Backpacking in Sri Lanka | Where to Begin

Over recent years, Sri Lanka has really opened up as one of “THE” destinations in Asia to head for. With its spectacular beaches, most people spend the majority of their time on the Southern coast catching the surf or eating coconuts under a palm tree. However, the more you head inland, the more you’ll get a glimpse of Sri Lanka’s deeper cultural past… As well as awesome hiking, amazing national parks and delicious food, Sri Lanka is one of the best places in the world to spot wildlife. From wild elephants to crocodiles, monitor lizards and birdlife, Sri Lanka is a nature lover’s paradise. Check out some of the best places to visit in Sri Lanka below!

See the COVID-19 Travel Restrictions for Sri Lanka here.


Places to Visit in Sri Lanka

1. Colombo (West Coast)

See Colombo Guide here.

Most people will want to get out of Sri Lanka’s capital as fast as they can so they can head for the beaches! We can’t lie, Colombo is not the most exciting of Asian cities, yet still comes with all of the same traffic and pollution… However, before you escape to more beautiful places, there are a few surprises up Colombo’s sleeve! Don’t miss the spectacular red and white Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque which is over 100 years old and is arguably the most famous building in Sri Lanka. The mosque is located in the district of Pettah, one of the most bustling areas of Colombo with markets, street food stalls and shops selling everything from coconuts to saris.

Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque
Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque in Colombo.

For more culture and history, the National Museum is also worth a visit to get more of an idea of Sri Lanka’s colonial past. Built in 1876, it’s a beautiful white colonial building surrounded by a spacious green park that makes for a nice escape from the city. Gangaramaya Temple and Beira Lake also make for pleasant days out, just don’t dip your hand in that crazy green water!

Before, you leave, be sure to eat a delicious street food meal (we recommend Kothu Roti!) at Galle Face Green. It’s the perfect spot to catch the sunset and soak up the culture as you eat with Colombo’s local residents and watch children fly kites on the green.

2. Hikkaduwa (South West Coast)

Hikkadura ,Sri Lanka.
Hikkadura, Sri Lanka.

Hikkaduwa is a great beach, and should really be top of the list for anyone looking for the backpacker vibe in Sri Lanka. The beach can really be divided into two sections, with the northern end being the major draw for surfers. This is a great place to hang out with affordable prices for water sports and accommodation alike, with many cheap guesthouses and hostels. Hiring a surfboard here is considerably cheaper than some other beaches in Sri Lanka.

After a day topping up the tan and surfing the waves, in the evening, plenty of restaurants serve good food with local Sri Lankan options and restaurants that appeal to more Western tastes. A little further down the Southern end of the beach, it’s a lot quieter and you might even find somewhere more secluded to get away from those crowds. A popular day trip from Hikkaduwa is a trip to Ambulangoda to see the mask making factories.

3. Tangalla

See Tangalla Guide here.

If you’re into surf and beach life, you’ll definitely want to spend some time at this exceptionally beautiful beach town on the Southern coast of Sri Lanka. Essentially an overgrown fishing village, this is the place to really get away from it all. You can walk for miles and miles along the coastline and not see another tourist! The beach is a wonderful place to spot marine turtles as between the months of January and July, turtles crawl onto the beach to lay their eggs. If you’re into snorkelling or diving, you’ll also find an abundance of marine life under the water from reef sharks to clownfish and lionfish.

Local fishermen bring their boat to shore in Tangalla Sri-Lanka
Local fishermen in Tangalla, Sri Lanka.

For budget travellers, there’s plenty of cheap accommodation with guesthouses and hostels right on the beach. Other places of interest in Tangalla include the local market where you can buy fresh fruit and other produce, and Mulkirigala Temple, which is a beautiful rock temple situated about 20km outside of the town. It makes for a great motorbike or tuk-tuk adventure, just watch out for the pesky monkeys!

4. Bentota (South West Coast)

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A guesthouse on Bentota Beach, Sri Lanka.

Another beautiful beach spot is the decidedly more chilled out, but more expensive Bentota. The gateway town for Bentota is Aluthgama from where you can get buses or trains from Colombo or Galle. If you want to spend some time here you’ll likely have to pony up a little cash to stay at one of the resort hotels, though there is one cheaper guesthouse available though called Mihin Villas. This is a place where you’re essentially part of a home-stay with some Slovenian families, young children included.

The beach town is famous for watersports and there’s also a prominent Ayurveda scene in the resorts and hotels here. Why not try a massage or seven while you’re here?

5. Mount Lavinia (South West Coast)

Mount Lavinia is a lovely first or last stop in Sri Lanka, a charming little beach strip towards the bottom end of the capital, Colombo. This is also the place, so local legend has it, where a British governor met a local girl (named Lavinia) and swept her off her feet. The story is a tragic one though and rumous has it, that although the couple loved each other, it was a romance that could never be. When the British governor was re-posted the romance was ended, and Lavinia, struck with grief swam out to sea never to be seen again. It is said that the British Governor died a bachelor. Now, the governor’s former mansion has been converted into a rather swish hotel and sits upon an outcrop named after the late Lavinia. This is a beach that will surely romance you if you come here as well.

6. Unuwatuna (South Coast)

Sri Lanka
Unawatuna, Sri Lanka.

Unawatuna was one of the Sri Lankan towns most badly affected by the boxing-day Tsunami of 2004, though these days, the evidence of this is not so easy to find. The beach has quickly regained its cool vibe, and this is a great stretch of beach to hang out on with accommodation to suit all budgets.

There are lots of restaurants and places to sleep here, so rather than booking in advance, it’s perhaps better to arrive and find accommodation on the day. If you’re looking for some exercise other than swimming then walking to the Peace pagoda that remembers those who lost their lives on that fateful day when the Tsunami came is well advised. From the Peace pagoda you should also take a wander to the more secluded and beautiful Jungle Beach.

7. Arugam Bay and Pottuvil

Read Arugam Bay Guide here.

A beautiful stretch of sand and a chilled-out beach town East of Sri Lanka that’s popular with surfers and beach bums alike. There is plenty of accommodation here, from cheap guesthouses to fancier resorts. Come here in low season and you’ll be blessed with great value digs and your pick of great seafood restauarants. What’s great about Arugam Bay is that it’s right next to the charming little Muslim town of Pottuvil. Here you’ll find amazing local food, quirky back streets and excited school children who will run out of their homes to wave at you.

Sun loungers on the beach at Arugam Bay
Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka.

Don’t miss a boat trip with a local fisherman on the beautiful Pottuvil Lagoon, it’s literally one of the best things we did while we were in Sri Lanka. At sunset we sailed out in a rickety old boat with a local fisherman for a few rupees, who barely spoke a word of English. We ended up seeing a herd of wild elephants on the lagoon as well as a variety of bird-life and a few bubbles which could have been crocodiles! The scenery is beautiful and it’s a very untouristy experience compared with many of the national parks.

8. Ambulagoda

Mask Sri Lanka
Masks of Sri Lanka, made in Ambulagoda.

Traditional mask making is a craft that goes back centuries in Sri Lanka and is tied to both shamanistic ideologies and Sri Lankan royalty. Just a short bus journey up the coast from the beach town of Hikkaduwa, you’ll find the cultural centre of mask making in Sri Lanka, the town of Ambulagoda. The town has two main mask-making factories where you can look around the workshops to see the masks being made, learn the history of mask making at a small museum, and finally perhaps buy a mask as a souvenir.

Amubulagoda makes a nice day trip from Hikkadura and all you need to do to get there is thumb down a bus heading North. Once in Ambulagoda, you’ll need to find the intersection between Galle Road and Main Street, which is where the mask factories are. It’s s about a 10-15 minutes walk from the main bus station.

9. Galle

Sri Lanka Train Station
The railway station at Galle, Sri Lanka.

Galle is perhaps Sri Lanka’s jewel in the crown, quite a statement to make considering the other places that rival it. The town has a really nice old part that’s easy to walk around and contains a lot of character by virtue of its colonial architecture. Though you could beach out for your entire trip in a place like Unawatuna, if I had to choose between there and Galle, I’d pick Galle every time.

The dominant architecture here in Galle comes from the Dutch period, which is sandwiched between and the earlier Portuguese and a later British period. The town is changing fast though and renovating its old town, with new restaurants, fancy shops and boutique hotels popping up everywhere. Will Galle lose some of its charm as a result? At the moment the balance between history and tourism is being maintained, but it’s perhaps a better idea to visit Galle sooner rather than later!

10. Ella 

See Ella Guide here.

Ideally situated in the cool hills surrounded by cloud forests and tea plantations, the gorgeous hill station of Ella is the perfect place to relax and take in a different side of Sri Lanka. In recent years the town has developed into a bit of a backpacker hub and there are plenty of cheap guesthouses and hostels where you’ll meet travellers from all over the world.

A view of the valley in Ella, Sri Lanka
The scenery of Ella, Sri Lanka.

The real draw of Ella is the hiking and there are challenges to suit all fitness and energy levels. Take a walk up to Little Adam’s Peak or Ella’s Rock or simply go on a trek to nearby waterfalls. After that you can relax and enjoy some delicious Sri Lankan home cooking, very often made fresh from the locally grown vegetables in the area. Ella is also a haven for bird watchers and nature lovers due to its rich bio-diversity. From here, head to higher and cooler Nuwara Eliya or to the cultural city of Kandy. (The train ride from Kandy to Ella is one of the most beautiful train journeys in Asia!)

11. Sri Lanka’s National Parks

elephants-sri-lanka

Sri Lanka is an island that has one of the richest bio-diversities in the world. From bird-watching to spotting elephants in the national parks, to trying to find that leopard in the jungle, Sri Lanka will always keep you on your toes.

Head to Uda Walawe for grasslands, elephants, spotted deer, water buffalo and boar, or Yala National Park for leopards, sloths and lesser flamingoes. For most of Sri Lanka’s national parks, you must hire a jeep and a guide to take you around and unfortunately, it’s not cheap. Entry costs upward of $25 US for a day, so depending on your budget, you may only be able to visit a few. And, if you’re looking to trek off independently at your own pace, the high altitude Horton Plains with the spectacular World’s End is a good place to start!

12. Sigiriya

See Sigiriya Guide here.

Home to Sigiriya Rock (also known as Lion Rock), you’ll have seen the iconic image of Sigiriya on many a travel advert or postcard for Sri Lanka. Climbing the monolith will set you back an expensive $30 US. However, there is an awesome alternative – Pidurangala Rock, which offers a great hike, and once you reach the top, fantastic views of Sigiriya and the beautiful surrounding countryside.

Sigiriya Rock, Sri Lanka
The iconic Sigiriya Rock, Sri Lanka.

Sigiriya is also home to some great cheap guesthouses and eateries, so it’s a good place to base yourself if you want to see some of the nearby attractions like the Ancient City of Polonnarawu, or Kaudulla National Park.

How to travel Sri Lanka?

  • The train (highly recommended!) – There are good train links between the central “Fort” train station in Colombo and towns all along the west coast, north to Jaffna and inland to the central city of Kandy. The train is a wonderful way to travel and the scenery out of the window will take your breath away!
  • The bus – Lots of buses also run along the west coast road. There is no particular schedule for them, it’s more a case of flagging these down from the road or in larger towns going to the bus terminal. There are more expensive but air-conditioned mini-buses available as well.
  • Tuk Tuk – These days many travellers like to hire their own tuk-tuk (or another vehicle) to explore the island at their own pace. Check out the inspirational videos by some of our favourite vloggers, the Budgeteers, on YouTube who explored Sri Lanka in a hired tuk tuk!

Photos by Simon Bond of Simon Bond Photography.

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