Kandy is Sri Lanka’s second city and the cultural heart of the nation; if you’re travelling within the hill country or heading to or from the ancient cities you’re likely to at least pass through. This is a city, however, that deserves more than a quick stopover.
Surrounded by mist shrouded hills and home to one of Buddhism’s most sacred shrines, Kandy offers much to visitors in terms of nature, culture and history. Yes, it’s a busy, noisy city with a lot of traffic and belching buses but, step away from the city centre, and you’ll find the kind of serene scenery that the hill country is famous for.
Furthermore, with a climate that is pleasant year-round, Kandy makes a great breather from the sweltering heat of the coast or plains.
Top Things to See and Do in Kandy
1. Kandy Lake
Kandy Lake is the pretty centerpiece of the city and looks especially photogenic at sunrise and sunset. It makes a nice place for a stroll; a busy road, however, runs very close to the lake’s southern edge, marring the peace somewhat. The nicest area is near the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.
The lake was created in 1807 by the last ruler of the Kandy kingdom; at its centre lies a small island that was used by the emperor’s personal harem. The British later used it to store ammunition; they were also responsible for building the fortress-style parapet around the lake’s edge. The Malwatte Maha Vihara lies on the south side with the monk’s circular bathhouse just in front.
Don’t miss Kandy Viewpoint and Arthur’s Seat on a small hill overlooking the lake; views over the city at any time of day are panoramic and wholly worth hiking up for. The nearby Royal Palace Park, small but well maintained, is a pleasant place for a stroll and offers seating amid the flowers.
2. Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic
The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic is Sri Lanka’s most sacred Buddhist pilgrimage site, supposedly housing a tooth of the Buddha. The heavily guarded shrine room is open to pilgrims during pujas, though the actual tooth is kept hidden within seven golden caskets in the shape of dagobas.
Since ancient times, the relic has played an important role in local politics since it is believed that whoever has custody of it has the right to govern the country. Kandy was the last capital of the Sri Lankan kings and now, thanks to its famous temple, is a World Heritage Site. As well as the revered temple, the large former royal palace complex contains other smaller temples, shrines and museums.
The 19th Century Audience Hall is an intricate, open air pavilion with stone columns carved to look like wooden pillars; it was here that Kandyan kings held their court. Nearby lies the Rajah Tusker Hall, displaying the stuffed remains of Rajah, the famous elephant known for carrying the sacred casket in the Kandy Esala Perahera festival for 50 years. The Old Royal Palace itself is now an archaeological museum, containing artefacts such as unearthed pots, carved stones and old wooden pillars.
Sri Lankan Buddhists believe that worshipping at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth greatly improves their karma and thus they try to make at least one pilgrimage in their lifetime. We visited in the morning though dusk is reputedly more atmospheric with hundreds of flickering candles illuminating the complex, creating a magical air.
- Allow yourself a couple of hours to explore the grounds as there is a lot to take in.
- Wear clothes that cover your shoulders and knees (men and women) otherwise you will not be allowed in.
- Security at the entrance is tight as the temple was attacked twice, in 1989 and 1998; be prepared to have yourself and your belongings searched.
- The entrance fee is Rs 1500 for foreigners and the temple is open from 5:30am–8pm. Puja times are 5:30am–6:45am, 9:30am–11am and 6:30pm-8pm.
3. World Buddhism Museum
We aren’t usually huge fans of museums but this one is something special and deserves an hour or two after your visit to the Temple of the Tooth; admission is covered by the same ticket.
For anyone with a keen interest in Buddhism, this building provides a staggering amount of information, as well as statues, photographs, models and colourful displays, related to Buddhism from across Asia. The Sri Lankan, Indian and Tibetan displays are especially captivating.
Note that although many of the exhibits are actually reproductions, it doesn’t detract from the overall value of a visit. Just around the corner, you can visit the National Museum, housed in the former queen’s place, and Kandy Garrison Cemetery.
4. Bahirawakanada Temple
Within walking distance from town, the Bahirawakanada Temple is a huge white seated Buddha statue that offers panoramic views over Kandy. It’s hilltop location means that it can be seen from miles around. There’s a Rs 250 entrance fee for foreigners, though you’ll actually get a better photo from the steps beneath the entrance archway.
Close by, Asgiriya Maha Vihara features a large white hilltop dagoba and a reclining Buddha statue; it’s looked after by the same head monks as at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.
5. Ceylon Tea Museum
Ceylon Tea Museum is located 4km south of Kandy in a quiet setting, surrounded by plantations of luscious tea bushes. Occupying the 1925 antiquated Hantane Tea Factory, the museum is interesting for its informative exhibits on tea innovators James Taylor and Thomas Lipton; there is also lots of quirky tea processing paraphernalia to be seen.
The admission fee is Rs 800 for adults and Rs 400 for children; the ticket includes a brief tour and a free cup of tea afterwards in the upstairs tearoom. The museum is open from 8:30am-3:45pm Tuesday-Saturday and until 3pm on Sunday. We reached it by tuk-tuk from Kandy town and then walked back, the return journey being all downhill.
Kandy has a series of devales – shrines dedicated to deities that represent a mix of Hindu and Buddhist beliefs; they have a unique form of architecture typical of the Gampola and Kandyan periods.
The 14th Century Natha Devale is Kandy’s oldest with Bodhi trees and small white dagobas within the grounds; there are some fine wall paintings to be found here. This devale is located between the Temple of the Tooth and the red-brick colonial-era St Paul’s Church.
Just a short walk away from the church you’ll find Kataragama Devale, a Hindu shrine featuring Murugan, the god of war, with six heads and twelve hands wielding weapons. You can’t miss the eye-catching brightly painted tower gateway of this devale.
Vishnu and Pattini Devales
Also within the same small area are the Vishnu and Pattini Devales.
Demonstrating the intermingling of Hinduism and Buddhism, the Vishnu Devale features the great Hindu god, who is the guardian of Sri Lanka; this devale is reached by carved stone steps and contains a drumming hall.
The Pattini Devale, meanwhile, is a simple temple dedicated to the goddess of chastity; it’s frequently visited by pregnant women and those seeking a cure from disease.
All of the devales can be explored on foot before or after a visit to the Temple of the Tooth Relic; each one is unique and offers its own insight into the culture and beliefs of the Kandyan people.
Sights outside of Kandy
If you have more time than we did, there are a number of worthwhile places that can be visited on day or half-day trips from Kandy. Some of these sights can be reached by local bus but to save time and visit a couple in one day, it would be worth hiring a taxi. Some ideas for further exploration include:
- Degal Doruwa Raja Maha Vihara
- Udawattakelle Forest Reserve
- Hanthana Mountain Range
- Peradeniya Royal Botanical Garden
- Gadoladeniya, Lankathilaka and Embekke Temples
- Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage
Where to Stay in Kandy
Kandy has a huge range of accommodation; budget places, however, can be harder to find. Many guesthouses are located a couple of kilometers outside town and some are even further afield.
We stayed at The Mango on Riverdale Road, 3.5km from Kandy Lake and the centre of town. The location was peaceful, the room spotless and breakfast plentiful though the uphill walk back turned into a bit of a challenge at the end of a long day!
The owner of The Mango is the wonderful Vindi, a real character who goes above and beyond to make your stay a memorable one. It’s a very homey place with an outdoor space for relaxing, a covered eating area and lots of little artsy extras that really give the place a personal touch. We’d definitely stay again if we ever return to Kandy.
Kandy has one main bus station – the Goods Shed, where most long distance buses depart from. Regular local buses to places such as Peradeniya leave from stops near the clock tower, while some private inter-city express buses, to Negombo and Colombo for example, depart from Station Road between the clock tower and the train station.
Examples of Long Distance Buses Include:
- Anuradhapura: 3.5hours, every 30 minutes. Luxury – Rs 372, normal – Rs 206
- Badulla: 3 hours, every 45 minutes. Luxury – 215, normal – Rs 160
- Colombo: 3-4 hours, every 15 minutes. Luxury – Rs 240, normal – Rs 155
- Negombo: 3-4 hours, hourly. Luxury – Rs 248, normal – Rs 162
- Nuwara Eliya: 3.5 hours, every 30 minutes. Luxury – Rs 250, normal – Rs 180
- Polonnaruwa: 3.5 hours, every 30 minutes. Luxury – Rs 272, normal – Rs 180
- Trincomalee: 5 hours, 4 daily. Normal – Rs 232
Note that for Sigiriya you’ll need to change in Polonnaruwa and for Dalhousie (Adam’s Peak) you’ll have to head to Hatton first. For Ella, change in Badulla.
If you’re traveling between Kandy and Colombo, or within the hill country, it is highly advisable to take the train; not only is it more comfortable but it also offers a window onto some truly memorable Sri Lankan landscapes.
Examples of Trains from Kandy Include:
- Badulla: 7-8 hours, 5 daily. Rs 270/145 for 2nd/3rd class
- Colombo: 2.5-3.5 hours, 7-9 daily. Rs 190/105 for 2nd/3rd class
- Ella: 6-7 hours, 5 daily. Rs 240/130 for 2nd/3rd class
- Haputale: 5-6 hours, 5 daily. Rs 210/115 for 2nd/3rd class
- Hatton (for Adam’s Peak): 2.5-3 hours, 5 daily. Rs 110/65 for 2nd/3rd class
- Nanu Oya (for Nuwara Eliya): 3.5-4 hours, 5 daily. Rs 160/90 for 2nd/3rd class
To read How to Spend 24 Hours in Colombo, head to our next post!