With stunning hikes, unforgettable train journeys, palm tree lined beaches and delicious food, Sri Lanka is the island that has it all. Here’s my suggested 10-day itinerary and budget that will help you plan your trip and pack as much into your time here. I’ve included a detailed budget from our trip here to give you a guide on how much your trip should cost you. Keep reading for the only Sri Lanka itinerary and budget you’ll need to read!
- 1 Day Exploring Negombo
- Visit the old temples of Anuradhapura
- Two days of hiking in Dambulla
- Have a cultural experience in Kandy
- Ride the famous train from Kandy to Ella
- Take in the natural beauty of Ella
- See the sights in Colombo
Our trip to Sri Lanka came at a pretty bad time in our travels; I was recovering from a hospital stay, and Tim was recovering from breaking his arm and his own stay in hospital after an anaphylactic reaction. All of these things happened in the space of three weeks, and needless to say by the end of it we were pretty stressed out – and hemorrhaging money. We cancelled the rest of our stay in Japan and flew to Bangkok to regroup and figure out a new plan. We needed to go somewhere that was cheap and where we could relax and gather ourselves after a stressful few weeks – but somewhere we could have some fun exploring to take our mind off things.
After a lot of reading, Sri Lanka stood out as the perfect place to go. It’s easy and cheap to get to from SE Asia, we could hike gorgeous peaks, explore ancient temples, eat delicious food, and we could travel the country by train which is so much more relaxing than flying, (esp with a broken arm!). Best of all we could do it all very cheaply! Here’s our full 10 day Sri Lanka itinerary and budget.
*One note about prices: since most things in Sri Lanka are priced in USD all of the prices here are dollar. I’ve got a breakdown of our costs at the end where I split it into Euro and Sterling too.
10-Day Action Packed Itinerary In Sri Lanka
Day 1: Explore Negombo
Accommodation: $18 for a double room with breakfast at Saffron Airport Villas
Transport: $0 we walked everywhere
Food: We spent $5 per person in the day we were there. Lunch at a local restaurant cost just under $1 for a HUGE plate of food.
Most travellers spend their first night in Sri Lanka in the city of Colombo, but if you’re looking for somewhere a bit more laid back then go to the small beach town of Negombo instead. Just 10km from Colombo airport, it was a quick journey to our guesthouse where we were greeted with a welcome beer and some home cooked food by the owners.
Things to do in Negombo
We had just one full day in Negombo and spent the entire thing sightseeing on foot. There are some fantastic places to eat here, and a charming old quarter which is well worth a visit. The beach was nice, but nothing to write home about – don’t expect white sand and sparkling blue sea. The water was quite polluted and we were hassled a lot from people selling sarongs and bracelets which spoiled the experience a little.
All in all this is a really sleepy little town so if you do want to chill out then you could stay here for a few days, but you might find yourself a little bored. 1 day was perfect for us to get to grips with the local people, currency and food in a safe area.
Accommodation in Negombo
Our double room was $18 per night with air con and an en suite. When we stayed here it was called Hotel Zest but it looks like it has since had a revamp and been renamed – they have also now added a swimming pool and the rooms have been upgraded. Location-wise we were able to walk everywhere we needed to go in Negombo, but it was in a very quiet area away from the main beach strip.
Day 2: Take a day trip to Anuradhapura, followed by an overnight stay in Dambulla
Transport: $9 for the Pick me taxi from our hotel to Gampaha train station, $0.90 each for the train, $10 for a tuk-tuk around the Anuradhapura, $0.50 each for the bus from Anuradhapura to Dambulla
Food: Breakfast $1 from stall at Gampaha station, $2 rice and curry from a stall in Anuradhapura, $5 dinner at stall in Dambulla .
Entry Fees: $25 per person for Anuradhapura compound, plus $1.20 each to enter the Bodhi Tree Temple.
A UNESCO world heritage site and one of the sacred cities of the Cultural Triangle, Anuradhapura is a fascinating place to visit to learn about the history and culture of Sri Lanka. As one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, the compound is home to many beautiful and interesting temples and ruins and also contains the famous Bodhi Tree, commonly thought of as one of the most sacred religious sites in the world.
We decided to visit Anuradhapura on a day trip rather than stay overnight as there is very little to see there apart from the old city. You can explore the ruins and temples in around 3-4 hours, and there are plenty of stalls you can stop for lunch – but some people prefer to bring a packed lunch.
How to get to Anuradhapura
We were picked up by our Pick Me taxi early in the morning to catch our 7:10am train from Gampaha to Anuradhapura. This train departs Colombo Fort at 6:35am so you can save yourself an hours sleep by staying in Negombo and hopping on at Gampaha instead. The ride to the station took around 30-40 minutes
We purchased our train tickets at the station, they cost just $0.90 one way for a third class seat.Second class seats are just $1.60 and it costs a whopping $2.95 for first class. The journey takes just three hours and drops you off close to the historic temple site where there will be a lot of tuk tuk and taxi drivers waiting for a fare. Haggle with them for a good price for the day trip plus a drop off at the bus station at the end so that you can continue your journey to Dambulla. You should expect to pay around $10 for a 3 or 4 hour tour.
Tickets for the compound can be bought from the Archeology Museum and cost $25 / £19 / €21 per person (you can pay in USD). Your driver will take you there first before you visit any temples, and you should always get out and buy the tickets yourself. Sometimes the driver will use a portion of it to bribe the guards that check tickets and pocket the rest.
Top Sights at Anuradhapura
- The sacred bodhi tree: This tree has massive religious significance for Buddhists. It is said to be the southern branch from the historical Sri Maha Bodhi at Buddha Gayain India under which Lord Buddha attained Enlightenment.
- The twin pools: These pools were once used by monks for bathing, and are an impressive feat fr hydrological engineering for it’s time. Sit on the steps and take in the stillness of the pools, and learn about their history and importance.
- Jetavanaramaya Monastery and stupa: My favourite sight in the compound, this massive building was the highest monument in the world after the pyramids when it was built in 301 AD.
- Ruwanwelisaya Stupa: A stunning white stupa from 140 B.C, this is well worth a visit for the photos alone.
- Thuparama Dagoba: The oldest dagoba in Sri Lanka, and possibly in the world.
How to get from Anuradhapura to Dambulla
The cheapest way to get from Anuradhapura to Dambulla is by public bus. Arrange with your driver to drop you to the old bus station after you have finished seeing the temples. The driver will usually try to steer you towards AC minibuses that cost more per person AND charge for bags, but if you want to save money say no to these. Find any of the buses that go to Kandy or Colombo as these will go through Dambulla and will cost much less than the minibuses.
Make sure you ask the driver to take you to the old bus station and not the new one. By the time a bus gets to the new station they are usually so full that it’s standing room only.
Buses leave every 20-30 minutes and the journey takes around 1.5 – 2 hours and costs 95 rupees / 50 cent per person. The last bus for Dambulla leaves at 6pm so that should give you plenty of time to see the compound if you get the early train. The bus terminates on the main street in Dambulla, where you can get a tuk tuk to your accommodation. It’s always helpful to check ahead and see
Day 3: Explore the sights of Dambulla, then get the bus to Kandy
Accommodation: $20 for two nights in an en suite double room at Blue Sky Guesthouse.
Transport: $2 for the bus to and from Sigiriya Rock.
Food: Around $4 per meal, with free breakfast at our accommodation.
Entry Fees: $30 per person for Sigiriya Rock, $10 for the cave
After a comfortable bus journey we arrived in Dambulla, checked into our guesthouse and went straight to bed, ready for an early morning of sightseeing. Our guesthouse was very basic and cheap, with our en suite double room only $10 with breakfast. The location was the best part about the accommodation though, there was a bus stop right outside that took us both to Sigiriya Rock and Kandy the next day. It was also walking distance to the cave temple so we saved a lot of money on transport here.
Things to see in Dambulla
Sigiriya Rock is an ancient rock fortress that’s one of the most visited sights in Sri Lanka. Because of it’s popularity and the steep climb to the top, go here early in the morning to avoid the crowds and the heat.
There are 1,200 steps to get to the top of Sigiriya so wear trainers, not flip flops. Carry plenty of water, and apply sunscreen as the heat can be intense. Depending on how often you stop and how busy it is, it should take around an hour to get to the top.
Tickets cost $30, which is extremely expensive if you’re backpacking on a budget. If you can’t pay that much you can climb the nearby Pidurangala Rock which costs just $3. This is is far less touristy, and also has spectacular panoramic views from the top. Some argue that this is actually better due to the lack of crowds and the stunning views of Sigiriya rock!
How to get to Sigiriya Rock
You can hire a driver to take you from your accommodation to Sigiriya Rock and bring you back again. This can usually be arranged through your guesthouse and cost around $10.
A cheaper option is to travel like the locals and take a bus! We hopped on a local bus at around 7am, which took us 30 minutes to get to the entrance of the site. If you’re unsure of where to wait you can ask a passerby and they will direct you where to stand and wait for your bus. Usually once the driver spots a foreigner waiting they will assume you’re going to the rock and pull over. The bus costs 190 rupees (around a dollar) each and is by far the cheapest way to get there.
The Golden Temple of Dambulla
A sacred pilgrimage site for 22 centuries, this cave monastery, with its five sanctuaries, is the largest, best-preserved, cave-temple complex in Sri Lanka.
Getting to the temple involves climbing up a lot of steps, but it’s not as difficult or as high as Sigiriya rock. The climb takes around 20 minutes and give yourself around 45 minutes to explore the caves. Entry was free when we were there, but since then they have started charging 1,500 rupees per person. The also charge a small fee to store your shoes while you enter the temple. If you don’t want to pay this then bring a carrier bag to put your shoes in.
How to get from Dambulla to Kandy
Apart from those two sights there is little else to do in Dambulla. So rather than spend another night, we headed back to our guesthouse to pack and then hopped on a bus Kandy at 3pm. Buses to Kandy stop along the Kandy – Jaffna Highway, and you can ask the staff at your guesthouse for your nearest stop.
The journey takes around 2.5-3 hours and cost around 100 rupees each, and while I couldn’t find a timetable online I was told that there are two buses every hour – you kind of just have to stand around and wait patiently!
Accommodation in Dambulla
Budget accommodation is easy to come by in Dambulla, but expect very basic rooms with no air con. I recommend staying on the Kandy – Jaffna highway as this is where buses stop on the way to Kandy / Colombo and Sigirya Rock. Here are some of my favourite hotels in Dambulla.
- Pramila Guest Inn: With double rooms starting at just £4 per night, this is a great budget option. It also boats an impressive review score of 9.2/10 from over 200 reviews on Booking.com! The location is great for getting to each of the sights around Damabulla. There’s a restaurant on-site and breakfast is an extra £2 per day.
- Sundara Resort & Spa: Double rooms start at just £24 per night if you book last minute (£34 if not) and this place has a great location for sightseeing. Breakfast is included and there is a massive swimming pool with a swim up bar. The humidity in Dambulla can be intense, so having a pool is recommended.
- Jetwing Lake: This 5-Star hotel is set in the lush green countryside and is one of the best hotels we saw in Sri Lanka. at £91 per night for a double room, this isn’t a budget option, but if you’re looking for luxury then this is it. The spacious double rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over impressive views of the Sri Lankan countryside. There is a luxury spa, huge outdoor swimming pool, two bars and a highly rated restaurant on-site. Best of all, this is an eco-friendly hotel with a commitment to sustainable tourism, so you can feel good about staying here!
Day 4 & 5: Explore the sights of Kandy
Accommodation: $30 for two nights bed and breakfast at Three Three Five Guesthouse
Transport: $0, we walked everywhere
Food: Less than $5 per meal in local restaurants, more in western restaurants in the main streets. We spent $12 each in 2 days.
After 3 days of exploring cultural and historic sights, we arrived in Kandy ready to experience a different, and slightly colder, part of Sri Lanka. Compared with the searing heat and dusty roads of Dambulla, the crisp air and lush greenery in Kandy is the first thing you’ll notice as your bus rolls in. It’s pretty warm here during the day but nights are cooler so bring the right clothes when you visit here.
Things to do in Kandy
Unlike Dambulla and Anuradapura, there is so much to see and do in Kandy so it’s definitely worth staying a few days to wander around and see everything there is to offer.
Kandy is a really walkable city, and there’s so much to be discovered. From early morning until late at night both days we walked around seeing the sights, stopping for food, drinks and taking photos.
Some of our favourite sights were:
- The Big Buddha ($1.50 entry)
- Temple of the Tooth
- Peradeniya Botanical Gardens ($10 entry)
- Kandy lake (Free)
- Watch a traditional dance and fire show at Kandy Lake Club ($3)
- Have a beer and watching the sunset at Slightly Chilled rooftop bar.
Accommodation in Kandy
- We stayed at Three Three Five Guesthouse, which offers basic double rooms from as little as $7 per night with a shared bathroom and $15 per night with private . The central location meant that we could walk everywhere, which saved us even more money on transport. Breakfast is included, and there is a common area where you can eat and chat to other guests.
- The Golden Crown Hotel: If you’re looking for luxury, then you won’t do better than the Golden Crown. This opulent hotel has an infinity pool, spa, leisure center, three restaurants, and a high end nightclub on the top floor. Double rooms start at $111 / £85 / €97 per night with free indulgent buffet breakfast. Out of the budget for a backpacker, but for a 5-star hotel this is great value for money.
Day 6: Travel from Kandy to Ella
Transport: $8 each for the train from Kandy to Ella, walked too and from the stations to our guesthouses
Food: $5 each on snacks, $8 each on dinner
Often called one of the most scenic train journeys in the world, the train ride from Kandy to Ella was the highlight of our trip – and something you shouldn’t miss.
Ella is a stunning little town and is so quiet and peaceful compared with the other parts of Sri Lanka we had been to. The air is fresh, everything is so green, and the vibe is so relaxed . We immediately e went back to the train station and extended our stay by an extra day.
Where to eat in Ella
Once you arrive in Ella, you’ll probably be hungry from the journey so here are a few places you can get something tasty to eat:
- Cafe Chill: A popular restaurant with backpackers, this serves delicious local food – and western options too. It’s also a good place to go to have a beer or coffee and read a book.
- Adam’s Breeze: This small, family run restaurant serves delicious curries and noodle dishes. There are also some classic western options if you’re not in the mood for local food. You’ll find this at the turn off for Little Adam’s peak.
- Down Town Rotti Hut: If you’re looking for something cheap and quick, stop by this rotti hut for a snack. They offer a selection of sweet and savoury rotti for low prices.
- Matey Hut: This tiny hut serves up traditional Sri Lankan curry at very cheap prices. For less than $5 you can have a selection of 4 different curries with rice. Wash it down with a fresh coconut or cool beer.
Accommodation in Ella
There are plenty of budget guesthouses in Ella, as well as some stunning luxury resorts. Here are a few of the best places to stay:
- Pepper Hills Cottages: A little piece of paradise just outside the town. Pepper Hills offers small cottage with stunning mountain views for just $19 per night. Breakfast is included and you can rent bikes from reception to explore the area. They also offer dorm beds for just $5 per night.
- Country Homes Bed & Breakfast: This guesthouse has a great location, close to the train station and walking distance to many of the sites. They also offer a bicycle rental and an airport shuttle. Cosy double rooms with a stunning mountain view, private balcony and breakfast start at $65 per night. Out of the budget range, but if you would like to treat yourself, this is perfect!
- Ella Treehouse & Cabana: Stay in your own private tree house or cabana in the middle of the jungle. These wooden hideaways are cosy and perfect for a romantic getaway. Breakfast is included, and rooms come with a private balcony with hammock.
Day 7, 8: Hike, eat and relax in the mountains of Ella
Accommodation: $29 for two nights bed & breakfast at Summer Hill Villa
Transport: $0, we walked everywhere
Entry Fees: $5 for our guide to the top of Ella Rock.
Food: Breakfast is included, and we paid $10 each for lunch and dinner
Things to do in Ella
Little Adams Peak
The nephew of the popular hiking spot Adam’s peak, this hike is a lot shorter and more manageble. It’s an easy 40 minute walk from the town to the bottom of the mountain and then there is a steep 20ish minute climb to the top. There are many photo opportunities along the way so bring your camera!
After you get to the main viewpoint, it’s possible to keep going to reach a second peak. This one has less tourists on it so you can take in the views in a quieter spot. This part of the hike is a lot more difficult, so if you found it tough so far then don’t attempt it.
You’ll need to wear trainers for this hike, but you don’t need hiking boots. Bring plenty of water, as you won’t find many places to buy it once you leave the town. Wear plenty of high factor sunscreen because you are exposed for the whole hike.
98 Acres Resort
Once you’ve finished the hike, you will come down from the peak and pass 98 Acres Resort & Spa. This is a great place to rest and grab a bite to eat after the hike. Sink into a beanbag and look out over the stunning views of the tea plantations as you relax.
Rooms at this luxury resort start at $205, so it’s not for backpacker budgets, however visitors are welcome to stop by for food or coffee. Don’t be worried about arriving at such a plush place in your sweaty gym gear, they’re well used to hikers stopping by!
If you’re on honeymoon or have the budget to stay here I would definitely recommend it. If we ever have the cash to spend on a luxury holiday this would be the place I would go!
Nine Arches Bridge
That afternoon we walked across to Nine Arches Bridge, a really famous bridge in Sri Lanka. This stunning stone bridge is still in use so if you’re lucky you might even be able to get there when train is crossing. This is a really cool spot to walk around and get some photos, and there are cafes here where you can sit and look out over the views.
It is possible to walk along the train tracks to get to and from the town, but you need to ask locals whether a train is expected. It’s a much quicker way back to Ella town, but if there is a train due then don’t attempt it.
We had another early start the next morning to hike to the top of Ella rock. This two hour hike is tougher than Little Adam’s peak. The route isn’t as clearly marked, and you’re hiking through a forest without a distinct path for a lot of the trek.
The route was not well signposted at all, and we couldn’t see anyone else doing the hike. We met a local man that was waiting at the food of the peak and offered to guide us to the top. Usually we say no to this, but it was so hard to see which way to go that we took him up on the offer. I was really glad we had the guide as otherwise we would have gotten lost at a few points.
Sri Lanka is a more popular tourist destination now, so perhaps they have signposted the route now. If not then I’d recommend a guide. Ours spoke very little, and was just there to show us the route – which is exactly what we wanted.
We paid him $5 to walk us up and down – we also gave him a little extra as a tip. He then showed us to a nearby waterfall and helped to guide us back to the town on a shorter route than we took to get there.
If you would prefer to see a few more things in Ella then here are some things you can do:
- Take a tour of a tea plantation
- Visit Ravana, Diyaluma or Ella Wala waterfalls
- Climb Lipton’s Seat
- Visit Dowa Rock Temple