Nestled in the center of Sri Lanka lies a region of cool climate and lush vegetation. At an elevation of just over 1,800 meters, Sri Lanka’s highland region became a haven for the aristocratic English during Sri Lanka’s colonial time. It also contributes greatly to two of Sri Lanka’s primary industries: tea production and tourism.
Exploring the highlands of Sri Lanka is certainly a highlight of the island, and this guide will help you plan for your three days in the area. Sri Lanka is well known for being a beautiful country, and the highlands are a prime example of what makes Sri Lanka so special.
How to travel around Sri Lanka:
Sri Lanka’s international airport is the Bandaranaike International Airport located just outside of Colombo. Flights are available from major hubs such as Dubai, Doha, and Singapore.
Home to one of the most beautiful train rides in the world, travel around the highlands of Sri Lanka is easy and cheap.
From Colombo, it is a 3-hour train ride to Kandy, where the Cultural Triangle and highlands meet. Or, it is an 8-hour ride to Ella.
We did, for one leg of our trip, hire a car instead of taking the train. I got carsick! The roads wind through the hills a lot more than the train does, plus, Sri Lankan traffic is a bit intense.
When you know your itinerary, stop by any train station in Sri Lanka to book your tickets. There are three classes of tickets. First-class is assigned seating in an air-conditioned car where the windows do not open. The second class is assigned seating in a car where the windows open. The third class is unassigned seating where there might only be standing room available.
For our trips, we traveled first class. However, the doors between the cars are always open, as people come and go between cars a lot or the door may not latch closed properly. Second-class tickets might be the best option since the cooler climate of the highlands creates natural air conditioning. The open windows provide a front-row view of the stunning landscape anyway!
In town, when you need to get around further than your own two feet can take you, tuk-tuks are a convenient and cheap way to get around. They’re prolific on the streets and all you have to do is flag one down like a taxi in New York City!
Where to stay when you visit the highlands of Sri Lanka:
There are three main towns along the train in the highlands; Ella, Nuwara Eliya, and Kandy.
Accommodations can range widely in Ella, but it is tough to find an inexpensive option. Ravana Heights is in walking distance to the city center and the Nine Arch Bridge. This hotel is tucked into the mountainside, and the view from the veranda is stunning. Enjoy breakfast out overlooking the mountains.
In Nuwara Eliya, many hotel options are far out of town, necessitating a tuk-tuk ride to get anywhere. However, Araliya Green Hills Hotel is near several attractions and is beautifully annointed.
Kandy is the biggest city in the highlands, and accommodations are plentiful. Royal Bar & Hotel is in the heart of the city center, surrounded by restaurants and cafes. It’s a short walk to some of Kandy’s most popular attractions.
Highlights of the highlands of Sri Lanka
Day 1: Visit the Nine Arch Bridge in Ella, hike to a waterfall, and dine on Sri Lankan cuisine while partying with the backpacker crowd.
Day 2: Ride the famous blue train to Nuwara Eliya for an English high tea and sunset over Single Tree Hill.
Day 3: Tour one of the local tea plantations then ride the blue train to Kandy, where you can catch a traditional Sri Lankan cultural show.
Map of the highlands:
Step by step detailed 3 days highlands of Sri Lanka Itinerary
Begin your journey in Ella, a small town popular with tourists and one end of the famous Kandy-to-Ella train ride.
After the train passes through Ella, it continues east towards Badulla, but first, it must pass over the Nine Arch Bridge. This bridge is a prime example of railway construction during the colonial era of Sri Lanka. The bridge spans nearly 25 meters tall and 100 meters long.
Take a note of the schedule for trains coming from or going to Badulla. The trains are most likely to be a bit late, so if you want to see the train pass over the bridge, be prepared to wait. On our visit, we waited almost an hour for the train to come, and the sun was setting already!
There are two options for seeing the bridge. You can walk along the railroad line, about 2.5 km to reach the bridge. Plenty of people hang out on the bridge itself or on either end of the bridge to watch the train come through. The other option is to follow the B113 road from town and then follow signs to hike to the viewpoint.
We chose to hike out to the viewpoint. It only took us about 20 minutes to reach the opening in the trail where there is an amazing view of the train passing over the bridge.
There are several hikes that you can do in Ella. Ravana Falls is a short tuk-tuk ride away. This 25-meter-high fall is best visited during the dry months when it’s not an insane torrent splashing over onto the road. There are several tiers of the waterfall which can be accessed via the trails.
One of the best meals we had in Sri Lanka was at Cafe C in Ella. This is a great place to try classic Sri Lankan dishes such as chicken kottu roti, a street-food stir fry, or watalappam, a cold, flan-like dessert.
While you could party with the locals in Colombo, Ella is where the tourists hang out. Restaurants and bars serving western food stay open late with music and drink specials.
Start your day by hopping on the train early to ride to Nuwara Eliya. This train ride takes about two and a half hours and travels along tea plantations and pine forests. Keep an eye out for bends in the tracks where you can lean out the windows or doors and admire the gorgeous blue train.
Nuwara Eliya is a charming town full of English-style cottages and manicured lawns. Walk or take a tuk-tuk over to The Grand Hotel. The hotel hosts high tea every day in the hotel’s parlor. For less than 10 Euros, you can get unlimited tea served with three courses: cold savories, hot savories, and sweets. Take a walk around The Grand Hotel and look for vintage posters and historic articles.
To end the day, hike up to Single Tree Hill to watch the sunset. It takes about 15 minutes to walk up to the top of the hill. On either side of you will be tea bushes lining the road and weaving around the hills. The view looking down into town gives you a bird’s eye view of the tea fields and roads winding around Lake Gregory.
In the morning, take a tuk-tuk out to Pedro Tea Estate, where you can tour a working tea factory. The staff will show you how the tea leaves are harvested, dried, and sorted. Then, step into the cafe to taste a cup of their tea.
Pop back on the train again for a three-hour-and-fifteen-minute ride to Kandy. Kandy is the big city of the highlands, where tourists continue on to see the Cultural Triangle or do a safari in Wilpattu.
The last activity of the Highlands tour is the Kandy Lake Club Cultural Show. This performance is filled with exotic costumes for both men and women and it is one of the best things to experience in Kandy. The most popular dance is the ves dance, performed by men. The men wear several elaborate pieces of traditional Sri Lankan costume; a large white loincloth, a beaded net on the chest, and an elaborate headdress. The dancer wears bangles and energetically dances to the beat of a variety of drums, or even a conch shell being blown.
Women dance as well. Their costumes are just as elaborate as the men’s, and the dances can be slow and deliberate or fast and frantic. After eight or ten dances, the audience is ushered outside, where the men breath fire and walk on hot coals.
The highlands of Sri Lanka give travelers a diverse look at so many aspects of the country: the unique rail system, scenic views over the tea plantations, and a look at the culture and food of this small island nation. The train-ride tour of the highlands was a highlight of my travels in the country, and I hope you find it just as enthralling as I did!
Since 2014, Amy has been sailing around the world with her husband aboard their sailboat, Starry Horizons. He’s a sailor who travels; she’s a traveler who sails. They toured Sri Lanka in 2019 and enjoy scuba diving, photography, and making videos about their adventures. Social Media Links: Pinterest | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram
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