Arrival in Sri Lanka:
Exhausted after our 13 hour flight, we landed at Bandaranaike Airport, Colombo, at 4:30am. We quickly cleared customs, grabbed our bags and were ready to start our adventure in Sri Lanka. We jumped on a bus heading to the central bus station in Colombo and arrived there half an hour later.
If you’re worrying that you can’t find any information on bus routes before arriving in Sri Lanka, there’s really no need to! We felt the same, but found in that, even though the local bus times aren’t really recorded anywhere and bus stops aren’t very well signposted, the locals are always more than happy to help (although saying that, do be aware that some tuk tuk drivers are prone to exaggeration, if they think it’s going to work in their favour!).
Once in Colombo city centre, the first person we asked pointed us in the direction of the bus to Hikkaduwa. The journey took around three hours and cost 130LKR (60p). In our opinion, traveling by bus whenever you can really is the best way to make your money go further in Sri Lanka; for the most part it’s so easy to get from place to place and is crazy cheap!
Hikkaduwa is one of Sri Lanka’s many beachside towns, characterised by long, palm-fringed beaches and lined with bars and restaurants.
As it was our first port of call, we decided to treat ourselves to a beautiful villa called Dancing Mango, which was run by a lovely Australian couple with whom we had a wonderful stay. The villa was set back in the jungle (our only neighbours were the monkeys playing in the trees above us) and was around a ten minute walk from the main strip.
We spent most of our days in Hikka relaxing on the beach, watching the sunsets and trying to get to grips with the time difference and our jet lag! The real highlight of our time there was making an early morning trip to the coral sanctuary, a natural reef that serves as a shelter to Hikka Beach and is home to wild marine turtles and various exotic fish.
We arrived at 7am when the turtles are most active, and spent the next hour or so paddling and fishing for seaweed to feed them with. It was an incredible experience and a reason in itself to stop by Hikka.
In terms of location, if you’re planning to visit the area we recommend staying a bit further south of the centre, ideally somewhere along Narigama Beach where it’s less crowded, but there are still a number of great bars and eateries.
Where to eat:
Salty Swamis: A perfect spot for brunch or lunch, it’s a tad more expensive than some other places, but serves wonderful smoothie bowls, breakfast dishes and coffees. The vibe is laid back, friendly and fun, and so is the service.
Get Fresh: Make sure you grab some of the Sri Lankan food and fresh seafood on offer here; it’s tasty and affordable!
Woodfire Pizza: Does what it says on the tin. We read varying reviews about this place, but if you want a night off the local cuisine, you can’t go wrong with one of their pizzas. Huge, cheesy, delicious.
Where to stay:
Dancing Mango: on the pricier side but well worth it if you’re looking for a treat.
Whispering Palms: This was the only hostel we really heard about whilst in Hikka so we can’t comment on the others, although there are plenty. If you’re on a budget (as we usually are!), Whispering palms seems to be affordable, good value for money and set in a great location.
Less than an hour south of Hikka and 10 minutes south of the famous Galle, sits the beachside town of Unawatuna. Given that Galle is a tourist hotspot in Sri Lanka and it’s prices are suitably inflated, we opted to stay in Unawatuna instead; it’s still touristy, but it’s on the more affordable side and its positioning means that if you want to head into Galle for a day trip, it’s just a short tuk tuk ride away.
Not too far from Unawatuna in the other direction, you can also visit some more secluded beaches and, if you get up early, watch the fisherman spear fishing at sunrise, whilst sitting high up on their poles.
We stayed at Surf City Hostel, which was basic but all we needed. It’s set right on the beach and adjoins the wonderful Black and White restaurant, which serves fantastic fresh seafood and Sri Lankan curries; we ate there on both nights!
We spent the first day lounging at the beach and checking out the available day time activities, which are varied, but centre mostly around diving and snorkeling trips, as Unawatuna is not far from one of Sri Lanka’s world famous coral reefs.
On our second day we ventured into Galle, which cost 400LKR (£2) each way via tuk tuk. Galle is a beautiful colonial town with narrow alleyways, cobbled streets and innumerable restaurants, bars and shops showcasing Sri Lankan teas, arts, crafts and clothing. As before, it’s a bit pricey, but it’s the perfect place to lose yourself exploring, before finishing the day with a cold drink and watching the sunset from one of the many roof-terraced restaurants.
Where to eat:
Black and White Restaurant: Black and White lives up to its name as one of the best restaurants in Unawatuna. The fresh tuna is melt in your mouth good and the ambience is great.
Bedspace: We didn’t actually eat here as we got stuck at B&W, but we were recommended it by numerous people and heard that it serves a variety of high quality Sri Lankan, European and Asian food.
Poonie’s (Galle): This well known eatery offers a cute and colorful respite from the sweltering heat. The potions are quite small, but the brownie is to die for.
Where to stay:
Surf City Hostel: We would definitely recommend staying here if you’re on a budget. It’s by no means luxurious, but if you want affordable, clean accommodation that’s right on the beach, Surf City is for you.
If you’re staying in Galle, try looking for somewhere outside of the Fort to find better value for money.
A 40 minute bus ride south along the main coastal road (150LKR or 75p), you’ll find Mirissa. We had heard before we arrived that Mirissa is somewhat over-commercialised and is quickly becoming spoilt by hotel complexes and hoards of tourists. Whilst there is no doubt that it’s a tourist destination, we really didn’t feel that this detracted from the beauty of it. Like many Sri Lankan beaches, it’s still a mesmerizing culmination of towering palm trees, soft, yellow sand and sparkling water.
We spent two nights in Mirissa, in a great hostel set back about five minutes from the beach.
Our favourite experience here was an impromptu encounter with several turtles, when out snorkeling; we loved it so much, it made it to the top spot in our Pocket Guide!
Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t on our side when we were there, but Mirissa is also famous for its tours, offering sightings of the majestic blue whale.
As to nighttime activity, we came across a great beachfront restaurant called Mirissa Eye. Though perhaps a little rough around the edges at first glance, they served a delicious seafood curry, which was enough for us to share and only cost 600LKR (£3), and the cheapest G&Ts we found in Sri Lanka. There are bigger parties on certain nights at some of the bars, such as Bay Moon, too. However, a torrential downpour early in the evening when we were there, meant that the party didn’t get off to its usual pumping start.
Where to eat:
Mirissa Eye: Cheap, cheerful and a great find. The food was lovely and they even extended happy hour for us (all night long)!
Zephyr: Sits on the pricier end of the spectrum, but known for its array of wonderful dishes, fantastic service and great atmosphere. Head towards Parrot Rock to find it.
World WIFI cafe: A bit tricky to locate but once you’re in, World WIFI cafe has a quirky charm that’s hard to replicate. Stop by for a tasty and reasonably priced breakfast.
Where to stay:
Hostel First: Hostel First is a fab place to base yourself, especially if you’re looking for value for money. It’s geared towards the younger traveler and has a great communal area, with activities on a few nights a week.
Just 30 minutes from Mirissa, Hiriketiya was our final stop on our coastal tour of Sri Lanka before we headed up into the hills. Hiri was hands down our favorite place and everyone we met and spoke to about it agreed. Think beachside town in its infancy; pristine, quiet and still with a desert island charm. Another one for our Pocket Guide!
Where to eat:
The Beach House Bar and Restaurant for a relaxed, ocean front setting (try the wood-fired pizza) or Salt House for something a little more special!
Where to stay:
Hiriketiya Surf Homestay – a perfect palm and beach retreat.
Somewhat reluctantly after a sun soaked week on Sri Lanka’s beautiful coastline, we headed inland to Udawalawe; a two hour taxi ride costing 4,000LKR (£20). You can of course catch the bus for much less, but as it was our last beach day, we were keen to leave as late as possible and maximize time.
Udawalawe’s main draw is it’s proximity to the Udawalawe National Park and its safari tours. We have written about our safari experience and accommodation (Nature View Safari Bungalow) in more detail in our Pocket Guide, but generally we found the accommodation to be really quite basic, but fine for a night. The host was lovely and organized the safari for us, which was great and cost 4,700LKR (£24) each, including the park entrance, jeep hire and driver/guide. We loved the stillness of park at sunrise and watching the elephants playing and grazing together peacefully. Breakfast was included and ready to be devoured on our return!
We didn’t see any of Udawalawe town, as we were only there for one night, but we heard there are a few good eateries and a lovely lake to visit if you have the time.
Straight after breakfast we jumped on a bus to Ella via Wellawaya, which took a total of three hours and cost around 300LKR (£1.50). We were slightly irritated when a group of tuk tuk drivers at Wellawaya lied about the correct place to wait for the bus to Ella and told us it would be at least an hour (every tuk tuk driver will tell you the bus takes twice as long as they really do and/or the journey is much more complicated than it is!). However, thankfully by then we were wise to this sort of thing and asked around to find the bus, which left 2 minutes after we hopped on!
Arriving in Ella, we were pleasantly surprised. Although touristy – don’t expect to find a genuine Sri Lankan town – it has a fun, young vibe and the surrounding landscape (lush green slopes, waterfalls and jagged peaks) is seriously beautiful. We were met by our Air BnB host and escorted on a 10-15 minute walk and up some extremely steep dirt steps to our apartment. Luckily, the view really was worth the climb. It was second to none and easily as good as the view from the top of Little Adam’s Peak (in our opinion). The family also cooked us a lovely breakfast for 500LKR (£2.50) pp.
The next day we visited the Nine Arches Bridge, stopping at The Art Cafe, a cute and quirky place, on the walk up. The bridge is beautiful, but we’d recommend getting the best view by walking across the bridge itself and heading up a little pathway on your left, before you reach the tunnel. Just 30 seconds up the path look back over your shoulder – you can see the whole bridge in its splendor and we didn’t see another person up there!
The following morning we headed up early to climb Little Adam’s Peak. The return journey took us about two hours (including photos and ice creams at the top!) and was a beautiful hike. It is a tourist attraction and therefore quite busy, so if you feel inclined, once you reach the top you can continue onto the next peak, which is far less crowded. However, do be aware that the pathway is tricky, with lots of loose stones, shingle and a steep slope to navigate, so mobility and at least an average level of fitness is required!
One of our favourite experiences in Ella and the whole of Sri Lanka was the cooking class we did at Cafe Crave, which was so brilliant that we made sure we included lots of detail on it in our Pocket Guide. The class and food were fantastic and it really is a perfect way to spend an afternoon, especially if you find yourself at a loss on a rainy day!
Where to eat:
Cafe Chill: Of course Cafe Chill is a very popular spot and for good reason. The vibe is fun and the food is great. Try the Lumprais.
Cafe Crave: If the food is anything like the cooking class, we’d highly recommend paying Crave a visit, where you can also escape the hustle and bustle of the centre!
Raha: Super cheap and yummy eggs samosas for only 60LKR (30p) each, bargain! We grabbed one for breakfast a couple of days in a row.
Where to stay:
We stayed at Sunrise View Ella, which, as above, is a short walk from the centre. It was basic but the bed was comfy, the WiFi was great and the view was amazing.
We did hear from some other travelers that the tuk tuk drivers have a mutual agreement to charge a minimum of 300LKR (£1.50) for any journey, however short. We didn’t need to take any, since we were within walking distance, but we would advise paying a little more if it means you can walk everywhere, as it’ll probably work out cheaper in the long run!
The train ride from Ella to Kandy. This one caused us some angst. We had heard so many wonderful things about it and we were really looking forward to it.
Let us start by saying, some of the views are really stunning. However, the reality was that the journey took 7 hours, was painfully crowded and much of it was spent winding through forest land (which, although beautiful, is not unique to the area).
We were the lucky ones in our carriage, as we managed to bag ‘seats’ sitting with our legs hanging out the door, but many others were forced to stand in isles, with little to no view! As the locals struggle to get on at every stop, you start to feel guilty for how tourism has so completely taken over their daily journeys to and from work.
If we had our time again, we would recommend only doing the most scenic 2 hours on the train (if you are coming from Ella, that’s the two hours after Nuwara Eliya) or booking a seat in first class at any of the central stations, at least a week before departure. No one other than those with a first class ticket can enter that carriage, which means you can explore and move up and down the train as you please, but will always have a seat to go back to! Also, make sure you sit on the left hand side of the train if you are going towards Kandy (right hand side towards Ella), especially after Nuwara Eliya, as this side gets the best view! On the upside, the journey did only cost 240LKR (£1.20).
Exhausted, we arrived in Kandy. We didn’t feel up to much, so took a tuk tuk to our accommodation (Three Three Five Dormitories), walked around the lake and grabbed a quick bite at The Empire Cafe, before heading to bed for an early night and setting off for Habarana the next morning. We regretted not making it to the Temple of the Tooth whilst we were there, so try and pay it a visit if you’re in Kandy and have the time.
Where to stay:
We stayed at Three Three Five Dormitories which was basic but super cheap (you won’t find better for the price!), with lovely hosts, a great communal area upstairs and breakfast included. If you’re wanting to be out late though, bear in mind the door is locked at 11pm!
Where to eat:
Pick up a yummy wrap at The Empire Cafe.
Another three hour but cheap bus ride later, we arrived in Habarana. Habarana is set in the centre of the cultural triangle of Polonnaruwa, Sigirya and Anuradhapura. The triangle is home to six of Sri Lanka’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites and is therefore one of the best places to experience Sri Lanka’s historical significance.
Habarana itself not a particularly touristy place, so it was a nice change. We stayed at Bangalawa Guest House. The host was slightly pushy about tours etc. to begin with, but once he backed off he became a firm favourite. He was happy to answer our many questions, ferry us about and, when one of us lost some possessions, he was lovely and extremely helpful!
We ate at Windy Corner Seafood Restaurant, which was cheap and tasty. Although Habarana is by no means a gourmet town, the food was good and it is probably one of the better eateries. Unfortunately, we ran out of time (and were running low on funds!) by the time we got to Habarana, so we didn’t make it to Polonnaruwa or Sigiriya. However, after some research, we came across Pidurangala, a rock of similar size to Sigiriya, with breathtaking views and a very small entry fee. The experience was wonderful, so we included more detail on it in our Pocket Guide!
Our final night in Sri Lanka we decided to treat ourselves, after hearing about the legendary buffet at Cinnamon Lodge Hotel. It was expensive for Sri Lanka (3,000LKR or £15), but amazing, with every type of cuisine going and a whole room dedicated to desserts!
The next day we took one last five hour bus to Colombo and then hopped on another from the bus station to the airport. Make sure you leave lots of time to get from the centre to the airport, as ours inadvertently took a longer route and ended up taking 90 minutes!
All in all, Sri Lanka really couldn’t have been better – we loved every minute and were very lucky to meet new friends and have so many fantastic experiences (as well great weather!).
Overall, including everything but our flights, we spent around £600 in 2.5 weeks and didn’t scrimp on anything until the very end. While Sri Lanka has not yet reached the touristic heights of Thailand and the like, it feels as though it is on the edge of booming. Because of this, our biggest piece of advice when it comes to visiting, is to make sure you go and, if you can, go now!
Found this helpful or think we missed something? We’d love to hear from you!