How to Spend One Week in Sri Lanka
Updated January 2021, The One Week in Sri Lanka Itinerary was originally written in September 2018
The cloud has lifted and as of 2009, the long-time civil war had ended. Now is the time to get to Sri Lanka.
Short on time and want to make the most of it? You’ve come to the right place. In this guide, you’ll get an itinerary for how to spend one week in Sri Lanka taking in some of the best of the island.
When I visited Sri Lanka in 2014 I only allotted for 7 days at on the island at the tail-end of an epic trip that first saw me crossing off the top of my bucket list in Yemen & Socotra. Mind you, I visited Sri Lanka before I even knew what a travel blog was. So little (more like no) research was done in preparation.
Visa on arrival with an ETA, ok I’m good to enter. You don’t need much time there, it’s a small island, right? WRONG!
If you want to really explore the island, you’ll need much more time. It’s a lot bigger than it looks.
But not everyone has the luxury of endless travel time to explore a new country. So here is a guide to one week in Sri Lanka. If you’re just starting to plan, I recommend getting a copy of Bradt’s Sri Lanka to help you organize your trip.
ONE WEEK SRI LANKA ITINERARY
Minneriya National Park
Quick Info On Sri Lanka
- Currency: Sri Lankan Rupee. As of January 2021, the exchange rate is $1 USD = 187.50 LKR
- Language: Sinhalese and Tamil are the official languages on the island. Tamil is more widely spoken in the north and east, whereas Sinhalese is more widely used in the south and west. English is widely spoken throughout the country as Sri Lanka was ruled by Britain from 1815 to 1948 under the name of Ceylon.
- Religion: Buddhists make up the majority at 70% of the population. Next up are Hindus comprising 13% and Muslims with 10%.
- Visas: Most all countries are eligible for a visa on arrival in Sri Lanka, as long as they apply for an ETA (electronic travel authorization) in advance.
- What To Wear: When visiting religious sites you’ll need to have shoulders and knees covered. I’d recommend a maxi dress and shawl/scarf for women and long trousers and a long sleeve top for men. On the beach, in the southwest, and at hotel pools, things are more relaxed and you can usually wear a swimsuit. In the more conservative north and east, it’s recommended for women to swim in a t-shirt and shorts at least outside of resorts. In most areas frequently touristed (many of these sites listed in this guide are often visited) you can get away with shorts and even short sleeves at non-religious sites. You will be stared at and stand out no matter what, so I recommend dressing more conservatively off the southwest beaches. On my 2014 trip, I saw very few western tourists, although with Sri Lanka’s rise in popularity that’s getting less and less so.
- Best Time To Visit: Sri Lanka really is a year-round destination. When the Maha Monsoon (December-February) strikes in the east and north, the south and west remain fairly clear. When the Yala Monsoon (May-August) brings rain to the south and west, the north and east will see drier weather. For this one week Sri Lanka itinerary, we will mostly be focusing on destinations in the southwest and center of the country, therefore December-February will be optimal for the weather. December through February corresponds with the high season.
- How To Get To Sri Lanka: The vast majority of tourists will arrive by flight into Colombo (Bandaranaike International Airport).
- Transportation: Sri Lanka has an extensive rail network, and has heaps of buses connecting cities and towns. Taking buses and trains is a cheap way to travel the country, but neither are great for those short on time as they are slow. You can easily hire private cars (with driver or to self-drive) around the country, and there are now even places that will rent out tuk-tuks to tourists who want to self-drive. Note that driving in Sri Lanka, particularly the cities is chaotic- I watched a pedestrian get smoked by a tuk-tuk in Colombo. He surprisingly walked away even though it sent him flying in the air and completely smashed the tuk-tuk’s windshield. For those on quick visits, I recommend hiring a car and driver to get around in Sri Lanka.
Local Guides I Recommend
Having a guide to travel Sri Lanka isn’t essential, but it can definitely enhance your experience in the country. Without a doubt, I recommend hiring my friend Mario that started his own guiding business in Sri Lanka.
He’s both a driver and a guide, and he will find accommodations to match your travel budget, as well as an itinerary to fit your time frame. You can reach him through his Facebook page here.
One Week Sri Lanka Itinerary
Day 0: Arrive in Colombo
Your flight will arrive. Apply for an ETA before arriving, that way getting your visa on arrival will be a simple process. Grab a taxi or bus into Colombo and get a good night’s rest. A taxi to Colombo from the airport these days should cost around 2,000-2,500 LKR, and buses will cost around 120 LKR per person.
Where To Sleep In Colombo
- Budget: Colombo Downtown Monkey | Booking.com | Agoda.com |
- Midrange: Colombo Orchid Villa | Booking.com | Agoda.com |
- Higher End: Taj Sumurda | Booking.com | Hotels.com |
Day1: Colombo-Minneriya National Park-Polonnawrua
Get an early start, Minneriya National Park is about a 4 hour drive from Colombo. Minneriya National Park is most famous for it’s tank and elephants.
What To Do In Minneriya National Park
- Take a safari out to Minneriya National Park (guide, park fees + 4wd hire will cost around $40 USD)
- Watch the elephant gathering in the grasslands around the tank
- Check out the Minneriya Tank built by King Mahasen between 276-303 AD to create a lake by damming off the Minneriya River
- Keep an eye out for other animals: axis deer, sambar deer, macaques, lorises, leopards, and sloth-bears.
- An alternative to Minneriya National Park is to visit Kaudulla National Park
Where To Sleep In Polonnawrua
- Budget: Oudara Guesthouse | Booking.com |
- Midrange: Living Inn Polonnawrua | Booking.com | Agoda.com |
- Higher End: Ekho Lake House | Booking.com | Hotels.com |
Day 2: Sigiriya-Dambulla-Kandy
Get another early start and head to Sigiriya in the morning. After spending a good part of the morning walking up to the top of the Lion’s Rock, head to Dambulla.
Dambulla’s most famous sight is the Cave Temples filled with Buddhas. You can also visit the Golden Temple as it’s right next to the entrance at the Cave Temples.
In the afternoon begin your drive to Kandy. En route, stop at an Ayurvedic Garden to learn about the uses of many of the plants and herbs around the island. You should arrive in Kandy by the late afternoon Make sure and catch a traditional dance show, watch the sunset over Kandy Lake, and then head to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.
What To Do In Sigiriya
- Visit the sacred site of Sigiriya & climb to the top ($30 USD)
- Walk around the Royal Gardens at Siguriya
What To Do In Dambulla
- Explore the Cave Temples (1,200 LKR)
- Stop off at Golden Temple
What To Do In Kandy
- Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (1,000 LKR)
- Visit an Ayurvedic Garden (entrance typically free, donations accepted, and there is usually a shop to purchase Ayurvedic items)
- Attend a traditional dance show
- Watch the sunset at Kandy Lake
Where To Sleep In Kandy
- Budget: Comfort Homestay | Booking.com |
- Midrange: Kandy City Hotel | Booking.com | Hotels.com |
- Higher End: King’s Pavillion | Booking.com | Hotels.com |
Day 3: Kandy-Nuwara Eliya-Ella
In the morning before leaving Kandy, pay a quick visit to the Botanical Gardens. Then it’s back on the road for about 3 hours to get to Nuwara Eliya.
Nuwara Eliya is known for its tea plantations and cooler weather- gaining it the nickname “Little England”. Be over to nearby Nanu-Oya before 3 pm to take one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world between Nuwara Eliya and Ella.
Before You Leave Kandy
- Botanical Gardens
What To Do In Nuwara Eliya & Ella
- Tour a tea plantation, sample teas
- Take the scenic Nuwara Eliya-Ella train (1st class/3rd class 60 LKR/1,000 LKR)
Where To Sleep In Ella
- Budget: Ask Homestay | Booking.com |
- Midrange: Solitary Resort | Booking.com |
- Higher End: Morning Dew Hotel | Booking.com |
Day 4: Ella-Tangalle
Make the 2.5 hour journey south to the coast from Ella high in the Hill Country to relaxed Tangalle. Tangalle is known for it’s palm-fringed white sand beach.
What To Do In Tangalle
- Relax on the beach
- Go turtle watching
Where To Sleep In Tangalle
- Budget: Malindu Homestay | Booking.com | Agoda.com |
- Midrange: Onilreach Garden | Booking.com | Agoda.com |
- Higher End: Lanka Beach Bungalows | Booking.com | Hotels.com |
Day 5: Galle & Unawatuna
The drive from Tangalle to Galle is less than two hours, not including scenic stops you may make along the way. Once to Galle make sure to visit the Galle Fort and explore the buildings within its walls from the Dutch era. Plan to spend the night in nearby Unawatuna.
What To Do In Galle
- Galle Fort
Where To Sleep In Unawatuna
- Budget: White House | Booking.com | Hotels.com |
- Midrange: Hotel J Unawatuna | Booking.com | Hotels.com |
- Higher End: Thaproban Pavilion Waves Unawatuna | Booking.com | Hotels.com |
Day 6: Unawatuna & Jungle Beach
What better way than to spend one of your last days in Sri Lanka at the beach? I recommend heading over to nearby Jungle Beach today.
- Explore Unawatuna
- Hang out on Jungle Beach
Day 7: Unawatuna-Colombo
Make your way back to Colombo today to say farewell to Sri Lanka. There is a toll road connecting the southwest beaches to Colombo in under 2.5 hours. Spend the remainder of today (and tonight if you’ll fly out the following morning) purchasing any souvenirs you’d like to take home and exploring sites around Colombo.
What To Do In Colombo
- Shop at the Pettah Market
- Explore the historic Fort Area
Have Any Questions Not Answered In This One Week Sri Lanka Itinerary?
Ask your Sri Lanka itinerary questions in the comments below!