9-Day Sri Lanka Itinerary for First Timers: Everything You Need to Know

Sri Lanka Cover Photo

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Whether you’re planning a trip to Sri Lanka or still need some convincing on why you need to visit this stunning country, I’ve put together this Sri Lanka itinerary, plus essential information you’ll need for your trip!

In March 2019, I was looking for a vacation spot that screamed NATURE, MOUNTAINS and endless GREENERY. I stumbled upon Sri Lanka and boy, did it deliver. Sri Lanka has been rapidly gaining in popularity since 2018, and it truly peaked in 2019, and it’s no wonder why. If there was such a thing as love at first sight, this was it. And I fell, hard.

This Sri Lanka itinerary is perfect for full-time workers as you’ll only need to take 5 days vacation, bookend it with 2 weekends and you get 9 days to explore the island. 9 days certainly isn’t enough to see Sri Lanka in its entirety but it’s perfect to get a taste of the country and all it has to offer – from rolling mountain ranges, beaches, wildlife, sumptuous delicacies and most importantly, the beautiful people who make up this country. Follow along and hopefully, you can see Sri Lanka through my eyes, which has quickly become one of my all-time favorite countries.

First up, the essentials!

How to get to Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is located in the Indian Ocean, just south of India. The best way to get here is to fly into the island’s international airport, Bandaranaike International Airport, located in Negombo, which is roughly 20 miles from the capital city of Colombo.

How to get around Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka

The island of Sri Lanka isn’t huge and distances between towns are relatively short, though due to lack of infrastructure and proper highways, short distances can still be time-consuming. The roads are narrow, windy and in bad condition, so I would not recommend hiring a car and driving yourself. Trust me, I had numerous near heart-attacks watching our driver weaving through traffic, which is something I cannot ever imagine being able to tackle.

There are a few options for travel around Sri Lanka depending on your budget.

Hire a driver

This is the most popular option and is the option we opted for. It’s much safer, more convenient and faster, not to mention, way more comfortable than taking public transportation; the train from Kandy to Ella being the exception! For 9 days, we hired a driver who picked us up at the airport, and took us everywhere we wanted to go for the 9 days, and dropped us off at the airport right at the end.

We chose Chamila Tours, because they had great reviews on TripAdvisor, and I cannot recommend them enough. Our driver, Harry became part of our family and thoroughly enhanced our experience, that I don’t think we would have had the same amazing experience if not for him.

It only cost us about $70 per day for a spacious van and driver, which worked out to be $17.50 per day per pax between the 4 of us. Prices will differ based on the size of your group but the cost for the comfort and convenience makes it a no-brainer. If you’re thinking of hiring a driver, I highly recommend engaging Chamila Tours. I am not being paid to say this, but I know that you will be in excellent hands if you hire them. Ask for Harry!

Public buses/trains

Public buses and trains are dirt cheap, with bus tickets costing around $0.50, but are old, slow and often delayed. Most buses also don’t have air conditioning, which in Sri Lankan heat can get quite uncomfortable. I’ve heard that these bus drivers drive extremely fast on the windy roads that you’ll be holding on for dear life for most of your journey. Also, you might want to avoid taking the bus if you’re traveling with lots of luggage as there usually isn’t any space for your suitcases.

Taking the train is a lot more pleasant than taking the bus, but the trains don’t service all cities. I wouldn’t recommend relying fully on trains to get around, but I highly recommend at least taking the train from Kandy to Ella, or vice versa, as it is deemed the most beautiful train ride in the world!

You can check train connections and book your tickets at 12Go Asia.

Read more: Kandy to Ella Train: Everything you need to know about the world’s most beautiful train ride

When to go to Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka

The island of Sri Lanka isn’t huge, but is surprisingly affected by two separate monsoons, which also means that you’ll usually find good weather somewhere on the island most of the year. Best times to visit are:

  • North – May to September
  • Center – January to April
  • South – December to March

We visited in late March to early April and had beautiful weather throughout our trip.

Prepaid Travel SIM cards

SIM cards in Sri Lanka are relatively cheap, which makes staying connected a breeze. There are a few large telco companies but some of the largest and more reliable ones are Mobitel and Dialog. You’ll see these telco kiosks right next to each other once you get to the arrival hall at the airport. Prices rarely vary, so I would suggest just going for whichever has the shorter queue.

I got a 12GB SIM card from Mobitel for 1,300 rs (~$7).

The connection stayed relatively good throughout our trip, except when we were in slightly rural areas and when traveling in between small towns, but this is expected.

Is Sri Lanka safe?

As I visited before the terrorist attacks in April 2019, I will approach this in accordance with my experience during my trip. During my trip in March 2019, never once did I feel at risk nor did I witness or hear of any conflict or crime. We also felt extra safe as we had our driver, Harry with us at all times. Most of the locals we met were very friendly, so we did not feel unsafe in any way. Of course, as always while traveling, always exercise caution and common sense. Keep an eye on your valuables at all times, and maybe don’t walk all alone down a dark alley. We felt a lot safer in the smaller towns like Kandy and Ella, but we were told that Colombo was a little more sketchy, since it was the capital city. In general, I consider Sri Lanka to be relatively safe.

That being said, we can’t ignore the terrible horror that struck Sri Lanka on Easter 2019. I will forever be angry that such a tragic event hit such a beautiful nation, which caused so much suffering and repercussions to the people, especially those in the tourism industry. Terrorism can never be predicted, so we’ll never really know. My take on it is that terrorism can happen anywhere, and we shouldn’t let terrorism win, so should we avoid a country because it happened there?

As always, check with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for travel warnings.

9 Day Sri Lanka Itinerary

Day 1: Colombo → Sigiriya

Once you arrive into the city of Colombo, start your 4 1/2 hour journey to Sigiriya. We’ll circle back to Colombo at the end of our trip.

Depending on what time you arrive, your first day will probably be all travel. Take the evening to rest up because the next 8 days are going to be action-packed!

Where to stay in Sigiriya

Back of Beyond Dehigaha Ela

Back of Beyond Dehigaha Ela
If you’re in Sri Lanka for nature, then you’ve gotta really get back to nature at Back of Beyond’s Dehigaha Ela location. It’s located about 3 miles from Sigiriya Rock and Pidurangala Rock, though it is through unpaved dirt road which took us about 30 mins each way. The experience was absolutely worth it though. We stayed in a treehouse and went to sleep with just the sounds of a nearby waterfall and the surrounding nature. Truly a unique experience I would recommend to anyone visiting Sri Lanka.
Click here for latest prices

Back of Beyond Pidurangala
This is another one by Back of Beyond which allows you to be one with nature. Located only 1km away from Sigiriya Rock and Pidurangala Rock, this location is much closer to the town center, so is much more accessible to food options as well.
Click here for latest prices

Day 2: Sigiriya → Kandy

Because of the heat in Sri Lanka, you’ll find yourself waking up extra early every day to start off your sightseeing bright and early, and today marks Day One. Doesn’t hurt that the sunrises here are extra beautiful too.

Pidurangala Rock

Sigiriya is known for the stunning Sigiriya Rock, also known as Lion’s Rock, which is probably the default image you’ll get when you look up Sri Lanka. You can actually climb up all the way to the top of the rock where you’ll find ruins of the old palace, or alternatively, you can climb up Pidurangala Rock and get the view of Lion’s Rock — this is where most of the postcard views are taken from. The climb up Pidurangala Rock takes about 30 minutes, and 45 minutes for Sigiriya Rock, depending on your fitness level. You could probably do both in one morning, but we opted to only go for one. You can read more about which one you should pick here. 

Once you’re happy with your time in Sigiriya, set off on your 2.5 hour journey to Kandy.

Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic

Kandy is known as Sri Lanka’s cultural centre, and here you will find the famous Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic that houses the tooth of Buddha! Here in Kandy, you can watch traditional Kandy dance performances which is a great way to experience their culture. Shows start at 5pm at Kandy Lake Club, which is right by the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. The show runs for an hour, and right after, you can head over to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic to witness the puja ceremony starting at 6.30pm.

The puja ceremony is a sacred ritual where devotees bring offerings and sit around the room in quiet contemplation and prayer. The sheer devotion you witness in the temple is such an eye-opener and truly an experience.

Where to stay in Kandy

Lakewood Residence
One of the best places to stay in Kandy is right next to the beautiful Kandy Lake. We stayed right next door and it looked so modern and luxurious from the outside. Reviews are great and they’ve got a beautiful pool you can cool off in!
Check for latest prices

Kandy Apartment – Airbnb
This is where we stayed in Kandy, and is perfect if you’re traveling in a group. This luxury 3-bedroom suite offers stunning views of the lake and is extremely spacious so we had ample space to kick back and relax after a long day of sightseeing. Our stay here was perfect and would not hesitate to return if we were ever in Kandy again.
Get $30 off your first Airbnb booking with this link!

Day 3: Kandy

Big Buddha Kandy

Some other great places to explore in Kandy are the Botanical Gardens, Big Buddha and take a stroll along Kandy Lake. Use this day to do a little R&R as the next few days are going to be pretty exhausting!

Day 4: Kandy → Ella

Kandy to Ella Train 14

Today you will be on the most scenic train ride in the world! The journey takes 7 hours, but trust me, you’ll wish it lasted longer. The train will take you through Sri Lanka’s rolling mountain ranges and tea plantations that the 7 hours will just whiz past. Take the morning train (8:47am) so you can arrive at Ella by mid-afternoon and leave yourself some time to explore Ella in the evening.

Getting train tickets can be quite a pain, so reserve your tickets well in advance to secure yourself a seat. Getting yourself a ticket in a reserved seating cabin can be the difference between a ride from hell or the ride of a lifetime! Buy your tickets from Kandy to Ella here. 

Read more: Kandy to Ella Train: Everything you need to know about the world’s most beautiful train ride

Little Adam’s Peak-9

Ella is a sleepy little town nestled between mountains and tea plantations, with a quaint backpacker vibe. If you’ve arrived at mid-afternoon, start your hike up Little Adam’s Peak just in time to witness the sunset. It’s an easy 20-30 min hike up to the top with extremely rewarding views. Start off a little earlier as I guarantee you’ll make plenty of stops along the way for pictures. Read more about how to get to Little Adam’s Peak here.

Where to stay in Ella

Marvellous Inn
We stayed at Marvellous Inn, which is a cosy family-run B&B with stunning mountain views, and the friendly host, Malli was extremely warm and hospitable. You’ll feel like you’re right at home!
Check latest prices here

Day 5: Ella → Yala National Park

Today will be a slightly tiring day as we’ll be doing quite a bit of sightseeing plus traveling quite a distance. Of course, if you could afford more time, I’d recommend staying a bit longer in Ella.

Ella Nine Arch Bridge

Another early rise today, just in time to watch the infamous train cross the Nine-Arch Bridge. The first train was supposed to arrive at 6.10am, but only arrived at 6.30am. A treat for Harry Potter fans (like me), it certainly felt like watching the Hogwarts Express choo-choo its way off to Hogwarts! The next train that was scheduled to arrive at 6.40am arrived at 7.30am, so it’s safe to say that you’re probably gonna have to hang around for a while to catch the train. We went early to try to catch the first train and there were barely 10 people around. It gets more crowded the later it gets.

Lipton's Seat

This is when we sadly say goodbye to Ella. Start your journey South and stop over at Lipton’s Seat, a beautiful tea plantation with stunning panoramic views. Then make your way to Diyaluma Falls, which was by far one of my favorite experiences throughout my entire trip.

Diyaluma Falls-5

Standing on top of this 220m waterfall was just indescribable, and is an experience I’d recommend to anyone in the area! Read more about how you can get up to this waterfall, as it’s a little off the beaten track, even my driver didn’t know about it!

After a good swim at the falls, make your way to Yala National Park where you will be spending the night in one of Sri Lanka’s very own nature reserve.

Where to stay in Yala National Park

Leopard Trails Yala
If you’re gonna be staying in Yala National Park, you absolutely have to stay in a tent! Leopard Trails Yala offers luxury tents that allows you to relax in nature, without stepping too much out of your comfort zone. It’s a bit of a splurge, but I definitely wouldn’t hesitate if you had a bit of wriggle room with your budget!
Check latest prices here

Wild Trails Yala
This is where we stayed in Yala and it was such an incredible experience falling asleep to the sounds of nature all around with the moonlight as our nightlight. We also had dinner under the stars which was such a unique experience. Didn’t hurt that the chef whipped up some pretty amazing curry.
Check latest prices here

Day 6: Yala National Park → Mirissa

Yala National Park

Yala National Park is probably the most popular national park in Sri Lanka due to its large variety of mammals, and has the highest concentration of leopards in the world! So if you’re on the hunt for spotting a leopard, as most people are, Yala National Park will probably be your best bet.

Of course, spotting a leopard is not a guarantee, but you’ll increase your chances if you do a full-day safari like we did!


After the safari, start your 3-hour drive down to Sri Lanka’s beautiful stretch of beaches. There are a few beaches along the south of the island, but we chose to set up camp at Mirissa Beach. Each beach has its strengths, so it really depends on what you’re after.

Where to stay in Mirissa

Mirissa Dive Resort
This newly built resort only has a limited number of units which gives it a sense of exclusivity, and the rooms are really spacious. Our favorite part was having breakfast by the beach every morning, not to mention the sumptuous food prepared by the lovely staff. It’s a small establishment that feels like you’re staying with family!
Check latest prices here 

Ubuntu Beach Villas by Lantern
Wake up to the view of the beach here at Ubuntu Beach Villas, boasting spacious rooms overlooking the horizon and a beautiful outdoor pool. Service here is impeccable as well, so I would highly recommend checking these guys out.
Check latest prices here

Day 7: Mirissa (Galle Fort)

Coconut Tree Hill

Today is beach day, so pack your beach towels and get ready to get your tan on! Stop by the Instaworthy Coconut Tree Hill close to Mirissa and grab some Bollywood-style photos of yourself. Trust me, it looks even better in person.

Galle Fort

Once you’re done there, you might want to explore Galle Fort, a little fortified town that features well-preserved colonial architecture packed with lots of quaint little shops and eateries. Walking through the cobblestoned streets, you’ll forget you’re in Sri Lanka! If not for the heat, I would’ve loved to explore and walk through all the little alleys, so I’d recommend coming as early as possible to beat the scorching heat!

Dikwella Beach Swing

On the way back to Mirissa, you’ll be spoilt for choice for beaches so just stop by at any that tickles your fancy. If you’d like to grab another Insta-worthy photo, drop by one of the many palm tree swings along the beaches. Beware though as some have gotten rather popular and will charge a fee, and may have a queue!

Spend the rest of the day relaxing by the beach or cooling off in the amazing water.

Day 8: Mirissa → Colombo

Ministry of Crab

Sneak in one last beach sesh in the morning before circling back to Colombo, just in time for a late lunch. If the idea of gobbling down a Godzilla-sized crab, aptly named “Crabzilla” cooked in every which way sounds like a dream to you, then you’ll want to make a reservation at Ministry of Crab who have managed to snag a spot on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. It’s extremely popular so make your reservations well in advance, especially for dinner spots. We called in a few days before, and could only get a slot at 2pm. Prices are pretty steep though, so be ready to shell out some serious moolah. But was it worth it? Oh yes.

Colombo

After you’ve had your tummies filled with happy crabs, get a glimpse of city life in Sri Lanka and take a walk around the Pettah Market area. The area is bustling with shops for both locals and tourists alike. I especially liked the local farmers’ markets where you can pick up some fresh fruit.

Where to stay in Colombo

Rococo Residence
This place is great if you’re traveling in a group, which is the place we stayed at while in Colombo. If you want to live like a king, this is the place to be. The apartment is crazily spacious and is stylishly decorated. It’s also only a stone’s throw away from Colombo City Centre shopping mall. There’s even a rooftop pool where you get sweeping views of Colombo city. The only downside was that we only had time to stay for a night! We would definitely be back at Rococo if we found ourselves in Colombo again.
Check for latest prices here

Marino Beach Residence
If you haven’t had enough of the beach, Colombo has its very own beach, though definitely not as clean as the ones at Mirissa. However, you can still enjoy the cool sea breeze and fall asleep to the waves crashing. I mean, who’s complaining?!
Check for latest prices here

Day 9

That’s it for our Sri Lanka tour! It’s time to very sadly say goodbye :'(

9-Day Sri Lanka Itinerary Summary

Day 1: Colombo → Sigiriya

Day 2: Sigiriya → Kandy

Day 3: Kandy

Day 4: Kandy → Ella

Day 5: Ella → Yala National Park

Day 6: Yala National Park → Mirissa

Day 7: Mirissa

Day 8: Mirissa → Colombo

Day 9: Colombo → HOME


And there we have it, a 9-day Sri Lanka itinerary perfect for people looking to catch a quick break without using up too many vacation days! In 9 days, we have scaled mountains, relaxed at the beach, tasted sumptuous food, spotted wildlife, swung from palm trees and so much more. If you want an all-encompassing vacation, Sri Lanka is it.

Which part are you most looking forward to? And if you’ve been to Sri Lanka, which was your favorite part of your trip? Let me know in the comments below!

Need more Sri Lanka reads to plan our your trip? Check these out:


Sri Lanka Lonely PlanetFurther reading: Lonely Planet Sri Lanka Travel Guide is an up-to-date guide on what to see and skip, and the hidden secrets Sri Lanka holds. It features color maps and images, highlights and itineraries, insider tips, essential info, honest reviews and cultural insights.

Covers:Colombo, Galle, Kandy, Arugam Bay, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Jaffna, Uda Walawe National Park, Bundala National Park, hill country, ancient cities, and more

For a limited time only, get 3 books for the price of 2!


Visiting Sri Lanka Checklist

⇢ Compare flight prices to Colombo
⇢ Compare accommodation options and prices on Booking.com | HotelsCombined.com | Agoda | Airbnb
⇢ Book your train tickets in advance on 12Go Asia
⇢ Don’t forget travel insurance! Travel insurance is the most overlooked purchase when traveling, but one of the most essential. Anything can happen when you’re on holiday and you’d want to be covered in the case of travel mishaps such as flight delays, personal accidents or theft. Choose World Nomads Travel Insurance, designed by travelers for travelers.


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