Sri Lanka’s hill country is iconic and picturesque, and no wonder – seeing the tea plantations from the wide open windows of the old hill trains in Sri Lanka is an uplifting kind of feeling! The hills themselves are beautiful, and so is the taste of specialty tea grown in the hill country.
We knew that for us a huge drawcard of Sri Lanka was the South Coast and beaches, but we were curious about the hill country too. We loved the thought of the vastly contrasting landscapes from what looked to be on the map a seemingly small island nation.
If you have seen the iconic photographs of train travel in Sri Lanka and you too want to hang out those windows, read on. It isn’t too tricky to organise a week in hill country, and there is no shortage of things to do in Central Sri Lanka.
- Sri Lanka Hill Country
- Choosing where to go
- Nuwara Eliya
- Booking trains
- Getting there
- Where to stay
Sri Lanka Hill Country
Sri Lanka hill country is undeniably captivating. It comes in such contrast to the picturesque coconut tree lined beaches, and the bustling cities of Colombo and Negombo. The adventure of getting up into hill country adds to the challenge of travel in Sri Lanka, but without ever feeling overwhelming. Certainly travel by trains in Sri Lanka’s hill country is easy with kids. It feels safe; it’s interesting (with history that dates back hundreds of years). And it’s part of Sri Lanka’s unexpected charm in the variety of landscapes and culture for a small island nation.
Some of the finest tea in the world comes from the hills of Sri Lanka’s inland tea stations. The most famous of the colonial settlements are Kandy, Nuwara Eliya and Ella.
Getting up into the hill country we took a local bus from Dambulla train station, to Kandy. The bus cost less than $1 USD per person, and took about two hours.
Our inland Sri Lanka itinerary
- Dambulla > bus > Kandy [2 nights]
- Kandy > train > Nuwara Eliya [2 nights]
- Nuwara Eliya > train > Ella [2 nights]
Booking trains In Sri Lanka – The details [and realities…]
When I thought about writing a post on taking trains in Sri Lanka’s tea country, I already started imagining how to justify that we had pre-booked second class tickets, and to let people know you can absolutely buy tickets for these ‘most scenic railway rides in the world’ on the day. You can!
But arriving at Kandy station an hour before our train was scheduled to depart, I was glad for having pre-bought ours. It was chaos. Not the locals – they were fine. But the tourists! It was embarrassing.
Young backpackers were climbing in train windows, shouting at each other to open the doors, pass in their backpacks, and bag all the seats they could!
My heart started racing a bit, imagining myself going in to battle with one of these young backpackers if I found them on one of our booked seats! But despite the rush of adrenaline, and the race to get on board, we were spared that battle as they were (after all that) confidently ushered out the of Second Class carriages by the conductor, and pointed towards the now full third class section for which they had purchased their ‘Unreserved Seat’ tickets for.
For Sri Lanka, this was our ‘splurge’. It wasn’t cheap booking them online, but after seeing the behaviour of backpackers in Kandy, I have to say I have no regrets that we did!
I used the website Visit Sri Lanka Tours to book tickets online. It was straightforward and the tickets for the first leg of our journey (Kandy to Nanu Oya) were already waiting for us at our hotel in Negombo on arrival (the company had delivered the paper tickets in an envelope). For the remaining tickets (Nanu Oya to Ella), we went straight to the train station in Kandy on arriving by bus, and lined up at the small kiosk saying ‘online tickets’. They printed out the tickets immediately, and we held onto those for an easy arrival and transaction at Nanu Oya station several days later.
Practical things to know
- Distances: From Kandy, the train takes around 4 hours to Nuwara Eliya (stopping at Nanu Oya station) and 7 hours in total from Kandy to Ella.
- Costs: Tickets from the station for the trains in Sri Lanka hill country cost around 400LKR depending on which class you book.
- Food: There isn’t a restaurant cart on the train (well, there wasn’t on the one we traveled on) but at each station vendors come aboard and to the windows with baskets of cooked snacks and pre-packaged snacks for sale. Kandy station has small stores selling basic snacks and drinks before boarding.
Trains aside, Hill Country has lots more to see.
Kandy is the largest city in Sri Lankan tea country, and the second largest city in Sri Lanka. It’s set on a high plateau surrounded by beautiful mountains that are covered in tea plantations and rainforest. And the chance is, if you have come to Sri Lanka with plans for taking the trains in the hill country, then the most likely (and most well known) of the train journeys starts in Kandy. It makes a good base to start out from, taking trains in Sri Lanka hill country from Kandy. And Kandy is only a 3 hour journey from the capital, Colombo.
With colonial buildings and religious sites, there is plenty to do in Kandy.
Things to do in Kandy
- Kandy Royal Botanical Gardens: This is the iconic image of palm tree lined pathways that makes Kandy insta-famous in modern day travel times. But the Botanical Gardens are much more than that. The gardens are famous worldwide for their 4000+ species of trees and flowers and it is easy to spend a few hours just wandering and admiring that. Entrance fee: 2,000 LKR (10 USD). That is comparatively pricey as an entrance fee in Sri Lanka, but I think it’s worth it. And a great place to stretch the legs and let the kids run around safely.
- Visit Temple of the Tooth: Also known as Sri Dalada Maligawa, the Temple of the Tooth is a Buddhist Temple in the centre of Kandy. The temple houses the legendary tooth relic from Buddha (actual Buddha!) and is a popular place for pilgrims and tourists alike. It is one of Buddhisms’ most important shrines in the country.
- Walk around Kandy Lake: A free option for exploring in Kandy, the lake is central in the city and a peaceful spot to walk around.
- Visit a tea factory: This isn’t the only option for visiting a tea factory (the most common place to visit a tea factor in Sri Lanka is actually in Ella) in hill country, but an interesting option for outing by tuk tuk.
- Have lunch at Kandy Muslim Hotel: It’s not even a hotel, but without doubt the best place we found to eat in Kandy. It’s even listed as a top choice in the Lonely Planet guide (which I found on looking it up in order to share it). Try kottu, or a spicy curry. And if you are travelling with kids then I can personally recommend the chefs version of a fried rice dish.
Nuwara Eliya is referred to in the Lonely Planet guide as “Little England”. And I can honestly say you will see how it got this name as soon as you drive through town. The town was once the hot spot for colonial British workers in the tea stations. That history is visible in the colonial-style bungalows, hedges, restaurants and especially the Grand Hotel. Nuwara Eliya sits at an elevation of 1,868 m above sea level (quite a climb from Kandy at 500m). It is a small, charming town to explore and a relaxing place to spend a couple of days. (PS. It is notably cooler up at that elevation so you will need to pack something warmer than planned for the coast).
Things to do in Nuwara Eliya
- Victoria Park: For $2 USD entry, Victoria Park, gardens and playground definitely provide your moneys worth! The park is centrally located in the centre of Nuwara Eliya, and is interesting for a wander around and a play. A great option for a low cost activity in the hill country with kids.
- High Tea at the Grand Hotel: We sort of stumbled across the Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya. (Largely because we were staying right behind it). We walked past without realising the history or extent of the Hotel and beautiful grounds surrounding, and ended up just in time for High Tea on our first afternoon. It’s not a budget outing (especially if you are travelling with hungry kids – or husbands). But it’s worth it for the unique experience and a fleeting taste of the British history that was once there.
- Take a boat ride on Gregory Lake: This is huge lake in the middle of Nuwara Eliya and for a few hundred rupee you can take a boat ride. Or, wander around the lake shore (and talk to the horses being walked and ridden around) and relax in the shade of the park.
- Visit a tea factory: This is another great place to visit a tea factory and plantation. Your hotel or hostel will be able to help arrange a tour (or you will be approached just walking through town).
- Nuwara Eliya Markets: The main market in town isn’t huge, but it’s largely undercover and makes for an interesting walk through. It’s free to enter, and a good place to stick up on some snacks or fresh fruit if you are catering for yourself while in town. Keep an eye out for the man walking around selling handmade candy floss in newspaper… It’s definitely a taste to recommend!
The town of Ella is lower than Nuwara Eliya, situated at an elevation of 1,041 metres above sea level. It is another beautiful spot in the central province of Sri Lanka. And Ella has walks, views, delicious food and waterfalls. However, I have to warn you. All of these have definitely made Ella a hotspot for tourists and travel these days, especially taking trains in Sri Lanka. What used to be a quiet, charming small town on Sri Lanka’s central train line is now a Mecca for travellers. (Read: swarming with instagram-posing tourists).
In Ella’s defense, it is still an interesting and beautiful spot in Sri Lanka to visit. And there is plenty to do while there. We are glad we visited and it certainly completed our inland hill country adventure. Just don’t expect that insta-perfect shot of the train coming across the Nine Arch Bridge without any other tourist in shot…
Things to do in Ella
- Climb Little Adams Peak: The shorter, easier version of Ella Rock, Little Adam’s Peak is an ideal hike with kids. Views from the top are spectacular, looking 360 degrees around tea plantations and directly across to Ella Rock. It’s easy to catch a tuk tuk to the base of Little Adams Peak and start of the track. From town, it is a two-hour return hike. Or from the base of the track it is only 30 minutes walk uphill to the summit. Worth a cold drinking coconut on the way back down!
- Admire the Nine Arch Bridge: This bridge is more than famous. It’s an international insta-icon, and in reality it is stunning. However, every traveller to Ella also wants to get a glimpse (and photo), so be mindful when you are visiting.
- Visit Diyaluma Falls: This is Sri Lanka’s second tallest waterfall and seriously impressive. It’s worth the tuk tuk trip to get there, and from the village of Poonagala, it is a 30 minute walk to the falls.
- Take a cooking class: This is non-negotiable while in Sri Lanka. The food is delicious and a central part of Sri Lankan culture and hospitality. We took an informal cooking lesson with the hosts of our guesthouse in Ella and would recommend asking to do the same.
In order to take the hill country trains in Sri Lanka, you need to get yourself to either Ella or Kandy. These are the main ‘train-hubs’ for inland Sri Lanka. And the good news is that they aren’t geographically too far from Colombo.
Getting up into the hill country we took a local bus from Dambulla train station, to Kandy. The bus cost less than $1 USD per person, and took about two hours. It was very straightforward! If you are coming from Colombo it is possible (and easy) to take a local bus. If not for budget-conscience reasons I would recommend taking a local bus at least once during your Sri Lanka trip for the experience. (We took that advice as a bit of a challenge, and travelled the entire way around Sri Lanka by local bus and train. You can read more about that here).
WHERE WE STAYED
- Kandy: Kandy Garden View Hotel [insanely beautiful views over Kandy town! Very friendly family run guest-house. Away from the town centre but cheap to get in by tuk tuk, or a downhill walk to town. Swimming pool and restaurant on site].
- Nuwara Eliya: Uyou Ceylon Guesthouse [funky guesthouse (bright turquoise green!) in the heart of Nuwara Eliya. Friendly service and good, basic rooms and breakfast].
- Ella: Samiru Guesthouse [Highly recommend Samiru for a friendly, small (only three rooms) family-run guesthouse. Great location, walking distance to Ella. The owner can arrange a tuk tuk tour to the bridge, waterfalls and Little Adams Peak].