Most visitors to the beautiful island of Sri Lanka can be granted a 30-day visa which can be applied for online through the official ETA website here.
The visa usually takes 48 hours to be granted and you must take a copy of your application number on arrival to Sri Lanka. Passport control will check your application on their system and add a sticker to your passport with your date of departure.
Although a month is granted, Sri Lanka is a small country and so a lot can be covered relatively quickly. Here we give you a 3 week itinerary, based on 21 nights in Sri Lanka, which packs in everything from big cities, the cultural triangle, idyllic beaches and mountain treks.
Colombo – 1 night
Sri Lanka’s biggest city and where all travellers fly into Colombo had, for us, very little charm other than being the main jumping off point. A big busy city is not the reason you travel to Sri Lanka so we would suggest spending an afternoon exploring the colonial buildings around Galle Face Green and one night of rest before heading out on the first part of your adventure!
Kandy – 1 night
The train from Colombo to Kandy is always a busy one but they sell as many tickets as necessary so no need to book ahead (unless you require 1st class but we’re all budget travellers here right?) It takes around 3 hours so leave early morning to get the most out of your day in Kandy. Kandy is a sweet little city centred around a big man-made lake and can easily be ambled around in an afternoon; be sure to visit the Temple of the Tooth for its nightly ceremony.
Dambulla – 1 night
Spend the early morning in Kandy soaking up the sun over the lake and hill sides before heading to the bus station to catch a local bus North to Dambulla. The bus takes around 2 and a half to 3 hours and can drop you off right outside the famous Dambulla caves complex. Luckily our guesthouse was just across the road from here – check where yours is before you arrive and you may be able to stop somewhere closer to there too. After dropping off your backpacks and freshening up head for a late morning explore of the cave temples which are the biggest and best preserved in Sri Lanka. There are five caves in total dating back to the 1st century BCE and all are teeming with amazing Buddha statues!
After lunch, catch a bus from the Dambulla bus station to nearby Sigirya which takes around 45 minutes. Here you can make the climb up Sigirya or Pigurangula rock for breathtaking views and the best sunset point around.
Polonnoruwa – 2 nights
Treat yourself to a small lie in and a long breakfast as the bus to your next stop in Polonnoruwa only takes around 2 hours. Find your accommodation and then a bicycle to hire – all good guesthouses here will hire them – and cycle up to the archaeological grounds which are home to hundreds of ancient temples, stupas and the most beautiful reclining Buddha!
Polonnoruwa is not only prominent in terms of its part in the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka but also in its location nestled between a few of Sri Lanka’s National Parks. This makes it the perfect place to stay an extra day and take a jeep safari to explore all the wildlife on offer – namely elephants! Something that will no doubt be a highlight in any Sri Lanka itinerary!
Kandy – 1 night
The local bus back down from Polonnoruwa to Kandy takes at least four hours so after a long and probably hot journey you may want to take the afternoon to relax again in Kandy and break up the travelling before heading further down South. Take the opportunity to visit the big Buddha on the hill and take in the views over the whole of Kandy.
Hatton – 2 nights
The famous train ride from Kandy to Ella in the Central Highlands is a must do on any visit to Sri Lanka! The journey in total takes 7 hours; up and down, through and around the mountains and tea plantations. You can, however, break this journey up by jumping off at Hatton and completing another bucket list item and climbing the majestic Adams Peak. Stay two nights in order to climb the pilgrim steps at sunrise for those unforgettable views and have an afternoon to rest your tired legs.
Nuwara Eliya – 1 night
Next stop on the most scenic train ride in the world is the small town of Nuwara Eliya – alight at Nanu Oya and take public transport to reach the centre of town. An afternoon and evening can be spent exploring this quaint little hill-town also known as “Little England”.
Ella – 2 nights
The last stop on your train ride and the most scenic part as you watch the train chug up the hillsides to Ella. The centre of town is pretty touristy but ensure you book a guesthouse out on the hillsides and marvel at the glorious views out across into the sweeping greenery, tea plantations and Ella Rock! Two days can easily be spent here completing the must do walks to Little Adams Peak, Nine Arches Bridge and if you’re not already too tired then take a stab at Ella Rock. Don’t miss out on some chill time in the lovely little cafes here too!
Marakolliya – 3 nights
After a lot of travelling and hiking it’s time to get down South for some ultimate relaxation on Sri Lanka’s long golden beaches. The bus from Ella takes around 3 to 4 hours and can be a bit punishing as the bus throttles down the hillside and screeches round each bend. But, once you reach your hop off point of Tangalle; take one last tuk tuk the last 2km to Marakolliya, step out on the crisp white sand and we can guarantee you will forget all about the journey. This place is heaven and all yours for the next 3 nights! Get a drink and soak up the sea breeze.
Weligama – 2 nights
If you manage to drag yourself away from Marakolliya then well done…we found it hard! No fear though the next stop is not too far away and you’ll soon be back on the beach! An hour and a half to two hour bus along the coast and you will arrive in the surf town of Weligama. Grab a board or a sunbed depending on your preference and soak up the sun and sea and dine on seafood and big king coconuts!
Unawatuna – 2 nights
By now you are surely feeling more relaxed but there’s still time for one more beach destination. We recommend Unawatuna where the beach stretches far and wide, the sea is so calm and we’ve found you a perfect little secret beach at Delawalla too! After a short bus or train ride from Weligama you can spend your last two nights next to the sea and catching the beautiful sunsets.
Galle – 1 night
With one last night left before flying out, a nice last stop is a short hop along the coast in Galle. Here you can find the famous Galle fort and many colonial building influenced by the Dutch and British. It’s a half hour bus ride from Unawatuna but gets you that bit closer up the coast toward Colombo. Galle has a big train station which is a connecting point for North and South and from which regular trains to Colombo run. Spend your last night reminiscing about everything you love about Sri Lanka before heading straight to the airport the next day! Colombo is two hours on the train from Galle so can easily be done in a morning before your flight. If your flight is early we recommend doing Galle for the morning and early afternoon but spending the night in Colombo rather than Galle!
So there you have it; a packed three weeks but one which we think will take you through the most impressive, scenic and romantic places Sri Lanka has to offer. Tweak the itinerary to fit your needs and of course if you have more time and are able to stay the full 30 days then more nights can easily be added to your time on the paradise beaches of the South coast or you could travel further North to Anuradhapura.
Either way we are sure you will fall just as in love with Sri Lanka as we did. It’s really hard not to!
C & J x