Our Travel Guide to Sri Lanka: 30 Days in Paradise
Sri Lanka is a beautiful island full of wonders, from paddy fields to mountains, stunning coastline to national parks. Sri Lanka will cater for anyone, whether you wish to hike, mountain climb, surf, dive, visit a national park full of animals or bathe with elephants. It is all possible!
There are many different itineraries you can choose from, depending on how long you visit for and how much action you want to do.
We went for 1 month during March and April 2017, after being in South India for 4 months prior. We found Sri Lanka to be like a developed India, as much more advanced with their roads, trains, cleanliness and tourism. The Sri Lankans are also much friendlier and accommodating. We did find it expensive in comparison, and nearing European prices for some things such as Alcohol, Tobacco, Sea Food, Taxis and Clothes, however their Train fares, Tuk Tuks and Curries are relatively cheap in comparison.
Our destination choices came from a mix of recommendation, research and chance. We flew into Sri Lanka’s Capital City Colombo from Chennai (South West India) and decided to stay there 2 nights before moving on. I have provided weather and best time to visit tips, plus our experience at the end of my blog!
- Colombo (3 days)
- Kandy in Central Hill Country (5 days)
- Day trip north to Dambulla & Sigiriya
- Hikkaduwa on the South West Coast (10 days)
- Day trip south to Galle & Unawatuna
- Mirissa on the South West Coast (11 days)
A big city full of traffic and noise with a lovely buzz – worth a visit! We stayed there 3 days / 2 nights.
Where to stay
There are plenty of hotels and homestays (we used booking.com but you can also use Agoda or Airbnb) One piece of advice is to choose at least 4 options and then check out Trip Advisor, Agoda and Booking.com’s reviews for a realistic picture of what it’s like, so as to avoid disappointment.
Beautiful Colombo Room on Booking.com
Lovely house / homestay with 3 rooms to rent in District 5 (also called Zone 5), via booking.com. The room was clean and modern. It cost around 8,560 LKR (Sri Lankan Rupees) which was £43 / US$56 for 2 nights. This was a lot less than other hotels and guesthouses when we searched and had great reviews.
The host was fantastic, she spoke to us via email and arranged an airport transfer. This fare cost us 3500 LKR (£17 / US$22) as was quite a journey from the airport due to traffic. In hindsight, if we had known better we could have just booked an Uber for a lot less.
Best advice in Asia is to always use Uber or Grab as they are the cheapest Taxis. This was a good lesson for us as now we always check the Uber app everywhere we travel!
How to get around
There are 15 Districts / Zones in Colombo. The centre is in Zone 1, where the main train station is (called Colombo Fort) and the Seafront.
Best way to travel around Colombo is via Tuk Tuk, as traffic is heavy and these get around very quickly in-between traffic gaps. I wouldn’t recommend taking a bus as can be slow and sweaty! The Tuk Tuk cost wasn’t bad; around 650 LKR (£3.35 / US$4.25) from our room into the centre of Colombo.
We travelled to Zone 1 to check out train times and costs for our next trip up to Kandy. Best advice is to check in advance and book your train tickets so you know the times (the fast trains tend to be early)
Train carriages and seats vary in terms of class and cost. As a westerner if you’d rather not sweat and take ages to get anywhere, I’d recommend booking First Class (which is just a carriage with A/C and comfy soft seats) as the cost isn’t very high; as I remember, it cost us 480 LKR (approx. £2.50 / US$3.18) each to get a train ticket to Kandy from Colombo Fort train station. Always try to get the fast express train!
Not all trains will have a First Class carriage so check in advance and choose. Beware there is a carriage called something like ‘The Observatory’ (big windows at the front of the train) and a lot of people, us included, mistake it for First Class so you could find you got onto the wrong carriage and into someone else’s seat. Train station staff are very helpful and will point you in the right direction, so don’t worry!
Once in Colombo centre, we walked to the Seafront just to take a look and pass the time. We ended up finding a German Beer Bar & Restaurant The Bavarian and stopped for a refreshment in the soaring heat. Whilst walking, we also stopped by two of the loveliest Hotels mentioned earlier; first we took a break in the poolside bar at the Galle Face Hotel and then later at the SkyLounge bar at the top of The Kingsbury, which opens from 5.30pm. Well worth a visit!
There is a lot of Chinese and Japanese construction and investment on the seafront as they are building a brand new Marina, so in a few years this area will be much more upmarket.
Kandy is a large city in central Sri Lanka. It’s set on a plateau surrounded by mountains, which are home to tea plantations. In the centre of Kandy there is a Lake called Bogambara Lake (also known as Kandy Lake) which is beautiful and ideal for walking around. There are many sacred Buddhist sites, including the Temple of the Tooth shrine.
How to get there from Colombo
There is an early fast train from Colombo. Again, best advice is to book 1st class if you want A/C and a comfortable seat, as the journey takes around 2.5 hours. As you get to Kandy there will be many taxis and tuk tuks waiting to offer you a lift. Go with your gut but do ask for a Metered Tuk Tuk or taxi as they do operate there and then you know the fare is priced fairly. I believe the fares are usually around 600 LKR (£3 / US$3.91) if you are heading into Kandy from the station, but this will depend on where you are staying!
Where to stay
There are many homestays and hotels in Kandy to choose from, either via booking.com or Agoda. I found a highly rated homestay called Nook Rest on booking.com. This was very central to the main town and temples. Price was really good for 2 nights at £38 / US$50 at the time (prices may vary) We liked it so much that we extended for a few more nights!
It was a standalone apartment with 2 rooms and ensuite bathroom, a shared lounge, kitchen and huge balcony.
If you check Booking or Agoda, be sure to read all reviews and location, as we did find some horrors.
Food & Drink
Good place to eat and drink, whilst enjoying the view of Kandy Lake. Run by an English guy who has lived in Sri Lanka for many years. It is on the way down the hill to the centre of town, before you get to the Temple of the Tooth. You will see a big building on the right and you walk up a steep hill to get to it. We used google maps as had read about it and got the address from Trip Advisor, but you may find this on the link above in the title! They offer a Happy Hour from 5pm and you will mainly find western travellers in this bar. If you want a table, get there early or book. It does offer a great atmosphere!
Extremely good coffee (Fair Trade) We found this place by chance as went to find the Olde Empire Hotel as a friend told us it was worth a visit, so on our way we stumbled across this gem of a coffee shop! Well worth a visit as they are bringing back coffee production to Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is mainly known for its Tea production (the name Ceylon says it all) but it used to be coffee that was produced in the 1800’s and by 1860 the country was amongst the major coffee producing nations in the world.
Things to see in Kandy
Although we didn’t cover them all in Kandy, there are many tourist attractions and sites, including temples & tea museums (do your research on Trip Advisor as much more detail there) However, some of our highlights worth mentioning are below.
Temple of the Tooth
(officially known as Sri Dalada Maligawa)
Beautiful Buddhist temple just in the centre of town. You will find many Sri Lankans dressed all in white that take offerings and meditate there. There were lots of Japanese tourists also dressed in white and taking countless photos when we were there too, as coaches brought them to this temple from god knows where! This shrine is celebrated with the grand Esala Perahera annual procession in July and August.
Near the Temple of the Tooth is the National Museum inside a former palace, showcasing Kandy’s role as the last kingdom of Sri Lanka.
Royal Botanical Gardens
This is in the nearby Peradeniya suburb. It is known for its orchid collection and massive palm trees, however these gardens also have countless plants and spices. You can get a bus from Kandy bus station which makes it more fun and it’s silly cheap! We got an admission ticket for 1500 LKR (£7.60 / US$9.85 – all tourists attractions have this price)
It was well worth a visit if you like nature, spices and monkeys! We decided to get the golf buggy that takes you around the park as otherwise it would take longer and lots of walking (this was another 1000 LKR – £5 / US$7 – but worth it!)
The Ceylon Tea Museum
This is in a former tea factory which has a library and exhibits that explore Sri Lanka’s history as a major Tea exporter. If you like Tea and are interested then it’s worth a visit.
Other things to do outside of Kandy
Whilst in Kandy, we asked our host at the Homestay for a taxi driver for the day which only cost us 5000 LKR (£25 / US$32) We went to Dambulla and Sigiriya which are a 3 hour drive North of Kandy. We wanted to see the famous Sigiriya Rock and heard there were some amazing temples too.
3. Dambulla & Sigiriya
Dambulla is a town in the Matale district, Central province of Sri Lanka. Sigiriya is an ancient rock fortress also known as Lion’s Rock (A UNESCO world heritage site) and a main attraction in the area. However, there is a far better and cheaper way to see this rock, without having to climb it!
Sigiriya Rock Vs Pidurangala Rock
One of the Tuk Tuk drivers that drove us around in Kandy had given us the best advice; to not bother climbing Sigiriya, which costs 4300 LKR (£22 / US$28) as you can climb another mountain close by called Pidurangala Rock, which only costs 500 LKR (£2.53 / US$3.28) and allows you to view Sigiriya which is much more beautiful of a view than looking out from it!!
As Carl Pilkington (from Idiot Abroad) once said:
“It’s better to be in a cave looking at a Palace than in a Palace looking at a cave”
Best analogy in this case!
The Pidurangala climb only took us 25 minutes (although it says 2hrs in the brochure!)
You go through the Pidurangala Temple grounds and climb some old steps up the mountain. You get to a reclining Buddha on a level area, to then go onto the most challenging final bit where big rocks of different sizes need to be climbed to get to the top. However, it’s not as bad as it seems at that precise time. I’d say you need to be reasonably flexible but it’s easy if someone gives you a hand when needed! Well worth it, as the view of Sigiriya and 360 view of the valley is stunning! Definitely the best choice out of the two.
Dambulla Cave Temple
This is also known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla and is amazing. The fee is the usual 1500 LKR (£7.60 / US$9.85) As you get there you will find steps to climb up to the temple, with monkeys sitting in the path or on the sides eating bananas or watching people passing by. As you get to the top they ask you to take your shoes off on a carpet and they have a place to keep them for a fee. I just put my Flip Flops in my bag to save 25 LKR (I know, how tight am I?) but it just made sense at the time.
As you walk the temple sits inside a cave half way up a mountain. Inside there are lots of buddhas in all sorts of positions; sitting, standing, lying down and of different styles in terms of colour, as well as the usual gold / bronze. It is a lovely temple to visit and well worth it.
Another temple that we were advised to visit, but ran out of time was called Aluvihare Rock Temple (on the Matale-Dambulla Road)
Here is a photo to show what it looks like from outside – it’s quite a sight!
Where to eat in Sigiriya
Lovely little restaurant on the main road. Good food, lovely staff and after a walk or a climb, just what you need!
So…. after the mountains and all that fun we headed for the coast!
If you are heading to Hikkaduwa (or any of the South West coastal destinations) from Kandy you are better off getting the fast direct train which leaves around 6am (might be 6.15 but worth being slightly early) We missed this and had to change at Colombo, but didn’t know that there was only 1 express train in the morning!
We loved Hikkaduwa for the long beach, the waves and just how laid back it was. It’s a surfers spot as the waves are great for them, but not so much for swimming as they will spin you around a bit (I did try on the main stretch so I can vouch for how dangerous it is!) However just up the beach there is a tiny bay or stretch that is calmer and for swimmers, so you can still swim and enjoy a calmer beach where beginner surfers can take lessons from the guys that teach. This is right next to the life guard tower.
We had a bit of rain each day but only for an hour or two as it was in March/April which is towards the end of the season. It didn’t stop us doing stuff such as swimming, walking, popping into a bar or restaurant. You can even shop as there are plenty of stores / boutiques along the main road that is adjacent to the beach.
Where to stay
We had a bit of advice from someone we knew as we didn’t want to rough it but we also didn’t want to pay silly money in a fancy hotel, so we opted for a Surfer’s hangout which is run by this guy in his 70’s who has been there for over 30 years with his wife. A family owned B&B type place called ‘Vernon’s for short (his name) The building itself at the front is new and you can tell, as they have new matresses, huge bed, mosquito net, private bathroom and if you book the front rooms, you get a balcony to watch the surfers in the morning! Do be warned the bar next door Funky de Bar is quite noisy in the evenings, especially if they have Karaoke! Take earplugs anytime you stay somewhere on a beach in Asia!
A room at Vernon’s usually costs 3500-4000 LKR a night, which equates to approx. £17 / US$22 (if you are lucky like us, you can agree a special rate depending on how many nights you stay) We stayed 6 nights the first time (as went back after Mirissa for anther 3 nights to meet our friends) so we paid 3000 LKR (£15 / US$19) per night the first time and then 2500 LKR (£12 / US$16) the second time, as we also recommended him to our friends and brought them with us to stay there.
We both had the front rooms on the top floor with a sea view and it was a lovely experience. If you want luxury, then don’t stay here, as it was basic. You get towels, clean bed linen and the bed had a new mattress, but you have to supply your own toiletries. That was no problem for us!
Vernon also has a restaurant downstairs Vernon’s Surf View Beach Restaurant where he serves coffee and food till 6pm. We had Sri Lankan Omelettes and coffee in the mornings – it was lovely!
His brother owns and runs the coffee shop on the corner of the guesthouse’s alley and the main road (fantastic coffee) and this is called The Coffee Shop (I know, original hey?) This was handy for us in the afternoons!
Where to Eat
We found restaurants all along the main road. Here are some good options we experienced:
- Drunken Monkey (on the main road and Beach)
- Spagetti & Co (Italian Restaurant)
- J.LH Restaurant – like the old UK band! (Asian and Continental)
- Cool Spot (Asian Food incl. Roti)
- Hotel Paradiso (Indian Restaurant)
- Funky de Bar (next door to Vernon’s on the beach– mix of Continental and Asian)
- Millenium Restaurant (just opposite Vernon’s on the main road– mix of Asian and Continental)
There are tons of shops on the main road which is parallel to the beach, including Surf shops, clothes shops and a big supermarket.
5. Day Trips whilst in Hikkaduwa
We took the train down from Hikkaduwa to Galle, as it is very easy to get to the train station and buy tickets (just on the main road) Grab a Tuk Tuk for 150 LKR (0.77p / US$0.98)
All Tuk Tuks have this set price for journeys up and down the long main road, so don’t get ripped off! You will find lots of them queueing up outside the train station. Make sure you know what you want to see or where to go, as these drivers will try and give you a guided tour of all the villages so you can see the Dutch, English and Moorish influences, and it will cost you!! We nearly got sucked in but quickly realised and just asked to go to the Fort to be dropped off.
Galle Fort is like a compound, showing you the buildings and churches built in the 17 and 1800’s by the Dutch and English. We paid a driver 700 LKR (£3.59 / US$4.58) to take us round the Fort & then to Unawatuna beach and back.
He acted as our guide explaining everything and waited for us whilst we went into buildings inside the Fort. He then drove us to Unawatuna, which normally costs 500 LKR on its own. He even stopped so we could get coffee at a beautiful Colonial hotel called Closenberg Hotel (expensive to stay but lovely to view and have a beverage!) Well worth the detour!
It was a lovely way to see Galle and Unawatuna at a good price and our driver who called himself ‘Uncle’ (in his 70s at least!) was lovely and crazy fast on the roads!
Everyone loves this beach and we heard loads of people saying how nice it was, so we wanted to see it for ourselves. It is pretty, but to be honest really similar to any other tourist packed beach. It’s a hassle getting in and out of the water as the sand (full of shells) hurts your feet whilst you try to climb up the slightly slopped shore.
We actually found out, from a waiter at one of the bars, that this is a manmade beach. It is worth a visit if you are in the area but we wouldn’t recommend staying there unless you have an amazing hotel and just want to veg on the beach or at the hotel poolside!
All restaurants on this beach are over priced so be warned, however if you don’t mind the price tag, then check out the Tartaruga Hotel Restaurant bar, which was lovely. We had food and drink there whilst waiting for Uncle, our Tuk Tuk driver, to pick us up.
Now this is a place I could have stayed forever! Beautiful beach!
Mirissa is in the Matara district, on the South of the island. It is a seaside town with a gorgeous beach. We had taken the day trip down from Hikkaduwa as well to research accommodation on the beach, which after looking at Agoda and Booking, it was a good idea to pop into the different shacks and homestays to negotiate a price as we wanted to stay for 10 days at least.
How to get to Mirissa from Hikkaduwa
There is a choice of Train, Tuk Tuk or Taxi.
Be aware they call these different things in Sri Lanka (see below), as we found out when booking a Taxi and got a small Tuk Tuk!
- Tuk Tuk (called Taxi in Sri Lanka): 2000 LKR (£10 / US$13)
- Taxi (called Van in Sri Lanka): 4000 LKR (£20 / US$26)
- Train: First Class 180 LKR (£0.92 / US$1.17); Second Class 90 LKR (£0.46 / US$0.58); Third Class 50 LKR (£0.25 / US$0.32)
We opted for the Train as it only takes 1.5 hours and costs a lot less!
If you want Air Con, go in First Class, if you are ok with a fan (be warned they don’t always work!), then opt for Second Class. Avoid the 3rd class or you will arrive as a sweaty mess!
When going by Train don’t get off at Mirissa station, instead hop off at the previous stop which is Weligama (a neighbouring town with a harbour) as closer to Mirissa beach. A Tuk Tuk will cost between 250-300 LKR (£1.28 / US$1.63) to the beach from there.
Where to stay
This is more like a guest house, where you get your own apartment / bungalow type accommodation, literally just off the beach by a few steps. Tucked away on the left hand side of the beach if you had your back to the water!
Be aware that there is also a Sanjana in Mirissa, so don’t get confused
It is run by a lovely family that live in the main house. There are 7 or 8 separate rooms, a couple of them with A/C. If you are staying in March or April this is recommended.
We booked direct and negotiated the price down to 3000 LKR (£15 / US$19) No A/C would have been 2500 LKR (£12 / US$16) On booking.com this was priced at 6000 – 9000 LKR (£30 – £46 / US$39 – US$58), so worth booking when you get there!
Whilst we researched accommodation in Mirissa, we also came across other good options:
Wooden Bungalows, hotel on the beach. They wanted 4000 LKR per night which is approx. £20 / US$26
Surf Sea Breeze
Best restaurant on the beach, but also a hotel with many rooms. They wanted 5000 LKR (£25 / US$32) but they did go down to 4000 LKR (£20 / US$26) when we pushed back, but they offered us a smaller room.
Paradise Beach Club
This is an expensive hotel (the only proper hotel on the beach) with a swimming pool. This will cost between 13 – 19000 LKR per night (£70-£100 / US$89-$127)
You can however use their pool for a fee of 500 LKR per day (£2.50 / US$3.20) if you are staying elsewhere!!
Best places to Eat on the Beach
Surf Sea Breeze
(this was by far the best place to eat; quality, variety and price wise) This is a Restaurant and hotel. It is set on the left of the beach if you had your back to the sea. It is really close to Sajana, where we stayed, and has a lovely outside area.
Zephyr Restaurant & Bar
(really yummy burgers!)
You will find most of the restaurants on the beach are really expensive in comparison to Surf Sea Breeze and the quality is not a match!
What to do in Mirissa
You can surf, dive and even go Whale watching. On the beach you will find some stands with guys that promote different companies. Check the cost. It should be no more than 1500 LKR (£7.67 / US$9.80) per person (some charge 3000-6000 LKR each!)
There is a supermarket on the back road behind the beach and Surf Sea Breeze, where you can find most things. For alcohol you are better off going into Weligama via Tuk Tuk which only costs 300 LKR (£1.53 / US$1.96) to get there or hop on a bike.
Hiring a bike
You can do this at your accommodation as they usually arrange this at a better price. Our host at Sajana Ocean Hill, rented one out for 700 LKR a day (£3.59 / US$4.58)
The Beaches in and around Mirissa
Mirissa beach itself is beautiful and very long, with blue sea and white sand. There are actually different sections to this beach. At the far end (left if you have your back to the sea) where we stayed, you have a lovely cove with less waves as there is a break where the coral reef stops the waves coming to the shore. You will find most of the surfers hang around this bay beyond the reef as they catch the best waves! This is where the Surf Sea Breeze restaurant is and you can take one of their sun loungers or opt for a towel on the sand.
Just as you walk further you will see the main stretch of the beach with many restaurants, although this does not distract from its beauty.
The middle section we found had more waves which makes swimming there harder work, but if you walk a bit further to the far end, there is another bay called Turtle Bay.
This is a lovely little beach with calmer water to swim in, as well as a bar and a few sun loungers to relax in. You can borrow a mask from the bar so you can spot the Turtles and swim with them!
We were told about this beach (also in Mirissa) that can be found when you walk up a hill and across a jungle to get there. Let’s say, there is no surprise it’s called Secret Beach!!
It took us forever to find it and if you ask the locals, they don’t know about it.
We actually got lost trying to find it, until we met other people who were equally lost and found it together by persevering and going up and down a mini jungle in the hills. We later found out that you can go via the road too! We took a Tuk Tuk back from the only bar on Secret Beach, as we did not fancy the trek back!
If you are up for an adventure and want to walk it, then as you go to the far end of Mirissa beach (where Surf Sea Breeze is) you need to walk passed Sajana Ocean Hill up the steep hill and pass another hotel to find a big wall and a metal door. As you walk through the door, you stay to the right and follow a path, keep going round and down the mountain again (following a concrete wall) You will then need to descend next to the wall and bear a right. It looks like you are in the wrong place, as it’s a path going down hill along a wall, but carry on! You will then see a bay and some rocks. As you go to the far end you will come to the Secret beach!
If you’d rather go via road, then it is a long walk through the back roads behind Surf Sea Breeze and you keep going up. If you’d rather get a Tuk Tuk, then you will pay the slightly elevated price of 500 LKR each way (£2.56 / US$3.27), They charge more than a normal fare as it’s quite a rocky ride for the drivers once they need to descend onto Secret Beach as no proper roads have been built yet.
If you go towards Matara, head for Polhena (we used google maps for this!). The water is calmer as it’s protected by a reef, shallow like a natural pool, with a lovely arched shape to it. Perfect beach to visit for the day! We went there on the bike which made it a mini adventure to find!
You won’t see many tourists here and it seems to be popular with the locals at the weekend and public holidays.
My knowledge and advice is for British Passport holders. These are simple, as you can visit Sri Lanka for up to 30 days for free (Transit Visa, which can be extended at an embassy/immigration office) and you can either apply for an ETA online (Electronic Travel Authorisation) or queue at the airport (it is advisable to fill in the application form online as much quicker) You can check http://www.gov.uk site and the ETA link provided here. For non British Passport holders, I believe it is a similar process but worth checking online on the official Sri Lankan http://www.eta.gov.lk site for advice.
Best time to Visit Sri Lanka
Be advised that the best time to visit Sri Lanka will vary, depending on what side of the Island you are thinking of visiting, as Sri Lanka is affected by 2 Monsoons at different times. However, this does mean that there is usually good weather somewhere on the island at most times of the year. I have taken this info from Rough Guides, but adjusted it to what we experienced whilst there as the basic pattern will also vary from year to year!
The rainfall pattern is as follows: The main Southwest (“Yala”) Monsoon brings rain to the West and Southwest coasts and the Hill Country from April/May to September – wettest from April to June.
The less severe Northeast (“Maha”) Monsoon hits the East coast from November to March – wettest from November to December; there’s also an inter-monsoonal period of unsettled weather prior to the Maha Monsoon in October and November during which heavy rainfall and thunderstorms can occur anywhere across the island.
Our experience with the weather in Sri Lanka
“We were in the Hill Country, as in Kandy, in March and it was lovely and Sunny. We were then in the South West (Hikkaduwa, Galle and Unawatuna) from end of March into April and did experience rain for about 2 hours a day in April. Mirissa (South) had the best weather in April, however towards the end of the month this got worse with flash floods, but still hot”
“We looked at the weather in the East Coast whilst there, but April was still wet, so the best time would have been from May”
In practical terms, this means that the best time to visit would be as follows:
- West, South coast and Hill Country (central) – from December to March
- East coast from May to September.
Hope you’ve enjoyed our blog! If you want a beach getaway, but also want to go into the mountains, visit an Elephant sanctuary or walk around a city, then Sri Lanka is the one! So many things to do here, but do give yourself at least 2 weeks, if you can’t do any more time.
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