I just spent 30 days in Sri Lanka. I would have spent more time here, but Sri Lanka only gives a 30-day tourist visa (which can be extended, however) so I decided to stick with exactly those 30 days to explore Sri Lanka.
This wasn’t my first time in Sri Lanka though. I had been to the country twice before and had a good idea about the places I wanted to visit this time. Plus, I received some very helpful input from friends living in Sri Lanka. That being said, even now that I have spent a total of nearly 3 months in Sri Lanka I still don’t feel I have seen it all. So, this article won’t be about the places you HAVE to visit or the things you HAVE to see. I simply want to share with you the places I chose to visit during my 30 days in Sri Lanka and how I feel about these places.
WARNING: Lonely Planet listed Sri Lanka as the ‘top country to visit in 2019‘. To be honest, I don’t understand why. No offense to my Sri Lankan friends nor anyone who did fall in love with the country, but it is not at the top of my favorite countries list. So, this article is going to be a very honest review of the places I visited and how I felt about them.
30 Days in Sri Lanka: Places to Visit & Places NOT to Visit
Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, is the logical first stop for most people traveling to Sri Lanka. Although the airport is actually closer to Negombo, a smaller town just north of Colombo. So you could easily decide to spend your first, or your last, night in Negombo instead.
I had visited Colombo several times before and never liked it much. The only reason why we spent a few days here this time is because we decided to drive around Sri Lanka and needed to get a driving permit.
Colombo is not too dissimilar to many other Asian capitals: sprawling, polluted and congested. Not as much as the worst Asian cities though, but to me, Colombo doesn’t have much to offer the average traveler.
Colombo is probably more enjoyable at the end of your trip through Sri Lanka though than at the beginning. As the friends I met up with in Colombo said: “Colombo is great for getting international food and experiences and that is exactly what most travelers aren’t looking for when they just arrive to Sri Lanka”. They were right. I was craving authentic Sri Lankan food once I landed in Sri Lanka (it’s delicious and I had really missed it!) and wasn’t looking for Western shops and influences. But, towards the end of my 30 days in Sri Lanka, no matter how much I enjoyed all the egg hoppers and Sri Lankan curries, I was looking forward to some different food and a good cappuccino!
Colombo has some great coffee shops, rooftop bars, luxury hotels and the best shopping in the country.
If you choose to stay in Colombo I highly recommend going for a sunset cocktail at Galle Face Hotel (outside on their terrace). Enjoy some street food on the Galle Face green, or go for a more upmarket meal at the Dutch Hospital. Have a drink at a rooftop bar – we went to the rooftop bar at the Mövenpick hotel – or splurge on dinner at the Mount Lavinia Hotel.
Unfortunately Colombo, although on the coast, doesn’t have much of a beach. You will have to go down to Mount Lavinia to enjoy a good beach.
With its low cost of living and sizeable international community, I can understand why expats would live in Colombo. But as a traveler, I would recommend not to spend too much time here.
Tip: to get around Colombo use the PickMe or Uber app.
Where to Stay in Colombo
If your budget allows it I would highly recommend staying at the Galle Face Hotel. It’s a beautiful historic hotel (they proudly show all the celebrities that have stayed here) with a great location and an incredible breakfast.
If you are looking for a quieter hotel with a similar historic charm, I loved staying at the Mount Lavinia Hotel. This hotel is located quite far south of central Colombo though, so it’s quite a long taxi or tuk-tuk ride into the city.
On this last trip I went for a cheaper option, Mrs. Pepperpots guesthouse. The location was nice (right next door to a lovely coffee shop), the hotel itself quite basic but not bad for the price.
2. Galle Fort
This is one of the places I definitely would recommend visiting when spending 30 days in Sri Lanka.
Galle Fort was built first in 1588 by the Portuguese, then extensively fortified by the Dutch during the 17th century. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site that illustrates the European influence in South East Asia.
Go here to see a quite well-preserved fort, to learn a bit about Sri Lanka’s history and to enjoy the atmosphere. Inside the fort, you find narrow streets with cute restaurants, cafés, and guesthouses.
I love just walking around Galle Fort to take in the sights and explore the area, stopping at cafés and art galleries along the way.
I would recommend spending just two nights here since Galle Fort is small and doesn’t require a lot of time to explore.
Tip: if you are looking for a cute café inside Galle Fort, I loved both Serendipity Café and Poonie’s Kitchen.
Where to Stay in Galle Fort
I have no good recommendations for where to stay in Galle Fort. I have been here twice now and both guesthouses I stayed at were quite basic.
I found this a huge downside to traveling in Sri Lanka. You easily pay $30-$40 for a hotel room, which is a lot more expensive than in most other Asian countries. Yet the guesthouses or hotels that charge these rates are incredibly basic, often lack atmosphere and aren’t always as clean as you might have hoped.
The one thing I do highly recommend when looking for places to stay in Galle, is to choose a place inside Galle Fort. Accommodation inside the fort is slightly more expensive than outside the fort, but it really is all about the fort and the atmosphere inside it, so staying inside the walls will definitely give you the best experience.
Drone video of Unawatuna Beach – by Sean Webb
Unawatuna is a coastal town and a major tourist attraction in Sri Lanka. We read about the beautiful beaches in Unawatuna and decided to spend a few days here.
If you ask me, Unawatuna is one of the places NOT worth visiting in Sri Lanka. Ok, maybe that’s a bit too negative. Unawatuna does have a long stretch of beach and lots of restaurants right on the beach, meaning it’s a good place for (day) drinking on the beach and working on that suntan.
Unawatuna just lacks atmosphere in my opinion. It’s largely European (especially Russian) tourists sunbathing all day and a long row of restaurants, bars, and hotels that cater exclusively to them. On top of that, the beach isn’t as beautiful as some perfectly edited pictures might make you believe.
But, Unawatuna does offer some good water sports and an affordable stay by the beach. And, if you are looking for those perfect Instagram pictures, Unawatuna Beach is close to the small beach with the famous swing (marked as “The Palm Rope Swing” on Google Maps):
And if you continue driving east along the coast you will find the next “instafamous” spot: the stilt fishermen. Be aware that you won’t find actual fishermen here anymore but instead a few clever locals who wait around for tourists willing to pay to take a picture of them pretending to engage in this traditional fishing method…
Note: Hikkaduwa is another popular coastal town. I find Unawatuna and Hikkaduwa quite similar and therefore couldn’t recommend one over the other. Both offer a wide range of small hotels, restaurants on the beach and plenty of tourists all year round.
Where to Stay in Unawatuna
We stayed at No Name Rest. The rooms were spacious, which was great, but other than that the hotel wasn’t anything special and didn’t offer complimentary breakfast (I just love a good hotel breakfast!).
Although I can’t recommend a specific hotel in Unawatuna I do recommend staying by Unawatuna Beach, since that’s where all the action is.
I really liked Tangalle! If you have 30 days in Sri Lanka, or are planning any multi-week Sri Lanka itinerary, I definitely recommend taking the journey down to Tangalle.
Tangalle is one of the largest towns in Sri Lanka’s southern provinces, but you really go here for the beaches.
Tangalle comprises of several beautiful bays, starting at Goyambokka in the west, all the way to Tangalle Beach north-east of the center of Tangalle.
I would recommend checking out Tangalle Beach, but also definitely Goyambokka Beach, which is a cute small cove with a few simple but nice cafés/restaurants right on the beach.
Although Tangalle does cater to tourists it just feels more laid back and less taken over by tourists than Unawatuna, Hikkaduwa, and Mirissa.
Where to Stay in Tangalle
We decided to just drive to Tangalle and find a place by Goyambokka Beach. Unfortunately the nicest places there were either booked or charged more than we wanted to spend. We eventually found a small guesthouse but neither one of us can remember the name. It wasn’t that incredible of a place, so it doesn’t really matter.
I did love staying at Goyambokka Beach which is just such a nice, relaxed bay. After dark, we had the beach practically to ourselves which was a nice change from busy Unawatuna!
I also loved the look of Cinnabar Resort on Tangalle Beach. I would probably try to stay in their tree house if I’d ever go back to Tangalle.
Udawalawe is a small town that in itself doesn’t have much to offer visitors. People go here to visit Udawalawe National Park.
Together with Yala National Park, Udawalawe is the most popular park in Sri Lanka for wildlife safaris. We were told though that Yala gets a lot more crowded (think Jeep traffic jams inside the park…) so we decided to go to Udawalawe National Park.
To be honest, it’s a bit more of a tourist attraction than I would like. Dozens of jeeps enter the park at any time and everyone drives in similar directions, on the lookout for elephants. These elephants are by now so used to the cars that they will happily approach you and might even try to steal your bag (which is a very entertaining interaction with an elephant!). But, that also makes it feel less authentic…
I liked Udawalawe National Park though and loved the abundance of wildlife we got to see. Animals you can expect to see in Udawalawe National Park are: elephants, water buffalo, wild boar, deer, jackal, mongooses, foxes, monitors and other lizards, crocodiles, and many birds.
But, it can’t compete with driving around Sri Lanka and seeing an elephant along the road! It almost felt like that was seeing a “real elephant” and the park was like seeing elephants in a zoo…
You can book a safari through most hotels and often get the whole jeep to yourself – with a driver of course. The best times of day to visit Udawalawe National Park are early in the morning or in the afternoon. Unfortunately, especially for keen photographers, you have to be out of the park before sunset.
Where to Stay in Udawalawe
We stayed at two different places in Udawalawe and I can highly recommend both!
The first night we stayed at Kottawatta Village. It’s the closest thing I have seen to ‘glamping’ in Sri Lanka and I loved it! They have a number of luxury tents, two swimming pools, good breakfast, and delicious dinner (charged extra). What I loved most was the setting: it’s a fun experience to sleep in a (luxury) tent before or after you go on a safari. And as I was sitting on our terrace, trying to get some work done on my laptop, monkeys and squirrels were playing in the trees around me… One of my better hotel experiences in Sri Lanka!
Unfortunately, or maybe luckily, Kottawatta Village only had a room available for one night, so the second night we had to move somewhere else. I found this ‘homestay’ (renting a room from locals) called Milk House Cottage that had raving reviews. And the reviews were definitely justified! It’s currently just one, very cute, stand-alone cottage in a family’s back yard. It’s basic, without air conditioning, but if you don’t mind that then the experience is absolutely worth it! The son, who runs it, has a background in hospitality and is one of the friendliest Sri Lankans I met! They cooked us a delicious dinner and even offered to take us on a hike, which we, unfortunately, didn’t have time for.
By staying at homestays you directly help local families. This generally helps local communities much more than staying at larger hotels that are often either foreign owned or owned by Sri Lanka’s wealthiest families.
Tip: there isn’t a whole lot to do in Udawalawe apart from the safari, so one or two nights here would be enough.
I first visited Ella six years ago when it was still very much an off the beaten track destination in Sri Lanka. That has definitely changed! Busloads of tourists visit this tiny town surrounded by mountains, tea plantations, and waterfalls.
Ok, ‘busloads’ might make it sound a bit more overrun by tourists than it really is, but I saw several large tour buses while I was here and that has definitely made it more of a mainstream tourist destination than it once was…
That being said, I still like Ella. If you are into the outdoors, Ella offers some great hikes with stunning views. You can visit a tea plantation or check out the Nine Arch Bridge which has become one of Sri Lanka’s popular photography spots.
Ella’s main road is packed with laid back cafés and restaurants, perfect for a low key evening out, surrounded by other like-minded travelers. And, the cooler climate is a welcome change from the hot weather on the coast!
Tip: if you are looking for a fancier night out, whether it’s just for a drink or for a nice meal, go to 98 Acres Resort. Their terrace has a stunning view!
Where to Stay in Ella
Unfortunately I don’t have any good recommendations for where to stay in Ella. I have stayed in two different guest houses and both were just ok. With the influx of tourists, everyone and their uncle seems to open a guesthouse / homestay. That’s great, and helps them provide a living for themselves. But, I found the majority of mid-range accommodation in Ella quite basic and overpriced for what you get. Thankfully most of then do offer delicious breakfasts and have very friendly owners.
I would suggest staying close to the town center because it’s quite hilly around Ella and therefore not an easy walk into town if you are further out. And if you feel like splurging, check out 98 Acres Resort, their rooms with thatched roofs and stunning views of the valley look incredible!
If I had to recommend just one off the beaten track destination in Sri Lanka, it would be Komari. During off season especially, because during high season (May to September) Komari is actually a popular spot for surfing.
After having visited so many popular tourist destinations in Sri Lanka it was great to find ourselves on a completely deserted beach!
Komari is a tiny town with nothing going on. You come here solely to enjoy the beach, the surf during surf season or the peace and quiet during off season.
We spent a lovely day and night in a beach cabana with sea view, enjoyed a home cooked Sri Lankan meal, the beach, and a stunning sunrise.
Tip: Panama, not far south of Komari, is a small town worth exploring for the day. It has a beautiful beach and completely unspoilt feel to it.
Where to Stay in Komari
If you are looking for a unique place to stay in Sri Lanka, Hilltop Cabanas definitely is one I would recommend.
Ok, anyone who knows me knows I love tree houses, beach huts or any type of accommodation that is just “different” so that explains why I loved this place.
A cross between a tree house and a beach hut, our cabana was only steps away from the beach and high enough to offer a sea view overlooking the palm trees and other tropical vegetation…
We were the only ones staying here that night, which added to the relaxed, ‘getting away from the world’ atmosphere.
Note: the cabanas are basic (no air conditioning, no hot water, limited wifi) and it’s a long drive along a sandy road to get here. But, if you are ok with that it’s a perfect place to chill for a few days!
8. Arugam Bay
While I loved Komari during low season, I found neighboring Arugam Bay disappointing this time of year.
Just like Komari, Arugam Bay is a popular destination for surfers. Arugam Bay is much more developed, however. The beach is lined with hotels and guesthouses and the street behind it offers numerous restaurants and some cafés.
To me, it felt like a typical tourist town anywhere in the world during low season: most hotels are practically empty, many restaurants are closed, and the ones that are open lack atmosphere because there is nobody there…
During surf season, however, I could see Arugam Bay being a fun town with a nice vibe. And although clearly built around tourism, it has a different atmosphere than beach towns such as Hikkaduwa and Unawatuna, probably simply because it caters to surfers.
Pasikuda is a resort town on Sri Lanka’s east coast. We stopped here by accident, but apparently it’s a popular destination for people looking for a resort on the beach.
And that is exactly what you can find here: a long stretch of beach lined with 3-, 4- and 5-star resorts.
It’s a nice beach (although somewhat polluted as soon as you move away from the resorts) with some really nice resorts. I really enjoyed relaxing here for a couple of days, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to get here.
I enjoyed walking along the beach all the way to Elephant Rock Beach (if you look at Google Maps that doesn’t seem possible, but it is) and lazing around the pool and on the beach. The resorts also offer some water sports and several have a spa. Other than that the town itself doesn’t offer much. It’s even difficult to find a restaurant outside of the resorts.
Where to Stay in Pasikuda
We stayed at Amethyst Resort. It’s one of the cheaper resorts in Pasikuda, right on the beach. With its spacious rooms, nice beach and good food it was good value for money. The service wasn’t the best though and there are definitely more beautiful resorts in Pasikuda. I loved the look of Maalu Maalu Resort if you are willing to spend a bit more.
Polonnaruwa is a city with lots of traffic, that to us felt like one of the more chaotic and unattractive cities in Sri Lanka. The reason people visit Polonnaruwa, however, is to see the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Polonnaruwa was the second capital of Sri Lanka after the destruction of Anuradhapura in 993. Polonnaruwa’s Ancient City is considered one of the best preserved historic cities in the world. And although this site doesn’t make many must-visit lists for shorter trips to Sri Lanka, if you have 30 days in Sri Lanka Polonnaruwa’s Ancient City is worth a visit!
The archaeological park, with hundreds of ancient structures – tombs and temples, statues and stupas is said to be much better preserved than Anuradhapura, which is why we chose to visit Polonnaruwa instead of Anuradhapura.
Tip: get here early and you will have the ancient sites practically to yourself! Also, many guesthouses offer bicycles which are a great way to get around between the different sites inside the ancient city.
Where to Stay in Polonnaruwa
Hotel Suda Araliya is a nice, slightly more upmarket hotel on the lake. But, Polonnaruwa as a city doesn’t have a lot to offer and you only need half a day to visit the ancient city. Therefore if I could do it again I would probably visit Polonnaruwa’s Ancient City as a day trip from Sigiriya or Dambulla, instead of staying in Polonnaruwa.
Now I would say Sigiriya is a must-visit on any trip to Sri Lanka. But especially if you have 30 days in Sri Lanka, Sigiriya is worth going to, even if you visit nothing else in the area.
Sigiriya, also called Lion Rock, is one of the most valuable historical monuments of Sri Lanka.
This ancient palace and fortress complex was built in the late 5th century and is now a main tourist destination.
The fortress complex includes remnants of a ruined palace surrounded by an extensive network of fortifications, vast gardens, ponds, canals, alleys, and fountains. Sigiriya in another UNESCO World Heritage Site in Sri Lanka.
You have two options if you are interested in seeing Sigiriya: you can climb Sigiriya itself to see all of the historical remains, or you can climb neighboring Pidurangala rock, for a good view of Sigiriya.
If you only have time to do one of the two I would recommend to climb Sigiriya. But, Pidurangala does give you a great view of Sigiriya and a good understanding of just how big Sigiriya is and how unique. Plus, watching the sunset while looking out at Sigiriya is great!
Note: both charge an entrance fee and both get quite crowded.
Sigiriya as a town has a few cafés and restaurants catering to tourists, but other than that it doesn’t offer much.
Where to Stay in Sigiriya
I have visited Sigiriya twice and ended up in a very mediocre guesthouse both times.
But, I did see a cute looking treehouse called Sigiriya Aliya Treehouse which is probably where I would try to stay next time!
12. Jaffna & the North
Sri Lanka has had a long civil war that left deep scars, especially in the Jaffna region. For a long time, Sri Lanka’s northern region was a no go area for tourists.
The war ended in 2009, things have gotten a lot better, and Jaffna and the surrounding areas are slowly seeing more tourists coming their way.
This was the main reason why we wanted to go here: it’s the least touristy part of the country and therefore most likely to give you an authentic experience. Unfortunately, travel blogs and magazines made it sound a bit better than it is… Jaffna is a bit of a hectic, congested city that reminded me of many Indian cities (albeit smaller and not as hectic). We wanted to stay outside of Jaffna to see the apparently beautiful beaches and islands but even Sri Lankans couldn’t help us find accommodation outside of Jaffna.
But, it definitely is different from the rest of Sri Lanka and therefore worth a visit. You get to explore a region emerging from more than twenty years of isolation and civil war. The people are friendly and seem excited to see tourists. And, the food is cheap, delicious and just a bit different from the rest of the country.
Don’t expect the area to be as beautiful as some of the pictures make you believe though, and be aware that there aren’t a lot of tourist facilities yet.
Note: allegedly public transport is limited around Jaffna. We rented a car in Sri Lanka so we didn’t have to use public transport, but it is something to keep in mind. Tuktuks in the north are even cheaper than in most of the rest of the country though, so it won’t be a real issue.
Where to Stay in Jaffna
We found it difficult to find a hotel, guesthouse or homestay with any type of character or atmosphere in Jaffna. After a night in a mediocre hotel where the room smelled of old sweat, we decided to go for some luxury.
We stayed at North Gate by Jetwing. It’s definitely one of the more upscale hotels in Jaffna and although not within everyone’s budget, it was good value for money and we really enjoyed a bit of relaxing here during our hectic 30-day trip.
Kalpitiya is a famous destination for kite surfers. I somehow expected this would mean an area packed with affordable guesthouses and laid back bars and restaurants.
That’s not exactly what we found in Kalpitiya. Well, I was quite correct about the guesthouses. There are plenty of them, mainly on the west coast and on Kalpitiya lagoon. At $35 or more, per night, they weren’t as cheap as I expected though and bars and restaurants, outside of the guesthouses, barely exist.
But, Kalpitiya is still one of the places I would recommend visiting! The beaches are nice, the vibe in most guest houses is very relaxed and watching the kite surfers is great (or of course go kite surfing yourself). And although most of the kite surfers are tourists, it doesn’t at all have that standard touristy vibe a place like Unawatuna has.
Tip: visit the BNKR Café if you are looking for good coffee or lunch outside of your guesthouse.
Where to Stay in Kalpitiya
We didn’t book anything in advance and as we arrived to Kalpitiya found many places fully booked or more expensive than we were willing to spend.
We ended up staying at Diyamba Beach Resort. The ‘resort’ was basic (no hot water), but the location is good, so was the food and it had a nice vibe. The Blue Whale Resort right next door looked a lot better though!
Bentota is a resort town not far south of Colombo. It has some of the best beaches in Sri Lanka and is a perfect place to take a break from it all, either at a beach resort or a local guest house.
We ended our intense 30-day road trip through Sri Lanka with a few days of relaxing in Bentota…
I wrote a separate article about what to see and do in Bentota, and where to stay.
Tips for 30 Days in Sri Lanka
First of all, Sri Lanka is bigger than you may think and you won’t be able to see it all in 30 days. If you only have one month in Sri Lanka, you will have to make some choices and visit the places that sound best to you. I would say you need at least 3 nights in each place to enjoy it and don’t feel too rushed. So 10 places is about the maximum I would recommend visiting when you stay in Sri Lanka for 30 days.
Apart from the information I gave above about places to visit and places not to visit in Sri Lanka, I definitely recommend taking the train journey from Kandy to Ella. Although it is a long one, it is absolutely beautiful!
I wouldn’t spend too much time in Kandy – I had visited on a previous trip to Sri Lanka which is why I didn’t visit Kandy this time at all, since for me it just doesn’t offer enough to be worth more than a quick, one time visit.
And whatever you do, please don’t ride an elephant! Click here if you want to read more about why we really shouldn’t support any organization that offers elephant riding.
I would also recommend skipping the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. You will see several elephants in chains and the orphanage has been widely criticized over the years. I don’t claim to know all the ins & outs, so please read further reviews to make an informed decision, but for me, the negative reviews were enough of a reason to choose to skip it.
As I mentioned before, mid-range accommodation in Sri Lanka tends to be of lower quality than in other Asian countries. I would recommend going for homestays and more alternative accommodation types (treehouses, beach cabanas, glamping) for a unique experience or go for luxury accommodation. The standard US$ 30-40 rooms often left me very disappointed and came with complimentary cockroaches more than once. And to know that I could have twice the quality accommodation in Thailand, India or most other Asian countries, really annoyed me!
I hope you found my honest review of 30 days in Sri Lanka useful! Enjoy your trip and please comment below if you would like to know more about traveling around Sri Lanka!
- Things You Need to Know About Driving in Sri Lanka
- Interview With an Expat About Life in Colombo, Sri Lanka
Map of My 30 Days in Sri Lanka Itinerary
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The majority of the pictures in this article about a month in Sri Lanka were taken by my travel partner and photographer Sean Webb
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