Sri Lanka travel guide: favourite hotels, cuisine, recommended places to visit

This Sri Lanka travel guide is designed for people who are interested in visiting Sri Lanka for a short period (a week or two), who enjoy savoury spicy cuisine and want something more than a beach holiday.

Sitting and reclining Buddhas inside Dambulla cave temple

Sitting and reclining Buddhas inside Dambulla cave temple

Why visit Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka is an island that lies southwest of India, closest to the state of Tamil Nadu, and has been inhabited for over 2,500 years. It is a largely Buddhist country with a small population of Christians, Hindus and Muslims.

  • Rich history: The island is dotted with ancient temples and fortresses, as well as tea plantations and buildings dating back to the Dutch and British colonial eras.
  • Natural beauty: Sri Lanka is considered to have the highest biodiversity in Asia and the government has taken steps to protect endangered species by setting up national parks and bird sanctuaries. Some of the great pleasures of visiting Sri Lanka are marvelling at the beautiful tropical flowers and trees, listening to the birds sing every morning, and watching a wild elephant cross the road. The spice gardens are amazing places to visit because you see where many of our spices, such as vanilla, cinnamon, and cardamom, come from.
  • Warm climate and pristine beaches: Unlike many places in Asia, Sri Lanka’s beaches have not yet been ruined by mass tourist developments. As a result you can find long stretches of coastline all to yourself.
  • Great food: Sri Lanka has some of the very best cuisine in the world because the island grows a large variety of spices. Its climate and rich soil make it ideal for growing a vast array of tropical fruits and vegetables. Being an island, seafood is popular and inexpensive.
  • The 25-year civil war in Sri Lanka came to an end in 2009 and the country has been upgrading its physical infrastructure (airports, roads, highways and communications) to attract tourism and business. When I visited last January 2014, the new highway between Galle and Colombo had already been opened, cutting the travel time between the southernmost part of the island (Galle) to Colombo from almost four hours to 1.5 hour. I found that many roads are in good condition, although in the interior of the country, much work still needs to be done. Road trips take longer than expected because some roads have only 2 lanes and overtaking slow-moving lorries is quite an ordeal.
  • Sri Lanka is much cleaner than India. It is less populated and is not as chaotic as India.

Recommended Sri Lanka one-week itinerary

I suggest that you arrange your trip in Sri Lanka via a local tour agency. The agency I used is Sri Lankan Expeditions. They can create an itinerary to suit your needs and provide a car or van with a guide/driver who knows the local roads. Road signage is not that good in Sri Lanka and you will waste valuable time getting lost.

If you have only one week in Sri Lanka, here is a suggested itinerary, which allows you to spend two nights in each place, so you’re not driving long distances every day.

(1) Two nights in Dambulla: from Colombo airport, drive to Dambulla and stay at the Heritance Kandalama (read our review of this fabulous hotel). Dambulla is an excellent base for visiting the following impressive sights:

  • Dambulla Cave Temple (also known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla): the largest and best preserved network of caves in Sri Lanka, nestled under a gigantic overhanging rock. It has been used as a monastery complex (dating back to the 2nd century BC) and is filled with carved Buddhas and wall paintings of the Buddha and other deities.
  • Ancient city of Polonnaruwa: UNESCO Heritage site filled with ruins of ancient temples, stupas and palaces.
  • Sigiriya: an ancient fortress and palace built on top of a massive rock formation in the 5th century. Although it seems too daunting to climb up to the top of Sigiriya, in reality, it’s not that difficult (there are steps attached to the rock) unless you go in the middle of the day when it’s boiling hot. I suggest you go early in the morning or late in the afternoon to Sigiriya. The views from Sigiriya across the Sri Lankan countryside are well worth the effort of the climb.

While staying at the Heritance Kandalama, our recommended hotel, make sure you go for a swim in the infinity pool, relax and enjoy the views over the lake. The hotel itself is an architectural marvel.

(2) Two nights in the highlands of Hatton/Dickoya amidst the tea plantations: From Dambulla, you drive to Hatton/Dickoya via Kandy. You can stop in Kandy to visit the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic which purports to contain a tooth of the Buddha (if I add up the number of tooth relics I’ve seen during my travels in southeast Asia, India and Sri Lanka, I will come to the conclusion that the Buddha had more teeth than your average human). The tour guides insist that you visit this Tooth Relic but I did not find it all that interesting. The temple itself is nothing special. Kandy is a crowded, noisy, traffic-clogged city. It’s true that many hotels are located in Kandy, which leads many tourists to stay there, but I’m glad I opted instead to stay in a beautiful colonial mansion called the Governor’s Mansion (see my review) up in the cool highlands, set in the midst of lovely gardens, on a hilltop surrounded by tea plantations. At the Governor’s Mansion, you can relax, enjoy the peaceful countryside, take long walks in the hills (and visit small Hindu temples, too). You can also visit the old Anglican Church at Warleigh, constructed in the late 1800s, perfectly preserved and still in use, with its stained glass windows and old cemetery. It’s rather alarming to see that many of the people buried in the English cemetery had died quite young, in their teens and early twenties, a few in their forties.

(3) Two nights in Galle and/or the beach near Tengalle: from Hatton you drive down to Galle, which is best known for the preserved 17th century Dutch fortified town. Within its walls you will find boutique hotels housed in old colonial buildings, restaurants and cafes. If you prefer to be near the beach, you can check out Buckingham Place, a small resort hotel near Tengalle, which is very quiet and private. The beach near Buckingham Place is nearly deserted but the waves are rather rough and the sea is not safe for swimming.

NOTE: I chose not to spend any time at all in Colombo because I had only one week and did not find anything of interest to see in the city. I preferred to spend time in the countryside to see ancient temples and monuments, and relax in natural surroundings.

Sri Lanka cuisine: spicy, savoury and great for vegetarians

I have added Sri Lankan cuisine to my favourite cuisines in the world (my list includes Burmese, Thai, Japanese, Italian, and southern Indian) because Sri Lankan dishes are so flavoured with many of the spices that grow on the island. It is very similar to southern Indian food in that they use the same spices and spice combinations with lots of coconut milk and tamarind as well.

The country is a great place for those who favour a vegetarian diet (indeed, many Sri Lankans are vegetarian). During my trip (which included Sri Lanka, India and Nepal), I ate mostly vegetarian dishes for two reasons: (1) I wanted to avoid meat dishes to keep from getting sick and (2) the vegetarian dishes in these countries are so delicious I wanted to savour them as much as I could.

I did make an exception or two for seafood curries in Sri Lanka because the fish is so fresh, but by and large, I ate the vegetable and rice dishes and enjoyed them so much that I did not miss eating meat at all!

Here’s a sample of the dishes I ate in Sri Lanka:

  • Milk rice: rice cooked in coconut milk, eaten usually at breakfast with tempered onions (also called lunu miris, these are thinly sliced red onions cooked with lots of spices), jaggery (palm sugar), spicy dal soup and sambal.
  • Red rice: you find this everywhere in Sri Lanka and it has a lovely flavour.
  • Cream of curry leaf soup: I love curry leaves and never knew you could make a creamy soup out of it. Delicious subtle flavour.
  • Sau Kenda: a dessert made with tiny pearl sago balls, cardamom, coconut milk and jaggery.
  • Wattalapan: another popular Sri Lankan dessert, this is a steamed pudding made with eggs, coconut milk and jaggery.
  • Hoppers: thin crepes made from rice flour batter, in the centre they cook an egg and top it with lunu miris which is fried red onions with spices. This is eaten at breakfast.
  • Fish curry made with whatever is the fresh fish of the day.
  • Various vegetable curries.
  • Fresh papaya, mango and pineapple.

A few food notes:

  • It is surprising to see sambal on the menu because I had sambal in Indonesia (Bali) but never in southern India. I suspect that sambal was brought over from Indonesia to Sri Lanka.
  • If you can’t live without meat or fish, try the fish and mutton dishes (e.g. mutton curry) in Sri Lanka. I had a lovely mutton masala samosa at the Heritance Kandalama hotel.
  • On the road from Colombo airport to Dambulla, I stopped at a small local restaurant recommended by our guide for breakfast (I was very hungry after a long flight from Paris). The breakfast buffet food was marvellous! Milk rice, spicy dhal, vegetable curry, porridge with jaggery, mangoes, red rice and more. Don’t be afraid to eat at restaurants that the locals love — ask your guide for recommendations. It’s the best way to enjoy Sri Lankan food.
  • Rick Stein, a British chef who has written books on Asian and Indian cuisine, produced a TV series (with accompanying book) called “Rick Stein’s Far Eastern Odyssey”. He filmed one segment in Sri Lanka. You can view Episode 5 of the Rick Stein Far Eastern Odyssey on YouTube (Sri Lanka and Bali). At that time, there was still a civil war on the island.

Recommended hotels in Sri Lanka

(1) Heritance Kandalama: One of the most memorable hotels I’ve ever stayed in, great architecture, amazing views, excellent service, large rooms, infinity pool, delicious food. 

(2) Governor’s Mansion: Solitude in the highlands of Sri Lanka, up on a hill in the middle of a tea plantation, this colonial mansion features large suites, lovely gardens, excellent service, also very good food. 

(3) Buckingham Place: Quiet, private intimate boutique resort hotel with large suites, swimming pool, lovely gardens five minutes from the beach. 

Getting to Sri Lanka

I flew Sri Lankan Airlines (business class) from Paris to Colombo, then from Colombo to Mumbai. The price of a business class ticket, even one-way, on Sri Lankan Airlines is very reasonable. It’s nothing like the thousands of euros (or dollars) that Air France or other Western airlines are (over)charging for what I consider to be an inferior business class product.

I found Sri Lankan Airlines business class to be excellent and worth the money: flat beds, excellent service, very delicious food. The plane from Paris to Colombo had a 2-2-2 configuration in the business class cabin (I emphasise this because Air France has 2-3-2 business class cabins — imagine paying all that money to get stuck in a middle seat). There is a separate business class check-in section at Colombo airport and a comfortable, quiet Business Class lounge which had really good food.  

A few photos from Sri Lanka

Stone buddhas inside one of the caves of the Dambulla temple complex

Stone buddhas inside one of the caves of the Dambulla temple complex

Wild elephant walking along the road in Sri Lanka near Dambulla

Wild elephant walking along the road in Sri Lanka near Dambulla

Stupa in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa

Stupa in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa

Warleigh church and cemetery in Sri Lanka

Warleigh church and cemetery in Sri Lanka

View of Sri Lankan countryside from the top of Sigiriya

View of Sri Lankan countryside from the top of Sigiriya

Massive stone carved Buddhas in Polonnaruwa

Massive stone carved Buddhas in Polonnaruwa

sri lanka beach

Secluded beach near Buckingham Place hotel resort

About Esme Vos

Esme Vos is the founder of Mapplr, a travel site featuring boutique hotels, luxury resorts, travel guides and restaurant reviews. You can find her on and Twitter.