Essential Sri Lanka

  • 1 Week

This compact trip covers a core selection of Sri Lanka's must-see sights.

Start in Colombo, exploring the markets and visiting the city’s revitalised Fort district. Then take the train south along the coast to beguiling Galle, avoiding the often traffic-clogged road on the west coast and the ho-hum towns along it.

From Galle, go get some beach time. The Tangalla region has a growing selection of lovely beach places on its beautiful and uncrowded ribbon of sand. Head inland and venture up to Uda Walawe National Park, where you’ll see dozens of elephants and many other animals. Take the winding road up into the heart of the Hill Country and put down roots for a few days in Ella, a cool town with a fun traveller vibe.

Take one of the world’s most beautiful train rides to the stop for the British colonial heritage town of Nuwara Eliya, where you’ll enter a time warp. Visit tea plantations and stop in iconic Kandy for temples and gardens. From here it’s an easy jaunt back to Colombo or the airport.

Natural South

  • 2 Weeks

It's not a big island, but Sri Lanka still retains some beautiful wilderness areas, especially among the tropical peaks and valleys, in the national parks and along the beach-lined southern coast.

Start in Colombo. On your way east, Kitulgala is a gateway for rafting the Kelaniya Ganga, as well as for jungle hikes and birdwatching. Movie buffs might recognise scenes from Bridge on the River Kwai here. Take the short hop to the misty region of Adam's Peak (Sri Pada). The climb of this sacred peak is an important pilgrimage for many. Dalhousie is the traditional starting point for the pre-dawn ascent. Spend a few days in the region tasting fragrant single-estate teas and bed down in luxurious ex-colonial tea planters’ bungalows, or cosy guesthouses.

Head east to Horton Plains National Park where you'll find World's End, a 9.5km looping walk to a stunning vantage point with stops at waterfalls. Now make the short drive to a Hill Country highlight: Ella. This village has more hiking, wonderful views and guesthouses renowned for having some of Sri Lanka’s tastiest home-cooked food. Continue to Monaragala, a low-key gateway to the east and the jumping-off point for one of Sri Lanka’s most atmospheric ancient Buddhist sites at Yudaganawa. Also nearby, Maligawila is home to an 11m-tall standing Buddha that’s more than a thousand years old.

On the coast is the popular Arugam Bay, with its easygoing surfer vibe and excellent seafood. It’s easy to spend an extra day or three here, swinging in a hammock at one of the beach guesthouses. Don’t miss a boat trip exploring the nearby Pottuvil Lagoon. Explore the seldom-visited wilds of Kumana National Park, then veer back inland via Monaragala to Wellawaya and find time for a brief detour to Sri Lanka’s tallest standing Buddha at Buduruwagala. Soak up the beauty of the tiny lakes and listen to the birds.

Descend from Wellawaya to the coastal plains of Kataragama, the terminus of the Pada Yatra, a pilgrimage that begins at the other end of the island. Nearby Tissamaharama has a lovely lakeside setting, which is also a convenient entry point for the hugely popular safaris into Yala National Park, where you can spot elephants, leopards and most of Sri Lanka’s other iconic critters.

Emerging North

  • 1 Week

Visitors are now discovering the beauty, beaches and culture of Sri Lanka's north, which was off-limits for many years. Roads are in excellent shape and train lines to Jaffna and other points are all open.

Start at Kalpitiya, the main town on the long finger of land that juts up into the Indian Ocean. The beaches here are OK, but the kitesurfing and dolphin-watching are spectacular. Hook your way around north to Wilpattu National Park. This treasure has leopards and many other large mammals.

Next, explore another beautiful spit of Sri Lanka extending into the sea: Mannar is an island that looks to be thumbing a ride to the subcontinent. Amid African baobab trees, remote Talaimannar looks out at Adam's Bridge, a chain of reefs and islets, that almost forms a land bridge to India. Until service was halted by the war in the 1990s, this was where train ferries ran to India.

Hook around again to the Jaffna peninsula. On the mainland near the coast, just east of Mannar Town over the historic causeway, imposing Thirukketeeswaram Kovil is one of the pancha ishwaram, the five historical Sri Lankan Shiva temples established to protect the island from natural disaster.

Now cruise on the newly improved roads right across the island to Mullaittivu, a town that was isolated during the war years. Legacies of that time abound, including the bizarrely compelling Sea Tiger Shipyard, where the LTTE tried to build submarines.

Head west on the smooth A35, then turn north on the A9 for Elephant Pass, with its stark beauty and bombastic war memorials. Continue on to Jaffna, where the rich Tamil culture offers temples on shady backstreets that await exploration. Cruise the colonial fort, bustling market area and good restaurants.

Head north for Keerimalai Spring, a sacred site with legendary bathing pools. It’s close to the Naguleswaram Shiva Kovil, which traces its past to the 6th century BC. Your next destination is east at Point Pedro, with its long swath of lonely white sand at Munai Beach.

Jaffna has nearby islands well worth exploring for their sheer minimalist beauty, including Nainativu, a tiny speck of sand with Buddhist and Hindu temples, and Neduntivu (Delft), a windswept place beyond the end of the road where wild ponies roam.

The Cultured Centre

  • 2 Weeks

This tour covers the uncrowded middle of Sri Lanka, which is at the heart of the country's rich culture. You'll see ancient temples and towns, along with some of the natural beauty that has inspired generations.

Start in Kandy, which has a lakeside setting with real natural beauty and was the capital of the last Sinhalese kingdom until the early 19th century.

Head north to Dambulla, with its series of cave shrines painted with vivid Buddhist murals. From here it’s a short jaunt to Sigiriya, a 200m-tall rock outcrop that was once a monastery and is truly one of the island’s most amazing sights. A short drive northwest will bring you to the Ritigala Strict Nature Preserve. Deep inside this land is one of Sri Lanka's most mysterious sites: the Ritigala Ruins. Your inner Indiana Jones will enjoy exploring the remains of this once vast and ancient place.

Further east the former royal capital of Polonnaruwa offers an inspiring collection of Buddhist sculptures and monastery ruins dating back nearly a thousand years. Continue east to the coast and the beaches at Passekudah and Kalkudah. The former is a broad long ribbon of deserted and beautiful sand. The latter is part of a vast new resort development.

Follow the coast south to Batticaloa, a historic port that has provided refuge to ships for years. It has a Dutch fort, while offshore is one of Sri Lanka's most fabled dive sites: the HMS Hermes, a British aircraft carrier sunk in WWII.

Going north you'll pass through nature preserves and deserted beaches until you reach the idyllic natural harbour of Trincomalee. It has a colourful history going back centuries as evidenced by its fort, which has Kandasamy temple right inside. Continue north to the beach town of Uppuveli with its cool travellers' scene and the beguiling and untrodden sands of Nilaveli.

Now head due west into the heart of the country. Prepare for a steep climb up the hillside at Mihintale to appreciate the Buddhist history here that dates back to the 3rd century BC. A mere 13km further west brings you to Anuradhapura, one of the top sights in all of South Asia. Wander or bike around this sprawling landscape of temples, ruins and more.

Quick Southern Jaunt

  • 1 Week

This fast trip will warm even the most frostbitten visitor escaping a frigid winter elsewhere in the world.

Begin your jaunt in Galle: founded by the Portuguese in the 16th century, it is one of Southeast Asia’s best-preserved, fortified colonial cities. Walk the walls at sunset and enjoy the many cafes cropping up along streets lined with renovated and delightfully dilapidated old buildings.

Hit the beach at nearby Unawatuna, which has an alluring crescent of sand, cafes overlooking the surf and perfectly blue waters luring you in. Now find your inner Tarzan (many of the movies were shot in Sri Lanka) at the Unesco-recognised Sinharaja Forest Reserve, Sri Lanka’s last major tropical rainforest.

Back on the south coast, Sri Lanka has a fast-breaking surf scene and you’ll find lessons, board rentals and cheap surfer dives in Ahangama and Midigama.

Another short jaunt east brings you to Weligama, which has beach resorts and a lively fishing village with fascinating markets. Not far away is the sandy gem of the south, Mirissa, where cute guesthouses are hidden in the palms.