- See the ancient and colonial landmarks of Sri Lanka
- Hike to the top of the Sigiriya rock fortress
- Visit waterfalls and ride trains through Hill Country
- Tour the buildings of famous architect Geoffrey Bawa
|Arrive in Colombo, Transfer to Negombo
|Tour Negombo, Transfer to Sigiriya & Stop in Kajugama
|Tour Sigiriya Rock Fortress, Visit Polonnaruwa
|Transfer to Kandy, Matale Spice Garden & Temple of the Tooth
|Transfer to Ella, Visit Historic Nazareth Chapel
|Train Ride Over Nine Arch Bridge, Zipline Tour
|Transfer to Tangalle, Hike to Diyaluma Falls
|Tour Mulkirigala Rock Temple, Visit Sea Turtle Hatchery
|Transfer to Galle, Visit Japanese Peace Pagoda
|Sri Lankan Mask Carving Workshop, Visit Galle's Dutch Fort
|Transfer to Colombo, Architecture Tour
Day 1: Arrive in Colombo, Transfer to Negombo
Welcome to Sri Lanka! This island nation off the southern coast of India is rich in culture and history, reflected in the country's Buddhist/Hindu landmarks, temples, pagodas, and archeological sites. In Sri Lanka, there are also remnants of ancient kingdoms dating back over 2,000 years, as well as a colonial legacy that began in the early 16th century with the arrival of the Portuguese.
On arrival at the airport in Colombo, a driver will pick you up for the 45-minute ride north to the laid-back beach town of Negombo. Known for its melting pot of Dutch, Portuguese, and British influences, Negombo's golden beaches, peaceful canals, colorful streets, and friendly locals are the perfect introduction to the island. Once here, you'll check in to your hotel and can unwind after the long flight.
Day 2: Tour Negombo, Transfer to Sigiriya & Stop in Kajugama
In the morning, you'll head out on a guided tour of Negombo. The town has a thriving fishing industry, evidenced by its boat-lined beaches and seafood markets. However, Negombo is most famous for its rich colonial heritage, which you'll see in its landmarks. Attractions include holdovers from the Dutch period, like the Dutch Canal and Old Dutch Fort. There's a selection of centuries-old churches, small fishing villages in the surrounding area, and some interesting temples farther inland.
After the tour, your driver will pick you up for the ride northeast to the interior of the country and Sigiriya. It's a three-hour drive, but you'll stop along the way at Kajugama, a small town famous for the crunchy cashews sold by the villagers. Here, you can chat with locals and learn about their lives and culture as you nibble on fresh cashews that have been seasoned and spiced. Then, get back in the car and continue on to Sigiriya, where you'll check in to your hotel.
Day 3: Tour Sigiriya Rock Fortress, Visit Polonnaruwa
Discover one of Sri Lanka's most treasured monuments today as you climb the 1,200 steps to Sigiriya, the remains of a spectacular carved fortress that dates from the late fifth 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 ancient Polonnaruwa, an ancient city that was the capital of Sri Lanka from the 11th-13th centuries. The incredibly well-preserved ruins are centered around the ancient reservoir of Parakrama Samudra, which was built in the fourth century CE. On a tour of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, you'll visit impressive palaces, shrines, and statues. Don't miss the Gal Vihara rock temple complex, famous for its dozens of Buddha statues in various states of reclining, sitting, and standing. Afterward, you'll return to your hotel in Sigiriya.
Day 4: Transfer to Kandy, Matale Spice Garden & Temple of the Tooth
Head south today toward the UNESCO-listed city of Kandy, Sri Lanka's cultural capital and a welcoming gateway to Hill Country. Along the way, stop to explore the cave temple complex of Dambulla, another UNESCO-listed site that dates back to the second century BCE. Wind your way deep into these cliffside caves to admire some of the country's most important religious art. Gilded interiors, painted frescoes, and over 153 Buddha statues line the caves, some of which are still used for meditation by monks. Afterward, hike up to the dramatic clifftops for panoramic views.
Upon arrival in Kandy, tour the city's 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 worldwide, the highlights of this complex include a series of shrines, temples, and gardens.
End the afternoon with a stroll through the National Spice Garden in nearby Matale, where you'll gain insight into Sri Lankan history, botany, and gastronomy. The fragrant gardens here 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. These include cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, mace, chocolate, vanilla, and pepper. After the tour, you can purchase some of your favorite spices to bring a little bit of Sri Lanka home with you.
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.
Day 5: Transfer to Ella, Visit Historic Nazareth Chapel
In the morning, your driver will pick you up for the three-hour drive southwest from Kandy to the town of Ella. It's a spectacular ride as this route winds through the cool and misty valleys of the Hill Country. Your first stop is in Ella's neighboring town of Bandarawela. Famous for its tea plantations, this town thrived during British colonial rule in the 19th and 20th centuries, and many historic buildings remain.
You'll visit one major architectural highlight, the working convent of the Nazareth Chapel of the Good Shepherd. It was designed by renowned Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa (1919-2003) in the 1960s in the Romanesque/Gothic style. After the visit, you'll continue to Ella and check in to your hotel.
Day 6: Train Ride Over Nine Arch Bridge, Zipline Tour
Board a train for a scenic countryside trip around the highlands outside of Ella. Considered one of the most spectacular rail journeys on earth, this stretch of track winds through the cool and misty valleys of Hill Country, passing lush tea plantations, dramatic waterfalls, and green fields dotted with tea pickers draped in brightly-colored saris. It also passes over a stunning historical landmark: the Nine Arches Bridge. This "bridge in the sky" was commissioned by the British in 1921 and was constructed entirely of brick and cement.
After the train ride, you'll get the adrenaline pumping with a visit to Flying Ravana Adventure Park. Here, you'll strap into a two-wire zipline that stretches for more than 1,500 feet (457 m) and carries riders at speeds up to 50 mph (80 kph). As you soar over the treetops, you'll have a bird's eye view of the Hill Country's most breathtaking scenery.
Day 7: Transfer to Tangalle, Hike to Diyaluma FallsLeave Ella behind today on a 2.5-hour scenic drive south to the town of Tangalle, located on Sri Lanka's palm-fringed southern coast. Break up the drive with a stop at the stunning Diyaluma Falls, located just south of Ella. If you choose, you can hike to the top of this 721-foot (220 m) waterfall, the second-highest in Sri Lanka. At the top, you'll find terraced pools perfect for a swim. There are also great views here of the surrounding highlands. After a refreshing dip, continue on to Tangalle, where you'll check in to your hotel.
Day 8: Tour Mulkirigala Rock Temple, Visit Sea Turtle Hatchery
Stretch your legs today with a visit to the rock temple of Mulkirigala, whose cave monastery dates to the third century CE. A series of stairways and terraces take you past a sacred Bo (Bodhi) tree, which is reputed to have grown from a branch of the original Bodhi tree under which Lord Buddha attained enlightenment. Inside are several well-preserved wall paintings and statues dating back to around the fourth century and depicting Buddhist history. A hike to the top will take you to a historic white stupa (shrine), where you'll be rewarded with incredible views of the countryside.
Next up is an unforgettable wildlife experience. The southern coast of Sri Lanka is a haven for a diverse population of sea turtle species—including leatherback, hawksbill, and loggerhead—who congregate in the warm waters offshore. The Rekawa Turtle Watch conservation project helps protect and support this population, and today you'll pay a visit to their hatchery. See the adorable hatchlings, learn about the epic journey from egg to sea, and help support the conservation work that protects these critically endangered animals.
Day 9: Transfer to Galle, Visit Japanese Peace PagodaAfter a leisurely morning in Tangalle, transfer west along the coast for about an hour to Galle. This city enjoys a privileged location on a lovely bay—so lovely it attracted Dutch colonizers in the 17th century, who found it to be a strategic locale to protect their trading interests in the Indian Ocean. To this end, they took over a former Portuguese fort in 1662, and today it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Besides the fort, there are many other Dutch heritage buildings you can see on a walking tour.
After checking in to your hotel in Galle, you'll head a few miles outside of town to the Japanese Peace Pagoda, which you'll visit on a two-hour tour. This Buddhist shrine was built in 2005 by a small order of Japanese Nichiren Buddhists known as the Nipponzan Myōhōji, and it was gifted to Sri Lanka as a (what else?) peace symbol. The shrine has a unique circular shape but is most noteworthy for its stunning views up and down the coast. Getting there requires a short hike up Rumassala Hill, where you'll want to snap plenty of photos of the incredible views.
Day 10: Sri Lankan Mask Carving Workshop, Visit Galle's Dutch Fort
Today, masks are used for Sri Lankan rituals and folk dance performances (kolam), but ancient beliefs also tell of their healing and protective powers. In the morning, you'll learn all about it on a visit to a local artisan's shop. He'll reveal the fascinating, age-old techniques of mask-making, which are still traditionally made from a light wood called kaduru. Follow your host's guidance as you mold your creations using sustainable resources such as recycled paper, kithul (treacle), kurundu (cinnamon), clay, broken tiles, beeswax, and even cow dung.
Discover more of Galle in the afternoon with a relaxed walking tour. This beautiful colonial town is surrounded on three sides by the Indian Ocean and features the largest occupied fort in Asia. Built by the Portuguese and later extended by the Dutch in 1663, the UNESCO-listed fortress spans over 90 acres (36 ha). Amid Galle's wealth of fascinating architecture, you'll find Dutch-colonial buildings, historic mosques, grand mansions, and museums. Wander the streets at your own pace and visit stylish cafés, shops, and boutique hotels owned by local and ex-pat artists and designers.
Day 11: Transfer to Colombo, Architecture TourIn the morning, your driver will pick you up for the 1.5-hour drive north up the coast to Colombo. On the way there, you'll stop to appreciate some of the finest architecture in and around the capital. The buildings you'll see today were all designed by the acclaimed architect Geoffrey Bawa. His tropical modernist style, denoted by open communal areas and pavilions, is so iconic that it's become part of the identity of Sri Lanka and much of Asia.
Your first stop is at Bawa's country estate of Lunuganga, located south of Colombo on a rolling green hill overlooking a lake. Bawa purchased the derelict property in 1948 and spent the next 50 years painstakingly transforming it into one of the finest examples of Bawa architecture in the country. Enjoy a stroll around the well-manicured gardens.
Once in Colombo, you'll visit Number 11, which was designed in 1958 and was Bawa's main residence. On a guided tour, you'll see art and artifacts that belonged to the late architect. Your guide will also reveal insight into Bawa's contemporaries like architect Barbara Minette and Ena de Silva, master of batik textile embroidery. Continue to Gallery Café, once Bawa's office but is now a relaxed café and art gallery. Finally, visit Seema Malaka, a Buddhist temple on Beira Lake that Bawa redesigned in the 1970s. End the day by attending an exhibition or visiting a textile store before retiring to your hotel.