Culture trip – a guide to Sri Lanka’s capital of culture, Kandy

Big Buddha, Kandy.jpg

I arrived in Kandy at night feeling a little worse for wear. I was still recovering from a bit of travel sickness and I was covered in sweat and dust from my day’s adventure up to see Sigiriya and Pidurangala. Gratefully, and without any thought about what my plan for Kandy was, I collapsed into bed at my hostel and hoped life would look less bleak in the morning.

I woke to a city buzzing with excitement. It was a few days before Sinhalese and Tamil new year and the streets were packed with people preparing to celebrate. Stall owners hawked all kinds of goods, from fresh fruit to fireworks. The latter could be heard every now and then, sharp pops and bangs let off by those just too excited to wait for the celebrations to begin in earnest.

Aside from the excitement of the new year’s celebrations, Kandy is a city dripping in culture. It withstood the encroachment of the Dutch and French before finally falling to the British in 1815. Perhaps because of this, it maintains a feel of authenticity. The hip cafes and tourist centred delights found in backpacker towns in other parts of Asia and the world are few and far between here.

If you’re looking to experience a side of Sri Lanka a little less discovered and a little less saturated, then a trip to Kandy is definitely worth making. Below you’ll find all the best things to see and do to get a taste of true Sri Lankan culture.

Tooth temple

At the heart of Kandy’s cultural scene is the Scared Temple of the Tooth. Housing what is said to be one of Buddha’s teeth, brought to the island in the 4th century. Thus, it has obvious religious significance to the people of Sri Lanka and all members of the world’s fourth largest religion.

In classic form, I mistimed my visit and didn’t get to see one of the ceremonies held each day where the tooth is displayed to the public. Even so, I did get to walk through the temple complex and witness the locals interact with this religious monument. The shrine room itself is spectacular. Intricate carvings and decorations adorn the walls, as well as a breakdown of the tooths history, from the origins of Buddha himself to the days of British Colonisation.

As with most religious sites in Sri Lanka, it’s required that you keep your shoulders and knees covered as a sign of respect, so be sure to pack a sarong or simply wear clothes that cover these areas.

Where is it | Temple of the Sacred Tooth and Royal Complex, Kandy

Cost | The entrance fee is 1500 LKR per person

Temple of the Tooth Kandy.jpg
Temple of the Tooth.jpg
Temple of the Tooth.jpg
Temple of the Tooth.jpg
Temple of the Tooth.jpg

Make the trip to Sigiriya

Standing at an awesome 200-metres tall, Sigiriya dominates the surrounding landscape with its sheer size. Often lauded as the eighth wonder of the world, a visit to Sigiriya is an easy day trip from Kandy and definitely worth making the time for. The palace at its summit was originally built by King Kashyapa and after his death was turned into a monastery. It still bears the marks of both, making it an experience both historically and spiritually.

Where is it | Sigiriya, Central Province, Sri Lanka

Cost | The entrance fee for Sigiriya is 30 USD per person

Climb Pidurangala Rock for sunrise

If you’re going to see Sigiriya, then it’s definitely worth taking the time to climb its slightly smaller, but by no means less spectacular cousin, Pidurangala. With its own temple complex, an astonishingly beautiful sunrise view of Sigiriya, and at a considerably cheaper cost to its taller relative, Pidurangala is a bit of secret gem worth exploring.

Where is it | Pidurangala Rock, Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

Cost | The entrance fee for Pidurangala is 500 LKR per person.

Sigiriya rock.jpg
Sigiriya.jpg
Pidurangala.jpg


Kandy Lake

Dominating the centre of town, it’s hard to miss Kandy Lake. The artificial lake was built by the last king of Kandy, Sri Wickrama Rajasinha in 1807 and local legend says that the island in the middle of the lake housed his personal harem.

Now, the lake is perfect for an afternoon or early evening walk. Follow the clearly marked path around the lake and enjoy the view as birds dance on the breeze and the pastel light thrown by the setting sun shimmers on the water.

The whole walk should take you about an hour (just over 3km) and is a great way to admire the peace and tranquillity of nature in the middle of a bustling city. Around every bend you’ll see some sort of wild life, and the various types of tree species are conveniently labelled so you can educate yourself as you walk if you feel so inclined.

Where is it | Kandy Lake, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Cost | Free!

Kandy Lake.jpg
Kandy Lake.jpg
Kandy Lake.jpg

Immerse yourself in the local markets

Local markets have to be one of my favourite ways to experience a new place. Whether bustling or slow, they offer a fantastic insight into what life in any destination is like. Stall owners hawk their wares, old women knowingly rummage through the fruit on display picking only the very best, and exotic spices hang in the air, tingling the senses and luring you further into the maze of stalls.

Kandy has no shortage of markets for you to wander through, offering all kinds of delights, from delicious food and spices to jewellery and clothes.

Central Market

These were the first markets I dove into in Kandy and it’s here that you’ll predominantly find consumable goods like fruits, spices, and local delights. It was here I met Bada, a fruit stall owner who let me sample his wares; four different kinds of mango, two different types of banana, grapes, and THE freshest passionfruit I have ever tasted. I could easily have stood there all day feasting on everything he handed me.

Where is it | Kandy Municipal Central Market

Cost | Entry is free, the cost of food depends on how good your bartering skills are!   

Old Town Markets

Where the Central Markets are a rabbit warren of food and spice stalls, the Old Town Markets are a maze of stores of all varieties, from electrical goods, jewellery, clothes, and a wonderful mix of restaurants. 

Where is it | Old Town Markets, between Kandy Clock Tower and the Colombo St.

Cost | Entrance is free, how much you spend on goods is up to you!  

Kandy Markets.jpg
Kandy Markets.jpg
Kandy Markets.jpg
Kandy Markets.jpg

Udawattekele forest reserve

 If, like me, the hustle and bustle of a city gets to be too much after a while and you simply need a dose of nature, then head to Udawattekele Forest Reserve. Once the private pleasure garden of the Kandyan Kings with restricted access to the public, this 104-hectare slice of nature above the Royal Palace is the perfect place to escape the city and enjoy that sweet, sweet serenity.

Within minutes of following one of the clearly marked walking paths throughout the reserve, Udawattekele feels like a whole other world. Breath in your natural surroundings and allow the head to clear as wildlife scuttle and scurry throughout the centuries old flora around you.

I spent about two hours walking through Udawattekele Forest Reserve but could easily have spent longer. Highlights of the reserve include the pond where Kandyan royalty used to bathe, now filled with turtles and other wildlife, the Kandy viewpoint, from which you can see a spectacular view of Kandy Lake and the surrounding city, and the extensive array of animals and plant life spread throughout. 

Where is it | Udawattekele Sanctuary, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Cost | The entrance fee for Udawattekele is 650 LKR per person.

Udawattekele.jpg
Udawattekele.jpg
Udawattekele.jpg

 Royal Botanic Gardens

If you love a beautifully sculpted garden as much as my gran, then making the short trip to go visit the Royal Botanic Gardens just outside of Kandy should definitely be on your radar. 

Formally reserved for pleasure of Kandyan nobility, they were turned into the Botanic Gardens in 1821 thanks to the British.

Today though, all are welcome to stroll through the quiet, garden lined roads stretching over 60 hectares and home to over 10,000 trees. The gardens are also home to all of Sri Lanka’s unique flora, labelled for your convenience, as well as species from all over the world.

If the heat of the day gets too much to handle, simply kick back on one of the many expansive lawns under the shade of nature or enjoy a brew at the café located at the entrance to the gardens.

The gardens are popular with tourists from abroad as well as from Sri Lanka, so it’s best to get there early in the day to beat the crowds. Plus, the earlier you get there, the cooler it will be, which means more time admiring nature and less time hiding from the sun.

History trivia: The Royal Botanic Gardens in Kandy were used by Lord Louis Mountbatten, the supreme commander of the allied forces in South Asia, as the the headquarters of the South East Asia Command during World War II.

I recommend visiting the Gardens as part of a day trip that also includes the three temple loop (see below).

Where is it | Royal Botanical Gardens of Peradeniya

Cost | The entrance fee is 1,500 LKR per person.

How to get there | Simply hire a tuk tuk to the gardens from Kandy (about 400 LKR). Alternatively, you can include your visit here as part of a day trip that also includes the three temple loop.

Royal Botanic Gardens.jpg
Royal Botanic Gardens.jpg

Three temple loop

If you want to dive deeper into the history and culture of the Kingdom of Kandy, then a trip to Gampola, just outside of Kandy is the perfect opportunity to do so. The region contains an array of temples and shrines that serve as a testament to Sri Lanka’s Buddhist history.

Three of these temples, Gadaladeniya Viharaya, Embekke, and Lankathilaka form what is commonly known as the ‘three temple loop’.

I recommend visiting the three temple loop as part of a day trip that also includes the Royal Botanic Gardens (see above).

Galadeniya Viharaya

Built in the 14th century, the temple is located on a stone cliff and features a central hall containing gilded statues of Buddha in various seated positions. The grounds of the temple are also home to a Banyan tree, and several small lily pad ponds.

When I visited, the temple was under restoration works, and so scaffolding clung to the main temple.

Embekke Devalaya

Also built in the 14th century, Embekke is dedicated to the Hindu deity Mahasen and is most renowned for the central temples intricate wooden pillar carvings. These carvings depict a myriad of humans and animals in various forms.

Lankathilaka

Another 14th century temple, Lankathilaka is perched on a rocky cliff amongst forests and rice fields. Dedicated to both Buddhism and Hinduism, the white temple houses many significant relics.

Where is it | Gadaladeniya Viharaya, Embekke Devalaya, and Lankathilaka Vihara.

Cost | The entrance fee for each temple is 300 LKR per person.

Three Temple Loop.jpg
Three Temple Loop.jpg

Bahirawakanda Vihara Buddha Statue

One of several giant Buddha statues dotted around Sri Lanka, this impressive structure built in 1992 and representing the samadhi pose, stands (or sits, technically) at 88 feet tall.

It’s position atop Bahirawa Kanda hill means that it dominates the city of Kandy below and can be seen from just about everywhere in the city. If you make it up to the statue itself, you’ll be rewarded with an expansive view over the city and surrounding mountain country.

I highly recommend going for sunset, as I did. You’ll get to watch the bustling city wind down as evening sets in and the sky turns the beautiful pastels of sunset. It’s a view you won’t want to turn your back on. 

Where is it | Bahirawakanda Vihara Buddha Statue, Kandy

Cost | The entrance fee is 250 LKR per person.

Big Buddha.jpg
Big Buddha.jpg

Eat incredible Sri Lankan food

Balaji Dosai was my first taste of Sri Lankan cuisine, and I’ll never forget how good it was. A chain of vegetarian restaurants with three different locations throughout Kandy, the food is simple, delicious, and cheap. I recommend the masala dosa or the good old fashioned plain dosa, followed by a masala chai.

Where is it | Balaji Dosai, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Cost | Prices start as low as 150 LKR for a plain dosa.


Essentials

Where is Kandy?

Kandy is the heart of culture in Sri Lanka. It’s fitting then that its location is in the heart of the islands lush hill and mountain country, about three to four hours north-east of Colombo.

 
 
 

When to visit

Its location in the mountains means that Kandy’s climate is wetter and cooler than the rest of Sri Lanka.

The best time to visit is between January to April. The weather might be slightly warmer and more humid, but you won’t have to battle rain as much as during the cities two monsoon seasons - May to July and October to December.

Keep in mind the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year’s happens in the middle of April. This coincided with my visit, and while it made my time here unique, it also meant that getting around was slightly more difficult.

Where to stay in Kandy

Airbnb is probably your best bet for accommodation, as there isn’t as much of a hostel culture in Sri Lanka as there is in other South East Asian countries. Click here to book via Airbnb and potentially save yourself up to $55.

Otherwise, click here to see available hotels in and around Kandy.

How to get around

Walk

Kandy is very walkable city, its streets easy to navigate and plenty of friendly locals to help you with directions should you need. Aside from saving you money on tuk tuks or other transport, walking is also the best way to see all that Kandy has to offer, from the nature of Udawallekele to the peace of the lake.

Tuk tuk

While walking is best for exploring the city centre and nearby surrounds, you’ll need another form of transport to explore the outer regions.

Tuk tuks are everywhere in Kandy and easy to flag down. You can also use apps like Pick Me to book and pay if you’re more comfortable doing it that way.

Be wary though, Sri Lankan tuk tuk drivers are notorious for taking advantage of unsuspecting tourists. Make sure to bargain hard and agree on a price BEFORE you get into the tuk tuk.

Bus

As with the rest of Sri Lanka, Kandy and its surrounds are serviced by regular buses. The main bus station is next to Kandy station, although this service is for longer distance routes only. For the local Kandy buses, head downtown to Torrington bus station.

Colombo to kandy

The trip from Colombo to Kandy is 110km and can be completed by train, bus, or car.

Train

The three-hour long journey by train begins in chaotic Colombo and makes its way north and east of the city before ascending into the mountains closer to Kandy. While not the most comfortable mode of transport, it is a beautiful journey, particularly if you can position yourself on the right-hand side of the train to enjoy the spectacular scenery.

It’s not just the views that make the train journey enjoyable though. Sri Lankan trains have a vibe to them that is hard to describe. Predominantly ridden by locals, the journey is a unique insight into Sri Lankan culture.

I made this journey close to the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year, which meant it was standing room only for the entire three-hour trip. Beware, the locals can get pretty savage when it comes to boarding the train around these very busy times. At one point I thought an old lady was ready to start throwing punches if it meant she got onto the train! Try to keep a smile on your face, it’s all part of the experience and complaining won’t get you anywhere.

Where | Colombo Fort Railway station

Cost | LKR 180 for third class, LKR 280 for second class, and LKR 500 for first class

Times | Departure times from Colombo Fort to Kandy are: 5:55am, 7:00am, 8:30am, 10:35am, 12:40pm, 3:35pm, 4:35pm, 5:45pm

Bus

Another way to dive into Sri Lanka culture while getting yourself from Colombo to Kandy is to take the bus.

While much harder to snag yourself a seat than on the train, the trip takes about the same amount of time as catching the train and is just as spectacular.

 

Where and what | #1 bus from Pettah central bus station, Colombo

Cost | LKR 130 – 150 depending on the conductor

Times | Departure times vary greatly, but there are services running 24 hours a day.

  

Car

You can hire a private taxi to Kandy if you feel inclined, but in my opinion, this is expensive and unnecessary.


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