An introduction to Ella.
Hidden up between craggy peaks and mist-gathering tea plantations on the edge of the Central Highlands, Ella is a world away from Sri Lanka’s shimmering beaches.
Here, you’ll keep the company of swinging macaques and roaring waterfalls, hike challenging trails and drink way too much tea.
Where is Ella.
Ella is perched right on the south-eastern edge of the Sri Lankan Central Highlands. To the south, the Ella Gap opens to reveal vistas of rolling lowlands where elephants and cheetahs reside. To the north, the horizon is given over to arched ridges tufted with tea plants and gallery jungles.
The nearest city is Nuwara Eliya. That’s a little England, known for its Gothic-Victorian colonial architecture and lovely rose gardens, but also a dramatic setting on the edge of the Horton Plains National Park – think waterfalls and sheer-cut mountains.
How to get to Ella.
Local buses connect Ella with Kandy via Badulla. There are also links to Colombo through Haputale. The all-new (and rather fun) 31 bus goes up to the mountain town from the surf beaches of the south coast. It runs from Galle through Dickwella and Mirissa, taking around 5-6 hours depending on traffic.
However, ask anyone who’s been to Ella, and they’ll say there’s really only one way to arrive: Train. Yep, the rattling rails of the Kandy-Ella line are nothing short of legendary on Sri Lanka. They’re a mainstay of any island itinerary.
In fact, some people only come to Ella to enjoy the train ride up. That’s probably a mistake, but there’s no question that the trip is gorgeous. It’s a 6-hour odyssey through the forest-clad Hill Country, whizzing past misty mountaintops and deep valleys carved by roaring rivers. What’s more, a one-way ticket in 2nd class costs just 240 LKR ($1.35).
What to do in Ella.
Prep the hiking boots. Ready the sunblock. Stretch those calf muscles. Ella is one of the more active corners of Sri Lanka. Hikes, railway treks, and arduous pushes to lookout points are all on the menu. Of course, you could also just kick it with a cup of the local brew if that’s more your sort of thing.
Climb Ella Rock.
For the most dramatic views of Ella town and the wide canyon of Ella Gap, look no further than this soaring ridge. The trek to the top takes 2-3 hours or more, depending on how fast you move and the weather.
You’ll probably want to rise early to get started. That should help you avoid the searing midday heat and the virtually guaranteed afternoon downpours that flood into the Central Highlands around 3 pm.
The path starts on the train lines (yes – people walk on the train lines here!) and veers off at a stone marker after passing Kital station. From there, you walk over a river bridge and enter tea fields, before beginning to ascend into the woodlands higher up.
The final push is a muddy slope that can be treacherous if it’s been raining. Eventually, that levels out, and you emerge onto a plinth of rock that juts into the valley for eye-watering panoramas of Little Adam’s Peak.
Climb Little Adam’s Peak.
If you fancy something a little easier on the hamstrings than Ella Rock but still want jaw-dropping views, Little Adam’s is the way to go. It’s linked to the centre of Ella by tarmacked roads, and the route takes only an hour or so. There are some hard ascents towards the end, but you can take a breather and watch people whizzing down the ziplines whenever you want.
The reward? A sweeping view of the southern plains and – almost – the Indian Ocean on one side; the emerald fields of the 98 Acres Tea Estate on the other.
See the Nine Arches Bridge.
Instagram at the ready, because Nine Arches Bridge is just around the next bend in the rocky hiking trail! A really awesome piece of architecture, this is considered one of the most beautiful examples of a colonial building in the world.
With is eponymous nine arches, it bends softly through a gorge between Ella and Demodara. Around it, hills rise with pine trees and coconut palms, and mosaics of tea bushes fall to a gurgling river. The result is a structure that looks almost organic in nature.
You might want to hang around until a locomotive comes by. Head to Nisee Juice Bar above the bridge. It’s got a poster that shows the train times, not to mention uber-fresh passionfruit concoctions to keep you busy while you wait.
Visit a tea estate.
10,000 shades of green erupt on the mountainsides around Ella. Some are pine forests. Others mark out lush dashes of palm jungle. Others are tea – one of the town’s greatest exports.
Yep, you’re never too far away from your next cuppa in Ella. There are ‘tea museums’, tea shops, and tasting rooms dotted all over the centre. If it’s your first time in a tea destination, there’s really no substitute for going straight to the source.
Cue the Uva Halpewatte Tea Factory. The largest of its kind the region, it’s a huge complex perched on the hills to the north (any local tuk-tuk driver knows where to go). You’ll have a guided tour to learn all about the process of separating and drying the tea leaves. And then it’s to a tasting session to enjoy the crispy flavours of the Ceylon brand with a view over the mountains.
Where to stay in Ella.
It seems like a new mountain retreat, deluxe hillside cabin, or rustic Sri Lankan homestay pops up in Ella each day. As of writing (2019/2020), there was certainly still plenty of building work going on.
The upshot? There’s a huge variety of accommodation to pick from in this high-perched tea town. You can save some moolah and settle in something simple with a local family. Or, you can splash the cash on a private lodge with its own infinity pool gazing out at Little Adam’s Peak…
Ceylon Backpackers ($)
Meet and mingle with other backpackers, hikers, and tea lovers by opting for this fun-loving hostel accommodation. The rooms are rustic and basic, with shared facilities, but the price tag is uber-cheap to match. The real draw is the group vibe, friendly owner, and the location right by the main train station.
Ella Master Point ($$)
Wowza – just look at those views! Swirls of mist rolling over Ella Rock; the sole pine trees silhouetted against Little Adam’s Peak; the plumes of waterfalls crashing through the palms in Ella Gap. You can see it all from the balconies of this charming lodge. Breakfast is included, and the bathrooms are semi al fresco.
98 Acres Resort & Spa ($$$)
Money no object? Honeymoon planning? This is the option for you. 98 Acres Resort & Spa cradles its own hillside just outside of the town centre. The bungalows are pure luxury, with private infinity pools jutting over the peaks. A gourmet café and a whole tea factory are also on site.
Where to eat in Ella.
There’s always somewhere that will tickle the taste buds up in Ella – this is Sri Lanka, after all!
Coconut sambal, bubbling pumpkin stews, curried nuts and all manner of roti bread burst from the kitchens. You’ll find family-owned cookhouses and chain gastropubs rubbing shoulders on the main street, and some more hidden spots waiting in the back alleys…
Jade Green ($)
A family affair on a second storey along the main road, Jade Green is rarely busy – but don’t let that put you off! Homemade curries are the name of the game. You’ll devour earthy dals, fresh sambal sides, and get crispy poppadum to crunch over the lot. Prices are some of the lowest around.
La Mensa ($$)
Hit this orange-painted kitchen on the main road to get a menu of kottu roti (cut-up roti that’s fried with veggies) and tempting curry mixes. Everything’s made fresh and you can even order beer from the menu.
MozzarElla By Nero Kitchen ($$$)
Okay, so you might not venture to the highlands of south Asia to hunt for pizza, but this welcoming little joint has you covered if you do need a break from the usual coconut curries. There’s a wood-fired oven and cold beer aplenty.
If you’ve got anything to add to this ultimate guide to Ella, we’d sure love to hear it in the comments below!