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your ultimate guide to sri lanka: the ideal 30 day travel itinerary

Updated: Jul 5, 2023


planning to road trip around the island of sri lanka? our guide, with two route options, has you covered for exploring this diverse country in the indian ocean.


Sri Lanka is made for road tripping, and we've spent a collective sixty days driving around its mountainous tea fields and white sand beaches getting to know all that the island has to offer.


While there are many road trip itineraries, we wanted to share the best of the best that we've discovered. We have hours of mapping, researching, and local insight under our belt. Both times we've traveled Sri Lanka, once in 2018 and once in 2023, we rented a tuk tuk through TukTuk Rental in order to have the freedom and flexibility to visit lesser-known villages, the most stunning beaches, and the red dirt in the center of Sri Lanka.


If you're interested in renting a tuk tuk, read our blog post about our experience here. The incredible team at TukTuk Rental is hooking our readers up with a special discount. Use the promo code THELOVE during your booking process.


It's vital to know that Sri Lanka has two main rainy seasons. The northeast monsoon season is from September through March and the southwest monsoon season is from May through August. If you plan to spend any time at the beach, we recommend an itinerary that avoids monsoon season. Therefore, we've broken down two different itineraries based on the season/time of year.



 

Sri Lanka Itinerary Road Trip: Overview


After flying into Colombo and arriving at Sri Lanka's main international airport, Bandaranaike International Airport, we chose to go in a clockwise direction around Sri Lanka. This was because we wanted to get out of heavy traffic immediately following our tuk tuk driving lesson, and also to spend time in the lesser-known areas of the island before wrapping up in the tourist-heavy beach towns of the south. However, you could complete the road trip from bottom to top, in a counter-clockwise direction, if you're itching for some beach time right after landing.


While we will always recommend a tuk tuk for freedom and flexibility, this road trip could also be completed in a rental car, with a private driver, or adapted to be used with public transportation such as buses and trains. Whether your Sri Lanka trip is more of a backpacking experience or a luxury travel experience, there is something for everyone in this guide.

Kids and families enjoying exploring Sri Lanka by tuk tuk through Tuktuk Rental, Sri Lanka, Asia

 

Northeast Monsoon Season: Day by Day


Day 1: Arrival in Colombo

In our opinion, Colombo is a bit hard to fall in love with. It's big, chaotic, and lacks must-see attractions. It's almost unfortunate that Colombo is a traveler's first taste of Sri Lanka, but don't let this first impression bring you down. We recommend spending only one day or night in Colombo.


Day 2: Tuk Tuk Driving Lesson in Negombo

Head to the TukTuk Rental office, load up on espresso, obtain your driver's license and lesson, and begin the road trip of a lifetime. If your driving lesson took longer than anticipated or you are suffering from jet lag, you could opt to stay in Colombo or Negombo for a night or two before beginning the road trip.



Days 3 & 4: Dambulla

133 km // 3.5 hours


Although 3.5 hours doesn't sound like a long drive, it can be quite tiring driving a tuk tuk for the first time. Since the maximum speed of a tuk tuk is 40 km/hour, the drive can feel longer than it actually is. Enjoy the drive to Dambulla and then rest there for a couple of nights.


The Ringiri Dambulla Cave Temple is the highlight of the area. A sacred pilgrimage site for centuries, this cave is the largest, best-preserved cave complex in Sri Lanka. There are an impressive 157 statues of Buddha and countless Buddhist mural paintings. We thought this was one of the most authentic temples we visited in the whole country.


Stay || We stayed with such a lovely family at a homestay property right down the road from the cave temple. The family loved our son Indy and spent so much time playing with him in the front yard. They are also incredible chefs, so definitely have them cook dinner for you while you're there! Although the accommodations are simple, the connections we made gave us a beautiful start to our road trip. Book here.


Days 5, 6 & 7: Sigiriya & Habarana

20 km // 0.5 hour


Sigiriya is not far from Dambulla, but it feels wildly different from the lush forests you just left. Sigiriya is like you walked onto the set of The Lion King with red dirt roads and a towering rock fortress overlooking the valley.


From Sigirya's official website:

Sigiriya Lion Rock is an ancient rock fortress known for its massive column of rock that reaches nearly 200 meters high. The site dates back to the reign of King Kasyapa (477-495 AD), who chose this site as his new capital. He decorated the walls with frescoes, and built an impressive palace right on top of the rock column, accessible only through the mouth of an enormous carved lion.

Here are some ideas to fill your days with adventure:

  • Climb the Sigiriya Rock Fortress at sunrise (typically around 6am). The fortress itself opens at 5:30am and we recommend going early to avoid the crowds and to enjoy the maximum amount of solitude. Wear good hiking shoes and pack plenty of water because it's definitely a workout to get to the top. Entrance into the UNESCO World Heritage Site is pricy at about $30 USD, but it's worth the cost to experience this ancient city.

  • To obtain better views of Sigiriya Rock across the valley, hike Pidurangala Rock the following morning. This hike is a bit shorter - at about 30 minutes uphill. It's important to know that you'll pass through Pidurangala Royal Cave Temple, so having your shoulders and knees covered is required. This counts for men too -- no shorts allowed! Entrance costs about $5 USD.

  • Join an elephant safari at Hurulu Eco Park in Habarana. In our experience, this park had quite a few jeeps in the park at one time, but we were able to see plenty of elephants, birds, and deer.

  • If you choose to split your nights between Sigiriya and Habarana like we did, we really enjoyed our stay at Sevanagama in Habarana. The staff members were incredibly kind and helpful and we watched peacocks roam around while enjoying our meals!

Sunrise at Sigriya Rock, Sri Lanka, Asia



Day 8: Wasgamuwa National Park

98 km // 3 hours


If you're only planning on one safari in Sri Lanka, this is the one. However, the drive to Wasgamuwa is remote, so fill up with fuel, snacks, and water before you start this trip. Most of the accommodations near the park entrance are very rugged and remote without wifi or nearby restaurants, so we recommend only one night here. Depending on what time you arrive, you could do an evening safari or wake up early the next morning for a safari.


One major benefit of having your own vehicle is choosing which route suits you best. Not many travelers make it to Wasgamuwa National Park, so expect to be one of only a handful of safari jeeps in the park. During this safari, we observed elephants, monkeys, water buffalo, and many species of birds. We weren't lucky enough to spot a Sri Lankan leopard or a crocodile, but both exist in the park.

Wild elephant at Wasgamuwa National Park, Sri Lanka, Asia

Days 9 &10: Kandy

125 km // 3.5 hours


Kandy is the second busiest stop on the road trip, only behind Colombo. Traffic can be a bit chaotic as you get closer to the city, especially when it comes to bus traffic. The drive into the cultural capital is mostly uphill, passing through rolling tea plantations and misty hills.


Kandy is home to the Temple of the Tooth Relic, one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in the world. It's much more than that though; Kandy is a bustling city with colonial architecture, ancient temples, noble gardens, and the stunning lake the city is centered around.


Royal Botanic Gardens Peradeniya || These botanic gardens, located 5km west of Kandy, rank high on our list of gardens we've explored around the world. These gardens were built exclusively for the royals before they were eventually turned over to the public in 1821. The expansive gardens feature over 4,000 species of plants - most famously, its collection of orchids and avenue of royal palms. We could've spent an entire day here. It's stunning and a place that just feels good.



Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic || The number one attraction in Kandy revolves around a decaying tooth. This tooth is one of Buddha's that was brought to the island in the 4th century. A golden-roofed temple was completed in 1707 specifically to house this sacred tooth. Most Sri Lankans believe that they need to visit the temple at least once in their lives. Because of its cultural significance, the temple is always insanely crowded, regardless of the time of day. School groups from neighboring towns regularly visit this temple, so expect to see long lines of school kids.


Inside the shrine, devotees and visitors slowly make their way through various rooms on the way to the casket where the tooth is stored. The whole complex is a quiet spiritual place with devotees offering flowers and bending down to pray. Men and women alike are required to cover their shoulders and knees.


Walk Around Kandy Lake || The man-made lake sits right at the heart of the town of Kandy. Although traffic driving near the lake is plentiful, walking the lake path is surprisingly relaxing. Just watch out for the trees above the path as thousands of birds claim these trees as their own! Walking the entire circumference of the lake takes about an hour.



Days 11, 12 & 13: Hatton

68 km // 2.5 hours


If you're interested in Sri Lanka's tea culture, skip the touristic Nuwara Eliya (or at least minimize your time there), and head to Hatton instead. Hatton, and its surrounding villages, are the hidden gems of the island as far as we're concerned. We quite literally didn't see another traveler or backpacker our entire three days there. Instead, we ate like locals, drank tea like our lives depended on it, watched the storms roll in and out of town, and laughed as Indy made friends with the local cows on the side of the tiny streets.


After a relaxing morning hiding from the rain, we adventured out on our own to get lost in the rolling tea fields. The fields extend as far as the eye can see, and if you look closely, you can find small paths that lead through the fields. It seems like the whole community works in the tea fields, and we were pleased every time we'd see ladies picking tea by hand or men in trucks hauling the day's work to the tea plantation.


Hatton is best explored without a plan, but here are some suggestions:

  • Book a tea field tour with a local - we used this one and loved the private tour from a local's perspective. The tour had a lot of depth and was much more educational than a tour we'd previously joined in Kandy

  • Drive around Castlereigh Reservoir

  • Hike Adam's Peak if you're up for an early morning challenge

  • Visit Christ Church Warleigh - one of Sri Lanka's oldest Anglican churches

Stay || We opted to stay outside of the busy town of Hatton and loved our time at The Argyle - a luxurious hideaway situated on top of rolling tea fields. Another great option is The Farm Resorts right on Castlereigh Reservoir.


Day 14: Nuwara Eliya

41 km // 1.75 hours and a windy road


Since Hatton provided plenty of opportunities to learn about Ceylon tea, we recommend just spending one night in Nuwara Eliya. The town is often called "Little England" due to its rich colonial influence. The fairytale-like cottages, lush rose gardens, and red brick buildings make you feel like you're taking a stroll through the English countryside. Not to mention, wild horses roam around the town! Spend plenty of time wandering around downtown and don't miss the Post Office or Ceybank Rest. If you're feeling fancy, a few of the large colonial hotels offer high tea daily.


Tip || Make sure you have your sweatshirts and rain jackets handy, because Nuwara Eliya can quickly transition from sunny to rainy and chilly!

Beautiful local Sri Lankan woman

Days 15, 16 & 17: Ella

62 km // 2.5 hours uphill


This is the part of the trip where you enter the true heart of Sri Lanka. Ella has it all: one of the most beautiful train rides in the world, lush jungle mountains, waterfalls, hiking trails, laid-back backpacker restaurants, and rolling tea plantations.


We do have to warn you that Ella has exploded with tourism since we first visited in 2018. The once rural village is now under major renovation and now has concrete hotels on nearly every corner. However, there is still a lot to see and do in Ella. If you time your excursions just right, you might be among only a handful of other people present.

Little Adam's Peak || A quick hike with stunning mountain views from the top. The hike is short, but fairly steep, so expect to spend two hours hiking.



Nine Arch Bridge || This stone bridge, featuring nine arches, is undoubtedly one of the most popular tourist destinations in Sri Lanka. In fact, when we were here in 2023, we couldn't believe the amount of growth and new paths that have been built to access the bridge. If you want to see a train pass over the bridge, which you should, ask your local guesthouse or hotel about the current train schedule. The schedule is constantly changing, so it takes a bit of luck to coincide your visit with the train. Be there in the early morning (around 6AM) to catch the first train and avoid the crowds.


It's been said that right as construction on the bridge began, so did the Great War. The steel that was allocated for the bridge was relocated to Britain's battlefront sites, so the construction came to a standstill. The locals grew increasingly frustrated and decided to build the bridge with stone, bricks, and cement - and without any steel! When you stand in front of this bridge and see the scale, it's impressive and mind-blowing. We recommend staying on the designated paths because leeches live in the vegetation here.


Lipton's Seat || If you're wanting to escape the hustle and bustle of Ella for a day, look no further. I'm sure you guessed correctly that Lipton's Seat is in honor of Sir Lipton himself. In 1890, he traveled to Sri Lanka to meet with James Taylor, a Scottish settler who had recently transitioned from growing coffee to growing tea after a disease wiped out Sri Lanka's coffee plantations. Sir Lipton took over for Taylor, after his death, and purchased thousands of miles of land to expand the country's tea production. His motto was "tea for everyone" and he helped decrease the cost of tea so that it was no longer reserved only for the wealthy.


This day trip isn't for the faint of heart. An extremely tiny and windy road (path, really) leads uphill through the tea plantations. Eventually, you'll reach the top of the mountains and see a small restaurant, a statue of Lipton, and 'his' bench. It's said that he used to sit on this bench and have a 360-degree panoramic view of his tea plantations. While there isn't a lot to do here, it's a beautiful drive and worth it for some fresh air and solitude. The trip takes 1.5 hours each way.

Tuktuk Rental in the tea fields of Sri Lanka

Kandy to Ella Train || Ahh, the famous train that we've seen plastered all over the internet. You know, the photo of the traveler enjoying fresh air in-between rickety old train cars with the picturesque mountains in the background? If you don't know what we're talking about, feel free to look it up.


We are fully aware that mentioning this train ride throws a major wrench in the itinerary we've listed above. But, if riding the train is at the top of your bucket list, it might be worth it for you to skip a few stops.


It's said that this train ride is the most beautiful in the entire world. The seven hour trip is a great way to meet locals and get a glimpse of authentic Sri Lankan life. It's said that on this train ride, you're likely to encounter locals singing, playing drums, selling chai, and smiling the most genuine smiles. Opt for second class cabins when purchasing your ticket. First class cabins are air-conditioned, meaning you won't have an opportunity to feel the fresh mountain air. And third class cabins can get jam-packed with locals, including chickens, so steer clear unless you're into that sort of experience.


Are we embarrassed to admit that we missed out on the train both times we've traveled Sri Lanka? Slightly. We know that Indy would've loved it. But when you have a tuk tuk, it's hard to pass up the opportunity to drive at your own pace and stop whenever and wherever you like.



Day 18: Koslanda

40 km // 1.5 hours


Craving some solitude after the backpacker-filled Ella? Look no further than Living Heritage Koslanda. This luxury boutique hotel is a tucked-away haven on 80 acres of private land that will forever change your views on hospitality. If you have the choice and aren't traveling with small children, choose to sleep in the open air forest pavilions. These cantilevered pavilions overlook the treetops and allow you to fully immerse yourself in nature. If you are traveling with children, the villa suites are a safer, and just as beautiful, experience. Each of these suites features a private indoor courtyard, traditional Sri Lankan architecture, and an outdoor shower and plunge pool.


The on-site kitchen cooks up some wonderful Sri Lankan dinners, so plan to eat on-site. We're still in contact with the owners of Living Heritage Koslanda five years later. They're that wonderful!


Add a Safari || The ever-popular Udawalawe National Park is close by, so if you want to add a safari to this leg of your trip, this would be a good spot. One of Sri Lanka's smallest national parks, Udawalawe National Park is where an estimated 500 elephants call home. You'll also have the opportunity to see all of the other amazing animals that call this island nation home!

Living Heritage Koslanda tree house, Sri Lanka

Days 19, 20, & 21: Dickwella & Hiriketiya

154 km // 4 hours


At this point, you've been driving a tuk tuk for nearly three weeks and it's time for a pause. As long term travelers, we know how important it is to factor in chill days where the most energy you exude is lounging on the beach and sipping on some local beers. Enter Hiriketiya -- where the jungle meets the sea and you forget all sense of time.


This coastal area is the latest trending area in Sri Lanka. It's not as busy as Mirissa or Weligama, but it's just as fun. The town itself is very small, but bursting with healthy cafes, digital nomads, palm-tree lined streets, and plenty of surf. The waves at Hiriketiya Beach are pretty small, so it's a perfect place for new surfers to get their feet wet.


What drew us in the most about this area was how kid-friendly the beach was. A large majority of Sri Lanka's beaches have massive waves with strong undertows, so we didn't often feel too comfortable letting Indy swim. Hiriketiya is in a cove, so the waves coming in are calm and perfect for toddlers. We saw dozens of naked babes running the beach!


Learn From Us || If we could do our road trip again, we would've spent much more time in Hiriketiya Beach. We only went for a day trip from Tangalle, so take it from us and get here quickly!


Days 22, 23, & 24: Ahangama

49 km // 2 hours


Continuing west, remain on the coastal road until you reach Ahangama. Take your time with this drive and be sure to stop for fresh fruit on the side of the road, browse the boutique shops, and soak up the stunning beach views. Ahangama is like a cousin to the popular Weligama or Mirissa. It's gaining popularity for its surfing and co-working spaces, but it's still a lot more chill than its neighboring towns.


Our favorite activity was turning down some narrow back road in search of secluded spots to enjoy the sunshine. We recommend spending two or three nights here.


Days 25 & 26: Galle Fort

20 km // 45 minutes


After days at the beach soaking up the sunshine, head west to the historic city of Galle Fort. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this small city is famous for its Dutch colonial fort and the oldest lighthouse in Sri Lanka. Inside the fort walls, you'll find hundreds of boutique shops, delectable restaurants, and beautifully restored heritage hotels.


Galle Fort is a stilt fishing hot-spot, so make sure you carve out some time to observe the locals using these traditional fishing methods. You'll find many fishermen in Koggala perched on top of bamboo sticks in the water. This method takes many years of practice, not to mention balance, and is truly fascinating to witness.


Stay || We loved our stay at The Mer.Chant and have also heard great things about The Fort Printers.


Days 27 & 28: Hikkaduwa Beach

19 km // 45 minutes


If you have a couple of days to spare before flying out of Colombo, we recommend spending two nights in Hikkaduwa. This little town has become quite the tourist hotspot in recent years, so expect higher prices in restaurants and accommodations. In Hikkaduwa, the beaches are long and beautiful and the nightlife is active.


Since there are coral reefs nearby, many travelers visit Hikkaduwa for the snorkeling, scuba diving, and sea turtles.


You may notice wooden masks all around town. These are depicting demons of Sri Lankan folklore. You can visit the Ambalangoda Mask Workshop and Museum to learn more about the rich history of Sri Lankan folklore and see local artists hand painting the masks.



Day 29: Negombo

150 km // 3 to 3.5 hours


Depending on what time your flight is out of Colombo, you could spend one night in Negombo or Colombo if needed. Our flight was late, around 8pm, so we headed straight to the airport after dropping off our tuk tuk at the Tuk Tuk Rental office. Your thirty day road trip journey has come to an end and hopefully, you've made memories to last a lifetime!


Day 30: Flight Out of Colombo


 

Southwest Monsoon Season: Day by Day


Most destinations on this itinerary are similar to the ones above, with the exception of a few stops. See above for detailed information on the majority of this itinerary.


Day 1: Arrival in Colombo


Day 2: Tuk Tuk Driving Lesson in Negombo


Days 3 & 4: Dambulla

133 km // 3.5 hours


Day 5: Wasgamuwa National Park

78 km // 2.5 hours


Days 6, 7 & 8: Sigiriya/Habarana

87 km // 3 hours


Days 9 &10: Trincomalee

100 km // 3 hours


Since monsoon rains are hitting the southwestern side of the island at this time, we recommend heading northeast from Sigiriya to soak up some sunshine on the beach. Trincomalee is a port city that's famous for its powdery beaches, rich Hindu culture, and blue ocean waters.


There are many activities to do and things to see in Trincomalee, but these were a few of our favorites:

  • Pigeon Island National Park || This small island, about 45 minutes away by boat, has some of the best coral reefs that remain in Sri Lanka. We spent hours snorkeling the reefs and spotted reef sharks, sea turtles, incredible coral, eels, and hundreds of kinds of tropical fish. A half-day excursion cost us $40 USD per person - including the boat fee and the National Park fee. Go early in the morning to avoid crowds.

  • Fort Frederick || This fort was built in the 17th century by the Portuguese after they destroyed a world famous Hindu temple. Like many significant buildings in Sri Lanka, the fortress was later rebuilt by the Dutch and eventually taken over by the British. Today, Fort Frederick is used by the Sri Lankan military but is partially open to the public.

  • Nilaveli Beach || One morning, we drove our tuk tuk out of the city to explore the surrounding area. What we encountered were many small fishing villages with rivers running through to the ocean. In the middle of one of those villages is Nilaveli Beach. We were among only a few other people on the white sand beach enjoying the sunshine. It was just one of those magical days where you let any stress or worries melt away and enjoy the warm turquoise waters.

  • Sri Pathrakali Amman Kovil || This colorful temple, dedicated to the Hindu goddess Bhadrakali, is located right in the middle of Trincomalee town. The detail on this temple is jaw-dropping. It's worth a visit.

  • Eat at Eastern Lanka Seafood Restaurant || I'm pretty sure we could happily live on curry, spice, and coconut milk. And Mexican food - but that's a story for another day. You can't miss eating fresh kottu roti here! Kottu roti, technically a street food, is a combination of roti, cabbage, leek, onion, cheese, eggs, and sometimes meat. It's a savory bite of heaven and one of our favorite foods in the world!

Stay || Amaranthe Bay is more than a place to lay your head at night. It's an experience with countless activities to fill your days. The hotel has kayak rentals, a large swimming pool, in-room private jacuzzis, bicycles to rent, and mind-blowing chefs on staff.


Days 11, 12 & 13: Pasikuda Beach

109 km // 3 hours


Head south to this semi-arid beach town. Paskuda, meaning 'Green Algae Bay' has a horseshoe shaped bay, seemingly endless stretches of white sand, and turquoise blue waters. It's becoming a hotspot for tourists and locals alike. The sea is shallow in the bay, so it's one of the safest beaches for swimming - especially for small children. Due to recent preservation and restoration efforts, the coral here is relatively untouched and allows for a tranquil experience. Travelers can enjoy snorkeling, windsurfing, diving, and surfing in Pasikuda.


Spend three nights here soaking up the sun. Don't forget the sunscreen since you're in a drier climate!


Days 14, 15, 16 & 17: Arugam Bay

147 km // 4 hours


Arugam Bay, undoubtedly the most famous surfing spot in Sri Lanka, is next on the itinerary. In fact, it's ranked as one of the top ten surfing destinations in the world. If surfing is your thing, you've already heard of this town. If surfing isn't your thing, maybe the laid-back barefoot beach life is. Arugam Bay is pretty small and only has a permanent population of a few hundred. Due to the increase in tourism, trendy restaurants have popped up, transforming the town into quite the foodie destination.


Beyond bumming it on the beach, Yala National Park is next door, so you can take a visit to Sri Lanka's most famous wildlife park.



Days 18 & 19: Koslanda

122 km // 3.5 hours


Days 20, 21 & 22: Ella

40 km // 2 hours and hilly


Day 23: Nuwara Eliya

56 km // 3 hours


Days 24 & 25: Kandy

99 km // 4 hours


Days 26, 27 & 28: Hatton

68 km // 3 hours


Day 29: Negombo

121 km // 5 hours


Day 30: Flight Out of Colombo

 


Sri Lanka Itinerary Road Trip Guide


Driving in Sri Lanka has its quirks, so read our full tuk tuk guide unforgettable family adventure: exploring sri lanka by tuk tuk with kids. While the traffic isn't as chaotic as, say, Vietnam or Bali, the traffic has its own flow that takes some getting used to. This isn't to intimidate or scare you away from a road trip, but don't say we didn't warn you about the buses that fly down the road going twice the speed limit!


As long as you avoid highways, stay on the far left side of the road, and watch out for water buffalo and elephants, you'll do great!


If you opt to rent through Tuk Tuk Rental, remember to use the code THELOVE for a cheeky discount!


We hope you have enjoyed our blog, your ultimate guide to sri lanka: the ideal 30 day travel itinerary, and we hope you'll share it with anyone planning a Sri Lanka trip. Be sure to subscribe to our blog for more adventures!


For love and adventure,

Bre, Daniel & Indy

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