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Best Places To Stay In Sri Lanka

Best places to stay in Sri Lanka 2018 [top areas with itinerary for 10 days]


This guide will help you to understand where to stay in Sri Lanka.

The best part?

It covers not just beach areas but also the best places to stay in Sri Lanka to have all the attractions next to your resort: beautiful sea, elephant safaris and historical sites as the world famous Sigiriya.

If you are willing to travel through a few destinations I will show you also three 10 days itineraries of Sri Lanka to get the best out of this country.

And now comes the great part, it’s all updated to 2018 (no old stuff)

Tea fields of Sri Lanka

Tea fields of Sri Lanka

And if you are after any local event have a look to the Daily Mirror or the Daily News. They are daily updated and with lots of information

So without further talk, let’s get started…

Best area to stay in Sri Lanka

As you can imagine, there is no best area to stay in Sri Lanka as it really depends on what you are after (explore new destinations, historical sites, surfing, etc). Here below a quick subdivision of the country with a few suggestions on which part may suit you best

Best area to stay in Sri Lanka

Best area to stay in Sri Lanka

  • Colombo: the capital of Sri Lanka and where you will most probably land. It’s actually a small city with a population under 1 million people. I would personally spend just one or 2 nights
  • Galle and Matara: probably the most touristic part of Sri Lanka and for a good reason. Imagine a beautiful long beach, a few surfing areas and a lovely town, Galle, with a characteristic fort
  • Arugam Bay: on the east-south coast, the surfing place to be in Sri Lanka. It may remind a bit of Bali
  • Kandy: right in the centre. It’s absolutely a must visit. In my opinion, it is the most beautiful city in Sri Lanka, around a beautiful lake, between characteristic hills and with an underrated local market
  • Nuwara Eliya and the tea plantations area: the most beautiful scenery on the island, imagine steep hills covered by tea plants. Hard to find anywhere else in the world. The $2 and 4 hours train from Kandy through the hills is just spectacular
  • The new “old” beaches: Pasikuda and Kalkudah, world famous in the 70s but closed to tourism till a few years ago because of the Sri Lankan Civil War (1983-2009). Tourism is quietly back, but still in very small numbers which means a great local feeling
  • Dambulla area: just 2 hours west of Pasikuda you can experience an incredible Elephant Safari and the world famous heritage site Sigiriya, the ancient rock fortress
  • Anuradhapura: one of the first capitals of Sri Lanka, as well as Kandy was. However, here you can probably experience the most preserved ruins of the past civilizations. A great temple area you can easily visit on your own by bicycle or simply with an organised tour.
  • Jaffna and the mysterious north: if you want to feel more like an explorer then you should visit the north and Jaffna. Just re-opened to tourism and accessible also with a train trip
Temples of Jaffna

Temples of Jaffna

For more information on the weather have a look at the local Department of Meteorology, a trustable resource.

Four quick suggestions on places to stay in Sri Lanka

  1. If you are into a 100% surfing trip then I would suggest staying around Arungan Bay but if you would like some history and nightlife as well then Galle would work better
  2. For a relaxing beach time, I may suggest Pasikuda beach, fabulous sea, with some day excursions as Sigiriya and the elephant safari.
  3. If you are more into history then KandyAnuradhapura and Jaffna should be in the bucket
  4. For the scenery includes the tea plantations area to any of the above

Now let me go more into the details of each area and later you can read a few itineraries. You can do all of them on your own. There is no need to join a tour operator.

I have personally had no security problems. I always felt very safe, even on crowded trains where I could not move a single finger (I will tell you more on this later)

My only suggestion is to book well in advance your accommodation if you intend to visit towns or areas on local public holidays, as for example Kandy during the Esala Perahera (first two weeks of August). I was there in 2017, so crowded but at the same time so amazingly beautiful.

Travel freedom in Sri Lanka

Travel freedom in Sri Lanka

Colombo, the capital, stay or leave?

I can’t hide that I was not impressed that much by Colombo.

I would not consider the capital as a place to stay in Sri Lanka but just a city to probably spend 1 or 2 days, ideally the last night before you fly out and/or the first day of your trip.

In saying that, Colombo has some interesting attractions and a decent beach, to be a city.

You probably have two choices when you look for your accommodation.

  • you stay in the busy city centre and from there explore the area, either walking or with a tuk-tuk (bargain the price starting from half the amount they ask for)
  • book a place close to the beach, in Mt Lavinia just south of the city, where you can chill out and still access the centre with an easy train ride or a taxi.
Travelling with a bus in Sri Lanka

Travelling by bus in Sri Lanka

A few attractions for your Colombo bucket list

  • Gangaramaya Temple: probably the most beautiful Buddhist temple in the capital. It’s also a museum with some interesting arts and crafts, including a section with old cars too (mostly connected to the British Empire). There is an entry fee (less than $2) which you should see as a donation
  • Seema Malakaya: just across the street from Gangaramaya you find this temple on a stilt house on the side of a small lake. Interesting construction and the perfect place for a few photos at sunset. From there you can also walk to the Gangaramaya Park, a small green park on an island in the middle of the lake connected by a long footbridge.
  • Independence Square: a beautiful and quiet memorial hall in the middle of a green area. It becomes the centre of Sri Lanka on the national day celebration, the 4th of February
  • Shops and local life in Pettah: this is the core of the city, the busiest part where you can find literally everything, all kinds of shops. It can be overwhelming but worth a visit, especially if you are after a few t-shirts.
  • Fort Railway Stations: probably the busiest train station in Sri Lanka, still a fantastic spot to have a picture of the local life. This is one of the top locations for some travel photography. I had some great shots here. You need a ticket to access the platforms (just a few cents)

I suggest also visiting Barefoot for some shopping. This is one of a few places where you can find real local products. The higher price is related to the higher quality you get.

There is also a quiet backyard with a lovely cafe and an exhibition space (there was an interesting photo exhibition by a local photographer when I was there)

Galle and Matara, history, easy surfing and great resorts

Galle is probably the most famous tourist destination in the whole of Sri Lanka.

The historic city centre is absolutely a gem, a place to spend an entire day walking through the lanes and the alleys; watching the buildings with a Dutch colonial architecture, the beautiful villas and the impressive churches, mostly built during the Dutch Empire (beginning in 1663).

I like to call Galle an open-air museum.

Sometimes it is described as the city for the artists. Probably not anymore because of the increased leaving cost. In saying that you will definitely stumble in many studios nowadays owned by foreign designers and photographers.

And most definitely there is an abundance of cool cafes to spend some relaxing time sipping the local tea or coffee.

Where to stay in Galle

If you are after the historical sites I would probably suggest booking your accommodation in the city centre, in one the many refurbished mansions.

You will feel like back in the 17th century. You can always take a taxi to the beaches (10 minutes).

But if you prefer to relax at the beach and just visit in/out the historical sites then stay on the coast, few km out from Galle or Matara. There is a great choice of resorts and hotels to choose from.

And if you are after some easy surfing then you will not be disappointed (I have listed a few spots in the 10-day itinerary).

These are a couple of cafes I may suggest in the fort area:

  • Pedlar’s Inn Cafe: a great colonial interior design that takes you back in time. They serve a mix of international cuisine. You should focus more on the local dishes, spicy and amazing
  • Crepeology: obviously an heaven for crepes addicted…..like me. But seriously, Crepeology has a nice ambience as well as a good menu of sweet and savoury crepes. The coffee is also up to scratch. 
Travelling with any mean in Sri Lanka

Travelling with any mean in Sri Lanka

Arugam Bay, beach and challenging surfing

This is the place to be for anyone planning to spend the holiday mostly on the surfboard. Just be sure to be in the right season, between May and September.

How many times I have heard how beautiful was Bali in the 70s. In my opinion still is, although I would avoid a few spots.

Now, I feel like Arugam Bay has a bit of that Bali soul. Relaxed, chilled out, easy going.

I am not sure how was Bali in the 70s but most definitely Arugam has a lot of positive things included the still not-overcrowded, still-to-discover feeling.

It’s probably more catered for the backpackers and flashpackers, however, I would not discount it also as an upper market choice.

I previously mentioned Arugam Bay as more for serious surfing. The main reasons are the challenging big waves and the presence of the reef, which can create “damages”.

Here is an important tip for your accommodation area:

  • if you are a beginner, get a room in the southern part of town to easily walk to Elephant Rock, an easy surfing spot as you can see from the video below
  • otherwise stay in the town centre to have a close access to more challenging waves

There are lots of family-run restaurants on the main beach, a perfect place to have dinner. Have a try at the Karma Gardens for a healthy breakfast or the tiny Why Not Restaurant for the fabulous roti.

Kandy, the Temple of the Tooth and the lake

I had such a great time in this city that I visited it twice, on two separate trips.

Kandy is a World Heritage Site, mostly for its spectacular location, nestled between several hills and a lake, and the beautiful temples, all around the city.

If you are into travel photography, Kandy is absolutely a heaven, an inspirational place, at every corner (I will list below my favourite sites to visit)

What do I like the most of Kandy?

  • of course, the Temple of the Tooth (Sri Dalada Maligawa), the main attraction in the city
  • St. Paul’s Church, an almost 200 years old church in the middle of a Buddhist area
  • the Queen’s Hotel, with an iconic English Empire interior and right in the centre of the city. Even if you do not stay there, step in for a few photos
  • the Kandy lake of course
  • the hills around which create a sort of amphitheatre

and so much more. I am sure you will add this city to your itinerary in Sri Lanka as soon as you will start reading these 13 things to do in Kandy

Alleys and lanes of Kandy downtown

Alleys and lanes of Kandy downtown

These are my personal tips on the locations for the best travel photography:

I would personally suggest staying close to the city centre. In one occasion my hotel was on the outskirts of Kandy and moving around was really hard, due to the traffic conditions which takes me to the biggest tip.

Book well in advance, even 10-12 months, if you plan to visit Kandy during the Esala Perahera festival (first 2 weeks in August). The procession is probably unique in the world and, obviously, the town is well overcrowded.

The Esala Perahera festival in early August

The Esala Perahera festival in early August

Nuwara Eliya and the tea plantations area

This is, in my opinion, the most scenic part of Sri Lanka.

I have visited this central area on two separate occasions and, in both cases, I could not stop myself taking photos and making videos, but most importantly enjoying the place.

I wrote most extensively here on how to enjoy the tea plantations and where to stay. Just a few quick tips:

  • for a more boutique experience choose a small accommodation. I suggest booking one of the typical British colonial mansion in the middle of a tea plantation
  • visit a small tea factory like the Norwood Tea Factory to have the most customized experience. Small groups and almost one-to-one touring
  • have a walk in the tea fields, maybe between mansions (ask you hotelier for any suggestion).
  • wear closed shoes, no flip-flop. And it’s not because of the tough condition, it’s because of the presence of leeches. Of course, I did not know that and, typical of me, in literally 40 seconds I had my left foot full of them (hard to get rid of them, by the way)

But the best suggestion here is to take the $2 train that leaves Kandy in the early morning and travels through the tea fields and the steep hills on a slow 4 hours trip to Nuwara Eliya. This was one of my most memorable trips ever.

The scenery is just stunning, changing at every corner, and being the train so slow means you are going to enjoy every single minute. No time to get bored. I added a video at the end of the post to make you dream.

Tea plantations in Sri Lanka

Tea plantations in Sri Lanka

Buy the ticket a day in advance, if you can, especially on weekends.

Pasikuda and Kalkudah beach, the new “old” destinations

Pasikuda and Kalkudah are two beautiful beaches located on the east coast, in the centre-north part of it.

There are no waves there, it’s mostly turquoise calm water, at least in Pasikuda beach, where most of the resorts are. I may add really warm water too, so nice at sunset time.

I have written a more extensive post on this area here. This is a part of Sri Lanka that was very famous in the 70s, however, it was declared off-limits during the civil war. Since 2010 it has seen tourists coming back.

It’s the perfect spot if you want to have a relaxing holiday on the beach with the possibility to have some amazing day trips when you feel a bit bored.

I will talk more in the next section about these 2 amazing attractions, just 2 hours drive from Pasikuda

  • the world heritage site Sigiriya
  • the Minneriya National Park with the elephant safari
The very long Kalkudah beach

The very long Kalkudah beach

Dambulla area, Sigiriya and the elephant safari

If you made it to Sri Lanka then you should organise an elephant safari.

There are a few national parks where elephants can graze freely in the country.

Minneriya National Park

The Minneriya is a great national park, with a wide lake in the centre of it where usually the elephants get together around sunrise and sunset time.

I would personally not suggest a safari in the middle of the day because the animals tend to sleep in the bush at that time of the day, so you will be less likely to sight that many.

I have done a couple of safaris, both around sunset time, and on both occasions, I lost track of the number of elephants I saw.

Keep in mind you will not be alone. Sometimes you may even think there are more jeeps than elephants. But once inside the wide park things get better.

How does it work?

You book a jeep either at one of the agencies in Habarana, or at your hotel, and that’s really it. There is a limited number of 4WD that can enter the park; if you can, book in advance.

There are also some elephant orphanages around as well.

It’s a personal choice if you want to visit them or not. I heard some good and other “less” good stories. This is my take on Pinnawala.

We actually got very close to the elephants

We actually got very close to the elephants

Sigiriya

Sigiriya is the other top attraction in the area, a world heritage site, an impressive monolith with a fortress on top.

You can still see the steps carved into the stone used by the many slaves to bring construction material on top.

And you know what is the most impressive part?

The swimming pool carved right on the peak of the fortress.

Sigiriya is as impressive to visit it as unbelievable to think humans did that over 1500 years ago.

Peak of Sigiriya

Peak of Sigiriya

More information

You can read more about the Dambulla area, Sigiriya and the Elephant Safari in this ad hoc post.

View of Sigirya from the Pidurangala Rock

View of Sigiriya from the Pidurangala Rock

Anuradhapura, the ancient capital

I have already mentioned that Kandy was one of the ancient capitals as well as Anuradhapura and other cities. Colombo has been the capital only for the last 200 years.

What makes Anuradhapura special is the level of conservation and preservation, with a few temples, monuments and sites almost intact.

If you have been to Thailand and you have visited Ayutthaya then you have the full picture.

The area is quite widespread, however, still close enough to rent a bicycle and ride across all of the interesting sites in a couple of days (1 day if you are in a rush)

The alternative is to rent a driver or a tuk-tuk that will happily take you around and give you some guiding too.

If you are thinking to travel north to Jaffna then you should plan a stop-over here. This will make the long trip even more interesting.

Ancient city of Anuradhapura

Ancient city of Anuradhapura

Jaffna and the mysterious north

Why the mysterious north?

Because it has just been re-opened after so many years of civil war and instability. It’s a new part of Sri Lanka to discover, a region that has been improving the own tourism infrastructure only for the last 3-4 years.

The long way to Jaffna

The long way to Jaffna

The train station was reconnected to the network only in 2014. A ticket from Colombo (overnight train) costs between $3 and $10, based on the carriage class.

Yes, there is a scarcity of hotels and you may have a hard time to find one with a pool. And this is the best part of Jaffna, the lack of mass tourism.

You can feel more of an explorer, more of a unique visitor.

The ancient fort is maybe not as impressive as the one in Galle but it has the own character.

I wrote a full guide to Jaffna that you should read if interested to visit this region

The holy pool, Sri Lanka

The holy pool close to Jaffna, Sri Lanka

A Sri Lanka itinerary in 10 days

Creating a 10 days Sri Lanka itinerary can be as easy as writing down a list of 10 locations.

But I will try to be a bit smarter and come up with a plan for a surfer, a beach/arty traveller and history addicted explorer

10 days in Sri Lanka if you are a surfer

The best time for surfing is between May and September on the east coast (Arugam Bay) and October to April on the south coast (around Galle).

The 10 day itinerary below includes both locations however you may experience good waves on both coasts only on the shoulder months

  • Day 1: arrival to Colombo
  • Day 2: trip to Galle
  • Day 3-4: Galle and surfing at Unawatuna Bay (the closest spot to the city), Lazy Left and Lazy Right in Midigana, Weligama, Mirissa in the south of Galle. Or go north to Hikkaduwa beach.
  • Day 5: trip to Arugam Bay
  • Day 6-9 : Arungam Bay for surfing. Elephant Rock is a must, also for the beautiful location.
  • Day 10: trip back to Colombo e departure flight
The man with the bike

The secret fishing village

Relax and explore Sri Lanka in 10 days

This itinerary focuses on some beach time and interesting places to visit, mostly in the centre of Sri Lanka

  • Day 1: arrival to Colombo
  • Day 2: trip to Kandy
  • Day 3: Kandy and visit to the temples and lake
  • Day 4: trip to Pasikuda, beach and relax
  • Day 5-8: beach time and day trip for the elephant safari and Sigiriya
  • Day 9: trip back to Colombo
  • Day 10: Colombo exploration and departure flight

If you have a 2 or 3 spare days I would suggest taking a return train from Kandy to the tea plantations areas.

The beautiful Kandy in the early morning

The beautiful Kandy in the early morning

Appreciate and learn the Sri Lanka culture in 10 days

This itinerary focuses more on a cultural trip including a few historical sites in Sri Lanka

  • Day 1: arrival to Colombo
  • Day 2: overnight train to Jaffna
  • Day 3: Jaffna exploration
  • Day 4: trip to Anuradhapura
  • Day 5: Anuradhapura exploration by bike
  • Day 6: trip to Dambulla/Sigiriya
  • Day 7: Sigiriya visit (as early as you can in the morning) and elephant safari in the late afternoon
  • Day 8: trip to Kandy
  • Day 9: Kandy exploration
  • Day 10: trip back to Colombo and departure flight

If you have 1 or 2 spare days I would suggest extending your stay in Colombo (Day 11/12), maybe relaxing at the Mt Lavinia beach or staying in a hotel in the city centre with a great pool on the rooftop.

The main station in Colombo, great spot for travel photography

The main station in Colombo, a great spot for travel photography

Places to visit in Sri Lanka within one day

If you are in Colombo and you are looking for a place to visit in Sri Lanka within one day then I would definitely go to Galle.

The drive from the capital is around 2 hours so I would suggest an early start.

You can easily spend till mid-afternoon wondering in the Galle Fort and move to a local beach like Unawatuna Bay to relax. On the way back to Colombo I also suggest Hikkaduwa beach.

If someone offers you a day trip from Colombo to Kandy, expect around 7-8 hours just for the driving (3-4 hours one way). That will leave you probably 2-3 hours in Kandy itself, if you are lucky.

I see Kandy more of a weekend destination.

Beaches close to Colombo

I can see two of them that are worth the trip:

  • Mt Lavinia, south of Colombo, quite good considering the proximity to the city (now basically a district of Colombo). The train from the Fort Railway Stations takes 20-30 minutes. It’s actually a nice trip with open doors to the ocean
  • Negombo, north of the city, and literally next door to the airport. The train takes around one hour from the main station of Colombo. Negombo can be also a good place to stay in case you have an early flight in the morning.
Mt Lavinia Beach

Mt Lavinia Beach (the white Mount Lavinia Hotel in the background)

Cool places to stay in Sri Lanka

If you are after a cool place to stay in Sri Lanka I would not hesitate to suggest these hotels. They are just a level above any kind of expectation.

  • Colombo city centre: the Mövenpick Hotel is unbeatable. Rooms with the most lovely view and an incredible rooftop infinity pool which transforms into an amazing cocktail bar at night (still super quiet in the rooms). 

Check the best deal at the Mövenpick

My office view from the Mövenpick Hotel Colombo

My office view from the Mövenpick Hotel Colombo

  • Colombo Mt Lavinia: the Mount Lavinia Hotel will take you back in time. Former Governor’s Palace, over 200 years old mansion with beautiful rooms facing the ocean. Lovely garden with a generous size pool. I loved the breakfast buffet, huge and for every taste

Check availability at Mount Lavinia

The lovely Mount Lavinia pool at sunset

  • Sigiriya: the Water Garden has probably the best location, facing the fortress on the monolith. The units are spectacular, with the own private pool. The breakfast a la carte is a real local experience

Check the price at the Water Garden

Night pool at the Sigiriya Water Garden - What a view

Night pool at the Sigiriya Water Garden – What a view

  • Jaffna: the Jetwing offers probably some of the best value rooms in Sri Lanka and surely the best in Jaffna. The room interior design is inspired to the local traditions and the rooftop bar is just the perfect place to spend the night.

Book the best value in Jaffna

Local interior design at the Jetwing Jaffna

Local interior design at the Jetwing Jaffna

  • Pasikudah: I was lucky enough to experience two amazing stays in Pasikudah.
    • the first time at the Sunrise by Jetwing with the 100 metres swimming pool extending from the check-in area to the beach. Really a unique design. Rooms were absolutely wonderful.
    • the second time at the Amaya Beach, pure luxury, great pool, located on the best part of the beach and such a great value I could not believe at the price.

Check availability at Sunrise     Great value at the Amaya Beach

The beautiful swimming pool at the Sunrise by Jetwing

The beautiful swimming pool at the Sunrise by Jetwing

The Amaya Beach in Pasikudah

The Amaya Beach in Pasikudah

This is not a comprehensive list by any meaning. I really have to dive back in my notes to add a few others. 

If you have any question or you need an idea for an accommodation or a restaurant just add a comment below.

I always reply to my comments and I usually do that within 24 hours 😉

The "Tea Train" from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya

The “Tea Train” from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya


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Stefano Ferro
Photographer
Stefano is a travel and landscape photographer with a background in cycling, movie and lifestyle photography. When in Melbourne, his hometown, you will see him cycling around at sunset or sunrise looking for the best spot for a photo of this beautiful city. It is quite amazing how much photography gear he can pack on his bike :o

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