From the UNESCO-listed ruins of the Cultural Triangle to the historic Indian Ocean fortress of Galle, this nine-day introduction to Sri Lanka rounds up all the highlights of the island's south and central regions. Explore the ancient civilizations of Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa, tour the sacred temples of Kandy, take a breathtaking train journey through the tea fields of Ella, and head off-road in search of rare wildlife in Yala National Park.

Highlights

  • Climb the ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya
  • Take a fragrant tour of the National Spice Garden
  • Wind through Sri Lanka's scenic tea country by train
  • Search for leopards & elephants on safari in Yala National Park
  • Go whale watching off the coast of Galle

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Colombo, Transfer to Sigiriya Sigiriya
Day 2 Climb Sigiriya Rock Fortress, Explore Ancient Polonnaruwa Sigiriya
Day 3 Transfer to Kandy, Visit the Temple of the Tooth & Matale Spice Garden  Kandy
Day 4 Scenic Train Journey to Ella Ella
Day 5 Explore Ella: Demodara Bridge, Little Adam’s Peak & Tea Factory Tour Ella
Day 6 Transfer to Yala National Park, Search for Leopards on Safari Yala
Day 7 Transfer to Galle, Sunset at the Japanese Peace Pagoda Galle
Day 8 Explore Galle's Dutch Fort, Whale Watching Excursion Galle
Day 9 Transfer to Colombo & Depart  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Colombo, Transfer to Sigiriya

Hit the ground running with an afternoon safari in Minneriya National Park

Welcome to Sri Lanka! Upon arrival at Bandaranaike International Airport, you'll get your first taste of the island's warm hospitality as you're greeted by your representative and escorted to your accommodations in Sigiriya. The rest of the afternoon is at your leisure: you can opt to rest up after your flight or head out on safari at nearby Minneriya National Park, the largest gathering place for Asian elephants on earth.

At the heart of the protected reserve, you'll find the great Minneriya Tank Reservoir, built in the 3rd century CE under the rule of King Mahasen. This vast freshwater source draws elephants from all over the country in the dry summer season, who congregate to drink, bathe, and socialize on its peaceful shores. While the elephants may be the star attractions, keep your eyes open as you explore the park by Jeep—its grasslands and forests are also home to rare Sri Lankan leopards, sloth bears, langur monkeys, and remarkable birdlife. 

Day 2: Climb Sigiriya Rock Fortress, Explore Ancient Polonnaruwa

Ascend the carved fortress of Sigiriya
Ascend the carved fortress of Sigiriya

Explore one of Sri Lanka's most treasured monuments today as you climb the 1,200 steps to Sigiriya, a spectacular carved fortress that dates from the late 5th century CE. Admire the intact 1,600-year-old frescoes and other relics of the UNESCO-listed site as you ascend through giant carved lion's paws to reach the top—where you'll be rewarded with sweeping views across the surrounding countryside. The countless hidden wonders along the way make the long climb relatively easy, but you can also opt for a less strenuous hike to the halfway point.

Then it's on to more ancient wonders at Polonnaruwa, the medieval capital of Sri Lanka. Once a thriving city that ruled the island from the 11th through 13th centuries, today, you'll find the incredibly preserved ruins of this ancient city dotted around the central, ancient reservoir of Parakrama Samudra. Discover impressive palaces, shrines, and statues within the UNESCO World Heritage Site, and don't miss a visit to the Gal Vihara temple complex, where you'll find dozens of statues of reclining, sitting, and standing Buddhas.

Day 3: Transfer to Kandy, Temple of the Tooth & Matale Spice Garden

Views across Lake Kandy to the Royal Palace

Transfer south today to Kandy, considered Sri Lanka's cultural capital and welcoming gateway to the Hill Country. Discover more of the UNESCO-listed city with a tour of its Royal Palace, which sits on the edge of serene Lake Kandy and houses the sacred tooth relic of Lord Buddha within the Dalada Maligwa (Temple of the Tooth). An important pilgrimage site for Buddhists from all over the world, an evocative soundtrack of traditional drumming sets the scene as you explore its series of shrines, temples, and gardens.

In the afternoon, visit the National Spice Garden in nearby Matale for a fascinating insight into Sri Lankan history, botany, and gastronomy. The fragrant gardens are home to an exotic collection of trees, bushes, and flowers, all of which lend their flavors and spices to the diverse melting pot of Sri Lanka's cuisine. Follow your guide as they lead you through aromatic cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, mace, chocolate, vanilla, and pepper. At the end, you can even buy some of your favorite spices to bring a little bit of Sri Lanka home with you. 

As evening falls, experience a vibrant spectacle of dance, acrobatics, costumes, and music at a cultural performance. Originating from a dance performed by Indian shamans, Kandyan dancing plays an important role in Sri Lankan culture and is a much-anticipated event during the local Perahera festival processions. Watch traditional dances depicting birds and animals, energetic, acrobatic performances of leaping pirouettes, and stunts like plate-spinning and the dramatic "fire walk," which ends the show.

Day 4: Scenic Train Journey to Ella

Keep your camera at the ready on today's scenic train journey
Hop onto a train today for an unforgettable trip into the heart of Sri Lanka's tea country and reach the charming highland village of Ella. Considered one of the most spectacular rail journeys on earth, this stretch of track winds through the cool and misty valleys of the Hill Country, passing lush tea plantations, dramatic waterfalls, and green fields dotted with tea pickers draped in brightly-colored saris.

Day 5: Explore Ella: Demodara Bridge, Little Adam’s Peak & Tea Factory Tour

Tour a local tea estate to see how the perfect cup of Ceylon is grown

Spend today exploring more of the stunning countryside around Ella. Start the morning with dizzying views over dense jungle and pastoral fields at the famous Demodara Nine Arch Bridge, then climb past lush tea estates, waterfalls, and rice fields to reach one of Sri Lanka's highest peaks. Rising 3,743 feet (1,141 m) above the surrounding landscape, the gentle trek up Punchi Sri Pada or Little Adam's Peak rewards hikers with a breathtaking panorama across the valleys and fields below. 

If you're feeling adventurous, take an adrenaline-pumping excursion to the Flying Ravana Adventure Park, where you can soar across the Ella Gap by zipline, then end the afternoon with a tour of a local tea estate and factory. Help pick tea leaves in the fields, then visit the factory to learn about the process of fermentation, rolling, drying, cutting, sieving, and grading. There are machines for almost every part of the process except the all-important tasting at the end—where you'll discover the difference between varieties and qualities of Ceylon tea.

Day 6: Transfer to Yala National Park, Search for Leopards on Safari

Search for rare Sri Lankan leopards in Yala National Park

Transfer south this morning toward the wilds of Yala National Park, where you can get settled in and then set out into the park on an afternoon safari. Covering almost 621 square miles (1,000 km), Yala is the second-largest national park in Sri Lanka, and its savannah-like landscape of dry thorn scrub and forest glades makes it the perfect environment for wildlife spotting. On today's Jeep safari, you'll spot a diverse array of flora and fauna, from peacocks to elephants, and if you're lucky, catch a glimpse of an elusive Sri Lankan leopard.

Day 7: Transfer to Galle, Sunset at the Japanese Peace Pagoda

Climb to the Japanese Peace Pagoda over Galle in time for a colorful Indian Ocean sunset
Rise early this morning for another safari in Yala National Park, spotting more diverse wildlife as the sun rises. Afterward, you'll get back on the road and transfer west along the coast to the historic fortified city of Galle. After settling in, get your bearings with an afternoon hike to the nearby Japanese Peace Pagoda. Located at the summit of Rumassala Hill, this beautiful white structure was built as a monument to peace on the island. Its elevated position offers far-reaching views across the Indian Ocean coast and spectacular sunsets.  

Day 8: Explore Galle's Dutch Fort, Whale Watching Excursion

The Indian Ocean surrounds the fortified city of Galle on three sides

Discover more of Galle today with a relaxed walking tour. This beautiful colonial town is surrounded on three sides by the Indian Ocean and houses the largest occupied fort in Asia. Built by the Portuguese and later extended by the Dutch in 1663, the UNESCO-listed site spans over 90 acres. Amid the wealth of fascinating architecture, you'll find Dutch-colonial buildings, historic mosques, grand mansions, and museums.

In the afternoon, get out on the water with a whale and dolphin watching excursion. The seas around nearby Mirissa offer some of the best whale spotting in the country, and keen-eyed observers might see blue, Bryde's, sperm, and fin whales breaching and pods of common, bottlenose, and spinner dolphins frolicking in the waves.

Day 9: Transfer to Colombo & Depart

Dusk over Colombo's Seema Malakaya Temple
Dusk over Colombo's Seema Malakaya Temple

Your adventure draws to a close today as you bid Galle farewell and transfer back to Colombo. If you have time before your flight, explore more of the commercial capital's highlights, like Independence Square, the famous Red Mosque, Colombo Fort, and the Old Parliament. For some quiet, head to the oceanfront Galle Face Green, a favorite hangout spot for locals and tourists alike, or take a break in Viharamahadevi Devi Park, where you'll find tall flowering trees and lots of green space in the city's largest and oldest park.

When the time comes, your driver will transfer you to the airport to catch your departing flight. Safe travels and ayubowan (the traditional Sri Lankan blessing of long life).

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Map of Sri Lanka Highlights: Sigiriya, Kandy, Ella, Yala & Galle - 9 Days
Map of Sri Lanka Highlights: Sigiriya, Kandy, Ella, Yala & Galle - 9 Days