The Perfect Sri Lanka 10 Day Itinerary – A Comprehensive Guide
Sri Lanka has been on my wish list of countries to visit for a long time. For years I heard stories about the beauty of its landscapes, the delicious food and the warmth of Sri Lankan people, so I couldn’t wait to experience this vibrant country for myself. Finally I made my dream come true and it did not disappoint. Everything I’d heard about it was true and more, so now it’s my turn to share that beauty with you through my Sri Lanka 10 day itinerary. I hope it helps you with planning your visit to this beautiful tear-shaped island nation.
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Why visit Sri Lanka?
There are so many reasons why everyone should visit Sri Lanka at least once in their lifetime, that I’ll have to write a separate article about this. But I want to touch briefly on some of these points.
Sri Lankans welcome visitors with open arms. And when I say with open arms, I mean it. Sri Lankans are some of the most welcoming people I have met on my travels and they will go out of your way so you can experience the best of their beloved country. They are very proud of their own country, and they want you to love it as much as they do.
It’s a country rich in history, as well as cultural and religious diversity. With Buddhists, Hindus, Muslim and Catholics living together, the influences of all these religions are evident all around. These differences come through in the food, which is rich in variety, healthy and truly delicious.
And let’s not forget those landscapes – from lush green hills shaped by tea plantations, to palm tree lined beaches and the open plains of the national parks, where wildlife, in particular elephants, are easy to spot enjoying their own habitat.
Is Sri Lanka safe to travel?
In April 2019, tragedy hit Sri Lanka. A ruthless terrorist attack killed 259 people and injured at least 500. This horrific event put a temporary stop to the growing tourism industry, with visitors cancelling their trips to the country due to safety concerns and travel warnings issued by some countries like UK and USA.
I visited just over three months after the attacks, after the UK relaxed its travel advice. I didn’t feel that Sri Lanka was less safe than any other country I’ve visited in my travels. So there is no cause for concern if safety issues are what is holding you back.
Best time to do this itinerary
There are two monsoon seasons in Sri Lanka that affect different parts of the country at different times of the year. The southwest and west of the country gets rainy between April and September, while the north and eastern areas get the rain between October and March.
For this Sri Lanka 10 day itinerary, the best time to go is April to September. However, if you are visiting between October and March, you can still do this itinerary with some changes. Instead of going to Jaffna and Anuradhapura in the north, you could head to Ella and Galle in the south.
How to get around Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is a relatively small country and distances between sights are not huge. Saying this, getting around can be slow and it can take a lot longer than initially thought. The roads are narrow and not in great condition.
You can use public transport, which is very cheap but also the slowest way to get around. Buses and trains are a great way to see the country and to come in touch with locals, but they are often old and the services tend to be delayed. However, if you have the time and are up for travelling like a local, you can book your train tickets in advance with 12Go, the only site where you can buy train tickets online for Sri Lanka.
Alternatively, you can hire a car with a driver who can also act as your guide. Obviously, this is the most expensive option but it’s also the most convenient.
And if you’re up for a real adventure, you could even rent a tuk tuk for you to drive around the country!
Sri Lanka 10 day itinerary
Day 1 – Colombo
When arriving in Sri Lanka, you will most likely be flying into the capital, Colombo. Most people leave as soon as they arrive, but I would recommend booking a fast airport transfer into the city and spending your first day exploring.
Located in the west coast, Colombo is the commercial hub of Sri Lanka, where old and new live side by side. Here you can find vestiges of the different cultures that have left their mark in the city, from Arab and Portuguese merchants to Dutch and British colonisers.
Colombo is not the most exciting city in the world, but it will give you a good overview of Sri Lankan history and it also has a couple of gems worth discovering.
With its colourful street markets, colonial-era buildings, museums and galleries, churches, mosques and temples, there is plenty to discover if you are open minded and know where to look.
Here are some of the highlights in Colombo.
- National Museum – It’s the largest museum in Sri Lanka with a comprehensive display of the country’s history, so this is the perfect place to start your trip.
- Dutch Hospital – Built originally as a hospital, it is the oldest building in the Colombo Fort area. It has been recently restored and it’s now a shopping and dining precinct.
- Independence Memorial Hall – Located in Independence Square, it’s a national monument that commemorate Sri Lanka’s independence from the British.
- Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque – This beautiful mosque, also known as the Red Mosque, was built at the beginning of the 20th century and it’s a striking architectural wonder.
- Lotus Tower – Another architectural marvel sitting at 356m tall, Lotus Tower has been recently open to the public and it has an observation gallery. Make sure you see it illuminated at night.
I saw the highlights of the city on a hop on hop off bus tour, but you can also do it on a tuk tuk tour with a bit more flexibility.
Alternatively, here are a few more options for tours:
- Colombo: Private City Tour
- The True Essence of Colombo: Private Highlights & Hidden Gems
- Colombo: Eat, Eat, Repeat Small Group Tour with a Local
Where to Stay in Colombo
I stayed at the Cinnamon Lakeside, on the banks of the Beira Lake. It was the perfect retreat after a day of spending a day in the chaos of the city. It has the largest pool in the city, beautiful rooms and a health spa, to help you unwind at the end of the day. The restaurants include Mediterranean, Thai and Japanese options and they are truly delicious.
BOOK THE CINNAMON LAKESIDE
Other highly rated places to stay in Colombo:
Days 2-3 – Jaffna
It is a bit of a long drive from Colombo to Jaffna, but it’s definitely worth the effort. Because it’s not as easy to get to as other Sri Lankan destinations, it gets a lot less visitors and still feels a bit raw and rough around the edges compared to other places.
It is different from the rest of the country. It’s the capital of the Northern Province which is led by the Tamil minority and is mostly Hindu, whereas the south is Singhalese and mostly Buddhist.
Jaffna and the Northern Province have been going through a rebuilding process since the end of the Sri Lanka civil war in 2009, which claimed what is thought to be between 70,000 and 80,000 lives.
Despite this painful recent past, the warmth of the people of Jaffna was indisputable, and if you are looking for an authentic travel experience then Jaffna is the place to go.
Here are some of the highlights in Jaffna:
- Jaffna Fort – Built by the Portuguese in the 17th century and expanded by the Dutch 50 years later, it is one of the last preserved colonial ramparts. You can roam around freely and see some of the remains.
- Jaffna Market – Located in the centre of Jaffna, the market has plenty of local specialties as well as souvenirs on offer. But the best bit is the buzz around it, particularly in the morning.
- Nallur Kandiswamy Kovil – A very important symbol in Hinduism, this golden temple attracts visitors from all faiths. It is famous for hosting the Nallur Festival every August, a 25-day long vibrant festival with processions, dancing, drumming and more.
- Jaffna Library – The Public Library was built in the 1930s and it was one of the largest libraries in Asia. Sadly it was burnt in 1981, when nearly 100,000 books and manuscripts were lost.
- Clock Tower – Another big landmark in Jaffna, it was built to commemorate the visit of Prince Albert Prince of Wales to Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) in 1875.
- Nainativu (Nagadeepa) Island – Nainativu Island is very important in both Buddhist and Hindu history. Here you will find Nagadeepa Purana Viharaya, one of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist holiest sites, and Nagapooshani Amman Kovil, a Hindu temple dedicated to the goddess of power.
Where to Stay in Jaffna
I stayed at North Gate by Jetwing, right opposite Jaffa Railway Station. Centrally located, it was ideal for the main attractions in the city. The hotel had everything you need at the end of a day exploring – a fitness centre, a small but sweet outdoor pool and 24h room service.
BOOK THE NORTH GATE BY JETWING
Other highly rated places to stay in Jaffna:
Day 4 – Anuradhapura
A stop in Anuradhapura as you travel south after leaving Jaffna is a must on your Sri Lanka 10 day itinerary.
The city of Anuradhapura was the ancient capital of Sri Lanka for over 2,000 years, and it’s famous for its archaeological and architectural complex. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is of sacred importance for the Buddhist community.
Once a month, on full moon Poya Day, Buddhists come to sacred sites like Anurdhapura to pray and meditate. I visited on the Sunday before Poya Day, so it was very busy with worshipers. The atmosphere was spiritually charged and it was very striking to see so many people all dressed in pristine white.
You could easily spend a couple of days here visiting all the places of interest, but if you only have 10 days in Sri Lanka, spending one day would probably be a good option.
Here are some of the highlights in Anuradhapura:
- Jetavanarama Dagoba – Built around the 3rd century, it’s considered the largest stupa in the world. It’s believed that it was built on the enclosure where the monk that brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka was cremated.
- Ruwanwelisaya Stupa – A little bit smaller (but only a little bit), this stupa is still enormous and it’s considered an icon of architecture in ancient Sri Lanka. A portion of Buddha’s ashes are said to be enclosed within it, making it one of the main places of worship in the city.
- Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi Tree – At almost 2,000 years old, this sacred fig tree is the oldest living human-planted tree in the world since records began. It is said to have grown from a cutting from the bodhi tree under which Buddha attained Enlightment.
- Kuttam Pokuna (Twin Ponds) – Although the exact origin of these ponds is not known, they are considered an engineering marvel of ancient Sri Lanka. They are thought to have been built for monks to bathe in.
- Anuradhapura Moonstone – Don’t miss the ancient Moonstone! It may be small in comparison to the site, but this elaborately carved ‘guardstone’ was built as part of the entrance to a palace and it’s one of the best examples in the country.
Where to Stay in Anuradhapura
I didn’t actually stay in Anuradhapura as I stopped on my way down to Sigiriya. However, I did stop for lunch at the Heritage Hotel Anuradhapura, and if the food and pool are to go by, it looks like the perfect place to stay. Located between the new and the ancient town, on the banks of the Thissa Wewa Lake, it is the perfect place to go back to after a day of sightseeing.
BOOK THE HERITAGE HOTEL ANURADHAPURA
Other highly rated places to stay in Anuradhapura:
Day 5 – Pidurangula, Sigiriya and Minneriya Elephant Safari
This was an action packed day. The original intention was to visit Sigiriya in the morning and then do an elephant safari at one of the nearby National Parks in the afternoon. However, I found out that Pidurangula, the best spot to view Sigiriya Rock from and a great photo spot, was not too far so I did wonder whether to visit Sigiriya or Pidurangula instead. However, I found out that it was possible to climb it for sunrise and still make it to Sigiriya with plenty of time.
So that’s what I did. I got up at 4am for the half hour drive, and made it to the top of Pidurangula Rock in time for the sunrise. And it was really worth it. The view over to Sigiriyia was truly spectacular and perhaps one of my favourite spots in the country.
After Pidurangula I returned to the hotel for breakfast and then headed to Sigiriya. This is perhaps the most famous sight in Sri Lanka. Meaning Lion Rock, Sigiriya is an ancient rock fortress that was built in the 5th century when it became the capital of Sri Lanka. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a must on anyone’s Sri Lanka itinerary, whether it’s 10 or 5 days long.
For the afternoon head to Minneriya National Park nearby. Depending on what time of the year you visit, you will either go to Mineriya, Kaudulla or Wasgamuwa. These parks are connected, so the elephants use different watering holes throughout the year. I was there in August and the majority of the herds were in Kaudulla National Park. It was great to see so many wild elephants doing what they do best – enjoying their natural environment.
One of the things that disappointed me about Sri Lanka is that elephant riding is still common. Some of the safari companies claim that they no longer offer elephant riding as a service, however they still advertise it on their websites. Please do your research before selecting a safari company to ensure that you support an ethical business that does not profit from any kind of animal suffering.
SAY NO TO ELEPHANT RIDING.
Where to stay near Sigiriya
I stayed at the Sorowwa Resort and Spa in Habarana, right in between Sigiriya and Kaudulla National Park, so it’s very convenient if you are planning to visit both. With views over Habarana Lake, it offers all the conveniences of a four-star resort and is perfectly located to explore the National Parks.
BOOK THE SOROWWA RESORT AND SPA
Other highly rated places to stay near Sigiriya:
- Luxury: Sigiriya King’s Resort
- Mid-Range: French Nature Villa
- Budget: The Otunna Guest House Sigiriya
Day 6 – Riverstone Peak ‘Mini World’s End’ in Matale
Riverstone Peak was an unexpected surprise and, even though it’s not that well known, I would recommend that everyone includes a stop here on their 10 day Sri Lanka itinerary.
The Peak is within the Knuckles Mountain Range, which stretches between Kandy and Matale and is part of the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka. Declared UNESCO World Heritage Natural Site, it’s a wildlife haven and it has some of the most spectacular landscapes in the island.
Riverstone Peak is about 30km from Matale town. The trek, known as Pitawala Pathana, is about 2.5km long and goes through a grassland which ends in a steep cliff with a sheer 300m drop. This drop and incredible misty views of the valley and the Knuckles Mountains give the name of ‘Mini World’s End’ to this spot.
It is very popular with locals but still a relatively unexplored area for tourists, so it feels like you’re a million miles away from the nearest tourist place.
After the trek I headed to the village of Atanwala nearby and had lunch with a local family. The perfect way to connect with local people.
Where to stay in Matale
I stopped at Riverstone Peak on my way to Kandy, so I didn’t stay in the area.
However, if you want to stay in Matale, here are a few options with great reviews:
Day 7 – Kandy
Kandy is another obligatory stop on your 10 day Sri Lanka itinerary, and even if it’s shorter. There is quite a bit to see and do in Kandy and it’s also the departing point for the iconic blue train ride that will take you to Ella via Nuwara Eliya.
I was in Kandy during the Esala Perahera Festival, the oldest and grandest Buddhist festival in Sri Lanka. This festival is celebrated in either July or August every year and it commemorates the first teaching given by Buddha after he attained enlightenment. It lasts for ten days and it features parades with dancers, jugglers, musicians and, sadly, decorated elephants too.
I didn’t want to see the elephants being used for the parade, so I decided not to attend the celebrations. I did try to explore the town instead, however, because of the festival, a lot of roads were cut off and it was near impossible to get around with the traffic concentrating on the remaining open roads.
What I did manage to do is visit the Peradeniya Botanic Gardens, the largest in Sri Lanka. They’re also the oldest, dating back to the 14th century. Built by the last king of Sri Lanka and expanded by the British, it has over 4,000 species of plants and it’s considered to be one of the best botanic gardens in Asia.
Other things to do in Kandy (which I’ve left for my next visit include):
- Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic
- Attend a Kandyan dance and drum show
- Walk along Kandy Lake
If you book a city tour, you will be able to cover all these activities in a few hours.
Where to stay in Kandy
I stayed at the beautiful Mahaweli Reach Hotel on the banks of the Mahaweli River. The rooms are very spacious and they feel very grand, with balconies, some of which overlook the river. The food at the restaurant was delicious with both Asian and Western options, and they had a spa that was really popular with the guests, so if you’d like a bit of pampering, make sure you book it in advance.
BOOK THE MAHAWELI REACH HOTEL
Other highly rated places to stay in Kandy:
Day 8 – Train to Nuwara Eliya
One of the most iconic images of Sri Lanka is of the famous blue train going through the green mountains and tree plantations. This popular route is another must on any 10 day itinerary of Sri Lanka, and an experience you will not forget easily.
I took the train to Nuwara Eliya, which took around four hours. You can also continue the journey all the way to Ella, which takes over six hours. The train departs from Peradeniya Railway Station, just outside Kandy and it’s a very comfortable way to travel.
You can either choose to travel in first or second class. First class is very obviously more comfortable and spacious than second and the carriages are air-conditioned. However, the windows do not open, so it may not be the best option if you want to take one of those now iconic photos out of the window.
I travelled first class and just went to the door to take photos instead. However, the train moves a lot side to side so this is not the safest thing to do. Only do it if you feel you can hold on tight and safely.
This train journey takes you through breathtaking landscapes, and it’s an extremely popular thing to do in Sri Lanka so it gets booked up very quickly. I highly recommend booking your train tickets way in advance through 12Go, the only place where you can buy train tickets online for Sri Lanka.
Where to stay in Nuwara Eliya
I stayed at the Araliya Green City, a couple of kilometres from the famous Gregory Lake. It was a lovely hotel with a small indoor pool and a Balinese-style spa, where I had a great foot massage.
BOOK THE ARALIYA GREEN CITY
Other highly rated places to stay in Nuwara Eliya:
Day 9 – Nuwara Eliya
Known as ‘Little England’, Nuwara Eliya is a very beautiful hill station established by the British who were looking for a cooler climate. It is famous for its tea plantations and for being the most important tea production centre in Sri Lanka.
The town still has that British countryside feel, with features from the colonial era, such as the Victorian post office and the odd red phone box.
Nuwara Eliya is the perfect base to explore the tea plantations nearby. I visited the Pedro Plantation, where normally you get to learn and witness the process of preparing tea after the harvest. Sadly, I was there during full moon and it was a bank holiday, so the factory wasn’t running. On the other hand, I had already visited a tea factory in Munnar, Kerala, where I learnt about the process. I did, however, get to enjoy a delicious cup of Ceylon tea. A true zero-miles cup of Ceylon tea.
I also stopped at the Damro Tea Plantation for another cup of Ceylon tea (so good, I couldn’t get enough!), but this time with truly spectacular views over hills dramatically-shaped by the tea fields. Absolutely delicious! Both taste and visually speaking.
For places to stay in Nuwara Eliya check out Day 8 of this Sri Lanka 10 day itinerary.
Day 10 – Negombo
For the last day of this itinerary, the best place to visit has to be Negombo. Not only is it worthy of a visit in its own right, but it’s really close to Bandaranaike International Airport. In fact, it’s even closer than Colombo, so it’s a great place to end your Sri Lanka adventure.
Negombo is located on the waterfront by a lagoon, north of Colombo. It was once an important trading port and it’s now a seaside resort with a palm tree lined coastline.
I decided to head straight to the beach as soon as I arrived in Negombo. Negombo Beach is the main attraction here, and it was pretty much where I stayed for the rest of the day. Ending my 10 days in Sri Lanka here was perfect – my last (for now!) Sri Lankan sunset with cocktail in hand. Just what I needed to wind down before flying back home the next morning.
Negombo is a popular spot for local prawn fishing. If you get up for sunrise and go down to the beach, you will see the square sails of the prawn fishing boats in the distance, all moving in unison and in the same direction up and down the horizon. It’s very cool to see.
Where to stay in Negombo Beach
I stayed at Jetwing Sea Hotel right on the beach. My room was beautifully decorated and spacious, with stunning views of the beach and sea. I was on the ground floor, so I could actually walk out onto the beach from my room. Perfect for anyone looking for a relaxing time.
BOOK THE JETWING SEA HOTEL
Other highly rated places to stay in Negombo Beach:
If you have more than 10 days in Sri Lanka
This is quite a tight schedule for a 10 day itinerary of Sri Lanka and it focuses mostly on the north and centre of the island. Ideally you’d want more time to explore further south and east. There are just so many interesting and unique places to visit here that you would need a long time to see them all.
Saying this, if you have more than 10 days in Sri Lanka, consider adding the following places to your itinerary:
- Ella – This small town packs a punch. Surrounded by tea plantations, it’s the final destination of one of the most beautiful train rides in the world and a hiker’s paradise. Highlights include Ella Rock, Little Adam’s Peak and the uber-instagrammable Nine Arch Bridge.
- Galle – Galle is a lovely colonial town well known for Galle Fort, a beautiful 18th century fort declared UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Mirissa – One of the most popular beach destinations in Sri Lanka and it’s easy to see why. It has beautiful beaches, great surfing spots and lots of foodie places.
- Polonnaruwa – If you are interested in the ancient history of Sri Lanka, spend one or two days here exploring this ancient city with its temples and ruins.
- Trincomalee – Located in the east coast, Trincomalee is famous for being one of the world’s finest natural harbours and for having one of the best beaches in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka Travel Tips
Language: Sinhalese and Tamil are both official languages, with Tamil spoken mostly in the North and Sinhalese in the rest of the country.
Currency: Sri Lankan Rupee
Visa: Since August 2019, Sri Lanka has introduced a Visa Free Waiver for visitors from a number of countries. Here is the list of Visa Free Waiver Countries.
Vaccinations: You will need up to date basic immunisations such as Tetanus, MMR and Diptheria and it’s advised to also have Hepatitis A & B, Rabies, Typhoid, and Japanese Encephalitis depending on how remote the areas you are visiting are. For more information check the UK’s official Fit For Travel website.
Planning your trip to Sri Lanka
- Plan your trip to Sri Lanka with these guidebooks.
- Get the best deals on flights with Skyscanner.
- Find the perfect place to stay on Booking.com.
- Prefer living like a local? Here’s an Airbnb £25 ($30) credit towards your first booking.
- Discover more about Sri Lanka through local experiences.
- And last, but not least, don’t leave home without travel insurance!