If you’ve ever been to Sri Lanka you’ll be aware that it really is a ‘road less travelled’ as a result of the 27 year-long civil war, and the destruction caused by the 2004 Tsunami meant many coastal resorts were devastated. However, over the last few years (since the civil war ended in 2009) tourism has been rapidly increasing, and more specifically the backpacking crowd are finding their way to explore the beautiful beaches, indulge in the delicious cuisine and immerse themselves in the rich culture and wildlife. But with Sri Lanka only recently emerging as a new hot spot, there isn’t an obvious route and with so much on offer, picking a direction can be daunting. We spent many hours researching the areas and what activities were available. So whether you’re looking for a two-week whirlwind tour or a two-month turtle-paced race, here’s our guide to backpacking Sri Lanka.
We started in Colombo and headed South along the West coast to Hikkaduwa, then trooped along the South coast before heading inland to Yala National Park. Then we moved to the East coast for a spot of surfing, and caught the train right across the middle, through the hill country to explore the green regions, Ella and Kandy. Unfortunately we didn’t get to check out the North of the island as we only had a month and found that we were pushed for time just to cover the Southern half of the island. So here’s our route around the South of Sri Lanka..
Colombo is the capital of Sri Lanka and when you land at Bandaranaike International Airport near Negombo you’ll only be about 30 – 40 minutes from the centre of Colombo. Stayed: Clock Inn (£10 per dorm bed) – This is a great budget option in Colombo if you don’t mind staying in a four bed dorm. There’s not many hostels to choose from, so we were happy with our choice. It’s spotlessly clean, has decent wi-fi and you’ll find other travelers of all ages and nationalities. Ate: Green Cabin, with amazing curries and cakes for dessert, we had a huge meal with beers and dessert for under £10. Activities: We went to the 5 star Cinammon Grand to get some work done and drink some fancy coffee. However we had to pay for wi-fi though so we set up a wi-fi hotspot on our phones. Barefoot Cafe, has good internet and nice fresh juices, although they are a tad overpriced. Transport: We caught the train to Hikkaduwa, although we didn’t reserve seats so traveled in 3rd Class, it only cost around 200LKR (90p) each but don’t expect to get a seat and be prepared to get cosy with the locals!
(Train journey from Colombo to Hikkaduwa)
Stayed: Vibrations Hotel (£14 – out of season price) was really nice and had a pool, although it was fairly quiet when we stayed. We also recommend Top Secret if you want a busier vibe. Ate: Vibrations restaurant, Barista for breakfast every morning, and Cool Spot Resturant for delicious and very cheap seafood and curry. Activities: Surfing lesson with Reef End Surf School, lesson with Arry. Laying on the beach outside Top Secret. Transport: Tuk tuk to Galle, cost 1000LKR (£4.65) took around 30 mins. You can catch a bus for much less but after our sweaty train ride we were happy to take a tuk tuk. If you’re short on time skip Galle and carry on to Unawatuna for one of the world’s best beaches and lots of reggae vibes!
(Top Secret in Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka)
Stayed: Thenu Rest (£19) is a really friendly guesthouse in the old streets of Galle Fort. Highly recommended if your main objective is to explore the fort. Expect four-poster beds drapped in traditional lace. Ate: Dutch Cafe and The Heritage Cafe, both come highly recommended. Expect slightly higher prices for everything inside the fort. If you’re looking for budget options, ask a tuk tuk to take you to the shops and restaurants just outside of the gates. Activities: Walked around the fort, good wi-fi at the Heritage Cafe. Cricket games on weekends. Transport: Tuk tuk for 400LKR (£1.85) – takes about 15 mins to Unawatuna
(Galle Fort in Sri Lanka)
Stayed: Sam’s Place (£13) check out the reviews HERE Slightly away from the beach but great wi-fi if you’re working/blogging whilst traveling. Ate: Breakfast at Sam’s, Coffee at StarBeans, Passion fruit cocktails at the Surf Lodge, plus 2 nice restaurants on the beach – pricey but worth it to have some great western food. Activities: Submarine dive shop is at end of Unawatuna beach. Two dives costs 50 euros (or 30 euros for one dive). Ask a Tuk Tuk driver to take you to Jungle Beach (only ten minutes away) for some amazing seculded snorkeling. Transport: Bus to Weligama for 50LKR (23p), takes around 30 mins. If you’re short on time skip it and head straight to Mirissa, we prefered Mirissa by a long way but wanted to stop for the beginners surf in Weligama.
Stayed: Neptune Hotel was horrible, we recommend you stay next door at Samura’s Place. Ate: There’s nowhere good to eat, catch a tuk tuk to Mirissa. Activities: Surfing morning and evening, great for beginners – board rental from Samura’s place for 400LKR per hour (surf lesson’s also available) Transport: Tuk tuk to Mirissa costs 300LKR (£1.40), and takes around 10 mins. More info about Mirissa HERE
Stayed: Central Beach Inn (£12 with a fan, more with air con) Ate: Dewmini Rotty Shop for dinner on two consecutive nights. On the first night we had vegetable rotties, and the second night we tried the curry, which needs to be pre-ordered the day before. The juices at the Central Beach Inn are amazing, well worth 300LKR (£1.40). The cocktails are also good for the evening 500LKR (£2.30) during happy hour, which is 4 til 9 (otherwise they’re 600LKR) Activities: Whale watching costs 10,000LKR for two. This was a massive waste of time, we didn’t see any whales, everyone on our boat was constantly being sick as we trawled the sea for 5 hours! DO NOT DO THIS ACTIVITY! Have a cooking lessons at Rotty shop instead and play in the epic waves on Mirissa beach. Transport: Bus to Matara, then bus to Tissa (Tissamaharama)
(Central Beach Inn, Mirissa Beach in Sri Lanka)
Stayed: Elephant Camp – great little guest house run by one fo the most friendly hosts ever. We shared some Arak and chatted about crazy adventures all night. Ate: An unamed restaurant over the road from the Elephant Camp (ask the owner to show you). We had some delicious Sri Lankan curries for 300LKR (£1.40) each, and there was far too much for us to finish. Activities: Yala National Park Safari – This is by far the best tour we’ve ever been on. Our driver was great and spotted loads of wildlife. We watched the Elephants play at the watering hole, saw loads of crocodiles, birds, wild boars, lizards, monkeys, etc. Unfortunately we didn’t see the elusive leopard but it didn’t matter we had a fantastic morning in the park. Cost 10,500LKR (£50) for two, includes luxury jeep from your hotel and a driver. Our driver Nuwan, was so good we tipped him 1000LKR (he only earns 400LKR for each trip) and we highly recommend booking your safari at the Elephant Camp even if you’re not staying there, so you get Nuwan as your driver, he’s brilliant! Transport: For Arugam Bay, catch the 8am Kandy bus (quick bus), get off at Weliwaya to change onto the bus to Monaragala (quick bus again), at Monaragala change onto the bus to Arugam Bay. The whole trip took us around 6 hours but we got two quick buses, it took some people 9 hours! It costs around 350LKR (£1.62) each, for all three buses.
(Elephants playing at the watering hole in Yala National Park, Sri Lanka)
Stayed: Sun ‘n’ Surf – easily the best accommodation in ABay. Cost us 3250LKR (£15) per night for a concrete cabana (the wooden ones are a bit cheaper) but this was during low season – expect to pay a bit more during high season. Ate: Over the road in a local restaurant, always full of tourists because of the low prices and great food. Sri Lankan curry is around 250LKR (£1.20). They also serve pasta, noodles and other dishes. The chocolate rotty for dessert, is to die for! Activities: ABay is a surfing mecca! There’s board rental from Mambos for 400LKR (£1.85) an hour. Plus, there’s a beach party at Mambos on Saturday nights, which was still going strong when we left at about 2 or 3am! Transport: Bus back to Monaragala, bus back to Weliwaya and then catch the bus to Ella (only 45 mins from Weliwaya) The whole journey takes around 6 hours, because even though the last bus is short, the first two weren’t quick buses, so it took longer than the journey to ABay. If you’re short on time you can catch a sea plane to fly you back to the West coast. Or if you’re looking to go straight back to Colombo click the image below to organise a taxi with Taxisurfr.
Stayed: Sun Top Inn – Great views from the balcony, so you can dream away your morning whilst they serve up the free breakfast. Ate: Dream Cafe – pizza’s high recommended – they were good but place is plagued by flies, which made trying to work and eat a bit uncomfortable. Nescoffee next door looked busy and had a good vibe about it. Activities: Walk to the top of Little Adam’s Peak, it only takes an hour there and back (but we were rushing as we were booked on the 10.50am train to Kandy) Awesome views across the hills, highly recommend. Do it early, before it gets too hot. Transport: The famous train to Kandy across the hills with views over the tea plantations and more. We booked with ExpoRail which is ‘luxury class’, it wasn’t that luxurious but was certainly better than travelling in third class! Definitely worth doing, even if you only have time to do a small portion of it. Its meant to take 6 hours but took more like 7 and a half. It doesn’t go right to Kandy station, but stops about 5km away so you can catch a tuk tuk for 500LKR (£2.30) into Kandy.
Stayed: Mcloed Inn – Nice and clean with great views but has a 10.30pm curfue – not great if your night owls – and check out is at half 10 in the morning. We think he needs to ease up on his times! Ate: The White House – serves Indian curry, the sauce was great but meat was really tough, so I wouldn’t recommend going there. Go for drinks at The Pub and the Slightly Chilled Cafe, which also has great views. Activities: Buddha’s Tooth Temple – costs 1000LKR (£4.65) to go in. You must have shoulders and legs covered, but you can rent sarongs outside if you forget. Transport: 1st Class train to Colombo from Kandy station – costs 1200LKR (£5.60) each and takes about 3 hours to reach Colombo. It’s easy to head back to the airport from here but we had a couple more days to kill so we jumped in a tuk tuk to Mount Lavinia to stay at one of the only hostels in Sri Lanka!
(The view over Kandy in Sri Lanka)
Stayed: Mount Lavinia Hostel – One of the only hostels in Sri Lanka and well worth a visit. It’s a great way to meet other backpackers, many of whom are just arriving or just leaving. Ate: La Rambla is an awesome restaurant close to the Hostel. It serves top-notch seafood and meat dishes, pasta and loads more. We highly recommend you head there for dinner if you’re in the area and are looking for a fancy meal. Activities: There is a beach at Mount Lavinia but it isn’t that nice, compared to the other beaches in Sri Lanka. It’s where a lot of the locals come to escape the city life so it can get pretty crowded. We spent most of our time here planning our the next stage of our trip, Indonesia! Transport: Taxi back to the international airport.
Sri Lanka has been one of our favourite countries to date, so if you’re thinking of a trip there, DO IT! IT’S AMAZING! For more info about traveling through Sri Lanka visit our Backpackers Guide Or if you have a specific question, please leave a comment below.
All nationalities (except Sri Lanka) need to have a valid visa to Sri Lanka prior to the trip. Nowadays you can apply for the ETA to Sri Lanka online. When you make the application, you have to make sure to enter all the passport information exactly the same as on the passport, otherwise it can be invalid or you can experience a lot of delay when you pass Immigration at the airport. ETA is electronic and it is linked to your passport. You only need to show the passport at Immigration on arrival.