Many travellers come to Sri Lanka for the white-sand beaches and epic surf; but right at the island’s mountainous emerald-swathed heart lies a spiritual, charming area full of tea plantations, misty hills, and those famous blue train carriages. Today that cultural preservation lives on in the city’s many significant cultural and historic sites, forming the basis for all the very best things to do in Kandy. The best-known of these is the Temple of the Tooth relic; Buddhism’s most important religious shrine, and said to be the location of a portion of Buddha’s tooth.
But Kandy is also so much more than its number one attraction; it’s a city of delightful chaos, with its bustling streets, ancient temples, colonial architecture, aristocratic gardens and the glorious Kandy lake forming the backdrop to a perfect few days amongst Sri Lanka’s lush green hills.
Never has a decaying tooth held so much significance to so many people, yet that’s exactly the reason that the impressive Temple of the Sacred Tooth and Royal Complex (Sri Dalada Maligawa) is the number one attraction in Kandy. This ornate golden-roofed temple houses the most important Buddhist relic in Sri Lanka – a tooth of Buddha brought to the island in the 4th century. The temple was built between 1867 and 1707 specifically to honour this sacred relic, and the temple has long since been a place of importance for both Sri Lankan and international visitors. In fact, most Sri Lankans believe they need to visit the temple at least once in their lives to pay homage to the toothy treasure. If you visit during the annual Esala Perahera (Festival of the Tooth), you may see the tooth’s gilded casket paraded around the city accompanied by 65 colorfully decorated elephants (which we obviously don’t condone
The Royal Botanic Gardens of Peradeniya, the largest and most extensive in Sri Lanka, are amongst the best we’ve visited anywhere in the world. If these gardens feel insanely grand, it’s because they were formerly reserved exclusively for Kandyan royals to stroll through before they were transformed into the Botanic Gardens in1821 at the behest of the ruling British. The gardens also showcase Sri Lanka’s entire unique flora along with representative species from all around the tropical world. We definitely recommend visiting the impressive and totally insta-worthy avenue of royal palms; a beautiful tree-lined pathway in the interior of the gardens. The famous Orchid garden and otherworldly Cannonball tree, planted by King George and Queen Mary during their visit in 1901, are also absolutely worth the visit.
It’s just that the clackety train tracks from Kandy to Ella are home to probably the most insanely picturesque train ride in the entire world. Whether you’re sitting in the doorway of a crowded carriage with your feet dangling over the tracks, or half-falling out the window from your seat inside as you strain your neck out the window the best view; winding through misty forests, verdant tea plantations, over gushing waterfalls and streams, and past colourful towns and excitable locals will be one of the most memorable journeys of your life.
Beyond the epic views, the vibe is what makes this train ride so special. Prepare to be met by some of the most genuine smiles you’ll ever encounter; groups of locals singing, playing drums, or dancing (or doing all three!), vendors rushing through with flasks full of sweet chai, and every window or doorway crammed with the heads of tourists and locals alike, all staring in amazement at the views and jostling for the best views.
(Tip: the most scenic part of the journey is from Nanu Oya to Ella, through the dense forest of the Horton Plains national park, so we recommend getting the window seat or standing in between the doorways, and enjoying the views as they pass by.)
Right at the heart of Kandy is the Kandy Lake; surprisingly peaceful despite the bustling road that winds around it, and the backdrop to many of the city’s major attractions including the Temple of the Tooth Relic, and Udawattakele Forest reserve. The artificial lake was built in 1807 by Sri Wickrama Rajasinha, the last ruler of the kingdom of Kandy, who wanted to build a waterway to get to the other side of the valley. Things didn’t quite go to plan though. The local tribes protested the labour, at which point the king ordered they be put to death on stakes. Gruesome.
After its completion, the island in the middle was used for Sri Wickrama Rajasinha’s personal harem. When the British eventually moved in during the early 1800s, the island became an ammunition store.
Travellers love the hustle and bustle of local markets, especially in Sri Lanka. There’s always something to see, someone to meet, or more importantly something to eat. Located in between Sri Delada Veediya rd and Colombo st, the old town of Kandy is home to a labyrinth of market stores selling everything from textiles to incense. The loud and chaotic streets are filled with local Kandyans going about their daily business, and we found it a great place to get a feel for the ‘real’ Kandy. Some sights worth checking out within the old town include the Giragama Walawwa, the oldest walawwa (former royal building) in Kandy, the historic and stunning Red Mosque of Kandy, or the colourful Kataragama Devalaya Hindu temple.
Despite being quite small in size and population, Kandy, with its constant beeping of horns, overzealous touts and relentless heat and humidity, can get a little intense at times. That’s why a stroll through Udawattakele forest reserve, situated behind the Temple of the Tooth Relic, is one of the best things to do in Kandy.Once the king’s personal garden, Udawattakele is now an urban forest and wildlife sanctuary home to several species of mammals, reptiles, and other animals. There’s a hiking path within the sanctuary, which is about a 5km round trip. While there are a few sights to see within the reserve, namely the water pond, the highest peak of Kodimale, Senkanda Cave, and several Buddhist temples, we enjoyed walking through the forest under the thick canopy, and escaping the hustle and bustle of the city and experiencing tropical nature at its best.
Sri Lanka and its tea plantations go hand in hand. In the central province of Sri Lanka stands Giragama Tea Plantation, a quaint village known for tea cultivation. Giragama was one of the first few plantations near Kandy, the heart of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is one of the highest producers of tea in the world and this tea estate allows a tour inside where tourists can see how tea is processed with machines. Furthermore they can also purchase tea at the very same place. The estate spreads across many hectares; when you stand on one end, it appears as if Giragama Tea Plantation knows no bounds. They have estates that are open to tourists for walks; tea manufacturing units that showcase the entire process from how to pluck tea leaves, cleaning and further processing into the finished product; and in-house shops that sell freshly packaged tea in different variants.