A day-wise guide to exploring Sri Lanka on a budget

Can you explore some really beautiful places in Sri Lanka in a backpacker's budget of USD 50 per day? Oh yes, because thats exactly what we did!


A little slice of heaven - the valleys of central Sri Lanka


Sri Lanka is absolutely stunning, with so many interesting places to see, encompassing history, nature, people, food and traditions! A question that pops up just about now, is "how many days in Sri Lanka is good?" and we'd say "at least 5 days"! But before we get onto the itinerary, here is some information that could be very helpful in the course of your travel-planning.



An idea of how much a trip to Sri Lanka can cost:

The average cost for 2 adults on a sharing basis should not exceed INR 60,000 or about USD 900 - all inclusive.

Here is a summarised list of our expenses from our visit in May 2018 (all for two) which cost us INR 57,000 (or USD 840, exchange rate as of May 2018):

  • Flights (Bangalore to Colombo, Sri Lankan) - USD 294 or INR 20k
  • Visa (see below for information on ETA) - USD 40 or INR 2.7k
  • Hotels and BnBs: USD 132 or INR 9k
  • Transport:
    • Train: USD 51 or INR 3.5k
    • Bus: USD 3 or INR 200
    • Tuk-tuk: USD 60 or INR 4k
    • Guide with taxi (Nuwara Eliya): USD 32 or INR 2.2k
    • Scooter rental: USD 6 or INR 400
  • Food: USD 113 or INR 7.6k
  • Tickets and souvenirs: USD 110 or INR 7.5k




The Sri Lankan Rupee (LKR) is weaker than the Indian Rupee; rates in 2018:

  • INR 1 = LKR 2.5
  • USD 1 = LKR 180

Although INR can be exchanged at the Colombo airport and many other places in big cities, the smarter thing to do, is to exchange USD (even if that means buying it in India or anywhere else) - this always gets a better rate and better value!



Sri Lanka offers a E-Visa facility for Indians and most other countries including the UK, USA, etc. - just check here. It is an Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) that is issued, and the passport is stamped on arrival in the island. in fact, it is one of the easiest visa processes we have EVER experienced - the application was easy to fill and the ETA was in our mailbox in less than 5 minutes! 


Best time to visit:

Being so close to the equator, the island nation enjoys tropical weather all year round - but its monsoon (rainy season) is distributed rather oddly based on the southwestern (SW) half of the island and the northeastern (NE)

  • August to February - perfect weather mostly, except for heavy rains in some of the NE areas - a lot of people visit Sri Lanka in November-January which is considered the best time to visit Sri Lanka
  • March to May - very intense heat and sunshine - probably best to skip this time
  • May to July - heavy rains in the SW/perfect weather in the NE - not great travel weather, but we visited the west, south and central parts in the last week of May when the showers were lighter


What to wear in Sri Lanka:

Sri Lanka is a predominantly buddhist country and their culture is very beautiful, much like India. Here are some pointers on what to carry and wear:

  • Modest dressing is suggested in all places of worship/religious importance
  • Most beaches in the south western parts of the country are are bikini friendly
  • Carry light, cotton/summer wear - the tropical weather is sticky all year round
  • If you are travelling to Ella, Nuwara Eliya and any other places in the hill country (central Lanka), carry a sweater and dress in layers - it can get extremely cold and windy
  • Sunscreen/hats help


What to eat in Sri Lanka:

Sri Lanka isn't all about sea food - there's a huge variety of it though! Vegetarians will find it easy, especially with rice and vegetable curries. Sri Lankan cuisine is much like the Indian cuisine, and so Indian travellers will find it almost home-like. Street food and small restaurants sell many food items from under SLR 200 (thats over USD 1 or INR 80), so it is very affordable to be a glutton in the island! And for those who are interested in having a drink, it's no surprise how cheap that is too!



Paradisal valleys in Lanka Land


A day-wise itinerary is always helpful, like this one here:



Day 1: Colombo - Galle - Mirissa

  • Colombo:
    • Arrive in Colombo (preferably early in the morning, or the previous evening)
    • Take the comfortable airport shuttle (private bus) to the old train station in the heart of the city to catch the 6 am or 8 am Train to Galle
    • Tickets for the Colombo-Galle-Mirissa train cannot be reserved in advance, they must be bought before the journey only
      Cost of one ticket ~LKR 180 (about USD 1 or INR 70)
    • The train ride takes about 2 hours and is so much fun - road on the left side and the Indian ocean on the right side - surreal views!
  • Galle:
    • This UNESCO World Heritage City is a quaint Dutch-Portuguese settlement, thats changed hands through the colonial times and eventually taken over by the British as a fort - even today, it is one of the most well maintained cities in South Western Lanka.
    • You can easily spend the first half of the day enjoying a walk on the especially calm streets, visiting the lighthouse and even admiring the fortress.
    • Sample a delicious Lankan lunch at restaurants inside the city.
    • Read all about exploring Galle, in more detail here.

  • Mirissa:
    • Mirissa is only a 45 minute drive from Galle
    • Grab a tuktuk at the fort for LKR 2,000 or less (INR 800)
      This is the better than taking a train or the bus since you can stop at Unawatuna Beach and the Koggala lake on the Mirissa Highway
    • Koggala is home to a beautiful lake where you can notice a lot of very interesting birds and animals
      Our favourite was the Turtle hatchery where handicapped turtles are cared for, and baby turtles are nurtured in safety, until they are ready to wander into the ocean on their own!
    • Read about where to explore and spend the night in Mirissa, right here.


The legendary lighthouse at Galle Fort - do you notice the fortress wall?


A two day old Olive Ridley sea turtle spends a fortnight in the hatchery before swimming into the Indian Ocean


Mirissa is so peaceful, and perfect to catch some fast waves



Day 2: Mirissa - Matara - Ella

  • Matara:
    • From Mirissa, a tuk tuk ride to Matara costs about LKR 500 (INR 220)
    • Catch any bus heading through Wellawaya - this will get you to the foothills of Ella - LKR 250 (INR 100)
    • The four hour bus ride can get uncomfortable if you don't have a seat, and keep your backpacks close
    • Alternatively, you can organise a taxi car from your hotel in Mirissa, for LKR 9,000 (INR 3,600) and share the cost with fellow travellers
    • The bus takes rural roads through Hambantota giving you a chance to see how the controversial port city stands today
  • Ella:
    • From the Wellawaya bus station, grab a tuktuk for about LKR 1,500 (~INR 600, negotiate strongly) to Ella
      You can instead take a slow bus ride, but we don't recommend it
    • The 40 km drive to Ella takes an hour
      The driver generally stops at some really stunning view points
      You can also request him to show you the Ravana Falls along the climb
    • Sightseeing in Ella is best done on foot and a scooter - just rent one for the day from your hotel like we did for SLR 800 (INR 320)
    • One of the best places we stayed at, The Ella Ridge View BnB is beautifully nestled in the valley

      It is also close to:
      1. Nine Arches Bridge
      2. Ella Rock
      3. Little Adam's Peak
      4. Mini World's end

    • All of the places you must explore in Ella are listed here!


The Nine Arch Bridge instantly reminds you of the Hogwarts railway!


The west face of the majestic Ella Rock




Day 3: Ella - Nuwara Eliya

  • Ella-Nuwara Eliya (Nanu Oya St.) Train:
    • Sunrise treks to Little Adam's Peak can be quite beautiful, if you have not seen it on Day 2
    • Get to the train station and buy tickets on unreserved second class carriages (third is fine too, but there's no guarantee of seating) to Nuwara Eliya
      Tickets can be bought online either on the Government website (using a "Mobitel" local phone number - ask your hotel contact for assistance in this regard)
      The tickets can be bought through private portals like 12goAsia, Visit Lanka Tours or Tour Master Services (huge premium)
    • This 4 hour train journey is absolutely beautiful - it is considered as one among the top 10 in the world
    • You can buy some fried snacks on board and at intermediate stations
    • The railway station is in the town of Nanu Oya
      The 20 minute taxi/tuktuk ride to Nuwara Eliya costs about SLR 500 (INR 220)
  • Nuwara Eliya:
    • Called as "Little England" this charming little town in upper Hill Country is the coldest place in Sri Lanka
    • There are a number of places to see:
      1. The Seetha Amman Temple
      2. Tea estates and factory tours
      3. Ramboda Waterfalls
      4. City tours around heritage buildings like the post office
      5. Lake Gregory
      Take a shared tour in a minivan (as your hotel to arrange one) - thats the best way to explore all of these places
    • Consider staying at Heidi's Home, a tiny BnB near the Lake and there's a wonderful Indian restaurant in the neighbourhood too.
    • High tea at The Grand Hotel, is something you must experience - it is the closest to living in the Victorian times
    • Tuktuks are easily available to travel inside the town
    • If you intend to stretch your stay to two or more nights, you could even consider going to Horton Plains National Par or Moon Plains National Park
    • Our article on Nuwara Eliya includes a few pointers to help plan even better - see here.



Velvety green tea estates and charming blue railway trains - thats Hill Country


The Valleys around Nuwara Eliya are home to countless Waterfalls



Day 4: Nuwara Eliya - Kandy

  • Nuwara Eliya (Nanu Oya St.) to Kandy:
    • The train journey continues to Kandy, the cultural capital of the Country
      It is considered as the gateway to the Cultural Triangle - Sigiriya, Dambulla, Anuradhapura - which is further up north
    • Consider buying tickets at the Nanu Oya station when you arrive from Ella instead of buying it on the day of departure
    • The train journey takes about 3.5 hours, descending from 2,000 m above sea level to about 500
  • Kandy:
    • If you leave Nuwara Eliya by the 9 am train, you will most likely reach by 1 pm 
    • Take a tuktuk on the streets, outside the train station to get a fair price
    • Drop of your baggage at the hotel and head back out to explore the city
      We stayed at The Kandy Sky Lodge (incredible views) which was far from the city - so we finished our sightseeing and then went to our hotel only by dusk
    • Stop for lunch at Balaji Dosai - its a traditional tamil restaurant
    • Kandy's star attractions include:
      1. Dalada Maligawa Temple (Tooth Relic Temple, closes by 4 pm)
      2. Kandyan Cultural show (next to the temple; 5 pm and later)
      3. Big Buddha Temple (giant white Buddha statue overlooking the city)
      4. View points on the way back from the Big Buddha temple
      5. Asigriya Temple
      6. Kandy Lake
    • Other attractions around Kandy are:
      1. Sigiriya (the Lion Rock) and Pidurangala
      2. Dambulla Cave Temple
      3. Anuradhapura, home of ancient civilizations
      4. Minneriya National Park
      These sites demand atleast two additional days on your itinerary and a chauffered car is the best way to get around
    • Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage (there are many debates on whether it functions ethically or otherwise) is an hour away from Kandy
      Your Tuktuk can take you there for SLR 2,000 (INR 800)


The Tooth Relic Temple is said to house Buddha's real tooth


The views from our room in Kandy


The big guys taking a bath at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphange



Day 5: Kandy - Colombo

  • The train tickets for Kandy-Colombo can be bought at the station (previous day) or online, as told above
  • The 3 hour journey through the planes, passes through many paddy fields and villages
  • Colombo sightseeing:
    • Red Mosque or the many Hindu and Buddhist temples
    • National History Museum
    • Shopping:
      • There are countless stores lining the side walk near the train station
      • Got more time and desire to shop: go to Pettah Market
        Clothes are incredibly cheap in Sri Lanka - even branded ones!
    • The Biera Lake is also often visited, as is the Lotus Tower and for those in the mood for gambling, there are two large Casinos in town too!
  • Negombo:
    • Negombo is a small beachside village near the Colombo International Airport
    • It is much more calm and peaceful than Colombo - if you want to relax by the sea
      Its great for sunsets too!
    • Takes an hour from Colombo bus station - you can take a taxi too
    • Hotels and resorts dot the village and makes for an ideal last stop in Sri Lanka
    • The airport is only 10 kms away - get a tuktuk at very cheap prices!


The network of trains in Sri Lanka is amazing!


Some other places to visit in Sri Lanka:

  • Bentota - seaside town on the west cost between Colombo and Galle with numerous luxury resorts
  • Yala National Park - close to Hambantota on the Southern coast, perfect for safaris and camping
  • Trincomalee - a beautiful beachtown on the East coast
  • Weligama - Southern seaside village, famous for fishing and sea food, near Mirissa
  • Unawatuna - surfer and swimmer paradise on the South East
  • Arugam Bay - Big wave surfing on the East coast
  • Jaffna - the northern most city in the island, home to Tamil heritage
  • Mannar - the tip of Lanka, that is said to have been connected to India through Dhanushkodi (Tamil Nadu state)


Read more about Sri Lanka here:



Need more help in planning? Let us know and we can share our thoughts too!

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