Sri Lanka has everything you could ask for from a tropical island – sparkling beaches, sapphire-blue waves, lilting palm trees, emerald hills and the scent of seafood hanging on the breeze.
Even better, its manageable size means you can see everything on a short trip, from brochure-class beaches and elephant-filled national parks to ruined Buddhist stupas – particularly if you hire a car and driver.
While some people road-trip around Sri Lanka with a rented motorcycle or scooter, renting a car with a driver is the easiest option. Most drivers speak good English and know the ins and outs of driving in the country, including the best roadhouses to stop at for spicy rice and curry. If you arrange a driver for a longer trip, don’t be surprised if you get invited to their home for a meal before the end of your stay. To get you started, here are our favorite road trips in Sri Lanka.
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Colombo to Matara
Best road trip for beach lovers
Colombo–Matara; 133 km (83 miles)
This easy excursion south from Colombo follows the path of the coastal railway, linking historic cities with some of Sri Lanka’s most famous beach resorts. You won’t find too much peace and quiet in peak season, but you will find plenty of sun-smooched sand and good places to stay, eat and catch a wave.
Start in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s history-stuffed capital city, exploring temples and markets and fine dining on crab curry, then drift south to the sands of Aluthgama and Bentota, taking time to detour inland to the charming Brief Garden. If you have the budget, this stretch of coast has some of Sri Lanka’s best Ayurvedic spa resorts. Pause for a day or two of water fun in Hikkaduwa, and drop by Ambalangoda to delve into the island’s tradition of kolam (masked dances).
It’s back to history in Unesco-listed Galle, with colonial-era streets wrapped around a historic lighthouse and a fortress built by Dutch colonizers. Eat and sleep well in the old center, then link through beachy Unawatuna and surfy Midigama and Weligama, squeezing in a detour to the Handunugoda Tea Estate before wrapping up in the authentically Sri Lankan town of Matara.
Planning tip: If you’ve never surfed in Sri Lanka before, the resort of Hikkaduwa offers an easy introduction in bathtub-warm waters; it’s also a hub for snorkeling and diving, with an inshore reef off the main beach that’s great for families.
An eerily silent area of high country, the Horton Plains are like nowhere else in Sri Lanka © Getty Images / iStockphoto
Colombo to Badulla across the hill country
Best road trip for tea lovers
Colombo–Ella; 240km (145 miles)
It’s not all about beaches in Sri Lanka. The trip inland from Colombo to the Hill Country is one of Sri Lanka’s most evocative rail journeys, and it’s just as impressive by road. Starting from the capital and taking regular stops to look out over the scenery, trace the A1 highway inland to higher ground and the sacred city of Kandy, home to Sri Lanka’s most revered temple.
Coming with a car and driver makes it easy to visit nearby temples and gardens and the Ceylon Tea Museum before heading to serious tea country. Take the highland road to Nuwara Eliya through jade-green tea plantations, stopping at estates such as Glenloch to learn about the tea-making process. Check into a colonial-era hotel (we rate the Hill Club) and take high tea at the Grand.
Roll on via the striking Horton Plains to Haputale, where tea-mogul Sir Thomas Lipton founded his empire, and visit Lipton’s factory at Dambatenne, before looping past more hillside viewpoints to Ella, to book into a local guesthouse and enjoy proper Sri Lankan home-cooking. We leave it up to you whether you snap an Instagram pic of the Nine Arches bridge just outside town.
Planning tip: The Horton Plains are like nowhere else in Sri Lanka – an eerily silent area of high country that stops abruptly at the sheer drop-off of World’s End. Pay the national park fees near Farr Inn and you’re free to explore on foot on designated trails.
In Anuradhapura, two-millennia-old brick stupas the size of aircraft hangers are still sites of daily worship © Getty Images / iStockphoto
A circle of ancient cities
Best trip for history
Anuradhapura–Kandy, 180km (112 miles)
The green plains of central Sri Lanka couldn’t be further from the sun-and-sand image of the coast. Here you’ll find the ruins of Sri Lanka’s ancient Buddhist kingdoms spilling out from forests that teem with bee-eaters and hornbills.
Start in Anuradhapura, where two-millennia-old brick stupas the size of aircraft hangers are still sites of daily worship. Pay your respects at Sri Maha Bodhi, a tree propagated from the very tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment, and head on to the fascinating monastic complex at Ritigala.
Break from the ruins at elephant-thronged Minneriya National Park, then dive straight back in again at Polonnaruwa, home to some of Sri Lanka’s most impressive temples, statues and ruins. Slingshot west via Sigiriya, whose rocky outcrop is crowned by the ruined citadel palace of King Kasyapa, reached via a vertiginous stairway.
Roll south to Dambulla, where the dusty brickwork is replaced by cave temples painted in vivid primary colors. Bring the journey up to date with one last stop at Kandy, where the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic is still the beating heart of modern Sri Lankan Buddhism.
Planning tip: Try to time your visit to Anuradhapura to coincide with a poya day – festivals that mark each passing full moon. Pilgrims flock to the stupas dressed in immaculate white clothes and the brick plinths are wrapped in bolts of colored cloth by devotees.
Meet elephants in peaceful surroundings at Uda Walawe National Park © Getty Images / iStockphoto
The best of Sri Lanka’s national parks
Best for wildlife spotters
Mirissa–Arugam Bay; 440km (273 miles)
This cross-country jaunt takes in some of Sri Lanka’s most epic wildlife encounters, visiting national parks both famous and quiet and cruising offshore to meet Sri Lanka’s largest wild animal, the blue whale. Indeed, that’s the first activity before you drive on from the south-coast resort of Mirissa. Feathered friends of all shapes and sizes are the main draws inland at Sinharaja Forest Reserve, and they’re best encountered on foot with a local guide.
Roll east to meet elephants at Uda Walawe National Park (in more peaceful surroundings than at crowd-mobbed Yala National Park), then return to the coast for bird encounters amid dunes and lagoons at Bundala National Park. You’ll need to loop inland to reach Kumana National Park – a much easier journey with a car and driver than by public transport – where you stand a good chance of a liaison with a leopard. Finish up on the beach at Arugam Bay for some surfing downtime.
Planning tip: Different seasons bring different wildlife experiences. Traveling in November brings decent chances of spotting whales, elephants and leopards, but the best time for elephant spotting is from July to October when pachyderms gather in great herds.
Exploring Sri Lanka’s east coast
Best road trip for escaping the crowds
Arugam Bay–Trincomalee; 260km (162 miles)
Things are quieter on Sri Lanka’s east coast, and it’s dry here during the island’s May-to-August low season, making this a great trip for travelers on a budget. En route, you can stop at laid-back surf hubs and historic towns that feel more authentically Sri Lankan than the resorts in the south and west. Start with a wave at Arugam Bay, one of the island’s most relaxing surfing spots. Stop for a day to explore less-visited temples and birding spots on the lagoons around Pottuvil.
Moving north up the coast, you’ll cross the Gal Oya river (follow it inland for wildlife encounters in under-explored Gal Oya National Park) en route to Batticaloa, where you can explore colonial relics, diverse religious sites and fine beaches. Let the coast call you further north towards Trincomalee, where Dutch and British history nudges up against Tamil culture. Before you send your driver off with a smile and a tip, use Trinco as a base for day excursions to the beaches of Uppuveli and Nilaveli and snorkeling with reef sharks and turtles at Pigeon Island National Park.
A taste of the North
Best road trip for Tamil culture
Colombo–Jaffna; 600km (373 miles)
Travelers have long overlooked Sri Lanka’s once-troubled north, but with peace prevailing in the island’s Tamil heartland, the time is ripe for exploring. Starting from Colombo, drift north through laid-back Negombo, and get your first taste of Tamil architecture at the Madampe Murugan temple. Stop overnight on the peaceful Kalpitiya Peninsula, Sri Lanka’s kite-surfing capital.
Before you enter the Tamil north proper, swing by Wilpattu National Park – one of the island’s more peaceful reserves – then duck onto Mannar Island to admire the baobab trees and get as close to India as you can without leaving Sri Lanka. From here on north, Hindu Tamil culture dominates; look out for vividly painted kovils (Hindu temples) as you follow the A32 north across the lagoon to Jaffna.
In Sri Lanka’s northern capital, richly spiced Tamil food is the order of the day. Feast on crab curry and tour the Dutch-era fort and the pilgrim-thronged courtyards of the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil. This could be the end of the journey, but you could also spend a day or more exploring the quiet beaches and outpost villages of the once war-torn Jaffna Peninsula to see how far Sri Lanka has come since the end of the civil war in 2009.
Tips for driving in Sri Lanka
It’s possible to self-drive a hire car in Sri Lanka, but most people prefer to leave the driving to someone with experience of the local driving conditions. Hiring a car with a driver is easy, and you’ll get to visit some local food stops you’d probably miss going it alone. Operators such as Ancient Lanka can sort you out with a car and a friendly, experienced driver from US$65 per day. You’ll also be better placed to navigate any fuel shortages on the island, as tour drivers have priority access to fuel.
While motorcycle and scooter rental is not as widespread as in Southeast Asia, it’s easy and inexpensive to arrange along the coast. The roads are generally well maintained, though potholes are common on back lanes and in the hills. Watch out for wandering dogs, chickens and wildlife (including elephants – if you see a jumbo on the road, back away), and beware of speeding trucks and buses, which won’t slow down for something as lowly as a motorcycle. Try to avoid being on the roads after dark, when hazards are harder to spot.