Best tips to travel colorful Sri Lanka by car

Have you ever considered to travel Sri Lanka by car? It doesn’t seem to be a popular option among foreign tourists. Why? Perhaps no one wants to drive in the buzzing Sri Lankan traffic, or dodge the crazy bus drivers? 

We are always comfortable hiring a vehicle on our vacations and Sri Lanka wasn’t to be an exception. 

It’s the perfect way to have total freedom around the Island.

Even though we almost returned our small Suzuki van within the first 30 minutes after leaving the Airport. It took some time to get used to the jungle of hectic drivers, but after a while, we joined the fun and we were ready for our adventure road trip.

Content in this post:

  • Why should you visit Sri Lanka?
  • Negombo
  • Dambulla
  • Kandy
  • Ella
  • Tissamaharama
  • Unawatuna
  • Hikkaduwa

Why should you visit Sri Lanka?

Located just north of the Equator, Sri Lanka has a tropical climate. Humid and hot all year around.

It’s a sun worshippers paradise with never-ending sandy beaches stacked with palm trees.

Sri Lanka offers one of the best safari alternatives outside of Africa.

The island of 1000 hills is a good choice for adventure hikers.

Manu has ancient cultures and historic places to visit.

Rich and mouthwatering cuisine with a huge variety of curry dishes and good seafood.

Our 2 week Sri Lanka itinerary:

Flight to Negombo………153km to Dambulla………..75km to Kandy…….138km to Ella……..95km to Tissamaharama…..150km to Unawatuna….25km to Hikkaduwa…….150km to Negombo.


Upon arrival at Sri Lanka’s main Bandaranaike International Airport in Negombo, we went to the RCSL car hire office to pick up our vehicle.

I purchased an International driver’s license also named IDP to verify my Spanish driver’s license. Although the local authorities demand this document to hire motorcycles, tuk-tuks, or vehicles I didn’t have to show the license to anyone at any time. ( we were stopped twice by the police ).

Our rental car, a small black Suzuki van was spacious enough for our luggage.

Making use of google’s offline maps is crucial not to get lost. Our first 13km drive was straight to the charming Ayur Ayur & Ayurveda Retreat. They have generous rooms, a relaxing swimming pool and serve good breakfasts.

Negombo has many good restaurants and our choice for supper was The Claws Seafood restaurant. Try their delicious fresh grilled fish and calamari.


We left Negombo shortly after breakfast. Our first 150km road trip was to Dambulla. Driving in Sri Lanka is quite an experience and at first, we were overwhelmed!

Even though Sri Lanka is a “light” version of India, their road manners are similar. But I soon decided to join them because I wasn’t going to be able to beat them!

Our Dambulla accommodation choice was the luxurious Jetwing Lake Hotel.

Their spacious rooms offer panoramic lake views surrounded by nature. After more than 3 hours of driving, we went for a sundowner at their fabulous Canopy bar.

The former medieval capital of Sri Lanka, Polonnaruva is about 70km from Dambulla. This royal ancient city has been declared a world heritage site. A visit to the monumental ruins of the fabulous garden city is an absolute must. Visit the remains of the palace, temples, and pagoda. The highlight of the tour is seeing the fascinating group of 4 Buddhas of Gal Vihara.

The most impressive seated buddha carved in granite stone has a height of 7meters  and the other resting buddha is 14meters long. We visited the ruins on foot, but rental bicycles or scooters can be found at the entrance.

On our way back to the hotel, we stopped around 17:H00 at the Cave and Rock temple at Pidurangala. Climbing the Pidurangala rock is very sought after. The reason is to gaze at the marvelous sunset over Sigirias Lion’s Rock. The steep hiking is worth the effort.

Sigiriya Sunset panorama

Back at the Hotel, we repeated another supper at the Canopy Bar. Delicious calamari, prawns, and spicy chicken skewers with a peanut sauce.

The next morning after an early full continental breakfast we drove to the famous rock fortress of Sigiriya located about 16,9 km northeast of Dambulla.

We had to attend to a small incident just after leaving the Hotel. I misunderstood the signs of a traffic police officer as I  kept on driving when I should have stopped. After a while, we were forced off the road by two angry policemen on their motorbikes.

Luckily I had all the legal papers to show and was only fined 2000 rupees. (10 euros approx).

Back to the big rock fortress!!

Sigiriya is one of the most popular landmarks in Sri Lanka and should not be missed. The natural 200m square-shaped rock emerges from nowhere and feels almost surreal.

The massive 180m high rock used to be part of a large forest. After many storms and landslides, the rock became visible. The hill was selected by King Kashyapa (477 – 495 AD) as his new capital and he built his palace on top of the rock. On one side of the rock, he built a gateway in the form of an enormous lion. The name Sigiriya is derived from this structure.

Patience is required for the long queue to climb the narrow staircase to the top.

The ruins of the ancient fortress and the birds-eye view from the top make the effort worthwhile.


Before leaving Dambulla we’d recommend another temple with a few more uphill steps. The rock temple has a gigantic Golden buddha at the entrance.


Kandy was our next overnight destination about 75km ( 2 hours) northeast. Keep in mind that most road trips in Sri Lanka take double the time compared to the same distance in most European countries.

Kandy is a large city in central Sri Lanka surrounded by mountains, which are home to many tea plantations and biodiverse rainforest. Kandy is famous for the scenic lake in the heart of the city.

We stayed at 36 Bed & Breakfast.  We were very satisfied with the friendly host and the spacious room with a lake view. They also offer delicious curry dishes and good breakfasts.


The train journey from Kandy to Ella is very popular. The 7-hour ride takes you through gorgeous landscapes and scenery. We obviously took the self-drive option since we had a van.

The road trip to Ella is just as beautiful when comparing photos taken from the train.

After 3,5 hours we arrived at our Glorious Nature Inn just outside Ella town center.

A humble accommodation with big rooms, a friendly host, and the best views of Ella rock, and Little Addams Peak. Breakfast and dinner are served on each room’s private balcony.

Our first dinner was at Mutey Hut. A small restaurant with the best samosas and a huge variety of curry dishes. The Ufo bar is another good choice for a drink.

We woke up at 5:30 the next morning to contemplate a colorful Ella sunrise. Before starting our hiking to Ella rock we had an appetizing breakfast with our fantastic view. Home-made coconut and sugar pancakes with papaya, toasted bread, and coffee.

The hiking to Ella rock starts from Kithalella train station. The hike is quite demanding but offers beautiful landscapes, tea plantations, and breathtaking views.

Our other recommendation in and around Ella is to take a massage at Helena Organic gift and Luxury Ayurvedic Spa after a day of hiking.

Visit the famous Nine Arches Bridge or take a ride on the Zip-line near Little Adams peak.

All pictures in this post were taken with a Samsung Galaxy smartphone.


Our next destination was Tissamaharama, about 95km from Ella. Our accommodation choice was Ariya Tissa Guest House. Our host, L’Indika made our stay special. Spacious clean rooms between the rice fields. He offers tasty dinners and breakfasts.

Tissamaharama is a strategic sleepover to visit National parks like Yala, Bundala, Weheragala, and Lunugamvehera. The surrounding rice fields are also a good option to explore by bicycle. A boat ride at sunset in the Wirawila Sanctuary is a bird lover’s paradise.

The best safari option to explore any of the National parks is by Jeep. We hired a Jeep with Jupun Safari from Tissamaharama to the lesser-known  Weheragala National park. Our driver convinced us to be the best choice for a less crowded Safari experience and for spotting Leopards.

Call it luck, but about 100 meters after entering the park’s gate we saw our first 2 leopards!!

Yala National park is one of the most popular parks but sometimes could result in a tourist trap.

Many tour operators promise to spot the big cats but be aware! Animals migrate and are very unpredictable.

Asien elephants are a common sight in Sri Lanka even outside the National parks. We had a friendly encounter with a young male bull on the way back from  Weheragala National park.

There are many restaurants in town and we chose The Chef Lady Restaurant, as one of the best options in town. Try the fresh grilled snapper with lemon sauce and the spicy octopus. The tuna and prawns are also delicious.


Our next destination was on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. Upon arrival at the picturesque village of Unawatuna, we checked in at Thalpe Bungalows. Luckily we could take a dip in our pool to suffocate the fatigue of the 4-hour drive from Tissamaharama and the intense tropical summer heat.

Cocobay Hotel Restaurant was our first choice to enjoy a fresh seafood platter on their terrace at sunset. The Sri Lankan Arak served as a perfect sundowner. Arak is a distilled alcoholic drink made from sugarcane, fruit, or rice.

Unawatuna is the perfect place for snorkeling, whale watching, surfing, and relaxing on the white sandy beaches. It’s also minutes away from Galle Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage site with dutch colonial buildings, cobblestone streets, vibrant shops, bars, and restaurants.

One of the best dining options in Galle is Elita restaurant. They offer a wide variety of fresh seafood in a cozy atmosphere.

Unawatuna offered 2 additional pleasant surprises that made our stay even more worthwhile.

1. A consultation with an Ayurvedic Doctor called Dr.O.G. Wickramathilaka. Her professional advice and homemade Ayurvedic oils were of great help.

2. A Cooking class with Susanthi at Sea waves Restaurant & Cooking class.

This 5-hour cooking experience is a must for all food lovers. The first part consists in visiting and buying the ingredients from the local markets with Susanthi. Back at the restaurant, you get the chance to participate and learn how to cook 5 Sri Lankan dishes. The last part of the course is enjoying the cooked food altogether at dinner.


The last coastal destination about 25 km north of Galle, was Hikkaduwa.

The best accommodation in Sri Lanka was The tropical house. A jungle side vila with huge stylish rooms, a swimming pool, and dining possibilities.

Our friendly host Mr. Nimal managed to buy some fresh lobsters from the local market at a fair price for a romantic supper at the guest house.

Unawatuna is famous for its white sandy beaches packed with infinite palm trees. The shallow waters of the Hikkaduwa National park are home to huge marine sea turtles and exotic fish.

©karelnoppe photography_Hikkaduwa Beach

The lesser-known Andahelena Waterfall is a recommended hiking adventure. A few meters upstream there’s a natural pond with the best free fish spa. Hundreds of small fish to massage tired feet and legs.

Take a boat ride on the Madu River, 900 hectares of wetland estuary inhabited by 64 islands. Discover the unique birdlife, Buddhist temples, and mangrove forest with tunnels.

We hired our private river and lagoon safari with Buddhi Boat Safari.

We also visited the Ahungalla Sea Turtles conservation & research center.

“Sorry Mom” is an interesting option to have some seafood snacks. Isira Coffee shop serves the best Sri Lankan breakfasts.


The last 150km stretch was back to Negombo. We booked a room at the Regal Réseau Hotel & Spa.

This Hotel, about 12km from the Bandaranaike International Airport was a perfect last night choice close to many restaurants, bars, shops and close enough to the airport.

Try the Fresh tuna, Jumbo prawns, and grilled crab at Sunny’s Seafood Curry & Rice.

The next morning we dropped our Suzuki van at the airport and checked in to fly back home.

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