An Essential Guide to Kandy, Sri Lanka's Capital of Culture
Looking for the ultimate guide to Kandy?!
From the very best things to do in Sri Lanka’s cultural capital, to where to stay, our top tips, and how to get around, we’ve got you covered.
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.
The gateway to all of this hill-country action (and the greatest train journey in the world!) is Kandy; City of Kings, Sri Lanka’s second city and the island’s undisputed historical and cultural capital.
Protected by its geographic position and less-accessible terrain, the powerful ancient Kingdom of Kandy was able to hold off the advancement of both the Portuguese and Dutch colonisers through the 1500s and 1600s, becoming the last standing bastion of independent Ceylon. In doing so, the city was able to preserve the unique customs, culture, and arts that had been heavily subdued elsewhere in the country - until 1815 when it finally succumbed to British rule.
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.
There are so many great things to see and do in Kandy, and we highly recommend spending a few days in the city to take it all in.
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WHERE IS KANDY?
Set amongst the misty hills and dense forests of Sri Lanka's central province, Kandy is located about three hours north-east from the capital of Colombo.
Kandy is one of the largest and most culturally significant cities in Sri Lanka, with a population of around 110,000 calling the city home.
WHEN TO VISIT KANDY, SRI LANKA
Due to its position in the mountainous central region of Sri Lanka, Kandy has a wetter and cooler climate than most of the country.
For optimal weather conditions, we recommend visiting Kandy between January and April. Although the weather may be slightly warmer and humid, the days will be (mostly) rain free. From May to July, and from October to December, the region experiences its two monsoon seasons, during which time the weather is wetter and more volatile.
We've visited Kandy in both April and November, and while both times of year were manageable, November was far wetter, which made it a lot harder to see everything we wanted. On the plus side, it was devoid of tourists and easier to see most attractions.
It's worth noting that Sinhalese New Year occurs during the middle of April, which can make getting to Kandy (or anywhere in Sri Lanka) a huge problem, so we'd advise avoiding travelling to in Sri Lanka over this period.
WHERE TO STAY IN KANDY
As it’s the cultural capital of Sri Lanka, accommodation for all budgets in Kandy is quite easy to come by
We’ve recommended three hotels below, but you can also search for all hotel options for Kandy, Sri Lanka using Booking.com.
THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN KANDY, SRI LANKA’S HISTORICAL AND CULTURAL CAPITAL
#1 TEMPLE OF THE SACRED TOOTH RELIC, KANDY
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.
Needless to say, visiting the relic was our top mission on our first visit to Kandy in 2016. Alas, due to mistiming our entry (standard team TCW mistake-making right there!) and the very brief viewing times, our wish wasn’t granted. That said, the mission wasn’t a complete failure; the temple with its ornate carvings and colourful depictions of Buddha blew our minds.
Inside the main shrine, devotees file slowly through the various rooms on their way to the casket, bending to leave offerings and pray quietly below the elaborate Buddhist murals. It’s a deeply spiritual place, and a quiet reverence floods each room.
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 colourfully decorated elephants (which we obviously don’t condone - read why here).
Cost | LKR 1,500 per person, or LKR 1,000 from SAARC countries
Tips | Both females and males need to cover up legs and shoulders. Shoes must be removed before entering the temple
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#2 ROYAL BOTANIC GARDENS/PERADENIYA SRI LANKA
We're big fans of sprawling city parks, and 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.
Today, even measly commoners like us are allowed to wander the grounds, which are now home to over 10,000 trees spread across 60 hectares. The gardens also showcase all of Sri Lanka’s 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. When you’re done sightseeing, there are also a number of expansive lawns in which to relax and escape the Sri Lankan heat.
We recommend including the gardens in a day tour itinerary, or as part of the three temple tour (see below).
Cost | LKR 1,500 per person entry
How to get to Royal Botanical Gardens of Peradeniya | You can hire a tuk tuk to the gardens for around LKR 400, or include the gardens in a Kandy day tour itinerary.
A cheaper alternative is to catch the number 644 bus from near the Kandy Clock Tower, which will take you directly to the garden, for around LKR 20.
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#3 VISIT THE HISTORIC THREE-TEMPLE LOOP OF KANDY
The Temple of the Sacred Tooth relic might be the most important of Kandy’s temples, but it’s definitely not the only temple worth visiting.
Jump in a tuk-tuk and get out of the hustle and bustle of downtown Kandy for the day to the lush countryside of Gampola, where numerous Kandyan-era temples and shrines still stand proudly over green fields and quiet winding lanes.
Three of these temples, Gadaladeniya Viharaya, Embekke, and Lankathilaka form the aptly named 'three temple loop', and serve as a living history to Sri Lanka's extensive Buddhist heritage and craftsmanship.
We recommend visiting the three temple loop and The Royal Botanic Gardens of Peradeniya in one day as part of a tuk-tuk tour.
Dating from the 14th century, Gadaladeniya Viharaya is built by stone on a rock cliff and contains gilded, seated Buddha statues. In the centre of the temple lies the Banyan tree, as well as ponds formed on the rock face.
During our visit, we were able to speak with the temple manager, who told us all about the temple's varied history. He's also a very talented artist, should you want to buy some Sri Lankan art.
Embekke Devalaya was built in the 14th century by King Vikramabahu III, and is dedicated to the Hindu deity Mahasen. The temples are famous for its carved wooden pillars, which depict both humans and animals, as well as its three main three sections, the ‘Sanctum of Garagha’, the ‘Dancing Hall’ and the ‘Drummers’ Hall’, which houses the best carvings.
The final, and in our opinion, most impressive temple in outer Kandy is Lankathilaka Vihara. Perched on a rocky outcrop, this 14th-century temple is one-half Buddhist, one-half Hindu, and incorporates a number of historical significant relics, including a seated Buddha image, rock-face inscriptions featuring both Sinhala and Tamil section, and stone Elephant figures.
Set amongst forests, rice fields and a small village, Lankathilaka is one temple we recommend you don't miss.
Cost | Each temple costs LKR 300 entry per person
#4 BAHIRAWAKANDA VIHARA BUDDHA STATUE
The beautiful Bahirawakanda buddha statue sits atop Bahirawa Kanda hill as if overseeing the daily life of Kandyans below.
Built in 1972, the sculpted white statue is one of the tallest in Sri Lanka (at 27m in height), and can be seen from just about anywhere in Kandy. Bahirawakanda offers incredible panoramic views over the green and blue hues of Kandy and beyond and is best to visit at sunset when the city is bathed in a golden glow as the sun drops behind the mountains in the distance.
As always, remember to remove shoes and hats before entering the temple complex.
Cost | LKR 250 entry per person
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#5 KANDY TO ELLA TRAIN RIDE
They say that the journey is what counts, not the destination - and we have to admit, when it comes to Sri Lanka they may just be right.
That’s not to say that the destinations in the teardrop isle aren’t incredible (they are!); 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.
When we first visited Sri Lanka in 2016, the Kandy to Ella train ride was yet to really hit the big time, however, due to its current popularity, you need to book your travel in advance (usually 1 - 2 days prior). The train may also be quite crowded (especially during peak season), so be warned you may need to push your way onto the train (as long as you do this respectfully it won’t cause offence).
Third class may be the cheapest option, but in our opinion, it's also the best, as it allows you to sit/hang out of the doorways, and is filled with friendly locals keen to help you enjoy your experience.
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.
Where | Kandy train station, Kandy
Cost | 2nd class: LKR 240 per person, 3rd class: LKR 175 per person
Kandy to Ella train times | Express trains depart Ella to Kandy - 0847 and 1110 (subject to change)
#6 WALK THE KANDY LAKE
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.
The idyllic lake is the perfect place to get your bearings in Kandy, and to see some of the local wildlife - at one point, we thought we were about to be attacked by a crocodile, only to realise it was an extremely large monitor lizard! Beware their backends though, they have a might strong tail whip that you don’t want to be on the receiving end of.
It takes about an hour to walk the lake’s circumference (just over 3kms), and our favourite part was around the area next to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.
Where | Kandy Lake, Kandy
Cost | Free
#7 EXPLORE THE MARKET STREETS OF KANDY OLD TOWN
We love the hustle and bustle of local markets, especially in Sri Lanka. There's always something to see, someone to meet, or more importantly for Mim, 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.
Where | Walk the streets between Kandy Clock Tower and Colombo st.
#8 EAT INCREDIBLE MASALA DOSA AT BALAJI DOSAI
Our love of Sri Lankan food is very, very real.
From the morning-noon-and-night staple of 'rice and curry' right through to our fave street food in the world, kottu roti, we love just about every dish this country has to offer.
Given the prominence of Kandy on the Sri Lankan tourist trail, we came to the city with high expectations of the culinary scene here. After a number of expensive failures (including Tripadvisor's highest-ranked Kandy restaurant), we concluded there were simply no restaurants as good as in the south.
That was until we came across Balaji Dosai, a non-pretentious Sri Lankan and South Indian vegetarian restaurant located near the Temple of the Tooth, which served the most ridiculously delicious masala dosa. Finally, we'd come across good food again, and relished it by eating WAY too much.
We recommend the cheese dosa (LKR 350) and standard masala dosa (LKR 250), topped off a masala chai (LKR 100).
Although we're sure there are many better fine dining restaurants in Kandy (although none that we came across), we absolutely recommend grabbing one (or all) of your meals at Balaji Dosai.
Cost | Dosa’s start at LKR 250
#9 STROLL THROUGH UDAWATTAKELE FOREST RESERVE
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.
Where | Udawattakele Sanctuary, Kandy
Cost | LKR 650 entry per person
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HOW TO GET AROUND KANDY
No matter where you stay within Kandy, it's a pretty walkable city. Walking is definitely also the best way to see all the best things to do in Kandy, including the temples, markets, and other sights around the lake.
If you're travelling as a group or with a partner, it's fine to walk the city at night, however, we'd advise against this if you're travelling alone (this is just a standard safety precaution like you’d take anywhere else - Kandy is a very safe city).
Walking is the easiest way to explore the major sites within Kandy city centre, but your best bet for exploring the outer temples of Kandy and Peradeniya Gardens is hiring a tuk-tuk.
Use apps such as Pick Me or Uber to book and pay for tuk-tuks as this will give you the best rates and increase safety.
The city does have a poor reputation for its tuk-tuk mafia - it's very important to negotiate fares hard before you get in the tuk-tuk in Kandy, as drivers are notorious for overcharging unsuspecting tourists.
Like most of Sri Lanka, Kandy and its suburbs are serviced by a constant line of buses, making it a very cheap alternative to the city's tuk-tuks.
The main bus station is located next to Kandy station, however this services long-distance routes only. If you're looking to explore the best sights to see in Kandy, head to the Torrington bus station downtown.
HOW TO GET FROM COLOMBO TO KANDY, SRI LANKA
There are a number of ways to complete the scenic 110km trip from Colombo to Kandy, including by train, bus and car.
For the more intrepid travellers amongst you, the train from Colombo to Kandy is quite the adventure.
Starting in the chaotic and sweaty Colombo, the train journey slowly makes its way north of the city, before starting the ascent to Kandy. The 3-hour journey passes some pretty spectacular scenery; over narrow ledges and through dense forests. Sit on the right-hand side of the train to enjoy the best views.
Like with most train journeys in Sri Lanka, it's not just the scenery that makes the ride enjoyable, it's also the vibe. Predominantly ridden by locals, the journey is as much a cultural experience as it is a scenic one. Chat with the locals around you, people watch the lively carriage, and get a nice insight into Sri Lankan life.
The Colombo to Kandy train ride cost ranges from LKR 180 for 3rd Class, LKR 280 for 2nd class, and LKR 500 for first class (air-conditioned). In our opinion, 2nd class is your best bet, as it also gives you the option of 3rd class should it be busy.
Where | Colombo Fort to Kandy Railway Station
Cost | LKR 180 for 3rd Class, LKR 280 for 2nd class, and LKR 500 for first class (air-conditioned)
Times | Departure times from Colombo Fort to Kandy are as follows: 0555, 0700, 0830, 1035, 1240, 1535, 1635, 1745
If trains aren't your thing, or you're on a strict budget, you can catch the public bus from Colombo bus station to Kandy easily.
If you've managed to snag a window seat (generally impossible on Sri Lankan buses), the drive from Colombo to Kandy is in many ways more spectacular than the train ride, as the road snakes its way through the countryside, rolling up and down before making the final ascent into the hill country. Be warned though, the final few hours through the suburbs of Kandy are a hard, long slog!
The Number 1 bus from Colombo to Kandy takes around three hours and CAN be uncomfortable sans seat, and costs a very cheap LKR 130 - 180.
What | #1 bus from Pettah central bus station, Colombo to Kandy bus station
Cost | LKR 130 - 150 depending on the conductor
Times | Departure times from Pettah central bus station, Colombo to Kandy vary greatly, but services leave frequently 24 hours a day
It IS possible to get from Colombo to Kandy via private transfer/taxi, however, we feel it's cost-prohibitive and frankly, unnecessary. If you'd still prefer to travel via private transfer, speak to any local taxi drivers who will happily oblige.
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TRAVEL INSURANCE FOR KANDY, SRI LANKA
Overwhelmingly, we’ve found the country to be extremely safe and friendly, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t issues with petty theft or personal safety at times.
You absolutely need to have travel insurance that ensures you and your belongings are protected here.
Plus, as the pandemic has taught; many things can go wrong anywhere in the world and insurance is often the only way of mitigating any issues with minimal expense or stress for you.
For all travellers | HeyMondo - COVID-19 coverage, comprehensive travel + medical insurance, an app with 24-hour medical support, and no out of pocket fees. *Get 5% off your policy by booking through our link here.
For digital nomads | SafetyWing - COVID-19 coverage, comprehensive travel & medical, and policies can be purchased while already abroad.
Car Insurance | Insurance4CarHire - a great annual car insurance policy
*In normal times, we recommended using World Nomads travel insurance, but unfortunately they're not currently covering COVID-19 related claims adequately.
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