Guide to Backpacking in Sri Lanka

Guide to Backpacking in Sri Lanka

In this guide we will tell you all about travelling in Sri Lanka on a budget, including what to see, where to stay and how to get there.

Why Visit?

We describe Sri Lanka as ‘India Lite’ – it shares aspects of Indian culture and food, but is less chaotic and confronting. You will probably still experience a bit of culture shock, but it won’t be in the same league as India. Sri Lanka is also compact enough that you can see a fair chunk of it in only two weeks – perfect for a short break from work.

Must-See Places

Galle

Strolling around the Old Town of Galle is a highlight of any trip to Sri Lanka. Make sure you check out the lighthouse and clock tower. Walk along Galle’s magnificent fort walls to see spectacular views of the Galle cricket ground and across the ocean. The serene cobblestone streets, quirky souvenir shops and beautiful sea breeze made Galle one of our favourite spots

TRAVELATOR TIP: You can easily stay in Unawatuna Beach and catch a tuk-tuk to Galle for the day if you would prefer to stay beachside.

Unawatuna Beach

If you stick to the west end of Unawatuna Beach, there are still some great sandy spots where you can relax by sea with a cheap cocktail. Unfortunately, over-development has meant that other parts of the beach are no longer quite so idyllic. If you are short on time and can’t make it to the more secluded beaches further along the coast (like Mirissa), Unawatuna is a great option (only 6km from Galle).

Unawatuna Beach
Unawatuna Beach

Kandy

Kandy is the second largest city in Sri Lanka, but it is like a different world to dirty and bustling Colombo. While we weren’t awestruck by the city’s main attraction (the Temple of the Tooth), we loved the Royal Botanic Gardens and strolling around Kandy Lake. You can usually hire a driver for around US$50 who can take you to the Big Buddah (Bahiravokanda) for beautiful views over the city, and to several smaller temples.

TRAVELATOR TIP: For a delicious cheap kottu roti, head to Kandyan Muslim Hotel in the city centre.

Bahiravokanda Buddah Kandy Sri Lanka
Bahiravokanda Buddah

Sigiriya

Sigiriya is famous for Lion Rock, the huge rock fortress and gardens that rises over 200 metres. However, the entrance fee is positively eye-watering for Sri Lankan standards – expect to pay around US$30 per person. But fear not! There are actually better views of Lion Rock and the surrounds from the less-visited Pidurangala Rock nearby, which will only set you back around US$5. Just make sure you wear a good pair of shoes though as the trail to the stop is not paved at all.

TRAVELATOR TIP: Sigiriya is also a great base for exploring Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka second oldest ancient city. It was the capital from the 11th to 13th centuries, and is filled with spectacular ruins. Speak to your hotel or guesthouse about hiring a car or tuk-tuk for the trip.

Lion Rock at Sigiriya Sri Lanka
Lion Rock at Sigiriya

Kaudulla and Minneriya National Parks

Both national parks offer unforgettable opportunities to see wild elephants in their natural environment by jeep safari. If you are travelling in the wet season, you will be heading to Kaudulla. If travelling the dry season, Minneriya is your best option. Both parks are easily accessible from Sigiriya . You can usually arrange a jeep safari with your hotel for around US$60.

Elephants in Kaudulla National Park Sri Lanka
Elephants in Kaudulla National Park

Where To Stay

While Sri Lanka is more expensive than India, there is still plenty of good value accommodation. Here are our favourites:

  • Unawatuna Beach Sea View Deepal Villa – Close to the beach with spacious, clean rooms. A tasty breakfast is included and served by the beach or in your room (although service can be a tad slow). Good value for this part of the beach.
  • Kandy Hantana Homestay – Jaliya and his wife truly make you feel like part of the family here. The breakfasts are incredible! Located in the hills a short drive from the city, Jaliya will happily drop you off and pick you up when needed.
  • Sigiriya Kuwera Eco Lodge – A charming lodge with only 5 bungalows located in a small village outside Sigiriya. The restaurant is good value and serves up quality meals, so no need to be concerned that you are away from the main town.

Must Eats

Rice and curry

‘Rice and curry’ usually consists of a meat or fish curry, along with an assortment of side dishes (sometimes up to ten!) and rice. The curries and side dishes tend not to be too spicy, but are incredibly flavourful. Side dishes can include jackfruit curry, eggplant, coconut sambal, dhal, onion relishes… the list goes on!

Curry and Rice Sri Lanka
Tom enjoying a small curry and rice

Kottu

Kottu is a delicious dish of chopped and fried roti, served with meat, vegetables and egg. Watching the kottu masters furiously chop the roti before it is fried is amazing!

Hoppers

Hoppers are a type of Sri Lankan pancake made from rice flour and coconut milk. The batter is usually fermented so it can have a slightly sour taste. Hoppers are usually served with curry and egg, but there are other variants (including sweet dessert hoppers).

Getting Around

Getting around Sri Lanka can still be a bit of a struggle without a driver if you’re short on time, but it is manageable. We headed to Galle and Kandy by train via Colombo – we bought the tickets a few days in advance at the train station. There is a direct bus from Kandy to Sigiriya at around 7am from the Kandy bus station, which is super cheap but not particularly comfortable. From Sigiriya we decided to hire a driver for US$100 to take us to Negombo (via the Dambulla caves) as there were no direct public transport connections. Whilst sitting in our air conditioned private car we agreed it was well worth the money!

Getting In and Out

The easiest way to reach Sri Lanka is definitely by air. Bandaranaike International Airport is the main airport. It is at least a 30 minute drive to Colombo, although they are working on new roads and rail for this route. A better option is to stay in Negombo for a night or two – it’s a pretty dingy beach resort town but it’s close to the airport and nicer than Colombo.

Ferry services between India and Sri Lanka have been on hold for a while, and don’t look like resuming any time soon.

Budget

USD$100 per day (for a couple) will get you good quality private rooms, tasty local food in restaurants, a few beers, a safari and entrance tickets.

Best Time To Visit

To complicate matters, there are two monsoon seasons in Sri Lanka where you will encounter torrential rain and restricting heat. December to mid-April is considered ‘peak season’, with best overall weather.

Yay for transparency! This page contains some affiliate links. This means that if you book your accommodation through a link on this page, we get paid a small commission. Don’t worry – you don’t pay anything extra! And we promise that we only recommend places that we have truly enjoyed staying at.

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