Despite its small size, one week really isn’t enough time to experience all that Sri Lanka has to offer, but you can still get in some of the highlights of this fascinating South Asian island country. I did this trip in 2017 and managed to visit Sigiriya (2 nights), Dambulla (stopover on the way to Kandy), Kandy (2 nights), Ella (2 nights), and Galle (one afternoon before our night flight out of Colombo).
Located to the southeast of India in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka was ruled by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British before regaining independence in 1948. Their recent history was marred by civil war, which ended in 2009. Unlike their much larger neighbor, Sri Lanka is a majority Buddhist country, with smaller populations of Hindus, Muslims, and Christians.
Before you go: Make sure you apply for a visa online here! It’s $35 for a 30-day, single entry tourist visa for non-SAARC countries.
Transportation: You will almost definitely fly in and out of Colombo. Unfortunately, due to the limited time, it’ll be hard to do this trip on a low budget, as you’ll need to hire drivers to take you from the airport to Sigiriya, Sigiriya to Kandy, and Ella to Galle. Luckily, I ended up going with my dad instead of by myself, so we were able to split the cost of the cars, and if you’re going with more people it’s actually a decently priced option. If I’d been on my own, though, I probably would have cut out a few things to make time for cheaper transportation.
You can easily hire a car to Sigiriya at the airport. Your accommodation in Sigiriya will most likely be able to call a car to take you to Kandy with a stop at the Dambulla Cave Temples (check with them the night before), and we booked a car to Galle at a little travel agency in Ella (that was the most expensive ride, around $70).
We took the train from Kandy to Ella and from Galle to Colombo. We booked a first class ticket from Galle to Colombo ahead of time and I’m glad we did, because the trains in and out of Colombo can get crazy crowded.
Within towns and cities, we walked or took tuk tuks, which were cheap and easy, although the ride from Ella to the tea plantation was a bit harrowing at times.
Sigiriya is one of the most incredible, impressive places I’ve ever been. It’s a palace on top of a giant dang rock, how cool is that?! It takes about 45 minutes or so to walk up there along paths and stairways around the side of the rock, with an area where you can view frescoes painted on the rock. There’s a viewpoint before the final stretch, and also a little caged in area to escape from potential swarms of wasps (!!!). Yeah, there were some major hives on one side of the rock, and sometimes they swarm–while I was there we were quickly ushered into the wasp cage while we waited for them to pass, then had to make the rest of the journey to the top in silence so as not to agitate them into swarming again.
It was well worth it, though. It’s incredible that this place exists, plus the views are fantastic. For more information on the history of Sigiriya, there’s a small museum near the ticket office.
If you haven’t had enough of climbing up rocks, take a tuk tuk to the start of the trail up Pidurangala Rock. It takes around half an hour to get to the top, and I thought it was more strenuous than Sigiriya. I’m pretty scared of heights so there were a couple parts that terrified me, and I might have turned back without support from my dad (he basically dragged me through the parts where I was scared, haha!). But the view from the top is amazing!
The Cave Temple of Dambulla is located about half an hour from Sigiriya and can be visited on the way to Kandy. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the interiors of the Cave Temple is richly decorated with paintings and images of Buddha.
This former capital city is located on Kandy Lake and has one of Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist sites: the Temple of the Tooth. As you might have guessed, this temple is where the Buddha’s tooth relic is housed. It is a fascinating place, and I highly recommend a guided tour. You can pay to hire an official guide when you buy your entrance ticket.
The Temple of the Tooth is the main attraction in Kandy, but there are plenty of other things to do if you have the time:
-Walk around the lake
-Explore the city
-Hike in Udawattakele Forest Reserve
Tip: For great sunset views of the lake, head to Slightly Chilled Lounge for happy hour drinks. They have pretty good Chinese food, too, with lots of vegetarian options, and we actually ate dinner there both nights we stayed in Kandy!
Take the Train
The train route from Kandy to Ella is considered to be one of the most beautiful train rides in the world. The 6-hour journey winds through lush, mountainous terrain dotted with tea plantations.
Tip: If you plan to ride first class, you must book your tickets in advance, preferably as far in advance as you can because they do sell out. You can book them here. Second class tickets are first come, first served, but if you arrive at the train station in Kandy early the day of your departure you should be able to get one. The ticket doesn’t actually guarantee you will have a seat on the train, though, so good luck! We spent the first hour or so of the journey sitting on the floor/standing, but then some people got off the train and we were able to take their seats.
The town of Ella is situated among picturesque mountains and tea plantations. With one full day in Ella, you can visit a tea plantation to see how tea is made (we went to Uva Halpewatte), check out the town on a lunch break, and hike Little Adam’s Peak.
The main attraction here is Galle Fort, a fortified city on a tiny peninsula off the southern coast of Sri Lanka. It was first built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, then restored and rebuilt by the Dutch, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Take a stroll through the city and along the ramparts to admire the beautiful architecture and position on the Indian Ocean.
Tip: There are some aggressive touts near the train station that will try to sell you a tour of the city of Galle, some going as far as trying to convince you that Galle Fort is closed. Galle Fort is never “closed”.
Ready to plan a trip to Sri Lanka? Check out these guidebooks for more information!