Guide: Train journeys in Sri Lanka. Here are the 5 most beautiful routes

Traveling by train through Sri Lanka was among our favourite experiences on our three months tour of the spectacular island. Here you will find our tips for which train routes have the most beautiful views, how to get the best seats, and what you should prepare for beforehand.

By Mette & Martin
Translated from Danish

Traveling by train in Sri Lanka is a very special experience. It’s cheap and for most parts surprisingly easy. However, it does sometimes develop into quite the challenge. But above all, it is a wonderful way to experience Sri Lanka.

We loved sitting in the train as it zipped through lush countryside, small villages, along the coast and up into the pitching mountains with magnificent views of deep valleys, cascading waterfalls, and beautiful tea plantations.

“From the train you get some of the
best views of Sri Lanka’s unique nature”

The one-off experience already begins on the platform. The old, charming station houses were built in the British colonial era and exude a historical spirit. You can find the train timetable on hand-painted wooden signs, and the tickets are small cardboard pieces that are stamped by the conductor.

Here, the digitization of the world feels far away, and the time warp sensation is completed as the station manager enters the platform in his white uniform to blow the whistle at the arrival and departure of the train. Normally, travel days can be a bit boring. In Sri Lanka they are an experience in themselves.

Sri Lanka’s railway was established in the mid-1800s. At that time, the train was used to transport tea from the plantations to Colombo, where the goods were sailed on to the rest of the world. Today, the railway is primarily used for passenger trains and transports over 3.7 million people every single day.

Here you will find the 5 most beautiful
train journeys in Sri Lanka

We travelled a lot by train on our tour of Sri Lanka. Sometimes we used the train to get from A to B. Other times we drove back and forth on day trips. Below we have described the sections that we think were the most beautiful, plus 13 practical tips on best views, bookings, seats, and more.

NOTE: The first four sections are all part of Sri Lanka’s most famous and very long train route (Badulla-Colombo). We have divided the route into sections of different durations. This allows you to choose the route that best matches your itinerary, depending on where you are and how much time you have.

#1 – By train over the Nine Arch Bridge (Ella–Badulla, 1 hour)
#2 – The train journey through the tea plantations of Sri Lanka (Ella–Nanu Oya, 2½-3 hours)
#3 – The classic train ride in Sri Lanka’s highlands (Demodara–Kandy, 7 hours)
#4 – Sri Lanka’s most famous train journey (Badulla–Colombo Fort, 10-11 hours)
#5 – The train journey along the Indian Ocean (Colombo Fort–Galle, 2-5 hours)

#1 – By train over the Nine Arch Bridge
Ella – Badulla

The train journey between the popular mountain town of Ella and the terminus of Badulla is one of the most famous sections as the train runs over the famous Nine Arch Bridge. An impressive stone bridge from the British colonial era, which with its nine high arches rises 24 meters out of a green valley.

The bridge is a few minutes’ train ride from Ella train station and continues through a lush landscape making the trip a very scenic experience. The train stops in several small station towns along the way before reaching the terminus Badulla, one of Sri Lanka’s oldest towns.

Today, Badulla is an ordinary provincial town that is only interesting if you are curious to experience a bit of everyday Sri Lankan life off the beaten track. We did the train round trip, which gave us an hour to walk around Badulla – and that was fine. If you happen to have more time in Badulla, you can take a tuk-tuk to the nearby waterfall Dunhinda Falls.

Alternatively, if you have less time there are many who choose to get off the train approx. halfway at the station town of Hali Ela and take a tuk-tuk back to Ella.

In addition to the fact that the 100-year-old Nine Arch Bridge is Sri Lanka’s most beautiful bridge, the construction also hides a history of unintended. The British commissioned the bridge shortly before World War I broke out, after which all the steel and metal for the construction was allocated to the war. Instead, they managed to build the bridge out of stone, concrete and wood, which is still an impressive feat today.

Avoid overcrowded trains

The train journeys to and from Ella is very popular with tourists. The compartments can therefore be crammed full, making it impossible to see out of the window. And in the open doors people take turns to get the iconic Instagram photo in the box.

A good tip is therefore to either aim for the earliest morning train from Ella to Badulla. Or take a tuk-tuk to Badulla and from there take the train to Ella. In Badulla there are far fewer and mainly local passengers, so it is easier to get a good seat.

How to get the best train photo on the Nine Arch Bridge

As something new, the Sri Lanka Railway has introduced Ella Odyssey – a special train for tourists, which, among other things, stopping at the Nine Arch Bridge. The train stops for 10 minutes, so you can walk on the bridge and take some photos.

Another option is to stay at Ella from where you can hike approx. 15 minutes through the forest or drive 10 minutes by tuk-tuk. The hiking trail is marked on both Google Maps and and begins near Ella Flower Garden Resort (from where you can also hike to Little Adam’s Peak). Come early if you want to experience the bridge without a throng of people.

The view from the cabin Green Nature Paradise Ella

Stay with a view of the Nine Arch Bridge

If you want to have plenty of time to experience the Nine Arch Bridge, you can stay in one of the cabins located on the slope with a view beyond the bridge. We stayed in the wooden cabin Green Nature Paradise Ella, which can be highly recommended. It’s basic, but comfortable and only a 10-minutes ride in tuk-tuk from Ella town.

Right next to the cabin is New Cabin Ella. The two cabins are each owned by two nice brothers who also run the newer Cafe Soul Ella. If you don’t have the time for an overnight stay, the café is a good and scenic place to hang out, while you wait for the train. Staff are happy to help with updates on train times.

Train journey between Ella – Badulla

  • Driving time:
    Approx. 1 hour
  • Best view:
    Sit on the left side of the train if you come from Ella
  • Timetable from Ella:
    06.35 / 13.24 / 15.09 / 16.56 / 18.26
  • Timetable from Badulla:
    05.45 / 08.30 / 10.15 / 11.00 / 17.50
We saw many tea plantations in Sri Lanka, but the view from Lipton’s seat and the hike down through the tea plantation to the Dambatenne Tea Factory were by far the most beautiful. You can reach the plantation from Haputale train station and from there drive approx. 1-hour with tuk-tuk

#2 – The train journey through the tea plantations of Sri Lanka
Ella – Nanu Oya (Nuwara Eliya)

The train journey between the mountain town of Ella and Nanu Oya meanders through Sri Lanka’s green highlands and endless tea plantations. Nanu Oya is the nearest railway station to Nuwara Eliya. A former British colonial town, which today is a popular holiday town for the locals and a good starting point for experiencing some of Sri Lanka’s many tea plantations and scenic attractions, including Horton Plains and Ramboda Waterfall.

A detour to Lipton’s seat

We cut the train journey in two and got off in Haputale. A small trading town with breath taking views beyond the south coast. On a clear day you can see all the way to the Indian Ocean. We chose to spend one night in the city to visit Sri Lanka’s most famous tea plantation, established by Sir Thomas Lipton in 1890. And yes, he was the Lipton whose name you see on tea packets all over the world.

Located in the mountains, between Haputale and Nanu Oya train stations, Idalgashinna is often mentioned as the most picturesque train station in Sri Lanka. It’s a tiny platform which looks even smaller by the hill towering behind it.

Good to know about the train from Ella

If you take the train from Ella, and you have not bought a seat reservation, it may be a good idea to embark the train on a prior station, e.g., Demodara. There are a lot of people who travel by train to and from Ella, so the carriages fill up quickly.

Train journey between Ella – Nanu Oya (Nuwara Eliya)

  • Driving time:
    Approx. 2½-3 hours
  • Best view:
    Sit on the right side of the train if you come from Ella
  • Timetable from Ella:
    06.39 / 09.23 / 11.11 / 12.04 / 18.59
  • Timetable from Nanu Oya:
    03.42 / 09.18 /12.45 / 14.36 / 16.08

#3 – The classic train ride in Sri Lanka’s highlands
Demodara – Kandy

Sri Lanka’s most famous train journey is the 10-hour journey from Colombo to Badulla (see below). It’s a long and somewhat strenuous trip. Therefore, we can recommend cutting of the first and last part and prioritize the most beautiful section between Demodara and Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second largest city and cultural capital. It’s an approx. 7-hour long train journey, incl. the drive over the famous Nine Arch Bridge.

The train snakes through a varied landscape of dense jungle, green coniferous forests, small villages and sweeping views of high mountains, deep valleys and rolling tea plantations. The train connects cities that are located at several of the most popular sights in the highlands, making the route an obvious choice for a round trip in Sri Lanka.

Detours worth the trip

We got of the train several places, e.g. Nanu Oya and Haputale (see above), plus the provincial town of Hatton from where we continued by bus to Dalhouise. The small town is located at the foot of the famous mountain Adam’s Peak and is a good starting point to the pilgrimage up to the temple at the mountaintop. Every day, hundreds of locals snort their way up the 5.500 steps to see the place where Adam is said to have first set foot on Earth.

Train journey between Demodara – Kandy

  • Driving time:
    Approx. 7 hours
  • Best view:
    We sat on the right side of the train (from Demodara/Ella) and had the best views for most of the trip, including to St. Clair’s Falls, also known as ‘Little Niagara of Sri Lanka’. If you have the opportunity to change seats along the way, the best recipe is to sit on the right side from Ella to Nanu Oya and on the left side from Nanu Oya to Kandy.

#4 – Sri Lanka’s most famous train journey
Badulla – Colombo Fort

If you want to cross Sri Lanka’s most famous train journey off your bucket list, you must drive the entire journey between Colombo and Badulla. It’s a 291km route that begins in Sri Lanka’s capital on the west coast and meanders eastward through tropical landscapes, around blue-green mountains, over bridges, through 46 tunnels and past a myriad of colorful cities.

“It truly is one of the most
beautiful train journeys”

We chose to take the train from Badulla, as there are far fewer who start the journey here, so it was easier to get a seat without a reservation. The trip was insanely cheap – we only paid 3 USD (LKR 900) per person and then spent the next 11 hours (yep, the train was delayed of course) soaking up the views. We were pretty exhausted when we arrived in Colombo – but the experience was totally worth it!

It is an experience in itself to watch Sri Lanka’s iconic trains as they roll from the main railway station, Colombo Fort, and down the southwest coast – with Colombo’s skyscrapers on one side and the Indian Ocean on the other.

Skybar with a view of the train

We highly recommend celebrating the completion of the train journey with cold drinks on top of one of the many hotels that line the coast in Colombo. We stayed at Hotel MaRadha, from where we could look straight down at the train as it rolled honking past – with Colombo’s skyline on one side and the Indian Ocean on the other. The view only got better at sunset.

Train journey between Badulla – Colombo Fort

  • Driving time:
    Approx. 10-11 hours
  • Best view:
    We sat on the right side of the train (from Badulla) and had the best views for most of the journey.
  • Timetable from Badulla:
    05.45 / 08.30 (direct trains)
  • Timetable from Colombo Fort:
    05.55 / 08.30 (direct trains)

#5 – The train journey along the Indian Ocean
Colombo Fort – Galle

Our first encounter with Sri Lanka’s iconic trains was on the route between the capital Colombo and the historic fortress town of Galle. It is a classic commuter train where you will meet many locals on their way to and from work.

The train journey runs through green countryside, a lot of small towns, and often it feels like driving through people’s backyards. But the special thing about the train journey is that it runs along the south-west coast. Driving along the Indian Ocean and through the tropical landscapes is a special experience.

Train journey between Colombo Fort – Galle

  • Driving time:
    Approx. 2-5 hours (depending on the type of train)
  • Best view:
    If you are traveling from Colombo, you must sit on the right side, where you get the views of the sea
  • Timetable from Colombo Fort:
    06.50 / 08.35 / 10.30 / 14.40 / 15.50 / 16.46 / 17.30 / 17.51 / 18.17 / 19.30
  • Timetable from Galle:
    03.15 / 04.35 / 05.00 / 05.53 / 07.03 / 07.27 / 10.25 / 14.45 / 15.35 / 16.55
Galle Fort was among our favorite places on the train journey in Sri Lanka

13 practical tips for
train journeys in Sri Lanka

There are both advantages and disadvantages to traveling by train in Sri Lanka. In the first instance, it is therefore important that you decide what you would like to get out of the train journey before you start planning the journey. Here we have listed practical info and a few things worth considering.

#1 – Expect delays

The trains in Sri Lanka are known for being notoriously late … But you can’t count on that either. We have both experienced that the train arrived on time and was anything between 10 minutes and 1½ hours late.

#2 – The train journey takes longer than you think

The train runs at a scenically slow pace and is therefore not the fastest way to get from A to B. For example, It takes 3½ hours to drive from Ella to Kandy with a car and over twice as long by train.

#3 – The train schedules

There is a lot of and very different information about the train schedule on the internet. The only train times you can reliably trust are the ones you get at the train station.

You can also check the official website of Sri Lanka Railway or download the app. Be prepared that the site only show a selection of train times and that they do not always show the exact same number of minutes.

#4 – Map of train routes

You can get an overview of where the train runs in Sri Lanka on this train route map.

#5 – Different types of trains

Several types of trains run during the day. It is therefore also different which price range and seat you can expect to get. See pictures of the different trains and compartments on the world’s best train blog Seat 61.

#6 – A train journey for photo-loving travellers

In 2022 Sri Lanka Railway launched Ella Odessey. The special thing about the train is that it stops along the way between Colombo and Badulla, so you can take photos of the most beautiful views, e.g. Nine Arch Bridge.

#7 – The power of Instagram

Sri Lanka’s iconic trains have long since become a hit on Instagram, with people taking pictures while hanging out the open doors. Although the train runs slowly, it is not completely harmless, as the carriage creeps along rocks, trees and over deep canyons. The trend has created quite a debate, which you can read about here.

#8 – You can always buy train tickets on the day

It is always possible to get tickets for 2nd and 3rd class without a seat reservation. The tickets cannot be purchased in advance. They are only sold at the station approx. 15 minutes before the train’s departure. It’s wonderfully easy and absurdly cheap (we paid, for example, ½  USD to drive an hour by train between Ella and Badulla). But it is not without problems, see below.

#9 – Overcrowded trains are a thing

Tickets for 2nd and 3rd class without seat reservation are never sold out. In other words, there is no restriction on the number of passengers. You can therefore run the risk of a jam-packed train rolling onto the platform. Once we had to wave goodbye to the train as it was so full that we couldn’t get on (see next point).

If you plan to travel by train in the middle of the day, or if you have to travel a long distance with luggage, we recommend that you buy a seat reservation.

#10 – Avoid weekends and public holidays

Many locals work in the big cities during the weekdays but travel home to their families when they have time off. Therefore, the trains are often extra full at weekends and especially during public holidays.

#11 – Buy a seat reservation well in advance

Train tickets with seat reservations are released for sale 30 days before departure. We succeeded in buying a seat reservation on the day, but for the most part, we found that the tickets had long been sold out. Read everything about how to buy train tickets on the train blog Seat 61.

We primarily traveled with train in 2nd class

#12 – What class is best: 1, 2, or 3?

The best seat is a reserved seat. Especially if you are going on a longer train journey or driving on a popular route.

We primarily traveled in 2nd class – both with and without a seat reservation. Compared to other trains in Asia, the compartments were nice, the seats good and the cleanliness ok. We also tried to buy 1st class tickets, but there were only a few departures, and they were long sold out.

Subsequently, we have heard that 1st class is not necessarily the best choice. The compartment’s air conditioning is freezing cold, and both windows and doors are locked. For us, it’s a line in the bill, as we loved hanging with our heads out of the window or standing in the doorway where you get the very best view.

#13 – Plan the train journey as an experience

If you don’t feel like fussing around with large luggage in overcrowded trains, it’s a good idea to choose a train route and plan it as a day trip. You can, for example, take the train for a few stops and take a tuk-tuk back.

We hope our guide can help you plan your train journey in Sri Lanka. If you have questions or been to Sri Lanka, please share your thoughts, experiences and travel tips in the comment box.

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