Sri Lanka Road Trip Guide – Perfect Two Week Introduction to this Island Gem
A Sri Lanka road trip allows you to really immerse yourself into the culture and see the depths of this remarkable island nation, known for its high quality tea and abundance of gemstones. In this article, I will share with you the route and details of a two week Sri Lanka road trip I did in February 2022. If you’ve never been to Sri Lanka before, this is the perfect itinerary as it includes some of the highlights of the country, as well as some lesser known scenic areas.
Why Visit Sri Lanka?
There are many reasons one would want to visit Sri Lanka. Here are just a few:
- Tropical Climate – Beautiful beaches with pristine coastline, palm trees swaying in the wind and ocean views of turquoise water as far as you can see.
- Food – Sri Lanka is blessed with a distinctive cuisine flavored with exotic spices. Famed curry dishes with fragrant lentils, chicken, vegetables or fish. Don’t miss the Hoppers.
- Wildlife – This island nation has 26 national parks and two marine parks. The most well known is Yala, which has the highest density of leopards in the world. The country is also home to hundreds of bird species, crocodiles and other reptiles, various species of sea turtle, whales, dolphins, and of course, herds of elephants and water buffalo.
- Landscape – Sri Lanka’s abundance of flora and fauna gives way to nature trails, misty mountains rise into the clouds, hillsides are terraced with rice patties or blanketed by tea fields.
- Waterfalls – You’ll never get board chasing the hundreds of waterfalls across the country, many can be seen from the road, others require a short to long hike.
- Culture – Ancient cities, relics and religious monuments showcase early Sri Lanka in cities like Kandy, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. There are also many temples and pagodas to explore throughout the country.
While the history of Sri Lanka is intertwined with its neighbor to the north (India) and that of colonialism, the Sri Lankan people are fearlessly independent with a strong identity all their own. The people are warm and giving, and if you visit, you’ll feel right at home.
Sri Lanka Road Trip Logistics
If you wish to rent a car, scooter, or even a Tuk Tuk to road trip around Sri Lanka, you will need to get a special permit. Apparently they are pretty easy to obtain and don’t take long to get. Sri Lanka does not recognize foreign or even International drivers licenses. That said, many foreigners will be intimidated by the Asian driving methods, or, by the fact that Sri Lankans drive on the left hand side of the road. The most preferred way to do a Sri Lanka road trip is by hiring a driver and/or guide, which is what we did on this trip (except for a short term scooter rental discussed below).
Here are some tips for your Sri Lanka road trip.
- Driver/Tour Operator – We hired Lanka Excursions for a two week road trip around the south central part of Sri Lanka. Nuwan and his team at Lanka Excursions are absolutely the best, I highly recommend them. They have per-organized tours, or they can customize something base on your group and interests.
- Renting a Scooter or Tuk Tuk – There are many places renting scooters or Tuk Tuk’s, and they don’t care if you have a local driving permit, but the police will. After our two week tour of Sri Lanka, we visited some other areas on our own and rented a scooter, unaware of the required driving permit. We were pulled over by the police and questioned by an officer who did not speak very good English. Thankfully, we had the business card of the scooter rental owner and the policeman let us go after speaking with them.
- Tips for renting a scooter without a Sri Lankan driving permit – If you are in a highly touristic area like Unawatuna, the police are more lenient with foreigners who do not have a local driving permit. Just make sure you have the scooter documents accessible (insurance and registration), your driver’s license, and, the business card of the rental shop in case you get pulled over. From my experience, they tend to pull people over early in the morning and early in the evening. If the police continue to give you trouble for not having a local driving permit, have at least 2000 Rupee to give to the officer.
- Cost for renting a Scooter or Tuk Tuk – If you wish to rent a scooter on your own, it’s about 1500-2500 Ruppes ($7-$12/day) plus fuel. A Tuk Tuk will run you about $25/day plus fuel.
- Cost to hire a Tuk Tuk Driver – Hiring a Tuk Tuk driver is very affordable. A short trip 5-10 minutes might only be 200-300 Ruppee ($1-$1.5). A longer trip, 20-30 minutes, might run 800-1000 Ruppee ($4-$5).
- Fuel in Sri Lanka – During my visit, and at the time of writing this, Sri Lanka is in the middle of a fuel crisis. The price of fuel was around 280 Ruppee per liter, and the lines to get fuel, were quite long, so keep this in mind if you rent a scooter or Tuk Tuk, as well as when negotiating a rate for a driver.
- Sri Lanka Road Trip Duration – This trip outlined, and illustrated above in the map, is about 625 miles in all (or 1000km), excluding side excursions. This is about 23 hours worth of driving, depending on time of day and traffic.
Sri Lanka Road Trip Day 1-3
You will likely fly into the capital city of Colombo, so it’s worth spending a few days there before exploring to rest of the country. Plus, you may want to rest a bit from the long journey before beginning your road trip.
Where to stay in Colombo
- Galle Face – This is a wonderful 4-star Colonial hotel located right on the waters edge of Colombo. This is a place rich in history with a very cool vibe. Rooms overlooking the water, several restaurant and bar options, incredible views, swimming pool and great service. I highly recommend the Galle Face.
- Kingsubury – This 5-Star hotel has 229 rooms that are expertly designed with luxury in mind. They have a host of amenities and dining options with heavenly Frette linen bedding. The standard rooms are a bit small, but nicely appointed. The hotel has easy access to shopping, entertainment and the business district.
Things to do in Colombo
Both of the hotels listed above are perfectly situated to explore Colombo on foot, or a short Tuk Tuk ride. They are located about 30 minutes south of the airport. A cab or Uber ride will cost about 2000-3000 Rupee ($10-$15). Both of the hotels are close to one another in-between the Galle Face Green, the World Trade Center and the Dutch Hospital Precinct, as well as the soon-to-be developed Port City project. Port City is an impressive development that will bring new hotels, restaurants and recreational opportunities. This new development will really put Colombo on the world stage and will entice more people to spend time in the city, rather than just using it as a jumping off point to explore the rest of the country.
- Another great way to see Colombo is by taking a double-decker tour bus with the folks from Colombo City Tours. This sightseeing tour offers a glimpse into Sri Lanka’s new and old parts of the city.
- For a bird’s eye view of the city, don’t miss a trip up the Lotus Tower. At 356 meters, this tower is the tallest tower in South Asia, 11th tallest in all of Asia and 19th tallest in the world. It has become the most iconic structure in the city.
- Another really iconic building in Colombo is the Red Mosque. While we were there Covid restrictions where still in place and so we could not enter, but even from outside this is a very impressive structure.
- If you’re in Colombo on a Saturday, don’t miss going to Galle Face Green for the evening festivities and night safari. Lots of vendors, music and entertainment.
- If you’re into retail therapy, the Galle Face Mall is right across the street from the Galle Face Hotel, it’s the largest mall in Colombo and they have a wonderful Foot Rub spa if you need to relax after all of your walking.
Sri Lanka Road Trip from Colombo to Habarana for Safari and Sigiriya – Days 4-5
Distance: 125 miles or 200km – Drive Time: 4 hours
The next couple of days take you from Colombo to Habarana. Habarana is the jumping off point for some of Sri Lanka’s national parks to go on Safari, the ancient city of Auradhapura and the famed Sigiriya Rock Fortress, the most popular attraction in the country.
With limited time, we only visited one of the national parks, Minneriya, which is best known for its large herds of Elephants. Minneriya National Park is situated around a reservoir by the same name and is located in the south central part of the island. This park comprises grasslands, thorny scrubs and many species of trees. In additional to the herds of elephants, deer, wild boar, water buffalo and jackals can also be found.
Sigirya, which is one of 8 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Sri Lanka is consider the 8th wonder of the world. Located in a rural part of the country, Sigiriya was built around the 3rd century B.C. and was used as a monastery for 800 years. By the fifth century Sigiriua became a royal palace.
This national monument is essentially broken up into two parts, the massive royal gardens at the base, and the royal palace at the top of the monolithic rock. In order to reach the top, it requires a semi arduous hike up some 1200 plus steps, which will take you 45 minutes to an hour to climb. It’s best to do it early in the morning to avoid the crowds and the heat of the day. Sigiriya is utterly impressive and while it can get busy with tourists, it’s certainly worth a visit. This was one of the top highlights on the entire trip for me.
- While in Habarana we stayed at the Cinnamon Lodge. The grounds, pool and food are pretty good, but the accommodations are are in desperate need of renovation.
- A better choice would be Aliya Resort and Spa – while I did not stay here, we did have lunch and a spa treatment and toured the grounds, this place looks really nice!
Sri Lanka Road Trip from Habarana to the ancient city of Anuradhapura – Day 5-6
Distance: 40 miles or 65km – Drive Time: 1 hour
Anuradhapura is one of the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka, famous for its well-preserved ruins of an ancient Sinhala civilization.
The ruins of Anuradhapura are one of South Asia’s most evocative sites. The sprawling complex contains a rich collection of archaeological and architectural wonders: enormous dagobas (brick stupas), ancient pools and crumbling temples, built during Anuradhapura’s thousand years of rule over Sri Lanka. Today, several of the sites remain in use as holy places and temples; frequent ceremonies give Anuradhapura a vibrancy that’s a sharp contrast to the museum-like ambience at Polonnaruwa.
Anurandhapura to Matale – Distance: 70 miles or 113km – Drive Time: 2.5 hours
Knuckles Mountain Range
While in this area we also explored Pitawala Pthana (aka the Mini Worlds End) – this is an area full of Grasslands that can only be found in Sri Lanka. This is a gateway to the Knuckles Mountain Range, which visitors flock to for the amazing hikes and views. This region is rich in biodiversity, with unique and endangered flora and fauna. The breathtaking panoramic views with spectacular scenery is really something to behold. At the “mini worlds end” is a massive sheer cliff, where those who brave sit on the edge, photographing the experience.
The village of Manigala is also located within the Knuckles Mountain Range, but is about a 30 minute drive down Illukumbura road. Manigala is known to be a hiker’s haven and is also popular for glamping and photographing the incredible rice terraces.
Our last stop of the day we visited the Sera Ella waterfall, which is situated within the Pitawala village. This waterfall requires a short, but steep hike to reach. This waterfall flows year-round, but is heaviest during the monsoon season between November and March. The waterfall gets its name from the species of fish that lives in its waters, locally known as ‘Sera’.
- We stayed in Matale at the Grand Mountain Hotel. This is a lovely property with lots of amenities and great food.
- We also visited Aliya Resort and Spa for a foot massage after our hike, while we did not stay here, it looks like an amazing property worth checking out if you want to stay in the area.
Sri Lanka Road Trip from Matale to Kandy – Days 7-8
Distance: 15 miles or 26km – Drive Time: 40 Minutes
Kandy is Sri Lanka’s second largest city and is brimming with rich culture, spectacular beauty and old-world charm. Lush forests, sprawling mountain ranges meandering around Kandy Lake, which is known as the Sea of Milk. Distinguished colonial buildings and magnificent Kandyan-inspired architecture completes this Medieval City.
One of the major highlights in Kandy is the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, a temple that houses SriLanka’s most important Buddhist relic – a tooth of Buddha.
Another highlight from Kanday was getting to see a cultural performance by a group of Kandyan dancers. According to legend, the origins of Kandyan dance lies in an exorcism ritual known as the Kohomba Kankariya, which was originally performed by Indian shamans who came to the island, from which the locals adopted the dance. It was originally performed by dancers who were identified as a separate caste under the Kandyan Fudel system, they were aligned to the Temple of the Tooth and had a significant role to play in the Dalada Perahera (procession) held each year at the temple. If you get a chance, I highly recommenced seeing a performance.
- Perched high in the hills above Kandy is Amaya Hills Resort, providing spectacular views of the city below. The grounds, food and pool are quite nice, but the rooms could use some work, they were a bit modest. It’s about a 20 minute drive up the hill to the resort from central Kandy.
Kandy to Nuwara Eliya – Days 9-10
High above the coastal plains of Sri Lanka, mountain clouds rest upon a blanket of tea plantations in Nuwara Eliya. This region located at over 6000′ above sea-level, so needless to say, it is much cooler here. As a matter of fact, it was used as an escape from the heat by the British when they occupied the country. There is no other place in Sri Lanka that has this cool crisp climate. This is also a great get-away from the hustle and bustle of the larger cities—it’s a nostalgic and peaceful city that has earned the nickname ‘Little England’ with remnants of British aristocracy. Unusual plants, birds and animals thrive in this region. There is also a wonderful recreational lake surrounded by a park, along with nearby waterfalls and caves to visit.
There are a number of tea plantations to explore, including the world famous “Ceylon Tea.” You’ll enjoy seeing the tea puckers hard and work, then doing a factory tour to see how the tea is processed. You can do a tea tasting, and if you find something you like, they have shops to purchase factory direct.
- JetWing St. Andrew’s hotel – This is a beautiful property with lots of nooks and crannies to explore. While the hotel looks good from a far, it is far from good and in need of a major renovation. The hospitality however lives up to the city’s historical moniker and the overall experience of the hotel is quite nice.
Sri Lanka Road Trip from Nuwara Eliya to Mirissa – Days 11-12
Distance: 145 miles or 235km – Drive Time: 6-7 hours
Mirissa is one of the most popular beach destinations in southern Sri Lanka, and for a good reason! The area has it all, beautiful beaches, great waves for surfing, waters teeming with marine life, including turtles, dolphins and blue whales, the largest animal in the world.
Mirissa is the ideal place for whale watching between November to April, as the waters become a playground for myriad species. Some of the most commonly spotted whales include sperm whales, killer whales, Bryde whales and short finned whales, while you’ll be able to see schools of bottle-nose dolphins and striped dolphins as they playfully frolic around the sightseeing boats.
Marissa is also famous the world over thanks to thousands of Instagramers who have photographed Coconut Hill. Swaying tropical palm trees are perched on a hill that drops into the ocean while a rugged coastline highlights to scene for some pretty amazing photos.
Sri Lanka Road Trip from Mirissa to Unawatuna Days 13-14
Distance: 20 miles or 31km – Drive Time: 45 minutes
Unawatuna is another popular beach area in southern Sri Lanka, with its palm tree-lined beaches, turquoise blue waters and nice selection of hotels, guesthouses and restaurants attracting visitors from around the world. The location is quite superb with lots to do within a walk or short tuk tuk ride. The historic Galle Fort for example is just a few miles away. Jungle Beach and the Japanese Peace Pagoda are also popular attractions.
We stayed in two different places while visiting Unawatuna.
- Gloria Grand Hotel was the first, which is located in the hustle and bustle of Unawatuna. The nice thing about staying here is everything is just a short walk. The hotel is actually quite nice and a great value. The service is impeccable and morning breakfast is quite good.
- The second place we stayed was a boutique place called Sunset Point Hotel, which really lives up to its name. The place feels more like a large guest house, the accommodations were not as nice as the Gloria Grand, but the views are stunning. The family who runs it are the best, very sweet and accommodating. Sunset Point is also located in a quite area of Unawatuna, but the walk to the beach and other amenities is a bit farther, not out of reach, but be prepared to walk a bit more.
Recommended Unawatuna Restaurants
- Koha Surf Lounge was our absolute favorite place.
- Sea Waves
- Wasantha Sri Lankan Cuisine Restaurant
Sri Lanka Road Trip from Unawatuna to Bentota – Days 15-16
Distance: 45 miles or 31km – Drive Time: 1:15 hours
The beach in front of the resorts in Bentota was my favorite in Sri Lanka. We stayed at the Taj Hotel and the beach directly in front of the hotel is fantastic. The sand is the smoothest I have ever walked on, it’s more like powdered sugar than sand. Bentota Beach is seriously one of the most beautiful beaches in Sri Lanka. With picturesque landscapes surrounding it, and coconut trees swaying with the gentle breeze, it is a picture-perfect place to spend your days when not exploring the town. You can relax under the sun or enjoy thrilling water sports such as sailing, windsurfing, parasailing, jet skiing and more. Bentota Ganga is a river that flows into the ocean, just past the mouth right in town is a wide open space for other water sports, such as water skiing, which I had an opportunity to do. Skiing is my absolute favorite sport, so needless to say I was pretty excited to have a go of it.
The Ganga River is the third largest river of Sri Lanka, which is teaming with wildlife. We spent half a day on a riverboat tour taking us through mangroves, where crocodiles, water monitors, monkeys and river birds thrive. It was a delightfully relaxing cruise along the river with magnificence scenery to enjoy.
We did make one stop on our cruise, to an island where they produce and process cinnamon. Side note: Sri Lanka is one of the world’s largest Cinnamon producing countries. We got a demonstration from this family on how cinnamon is harvested, which was really fascinating. During the demonstration we enjoyed a taste of cinnamon tea and later got a chance to purchase some cinnamon in different forms, from sticks, to oil extract.
Bentota was really a wonderful end to this incredible Sri Lanka road trip.
Taj Bentota – This is such a beautiful property and one of the best hotels we stayed at while in Sri Lanka. The beach is also one of the best we visited in the country. The food is amazing and the accommodations are quite comfortable.
Return to Colombo Airport – Day 17
Distance: 68 miles or 109km – Drive Time: 1:45 hours
You would need at least two weeks for this Sri Lanka Road Trip, but three would be even better so you don’t have to rush from one location to the next. If you have any questions about road tripping Sri Lanka, please leave a comment below, happy to help. Thanks so much for stopping by. Until next time, we’ll see ya on the road…