Sri Lanka is very much a choose-your-own-adventure destination. It’s a magical country that offers so many different activities – from leopard and elephant safaris to tea tastings to beachside lazing – and this itinerary allows you to experience them all!
We visited Sri Lanka for one week in February 2020 and, while ambitious, we were able to fit a lot into that time. You could easily take this same itinerary and make it two weeks, spending more time at each spot!
We would have loved to do that, but we had combined this trip with a week in the Maldives and were limited to one week.
And that’s part of the brilliance of Sri Lanka’s location – while you could easily dedicate an entire, much longer trip to this amazing, culture-rich country, keep in mind it’s only a 45 minute flight from the Maldives! If you’re planning a luxury island paradise getaway to the Maldives but are craving some adventure and culture, I’d highly recommend adding time in Sri Lanka to your itinerary.
Luxury vs Budget-Friendly
Sri Lanka is an incredibly budget-friendly destination and can be done very affordably. While I designed this itinerary around the most aspirational properties the country has to offer, you could easily follow a similar itinerary and find more budget-friendly options.
What I found most interesting about researching Sri Lanka was there weren’t many nice but not ultra luxury options in the $400-600/night range. Most of what I could find was either incredibly inexpensive at under $100/night, or very luxe at over $1,000/night.
Since we visited before COVID-related shutdowns, rates and demand were both unaffected and normal; however, if Sri Lanka opens back up without required quarantine, you may be able to book the properties below at significant discounts while Sri Lanka’s tourism recovers.
The easiest, most convenient and affordable – but not fastest! – way to get around Sri Lanka is by hiring a driver. I found mine via a referral, but this is a well-trafficked search online so you shouldn’t have a hard time finding a service via Google.
We paid $280 for six days, $20 additional for our driver’s accommodations for the one stop where they weren’t included, and $100 as a tip for a total of $400 all-in. As I mentioned – Sri Lanka can definitely be a budget-friendly destination!
The ultra-luxe way, in terms of time saved and convenience, to travel between stops in this itinerary would be via seaplane on Cinnamon Air. We didn’t feel this best fit our needs, though, as the only route it would’ve made sense was from Colombo to Ceylon Tea Trails (roughly ~$495 per person one way, 30 minutes). The seaplane lands right on Castlereagh Lake by the property, which is incredibly convenient.
However, there was no seaplane service from Ceylon Tea Trails to Udawalawe, our next stop after that, so we would’ve required a driver for that. Even if we skipped Udawalawe and went straight to Yala, the seaplane from Ceylon Tea Trails toward Yala (also $495 per person one way, 30 minutes) lands at Hambantota, about 1.5 hours from Yala, requiring a driver for the last bit as well. It wasn’t a great fit for the rest of our itinerary either.
However, if you can’t stomach the idea of long hours in the car on winding Sri Lanka roads, it’s definitely worth researching!
Reviews to come!
Each of these properties necessitates their own standalone review, so look for those in the future. This is just a summary of our itinerary!
You’ll fly into Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. Our itinerary prioritizes other areas of the country over spending time in Colombo, but if you have more time, it may be worth spending a day here to check it out.
However, if you arrive late at night like we did, you will at least need to spend the night here to avoid driving at night.
Because we arrived just after midnight and our driver for the trip was meeting us at 8am the next day, we decided to save a bit on accommodations for this night and booked a simple bed & breakfast very close to the airport named Green Olive Villa. It was only $30 and included a ride from the airport and breakfast the next day. Our room was very plain and the bathroom was rough around the edges, but the grounds were beautiful and it was perfectly serviceable for less than eight hours.
Had we arrived earlier in the day with time to enjoy it, I would’ve booked us at The Wallawwa, a beautiful country house also near the airport with a beautiful pool and great reviews. Rates were around $450/night when we visited, but look lower now ($200-360/night). This is likely because Sri Lanka has been closed or reduced to tourism due to COVID-19, and the rates may rise again once tourism resumes in full.
Days 1-3: Sri Lanka’s Tea Region
Starting in Colombo, it’s about a six hour drive to Ceylon Tea Trails, our first official stop of the trip. If you Google aspirational or luxury properties in Sri Lanka, you will inevitably come across one name at the top of every list: Ceylon Tea Trails.
Sri Lanka was a British colony (known then as Ceylon) from 1815 to 1948 and there are many remnants of its colonial period, especially in the tea regions. Ceylon Tea Trails comprises five restored historic English tea planter bungalows perched above Castlereagh Lake in Sri Lanka’s panoramic Ceylon tea region which offer guests a private house ambiance.
Ceylon Tea Trails
As I’ll discuss in the standalone review, I didn’t get Ceylon Tea Trails when I read about it. I honestly added it to the list because I couldn’t ignore the hold it had on “best-of” lists in the country, but I didn’t have high expectations based on the photos I had seen.
Let me tell you – the photos don’t do the feeling of being there justice.
There is a pure, natural serenity that envelops you when you arrive in Sri Lanka’s tea region, and Ceylon Tea Trails, a Relais & Chateaux property, executes luxury service to a degree that was unmatched during our time in Sri Lanka.
Ceylon Tea Trails is the world’s first tea bungalow resort and is made up of five restored colonial-era tea planter residences. Dunkeld, built in 1925 and the most recently restored bungalow, is where we chose to stay. It has a beautiful view of Castlereagh Lake and an infinity pool overlooking the rolling hills of tea in the World Heritage central highlands of Sri Lanka.
Each bungalow has a different, unique ambiance and it’s worth researching which fits your vibe best. You can always visit any of the other bungalows for a meal or to relax, whether you have your bungalow’s staff drive you or you take a scenic hike to get there.
Ceylon Tea Trails is an all-inclusive property, meaning all meals, drinks, laundry and certain activities are included in the rate. Morning bedside tea service was a delight, as were the multi-course meals that followed; as a Relais & Chateaux property, the culinary experience is a true highlight of your stay.
We paid about $996/night for the “Luxury Room” category, one of the lower room categories, with a two-night minimum stay required.
What to do
The tea region is about relaxing and enjoying the scenery, and Ceylon Tea Trails exemplifies this with butler service that will set up a drink for you by the pool, a tea tasting on the patio, or a game of croquet on the lawn.
If you grow restless, there’s endless trekking or biking trails around the rolling hills, winding paths, and waterfalls. And if there’s one can’t-miss activity, it’s touring a tea factory!
Our stay included a tour of the Dunkeld Tea Factory, which has been in operation since tea was first introduced to the region in the 1800s. Some of the machinery here is over a century old and the manufacturing process hasn’t changed much in that time!
Days 3-4: Udawalawe
After Ceylon Tea Trails, we headed to Udawalawe, about three hours from the tea region. Sri Lanka has the highest density of elephants in Asia, but you don’t want to visit just any elephant safari!
Where to stay
There are no luxury accommodations near Udawalawe, making this one-night stop all about the elephants.
We stayed at a basic property that had decent reviews, Kottawatta Village, about ten minutes from the entrance to the park. We booked their highest room category, the Double Room with Pool View, for $74/night including breakfast.
The property featured a huge pool that looked nice enough, and while this was probably one of the nicer properties in the area, the room left a lot to be desired, so adjust your expectations for a stay in Udawalawe accordingly. The bed was hard and the pillows were flimsy, and we were grateful we were only spending one night there. If you’re on a backpacking route, I’m sure this place is a dream, but for a luxury itinerary… you get what you pay for! The outdoor bathroom with this room category was pretty cool, though.
What to do
Elephants hold great cultural and symbolic importance in Sri Lanka. While there are many national parks you can visit to see them, there is a place you should definitely not go.
Given everyone flying into Sri Lanka lands in Colombo, you might be tempted to visit the closest elephant “orphanage” at Pinnawala. Be warned, though – at Pinnawala, they chain and beat their captive elephants for show to the public.
We chose to visit Udawalawe National Park for both an elephant safari drive as well as a visit to their Elephant Transit Home (ETH). The ETH rehabilitates and – more importantly – releases elephants back to their natural habitat within the Udawalawe National Park. Since we arrived mid-afternoon, we had plenty of time to get settled and head out to visit the ETH to see the evening elephant feeding.
If you have time, Mankada Pottery Centre is a community-impactful project based on Sri Lankan crafts worth a visit.
The next morning, we went on a safari drive at Udawalawe National Park to see elephants and other animals in the wild. The morning or evening tours are about 3.5 hours, though you can also book full-day tours.
Expect to pay around 4,000-4,500 LKR (US$20-22) for the private Jeep (only your group) and about 4,200 LKR (US$21) for park entrance for one. The park entrance fee is lower for each subsequent person; we paid 7,765 LKR (US$39) for two.
It was the perfect stop halfway between the tea region and Yala!
Days 4-5: Yala National Park
Yala should be high on your priority list if visiting Sri Lanka. About three hours from Udawalawe, the famed Yala National Park is said to have the highest leopard density in the world. The area also offers a few great luxury accommodation options, the most aspirational of them being Wild Coast Tented Lodge.
Wild Coast Tented Lodge
Surprisingly, “luxury tent” is not an oxymoron, especially in the safari world. Wild Coast Tented Lodge is a magnificent option among the luxury tented properties near Yala.
Wild Coast Tented Lodge is in the same three-property Relais & Chateaux presence in Sri Lanka as Ceylon Tea Trails, meaning the food here was also a huge highlight.
Room types include the Cocoon Suite, Cocoon Suite with Pool (what we stayed in), and the Family Urchin. We were lucky enough to get one of the four Cocoons that had direct beach access and was close to the main hotel areas/facilities!
We booked the Cocoon Suite with Pool for $1,263/night on an all-inclusive basis, like Ceylon Tea Trails. This included all meals, drinks, in-room mini bar, one daily game drive, and laundry.
The Cocoon tents at Wild Coast Tented Lodge bill themselves as fusing “expedition chic with contemporary design innovations.” Every Cocoon features a stunning freestanding handmade copper bathtub and vanity, four-poster bed, teak floors and canvas walls complemented by dark leather touches, and in the case of our tent, a pool with direct beach access as mentioned.
We loved our meals here and the Cocoon was such a luxury treat to enjoy in this corner of the country! Our safari guide, provided by the property in our own private jeep, was also outstanding. It was an incredible stop for a night to squeeze a bit of Yala into our itinerary!
What to do
This is Sri Lanka’s most famed safari park, so going on safari should be your main priority when here! While leopard spotting isn’t guaranteed, your best chance will be at Yala.
We planned our arrival at Wild Coast Tented Lodge so that we’d be able to take our daily game drive that same day. If we didn’t see a leopard then, our plan was to book an additional safari drive the next morning before we left for our next stop.
We were lucky enough to spot a beautiful female leopard on our first try, so we spent the next morning relaxing before heading out!
Days 5-7: Tangalle
By this time in Sri Lanka, we had seen the rolling hills of tea and the well-known wildlife safaris, but Sri Lanka is also known for its sun-drenched golden sand beaches!
Amanwella is a 30-suite property in Tangalle, a well-known beach town in Sri Lanka, and is one of two properties in Sri Lanka from the Aman brand. Room types include the Garden Pool Suite, Ocean Hill Pool Suite and Ocean Pool Suite. They’re all identical inside but have different views.
We booked a Garden Pool Suite for $1089/night, but since we booked with a travel advisor, we were afforded typical perks like an upgrade subject to availability, daily breakfast, afternoon tea, and a complimentary a la carte dinner. We did score the upgrade at check in and were upgraded to the Ocean Hill Pool Suite!
The suite’s wide, floor-to-ceiling sliding panoramic glass doors opened to the lush greenery and rolling ocean waves of Sri Lanka’s south coast. Each of the property’s suites features its own private plunge pool and opens onto a private terrace with a dining area and sun loungers.
What to do
Amanwella is all about relaxation; after moving around so much in the previous few days, we took full advantage. We kept our activities at a minimum, primarily moving just to change scenery from the expansive pool to the beach chairs in Amanwella’s perfectly manicured coconut grove.
If you want to venture from Tangalle, there are also some Insta-famous spots worth stopping at; you can also save these for the drive from Tangalle to the airport.
- Coconut Tree Hill, Mirissa
- Rope swing at Mihiripenna Beach
- If you can’t find the rope swing at Mihiripenna, there’s one at Dalawella instead
Day 7: Galle and Airport
Our return flight was due to depart from CMB at 12:45am, so we took advantage of our late checkout from Amanwella and departed around 4pm on our last day. This allowed us plenty of time to swing by Galle, about an hour’s drive away on one of the best, smoothest, straightest roads the country has to offer (trust me, after a week of driving around the rest of the roads, you’ll be grateful for this!).
Galle is a fortified city built by the Portuguese in the 16th century and later fortified by the Dutch in the 17th century. We stopped in Galle for dinner right around sundown, and as the sun had already set by the time we finished, we didn’t have time to look around what seemed like a very European, quaint town. If we visited again, we’d spend some time in the town first and then head to dinner!
From Galle to CMB airport is about a two hour drive.
What did we miss?
Sri Lanka offers so much in the way of tourism that you could easily spend a month here and not even scratch the surface. These are just the top three things on my list that we missed out on but would’ve loved to do if we had the time:
Kandy – Sri Lanka’s second biggest city after Colombo, Kandy is considered the cultural capital of Sri Lanka and is a great stop on your way to the tea regions!
The train from Kandy to Ella – You’ve probably seen all the stunning Instagram shots from these trains, but it takes a full day of your itinerary and we didn’t have the time to spare. There are tons of guides online for taking it so definitely look them up if you want to do this! If you hire a driver, they can drop you off at one station and take your luggage in their car to pick you up at the end station.
Galle – While we did stop here for dinner on the way between Amanwella and the airport, we would’ve loved to spend more time here.
There’s still so much more to do in this very biodiverse, beautiful country so keep in mind that these are just the major highlights that don’t even touch the northern or eastern parts of Sri Lanka.
This itinerary requires a lot of moving around, but you squeeze so much into what may be the only time you have available to experience Sri Lanka. If you have more time, I’d definitely recommend slowing down and enjoying each experience to the fullest, as Sri Lanka is an incredibly beautiful country with so much to offer and experience!