest in the jungle.
Sigiriya – Dambulla
When we read about Dambulla and we saw some pictures of its temples we thought it was just one more buddhist spot. Dambulla is part of the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka, recognized by UNESCO.
In our opinion is the best representative of Buddhism in the country. Dambulla’s heritage is very well preserved and taken care of and the Temple of the Gold and Rangiri Dambulla Cave Temple play the premier league of the very beautiful temples of the continent. Don’t miss them!
Dambulla – Kandy
Don’t expect Kandy to be a nice small town with a beautiful temple. Kandy is a proper city and an inner capital in the country. To arrive is a challenge because of the crazy traffic in small roads and to circulate in the city downtown can be a real nightmare.
To compensate for the traffic hassles, the visitor will find a fine downtown with colonial buildings around a beautiful lake and an unbelievable temple, which preserves one of the teeth of Buddha, always crowded with believers.
Kandy – Nuwara Eliya
The way to Nuwara Eliya is the way to the highlands. This is the path which connects the jungle with the upper mountains of the country and the local tradition with the colonial past. The visitor will feel the temperature decreasing while the vehicle is climbing up to the hills and maybe once arrived at the accommodation a refreshing pool bath is not needed anymore.
In Nuwara Eliya the fields are still diverse but the traveler will spot the first tea fields and will understand the importance of the territory for the English Empire and for the subsequent independent local economy. Nuwara Eliya is a very interesting unspoiled alternative to the very touristy Ella.
Nuwara Eliya – Haputale
In the way of Haputale the traveler will cross from time to time the famous tracks of the train to Ella. The environment is hilly and the temperature cool. Haputale is the perfect base to start a tour to the tea plantations and to Lipton Seat.
The town of Haputale doesn’t look like a tourist town but you will see some of them since it is very close to the famous Ella. You should not miss the train station since it is more authentic than Ella’s and seems to be the scenery of a colonial period movie.
Haputale – Ella
Ella is a very famous and touristy spot. It sounds like a promised destination for adventurers and alternative backpackers. Even during Covid pandemic and just after, during the grave economic crisis of Sri Lanka in 2022, Ella was full with tourist of all kinds who filled the accommodations and the bars’ terraces drinking cocktails and eating pizza and pad thai.
Ella is famous for an old mythic way of arriving: the train. And on the way, many tourists go to spot, from the viewpoints, the tracks and especially the Nine Arch Bridge which is an icon of the country. If you want some fun and meet some backpackers, Ella will probably be one of your favorite destinations in Sri Lanka.
Ella – Tangalle
From Ella to Tangalle, you will descend from the Highlands to the coasts in a vertical way down trip. Either you pass via Yala National Park to spot some elephants or next to the less known Lunugamvehera National Park where you could see a more real villager way of life. When you reach the coast the environment will turn in a mixture of mangroves and Ocean coastal lifestyle.
Tangalle is not as touristy as Mirissa so you won’t have the feeling of being in a Western bubble set up just for tourists. Despite it being quite authentic and local, you will find some nice resorts at reasonable prices and proper Sri Lankian food. Don’t miss the fishermen’s harbor!
Tangalle – Dondra – Mirissa
From Tangalle to Mirissa you will find hundreds of places where you would desire to have a bath. This coast is beautiful,visible from the road and very accessible. If the Ocean is not very strong the days you are there you will have the occasion of getting into the water in very beautiful beaches.
On your way to Mirissa you will have the chance to step on the most Southern point of the country which is the famous Dondra Lighthouse. Mirissa is very touristy and very spoiled. It has a huge beautiful harbor where you have to pay to enter. There are many nice accommodations on the way with private access to the awesome beaches. Some of them are very expensive but some others are affordable. I suggest not staying in Mirissa town.
Mirissa – Koggala – Galle
On your way to Galle you will be able to stop in Koggala to spot stilt fishermen. If it is the season you will find them fishing for real but if it is not they will be waiting for you to pay for some pictures while they pretend to be fish. After the fishing photo session you will arrive in Galle and the town will surprise you.
Galle is a delight. This is a well preserved Colonial city with an old quartier that is really beautiful. In terms of Colonial vibe, there is nothing compared with Galle. The old town is full of bars and restaurants where you will be able to enjoy some drinks and food of all kinds in a very nice atmosphere.