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Looking for the best places to visit in Sri Lanka on your first trip to Sri Lanka??
Sri Lanka is a pretty small country, especially compared to its closest country India, and it’s not made up of lots of islands like Indonesia and the Philippines, however, I still struggled on how to plan my trip to Sri Lanka, where to go in Sri Lanka and the best Sri Lanka itinerary because from what I could see online, it didn’t seem that easy to travel around because not all places are connected by train and not all roads are direct.
After visiting Sri Lanka for the first time and spending 3 weeks in Sri Lanka, solo on a backpacking trip around Sri Lanka, I’m here writing the Sri Lanka Travel Blog and Travel Guide to Sri Lanka I would have liked to have read before going to help me plan my trip.
Places to Visit in Sri Lanka on Your First Trip
First Time Travel Tips for Sri Lanka
In this post, I’m going to go through the main places that you’ll probably want to visit on your first time in Sri Lanka and there a few important travel tips for Sri Lanka on your first visit:
When To Visit Sri Lanka
Although Sri Lanka is an all year round destination, it has 2 monsoon seasons and therefore not all of the country is great to visit all year round.
For example when it comes to the best time to travel to Sri Lanka, I travelled to Sri Lanka in August in low season, the South Coast was wet and quiet, whereas the East Coast was busy and full of life, but this flips come winter.
Sri Lanka Itinerary
Unless you have 1 month in Sri Lanka you’ll struggle to see all of the country because travel days in Sri Lanka can be long.
Places look close together on the map but as I said, not all roads are direct. In 2 weeks in Sri Lanka, on your Sri Lanka itinerary, you’ll be able to visit about 5 places depending on how close they.
But if you want to see a lot of the country in just 1 week, you can do a Sri Lanka backpacking itinerary like this!
Unknown Places To Visit in Sri Lanka
There are far more places in Sri Lanka to visit than I have mentioned below so if you’re looking for places to get off the beaten track in Sri Lanka and places that are quieter, you can find them, especially if you decide to travel Sri Lanka by tuk-tuk which is very popular now! I’d suggest watching The Budgeteer’s YouTube videos for information around this!
Plan a Second Trip to Sri Lanka
Essentially, what I’m saying is, do not try to visit ALL of these places in Sri Lanka during your first trip, unless you have a lot of time. Instead have a look at the map below to see where works best for you to visit route wise, see which places really stand out to you, and keep in mind the best seasons to travel to each of these places in Sri Lanka.
Map of the Best Places to Visit in Sri Lanka
Places to Visit on the West Coast of Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka’s main airport – Bandaranaike International Airport is located on the West side of the island.
The two main places on the West Coast are Colombo- Sri Lanka’s capital city, and Negombo – a fishing town turned city.
Most countries tourism activities are centred around the capital city, but not here. From what I’ve heard, Colombo doesn’t have much to offer tourists to Sri Lanka and if you’re here for a short time and as it’s your first time in Sri Lanka, I’d say that you don’t want to waste your time in a big, busy city, and it is busy because over 2 million people live here! If you do stay in Colombo 1-2 days maximum are enough.
Negombo, on the other hand, is worth a visit, or at least, it’s a good place to stay for a night after your flight and before your flight. Negombo is much closer to the airport than Colombo and takes just 20 minutes or so to drive to and from it. You can choose from a homestay or hostel near the bus station as I did between flying in and out for the night, or you can opt for a nicer hotel closer to the ocean where you can relax for a bit before or after your Sri Lanka trip.
The Marco Polo Guide suggests as an insider thing to do in Negombo you can head to the fish market which is the largest in the country, it opens very early in the morning and is the best way to get a taste (and smell) of local life in Sri Lanka.
Related Post: How To Get From Negombo to Sigiriya By Public Bus.
Places to Visit on the South Coast of Sri Lanka.
Southern Sri Lanka offers so much and is the most popular area of Sri Lanka to visit, especially if you’re going to Sri Lanka on holiday. You’ve probably seen the coconut palm trees, the beach swings and the gorgeous shorelines of the beaches in South Sri Lanka, and there are so many beaches to visit.
I think the best way to plan your trip to Sri Lanka is to know that unless you stay on the beaches for your whole trip, you won’t get to see all of them during your first trip due to just how many there are.
Here are the best beaches in Southern Sri Lanka and a bit about them to help you pick the few you want to visit.
Galle is a city, not a sleepy beach town but with its beautiful old town that is the best-preserved old town in Sri Lanka it makes for a great place to visit. Along with the old town, Galle’s fort one of the main things to see in Galle. You could stay in Galle if you fancy it and have time, alternatively, it’s pretty easy to go a day trip to Galle from one of the beach towns below like Unawatuna, Weligama and Mirissa.
This is one of Sri Lanka’s most popular beaches, I’m sure a lot of people will recommend you visit Unawatuna. It’s located just one mile away from Galle and not only does it have a beautiful 2km crescent shaped bay, it is also a popular place to go snorkelling and diving in Sri Lanka.
Have you seen photos of the traditional fishermen fishing on stilts? Well Weligama is the place you can see them. Weligama is also a popular surf spot on the South Coast of Sri Lanka.
A really popular beach town, Mirissa offers guests enough to stay for a full week. It has a nice bay with lots of smaller bays near-by, plenty of cool cafes that you can get smoothie bowls and avocado on toast in. Mirissa is home to the now Instagram famous Coconut Tree Hill and in the right season, it’s only one of two places (the other being Trincomalee in the East) where you can go Whale Watching from, this is a perfect place to visit on your first time in Sri Lanka.
Hippe-Duwa is what this small town used to be called back when it was a secret to only the hippies visiting Sri Lanka however the secret got out and now Hikkaduwa is very popular. Because of its small beach prices are higher here than other beach towns on the South Coast but it’s worth it and it offers a good selection of beach bars come evening time. The Marco Polo Sri Lanka Guide suggests visiting the colourful Sunday Market which emerged from Hikkaduwa’s hippy days.
Chilled out beaches lined with coconut trees is what Tangalle will provide you with along with an array of water sports like kayaking on Tangalle Lagoon and Surfing. If you want to swim in the sea you’ll need to visit beaches near Tangalle like Goyambokka where the water is calmer and I’ve heard that Silent Beach is a good beach near Tangalle too!
Yala West National Park
One of the most popular things to do in Sri Lanka is to go on a safari or game drive which you can do in Yala National Park, this is such an epic experience for your firt trip in Sri Lanka! At certain times of the year, you will most likely see Elephants and if you’re really lucky you may spot a leopard. Crocodiles, Mongoose and Wild Boar are other things you can see on a safari in Yala National Park and the best thing is that you can stay on the South Coast and just book a day or half day trip here.
Places to Visit on the East Coast of Sri Lanka.
The East Coast of Sri Lanka’s isn’t as popular as the South, I would say this is because it’s harder and takes longer to get to the East Coast of Sri Lanka from the airport, plus the high season on the East Coast is low season elsewhere. However, there are two main places to visit on the East Coast which are great if you want to get off the typical ‘tourist route’ and to get off the beaten path in Sri Lanka.
This is a surfers paradise and even if you don’t surf you’re bound to love Arugam Bay. The bay is beautiful with a clean beach and it has a main road parallel to the beach full of shops, restaurants and agencies. Yoga in Arugam Bay is very popular and in high season they have some good parties too.
Related Post: My full guide to Arugam Bay.
Trincomalee is actually a city and it’s the two beaches along the coast you want to visit as a tourist to Sri Lanka – Nilaveli and Uppaveli. I stayed in Uppaveli as I heard the beach was nicer, it is a nice long beach and a small village with a few dusty roads, guest houses and restaurants. The most popular thing to do in Nilaveli and Uppaveli is to go snorkelling at pigeon island and to go Whale watching in Trincomalee. The best time of year to go Whale watching and Dolphin watching in Trincomalee is February to March.
I went snorkelling and Dolphin watching and I did see a Whale in August, you can watch my YouTube video here to see that.
Places to Visit in the Middle of Sri Lanka.
The centre of Sri Lanka holds the Highlands and what’s known as the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka full of mountains, temples, tea plantations and that oh so famous train ride from Ella to Kandy.
This is the perfect, chilled tourist town in the mountains with lots to do close by. Walking to Little Adam’s Peak and the Nine Arch Bridge are two popular things to do in Ella Town, so is visiting it’s spice garden and taking a cooking class. If you want to go on a day trip you can take a tuk tuk into the tea plantations of Lipton Seat and visit many of Ella’s waterfalls. If you want somewhere to chill and relax in for a few days, Ella is the answer!
Located in the middle of the mountains Kandy is an old Colonial city. Some people don’t take to Kandy as it can get very busy with a lot of traffic but personally I liked it. It’s home to a lake that is nice to walk around, a Buddha on a hill, and the Temple of the Tooth. A lot of people tend to stay in a hotel or homestay in the mountains near Kandy and visit the city during the day which is a good option I think.
The Sri Lanka Marco Polo Guide informed me that the name for Nuwara Eliya means ‘City of Light’ however it’s also known as Little Britain because of its cooler temperatures thanks to its high altitude and weather. If you want to get high tea, stay in an English style manor, play golf, or simply cool down in Sri Lanka, this is a great place to visit and works well as a stop between Ella and Kandy on the train.
This is the hike where you have to get up at 2:00am if you want to see sunrise from Adam’s Peak. It’s a hard hike and climb with 4500 steps, but I’ve been told the view of sunrise at the top is worth it! It’s the most sacred mountain because there’s a large footprint at the top which is said to be from Shiva and Adam which means pilgrims from all religions – Buddhist, Hindu’s Muslims and Christians do this walk too which can make it very busy. The season to hike Adam’s Peak is December to May only and the town to climb Adam’s Peak from is Dalhousie, and the closest town to get the train or bus to is Hatton.
Sigiriya Rock is one of Sri Lanka’s most iconic icons! Thousands of tourists flock to see the famous rock, the only thing I found is that there’s not much else around here apart from visiting Dambulla Cave Temple. As an alternative to climbing up Sigiriya Rock, many tourists, myself included, choose to go to Pidurangala Rock which is a 10th of the price, not as busy, and overlooks Sigiriya Rock offering an amazing view. I went up Pidurangala Rock at sunrise which I’d really recommend.
Related Post: How To Get From Negombo to Sigiriya By Public Bus.
Minneriya National Park
From my time in Sri Lanka, if you want to see lots of Elephants in the wild in Sri Lanka, during June and October Minneriya National Park is the place to go and you can do a safari day trip or half-day trip there from Sigiriya or Dambulla.
July and August seem like the best time to visit with guaranteed elephant sightings as they migrate during these months.
If having breakfast with elephants in Sri Lanka is on your Sri Lanka bucket list then you need to head to Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage which would work as a good stop between Negombo and Kandy.
Places to Visit in the North of Sri Lanka.
This is the least visited part of Sri Lanka, especically for travellers going to Sri Lanka on their first trip. Maybe because it’s so far away from the airport and many other attractions in Sri Lanka, maybe because there’s not the density of places to visit in North Sri Lanka like there is in the South and Middle, or maybe because it has a strong military presence with traces of the civil war still visible.
This is the main place to visit and base yourself in Northern Sri Lanka. Jaffna is a city and if you want to see temples in Sri Lanka including Buddhist temples, Hindu Temples and Christian churches, you’ll get them here.
As you can see, there are so many places to visit in Sri Lanka so I hope this helps plan your Sri Lanka itinerary so you visit the best places in Sri Lanka in the best seasons and the places that are what you’re looking for from your holiday to Sri Lanka!