The Perfect Two-Week Itinerary For Sri Lanka

*Note* I have a two-page spread being published this Saturday in the Irish Sun all about my time in Sri Lanka. If you are living Ireland, pick up a copy for lots more information on travelling through this beautiful country!

2018 was the year for Sri Lanka. The teardrop island has risen sharply in popularity and shot straight to the top of many travellers’ bucket lists.

With the country recently nabbing the number one spot on Lonely Planet’s list of top destinations to visit in 2019, the small island is on the brink of a tourism boom, as backpackers, families, honeymooners and more flock to get a taste of culture from Sri Lanka.

Today on Sun Scribes, I am going to outline the route I took while road-tripping around the country in my own rented jeep independently.

This route is more “off the beaten track” and definitely goes against the grain of most tourists visiting the country. For more information on renting your own jeep and driving through SL, you can read all about it here.

As I am a huge ocean-lover, the route I chose around SL was mainly beach-orientated. For most of my trip, I hugged the coast and followed it down around the island and up the west, before jutting inland to Sigiriya.

If renting your own transport isn’t your thing, this itinerary is still feasible – take a few ideas from it, add your own, go with the flow and make it the trip of a lifetime!

Useful Facebook Groups

Before we get started on itinerary, I’d just like to mention some Facebook groups that are a great source of information of travelling around Sri Lanka!

Arriving at Colombo International Airport

All international flights arrive into Colombo, the capital city, but there isn’t too much to see or do here. With limited time and so much to see, get a taxi from the airport and immediately head to Negombo. Our flight got in late at night and there were still plenty of transport services here.

You’ll notice immediately how friendly and polite the Sri Lankans are when you arrive! There is no bombardment for taxis like the usual Asian airport scuffle. There are plenty of taxi desks that all have a fixed price for a trip to Negombo. Being the usual penny-scraping backpackers, we walked out of the airport and found the unofficial taxi cabs where we bartered a cheap price and off we went!  

Negombo

Negombo is a smaller city just outside of Colombo, with a more laid-back vibe and a long stretch of golden beach running adjacent to its hotels. We stayed with an amazing host family here for a cheap price, but unfortunately were only in Negombo for one night. The next morning we got a taxi to our car rental company and set off on our adventure!

Driving through the city was hectic! The traffic is congested but this worked in our favour as vehicles moved slowly, giving us a chance to get accustomed to the new jeep and way of driving.

Our hosts taking photos of our car!

How Long To Stay

Many travellers stay here a night or two, treating themselves to a nice hotel while kicking the jetlag. If you’re pushed for time, book in for one night then move on.

Where To Stay

We stayed in Villa Daisy as it was close to the airport. Our hosts were a Christian family from Negombo who were so lovely. They were fascinated by our car and insisted on a photoshoot before we left!

Hikkaduwa

Once we got out of the city traffic we hit the open coastal roads, with train tracks to our left and palm tree-fringed beaches to our right. The cultural shock was incredible.

In a short few hours driving, we passed towering Hindu temples, met a sea of black burqas, and passed a wedding celebration complete with a massive elephant donned in colourful garments. It was apparent from our very first day in SL, that this tiny nation (just three-quarters the size of Ireland) was a melting pot of different cultures and religions.

Our first stop was Hikkaduwa. Roughly a two hour drive from Colombo, we flew down the coast taking it all in. If you don’t have a car, a train journey is easily accessible from the city, though it takes considerably longer.

Hikkaduwa is famed for its resident celebrities who grace its shores every morning: the giant green turtles! For more on Hikkaduwa and exactly where to find the turtles, click here.

How Long To Stay

Once you see Hikkaduwa you’re never going to want to leave; but trust me, it gets even better! We stayed for one night then hit the road again the next day.

Where To Stay

We crashed in a beautiful little guesthouse called Curry Bowl Restaurant and Guesthouse. It’s near the turtle spot and the rooms are really spacious. If you have the cash, the Hikka Tranz is a luxurious hotel overlooking the beach, right beside Curry Bowl.

Dalawella

Just 25 minutes from the popular town of Unawatuna, lies the sleepy village of Dalawella. Previously overlooked by tourists who have their eyes set on the biggest towns, Dalawella has shot to fame in recent years, largely thanks to social media.

Dalawella is home to the famous rope swing of Sri Lanka. This was one of my absolute favourite stops in SL, so much so I wrote an entire blog post dedicated to our time spent here. To read more about Dalawella, click here.

The famous rope tree swing of Sri Lanka

How Long To Stay

Again, one night is enough here. It is very quiet in Dalawella so spend the night chilling out and searching for some turtles, enjoy a magical sunset, the hit the road again early the next morning.

Where To Stay

Pearly’s Cabanas of course! Lots more information here.

Mirissa

By far one of the busiest beaches in Sri Lanka, Mirissa is one of the top tourist spots in the country. This little seaside town has it all – beautiful beaches, great surfing waves, whale watching and great bars and restaurants.

Previously known as the party area of SL, this is now changing due to stricter law enforcement. The town was recently subject to a government crackdown where they literally bulldozed down any bar, restaurant or hotel that didn’t comply with regulations (each building has to be a certain distance away from the shoreline). Businesses were destroyed and the rubble was left for the locals to deal with.

I have a friend who lives in SL who was devastated by the government’s actions, as were many of the locals who had to literally pick up the remains of their lives and rebuild a few metres down the beach.

Whale watching season in Mirissa runs from from November to May. During the rest of the year, the waters will be too rough due to Monsoon Season.

The Coconut Tree Spot is definitely worth a visit. Though it can get a little busy with the Instagram babes pulling out all their best moves, if you arrive early before the crowds wake up, you’ll have the stunning area all to yourself.

The Coconut Tree spot.

How Long To Stay

Without running the risk of rushing your trip, I would recommend two nights at least in Mirissa.

Where To Stay

While in Mirissa we stayed in Palm Villa. A quiet little hotel right on the beach. It is about a ten minute walk from the main hub of restaurants and we had a nice view of the Coconut Tree spot also.

Udawalawe

An elephant walking in front of our car on our safari.

Rejuvenated and relaxed after a few days on the beach, we jutted inland to Udawalawe for our elephant safari tour.

Tourists travelling to Sri Lanka’s Southern Province usually weigh up options of either Yala National Park or Udawalawe. We chose Udawalawe National Park as it is one of the more quiet parks, with an almost 100% to see elephants.

It is important to note that Yala National Park closes for 6-8 weeks each year, typically from the beginning of September onwards. So remember this when you’re planning your itinerary!

As we were driving our own 4×4 this meant we could drive around the park ourselves, send as long as we liked there, and go off the beaten track more. Whenever we saw a convoy of jeeps gathering, we simply turned around and went the other way; a huge plus for self-driving through SL!!

Our car at the entrance of Udawalawe.

However, tourists are not allowed into the parks alone and must be accompanied by a guide. We stayed in another homestay, who gave us the number to one of their friends named Sandun.

Sandun simply hopped in the back of our jeep, we took off the soft top, and we cruised around the park for over four hours! Sandun was extremely informative, had great English and was great craic too!

Other tour guides were astonished seeing the foreigners drive while the guide rested in the back! They found it hilarious and a bit of banter was thrown back and forth between the passing vehicles! We were later told it was the first time they’d ever seen tourists driving in the park.

I will do a more in-depth post on Udawalawe in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.

Darren and I with our guide Sandun!

How Long To Stay

We spent just one night in Udawalawe and then hit the road straight after our safari to Arugam Bay.

Where To Stay

We stayed in a tiny homestay called Hotel Gayan’s. It was really cheap as it was still under construction, and the owners made us an amazing Sri Lankan meal of rotti, curry and local beer.

Arugam Bay

A surfer at sunrise at Arugam Bay.

So this is where all tourists were hiding! The last interaction we had with other tourists was Mirissa Beach. We barely saw any other travellers while on the road to Udawalawe. The drive took about 3.5hours from Udawalawe to Arugam Bay, and what a drive it was!

Filled with stunning scenery of the Sri Lankan countryside, we even passed a wild elephant munching shrubbery on the side of the road!

Arugam Bay is known as Surfer’s Paradise in SL. With world-famous Yala National Park as its neighbour, Arugam Bay is lucky to be surrounded by with wildlife treasures.

The bay is an odd one – it’s a stark contrast between the local Muslim community that live there, and the trendy surfers (mostly Australians) who walk the streets in the bikinis and flip flops (side-note – don’t walk the streets in your bikini! It’s seen as disrespectful).

Obviously surfing is a must while in Arugam Bay. Darren opted to rent a surfboard for a few hours from one of the local beach shacks, while I caught up on some reading on the beach. Climbing Elephant Rock is also a must-do while in Arugam, as well as watching sunset with a few cold ones on the beach.

We celebrated a special occasion in Arugam Bay Surf Resort, where they had good food and even better cocktails!

Enjoying cocktails at Arugam Bay Surf Resort.

How Long To Stay

We explored Arugam Bay for three whole days and left on the fourth. You will want to stay longer here but with so much to see and do, you’d better get moving on!

Where To Stay

Stardust Beach Hotel is a great little find, tucked away near the end of the bay. As we were celebrating something special in Arugam Bay, we decided to treat ourselves to a nice hotel.

We booked into the very swanky and expensive Roccos, and though the pool was amazing and the beach-side views incredible, we thoroughly preferred our experiences staying in the smaller hotels and homestays!

Pasikuda

The empty beach of Pasikuda.

By now we were really getting into the swing of road-tripping around the country. We were becoming accustomed to the way Sri Lankans drove, the way they treated foreigners (only good experiences from us), and we even had dealt with a few run-ins with the police.

Overall we were stopped five or six times in two weeks by traffic police! Though we think this may have just been more just a case of curiosity rather than civic duty! To read about how we dealt with traffic cops and our fine, click here.

So far, all our driving stints have been broken up into around 3.5 hours, making the drives more bearable in the hot weather, with no AC! Arugam Bay to Pasikuda was also about three hours.

We really started to notice a change in environment the further we go up the east coast. In recovering from over 25 years of civil war, Sri Lanka has come on leaps and bounds in the tourism industry. However, as most of the fighting was concentrated in the north-east, remnants of war still remain.

There is a noticeably larger police and army presence. They often inspected our car and licences and wondered why we were driving in that area.

Some of the buildings in local towns we passed had bullet holes and damage from the fighting. The melting pot of different cultures was fascinating. One minute we would be driving through a colourful Hindu village filled with colourful garments and temples, and the next we would be facing a sea of black burqas on the way to the mosque.

We even passed a group of Indigenous Sri Lankans in traditional tribal robes. I resisted the urge to swipe out my camera so as not to be rude or interfering.

Heavily affected by the civil war, the north-east of SL is only beginning to find its feet in terms of tourism and hospitality.

Pasikuda is extremely quiet and there were very few tourists around. Accommodation is luxurious here, but still has a long way to go compared to the Southern Province of SL.

Pasikuda is often seen as the holiday spot in Sri Lanka, for Sri Lankans! When we arrived it was a bank holiday and the beaches were filled with locals enjoying some quality family time.

We mostly just enjoyed the stunning beach and waters here, and soaked up some local culture.

How Long To Stay

Two nights will give you enough time to explore this less touristy area of the country. It is seriously beautiful and it’s so rare these days to find such a beautiful spot not ruined by over-tourism.

Where To Stay

As I just mentioned, accommodation here is luxurious, and a bit on the expensive side. We are backpackers and usually stick to backpacker prices, but as we were coming to the end of a two-and-a-half-year trip, we decided to go all out!

We stayed in the STUNNING Passi Villas. I still daydream about the pool!

Nilaveli

The further up the coast we got, the whiter the sand got and the clearer the water became.

If by now I am tempting you to visit the Sri Lankan east coast, but you don’t want to rent your own car, don’t worry. There is a train that leaves from Colombo and goes directly to Trincomalee. It takes all night so I would recommend booking a first-class ticket.

The Trincomalee region is almost completely free of tourists (at time of writing at least!). It’s more authentic, with deserted beaches, colourful Hindu temples, and of course Pigeon Island.

There are three main areas where you can set up shop for a few days: Trincomalee, Uppuveli and Nilaveli.

We chose Nilaveli because it’s the closest to Pigeon Island, our main reason for travelling all this way! Nilaveli was like something out of a dream: a completely deserted white-sand beach with nothing but a few beach dogs and no sun loungers to spoil the view.

We chartered a boat out to Pigeon Island, booked through our hotel, and spent the whole day snorkelling with turtles and reef sharks!

Tip: The reviews of Pigeon Island on Tripadvisor are mediocre at best. People saying the reef is destroyed and there is no marine life. The only conclusion I can draw from these reviews is that they must be written by people who are not strong swimmers.

If your abilities allow, swim out of the shallows and into the big blue. Soon you’ll be surrounded by turtles, sharks and swarms of tropical fish!

Also, to avoid the crowds, either come early in the morning or stay later in the afternoon. After 3pm we had the island to ourselves!!

Swimming with the locals off Pigeon Island!

How Long To Stay

I would recommend two or three nights here. This is such an interesting area to explore, completely tourist-free and unlike any other beach destination I’ve ever visited.

Where To Stay

We stayed in the Cardamon Hotel. This was one of the cheaper hotels with a small pool but the rooms were to die for, spread out over two floors!

Sigiriya

The view of Sigiriya is incredible from the top or bottom!

We had come to the end of our two-week road trip. Up until now, we hadn’t given Sigiriya any thought, as we were mainly focused on just the island’s coast. We had winged it this far, booking accommodation as we went and relying on intuition for our next port of call.

It was only our last day we realised our drive back to the airport would lead us straight passed Sigiriya. We booked into a cheap homestay and got up at 6am to climb the rock. This was an expensive last day but it was worth it. We didn’t book a tour guide, it’s easy to do yourself so don’t be fooled.

Entrance fees to the UNESCO site cost 3900 rupees and it takes about two to three hours to complete. The steepness of the rock can seem a little daunting and intimidating but the climb is suitable for all ages and fitness levels.

How Long To Stay

One day is enough for the climb, though you may want another day or two to explore the area. I wish we had more time in Sigiriya!

Where To Stay

We stayed in a very basic homestay that actually turned in to a bit of a disaster! The electricity went and we were left sitting in darkness for the night! Any of the hotels in the area will do – as long as they are not too far away from the rock.

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Keelin Riley
Keelin Riley

Keelin is an Irish travel writer with a degree in journalism and a background in the Irish media. Keelin’s travel writing has been published in various media publications, and when she’s not off gallivanting around the globe, she enjoys keeping Sun Scribes up-to-date for all those fellow budget travellers out there!

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