Stunning temples, intriguing history, local markets, pristine beaches and lively cities make Sri Lanka a must visit. Don’t let the stress of planning overwhelm you – here is the perfect one-week itinerary to help you make the most of your Sri Lankan sojourn.
Day 1: Colombo. Kick off your 7 days in Sri Lanka by arriving into Bandaranaike International Airport near Colombo. Although Colombo is the transportation gateway to the rest of Sri Lanka, it has pockets of vibrant and eccentric neighborhoods to explore as well as many new and exciting restaurants opening up left, right and center. Colombo is easily explored within a day, and a great place to start your Sri Lanka itinerary or unwind towards the end of your trip.
Day 2: Sigiriya. Sigiriya is a 4-hour drive from Colombo, or a quick 30-minute domestic flight away if you’re feeling fancy (it might be quicker and cheaper to take a car). It forms part of Sri Lanka’s “Cultural Triangle” and is home to the towering “Lion Rock” fortress measuring nearly 200-metres tall.
Sigiriya Rock Fortress is an ancient palace that has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It consists of the Sky Palace offering panoramic views, a mid-level terrace that features the Lion Gate and beautiful gardens and moats on the lower levels.
You can stop at the Dambulla Cave Temple on your way to Sigiriya from Colombo, checking into your hotel and taking a breather, and then climbing Sigiriya Rock in the afternoon so that you can admire the sunset from up high. The trek up to the Sky Palace involves climbing several steep sets of stairs, so make sure you wear appropriate footwear!
Day 3: Polonnaruwa, heading to Ella. Polonnaruwa is an ancient city in Sri Lanka located approximately 1 hour by car from Sigiriya. It served as the country’s capital for nearly 2 centuries between the 11th and 13th centuries A.D. and features wonderfully preserved heritage and historical sites. Today, you can explore the ancient city on foot or by bicycle and wander through the ruins of temples, palaces and shrines.
It's recommended getting an early start and leaving Sigiriya early in the morning to spend 2-3 hours in Polonnaruwa, before making the long journey down towards Ella. The drive between Polonnaruwa to Ella will take anywhere between 4-6 hours. Once you have arrived in Ella, check into your hotel and grab some dinner. Take it easy as the next few days will be action-packed!
Day 4: Ella. By this time you are already halfway through your 1 week Sri Lanka itinerary! Make the most of your time in Ella, an enchanting mountain town in Sri Lanka that has quickly become a must-visit destination for first-time and repeat visitors alike. The town features a seemingly endless sprawl of lush tea plantations, rice fields, mountain ranges and the picture-perfect Nine Arch Bridge.
Start your day with a tour of the Uva Halpewatte Tea Factory. Afterwards, hike to Little Adam’s Peak and walk along the train tracks at Nine Arch Bridge (but get out of the way when trains approach!). Top it all off by hopping in a tuk-tuk and checking out Ravana Falls. Though you could easily spend 2 to 3 days relaxing in Ella, there’s only time in this itinerary for 1 full day – you’ll have to make plans to come back!
Day 5: Yala or Udawalawe. This one’s for the animal lovers. From Ella, check out of your hotel in the morning and embark on the 2-hour drive to Yala or Udawalawe. You will want to leave your hotel by about 11 a.m. in order to get to the national park in time for the afternoon safari drive, which typically begins at 3 p.m. Afternoon safari drives at Yala or Udawalawe finish at approximately 6 p.m., and you can either stay overnight near the park or bite the bullet and hop in a car to head to one of the coastal beach towns.
Yala and Udawalawe National Parks are two of the country’s most prized nature reserves. Yala National Park is a popular destination for those hoping to spot a spotted leopard as it boasts one of the highest leopard densities in the world.
Udawalawe National Park is popular among those who want guaranteed elephant sightings; it is also about a third of the size of Yala and typically less crowded. If you are headed towards Udawalawe then make sure you also stop at the Elephant Transit Home, an ethical elephant orphanage which rehabilitates baby elephants and returns them to the wild once they turn 5 years old.
Whichever park you choose, make sure you remember the dont’s of animal safaris in Sri Lanka. It is not uncommon for vehicles to chase and corner wild animals – this is a big no! Don’t encourage your jeep driver to engage in unethical behaviour that disturbs and traumatizes the wildlife.
Day 6: Beach. If you stayed overnight in Yala or Udawalawe, get an early start and head towards your hotel along Sri Lanka’s south coast to check-into your room. After a few days on the move, indulge in a little peace and relaxation in south Sri Lanka.
Enjoy your hotel pool or go for a leisurely swim in the Indian Ocean. Want to stay active? Try your hand at surfing at one of the many sand-bottom beach breaks or practice Yoga at one of the open-air shalas.
In the later afternoon, head along the coast to see the stilt fishermen, or order yourself a tropical cocktail and watch the sun go down. Feeling peckish? Head to Hiriketiya, Cape Weligama or Zephyr for dinner.
Day 7: Galle. Galle Fort is one of the top places to visit in Sri Lanka: it is famous for the European architectural styles while effortlessly blending in with South Asian traditions, and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. After checking out of your hotel, stop at Galle Fort on your way back towards western Sri Lanka. Depending on where you are staying along the south coast, it will take anywhere from 1-2 hours to get to Galle Fort.
The fort itself is very small and can easily be explored on foot within 2-3 hours, but it’s a great place to grab lunch if you’re hungry – you'll love Sugar Bistro and Minute by Tuk Tuk in the Dutch Hospital, Poonie’s Kitchen for healthy options and Il Gelato for a sweet treat. Need to stock up on some souvenirs for friends and family back home? Check out Barefoot Gallery, Stolen Paradise or Stick No Bills. Make sure you set aside some time to walk along the fort ramparts as well!
If you can bear to tear yourself away from Galle it should take you 2 hours or so to get to Bandaranaike International Airport. And that concludes your 1 week in Sri Lanka!