This mango-shaped island in the Indian Ocean has long been famed for its beauty and valued for its natural resources. Recently, the country ended its 30-year civil war. With peace restored throughout the country, tourism is on the rise. The southern coast features picturesque white sand beaches, while the center of the country has sprawling green tea fields. After only two short weeks exploring the magical land of Sri Lanka, it is easy to see why so many travelers fall in love with this island country.
Galle & Unawatuna
A two-hour car ride south of Colombo, Galle is a former Dutch colonial fort surrounded by a region of beautiful jungle and white sand beaches. It is one of the more popular locations in Sri Lanka’s southern coast. Due to its site, it is a great choice for those looking for a beach vacation, with the flexibility to book day excursions.
Spend the morning enjoying the Dutch Colonial architecture. As you walk the fort at a leisurely pace, make sure to stop and enjoy the amazing panoramic views of the ocean. Against the backdrop of the fort walls, watch scenes of everyday live unfold; a local cricket match played in front of a small (but enthusiastic) crowd, and school-aged children practicing military drills in a field. If the heat is too much to handle, make your way to The Heritage Cafe for some delicious cold brew. Featuring locally roasted Sri Lankan coffee beans from Ceylon, the flavorful coffee is a welcome respite from the instant coffee or dark roasted beans common throughout this region.
Unawatuna Beach is the largest, and most popular beach near Galle. The beach is lined with restaurants, dive shops, and a few lounges lit up at night for those looking to party. We’d recommend staying in Unawatuna, so you can go out at night for dinner and drinks. That said, choose to spend your days at one of the less populated beaches nearby.
For a picturesque day, grab a tuk-tuk and head to Dalawalla Beach. While prices vary, we paid 300-400 LKR one way. If you jump out near the Dream Cabana, you will find the #instafamous palm tree swing. For 500 LKR (as of November 2017) you can swing to your heart’s content. Not to mention, you can buy an assortment of juices from the locals who built the swing. They are super-friendly, even extending our swing usage an extra day without having to pay.
If you don’t want to leave the confines of Unawatuna, or tuk-tuks aren’t your thing, you can walk 10 minutes from the town center to Jungle Beach. With amazing views of Galle Fort, this spot provides a perfect beach day away from the tourist crowds.
For lodging, we stayed at the Thaproban Pavilion & Spa at the end of Unawatuna. With a pool that looks out to the ocean, this spot is more suited for those looking for some R&R. Thaproban is part of a trio of hotels in Unawatuna. Each one has a unique offering. If you would prefer to spend time in a wellness center with daily yoga, Thapani is located halfway between Thaproban and the beach. Lastly, The Beach House, as expected, lies directly on Unawatuna Beach.
After a bit of luggage Tetris in the back of a tuk-tuk, we headed off to Kabalana, a popular surf destination for experienced surfers and first-timers alike. The namesake beach is large, filled with fine white sand, and quite enjoyable for swimmers. When we went mid-November, it was almost completely empty, giving us a glimpse of what it would be like to retire to a deserted island.
From what we could see, Kabalana is mostly resorts or surf hotels. If staying ocean side is outside your price range, check out our review of Ceilao Villas’ Lime & Co hotel. Nestled off the main street and next door to its boutique sister hotel, Lime & Co is a fantastic backpacker option for those who want comfort and class but need to live within a budget.
Further along the southern coast is Mirissa, a very trendy beach town with a bohemian vibe. We did a day trip from Kablana and spent a memorable day soaking up the sun and body surfing among a fun, lively crowd of people.
Based on how busy Mirissa was at the start of the busy season, I can see this beach being absolutely crazy during December and January. Due to the hip surfer bars with free daybeds and midday happy hours, the vibe on Mirissa was one of the best of any I’ve been to. The main part of the beach is calm enough for anyone to enjoy, but features big enough waves for boogie boarding and body surfing. By afternoon, you can watch experienced surfers taking on big waves while throwing back Lion Beers at Bay Moon Beach Club.
Furthermore, there are almost no panhandlers, making Mirissa Beach feel more like a fun party than a burgeoning tourist destination.
As noted above, we made a day trip from Ceilão Villas’ Lime & Co. It was an easy 30-minute tuk-tuk ride that cost us 800 LKR one way. However, Mirissa is a very popular destination, with a ton of hostel and eco-backpacker accommodations.
Yala National Park
Yala National Park is the second largest wildlife reserve in Sri Lanka, and it’s most visited. There are some nice beaches and important historical temples in the surrounding region, but if you are near the park, it means you are most likely looking for a safari experience.
In order to avoid getting burned on price, make sure you understand what it is you are buying. Some operators bundle the jeep and ticket together and inflate the price of entry. Whereas other operators just rent out the time on the jeep. That said, once you arrive at the ticket office, they will offer to go buy your ticket for you. This can lead to a price two to three times more expensive than expected. As with most travel tips, knowledge is your best weapon to prevent this type of scam. So, make sure you go to the Yala National Park site and check the entrance fee. Or, simply insist on going to the ticket office and buying the ticket yourself.
With all that said, the park itself is beautiful and well worth the price. An important reserve for Sri Lanka’s indigenous leopards, elephants, and waterfowl, the park is brimming with wildlife. In spite of the 50 jeeps crowded at the entrance, we came away satisfied.
We opted for the standard 5-hour excursion. But, half-day and full-day excursions are available for those people who simply can’t get enough of the animal kingdom.
Yala National Park Accommodations
We stayed at Kirinda Lodge, which borders the edge of Yala and is a short 25-minute ride to the entrance of the national park. For our thoughts about Kirinda Lodge, click through here.
The surrounding area is dotted with a variety of eco-friendly and wildlife-themed accommodations, but for the truly adventurous, you can camp inside the park. Wherever you stay, make sure you are offered room and board, because restaurants and shops are few and far between.
Nestled high up in the mountains, Ella offers travelers stunning views of the southern plains of Sri Lanka. Surrounded by tea fields and cloud forests, the town is perfect for those who love to explore the outdoors.
Upon arrival, the allure of Ella might not be readily apparent as the town is geared toward selling to tourists. However, once outside the town, you will begin to understand why Ella is such a popular destination.
For the hikers among you, Ella Rock is a challenging half-day hike. It begins along the train tracks but can be a bit tricky, with touts purposefully obscuring the way. Make sure to check out our Ella Rock hike guide for the best route to the top!
An easy alternative to Ella Rock is Little Adam’s Peak. It features a paved path almost all the way to the top. Little Adam’s Peak takes about 90 minutes round trip. Plus, it’s close proximity to Findlay’s Tea Plantation and the Nine Arch Bridge makes for a great one-day itinerary.
Ella’s train station also makes it easy to navigate the surrounding area. Nuwara Eliya and Haputale are both do-able day trips. This is where we started the famed train ride to Kandy, which is a 7-hour ride along lush tea plantations.
This wonderful secluded B&B features breathtaking views of the Ella Gap. However, it’s only a short 5-minute walk to the town center. From your room, monks can be heard chanting from the temple across the valley. A wonderful ambiance when taking your evening tea on the balcony!
Of all the places we visited in Sri Lanka, Kandy remains the hardest for me to pin down. It possesses a frenetic energy that is exhilarating and a bit terrifying. But in spite of the constant rain during our time in Kandy, we were determined to get out of our hotel.
With this in mind, we decided to rent out a tuk-tuk for the day. Most of the drivers we spoke with have some sort of pre-planned guide option but ask, just in case.
- Royal Botanical Gardens
- Bahiravokanda Vihara Buddha Statue, or the giant white Buddha.
- Kandy Lake
- Temple of the Sacred Tooth
- Commonwealth Cemetery
We loved the Royal Botanical Garden. The grounds are very well-kept, and it provides a pleasant escape from the urban jungle. It also seems to be a popular date spot. We spotted more than a few young couples canoodling under the tree cover watching the rainfall.
Up the hill from the Temple of the Sacred tooth is the Commonwealth Cemetery. Around a hundred permanent residents from the 18th and 19th century call this place home. The cemetery is a reminder of the legacy of colonial occupation in Sri Lanka. Prince Charles even visited in 2013.
We were guests of the Theva Residency during our stay in Kandy. Located on the Hantana Hills, Theva is a boutique hotel with stunning views and an excellent restaurant. A few kilometers from Kandy lake, the hotel is secluded from the chaos below. For our full thoughts on our stay at Theva Residency, check out our review here.
Before we left Sri Lanka, we spent some time recharging at Santani Wellness Resort, located 90 minutes outside Kandy. Tucked away, high up in the mountains, Santani was a luxurious sanctuary from the bustling city of Kandy. For our full thoughts on Santani Wellness Resort, check out our review here, as well as our thoughts on why a wellness resort might be just what your body and mind need from a vacation.
After Kandy, it was time to say goodbye to the tiny island country that stole our hearts. It has so much to offer and we barely scratched the surface. Needless to say, we cannot wait to return!
Also, if you’re looking for a shorter itinerary of Sri Lanka, check out our friends’ 9-day itinerary here.