Sri Lanka does offer a traveler a small flavor of almost everything history, wildlife, beaches, small town/village experience and also a flavor of city. People are very friendly, getting around is not very difficult, distance between one place to the other is not huge, food is great, stay options are large and you can opt to travel in luxury, a budget traveler or as a backpacker.
There are two timeframes considered best time of visit for Sri Lanka. Most of the highly visited places are in the west coast, south coast and the central region and December to March is best time to visit this part of Sri Lanka. For the east coast on the other hand April to September is considered as the best. I visited during February and the sea was very rough so no diving or surfing activities were available for which the east coast is famous for. However February was a good time for the rest of Sri Lanka as the temperatures would drop at most places in the evenings to less than 25C, so even though the sun is hot during the day the nights were pretty comfortable. Also the rains started only around the end of February in the south coast.
Here is a sort of “things to do in Sri Lanka” iternary that can be followed. There are detailed blogs on getting to these places with information of the sites that I have posted earlier, so have added links to them. Also towards the end of the post will put in some information on the food, transportation and stay options.
A tourist map of Sri Lanka I found at Laksala emporium at Colombo
1. Colombo being the capital of Sri Lanka is more or less skipped by many but if you have the time worth spending a day here as an introduction to the country. Heres a link to spending a day at Colombo. Negombo which is around 30kms has the international airport and many tourist spend a day here instead of travelling to Colombo. Negombo is also well connected to most of the places of visit and so you can actually just head out from here too.
Lighthouse at Colombo
Independence Square seen as you approach it, Colombo
2. From Colombo/Negombo one could head out to the North. Wilpattu National Park in the north western region has a variety of wildlife and is also a great to test your luck at sighting a leopard. It is also a beautiful forest and just driving in the forest is a great experience. Heres the link to the detailed blog of the Wilpattu National Park. You can either do the morning safari or the evening safari. You have a better chance of sighting a leopard in the mornings while Elephants are usually seen only in the evenings.
View from the rest point at Willpattu National Park
3. Kalpitiya is closeby and is known for kite surfing, diving and for dolphin watching. Its a small beach town. The forest safari at Wilpattu and the dolphin watching activities can also be arranged by most hotels/resorts/homestays around this area as day trips. Dolphin Watching is usually scheduled for mornings, the earlier you go the better.
Kalpitiya Dolphin Watching trip
4. Heading to the north central region you have the famous scared city of Anuradhapura which is a UNESCO world heritage site. Anuradhapura was the capital of the ancient kingdoms from around 4th century to 11th century. Also was a center of Theravada Buddhism for several centuries. Depending on how much you are into ruined cities the sacred city tour of Anuradhapura (link to a detailed blog) will take you around 3-6 hrs. The complex has more or less the Buddhists Stupas and related ruins and nothing significant on the ruins of the capital. The not to be missed structures in this complex are the famous Moonstone, Abhayagiri Stupa, twin ponds Kotum Pokuna, Jetavanaramaya Stupa, Thuparamaya Stupa, Ruwanwelisaya Stupa and the Maha Bodhi Tree.
Kotum Pokuna, the twin ponds at Anuradhapura
Mihintale which is around 16kms from the Auradhapura town center is a good 1-2 hr visit. This is believed to be the cradle of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. There is quite a bit of climb to get to the Stupas and the Buddha statue. At the lower levels there are ruins of the refectory. You will find a lot of people relaxing around the west side of the Maha Stupa waiting for the sun to set.
Aradhana Gala, hill where Mahinda son of Buddha supposedly preached
5. From here you can either head north to Jaffna or head south towards Dambulla. Jaffna is a tamil dominated part of Sri Lanka and was the center of the civil war between 1983 to 2009. It has been slowly attracting tourism and has a few Hindu temples and unexplored beaches. I headed south to Dambulla and you can either opt to stay near Dambulla Cave temple area or Habanara or Sigiriya. The main attraction here being the Dambulla Cave temple and the Sigiriya Rock Fortress and city. All of these three towns are very small and apart from the above main attractions there is not much else to do. You can also actually do a day trip to Minneriya National Park maybe, though its not a popular park. The plain surface above the Rock at Sigiriya commonly known as the Sigiriya Lion Rock has the ruins of a city that flourished for nearly 15years and it is an amazing experience being here wondering how they managed to build a city up here at those times.
Sigiriya Rock covered with the morning mist
6. Polonnaruwa which is about 60 kms from here towards the east is another ancient city having the ruins a little more intact than the Anuradhapura ruins. Heres a link to the detailed blog on Polonnaruwa ancient city. It will take you around 3-5 hrs to tour the entire historic park. The main sites to be visited being the Sacred quadrangle (Royal Palace) which has the remains of the old Tooth relic temple ruins, Rankoth Vihara, Lankathilaka temple with the huge Buddha statue and the most famous Gal Vihara having 3 buddha statues in a sitting, standing and reclining pose. Its really beautiful and if you are short on time and can do only one of the ruins I would choose this over Anuradhapura.
Gal Vihara, The serene Buddha statues made of granite.
7. From here heading towards east Sri Lanka, Batticoloa is an option as the Habanara to Polonnaruwa road is actually the Batticoloa highway. Batticoloa is a small coastal town and atleast the Navaladi Beach area that I visited was an almost deserted beach with no resturants or hotels lining the beach. This part was majorly devastated by the Tsumani in 2004 and you can see the remains of this tragedy as you travel by the beach side. Trincomale is another beach town on the east coast towards the north about 130kms from here . This is more popular visit among the tourist during the May onwards tourist season having the Pigeon island close by which is a diving paradise. Also has the Uppuveli and Nilaveli beaches which are beautiful. Arugam Bay south of Batticoloa by 120kms is a surfers paradise and hugely visited area.
Fisherman at Trincomale, Typical fisherman boats seen most places
8. Kandy, in the central province of Sri Lanka would be the next place of visit housing the famous Temple of Tooth Relic and the town itself is a UNESCO Heritage site. This is also called the Hill country part of Sri Lanka with mountains and valleys. Arthurs viewpoint closeby the lake gives you great views of the town and Pinnawale Elephant Orphanage which is about 45kms is a great day visit. The Kandy Cultural show is very famous giving you an opportunity to enjoy the cultural side of Sri Lanka.
The evening prayer time at Tooth Relic teple, Kandy, music played as part of ceremony
9. Nuwara Eliya also called the Little England of Sri Lanka is famous for its tea plantations. The train journey from Kandy to this part of Sri Lanka is a much hyped about way of getting to this part of the country. Visiting a tea plantation, enjoying the free cups of tea served and trekking to some of the waterfalls are things you can do here. Worlds End at Horton Plains park and various treks, Adams peak at Ella, Ohiya are other areas of the Hill country which make great visits with lots of trekking opportunities.
Tea plantations seen on the way to Nuwara Eliya
10. Uduwalawe National Park is known for its elephants. It has around 250 resident elephants and is also a great bird watching park. You can also visit this park as one night trips from the southern beaches that you may be staying at though its quite a drive to get here. The forest itself is not very dense with more shrubs but has a lot of wildlife and you can enjoy elephants in their natural environment.
Elephants at Uduwalawe National Park
11. Yala National Park near Tissamaharama is the most visited national park in Sri Lanka and is known for the leopard sightings. Its a huge national park teeming with wildlife. Makes a great place for a forest safari even with all the crowd. One side of the park is bordered by the sea usually you get a chance to visit here during the small break mid-morning. Its a hairy experience you may have when the 4WD driver tries to get you to the leopard sighting that he may get to know as he drives around the park.
The entrance gate to Yala National Park
12. The southern part of SriLanka is known for its beaches. From Tangalle all the way to Negombo there are several beach towns that you could choose from to spend your days here. The beaches I visited were Mirissa, Galle, Hikkaduwa and Bentota. Mirissa offers you whale watching options and this was an amazing experience for me. Galle along with the beaches has a small Dutch fort area which is well preserved with lots of hotels and restaurants. Souvenir shopping at the Galle old town is also great. Weligama beach is known for surfing. Hikkaduwa also had quite a few waves along it having coral reefs. Bentota was more of a high end beach area with more resorts and hotels. There are many turtle hatcheries around this stretch which is wort a visit specially if you are on the day they are letting go of some of the baby turtles into the sea as you can be a part of this activity.
Pitiwella Beach, Galle
That would be a full circuit route of Sri Lanka as you can head back to Negombo to catch a flight back home which is what I did.
Getting Around : You can easily hire a car with a driver for your entire trip or from one place to the next either at the airport or from any place you are staying at. Tuk-Tuks are not just used for travelling within city but also across one town to the other. The bus transport system is very good throughout Sri Lanka and lots of information about this on the internet on how to get from one place to the other. Worst case you just head to a bus station and the bus drivers, hawkers, stall owners anybody will help you with the information you need. The frequency of buses is large and they are not usually very crowded except for early mornings around 6:30 to 8:00 when the local public is using this to get to schools and work. Even with backpacks taking a bus is very easy. On some frequent routes like Colombo to Kandy, Anuradhapura to Kandy etc there are A/c buses which you can opt for but otherwise more or less these are either the normal red state government run ones or the colorful private run ones. Within city limits tuk-tuk is a way of travel if you dont want to hire a car. Even for this if you are so inclined you can use the local buses. Bicycle can be hired to visit Anuradhapura or Pollonuruwa historical parks on your own.
Lush Rice fields seen most everywhere in Sri Lanka
Food : Commonly the restaurants here are more of a bakery cum food place. So in the front you will see a glassed table with bakery items behind this is usually the stall carrying the lunch items in the afternoons and snacks for the dinner. Rice is the staple food here. For breakfast you have the traditional option of string hoppers which is made of white or red rice and at some places puttu ( another steam rice dish). The string hoppers is either accompanied by dal curry and sambal or you can opt to have chicken curry. The bakery products though consumed for breakfast by the locals I did not find it that delicious.
Lunch is a simple rice curry combo one plate dish most times and very tasty and filling and economical. The serving usually will have rice, chicken/fish/dal curry depending on what you chose, 2 vegetable dishes and sambal (a dry dish made of coconut). For dinner at some places you will get rice and curry but most places serve snacks, the famous hoppers (Indian appam), kottu which is a mix of white flour chapati, vegetables and meat diced together with spices, dosas etc. Unless you go to the bigger restaurants usually a part of the hotel chain where you can order for a full meal.
Pineapple is the main fruit here and the local market have most of the exotic tropical fruits like bananas, mangoes, watermelon, guava along with apples, oranges, grapes in abundance. Soursop was something I saw everywhere and was told its not grown here but imported.