Backpacking Sri Lanka:
The Ultimate 2021 Travel Guide

Sri Lanka is a country you instantly fall in love with. The sites, the culture and the people are all unforgettable.

And after travelling the entire country by tuk tuk, we know first hand what is on offer when backpacking Sri Lanka.

Below, you will find information to help you plan every part of a trip to Sri Lanka.

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SECTION 1:

Best places to visit in Sri Lanka

Time to answer the first burning question on your mind ...

"What are the best places to see in Sri Lanka?"

I’ll quickly take you through every place we've visited during our time in Sri Lanka.

Anuradhapura

Anuradhapura Sri Lanka

This is a key cultural zone of Sri Lanka and holds high historical importance in the country. It’s bursting with world heritage sites and significant temples, stupas and much more. You buy a pass that allows you access to all the sites.

It’s around $30 for a day pass, but all the sites are spread out so you will need a bike, or tuk tuk to get from each one. You can negotiate for a driver to take you for the day for around $20.

The thing about the sites is that, there’s no ticket entrance with someone checking your tickets. It’s only if you randomly get stopped will they know if you have a ticket or not. As such, you could take the risk, but if you get caught, I’m not sure what the penalty is.

You can also visit here without seeing the “typical sites” that cost money. That’s what Brad and I did and we still saw a lot.

Full guide: Best places to visit in Anuradhapura

Trincomalee

Trincomalee Sri Lanka

The East coast of Sri Lanka is home to the beautiful beaches of Trincomalee. If you’re looking for some great accommodation, sun, sea and good food and drink, then this is the spot for you.

It’s also famous for its snorkelling opportunities. You have nearby Pigeon Island which offers affordable chances to learn how to dive and spot whales.

Full guide: Best places to visit in Trincomalee

Sigiriya

Sigirya Sri Lanka

This is by far one of the best places to visit when backpacking in Sri Lanka. Sigiriya is home to the famous world heritage sight of Lion's Rock. There’s a $30 entrance fee which is quite steep, but totally worth it in my opinion.

Just head out early in the morning in order to beat the crowds. There are other climbs available as well, and you can partake in a safari in the area too.

You can also take a quite trip to Dambulla in order to see the cave temples.

Full guide: Best things to do in Sigiriya

Kandy

Kandy is the starting spot for the “hill country” experience of Sri Lanka. It’s home to some beautiful sites including the Royal Botanical Gardens and the Big White Buddha.

You’’ also find the Temple of the Tooth, which supposedly houses Buddha’s tooth.

It’s from Kandy where you can take the famous “Kandy to Ella train ride”, supposedly one of the most beautiful journeys in the world.

Full guide: Best places to visit in Kandy

Nuwara Eliya

Nuwara Eliya Sri Lanka

Once you start heading into Little England, you’ll be greeted by beautiful green surroundings, amazing tea plantations and cold weather. There are lots of incredible places to visit in Nuwara Eliya.

Including visiting waterfalls, going boating and even playing golf. You can hike World’s End from here and head to Adam’s peak (the highest peak in Sri Lanka), depending on the season.

Full guide: Best things to do in Nuwara Eliya

Ella

Ella Sri Lanka

This is the most popular spot in Sri Lanka for backpackers, and it’s no surprise why. It’s beautiful, cooler and it’s got some fabulous sites. Including Little Adams Peak, Ella Rock and an assortment of waterfalls. It’s got a great atmosphere and lots of bars, pubs and coffee shops.

Full guide: Best things to do in Ella

Arugam Bay

Arugam Bay Sri Lanka

Looking to get your surf on? Then head to one of the world’s most famous surf spots. It’s so good, that a number of Red Bull surfing competitions are held here as well.

Whether you’re a pro, or you just want to learn, there will be waves for you. Due to its popularity, it’s also a good backpacker town with lots of pubs, clubs and chances to party.

But don't worry, there are plenty of other fun things to do in Arugam Bay besides surfing. Such as heading on a tuk-tuk safari to spot some elephants.

Full guide: Best things to do in Arugam Bay

Mirissa

Mirissa Sri Lanka

Mirissa is famous for its fabulous beaches, surfing and whale watching opportunities. It’s a great spot to relax, party and surf. It’s a great “holiday” destination in Sri Lanka.

In fact, if you’ve only got a week to spend in Sri Lanka, then it’s not a bad place to base yourself. From here, you can go on day trips to a couple of national parks and also visit Unawatuna.

Full guide: Best things to do in Mirissa

Unawatuna

Unawatuna Sri Lanka

This is, without a doubt, one of my favourite beach spots in Sri Lanka.

There are so many incredible places to visit in Unawatuna. Including, plenty of picturesque beaches and opportunities to go snorkelling.

You’re also only 20 minutes from the Dutch fort in Galle. If you want to surf, the beginner and moderate waves here are also brilliant.

In general, Unawatuna is a hugely popular holiday spot.

Full guide: Best things to do in Unawatuna

Wilpattu

Wilpattu Sri Lanka

Wilpattu is most famous for its national park. It has a high concentration of leopards, so lots of people head here to partake in a Wilpattu safari experience in the hope of seeing leopards. You also get the chance to see sloth bears, elephants and much more.

The dry season is a good time to visit. You can get here via bus, taxi or tuk-tuk. If you want, you can also stay in nearby Anuradhapura and get a tuk tuk or organised tour to the safari park.

Read More: Our Wilpattu National Park Safari

Mullaitivu

This is located in the north of Sri Lanka and we wanted to visit here to find out about the war and history of Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, it doesn’t provide any information or insight.

Also, the area was heavily affected by a tsunami in 2004 which killed 30,000 people.

Nonetheless, the drive here is phenomenal! Plus we had great fun in the evening watching (what seemed like) the whole town coming to the beach to bring in the catch.

Full guide: Best things to do in Mullaitivu
SECTION 2:

Best Things to do in Sri Lanka

There are literally hundreds of fantastic things to do in Sri Lanka!

The hardest part of your trip will be deciding which ones you most want to do and trying to cram as many things into your schedule.

Well, here's a quick rundown of our favourite activities from backpacking Sri Lanka.

1. Surfing

surfing in Sri Lanka

Bradley made the most of the trip to try and hone his surfing skills. Unfortunately, we just missed the main surf season in Arugam Bay, but still found some beginner waves.

However, we had better luck in Mirissa and Unawatuna, both of which offer great waves from October onwards! It’s also incredibly cheap to learn to surf in these areas.

Learn more: 17 Best Surf Spots in Sri Lanka

2. Driving A Tuk Tuk

Without a doubt, the best part about backpacking Sri Lanka was the freedom offered by driving our own tuk tuk.

It was crazy fun and actually felt safer than any other mode of transport. The locals loved it and we got to experience so much more than we would have via bus or train.

Plus, how many people get to say they’ve driven their own tuk tuk around an entire country?

Learn more: How to Rent & Drive a Tuk Tuk in Sri Lanka

3. Climbing Lion’s Rock

Sigiriya Lions Rock

Lion’s Rock is located in Sigiriya and is a fantastic experience. The views from up there are brilliant, as is the historical significance of the place. We recommend going super early to be the first ones up there, otherwise it gets really busy and very warm.

Learn more: Visiting Sigiriya Lion Rock

4. Visiting The Dog Care Clinic In Unawatuna

Dog Care Clinic Sri Lanka

This was a sad but important experience for us when backpacking around Sri Lanka.

I love dogs and, the one thing that was really upsetting is the amount of dogs that are abandoned.

We did our best to help by feeding the ones we found and giving them some love and attention.

But the dog population is more than the human population so there isn’t much you can do.

However, the Dog Care Clinic in Unawatuna is one great place really making a difference. Anyone can go visit the dogs and donate.

Learn more: Visiting the Dog Care Clinic in Unawatuna

5. Going On safari

safari in Sri Lanka

Our safari with Big Game Camp was certainly one of the highlights of our trip. We had the chance to dine under the stars, stay in a luxury tent and head out on a half day safari.

Here, we got to see elephants, sloth bears, spotted deer and much more. It was truly a wonderful experience and is definitely one of the best safaris in Sri Lanka.

Learn more: Safaris in Sri Lanka: Everything You Need to Know

6. Visiting The Nine Arch Bridge In Ella

Nine Arch Bridge Ella

As a result of the influence the British had in Sri Lanka, the Nine Arch Bridge is part of the railway system they helped build.

It’s truly beautiful and I think part of that is to do with it’s stunning surroundings. Thankfully it’s not been “westernised” yet and it’s a lovely place to visit.

If you want to get your pictures without anyone in them, then head up in the morning at sunrise. Having a tuk-tuk makes this possible, or instead, you can hire a driver back in Ella.

Learn more: Visiting the Nine Arch Bridge in Ella

7. Discovering Beautiful Waterfalls

waterfalls in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is home to some of the best waterfalls we have ever seen. And after visiting most of Asia, we have seen a LOT!

In particular, the hillier regions of the country are the best places to spot waterfalls. Many of which you can swim in or stand under the falls.

Some, you can even sit in pool at the top off! Crazy right ...

Learn more: Best waterfalls in Nuwara Eliya

Find more things to do

SECTION 3:

Planning a Sri Lanka Itinerary

“How long should you spend in Sri Lanka?”

Ideally, as long as possible!

Our 3 week Sri Lanka itinerary is perfect for seeing many of the best places listed above.

In case you are there for longer of shorter, here's a look at a range of Sri Lanka travel routes, ranging from one to four weeks.

4 Week Sri Lanka Itinerary Ideas

If you’ve got around 4 weeks in Sri Lanka, like we did, then I don’t recommend you add in too many places.

Rather, I suggest that you head around the three week Sri Lanka itinerary a little slower. It gives you a chance to enjoy it more and spend an extra day in your favourite places.

Or, if you really want to add in an extra destination, then 4 weeks in Sri Lanka would allow you to head up to Jaffna too and explore the north of the country.

So, it would look something like this:

Colombo> Wilpattu> Anuradhapura> Jaffna> Trincomalee> Sigiriya> Kandy> Nuwara Eliya> Ella> Arugam Bay> Mirissa> Unawatuna> Colombo

Remember if you want to try a different safari experience other than Wilpattu you’ve got lots of choices including Udawalawe National Park near Mirissa area, and Yala National Park near Arugam Bay.

3 Week Backpacking Sri Lanka Itinerary

I recommend checking out the detailed 3 week Sri Lanka itinerary post we wrote. It gives you an in-depth overview of how to make the most of your time in the country in 21 days.

But quickly, the three week Sri Lanka backpacking route looks like this:

Colombo> Wilpattu> Anuradhapura> Trincomalee> Sigiriya> Kandy> Nuwara Eliya> Ella> Arugam Bay> Mirissa> Unawatuna> Colombo

Sri Lanka 3 week itinerary

2 Week Sri Lanka Itinerary Ideas

If you've only got two weeks in Sri Lanka, then it’s best to focus on only one or two regions of the country, rather than trying to cover it all. So my suggested two week Sri Lanka travel route would be either:

Colombo> Kandy> Nuwara Eliya> Ella> Mirissa> Unawatuna> Colombo

two week backpacking sri lanka itinerary first option

Or ...

Colombo> Sigiriya> Trincomalee> Arugam Bay> Mirissa> Unawatuna> Colombo

2 week sri lanka route second option

1 Week Sri Lanka Itinerary Ideas

If you’ve only got a week in Sri Lanka (you’re going to want to return … trust me!), then you need to sick to one basic area. Here are a few of my best suggestions for a 1 week Sri Lankan route.

Hill Country With Some Coast

Colombo> Kandy> Nuwara Eliya> Ella> Unawatuna> Colombo

1 week in sri lanka itinerary hill country with some coast

Beaches

Colombo> Unawatuna> Mirissa> Colombo

one week sri lanka route beaches

East Coast Experience (+ Hill Country)

Colombo> Sigiriya> Trincomalee> Kandy> Colombo

sri lanka 1 week route itinery east coast and hill country

Cultural Triangle

If you’re looking for a Sri Lanka route that covers the world heritage sites and historic places, then this a good route to take.

Colombo> Anuradhapura> Sigiriya> Dambulla> Colombo

Regardless of which Sri Lanka backpacking itinerary you opt for, you’re going to experience some amazing things and you’ll want to return as soon as possible.

1 week sri lanka intinerary cultural delights
SECTION 4:

Getting to Sri Lanka

The main way of getting into Sri Lanka is via plane.

Their main airport, in Colombo, offers international flights to and from dozens of countries worldwide.

Once upon a time, you could catch a boat to Sri Lanka from India, but not any more.

Here's some more info on how to get to Sri Lanka.

Useful tools for booking flights

If, like us, you are flying from the UK to Sri Lanka, you can purchase direct flights with Sri Lankan Airways.

However, it’s also very easy to get a connecting flight (which is what Brad and I did). And this can work out cheaper most of the time.

Flights to Sri Lanka operate from all around the world. I recommend using SkyScanner to get the best prices.

You can set up Price Alerts in order to stay up to date with when flights are cheaper.

When is the cheapest time to fly to Sri Lanka?

It will be more expensive to fly during peak season, which is from June to August. We flew in September and the flights were quite reasonable.

Flights from the UK seem to range from £250 - £500. It all depends on when you visit and whether you’re booking one way or return.

SECTION 5:

Getting around Sri Lanka

As it's a relatively small country, getting around Sri Lanka is quite straightforward.

The roads are not always the best, but there are a number of public transport options.

Your choices include private transfers, buses, trains and even tuk tuks.

Which was our choice, and my top recommendation! Here's more details ...

#1 tool for transfers

Tuk-Tuk

getting around by tuk tuk

You now have the option to drive your very own tuk tuk around the country.

We decided to do this because it would allow us the freedom to create our own route, not have to worry about trains or buses, go off the beaten track and get to interact with the locals.

For a 28 day rental, our tuk tuk cost us $18 dollars a day. This included insurance, a driving lesson and spare parts etc. We hired from TukTukRental, as they are a social enterprise and offered full insurance.

They don’t own any of the tuk tuks they rent, they belong to the tuk tuk drivers, so half of what you pay goes to the tuk tuk driver.

If you're interested, you can save money using our exclusive TukTuk Rental discount code.

Bus

The country is filled with bus routes, including both local public transport and tourist options.

It’s hard to get information of bus timings online, but you can simply ask your hostel or hotel.

Alternatively, check bus times at stations when you get there and book your departure bus there and then. Generally speaking, buses in Sri Lanka are old, slow, cheap and don’t have aircon.

Trains

train in Sri Lanka

Due to the British influence in Sri Lanka, they have a very well connected train system that will take you all throughout the country.

Train travel is super cheap, especially if you travel on the lowest class.

You won’t need to prebook tickets, unless you’re taking the famous “Kandy to Ella” scenic train ride. This route tends to fill up quickly due to its popularity. So be sure to book in advance.

Taxi / personal transfer

Sri Lanka has its own version of Uber called PickMe. You can arrange drivers to take you throughout the country at quite reasonable prices.

In Colombo, you can make use of Uber (which is what we did all the time), and you can take the Uber to any destination in the country.

Again, for reasonable prices, but you will need to start your journey in Colombo as this is where Uber is based.

Fly

You can actually fly within Sri Lanka with Sri Lanka Airways. However, it’s certainly not cheap and there aren't many airports to choose from.

There are a few that can connect you around if you’ve only got a short period of time in the country. Airports within Sri Lanka include:

  • Jaffna (North)
  • Hambantota (South)
  • China Bay Airport (Trincomalee)
  • Hingurakgoda Airport (Miniyerra)
  • Koggala Airport (Galle)
  • Sigiriya Airport
  • Batticaloa Airport
  • Anuradhapura Airport

Other useful tools here

SECTION 6:

Where to stay in Sri Lanka

As one of the world's most up and coming backpacking destinations, there's plenty of great accommodation in Sri Lank to choose from.

In fact, everywhere you go there are signs of new hotels, hostels and homestays being built.

Below I'll take you through how to find the best places to stay based on your budget, and where best to book.

Best Property BOOKING TOOLS

For almost all of our nights in Sri Lanka, we made our bookings through Booking.com.

We use them for the majority of our bookings all around the world. Simply because they have the biggest range of properties, including hotels, hostels and homestays. As well as having the best prices.

We also tend to check out Agoda before making a final booking. This is because they offer some great last minute deals, as well as exclusive offers based on your previous stays. These often work out cheaper than Booking.com which is when we decide to book with them.

HostelWorld is the best bet if you are staying exclusively in hostels.

For inspiration, here are some roundup guides that we put together:

SECTION 7:

What to pack for Sri Lanka

To help make the most of your stay, here's a look at the top things to pack for Sri Lanka for both men and women.

Including clothes, gadgets and other useful travel gear.

For a more detailed rundown, check out my in-depth Sri Lanka packing list.

Here are some essential items I recommend you pack for Sri Lanka

Backpack
Osprey would have to be my top recommendation
Check prices
Daypack
Ideally waterproof!
Check prices
Sun lotion
It gets hot out there!
Check prices
Deet
To keep away those pesky mosquitos
Check prices
Shawl
For covering up at religious sites
Check prices
International travel adaptor
A must-have for any country
Check prices
Decent camera
For making the most of the amazing things you see
Check prices
Flip flops
I recommend Reef, as they are comfy over long walks
Check prices
SECTION 8:

The cost of backpacking Sri Lanka

Generally speaking, Sri Lanka is well suited to backpackers on a budget.

But with incredible beachside villas and some of the world's best safaris, you can spend more if it's in your budget.

Here's a look at how much to budget for Sri Lanka for different types of traveller.

You could easily get by on $50 per day for two (less if you’re really strict).

Bradley and I stuck to a budget of around $28-30 each day, our costs were a little higher than usual because we decided to rent a tuk tuk to get around the country.

But other than that, we stayed in rooms that always had air conditioning and we ate at cheap to mid-range restaurants every day.

This budget also included drinks as we enjoyed cocktails on occasion as well.

Budget For Food

Food in Sri Lanka is both delicious and cheap.You could spend anything from $1 to $10 depending on what you want.

If you go western food, then naturally it’s going to be a bit more expensive. But you will be eating in a VERY nice place if you’re on the higher end of the budget.

Even the TGI Friday’s in Sri Lanka is ridiculously cheap. Perfect for us as we hunt these out everywhere we go!

It’s a good way to judge the cost of food if you look at the prices of an American chain like TGI Friday’s and The Hard Rock Cafe!

Budget For Travel

If you are sticking to bus and train travel, then it will only cost you a couple of dollars per trip. Even first class isn’t overly expensive.

Your travel costs will mount up if you’re using taxis to get from place to place, or domestic flights.

Tuk tuks in cities are cheap. The general rule is take the price the driver has quoted you and cut it by 25% to 50%. Or, use Uber to get an accurate idea of what you should be paying.

Budget For Alcohol

Alcohol isn’t that cheap in Sri Lanka, due to the fact it’s a strongly Buddhist country and the government taxes alcohol a lot to try and deter people from drinking.

It’s actually illegal for women to purchase alcohol from an off licence. I’m not sure that applies to tourist women as I managed to buy alcohol whilst with Brad.

Alcohol is similar to prices in the UK. If you’re buying from an off licence, then the cheapest spirit is their own called Arrack

You can also get cheap versions of vodka, gin and rum. It’s around $8-9 for a big bottle. Wine is super expensive and you won’t get it cheap anywhere.

Happy hours are popular in areas like Ella, Arugam Bay and Mirissa and you can get great deals on alcohol.

Some cocktails come in at $1.75 a drink, and they’re strong! So, you can find ways to party and get drunk if you really want to. They also have their own beer, which is cheap: it’s called Lion Beer.

If you’re coming from the UK, you can bring 1 litre of alcohol in with you. So if you want you could bring some wine or spirits into the country to save on cash.

But obviously you’ll be carrying it around with you, unless you drink it really quick!

SECTION 9:

Best time to visit Sri Lanka

Depending on what you wish to do there, the best time for you visiting Sri Lanka might vary compared to someone else.

The main thing to be aware of is that there are two monsoon seasons that run throughout the country.

If you plan your route carefully, then you can avoid these completely and enjoy the nice weather.

Here's how to choose when to visit Sri Lanka ...

Depending on what you wish to do there, the best time for you backpacking Sri Lanka might vary compared to someone else.

Regardless, you need to be aware that there are two monsoon seasons that run throughout the country.

If you want to visit the West and South coasts plus the hill country (Ella/Nuwara Eliya), then you should head the some time around December to March.

Or, if you’re wanting to check out the East coast, the best weather is from May to September.

Sri Lanka in September is almost off peak for one-side of the country, but starting to peak for the other side. So, if you want to head everywhere, go between September and the start of October.

That’s what Bradley and I did and with our 4 weeks in Sri Lanka and we managed to avoid monsoons (give or take 1 or 2 days) and catch the sun!

People often ask what Sri Lanka is like in August. Well, it’s busy around the Arugam Bay area because it’s peak season there.

So, if you do visit then, be sure to take a trip to Yala National Park as it’s perfect that time of year.

SECTION 10:

Sri Lanka travel tips

Here's a look at everything else you need to know in order to plan an amazing Sri Lanka trip.

Including visas, when to visit, and how religion affects what you should wear and act.

Staying safe

Sri Lanka is safe

Generally speaking, Sri Lanka is a relatively safe country. 

However, you should still take all the same precautions you would traveling anywhere, like not going out too late on your own and always keeping an eye out for pickpockets. 

With regards to your health, don’t drink the tap water, it can make you very ill. And if you’re not used to spicy food, then start off with little spice to let your stomach get used to it. 

Visas

Unless you are from the Maldives, Seychelles or Singapore, you will need a visa for Sri Lanka. You can get your visa very easily via an online process as its an electronic visa.

It costs $35 for all countries, apart from the SAARC countries for which it costs $20. This visa lasts 30 days and you can extend in Colombo for up to six months more once you arrive.

The cost Sri Lankan visa extension fees vary. Some countries are significantly cheaper than others, but you can find your country and price on this list here.

Currency

They use the Sri Lankan Rupee (LKR). It’s a closed currency, so you can only buy it when you land in Sri Lanka.

Language

Sinhalese and Tamil are the two official languages of Sri Lanka. You'll find that almost everyone speaks English as well.

Power sockets

You have two main varieties: Plug Type D and plug Type G. If you’re from the UK, then this means you’ll find standard UK plugs in most places. Alternatively, just pick up a universal adaptor, like this one, before you travel.

History

Sri Lanka war history

Up until 1972, Sri Lanka was under heavy British influence, and you’ll see remnants of this across the country (such as the tea plantations). 

Sri Lanka has only recently come out of a civil war that lasted from 1983 till 2009, The 26-year civil war was fought between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the Tamil Tigers. 

Sri Lanka used to be known as Ceylon, which is why you’ll see the word “Ceylon” everywhere. There is very little information about the war to be found in museums, but if you ask locals, then many will share their stories with you. 

Just be courteous as the wounds of the war are still very fresh, especially for families living in the Northeast of the country.

Vaccines

Before backpacking Sri Lanka, it’s recommended that you have protection for Rabies, Japanese Encephalitis, Typhoid & Hepatitis A. For up to date info, check with your nation's health bureau. If you’re from the UK, then use this resource.

ATMs 

These are available all over the country, and the Bank Of Ceylon and People’s Bank do not charge for withdrawals. There are lots of other banks that will charge, but these are two of the biggest banks. So you can find at least one of these ATMs almost everywhere.

Religion

There are a variety of religions in Sri Lanka. The mains ones being Buddhists (70%), Hindu (12%), Muslim (7%) and Christian (7%).

Dress code

how to dress Sri Lanka

Sri Lankans are quite laid back and you won’t be offending anyone by showing your shoulders or knees. As long as you aren’t doing so in a temple or religious place.

If you are visiting Arugam Bay, however, you can’t wear a bikini on the street. And it’s expected that you cover up as it’s a highly Muslim area.

Overall though, you mostly need light skirts, dresses, tops and shorts. If you head up into the hill country (Kandy, Ella, Nuwara Eliya), I’d have a jacket packed too.

Sim cards

There are three main phone companies in Sri Lanka: Dialog, Airtel and Mobitel. The largest is Dialog and it offers the best coverage all over the country. 

It’s the sim we used and it’s super easy to set up. Head into any phone shop and they will get you sorted. All you’ll need to take with you is a passport. 

Data is super cheap and you can top it up by buying vouchers from supermarkets all across the country. Buy your sim card ahead of time with Klook!

Drone laws

Drones are now legal in Sri Lanka, after being in a semi-banned state for many years. However, you will need to obey some pretty standard rules, regarding how close you can fly to other people and not using them at pre-marked locations. For more information, check out this guide.