A week in Sri Lanka

The wow factor for nature - does it show nature at its best? Doesn't need to be the wilder-beast migration or diving with hundreds of hammerheads. Rather make you pause as you realise just how awesome the natural world can be
How much does this experience showcase some of the better and finer things that us humans can offer? Sure, it can be ancient ruins and renaissance churches, but it can also be festivals or soaking up some of the great modern cities of the world
Fun factor/activity
Very simple - was it fun? This is usually linked in with doing some kind of activity - i mean, walking along some cliffs is nice, but paragliding from them, now that is fun. Its a vastly underrated factor in a truly great experience
Avoid the crowds
Big tour groups and being surrounded by loud fellow tourists can sap the life out of even the greatest of travel experiences. This score is to reflect just how much you can avoid this. But. . . The score also takes into account if the crowds actually add to the experience, such as with a party town or a bustling food market
World famous
How world famous is the experience?
How hard is it to have a similar experience in other places round the world?
Overall Score
The highest score of nature or culture, + fun factor, + avoid the crowds, + the highest score of world famous or unique. Then turned into a score out of 100. More details at the bottom of the page
65 *What the scores mean and where do they come from
Sri Lanka
Length of time
Around a week
Time of year visited
Primary Tags
Click on any of the tags to see all travel experiences with the same tag
How this travel experience ranks compared to all the other experiences on this site
177th/372 This travel experience's ranking compared to all the other experiences on this site
Top 50% SUMMARY RATING: Great Experience


Sri Lanka is often described by travellers as “India-light”.  It is far more compact, with many of the highlights possible to cover in a week; it has a similar culture in many ways; similar type of experiences on offer, such as tropical beaches, old forts, tea plantations etc; and it is generally a bit less hectic than the madness of a busy India.  But, if looking at the flip side, it also doesn’t really offer anything that India doesn’t.  So, if you have experience of India, you may find Sri Lanka chilled, pretty, nice to get around, but without necessarily the wow factor.  The exception to this though is the Tea Country and the spectacular train ride through it

I’ve listed below the classic, compact 1 week itinerary for some of the highlights and a few high level tips to help you get the most out of the trip:

  1. Time of year – the experience of Sri Lanka varies dramatically by season.  Basically, December to March / April is the best time for this itinerary as it is dry (and nicely cooler) season in the south coast and Hill Country.  April to September is best for the north of the country and the Ancient Sites, again because it is drier
  2. Prioritise time in the Tea Country – the beaches in the south are lovely, Galle is nice for an afternoon, and its worth dedicating half a day to try and see a Blue Whale in Mirissa, but the highlight is the Tea Country for not just the tea estates, but also the hiking and pretty “Old English” feel towns
  3. Book your trains in advance – you DO NOT want to be standing.  I’ve read in a few guide books that it doesn’t really matter if you stand – I think that’s ok for a hour or so, but for longer it really isn’t fun. It’s Sri Lanka – 2nd and 3rd class unreserved will have people crammed in to the point that you can’t sit on the floor and need to stand.  Tickets become available 30 days in advance and are super cheap (US$7 for first class just about everywhere), so jump on the train website (really not as bad as people whinge about) or, if left it late, buy at the stations (only the large stations such as Colombo, Kandy and Nanuoya sell reserved seating tickets)
  4. You’ll want a driver for parts of the trip – some parts of the journey you cannot take a train, such as from Galle up to the Tea Country, and some parts you’ll want a driver to take you around the immediate sites, such as the tea factories and estates.  Considering you only have a week, and potentially can share the cost among multiple people, it’s just easier to get a driver for the day.  They’re typically US$50 for the day and it also has the benefit of being able to speak in detail with a local as they proudly show you their country.  I rented Siri (+94 77 779 8962) for my drive from Mirissa to Ella, who was very knowledgeable; and Yoga (+94 75 165 0205) for around Nuwara Eliya.  I’d recommend both
  5. I wish I’d . . . visited the Uda Walaw National Park.  Would have been great to see more of the wildlife, and it fits perfectly into the route
  6. For more details on each of the experiences, see the detailed travel entries for:


#1 Sitting with the windows open as you watch your old train slowly snake its way through the beautiful tea plantations on the route from Kandy to Badulla and the most dramatic part of Sri Lanka’s Hill Country. You’ll spend the first couple of hours gawping and taking photos, and then, after a while, just relaxing and soaking up the peaceful nature of the place, with its quiet towns and tea plantation workers slowly getting on with their day

#2 Staying overnight in the gorgeous hill village of Ella and having the day to explore the walking routes nearby, in particular Little Adam's Peak with its views through Ella Gap

#3 Exploring the tea estates to learn the history of the trade that dominated Sri Lanka for a century, whilst also indulging in High Tea in one of the wonderfully restored old Tea Factories, such as the Heritance near Nuwara Eliya

#4 Wandering and finding one of the super picturesque spots where the train passes by, such as Nine Arches Bridge in Ella

#5 Seeing Pilot Whales, Bottle-nosed Dolphins and hundreds of Spinner Dolphins up close . . . and the chance to see the much bigger Blue Whales / Fin Whales / Sperm Whales . . . on a whale-watching trip from Mirissa

#6 Walking through the Horton Plains at the roof of Sri Lanka to the sharp-drop view of World's End

#7 The beautiful beaches and coastline all the way from Mirissa to Tangalle

#8 Nuwara Eliya's "Little England" - nestled up in the middle of Sri Lanka’s Tea Country, Nuwara Eliya was one of the old colonial centres for the tea industry and, with the combo of old quaint buildings, race course, golf courses and, well bloody drizzly bleak weather, is affectionally known as “Little England”. As an Englishman I can confirm I felt right at home!

#9 The atmospheric UNESCO World Heritage site of Galle is on most traveller’s Sri Lankan list. Deep history across the colonial times of the Portuguese, Dutch and British that you can soak up while wandering the old streets and the fort walls in an afternoon, or for staying overnight to enjoy one of the beautiful colonial style hotels

#10 The train ride down the coast from Colombo to Galle - the views are beautiful as the train hugs the beach for a big chunk of the way

Give a miss - Kandy

Give a miss - Colombo

The Route

Rough itinerary

Day 1 – Colombo to Galle.  Start off in Colombo (the long haul arrival flights seem to land very late at night, so you’re realistically looking at waking up in a hotel in Colombo) and take the beautiful train journey down along the beaches to check out the UNESCO-world heritage fort of Galle.  Stay there  overnight


Day 2 – Whale watching from Mirissa and Tangalle beaches.  Early start to set off on a whale-watching trip from Mirissa (1 hour drive) to see Pilot Whales, Bottle-nosed Dolphins and hundreds of Spinner Dolphins up close . . . and the chance to see Blue Whales (the largest animal to have ever lived) as well as Fin Whales (second largest) and Sperm Whales (the largest toothed predator).  Spend the afternoon and evening around the beaches of Tangalle (1 hour drive)


Day 3 – Travel from the south coast to Ella.  Make this a bit of a chill out day.  The drive is only max 3 hours via the highway.  Take the afternoon to wander around Ella’s small centre with a bunch of nice restaurants and chilled traveller vibe


Day 4 – a day for the mini hikes around Ella.  In particular check out the super picturesque spot where the train passes by at Nine Arches Bridge (ask the locals what time the trains pass) and then the nearby Little Adam’s Peak with its views through Ella Gap


Day 5 – the train from Ella to Nuwara and the tea estates by Nuwara Eliya “Little England’.  Take one of the wonderful morning trains for the journey through the most beautiful spots in Sri Lanka.  In the afternoon, arrange for a driver to drive you along the gorgeous drive to the St Claire Tea Centre and then have High Tea in the superbly restored Heritance Hotel


Day 6 – Horton Plains and World’s End.  Arrange a taxi to take you the 1.25hrs to the start of the Horton Plains, the plateau at the top of Sri Lanka.  From there, walk the very pleasant 3hour loop via World’s End for dramatic views into the valley


Day 7 – take the train back to Colombo to fly out, via Kandy for a mini break

Experiences nearby

The below map shows experiences nearby with a colour that reflect the Overall Score of those experiences

Score Detail

Background - how many times have you asked someone what a travel experience was like and the response was "amazing" or "awesome"?  That response is nice to know, but it makes it hard to differentiate that experience compared to others.  That is exactly what these scores are trying to do - differentiate the experience by giving a score out of 10 based on 6 categories and then giving an overall experience score

This overall experience score is calculated by:  take the highest of the "Culture" or "Nature" score (1-10) + "Fun factor" (1-10) + "Avoiding the crowds" (1-10) + highest of the "Unique" or "World Famous score" (1-10).  Then convert into a score out of 100

Extra detail - the logic being that I find all of the 6 individual scores important, but I don't want to mark an experience down just because it doesn't cover both "Culture" and "Nature", or because it isn't both "World Famous" and "Unique".  Take the examples of Safari in The Serengeti and walking through Rome - they both appeal at opposite ends of the nature / culture spectrum, and you can have a fantastic time without needing to appeal to both sides.  So, their overall scores aren't penalized for their lack of one or the other, and I've done the same for "World Famous" vs "Unique".  But . . . I do think that the "Fun factor" of an experience is important, irrelevant of other factors, and so is "Avoiding the Crowds" (or where there are crowds that add to the experience).  So, both of these scores are standalone