There are plenty of one day trip places in Sri Lanka that can help you explore the famed Teardrop of India to the full. From wave-washed surf beaches with pearly swells and palm trees to enthralling historic sites with ancient castles perched above the jungles, there really is something to suit a whole host of travelers.
Of course, whether or not it’s a suitable day-trip location depends on where you’re coming in from. Thankfully, Sri Lanka isn’t too big (like, it’s not India big). That means a lot of the mainstay places on this list are within a two- or three-hour transfer from Colombo, the popular south-coast beach resorts, the tea area of Ella, or the honeymoon resorts of the east coast.
This guide to the top one day trip places in Sri Lanka runs through just nine of the most incredible outings on offer in this land of roaming elephants and stalking leopards. It’s packed with options for surfers, safari goers, adrenaline seekers, and those on the hunt of hard-earned R&R.
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Kandy is the cultural capital of the island, set beneath the lush hills of the Central Highlands a couple of hours’ drive (and a little longer by train) to the east of Colombo. It’s one of the most popular one day trip places in Sri Lanka, mainly thanks to its totemic Buddhist temple complex: The Temple of the Tooth, which hosts a revered artifact that, legend has it, determines who controls the country.
But Kandy is also a fun-filled and pretty place with lookout points that take in the glimmering waters of Kandy Lake, cafés that serve fresh highland teas to a view, and a bustling marketplace where you can shop for spices, veggie curries, loose tea, Sri Lankan folk trinkets – the list goes on.
Now, when you’re done exploring the little city in the hills, you could high-tail it back to the west coast beaches if you like. Or you could push on deeper into the mountains. Kandy happens to be the starting point of the iconic train journey through to Ella, the tea town. It’s an epic undertaking that last six or eight hours and means riding a snaking locomotive through emerald-green tea paddies and rising peaks.
Wilpattu National Park
The Wilpattu National Park is one of the more off-the-beaten-track nature reserves on the island. It’s quite a distance from the beaches where most people go, sat about 4.5 hours north of the capital of Colombo. For that reason, it’s best to launch day trips here from the historic city of Anuradhapura, the capital of the North Central Province.
Wilpattu itself is characterized by seemingly endless swathes of scrubby monsoon forest and palu woods, interspersed with big sand depressions that turn into lakes when the rains come in May. These are what help support the big populations of Sri Lankan elephants, along with herds of water buffalo, and even the rare leopard and sloth bear.
The best way to see all the above is on an open-top jeep safari. They can last 12 hours or go on for days on end. Again, the best ones – that is, the ones with the most chance of yielding sightings of incredible wildlife – are the ones that take place early on, around 5am or 6am, so be sure to pick a package that leaves early.
Adam’s Peak might not be the highest in the country (that honor goes to Pidurutalagala at a cloud-shattering 2,524 meters above sea level) but it’s probably the best-known mountain in Sri Lanka. Also known as Sri Pada, it pinnacles its way atop the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary on the southwestern haunch of the Central Highlands.
You can’t really miss it. It looks like something out of a fantasy novel, twisted and twirled like the mountain from The Grinch. The fabled appearance of Adam’s Peak has given it a central place in the mythology of the island. It’s considered sacred by Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians alike, and is said to be topped by a boulder that contains the outline of the Buddha’s footprint, no less!
The hike to the top is a popular pilgrimage route. It’s no walk in the park, but there are more than seven ways to get there, on trails that make use of concrete staircases cut straight into the side of the summit. You can even do this one in a day from Colombo, since the trailhead at Erathna is just 3.5 hours outside of the capital.
Calling all culture and history buffs – this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a must. Day trips can be done from Colombo, Kandy, and even the beaches of Bentota, although the transfer from there is a hefty 3-4 hours or more. Still, it’s worth it, because what awaits is one of the most breathtaking sites on the island.
An ancient rock citadel that soars more than 400 meters over the jungles and woods of central Sri Lanka, it was built way back in the 5th century AD by King Kashyapa I. Over the centuries it grew and grew, as elaborate water gardens and fresco-covered terraces were added. Later, it was transformed into a Buddhist temple and worshipping site, which continued on until the 14th century.
Today, there are oodles of different tours you can do of Sigiraya. We’d recommend one that includes a dedicated guide, because there are some seriously enthralling historical narratives to spin here (think pitched elephant battles and the like). Alternative options include hikes up to peaks around Sigiraya itself, where sweeping views of the island unfold all around.
There’s certainly no shortage of stunning beaches on the Teardrop of India, from the surf-washed coral gardens of Hikkaduwa to the long bays of Bentota. However, we’ve got a real soft spot for the as-yet untouched south coast region, which is where you find the trio of bays that make up Tangalle. Our advice? Get here quick. The area is fast becoming a hotspot for get-away-from-it-all holidays, and there are plots of land on the shoreline that are just crying out to be developed.
But, for now at least, the Tangalle of old remains. It’s a hefty day trip to get down here from Colombo, but it’s still doable. More likely are day outings to Tangalle from the resorts of Mirissa and Midigama, which involve a transfer of about two hours tops.
Visitors to this lovely corner of the island will be treated to long scythes of golden sand bashed by shorebreaks, all threaded by endless groves of palm trees that periodically drop uber-fresh coconuts. We’d also recommend popping into Rekawa Beach, a well-known and protected turtle nesting place in the monsoon months. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing to witness if you’re lucky enough to catch it happening.
Hidden down between the wave-pounded beaches of the Sri Lanka south coast, little Hiriketiya Beach is a secret paradise where the sands are a glimmering white and the palm trees stoop close to the shoreline. It’s become WAY busier in the last five years or so, but still has that chilled-out, tropical vibe about it. Only now there’s a few more cafés and breakfast spots to pick from.
You can get day trips to Hiriketiya from loads of the resorts on the southwestern side of Sri Lanka – places like Tangalle, Matara, Weligama, and Mirissa. They mainly revolve around one thing and one thing only: Surfing. Mhmm…tiny little Hiri boasts one of the best beginner and improver waves on the whole island. It’s a mellow beach break but is joined at the hip to a more challenging left-hand reef break for the better riders.
If you did decide to stick around for a couple of days, then you can pick from an ever-growing cohort of surfer shacks and hotels – Salt House ($$) and the Hiriketiya Beach Hotel ($$) are two of the best located. There’s also a neat array of Ayurveda spas offering relaxation and Sri Lankan kitchens to taste your way through.
Udawalawe National Park
A three-hour drive from Colombo but much less from the smaller beach towns of the south coast, the Udawalawe National Park is one of Sri Lanka’s most celebrated wildernesses. Covering a whopping 31,000 hectares of land just south of the mountains and the Ella tea fields, it encompasses swaying grasslands and vast tracts of wetland habitat.
The star of the show here is the booming herd of over 250 Sri Lankan elephants that can be seen stalking the park. But they aren’t the only thing to look out for on an Udawalawe safari, though. There are also elusive leopards, water buffalo, monitor lizards, and formidable mugger crocodiles.
Most jaunts into the protected reserve take all day long and start real early. That means you’ll need to be based close to the entrance to start things off, as the best time for viewing the wildlife is just before dawn. Expect to pay around $100 per person for a good tour, which should include all entry fees and a dedicated safari guide.
The train ride up to Ella is famous in itself. It’s a 7-hour romp through emerald-green rice paddies as you rise and rise into the heart of the Central Highlands. That’s really the only way to arrive – the train leaves daily in the morning from the cultural hub of Kandy. You have to book tickets in advance to secure the best seats.
You’ll arrive late in the evening, so technically Ella itself is more of a two-day-trip destination, though you can come on organized tours that take less than 24 hours if you absolutely must. The reason it’s worth a mention is because it’s the trekking capital of the whole island. Day-long walking routes weave out from the town up to Ella Rock and to Little Adam’s Peak, offering sweeping views of jungles and canyons carved by waterfalls. Try to leave as early as you can for hikes, since the weather changes fast in the early afternoon when storms sweep up the valley from the south coast.
Ella also has one or two sights and draws for those who aren’t so fussed about hiking. It’s the capital of the tea-growing region, so come to buy your local leaves. It’s also home to one or two gorgeous colonial-era ruins, like the much-photographed Nine Arch Bridge.
The town of Galle is a fantastic day-trip opportunity from pretty much any of the beach resorts around the southwest coast of the island. It’s now a fully designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, famed for its historic fortifications, most of which were raised between the 15th and 17th centuries by the Portuguese and the Dutch.
You can walk the whole length of the walls to this day. It’s a wonderful experience, as you pass white-sand beaches here and see colonial-era lighthouses there. Dive into the center of the city and you’ll wander the most European of all the Sri Lankan cities. It’s a place replete with narrow cobbled lanes and roadside cafés, shaded arcades and looming churches.
These days, the Fort area of Galle – the place where you’ll spend most of your time – is a bit of an artsy hub. You’ve got concept art stores, boutique B&Bs, even Neapolitan pizza restaurants. The beach on the southwest side of the town – known as Galle Fort Swiming Beach – is the best in the area for when it’s time to cool off.
One day trip places in Sri Lanka – a conclusion
There are loads and loads of one day trip places in Sri Lanka. In fact, the island is packed to bursting with enthralling history sights and glimmering beaches that beckon globetrotters of all stripes. This guide touches on just a few, including the totemic historic relics of Sigiriya and the famous Buddhist shrines of Kandy, surf beaches on the south coast and national parks that are filled with elephants. Some of them might require a bit more effort to reach than others, but, as ever on the Teardrop of India, the journey is part of the fun, especially if it’s that day-long romp on the heritage train from Kandy to Ella!