The aroma of samosas and roti wafts towards you as you listen to the repetitive banging of knives from locals chopping up kottu, the national Singhalese dish. Colorful, vibrant tuk-tuks with floral decorations zoom past you on the street, as locals pile onto large blue buses that drive at racing speeds.
Welcome to Sri Lanka, the land of mossy green hills, coastal surf beaches, and multiple panoramic sunrise spots.
I fell in love with this country the second I stepped off of the plane. I spent most of my time on the southern coastal beaches, surfing, doing yoga, and eating cheap food.
Sri Lanka is relatively cheap to travel in, making it a great, off-the-beaten-path destination for backpackers. The food and transportation cost next to nothing. On the other hand, accommodation will set you back quite a bit.
Sri Lanka is not on the “backpacker’s radar,” but I highly recommend visiting. It’s a place I know I’ll go back to multiple times. Here is the Ultimate Guide to Backpacking in Sri Lanka.
Check to see your visa rules for your specific country here.
You can choose to get an eVisa beforehand or get a visa on arrival for $5 more. An eVisa costs around $35 USD, a visa on arrival costs $40 USD.
Colombo Airport to Colombo: I arrived at 10 p.m., so my only option was to take a 3,000 rupee taxi ride (roughly $17). If you arrive during the day, I believe there is a train and a bus that takes you into the city.
Colombo is a typical Asian city, with masses of tuk-tuks, a hectic market, and an orderly chaos that somehow makes the entire city function.
You can walk around Colombo and see the market, Independence Square, and the seaside. Otherwise, I recommend spending only one or two nights in Colombo and then heading off to see what the country has to offer!
Colombo City Hostel: $13/ night, air conditioning, free breakfast and chill rooftop area to hang out and meet people.
Train to Galle: 3 hours/ less than $2 USD for 2nd or 3rd class/ check out train times here.
This colonial town did not feel like Sri Lanka! I felt like I had stepped into the Twilight Zone; into an eerily quiet European city. I recommend spending the day here and seeing the lighthouse, Dutch Hospital, and going shopping! Otherwise, head east to some beautiful beaches.
Bus from Galle to Ahangama: 10-30 rupees/30 minutes
This is another surfer’s paradise! I recommend taking a surf lesson here. If surfing isn’t your thing, there’s also the SOS Animal Shelter. They house over 700 stray dogs that are sick, were abandoned, or hit by tuk-tuks and are now paralyzed. It’s a wonderful way to give back to the community and spend the day loving and nurturing dogs who need to be pet.
Bus from Ahangama to Weligama: 20 minutes/20-40 rupees
This was one of my favorite spots in Sri Lanka. Spend your days surfing and doing yoga, and your nights sipping Lion beer with other backpackers at the hostel.
Hangtime Hostel: This Australian owned hostel has some of the best Western food in Sri Lanka. The rooms are decorated with driftwood, buoys, and fishermen’s supplies. It’s directly across the street from the ocean, so you don’t have to walk very far to jump right into the water!
I spent a week total in Mirissa. Between surfing, visiting nearby towns, and doing yoga, I found it extremely difficult to leave! I stayed there as a home base and explored neighboring towns during the day that had quieter beaches and easier surf.
Hangover Hostel: $13 a night, air conditioning, hot water, and comfortable beds. They serve delicious burgers for a bit on the more expensive side, but definitely worth the cost!
Read my guide to Mirissa here!
Top Places to Learn Surfing in Sri Lanka:
- Surf’n Lanka in Weligama
- Talalla Retreat in Talalla
Backpackers mainly go to Tissamaharama to visit Yala National Park, which offers some of the best chances at seeing leopards on one of their safaris. I recommend going in the evening, as you’ll have a better chance at seeing leopards and elephants than in the morning, where you’re more likely to see birds.
Public bus from Tissa to Haputale: This is an incredibly long, uncomfortable bus journey. You also have the option of taking a private taxi, which, if split between 4 people, is definitely worth it.
There’s not much to do in this town that was once booming with tourism, but it’s the gateway to Lipton’s Seat.
Lipton’s Seat: This was once a favorite lookout spot from Sir Thomas Lipton. If you can, make it up to Lipton’s Seat for sunrise. You can take a tuk-tuk all the way to the top, which offers spectacular views of the surrounding hills. Make sure you get up there before 10 am to avoid traffic on the road up and beat the afternoon clouds that roll in. Once you’re at the top, enjoy a glass of steaming hot tea along with an incredible view.
Ella is a lovely hillside town in Sri Lanka. I found it to be quite touristy, and found that a lot of the tuk-tuk drivers tend to rip off foreigners. However, it is a very beautiful town, and definitely one you should not miss!
Tomorrow Land Hostel: This hostel has tents set up throughout the house where guests spend the night and is a great place to meet other backpackers.
Ella Rock: I planned this hike very poorly, when we got to the top of Ella Rock we couldn’t see anything because of cloud cover! The hike to Ella Rock is quite strenuous, but worth it (if you have a clear day!)
The locals in the area tend to scam a lot of hikers on this trek. It’s very easy to get lost, and they’ll offer to guide you to the top for a hefty price. I recommend getting a guide from your hotel or hostel to avoid this headache!
Little Adam’s Peak: This is a much, much easier hike than Ella Rock and offers very similar views. Luckily, we went early in the morning and saw spectacular views from the top. It’s around a 45 minute walk to the top of Little Adam’s Peak.
Train from Ella to Kandy: 7 hours/ less than $3 for 2nd or 3rd class (which I highly recommend!). This was one of the most beautiful train rides I have ever been on! If you sit in third class, you have the chance to hang out the door and talk with the locals who love taking selfies with you.
Kandy is another major city in Sri Lanka, surrounded by mountains and tea plantations. It’s a great place to cool down and explore famous Buddhist sites and nearby rainforests.
I recommend spending your day exploring the Temple of the Tooth (where it’s said to house the tooth of Buddha), walk around Kandy Lake, the Botanical Gardens, and Udawatta Kele Sanctuary. If you’re short on time, you can hire a driver for the day for around $40, where they’ll take you to all of the major sights. You can also visit the elephant orphanage, however, I am personally against this as they ride the elephants.
Kandy City Hostel: This is a great place to meet other backpackers and is in proximity to the city center. The beds are comfortable and it’s good value for money.
Adam’s Peak: Unfortunately I missed Adam’s Peak while I was in Sri Lanka. It’s a bit difficult to get to but completely worth it. Once you’re there, you wake up at 2 am to get to the top for sunrise. Avoid going on holidays or the weekends, because it gets so busy that you might not even make it to the top!
Backpackers visit Dambulla to see Sigiriya, an ancient rock fortress. This rock is nearly 220 meters, or 660 feet high, and is a site of historical and archaeological significance. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and provides a wonderful example of ancient urban planning.
This bay has great surf, and the area is known for its lagoons, historical temples, and national parks. It’s a wonderful backpacker’s haven on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka, and the perfect place to cool down and unwind.
Sri Lanka uses the Sri Lankan Rupee.
My favorite way to travel around Sri Lanka was by train! It’s incredibly cheap (if you take 2nd or 3rd class), and they’re typically on time. There are also public buses between cities that are quite cheap. The best way to hop onto the public bus is to flag it down on the street (it will say the beginning and final destination on the front), hop on, and tell the bus driver where you want to get off. There are also private highway buses that cost more from major city to city.
Have anything else to add to this guide? Comment below!