Having just returned from an incredible trip around Sri Lanka, I wanted to share some of my highlights. It is such a beautiful country with great diversity from stunning beaches and beach front restaurants along the coast, to ancient world wonders and heritage sites as you travel further inland. The traditional Sri Lankan food is delicious, packed with flavour (and spice!) and made using all fresh, locally sourced ingredients. We started our trip in the South visiting a few coastal towns before venturing to the renowned towns of Ella and Kandy, and then further north to Sigirya, before making our way back to Colombo. Here are my suggestions of where to stay, places to eat and things to do in these regions.
After spending one night in Colombo we got a driver to take us to Unawatuna – a beach town on the south coast of Sri Lanka.
Unawatuna was one of my highlights of the trip. It had such a great atmosphere with an authentic (not overly touristic) feel and some of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever visited. There’s no shortage of photo opportunities from the coconut tree swing on Dalawella beach, crystal clear waters and spectacular sunsets.
We only spent 1 night here (would definitely stay longer if I have the opportunity to go back) but here are my top recommendations!
We spent the day at Galle Fort, otherwise known as The Dutch Fort, exploring the streets of the old town and of course, visiting the iconic light house, clock tower and the Fort’s wall. The old town is very picturesque and has quite a European feel. It is bustling with shopping streets, cafes, rooftop restaurants and ice creameries (a must if you’re visiting in summer). You could easily spend a full day here or even spend the night in the town to really experience all that it has to offer.
Dalawella beach is a must – it was hands down my favourite beach in Sri Lanka. Aside from the insta-worthy coconut tree swing, it has the most stunning crystal clear warm water, white sand and sense of tranquillity.
Wajiya beach is connected to Dalawella beach (not entirely sure what separates them). We spent the afternoon at Wajiya Beach Hotel sipping frozen passionfruit margaritas and watching the sunset. Only downside is that these crazy good margaritas will make any future cocktails seem a little sub par. They are only $3.50 and made using all fresh, local ingredients. We also indulged in one (or two) wood fired pizzas with spinach, feta, olives and mushrooms. Can’t fault it!
The Kip is a boutique hotel/cafe located in Ahangama (not far from Unawatuna). If we’d found out about this little gem sooner we definitely would’ve planned to stay for a night or two, but even going for lunch was an incredible experience. The cafe is situated in a lush garden oasis with outdoor hammocks and bean bags. The menu is tapas style (and vegan/vegetarian friendly) so you simply tick what you would like to have and it is served to you on a platter.
Our next stop was Mirissa Beach, also on the south coast of Sri Lanka. The beach has a vibrant atmosphere with back to back restaurants right on the sand.
Coconut Hill is a prime sunset spot. It is absolutely stunning watching the sun set through the coconut trees.
Turtle Bay is just around the corner from coconut hill and is the perfect spot if you’re hoping to see some turtles. We rented snorkels from the beach side kiosk (it’s about $1 for an hour) and hit the beach.
Zephyr is one of the beach front restaurants at Mirissa. The beach front places do have a touristic feel but there is something pretty special about sitting at a table literally on the sand, listening to the waves crash and being amongst the ocean breeze. The food was good but it’s the atmosphere that makes it.
Smoothie bowls are fairly hard to come by in Sri Lanka (especially once you venture further inland) which made discovering Shady Lane all the more exciting. If you’ve been to Bali, this place very much reminded me of the great health food cafes you find there.
Aside from being fresh, delicious and crazy cheap, what I loved most about this cafe was the story. On the menu cover they talk about their struggles of trying to run their family business in Sri Lanka and the many hardships they faced, being repeatedly shut down by various landlords. One day a German couple suggested that they operate the rotti shop from their home in Mirissa and the couple helped them get set up. The business is now thriving.
Our next stop along the coast was Tangalle, a quiet beach town. There wasn’t much to do in Tangalle itself but it’s nice if you’re looking for somewhere to relax. We did a homestay which was a great way to immerse ourselves in the culture, enjoying traditional meals and the company of a kind Sri Lankan family. All the locals we encountered were so welcoming and generous, from assisting us with directions to offering us their seat on local buses and trains.
My favourite beach near Tangalle was Hiriketiya. It is a beautiful horseshoe cove that is gaining popularity for its surf (ideal conditions for beginners) and crystal clear waters. There are also a few bars nearby and quite a young crowd.
Dots is a cafe/bar/hotel just opposite Hiriketiya beach. It’s a great spot to spend the afternoon. We ordered mango smoothies and played cards, soaking in the atmosphere (the cocktails looked great too). If I go back I would definitely stay here.
Our next stop was the beautiful town, Ella. Ella is further inland – the cheapest way to get there is by bus. We splashed out on getting a driver so that we could stop off at a few places along the way. It was such a scenic drive from the lush greenery and waterfalls to the wildlife – we needed to stop en-route for a herd of buffalo and later came across a tribe of monkeys. We also stopped off at a fruit shop (rather a shack on the side of the road) where a local man cut open fresh coconuts for us to rehydrate.
Our favourite cafe/restaurant in Ella was no doubt, Chill. Evidenced by the fact we went 5 times in the 3 days we were in Ella. It has such a great *chilled* atmosphere with bean bag chairs, friendly staff and great food. The 10 curry and rice dish wrapped in a banana leaf is a must, as are the passionfruit mojitos.
Another great spot to get your rotti fix. We always sat in the upstairs area where you can look out over the buzzing main street of Ella town. Would highly recommend the kottu salad.
We stayed at Seven Heaven hotel which has a breathtaking view of little Adam’s Peak and Ella Rock. They also had a lovely terrace where you eat breakfast and it is a short 10 minute walk from the main town.
We sadly missed out on going here but I’ve heard so many amazing things. Whether you’re looking to splash out on luxe accomodation or just treat yourself to breakfast and a view, 98 acres is sure to impress.
Sunrise at Little Adam’s Peak
We set off for sunrise at Little Adam’s Peak around 5am. A tuk tuk driver dropped us nearby and then it was about a 15 minute hike to the top of the mountain peak. Unfortunately there was so much mist/cloud cover that we didn’t actually see sunrise (it just went from dark to light grey…). We are still glad we made the effort but hopefully you have better sunrise luck!
Halpé tea plantation
We couldn’t miss this famous tea plantation which was a short bus ride from the town, and then about a 15 minute walk up to the plantation. We sat in on a discussion where we learnt about the process (learnt that black, white and green tea are all from the same tree, the difference occurs in the processing), before going on a tour. I definitely have more of an appreciation for how much work has gone into the production of tea now. The tour concluded with a tea tasting.
The spice gardens are located right in the heart of Ella town, in a local’s front yard. You can walk through the gardens which have the most impressive variety of herbs and spices (entry is 100 rupiah so about 75c per person), or better yet you can book in for a cooking class in the family’s home. The cost is about $20 per person and worth every cent. The chef is so entertaining and really gets everyone involved – each class has a maximum of 8 people so it’s very hands on. We made 6 dishes from dahl and yellow curry to papadums and coconut sambol. We then sat down together to enjoy the tasty meals we had prepared.
Nine arch bridge
I don’t think anyone would go to Ella without paying a visit to the iconic Nine Arch Bridge. As it is such a hotspot for tourists it can get very crowded, so it’s probably best to go earlier in the day. We walked all the way back to the town along the railway tracks, jumping to the side when a train came by (sounds scarier than it is – the trains run at snail pace along here).
After a few days in Ella we jumped on board the famous train from Ella-Kandy. The train ride is about 7 hours so it is worth booking ahead to guarantee a seat. The views are spectacular and there is plenty of entertainment – there was a group of school kids in the carriage in front of us singing and cheering every time we went through a tunnel, and plenty of locals walking aboard the train selling street food.
The highlight of Kandy was without doubt, staying at Aarunya – it is a destination in itself. The town of Kandy we found a little disappointing but it is a great place to base yourself for day trips. In saying that, there are a few things worth seeing…
Temple of the tooth
Temple of the tooth is a sacred Buddhist temple. It is a popular tourist destination so it is quite expensive, but it is a place of great historical, cultural and spiritual significance. The detail in design/architecture is incredible.
This has to be the most unique, quirky (borderline scary) hotel of all time. It has an eclectic mix of antiques/artwork, from skeletons and upsidedown Christmas trees to brightly coloured lounge chairs and animal statues. I personally wouldn’t want to stay but it is worth popping in for a tea and a tour!
Sigiriya is an ancient rock formation in the town of Dambulla (it is listed as one of the ancient wonders of the world). The most famous rock is Sigiriya (otherwise known as Lion Rock) which you can hike to the top of, however a nearby rock formation, Pidurangala is gaining popularity amongst tourists as it is much less expensive to climb. From this rock you also have a fantastic view of Sigiriya. We climbed Pidurangala for sunrise, yet sadly we were faced with more mist and just watched it turn from dark to light.
There isn’t too much else to do in this area so I would recommend a day trip or just one night.
We ended our tour of Sri Lanka by spending a few nights in Colombo. We had heard mixed reviews so decided to check out the city for ourselves.
While there isn’t too much to do, it is a fantastic foodie spot. We had some world class meals here and it was also ideal for some last minute shopping.
Dutch hospital shopping precinct
The Dutch Hospital is the oldest building in the Colombo Fort area. It is filled with great shops from tea and spices to clothing and jewellery. There are lots of cafes, restaurants and rooftop bars in the Colombo Fort region too.
Pettah market can be a little overwhelming; there are back to back stalls with locals trying to sell their products. If you’re prepared to fight the crowds/bargain you can find some great deals! It is definitely worth experiencing.
After a lot of curry (and I mean a lot), I was pretty excited to find some Sydney style cafes. I couldn’t go past the smashed avo (it was served with a mango salsa – weird but it definitely works!). They also had really good almond milk coffee and the cacao, peanut butter smoothie was to die for. A lot of the cafes we found were also hotels/hostels, and I imagine this one to be very nice.
Black cat also had a very Sydney-like feel with a strong focus on local and organic produce. You could very much taste the quality of the ingredients. Again, it was also a hotel – we tried to book but they were fully booked for weeks! Good sign.
Gallery cafe is a world-class Italian restaurant. It has a European atmosphere, attentive staff and seriously delicious food. I went for the spinach and ricotta gnocchi which has inspired me to try and recreate it, followed by a chocolate and espresso fondant. Oh and can’t forget the frozen margaritas. It was comparable to Sydney prices but well worth it.
Ministry of crab was recommended to us several times so we decided to treat ourselves and go for our last night. It is very busy so make sure you book. They are renowned for their chilli and garlic crab which is delicious served with their famous kade bread. It is located right in the centre of the Dutch Hospital Building and has a great ambience. Note – it is very expensive.
- Ask to use the meter when jumping in a tuk tuk – this is the best way to guarantee you’re not being ripped off. Wish we’d realised this before our second last day!
- Book the train from Ella-Kandy ahead to guarantee a seat
- Book accomodation in Colombo ahead of time (it was the only place we had difficulty finding last minute availability)