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Written by Savi, 17 Comments

There’s only one way to describe Sri Lanka – a small island country with the largesse of an entire continent! Diverse landscapes, stunning beaches, expansive tea estates, laid-back tropical villages, world heritage sites, scrumptious food, and friendly people – there is nothing a self-drive road trip in Sri Lanka doesn’t offer! You know we love road trips and would highly recommend a visit to this island nation.

We’ve tried to include everything you need to plan an incredible road trip in Sri Lanka below. Choose an itinerary that suits your budget and the number of days you have at hand and get going ๐Ÿ™‚

couple on beach in Sri Lanka Drone shot
Beautiful sights like this await

 

Getting into Sri Lanka

Bandaranaike International Airport/Colombo International airport is well connected to most countries. On this occasion, we took a convenient direct flight (3 hours) from New Delhi as we were in India before flying to Sri Lanka. Air India, Jet Airways, and Sri Lanka Airlines all provide equallyย  convenient connections from India – it’s best to compare rates before booking a flight.

Sri Lanka offers Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA)ย  – you can apply on the ETA websiteย and you’ll receive the visa approval letter via email usually within 24 hours. The fee for SAARC residents is USD 20 and for other residents is USD 35. You get a double entry visa valid for 30 days.

 

Cab from Airport

You need not book a pre-paid transfer to your hotel unless it is included in the cost of your hotel booking. Upon getting to the airport, you will be hounded by several taxi drivers and taxi companies. The most cost effective option is to book a fixed price cab that costs 3000 LKR ($18) from a stall such as Cassons or Airport Taxi. You will spot these stalls as soon as you exit the Arrivals area at the airport

 

Best Time To Visit

The best time to visit Sri Lanka is between November and March as the weather is pleasant. However we visited during the shoulder season in September and despite grumbling about the intense heat on a couple of days, we enjoyed ourselves.

Girl in a fruit stall in Sri Lanka
Plenty of colour guaranteed all around irrespective of when you visit Sri Lanka ๐Ÿ™‚

 

Renting A Car for your road trip in Sri Lanka

It is easy to get around Sri Lanka using public buses and trains but renting a car is the most comfortable way of getting around Sri Lanka. If you intend to rent a car with a driver in Sri Lanka, then it is easy to arrange one in advance. However if you want to drive yourself, then just keep aside half a day to get your licence validated in Colombo. If you have an International Driving Permit (IDP), the car rental company can get the validation done for you. However if you don’t have an Intrnational Driving License, then you will have to be present at the DMV to obtain a temporary driving license (valid for 30 days). The fee for this temporary license is LKR 1000 ($6). It took us a couple of hours to obtain this license.

But despite this extra effort, we would definitely recommend renting a car to explore Sri Lanka on your own. If you travel frequently or have driven in even slightly chaotic countries, we would HIGHLY recommend planning a road trip in Sri Lanka. Itโ€™s affordable, roads are good, people even better, and youโ€™ll stumble on SO many gems along the way like this ancient rock fortress.

We rented our car from Malkey Rental and it was a seamless process. We reserved a car via their website and one of their representatives accompanied us for the license validation process. If you’re renting a car in Sri Lanka, then we’d definitely recommend going with a Sri Lankan company like Malkey as they understand the nuances of the country better and are more flexible when it comes to the terms and conditions dependent on the terrain. The rental car cost LKR 15000 ($88) per week for an economy class car. This cost included a limit of 80 kilometres per day. Additional kilometres were charged at LKR 30 per kilometre. We rented it for 16 days and ended up driving around 1400 kilometres, thereby paying for 120 odd extra kilometres. We had read plenty of discussions on forums where people had strongly discouraged others from renting a car – we are SO happy we rented one ๐Ÿ™‚

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Driving past THE icon of Sri Lanka – the Lion Rock ๐Ÿš—๐Ÿ’œ๐Ÿ’œ When we first started reading about self-drive rentals in Sri Lanka all we saw were lots of discussion boards warning people against renting cars or driving in the country. We researched some more, weighed our pros and cons and decided to GO for it anyway! ๐Ÿ˜Š On getting to Colombo, we got our rental car in Sri Lanka after waging a mini bureaucratic war ๐Ÿ™ˆ๐Ÿ˜‚ โœจ โœจ To cut a long story short, you just need 1 extra day in Colombo to get your license validated. Youโ€™ll have to queue up (will pop all details in our article so the process is seamless for you โ˜บ๏ธ๐Ÿ˜Š!). But once that is done, you are all set to explore every little corner of Sri Lanka on your own. If you travel frequently or have driven in even slightly chaotic countries, we would HIGHLY recommend renting a car to explore Sri Lanka. Itโ€™s affordable, roads are amazing, people even better, and youโ€™ll stumble on SO many gems along the way like this ancient rock fortress ๐Ÿ‘†๐Ÿ’œ๐Ÿ’œ โœจ โœจ MORAL of the story? Travelling to new places is a bit like LIFE itself! You need to exercise common sense, measure your options but ALSO be confident and take risks. Donโ€™t follow the herd and most importantly donโ€™t be scared of the unknown and youโ€™ll reap the highest rewards in travel and in LIFE โ˜บ๏ธ๐Ÿค— #bruisedpassports #lifelessons #traveltips

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Sample Itineraries for your road trip in Sri Lanka

We will provide a day-by-day breakdown of our entire road trip below. But here are a few suggested itineraries depending on the number of days that you have in the country

 

SUGGESTED ITINERARY FOR 4 DAYS

  • Day 1 – Stay in Colombo
  • Days 2-5 – Stay in Galle and explore Southern Province including Mirissa, Unawatuna, and Galle

 

SUGGESTED ITINERARY FOR 1 WEEK

  • Day 1 – Stay in Colombo
  • Days 2-5 – Stay in Galle and explore Southern Province including Mirissa, Unawatuna, and Galle
  • Days 5-7 – Stay in Yala National Park and go on safari

 

SUGGESTED ITINERARY FOR 2 WEEKS

  • Day 1 – Stay in Colombo
  • Days 2-5 – Stay in Galle and explore Southern Province including Mirissa, Unawatuna, and Galle
  • Days 5-7 – Stay in Yala National Park and go on safari (2 days)
  • Days 7-10 – Stay in Arugam Bay/Trincomalle and explore offbeat beaches of Eastern Sri Lanka
  • Days 10-11 – Stay in Sigiriya and go hiking
  • Days 11-13 – Stay in Kandy/Ella and explore Nuwara Eliya, Ella, and Kandy
  • Day 14 – Fly out of Colombo

 

SUGGESTED ITINERARY FOR 1 MONTH

  • Days 1-3 – Stay in Colombo
  • Days 3-8 – Stay in Unawatuna and explore Southern Province including Mirissa, Unawatuna, and Galle
  • Days 8-10 – Stay in Yala National Park and go on safari (2 days)
  • Days 7-12 – Stay in Arugam Bay
  • Days 12-18 – Stay in Trincomalle and explore offbeat beaches of Eastern Sri Lanka
  • Days 18-20 -Stay in Anuradhapura and explore surrounding temples and monasteries
  • Days 21-24 –ย Stay in Sigiriya/Dambulla and go hiking
  • Days 24-27 – Stay in Kandy and explore Sri Lanka’s most visited town
  • Days 27-29 – Stay in Ella and explore Nuwara Eliya and Ella
  • Day 30 – Return to Colombo and fly out of Colombo

 

Day by Day breakdown of our road trip in Sri Lanka

 

Days 1-2 : Arrive in Colombo and pick up your rental car

Irrespective of where you are flying from, we’d suggest spending at least a night in Colombo before you pick up your car. The next morning, you can get your license validated and pick up your rental car for your road trip in Sri Lanka. You can also spend a day exploring the major highlights of Colombo such as visiting the Beira Lake, National Museum, exploring the historical streets of Pettah (don’t miss the gorgeous Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosuqe) or eating at the Ministry Of Crab!

 

Accommodation in Colombo

We chose to stay at an AirBnB apartment in the bustling centre of Colombo since we booked at the last minute and couldn’t find a good hotel in the area we wanted. Apartments are a great option in Sri Lanka but make sure you check for essentials such as wifi, parking, air conditioner etc before you book. If you are new to renting apartments and want some help, check out our guide here:

 

Days 2-5 Drive to Galle and Explore the Southern Province

This is when your road trip starts in real earnest. Drive from Colombo to Galle took around 3 hours. We’d suggest taking the fast expressway instead of the coastal road as you will have access to plenty of coastal roads and panoramas later in this road trip. Galle will be home for three nights and here is a list of things to do in the area with some tips

  • Spend a day exploring Galle’s historical centre – especially Galle Fort, Dutch Reformed Church, and its iconic lighthouse.
  • Drive to Mirissa for its iconic palm forest. It’s hard to find it on Google Maps but it’s right next to Maison D’hotes and Sea Star Lodge. This is a popular spot for sunset, so it tends to get incredibly crowded around sunset. We actually think it looks prettier during the day, so try going around 10 am. Spend the afternoon at the beaches in Mirissa. You could even witness turtle hatching by visiting a farm in Mirissa.
  • Drive to the quaint Weligama Fishing Village, where you will spot colorful fishing boats. On the way, you will also spot Sri Lanka’s famous stilt fishermen. Unfortunately they aren’t actual fishermen, just actors who ask for money for every photograph you take.
  • Drive to the incredibly serene Japanese Peace Pagoda
  • Spend a day at the beaches of Unawatanu – they are gorgeous to say the least.
  • Shoot a memorable photograph at the insta-famous Unawatuna swing. It is located at Dallawella Beach near Unawatuna. It gets very crowded at sunset – we’d suggest going during the day or right after sunset for great light and least crowds. It costs 500LKR ($3)
  • If you have some more time at hand, you could also visit The legendary hill of Rumassala or the Ariyapala Masks Museum in the vicinity.
Couple at Galle Fort
Loved exploring the Dutch quarters in Galle
Japanese peace pagoda Galle sunset
Peace ๐Ÿ™‚
Swing at Dallawella beach in Unawatanu near Mirissa
Oh you must try this swing at Dalawella Beach

Accommodation in Galle

We chose our hotel in Galle based on our readers’ recommendations and we enjoyed it so much that we ended up staying in a number of Jetwing Hotels throughout this trip. So many of our readers recommended Jetwing Lighthouse and we can see why. The hotel has one of the most gorgeous views we’ve seen in a while. You will be greeted with an expansive beach complimented by dramatic waves crashing against giant rocks. Rooms are spacious and comfortable and equipped with all the amenities you would expect from a luxury hotel. The breakfast buffet is expansive and we really enjoyed it. Make sure you try local delicacies such as egg hoppers, dosas, and Sri Lankan curries. If you’re celebrating a special occasion, we’d recommend booking a sunset dinner on the rocks. This is available at a surcharge and dependent on the weather, but it makes for a memorable dining experience.

Dinner on the rocks at Jetwing Lighthouse Galle
An unforgettable dinner setting at Jetwing Lighthouse
pool by the beach at Jetwing Lighthouse
The pool by the ocean ๐Ÿ™‚
Breakfast with a view

 

Days 5-7 Go on safari at Yala National Park

A road trip to Sri Lanka would be incomplete without going on a safari! This 4 hour drive will take you from the coast to the heart of wild Sri Lanka. Yala National Park is gorgeous and safaris here range from $35-$180 depending on where you get them. We booked our Safari through our hotel itself and reserved a private jeep for the two of us. Safaris are enthralling and you can expect to spot everything from leopards and elephants to wild boars and spotted deer. A variety of birds can also be spotted along the way. A word of caution – a large (and apparently the best) part of the park – Block I and II – is closed for a couple of months during September and October (may change every year – check here) so we had to go to Block 5 – let’s just say it wasn’t the best safari viewing afternoon ๐Ÿ™‚

Couple in safari jeep at Yala National Park
At one of the two places in Yala where you’re allowed to exit the Jeep ๐Ÿ˜‰

 

Accommodation in Yala National Park

What comes to mind when you think of staying in the wilderness? Camping! If you’re anything like us and love your creature comforts then glamping is the answer! We stayed at Jetwing Yala and what an experience it was! The hotel is located mere minutes away from the Block 1 entrance to Yala National Park where most safaris start (when this block is open). As a result you’ll see plenty of elephants, wild boars, monkeys, and other wildlife roaming around in the hotel. You can choose to stay in hotel rooms or glamping tents. Rooms are spacious and equipped with luxurious beds, hot showers, indulgent toiletries et al. The glamping tents are full of character and comfortably furnished with portable air conditioners, comfortable beds, and equipped bathrooms. You might spot an elephant or wild boar as you sip on tea on your patio. However do be warned – if you choose to stay in the tents, you cannot leave your tent after dark on your own.

Whatever accommodation you choose, breakfast is served at a scenic restaurant close to the reception.ย If you’re celebrating an anniversary or birthday, we’d recommend booking a special sunset dinner on the dunes overlooking the beach on one side and Yala National Park on the other. This is available at a surcharge, but it makes for a trulyย  special dining experience.

Glamping tents at Jetwing Yala
The glamping “tent” at Jetwing Yala

Days 7-10 Unwind at Arugmam Bay

Arugam Bay exudes a laid-back beach town vibe and it was the definite highlight of ourย  road trip in Sri Lanka. It would be easy to spend a week or two here, but if you don’t have that long we’d suggest spending at least 3 days here. Here are some of the things you can do in the area:

  • Go surf or take surfing lessons.This is the surfing capital of Sri Lanka and there’s no dearth of training schools here.
  • Lounge on the beautiful beaches
  • In case you need a break from driving your car, you could rent a bike or colourful tuk tuk to explore the area
  • Attend a yoga class
  • Visit Pottuvil Point or Elephant Rock for amazing views
  • Take a boat tour at Pottuvil Lagoon
  • Visit an ancient monastery – you could drive to Muhudu Maha Vihaqraya, Magul Maha Viharaya, or Sastrawela monastery. If you’d like to work up an appetite, we’d suggest hiking to Kudumbigala monastery
  • In case you didn’t stop at Yala National Park, you can go on safari from Arugam Bay – Gal Oya National Park and Kumana National Park are in the vicinity.
couple on a rented tuk tuk in Arugam Bay
Who’s up for a Tuk Tuk ride? ๐Ÿ˜‰
Muhudu Maha Vihara in Arugam Bay
Drone shot of couple on the beach in Sri Lanka
Beautiful beaches of Arugam Bay

 

Accommodation in Arugam Bay

Jetwing Surf is a comparatively new hotel with just 20 cabanas and screams beach chic. The hotel complex is dotted with palm trees and boasts of a long stretch of beach. Each cabana has four poster beds, bamboo furnishings, and the most gorgeous open-air bathrooms with outdoor showers. The only downside is that the cabanas are not air conditioned, which is not a problem most of the year. We’d suggest opting for a beach facing cabana to take your vacation up a notch. Jetwing Surf also has a supremely scenic pool (watch the most stunning sunrise here) and breakfast area, so make sure you set aside plenty of time to spend in the hotel complex.

Cabanas at Jetwing Surf in Arugam Bay Sri Lanka
Cabana life at Jetwing Surf
sunrise at Arugam Bay from the pool at Jetwing Surf
Stunning sunrise
Breakfast ๐Ÿ™‚

Arugam Bay is the ideal place for a prolonged stay if you chose the 1 month itinerary listed above. It has a bohemian and laid-back vibe perfect for long-term travellers. In case you intend to spend more than 5 days in Arugam Bay, we’d suggest renting an apartment on AirBnB

 

Days 10-13 Explore heritage sites and go hiking at Sigriya

The drive from Arugam Bay to Sigiriya is a long one. Make sure you start early as it can take anywhere between 7-8 hours. Sigiriya is a destination bathed in history. Here are some things to do in the area:

  • Hike to the top of the iconic Lion Rock. The entry fee is $30 for adults and $15 if you’re from a SAARC nation. Make sure you take your passport along and go early as it gets really hot and crowded later in the day
  • For a much cheaper and less crowded experience, hike the rock opposite the Lion Rock. The entry to Pidurangala Rock is merely $2.50 and it’s every bit worth it. If you have to choose between the two rocks, then we’d suggest saving some money and hiking the Pidurangala Rock. We suggest reaching the top just before sunset. The view from the top is spectacular and you get to see the Lion Rock from a vantage point
  • Visit the Dambulla Cave Temples and marvel at the gorgeous carvings. The World Heritage Site is bound to leave you awestruck
  • Go on safari to Minneriya National Park or Kaudulla National Park to witness the largest gathering of Asian elephants in the wild. The chances of spotting elephants in one park or the other keep changing according to the seasons, so make sure you ask your safari provider which National Park is the best for spotting elephants at the time you visit. We booked our safari with Minneriya Safari Tours and they provided transfers from the hotel and we ended up seeing loads of elephants too. The price for a private vehicle for the evening Safari was USD 120 for 2 people. The jeeps here provided a much better viewing experience as they were open-top.
sunset at Pidurangala rock with view of Sigiriya rock
Beautiful views atop Pidurangala rock

 

Accommodation in Sigiriya

If I had to pick my favourite hotel from our trip to Sri Lanka, it would have to be Jetwing Vil Uyana. If you book one hotel from our recommendations, then make it this! The hotel has been awarded several awards for being the best eco-luxury resort in Asia and it sure lives up to that! This is eco-luxury at its finest – each chalet at Jetwing Vil Uyana is surrounded by paddy fields, reeds, or a man-made lake. Chalets are ultra-spacious and luxurious – think four poster beds, mosquito nets, expansive balconies, bath tubs, and large shower cubicles with hot and cold water. And despite having all those luxuries at hand, you can step out and feel like you’re in the lap of mother nature. A stay here is the perfect antidote to the hustle bustle of Sigiriya’s historical sites – highly recommended!

over-water villa at Jetwing Vil Uyana Sigiriya
Villa over water
Beautiful interiors
The common pool overlooking the lagoon

 

Days 13-16 Drive to Ella/Nuwara Eliya and explore the tea country

You could take a pitstop in Kandy on your drive from Sigiriya to Nuwara Eliya. In fact if you have a couple of extra days here, we’d highly recommend spending two nights in Kandy.

Driving to Nuwara Eliya feels like stepping back in time. As you near the tea country, you will be surrounded by low lying clouds and miles upon miles of tea plantations. Driving on this route reminded us A LOT of our epic road trip in Kerala. Make sure you pack a light woollen for your time in Nuwara Eliya because you’ll need it! Spend your time in Nuwara Eliya doing the following things

  • Visit a tea estate. A number of tea estates allow visitors to explore them for free. You could take a paid tour to the tea factory or just wander around the estate yourself for free.There are a number of tea estates that work on this model but our favourite was Pedro Tea Estate – gorgeous views and scenic trails. Make sure you carry some loose change to tip tea-pickers if you want photos of/with them as they expect it.
  • Hike to Lovers Leap Waterfall. If you have a car, you needn’t pay tuk tuk drivers atrocious fares (LKR 2000 for a five minute drive) at the main entrance to the waterfall. Take the alternative route suggested by Google Maps and park your car and hike up!
  • Picnic by Gregory Lake, a favourite with locals.
  • Drop in for a cuppa at the restaurant at Mackintosh Estate – it overlooks an expansive tea estate
  • Drop by Jetwing St. Andrews for English Afternoon Tea
  • Drive to Ella to witness its many waterfalls or the iconic Nine Arches Bridge. If you haven’t rented a car, you could also take the extremely scenic train ride from Ella to Kandy.
Some amazing pit-stops along the way
Pedro tea estate in Nuwara Eliya Sri Lanka
Can’t get enough of the tea estates in Nuwara
Happy faces all around ๐Ÿ™‚

Accommodation in Nuwara Eliya/Ella

This was the only place we felt we went wrong with the duration of stay! We booked a hotel for 3 nights in Nuwara Eliya, but to be honest you don’t need more than a night in the area. In fact we would recommend booking an Airbnb or a hotel in Ella and covering Nuwara Eliya on a day trip if you are driving yourself.

 

Day 17 Return your rental car and fly out of Colombo International Airport

If you’re driving from Ella or Nuwara Eliya back to the airport, start early as it takes time. Also, there are some stunning vistas on the way, especially when you’re still driving in the hills.

St. Claire's waterfall Sri Lanka
St. Claire’s waterfall – we could see it from the side of the road when driving to the airport

 

That’s it. The ultimate itinerary for a road trip in Sri Lanka with loads of suggestions, tips, our favourites, (unfavourites), and everything in between. If you need any other answers, just leave us a comment and we’ll get back super soon.

17 thoughts on “The Ultimate Itinerary for your road trip in Sri Lanka, the Teardrop Island

  1. You have described it really well.
    I just wanted to know how similar or different was Sri Lanka similar to Kerala..
    And where did you enjoy more in SriLanka or Kerala?

    1. So glad you enjoyed it ๐Ÿ™‚ We always love hearing from you – You’ll really enjoy Sri Lanka. It has so much for offer ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Hi .. thank you for the very informative post ! Of the two places Nuwara and Ella , which one would you recommend for a stay? Also any particular hotel if you could suggest in the above two places , Yala and Galle if a little tighter on budget ?

    1. Hey Prachi – as mentioned above, we would recommend Ella to stay. If you’re a tea connoisseur, you can stay in Nuwara Eliya. You can look up Air BnB for such great affordable B&Bs in these areas. You can use this link for a $30 discount on your booking to cut costs further http://www.airbnb.co.in/c/viditt

  3. Hey,
    I enjoy reading your posts but can I make a small request? Can you mention how much your trips cost? It would be very useful for people like me to plan the trips. Ihave been planning to visit Sri Lanka (maybe next year). Thank you.

    1. Hey Christina – we do include budgets for a lot of our trips but here we’ve mentioned how much safaris and car rentals etc cost but the overall cost depends heavily on the kind of hotels you choose and where you fly from ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Hey so happy you enjoyed our itinerary for a road trip in Sri Lanka. To answer your question, the Pidurangla Hike takes about 30 minutes one way ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. This is amazing!I could almost feel I’m already there just by reading it. My friend is heading to Sri Lanka for her honeymoon and I’m definitely recommending this to her. I’m sure she’ll love it too! Thank you for the elaborate itinerary! Loads of love to u guys!โค๏ธ

    1. I’m so happy to hear you found this happy Manasi ๐Ÿ™‚ I hope your friend finds our itinerary for Sri Lanka helpful too

  5. Hi! Thanks for sharing all the information. Your blog is just amazing.
    I am planning a 6 days trip covering Srilanka and Maldives in November. What would say is a must visit if I plan to cover srilanka over 3 days. I am keen on visiting any one of the national park and turtle hatchery. Thank you in advance.

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