Last Updated on March 2, 2021
This is the Sri Lanka itinerary I’d recommend to anyone visiting the country for the first time. It includes the essence of Sri Lanka: the main UNESCO World Heritage Sites, cultural and historical highlights, wildlife, beaches and city life in Colombo, the capital.I was recently asked by two friends to help them plan their trip to Sri Lanka, which is why I decided to put this Sri Lanka itinerary together. My first week in Sri Lanka was a rushed one, but it was also an absolutely amazing one. The itinerary for our whirlwind tour of the country’s main sights had been put together by the Cinnamon Hotel group, which means I got to stay at Cinnamon properties throughout the week, and I fell head over heels in love with the chain. You all know that I am a hotel geek, with countless hotel reviews here on the site, and getting to know several Cinnamon Hotels during my time in Sri Lanka definitely contributed to how much I enjoyed the trip. It shouldn’t be a surprise that I loved Cinnamon Hotels so much, considering that they were named the ‘best hotel chain in Sri Lanka’ by Lonely Planet!I think the places I included should be part of every traveler’s Sri Lanka itinerary, followed by a week of beach relaxation. The Cinnamon Hotels recommended below are a bit pricey for Sri Lanka, but very affordable for anyone with a decent salary in North America or Europe. You can do Sri Lanka on a smaller budget if you stay in independent guest houses and budget hotels. Also check out my article How much does it cost to travel in Sri Lanka? in which I share my full budget breakdown.
1 Kandy – The Sacred City
Upon arrival in Sri Lanka, I recommend arranging transportation straight to Kandy from the airport. Kandy is only 100 kilometers from the airport, but expect it to take several hours to get there – traffic can be heavy on this route.
Kandy was the last capital of the Sinhala kings and home to the stunning Temple of the Tooth Relic (a popular pilgrimage site because of Buddha’s sacred tooth) and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Allow a day to explore the city center and the Temple Of The Tooth Relic and make your way up to the Bahirawakanda Vihara Buddha Statue on top of Bahirawakanda hill from where you’ll have fantastic views over Kandy.
Where to stay: The Cinnamon Citadel Kandy
The Cinnamon Citadel Kandy is located a short drive from the city center, perched upon one of the hills surrounding Kandy. The hotel is home to a large outdoor pool with gorgeous river views – the perfect place to relax after a day of sightseeing, and to recover from jet lag. The beautiful hotel, designed all in white, was one of my favorite Cinnamon properties in Sri Lanka. The restaurant with its large terrace, also overlooking the river, offers terrific sunset views while dining, the excellent food options make for a divine dining experience in a sensational setting.
Price: Superior double rooms start at $120 for two people, including buffet breakfast.
Number of recommended nights: 1 -2How to get here quickly: If you’re severely time-strapped, you can fly to Kandy from Colombo’s International Airport – instead of a 4-hour drive, it’s a quick 25-minute flight. Cinnamon Air offers daily flights.
Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa & Minneriya National Park
The second stop on your Sri Lanka itinerary will be the country’s most impressive UNESCO World Heritage Sites followed by your first introduction to Sri Lanka’s amazing wildlife. You’ll start with Sigiriya, probably the UNESCO site in Sri Lanka in the most stunning location. It’s about 2.5 to 3 hours from Kandy and is part of the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka, being one of the ancient cities (the other two being Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura), but this one has one important feature that differentiates it from the other two: it sits on top of a giant monolith. The name Sigiriya means ‘Lion’s Rock’, given because of the gateway in the form of a giant lion built on a plateau halfway up the rock. Passersby would have no idea what treasure sits on top of the rock, and it takes a challenging climb up narrow stairs clung to the steep cliffs of the rock, to see the ruins on top of the plateau.
My recommendation is to spend two nights in Habarana and visit the three nearby UNESCO sites (Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa and the Dambulla Cave Temple) as well as Minneriya National Park. The best way to do this: leave Kandy in the morning, and head straight to Minnerya National Park when you get to Habarana. You won’t need more than half a day for your jeep safari. The amount of elephants I got to see on my safari was astounding – I was hoping for six or seven elephants, instead I got to see entire herds!The next day, I’d get up early to climb Sigiriya (it gets really hot – so the earlier you climb, the better). It’s unlikely that you’ll spend more than half a day here, so you can either head straight to Dambulla to visit the Cave Temple, or relax back at the hotel and head to Dambulla later in the afternoon.
On your third day, pack up your bags and leave your luggage at reception, and have the hotel arrange transportation to Polonnaruwa for you. The ancient city is about 45 minutes away.
Where to stay: Chaaya Village Habarana
Habarana is a small town that is conveniently located to visit Sigiriya, the Dambulla Cave Temple and Kaudulla National Park. Cinnamon has two properties here: the upscale Cinnamon Lodge and the slightly cheaper Chaaya Village, where I was staying. I also visited the Cinnamon Lodge (the two hotels are basically next to each other), but I don’t think I’d pay more to stay there – I loved my time at Chaaya Village and it was my favorite Cinnamon Hotel for wildlife sightings.
The dining and bar area is wide open (with a roof though, to protect you from the frequent monsoon rains) and looks out to the large swimming pool, behind which there were monkey families hanging out on a regular basis. In addition to the monkeys, there were several curious squirrels and lots of bird life around the hotel, which made this animal lover very happy!All rooms are located in little bungalows in a beautiful lush green setting.
Price: Superior double rooms start at $103, including breakfast. A superior double room at the Cinnamon Lodge Habanara starts at $169.
Number of recommended nights: 2
How to get here quickly: If you’re severely strapped for time, you can fly to Sigiriya from Colombo – instead of a 5-hour drive, it’s a quick 35 minute flight. Cinnamon Air offers daily flights.
The Northeast: Trincomalee
Note: I recommend including this stop in your Sri Lanka itinerary if you have enough time and are looking for a good spot to snorkel and whale watch. If you don’t have a lot of time, head straight to the next stop instead, the tea country.
While I didn’t make it to the Northeastern part of Sri Lanka on this trip, I’ve heard fantastic things about Trincomalee and will definitely visit this coastal town on my next visit to Sri Lanka. The area is known for its exceptionally clear waters which make for great snorkeling (particularly Pigeon Island) and there are a couple of noteworthy beaches nearby. In March/April and September/October, Trincomalee is also a fantastic place to join a whale watching tour – blue whales and sperm whales can be seen here.
Where to stay: Chaaya Blu Resort
Cinnamon has one property in Trincomalee, the luxury 4* Chaaya Blu Resort, located right on the beach, a beautiful resort with open dining areas, a large pool facing the ocean and several restaurants, including a crab restaurant. Rates start at only $60 per night per double room here, which is an absolute steal!
Number of recommended nights: 2
How to get there quickly: Cinnamon Air offers flights to Trincomalee from Colombo and Sigiriya.
The Tea Country
I don’t think a Sri Lanka itinerary is complete without a visit to the tea country! In fact, my train rides through the tea plantations and green tea-covered hills are some of the fondest memories of my trip. I will write more about the tea country in a separate post, but if you have enough time, go back to Kandy and take the train to Nuwara Eliya or even all the way to Ella from here. There are some great hikes in this area including the trails in one of Sri Lanka’s most beautiful areas, the uplands of World’s End and Horton Plains (close to Nuwara Eliya) but even if you’re not into hiking, just seeing the scenery from the train and visiting a tea plantation would make the trip worth it.
Where to stay: There are no Cinnamon Hotels in the tea country, but check out these hotels in Ella or hotels in Nuwara Eliya.
Number of recommended nights: 2
Yala National Park
Even though Yala National Park is quite far from the Cultural Triangle, if you’re a wildlife lover, you have to add a safari here to your Sri Lanka itinerary! (Note: if you don’t care too much about leopards, monkeys, birds, elephants, crocodiles, deer and other wild animals, I’d skip Yala and head straight to the beaches).
My main recommendation for Yala: Fork out the money for two safaris – it’s worth it. My morning safari was very different from my evening safari, and you’re more likely to spot a leopard if you head out twice. Jeep safaris with Cinnamon Nature Trails guides can be arranged at the hotel.
Where to stay: Cinnamon Yala
The Cinnamon Hotel in Yala is probably the most beautiful Cinnamon Hotel, and I wish I could’ve stayed here. Just take a look at the pictures! My friend Steve who stayed here even saw an elephant right on the hotel grounds, and that’s not an uncommon occurrence. In fact: you’re not allowed to wander the grounds without a guard accompanying you at night, because there might be an elephant right outside your chalet. Chalets start at $170 per night in low season, breakfast included.
Number of recommended nights: 2
How to get there quickly: If you don’t have much time, you can fly to Yala with Cinnamon Air from Colombo.
The South Coast
After exploring Sri Lanka’s wildlife and cultural heritage, it is time to hit the beach! I’d recommend staying on the south coast, preferably around Galle, so that you can also fit in a day trip to this charming Dutch-Portuguese colonial town (another UNESCO site), which can easily be explored in a few hours.
The most popular beaches here are Hikkaduwa, Unawatuna and Mirissa, and no matter which one you choose, you’ll find yourself at a pristine, palm-fringed tropical beach, perfect for relaxation and recharging your batteries.
Where to stay:
If you want to be right at the beach, check out Booking.com for hotels in Hikkaduwa, Mirissa and Unawatuna in all price categories. You can find everything from basic guesthouses to luxurious 5* hotels, albeit the majority of luxurious hotels sits outside of the towns along the coast.
If you’d like to stay away from it all and enjoy a tranquil part of the beach outside of town, I recommend the 5* Cinnamon Bey in Bentota (double rooms start at $119) or the Chaaya Tranz (double rooms from $109) in Hikkaduwa. Note that Bentota is still pretty far north though – perfect if you don’t want to travel too far to the airport, but Hikkaduwa would be better for you if you’re planning to visit Galle.
Number of recommended nights: 5
Tip: If you have a full two weeks for your vacation, I’d recommend spending an entire week at the beach, or even split your time between two beaches.
If you’d like to experience some city life in Colombo before you leave, a night in Colombo isn’t a bad idea. But if you don’t care much about drinks on rooftop bars and some shopping, extend your stay at the beach instead, skip Colombo, and head straight to the airport from the beach.
In Colombo, I’d recommend checking out the historic fort area, dining in one of the new restaurants in or around the former Dutch hospital (beautiful restored), and heading to the “Red“, the rooftop bar of the Cinnamon Red Hotel, for sunset drinks. If you’d like to see some of Sri Lanka’s dodgier bars, check out the Dodgy Bar Tour which I went on and really enjoyed.
Where to stay in Colombo:
There are three Cinnamon Hotels in Colombo, all of which are fabulous. Cinnamon Grand is the most exquisite one, Cinnamon Lakeside is a popular congress hotel (however, I have to say I loved their swimming pool and lakeside location) and Cinnamon Red is the young and trendy one. I’d probably stay in the latter, which also happens to be the most inexpensive of the three, with rooms starting at $90 per night per double room!
To help you make a decision which one might be the right one for you: Cinnamon Grand feels like a glam Vegas-type hotel with several restaurants, shops and cafes inside the hotel, two swimming pools and a spa, with rates starting at $137 (add $10 for the scrumptious breakfast buffet); Cinnamon Lakeside has 9 different restaurants, a large swimming pool and a health club – rates start at ; Cinnamon Red has the best rooftop pool and bar in the city (at least in my humble opinion) and is decorated in a modern, chic design (can you guess which color is prevalent here?) and has rooms for less than $100 per night.
Number of recommended nights: 1-2