Planning 3 weeks in Sri Lanka? Here is my guide to the teardrop isle.
In this 3 week Sri Lanka itinerary you will experience lush jungled hilltops, captivating wildlife, culture-steeped cities, and white sand beaches with some of the best surf spots in the world. Not to mention the earthy, spicy and nutritious food!
The Sri Lankan locals are some of the humblest and generous people I’ve ever encountered. After visiting several other Asian countries, it’s easy to get that feeling like the locals want something out of you, but here it’s simply not true. While they do work to make a living, their kindness and generosity are unparalleled. You will experience an overall feeling that you are wholeheartedly welcome on the island and in their home.
Now, where do you start?
Three weeks in Sri Lanka will have you conquering rock fortresses, sipping tea in the greenest hilltops, hiking to the top of the world, witnessing the most majestic creatures, and lounging on some of the most beautiful beaches. This Sri Lanka route guide will not leave you wanting.
Sri Lanka 3 Week Itinerary
Day 1 + 2 – Arrive in Negombo
You’ve finally landed on the beautiful island of Sri Lanka, and now all you can think about is sleep. Make your way to the main strip in Negombo and hole up at a beachside accommodation for a couple days to rid yourself of jetlag.
This is a perfect start to your 3 weeks in Sri Lanka itinerary as Negombo offers pristine beaches and breathtaking sunsets. Located much closer to the international airport than Colombo, basing here will make your trip from baggage claim to beach chair that much quicker.
Leaving Negombo | How to get from Negombo to Sigiriya | Grab a taxi to Katunayake Airport Bus Station and take the bus to Dambulla. Here you can opt to explore the Dambulla Cave Temple before taking a final taxi ride the short distance to Sigiriya. Total cost approximately $10-14 USD per person.
TIP | If you have some extra money to spend and would rather make transport around the island seamless, flexible and stress free, opt to hire a full time driver. Generally, you should expect to pay $50-60 USD per day for a private driver in Sri Lanka. This price will be all inclusive, except the odd driver accommodation which will cost you $10-15 USD a night.
Day 3 + 4 – Sigiriya, the Historic Centre of Sri Lanka
This leg of your 3 weeks in Sri Lanka will take you to lush plains, farm lands, and national parks, home to the majestic elephant. My bus ride to Sigiriya was a memorable one, full of palm tree lined roads, local families bathing and playing in the pristine blue lakes, and a stunning pink and purple dusk sky. I knew I was in for a treat of a journey! The Dambulla region, consisting of Dambulla city, and surrounding towns such as Sigiriya, is the perfect place to learn about the country’s ancient and religious history.
Found just outside of the small village of Sigiriya is the infamous Lion Rock Fortress. If you’ve ever done a simple google search on things to do in Sri Lanka, this will be one of the top results, and for a reason! This epic red rock features frescoes, lion statues and meandering staircases.
Just be warned, if you are terrified of heights, the climb up the fortress might be a tough one but well worth it. Once you make it to the top, panoramic views of the jungle will greet you, along with the ancient ruins of the old capital city of Sri Lanka, dating back to the 5th century.
This region is also home to the Dambulla Cave Temple Complex, an ancient Buddhist monastery. It consists of five separate shrines built high into the side of the hill and feature a myriad of ornate Buddhist statues.
LEAVING SIGIRIYA | How to get from Sigiriya to Kandy | If time permits, you have a couple options before heading on to Kandy:
If you have more time…
First, you could head up to the cultural capital of the North, Jaffna. This city is home to majority Muslim residents, and the devastation of recently lost civil war is apparent. This shouldn’t dissuade you though, the city is full of great culture and people and since it’s not on any usual route guides for Sri Lanka, you’ll find less tourists, and more Sri Lankan authenticity.
Secondly, you can head out to the northeast surf spot of Trincomalee where the beaches are less busy and more expansive than in the south. This surfing and whale watching destination is also less developed, so don’t expect to get a myriad of western food options. It’s the perfect opportunity to truly connect with the local people and try a Sri Lankan curry!
STAY | Search hotels in Trincomalee
If time is tight, continue on the 3 Weeks in Sri Lanka itinerary and head straight to the cultural capital, Kandy. The best way to get from Sigiriya to Kandy is by grabbing a tuk tuk to the bus station in Dambulla. From there you can take a bus to Kandy. This will cost you less than $10 USD and will take 3 hours.
Day 5 + 6 – Welcome to Kandy, the Cultural Capital of Sri Lanka
Coined as the second city to Colombo, Kandy is full of culture and life. It’s elevation in the green peaks and manmade lake give this city a much more small-town feel, so you won’t have any issue escaping the commotion of the city centre if you want to relax and hear your thoughts. A walk around the lake is just the ticket to observe local life and watch the ducks swim in the ripples.
If you want to go further into nature, visit the Royal Botanical Gardens just outside of the city, it won’t disappoint. Do make sure to wander into the market streets of Kandy though, where the heartbeat of the city pulses.
Of course, a visit to the UNESCO Temple of the Sacred Tooth will be one of the major highlights of your trip to Kandy. Believed to be home to a piece of Buddha’s tooth, you will find devotees from all over the world here. Go early to watch the drumming ceremony and to watch devotions of flowers and cash being given to the shrine. Don’t forget to leave time to visit the surrounding gardens and buildings.
From iconic temples, abundant gardens, quiet lakes, and lively markets, Kandy has it all.
READ MORE | The Best Things to Do in Kandy, Sri Lanka
LEAVING KANDY | How to get from Kandy to Ella | One of the most scenic train rides in the world, and guaranteed to be one of the main features of your entire trip, is the Kandy to Ella train ride. I’d suggest breaking it up into two parts, taking the first leg from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya, and then continuing on to Ella.
TIP | Kandy to Nuwara Eliya train ride schedule can be found here, along with details on each compartment and train type.
Day 7 – Nuwara Eliya, the ‘Little England’ of Sri Lanka
Nuwara Eliya, or ‘Little England” is a small town in the hilltop region of Sri Lanka. Originally a respite from hot weather in lower elevations of Sri Lanka, the British would spend time here playing cricket, golf, and hunting the surrounding lands. If you do decide to stop, you will notice many colonial type buildings here, something I wasn’t a huge fan of, although it lent to a scenic little village walk. A visit to Horton Plains National Park made it worth the stop.
Hike the Horton Plains National Park
Arrange a ride to Horton Plain National Park with your hotel. This drive should start out at 5am to get to the national park before the crowds start rolling in. The front gate opens at 6am. I’d highly recommend going early, as the misty atmosphere of the park is what won me over, not to mention the views all the way to the ocean at World’s End, the main viewport.
The hike difficulty through Horton Plains National Park is easy to moderate, as it comes with 9km of gradual hills and unpolished walkways. Make sure you stop at Baker’s Falls and bring some snacks along!
TIP | As with many National Parks in Sri Lanka, you will be asked to remove plastic bottles and baggies from your day pack. Ensure you bring a reusable water bottle.
Entrance fee is roughly $20 USD plus transportation to get there.
High Tea at The Grand Hotel Nuwara Eliya
If British colonial style buildings and experiences are up your alley, book high tea at The Grand Hotel, established in 1891. The beautiful gardens and location, combined with delectable morsels and Sri Lankan tea can be a great way to spend a part of an afternoon. High tea at the Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya will cost you 1500 LKR with tea, or if you’d like to get fancy, 3000 LKR with champagne.
LEAVING NUWARA ELIYA | How to get from Nuwara Eliya to Ella | Hop back on the scenic train ride to your final hilltop destination of Ella.
Day 8 – 10 – Ella, the hiking destination of Sri Lanka
Ella is the jewel of the Sri Lankan hill country and there’s no wonder why, surrounded by green jagged hills, it’s a hiker’s dream. Overall, Ella has a young, hip, European backpacker vibe to it, and is a major tourist hub. If that’s not your scene, I’d still encourage you to take off early in the mornings and spend the day hiking the many hills in the area and spend as little time as you want in the town.
Top hikes here are the challenging Adam’s Peak, the more casual Little Adam’s Peak and Ella Rock. All hikes offer panoramic views of the surrounding hills and valleys.
Of course, you can’t forget about the instagram famous blue train over the architecturally marvellous Nine Arches Bridge. Make sure to check the schedule for when the train crosses the bridge for the perfect shot. It’s a must to do on your 3 weeks in Sri Lanka.
TIP | Make sure to bring proper shoes and a warm layer as the temperatures can drop when the sun isn’t shining.
READ MORE | 9 Amazing Things to do In Ella, Sri Lanka
LEAVING ELLA | How to get from Ella to Yala National Park | Take the bus bound for Wellawaya, before changing to the bus bound for Tissa, about a 4 hour journey. If you’d like to quicken your pace by taking a taxi, it will cost you upwards of $30 USD.
Day 11 – Yala National Park
The most popular park in Sri Lanka, Yala National Park is where you will find elephants at the water’s edge, a plethora of bird species, and if you are lucky, you may spot an elusive leopard. Spanning the Southeast region of Sri Lanka, the large savannah has two major tourist hubs to base out of: Kataragama at the Northwest end and Tissamaharama (Tissa) on the Southwest end.
Tissa, being the largest centre of the two, will be the best spot to see elephants, while Kataragama will give you a better chance of seeing a leopard. Be aware, leopards are very evasive animals, so the odds of seeing one are about 30 percent.
STAY | Book your stay in Tissa
STAY | Kataragama option: Big Game Camp – Yala
LEAVING YALA NATIONAL PARK | How to get from Yala National Park to Mirissa | Take the #32 bus from Tissa or Kataragama to Mirissa. The bus route runs every 30 minutes or so and will only be a couple US dollars.
Day 12 + 13 – Mirissa
Welcome to Mirissa, one of the smaller towns on the Sri Lankan southern coast. With approximately 5,000 people, that small-town vibe is still healthy and alive here. One main strip will take you through the town with glistening golden beaches and turquoise blue water on one side, and quaint local shops and eats on the other. If you decide to rent a scooter for the duration of your time on the south coast, here would be the place to do it.
As your first tropical beach destination on this 3 Weeks in Sri Lanka itinerary, I suggest you take full advantage of Mirissa Beach. Surfing, strolling, lounging, eating and drinking can all be found here. Spend the first afternoon busy doing nothing.
READ MORE | My recommendation on what to do, eat and see in Mirissa
LEAVING MIRISSA | How to get from Mirissa to Weligama | Simply arrange a tuk tuk with your accommodation (less than $3 USD) or take the local bus transportation (under $1 USD). The trip will take under 20 minutes.
Day 14 – 17 – Weligama (or Ahangama)
A central location for surfers, hip 20-40 year olds, and new-age health foodies, Weligama is one the coolest spots on the southern waters of Sri Lanka. A bit more bustling than most seaside villages, Weligama’s vibe is a cross between hippie backpacker and trendy hipster. This town features a condensed town centre chock full of great sips and eats.
In all honesty, my time in this area turned into what can only be called a ‘food tour’, as I bounced from trendy cafe to trendy cafe for three meals a day. You’ll see this reflected in my recommendations.
Deemed the surfer capital of Sri Lanka, Weligama is closely connected to the even-smaller surf havens of Midigama and Ahangama. These towns, with their laid back atmosphere, are more spread out but still offer a number of quality accommodations and yummy restaurants. Any of these three destinations are great to set up camp for your duration in the area.
READ MORE | 6 Best & Coolest Cafes in Southern Sri Lanka
LEAVING WELIGAMA | How to get from Weligama to Galle Fort | Every 4 hours there is a train that leaves from the Weligama station heading toward Galle. This train ride, which will take around 40 minutes to arrive at the Galle station, will cost less than $1 USD.
Once arrived at Galle train station, find a tuk tuk to take you the rest of the journey into Galle Fort, about a 1km distance. Alternatively, you can hire a taxi or tuk tuk that can take you from Weligama right to your accommodation in Galle Fort for upwards of $10 USD.
Day 18 + 19 – Galle Fort
Where Sri Lankan history, Portuguese and Dutch Colonialism come together, Galle Fort is where you will get a good fill of history and architecture. Built in 1588 by the Portuguese and later fortified by the Dutch in the 1600s, this European style fort community does seem rather out of place in Sri Lanka, but definitely worth a visit.
Galle Fort comes complete with wide, walkable walls to watch the sunset, quaint but bustling shopping streets to find quality local souvenirs and clothing, and beautiful architecture to ponder and marvel at. Last but not least, Galle Fort has some really great food, both Sri Lankan and western.
STAY | AirBnB is your best option for a selection of guest houses in Galle Fort. It’s worth mentioning that outside Galle Fort in the city will be cheaper than inside the walls.
LEAVING GALLE FORT | How to get from Galle Fort to Colombo | Catching the train is your best bet here as it takes a nice scenic tour of the coast line up to Colombo. It will cost you about $1 USD and lasts just under 2 hours.
DAY 18 + 19 ALTERNATIVE DESTINATION | HIKKADUWA
A well established surf town on the Southwest coast of Sri Lanka, was discovered by hippies back in the 1970s. Donning a really great beach for intermediates and advanced surfers, Hikkaduwa can be an alternative destination on your 3 Weeks in Sri Lanka itinerary for your 19th or 20th night.
This town offers great accommodation like Dreamtime Sri Lanka, and cafe shops like Salty Swamis. I’d suggest not visiting turtle hatcheries while you are here, but this is a controversial topic, so do your research before you go.
Day 20 – Back to Colombo
On your last afternoon before leaving the beautiful island of Sri Lanka, you will spend some time in Colombo. This city is a combination of clean, crisp British Colonialism and the gritty third-world. Guaranteed to not be one of your top memories on your trip this city still has a few highlights up its sleeve that can make your afternoon here worthwhile.
Walk through the Pettah Markets
The vibrant and lively Pettah Markets are the central hub of activity in Colombo. Selling anything from gold jewelry, to plastic toys, this market is a great spot for a real authentic look into the lives of the locals.
Beyond that, the colors and textures of the scenery make capturing local life even that much more enjoyable. As with most big city markets, make sure to keep a good eye on your valuables and watch out for scams. Haggling here is very much practiced and appreciated.
Admire The Red Mosque (Jami Ul-Alfar Masjid)
On your journey through the Pettah Markets, make a stop at the picturesque Red Mosque (Jami Ul-Alfar Masjid). The red and white building, constructed in 1909, is a hybrid of native Indo-Islamic and Indian architecture, with hints of gothic revival and neoclassical styles. The Red Mosque will make you and your camera really happy.
Galle Face Green
The main park by the ocean, Galle Face Green is where locals come to fly kites, grab street food and watch the sunset. I suggest you do the same (maybe minus the kite flying). Here you will find a few different street food vendors tossing and chopping the famous Kottu Roti. If you haven’t given it a try up until this point, this is the place to do it.
STAY | Where to stay in Colombo
Day 21 – Home
Make your way from Colombo city centre to the Bandaranaike International Airport. This can be easily achieved through a one hour taxi ride ($20 USD) or hopping on a local bus which will take upwards of 2 – 2.5 hours.
see all essential guides to sri lanka
Want to continue planning your trip to Sri Lanka? Read the specialized guides below for some of the best experiences in Sri Lanka:
SRI LANKA BUCKET LIST | Get inspired by all that Sri Lanka has to offer. Here are my Sri Lanka highlights.
SRI LANKA TRAVEL TIPS | Prepare for your Sri Lanka trip by reading my 21 top tips on what you should know before visiting the beautiful teardrop isle
SRI LANKA PACKING LIST | Take the guesswork out of packing and easily check off my list to all things you will need for Sri Lanka’s warm climate
KANDY | Bustling market streets, quiet strolls around the lake, lush botanical gardens, and ornate Buddhist temples, the cultural capital of Sri Lanka has it all
ELLA | Nestled in the green centre of Sri Lanka, this hiker’s paradise features trails with panoramic views of jagged green hills, deep valleys and rushing waterfalls.
YALA NATIONAL PARK | Majestic elephants, elusive leopards, and a myriad of bird species can all be found in one of the biggest national parks in Sri Lanka.
WELIGAMA | Where surf culture is alive and thriving, this central town is located on the golden south coast of Sri Lanka and offers the best surf beach for beginners, and an abundance of traditional and modern eateries.
MIRISSA | A small surf town located 15 minutes away from Weligama, offers golden beaches, surfing, serene spas, and healthy food.
GALLE FORT | Fortified stone walls, dutch and Portuguese style architecture, great food and shopping all culminate in this little town that was once a major Sri Lankan trading post.