Your Sri Lanka itinerary will undoubtedly include at least one night in Kandy, especially if you plan to ride the infamous blue train from Kandy to Ella – reportedly one of the most scenic train journeys in the world. Read on to discover some of the best places to visit in Kandy, along with recommendations on where to stay and eat, and tips for getting around the city.
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It’s probably quite difficult to visit Sri Lanka without spending some time in the country’s second city. Kandy is both the gateway to Sri Lanka’s hill country and the island’s cultural capital.
Set amidst the dense forests and tea plantations of Sri Lanka’s central province, not far from the hiking trails of the spectacular (and lesser-visited) Knuckles Mountain Range National Park, Kandy served as the capital of the last Sinhalese kingdom, which ultimately fell to the British in 1815.
Although it’s Sri Lanka’s second largest city (with a population of 125,000 inhabitants), Kandy – meaning ‘hill’ – still retains a surprisingly small-town atmosphere. The picturesque lake, around which life centres, is a fundamental part of what creates this vibe.
I spent three nights in Kandy earlier this year. I had arranged to do some hiking in the Knuckles Mountain Range on my second full day in the city, but unfortunately the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic put a stop to that. So, instead I was able to get to know the city a little better than would initially have been possible, had everything gone according to plan. Proof that good things can happen as a result of thwarted plans!
Getting to Kandy
From Colombo | Kandy is 96 kilometres northeast of the island’s capital, Colombo. The journey takes between two and a half and three hours by train or between three and four hours by bus. Trains from Colombo to Kandy run from the Colombo Fort Railway Station and it’s advisable to book in advance to secure a seat. Ticket prices range from 180-500 LKR, depending upon which class you wish to travel in. However, seats can only be reserved in first and second class carriages.
Bus tickets on the other hand can only be bought on the day of travel, from the conductor on the bus. A ticket, unfortunately, does not guarantee you a seat. However, travelling by public bus is cheaper, if you’re on a strict budget. A one-way ticket will cost you 155-240 LKR. Buses depart from Bastian Mawatha Station – also in the Fort district.
From Sigiriya | This is where I travelled to Kandy from, as I wanted to explore the Sigiriya Rock Fortress, Dambulla Cave Temple and the ancient city of Polonnaruwa before heading south. The nearest train station to Sigiriya is Habarana. However, in order to get to Kandy from there, you would have to go via Colombo (an eight-hour journey altogether!), so I chose to take the public bus. Catch a tuk-tuk to the Inamaluwa Junction and from there you’ll be able to hop on a direct bus to Kandy’s Goods Shed Bus Station. The journey takes approximately three hours.
Accommodation in Kandy
The cheapest accommodation options in Sri Lanka seem to be what are known as ‘homestays.’ You rent a room in a local family’s home for a rate which often includes your breakfast every morning. Some homestays include your own private bathroom; some don’t. So, make sure you check the details when you book, for clarification.
Accommodation in Kandy is either close to the city centre or it’s up in the hills surrounding the city. The former is more convenient for exploring the city, whereas the latter is more peaceful and picturesque and will often afford you a slightly cheaper room rate and better views.
I stayed around one and a half kilometres from the western edge of Kandy Lake, down by the Kandy General Hospital. It was close enough to be able to walk to the centre, yet far enough away to benefit from a slightly better quality of accommodation for a more affordable price. Kandy City Village Homestay is impeccably clean, the rooms are spacious, and there’s a lovely garden to sit out in as the sun goes down in the evening. The hosts were also incredibly welcoming and accommodating (even in spite of the growing fears surrounding the coronavirus pandemic) and the breakfast they served me each morning was a veritable feast that I couldn’t manage to finish even half of. I stayed in a deluxe double room on the top floor for £16 per night (correct March 2020).
Incidentally, if you’re heading down towards Ella after Kandy (the route that the majority of travellers follow), you’ll be the right side of town for Peradeniya Station if you stay here.
Getting around Kandy
If I were to offer you just one piece of advice for getting around Kandy, it would be to download the ‘Pick Me’ app.
This is Sri Lanka’s answer to Uber, and is a way of pre-booking tuk-tuks that works out much cheaper than hailing them down in the street and attempting to haggle with the driver. Booking this way also means that you don’t have to carry lots of small change around with you.
Having said that, you’ll find that many of Kandy’s attractions are within easy walking distance of each other. So, you’ll only really need to use a tuk-tuk in order to visit sights on the outskirts of the city, and to travel around after dark. Kandy is a pretty safe city, but I don’t like to take risks when I travel alone.
Places to visit in Kandy
As I’ve mentioned earlier in this post, I was unfortunately travelling in Sri Lanka when the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a pandemic. As a result of this, by the time I arrived in Kandy, national parks and gardens had been closed, quickly followed by museums, some temples and an alarming number of cafes and restaurants. Therefore, I was ultimately unable to visit a few places on this list. For the purpose of transparency, I will make it clear for which of these places I cannot offer a first-hand commentary.
I’ve not listed these places to visit in Kandy in any particular order, apart from the fact that I’ve grouped those in the centre of Kandy together first, followed by those on the outskirts of the city.
1 | Temple of the Sacred Tooth
Let’s kick off with Kandy’s star attraction! The Temple of the Sacred Tooth – also known as Sri Dalada Maligawa – is Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist shrine. It’s located on the northern shores of Kandy Lake and is said to house the country’s most significant Buddhist relic – a tooth of the Buddha.
Legend has it that the sacred tooth was snatched from the flames of the Buddha’s funeral pyre in 483 BC and subsequently smuggled into Sri Lanka in the 4th century AD.
At first it was taken to Anuradhapura, and has since been kept in various different locations in Sri Lanka before finally finding a permanent home in Kandy after the current Temple of the Sacred Tooth was constructed in the early 1700s.
The temple is a pilgrimage site for Sri Lankan Buddhists, so you’ll find many more Sri Lankan people at the temple at any given time than you will foreign tourists.
Even if you’re not religious, the temple is a beautiful building, both inside and out, and is an absolute must-see if you’re visiting the city. In March 2020, the admission fee was 1500 LKR (£6.42). Allow a couple of hours to have a thorough look around.
Good to know: Both men and women need to cover up their legs and shoulders. Shoes must be removed before entering the temple.
2 | Kandy Lake
The artificial lake – also known as Kiri Muhud (‘The Sea of Milk’) – was built in 1807 by Sri Wickrama Rajasinha, the last ruler of the kingdom of Kandy. He also commissioned a skilled architect to build a decorative wall around the lake, but unfortunately the city was captured by the British before it could be finished.
Walking the 3.2 kilometre circumference of Kandy Lake is a surprisingly peaceful activity despite the bustling road that winds around it. It’s also a great way of orientating yourself with the city. The prettiest part is definitely the section adjacent to and a little further along from the Temple of the Sacred Tooth, but you’ll probably find yourself reaching for your camera at regular intervals the whole way around.
You may even be lucky enough to spot a monitor lizard sunning himself on the shores of the lake, beneath the shade of the trees.
In the centre of the lake is an island that was once used as a summer house for Sri Wickrama Rajasinha’s personal harem until the British successfully re-captured Kandy in 1815. It was then used as an ammunition store and the fortress-style parapet around the perimeter was subsequently added.
The only other note-worthy structure on the lake is the Queen’s Bathing Pavillion (‘Ulpange‘), which you’ll find in front of the entrance to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth. This was part of the palace complex built by Sri Wickrama Rajasinha, and was – as the name suggests – used by the Queens for bathing. The British later converted it to a library and now it is used as a police post.
3 | Udawattakele Sanctuary
Would you believe that, right in the centre of Kandy, just behind the Temple of the Sacred Tooth, there is a massive 257-acre forest reserve? No, I wouldn’t have either unless I’d done my research about places to visit in Kandy, in preparation for my trip.
Once the King’s personal garden, Udawattakele was opened as a forest reserve in 1856 and became a sanctuary in 1938. It’s famously home to over 400 plant species (including several giant lianas – a type of tree vine), 70 varieties of bird and 32 different kinds of butterfly.
There’s a five-kilometre hiking trail you can follow through the sanctuary, which takes you past some medieval rock dwellings and through the Garrison Cemetery.
Good to know: Unfortunately, Udawattakele Sanctuary was closed when I was in the city. However, if you’d like to visit you’ll find the entrance around a 15-20 minute walk from the Temple of the Tooth. Head north along the D.S. Senanayaka Veediya road and after 500 metres turn right at the post office near the Kandy Municipality, and follow the road up the hill. The entrance is on the right hand side of the Tapovanaya Monastery.
4 | Kandy National Museum
This was unfortunately another of the attractions that had already closed its doors to tourists by the time I arrived in Kandy. I wasn’t quite as gutted about this as I was about missing out on one of the places to visit in Kandy a little further down on this list, but I still would’ve appreciated the opportunity to learn a little about the history of the city I was visiting, beyond what I’d read in guidebooks and on Wikipedia.
Opened to the public in 1942, Kandy’s National Museum was once part of the Royal Palace of Kandy. It houses various artifacts that help to illustrate the history and culture of Kandy and of British-era Sri Lanka.
5 | Arthur’s Seat
Unless you’ve got a drone (and I’m not sure what the rules are around flying them in Kandy anyway), this is the place to head for the best views of Kandy Lake.
Legend has it that a British tea planter named Mr. Arthur once owned a bungalow that was situated above the lookout point, and that he used to enjoy views of Kandy from a stone chair beneath a tree in front of his bungalow. Although the original seat was destroyed, the current viewing platform incorporates a symbolical seat made out of the original rock slab.
6 | Helga’s Folly
Who else likes to seek out the quirky and unusual when they travel? If you answered “yes” then Helga’s Folly may be right up your street! This is definitely one of the more alternative places to visit in Kandy.
When I discovered that Kandy was home to a bizarre hotel/art gallery/surrealist fantasy that “could have been dreamt up as a joint venture between Gaudi and Dali” (Lonely Planet), I knew I had to check it out.
The road to Helga’s Folly climbs up from the eastern end of Kandy Lake and affords some incredible views back down on to the city. And Helga’s Folly (when you can find it) is indeed as bizarre as Lonely Planet promised it would be.
The only people I saw during my visit were the staff. It was almost as though all the guests had fled the hotel in a hurry, not even stopping long enough to pause the record on the gramophone before they left.
As I wandered alone along long, dark corridors and through extravagently furnished rooms, it felt like the eyes of the numerous fictional characters painted on the walls were following me as I walked.
Good to know: If you punch ‘Helga’s Folly’ into either Google Maps or Maps.me, neither will take you to the correct location. I’d almost given up all hope of finding the place (deciding that it must have closed down after my Lonely Planet Sri Lanka guidebook was published) when I hailed down a passing tuk-tuk driver who pointed me in the right direction. You need to continue along Rajapihilla Mawatha as far as Days Inn Kandy, where you’ll see a sign for Helga’s Folly. Follow the sign uphill along a rough unpaved track that doubles back along the same direction as the road you’ve just walked, and after around 100 metres you’ll arrive at the entrance.
Fun fact: The Stereophonics famously wrote their song ‘Madame Helga’ about the owner of Helga’s Folly.
7 | Bahirawakanda Vihara Buddha Statue
Located in Bahirawakanda, approximately two kilometres from the city centre, Sri Maha Bodhi Temple is known for its giant white Buddha statue and – due to its elevated position – can be seen from almost anywhere in Kandy.
The Buddha is 26.8 metres tall and is one of the largest Buddha statues in the whole of Sri Lanka. Whilst it’s not very easy to photograph the statue itself due to the temple being surrounded by dense vegetation in every direction, you can climb the set of stairs that run behind it for some spectacular views of Kandy.
8 | Peradeniya Botanic Gardens
Of all the places to visit in Kandy, this was one that – along with the Temple of the Sacred Tooth – I was most excited about visiting. However, fate had other ideas. In response to the increasing spread of the coronavirus, Sri Lanka’s government closed all the country’s national parks and gardens on 15 March 2020 – the day before I arrived in the city.
The stunning Peradeniya Botanic Gardens spread over a massive 147-acre area six kilometres from central Kandy, and were once reserved exclusively for Kandyan royalty before the ruling British opened them to the public in 1843.
Photo copyright belongs to Travel Mag and has been shared via Flickr‘s Creative Commons Licence
You’ve probably seen photographs of the insta-worthy avenue of royal palms, but the gardens are also famous for their huge 40-metre-high Burma bamboo, a giant Javan fig tree, and an impressive collection of orchids. You might also want to check out the unusual Cannonball tree, planted in 1901 by King George and Queen Mary. Incidentally, you’ll also find one in Viharamahadevi Park in Colombo.
Photo by Fredrick Barrington via Flickr
Good to know: Bus number 644 will take you up to the gardens. Catch it from Kandy’s clock tower for 20 LKR one-way.
Due to their location, the gardens can be visited as part of the Kandy Three Temple Loop – incorporating Lankatilake Temple, Embekka Devale and Gadaladeniya Temple. I visited the former on my second day in the city, but unfortunately the latter two were closed.
9 | Lankatilake Temple
I absolutely adored this place! In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that it was my favourite of all the places to visit in Kandy. Lankatilake Temple is located in the village of Rabbegamuwa, in a spectacular setting perched atop a rocky outcrop surrounded by rice fields and tea plantations.
Dating back to the 14th century and divided into two halves – one half Buddhist and one half Hindu – Lankatilake Temple is considered to be THE most magnificent architectural structure created during the Gampola era (1341-1408). It’s even depicted on Sri Lanka’s 500 rupee note!
The eastern entrance will take you into the Buddhist half of the temple, which features an impressive image house containing a large seated Buddha and two standing Buddhas at either side, along with some incredibly well-preserved frescos covering the walls and ceiling.
On the western side is the entrance to the Hindu half, known as the Temple of the Gods.
You’ll need to enlist the services of the temple caretaker in order to have a look inside both the Buddha Image House and the Temple of the Gods . Fortunately, I arrived on site at the same time as a couple of French tourists and their Sri Lankan guide, who also spoke excellent English. So, as well as translating the caretaker’s words into French, he also offered me an English commentary.
From what I’ve read online, I understand that the caretaker does speak a little English and is keen to practice with English-speaking visitors, but I couldn’t help feeling that – by having a translator on hand – I got a lot more out of the visit than I may otherwise have done.
10 | Gadaladeniya Temple
Located just three kilometres from Lankatilake, Gadaladeniya also dates back to the 14th century and is considered to be one of the largest rock temples in Sri Lanka.
The Buddhist-Hindu temple is built on a rocky outcrop that’s covered with small pools filled with water lilies, and entry is via a series of steps cut into the rock. Unfortunately, I only got as far as climbing these steps and viewing this temple through locked gates, but it definitely looked like one I’d like to return to.
Photo by Mahesh via Flickr
Gadaladeniya is famous for its beautiful stone carvings, and the main shrine contains an equally magnificent, gilded seated Buddha.
11 | Embekka Devale
With the exception of the sanctum, Embekka Devale is made entirely out of wood. It’s a 14th century Hindu temple that’s dedicated to the Hindu deity Murugan.
There are a total of 514 designs carved into the wood, ranging from lotus flowers to female dancers and a selection of mythical hybrid creatures. The carvings have been acknowledged by UNESCO as being among the best and most detailed in the world.
Photo by Sachitha Obeysekara via Flickr
12 | Nelligala International Buddhist Centre, Kandy
After discovering that both Gadaladeniya Temple and Embekka Devale were closed, my tuk-tuk driver took it upon himself to take me to Nelligala International Buddhist Centre instead.
Nelligala was only built as recently as 2015 (and there was still plenty of construction work going on when I visited), and for that reason it didn’t have the same appeal to me as the beautiful 14th century Lankatilake.
However, the 360-degree views of the surrounding countryside really were something else. You can see Hanathana Mountain Range, Alagalla Mountain, Batalegala and Sri Pada Mountain from the temple’s grounds.
The location of all the places to visit in Kandy that I have mentioned in this post can be found on the map below.
Places to eat in Kandy
1| Balaji Dosai
On the day that I arrived in Kandy, a couple of German guests at my homestay informed me that they’d had trouble finding anywhere to eat that afternoon. The day I’d arrived had coincided with the first day of the public holiday the government had declared in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus, so many of the cafes and restaurants that would ordinarily have been open had closed their doors.
The couple subsequently recommended the closest eatery they’d found open – Balaji Dosai. I duly headed there for dinner, having not eaten anything since breakfast that morning in Sigiriya.
I wasn’t expecting much and the interior doesn’t promise much; there are no frills in this joint! But the reality is that the food at Balaji Dosai is non-pretentious, tasty, filling, and incredibly cheap. You can order their signature masala dosa, accompanied by a cup of warming masala chai for just 350 LKR (£1.49). I can personally recommend their cheese dosa for an extra 100 rupees (42 pence).
Address: 3 DS Senanayake Veediya, Kandy | Opening hours: 07:00-21:30 hours Monday-Sunday
Photo by Nadir Hashmi via Flickr
2 | Buono
If you want to satisfy your craving for good coffee and avocado toast, this is the place to come! Hipster joint Buono seems to be a favourite with Western tourists and expats but that certainly doesn’t detract from its appeal. This is a lovely laid back establishment which promotes sustainable practices and serves food that reminds you of home with a Sri Lankan twist.
I arrived here mid-afternoon (as luck would have it, just before a huge thunderstorm), and was in desperate need of something to drink that wasn’t water, so I ordered I papaya smoothie (complete with metal straw, no less) and a pot of local tea, accompanied by the most amazing chickpea salad. And let me tell you, it was the best thing ever. I always struggle to eat healthily when I travel on a budget, and I really miss my fresh fruit and veggies, so this was just what the doctor ordered. Yes, it’s pricier than Balaji Dosai, but it felt like such a welcoming little spot.
There are also handicrafts, clothing and coffee for sale here, and 100% of all proceeds help to support local community projects – primarily Child Action Lanka, a charity that provides daily meals, school supplies and education to children.
Address: 12 Lamagaraya Road, Kandy | Opening hours: 08:00-18:00 hours Monday-Saturday.
Other cafes/restaurants I’d heard good things about, but which unfortunately were closed when I was in town are as follows:
- Cafe Secret Alley. This little place looks similar to Buono, serving great coffee, all-day breakfasts, beautifully presented smoothie bowls, and a selection of gourmet sandwiches and tasty salads. Avocado toast is of course on the menu, too. The ‘secret alley’ is not that difficult to find, but it’s further along Kotugodalla Street (coming from the Temple of the Tooth) than Google Maps thinks it is.
- Vito Wood Fired Pizza. If you think that Sri Lanka is not the kind of country in which you’d expect to be served great pizza then think again! This place gets rave reviews and many of the tables offer lovely views of Kandy Lake.
- Vegan Tranquil Rose. I’m not vegan (or even completely vegetarian; I eat fish on the odd occasion) but I love eating vegan food when I travel and will always seek out vegan cafes and restaurants. As soon as I saw photos of the colourful, beautifully-presented dishes on the menu here, I immediately added it to my places to visit in Kandy itinerary. If you manage to eat here, please let me know what you think!
And that’s my round-up of some of the best places to visit in Kandy. If it hadn’t been for the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, I would actually have made it to all of them!
Once you’ve checked off a few of the places to visit in Kandy, if you’re interested in making any day trips from the city before you board the train to Ella, then Get Your Guide run several rather fabulous looking tours (below).
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