A snapshot tour of Sri Lanka

A few years ago, we were looking for a holiday destination for a ten day January getaway. We looked eastwards (from Europe) and wanted both warm sunny weather, nature and historical sights. There are so many amazing places to visit but we decided upon southern Sri Lanka. And what a great trip we had! Ten days were enough to experience different aspects of the Sri Lankan culture as well as relax on the beach.

Getting there and around

From southern Sweden, we discovered that the easiest way to get to Sri Lanka was to fly Emirates with a layover in Dubai. (That worked well on the way out, but on the way back to Europe our flight from Sri Lanka was delayed and we missed our connecting flight. This wasn’t a disaster since we were able to take an extra day off and suddenly found ourselves on a whirlwind visit of Dubai including visiting the Burj Khalifa. But that’s another story.) The international airport of Sri Lanka is outside the capital Colombo. 

For this trip, we used different means of transportation: private taxis, train and local busses. Everything worked well and we felt safe. The train was crowded but we only used it for daytime travel. We arranged the long-distance transfers with private taxis on arrival, which was easy through the airport counter or our hotel.

Trains getting close in Sri Lanka

Itinerary

With ten days to explore Sri Lanka, we decided to stay in the southern parts of the country. Here is our itinerary:

  • Beach time in Mirissa 
  • Glamping and leopard spotting in Yala national park
  • Relaxing at the beach in Unawatuna
  • Historic sights in Galle
  • Temples and elephants in Kandy
  • City time in Colombo

No Ella you might ask? Well, we have been to southern India and have experienced the beautiful hills and tea plantations. So due to time restrictions, we decided to skip the hill country in Sri Lanka for this visit, but I would love to go back and take the train through the tea plantations some other time.

Mirissa

We had prebooked a private transfer from the airport outside Colombo to the southern seaside resort of Mirissa. The drive was mainly on the pay highway where the traffic was light. We arrived in Mirissa a couple of hours later and found our B&B on the main road in this small fishing village. Since it was the start of our holiday and we came from the cold in Sweden, we spent the next couple of days just relaxing on the beach. Foodwise, we had some great fish on the beachside restaurants as well as the curry plate very common around Sri Lanka and roti.

The beach in Mirissa

If you’re into whale watching, there were ample opportunities to go on a boat tour. We were warned though that the sea can be rough and that most people experience seasickness so be prepared with pills if you go. Mirissa also seemed to be a popular place for surfing. But we were lazy so stayed on the beach during the day. One night, we went to a spa where I had an traditional oil head massage. It was very relaxing and probably good for the hair but plan on having very greasy hair for the next few days…

Glamping safari in Yala national park

When we were thoroughly relaxed and ready for some action, we took the bus to the Yala national park, or actually to the city of Tissamaharama where we were picked up and taken to our campsite very close to the park entrance. We spent 24 hours at the campsite and had a great time at the site which consisted of a few tents and a few buildings such as a restaurant. There was also an observation deck overlooking the national park greenery, perfect for a beer. It felt safe with guards on the lookout for elephants approaching the area at night.

We were taken on two jeep safaris in the park, one on in the afternoon and one at sunrise. We managed to see a leopard as well as elephants and other animals. The safari experience was nice but not as amazing animal-wise as in the national parks of for example South Africa and Kenya.

The meals and accommodation at the glamping campsite was great. Lots of curries and local beer! The transfers worked like a charm as well and we took the bus to Galle after the safari.

This is where we stayed in Yala: Pardus seek (TripAdvisor link as I can’t find a website, we booked through e-mail)

Historical sights in Galle

Galle is the provincial capital of south Sri Lanka and has a long history of port activity. The city is on the UNESCO world heritage list and has many sites, including the harbor and the fortress which was built by the Dutch in 1663. We stayed in a cute hotel close to the sea and enjoyed walking around the streets of the old town and the fort’s ramparts. There is something around every corner with lighthouses, markets and luxury seaside colonial bars and hotels.

Back to the beach in Unawatuna

After our stay in Galle, we were supposed to go up north along the coast. However, the hotel had made an error so we had to have a change of plans. We had passed the small seaside village of Unawatuna on the way from Mirissa and liked the look of it so we decided to go there.

Usually, we book hotels in advance but this time, we arrived at the beach and saw one directly above it that we liked the sight of and just went inside to see if they had any available rooms. It turned out to be a very lucky shot where our room had a fourposter bed, an exquisite front row view of the ocean and AC as well. And so we were back on the beach which was excellent. We ate our meals barefoot in the sand in one of the restaurants and enjoyed every minute of it. The breakfast was in-room service so we ate on the balcony overlooking the ocean, simply perfect.

The southwestern coast of Sri Lanka was hit hard by the tsunami in 2004. When we were in Unawatuna, there was an exhibition with photos showing the damage the wave made. There are also tsunami signs pointing to higher ground and alarms in place now. 

Train to Kandy

After a couple of nice days in Unawatuna, we were ready to take the train to Kandy. The train left from Galle and took about xx hours. Kandy is the second largest city on Sri Lanka and is also on the UNESCO world heritage list. The most famous sight is the Temple of the Tooth, which contains a golden box with a tooth of Buddha inside (you won’t see the tooth). The temple areas are busy with elephants, flowers and bells everywhere. You want to wear clothes that cover your legs and shoulders. 

Kandy lake is an artificial lake that the last king of Kandy created in 1807. The lake is close to the center of town and has lovely pathways to walk along.

To Colombo through Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage

To get back to Colombo, we decided to hire a driver for the day so that we would be able to stop at some places. First, we went to a spice plantation where we were given a tour of the different plants and then the oil-making plant. We bought some vanilla. 

Then, we stopped at the Pinnewala elephant orphanage, which is government run. The nicest part of our visit there was to see the elephants walk down to the river and bathe. We had a drink at one of the restaurants overlooking the river and watched the elephants frolic in the water. I always prefer to see animals free and in their natural habitat, but this seemed to be a well-managed place and the elephants seemed pretty happy and well-fed. Read up and make up your own mind if you want to go. If you want to get a special souvenir while you’re there, you can buy stuff made from elephant dung. 

We arrived early afternoon in Colombo. Our flight was scheduled to depart after midnight so we left our luggage at the bus station and then went into the city. We had tea at an English tea house, a nice walk along the coast, enjoyed the sunset, bought some souvenirs and then went to a great crab restaurant: the Ministry of Crab. It was located in a nice area called the Old Dutch hospital. The most famous dishes are whole lagoon crabs from Sri Lanka in various sizes and flavorings. I had the garlic chili crab and loved it. Do make reservations, this is a popular place which is on the 50 best restaurants in Asia list.

And then it was time to leave Sri Lanka!

So – what to eat and drink?

You will find the Sri Lankan curry plate everywhere. It’s a dish that consists of several small bowl with vegetables, a protein like fish or chicken, rice and a roti bread. Fruit juices and coconuts are abundant of course and filled pancakes for breakfast. In the coastal areas we had fresh fish or seafood for dinner every night. For drinks we had lots of beer (the local kind is called Lion) and ginger beer. And in Colombo, there were tea shops that served many kinds of tea and snacks.

In conclusion…

In my opinion, Sri Lanka is a perfect destination for a two week holiday. The nature is varied, the sights historical, the food fresh and tasty, the climate supernice and the beaches amazing – what more could you ask for? We call if a kind of “India light” because the island has a lot of similarities to southern India (Kerala) but is more laidback. We very much enjoyed our visit and would love to go back!


Exploring northern Sardinia and Corsica from Alghero

I would definitely recommend renting a car for at least a few days when you’re on holiday in Sardinia. There is so much to see outside of the beach town areas. You might be surprised though of how big of an island Sardinia is. Driving across the island from for example Alghero to the capital of Cagliari on the south coast would take at least half a day. We mostly stayed on the northwest part of the island and explored the surrounding areas. However, if you feel like visiting France, the island of Corsica is a day trip away! 

If you are looking for information about Alghero and the nearby area >>>
A sunny summer week in Alghero, Sardinia (Italy)

La Pelosa beach and Stintino

In the very northwest corner of Sardinia is the very pretty beach of La pelosa. It has turquoise water and beautiful white sand. However, it’s crowded so choose your time for a visit wisely. I’ve heard that it’s absolutely packed on weekends in high season. We were there on a Monday afternoon in late June and it was pretty crowded then as well. The beach itself is pretty small and only takes a few minutes to walk across. There are cafés and beach bars. 

La Pelosa beach in June

The Sardinian authorities are very protective of their sandy beaches. When visiting La Pelosa, you are not allowed to put your towel down directly on the sand. Then you risk a hefty fine! We didn’t know and within five minutes of us arriving to the beach, the beach police came up to us and told us to very quickly remove our towels, otherwise the fine would be 100 euros for each towel. We went up to the beach bar and bought beach mats made of bast for 4-5 euros each. The mats are also sold by individual vendors on the beach road. So, don’t ignore the signs of the mandatory beach mats! You can also rent chairs and umbrellas although they are expensive (25-30 euros for the set). 

Don’t forget your beach mat, it really is mandatory!

After a few delightful hours on the beach, we drove down to the small fishing village of Stintino. We had dinner by the harbor and then wandered in the village for a while. 

Stintino harbor

Bosa and the coastal road to get there 

Bosa is a very cute town about an hour south of Alghero. It has a river, historical houses and a fort. We went to the Tuesday market and then had lunch in one of the quiet, pretty streets. The walk along the river was very nice as we saw the colorful houses further up on the hill from a distance. Across the river from the main town is a row of houses that used to be the tannery area. Apparently, they were placed across the river because of the industry smell. 

For lunch, we had the special sandwich of Sardinian bistoccu bread. It was kind of like a large crispy toast with different toppings, very tasty.

Old tannery houses in Bosa
Bosa from a distance

The road to Bosa from Alghero is absolutely beautiful and should not be missed on any trip to Sardinia! It runs along the sea with pretty views of the cliffs and nearby areas on basically every turn. There are view points and parking places along the way so take your time! 

The coastal road from Alghero to Bosa

Nuraghe settlement of Santu Antine

An hour inland from Alghero and Bosa is the nuraghe settlement of Santu Antine. It is the main settlement of the nuraghe valley, which is where many of the nuraghe round stone towers with surrounding villages were located. The nuraghe buildings are common across Sardinia and were developed during the Nuragic age about 1900-730 BC. The towers vary in height.

Inside the multistory tower, you can enter the cool walkways as well

In Santu Antine, you pay a fee of 6 euros to visit and go inside the multistory nuraghe building. You can walk up the different stairways and into the tower rooms. It’s a very comfortable temperature inside the stone walls. I think they have guided tours as well. From the top of the tower you can see the surrounding valley and other smaller towers. 

We were joined by a friendly dog who seems to live on the premises

A museum five minutes away by car is also included. It contains some information material and also some objects found while excavating the nuraghe ruins. I think the museum is still being developed so most of the explanations were in Italian although we were given a sheet with a short description in English. 

More information about Nuraghe Santu Antine (in Italian)

Corsica (France)

The French island of Corsica is only a 50 min ferry ride from the harbor in Santa Teresa di Gallura in northern Sardinia. It does take more than two hours to drive there from Alghero so be prepared for a long day. You can take your car across but you won’t need it in Bonifacio where most streets are pedestrian only.

On the way from Alghero, you can have a quick detour to the Elephant rock which is a burial place by the road that looks like an elephant. It’s near Castelsardo and well signposted from the road.

The elephant rock near Castelsardo

The ferries to Corsica are equipped with a solar deck where you can enjoy the view of the islands and the strait. We had a very comfortable ride to the harbor in Bonifacio. Once there, the marina had lots of expensive looking yachts and nice looking restaurants along the water.

Once you go up the stone steps to the upper town (haute ville), you will enter the old fortification with narrow streets and cute alleys. There are excellent view points as well along the walls and the cliffs. The cemetery is located right by the cliff edge and consists of small mausoleums above ground, well worth a visit for the great views at least. Corsica is definitely an island I would like to spend more time on, although it was (at least in Bonifacio) considerably more expensive than Alghero/Sardinia.

More information about taking the ferry to Corsica from Sardinia

On Corsica, don’t miss the speciality beer Pietra ambrée which is made with chestnuts. As in Sardinia, the myrtle berry is very popular and you can find for example ice cream and liqueurs made with it. Otherwise, practice your French and have some nice French wine!

A sunny summer week in Alghero, Sardinia (Italy)

We spent a great holiday week in June 2019 on Sardinia where we explored the northern parts of the island, as well as the neighbor island of Corsica, from our base in Alghero. Here is our itinerary along with sightseeing and restaurant recommendations.

This first part below is about Alghero and the nearby area. For excursions on northern Sardinia and to Corsica >> see here.

Sunset from the Alghero city walls

Where is Sardinia? Where should I stay?

Sardinia is part of Italy and the second largest island in the Mediterranean. The capital of Cagliari is in the south. We stayed in the smaller town of Alghero which is located in the northwestern part of the island. Alghero has a pretty old town surrounded by walls, a marina, a long city beach and lots of accommodation choices. Close by are even more beaches and nature reserves. The airport is only about 20 minutes away.

Alghero is popular with tourists and we enjoyed our stay here. The old town is cute and everything you need for a holiday like a beach walk, weekly market, grocery stores, car and bike rentals are here as well.

When should I go?

We went to Sardinia in the end of June. For most of our week, the temperatures were about 30 C. The ocean had a comfortable, refreshing temperature of about 22-24 C. Even though the high season for Sardinia is July and August, there were plenty of people on the beaches and in restaurants, but it didn’t feel crowded. Later on in summer, you get warmer sea temperatures of course but you also get the crowds and the heat. A heatwave passed through Europe in our final days there and the temperature rose to about 37-38 C which made it hard to walk around the sights.

What is there to do in and around Alghero?

First of all, the beaches with their clear blue or turquoise water are beautiful on Sardinia and there are several choices around Alghero. The city beach was OK and mostly clean from seaweeds. However, a short walk away (15 min) is the beach of Maria Pia. It is backed by a pine forest and very nice. There are small bars for refreshments and a light lunch at both beaches. If you don’t want to pay the standard 12 euros for two chairs and an umbrella, there are free sections of the beaches as well where you can lay your towel. The beaches are well-maintained and seemed safe enough with lots of families around. They are mostly shallow and without high waves, at least in summer.

We learned that the name Alghero came from the latin word “algae” (seaweed) which is apparently very common in large amounts especially in winter due to the winds. That explains why the beaches were cleaned frequently and most of the seaweed raked away.

The Maria Pia beach late in the afternoon

Alghero old town is a must to stroll through. Walk along the promenade alongside the beach and the marina. The old town is entered through gates in the old stone walls. It is mostly pedestrian and there are lots of cute lanes and piazzas. Don’t forget to walk on top of the walls in sunset, it’s beautiful to see the sun set over the ocean and the cliffs beyond. There are also catapults and cannons on display. If you look closely, you can see the small brass signs with Italian and English explanations for the various part of the old fort.

View of the old town of Alghero from the beach promenade
Inside Alghero old town

If you like heights, visit the cathedral Santa Maria where you can climb the steep stairs up the bell tower. For a few euros, you get the entrance and a hard hat so that you won’t hit your head on the way up or down. Don’t worry though, the climb up the narrow stairway was totally fine as long as you make way for other people coming up or down. From the bell tower, the view of Alghero and the surrounding area is beautiful!

The view from the bell tower of the Alghero old town and the marina. You can also see the city beach and the Maria Pia beach further away.

Of course, there are also plenty of restaurants as well as ice cream parlors and coral shops inside the old town. For restaurant recommendations in Alghero old town, see below.

The Neptun grotto (cave) is a very interesting sight not far from Alghero. You can take a bus there and then walk down a lot of steps but we went by boat. The boats leave from the harbor right next to the city wall regularly and go straight to the cave entrance in about 30-40 minutes for 15 euros. You then join the line to enter the cave, pay the fee of 14 euros and then go on a sort of guided tour. The tour has you following a long line of people into different areas of the massive and very impressing cave while the guide uses the audio system to tell facts about the cave in Italian and English. There is no wandering around on your own, but you get to see the most interesting parts of this natural phenomena. There is a salt lake, a very large stalagmite and also stone formations that look like organ pipes. The cave was discovered by fisherman in the 18th century and is a very impressing and great excursion! And also, if it’s very hot outside, the temperature inside the cave is much more comfortable! After the tour which takes about 45 min, the boat awaits you for the return trip to Alghero harbor.

Every Wednesday morning, the market comes to Alghero! Compared to some other towns we visited, the market in Alghero had many stands with everything from clothes to local cheese. Walk around, sample the food and bargain. Fun morning!

If you’re lucky, there is also a market along the waterfront on some evenings. We were there for the midsummer celebration and enjoyed a market for two or three nights.

If you need to stretch your legs after all that ice cream and great food, I recommend renting a bike for the day. We biked along the ocean towards the Bombarde beach which is located about 9 km from Alghero. Most of the time, it was a pretty easy ride on a dedicated bike lane. On the way from Alghero, we passed through the town of Fertilia which borders a nature reserve and has an old roman bridge and a view point. Once at the turnoff to the beach, be prepared to go downhill – and a steep hill at that. Check your brakes beforehand and go slow. And don’t think about having to go back up that hill… The Bombarde beach is totally worth the effort! We had a nice lunch at one of the beach bars and relaxed for a while. On the way back (after conquering that enormous hillside back to the main road), we stopped at Maria Pia beach to cool off.

The Bombarde beach

Where to eat in Alghero?

We chose different restaurants for lunch and dinner everyday and most of them were good. From what I could see, most of the restaurants in the old town and around had basically the same dishes. We had a bit more fancy dinner one night on the city walls overlooking the ocean and they had a different menu. The drinks were usually the same price everywhere (around 3 euros for the local beer Ichnusa, about the same or 4 euros for a glass of local wine). For dessert, we usually had ice cream at one particular place that was very close to our hotel and with supernice staff.

Lunches

  • Go to the foccacerias! You get a filling lunch for good value! If you’re lucky, you get a sandwich made of the typical Sardinian thin bread! There were plenty of sandwich places both in the old town and around. The sandwiches were usually about 5 euros.

Dinners

  • Like I said above, most of the restaurants/pizzerias in the old town had the same kind of menu. I had lots of shellfish and mussels for dinner and thought it was great most nights. I actually can’t remember the names of the different restaurants as they were sort of the same… The pricing was usually the same as well as long as you’re not right by the water.
  • Restaurant Lido – beachside restaurant with meter long pizza. All was good and tasty, then a massive Italian family reunion started and it was impossible to hear each other across the table, so maybe check before you go inside (or outside I guess) . But the food was good!
  • Mirador – restaurante fortezza del sole – this was among the pricier dinners we had but the location was excellent on the city walls. We were happy with our food, especially the desserts which were creative as well as tasty. The wine list was extensive.

Ice cream

  • Gelateria Mont Blanc – They sure love their gelato in Italy! We found our favorite place near the beach and tried most of the flavors. The staff was great and there were tables right by the water. They are combined with a pizzeria/restaurant which had tasty food as well! Remember to try the traditional Sardinian flavors such as almond, nougat, figs and honey. The gelateria is located about a 20 min walk from the old town.

Want to explore northern Sardinia and maybe go to Corsica in France?