Located just a few hours away from Colombo along a winding road to the hill country, Kandy is the unofficial cultural capital of Sri Lanka. It was the last kingdom to stand independent before the country was completely colonized, so Kandy boasts an impressive array of multicultural religious and architectural sites that are to be viewed at a leisurely pace, usually on foot. That is the underlying ethos of Kandy: stop and smell the roses.
Temple of the Tooth Relic
Taking pride of place in most representations and logos depicting Kandy, the Dalalda Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth Relic) is revered among Buddhists for being the resting place for a tooth relic of Gautama Buddha. Thousands visit this royal-palace-turned-temple every week; during the July-August season that number increases to the hundreds of thousands due to the annual esala perahera, a pageant procession featuring dancers, fire breathers, drummers and elephants. The dalada maligawa also features ancient murals and many other architectural wonders unique to it. Lines get long fast, so avoid the times when offerings are made to the relic. Instead, pick odd hours on weekdays when you will have the place almost to yourself. There is also a gallery and museum that depicts life at court in the pre-British era so make sure to add it to your things to do in Kandy list.
How about a bird’s eye view of the dalada maligawa? Make your way to the hill opposite the temple and up to a viewing point (recently modernized and built out into a long platform) known as Arthur’s Seat. Who Arthur was is anyone’s guess but there used to be a rotting wooden bench at the foot of a plumeria tree that was hanging onto the slope for dear life. The bench is long gone but the tree is still there, along with a magnificent view of the delightful grid-like Kandy cityscape. Be there by dawn and you will see the golden rays of the sun chasing the mist over the Kandy lake, glinting off the roof of the dalada maligawa and resting on the clock tower of St. Paul’s church.
Locals know it as “UK,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to the forest that overlooks Kandy, called Udawatta Kele (“forest”) in Sinhala. Most of it is restricted to protect the catchment area that feeds the city’s water supply but there are plenty of trails for nature buffs and hike enthusiasts. It is quiet inside the forest, magically isolated from the hustle and bustle of the city. Wild boars, monkeys and deer roam freely, and the canopy provides a welcome respite from the punishing sun as you walk along uphill. There are no summits to conquer or insta-worthy scenic routes but it is a chance to be at one with nature and yourself.
Just a few minutes outside of the town is the royal botanical gardens of Peradeniya. It covers about 150 acres and has a famous swinging bridge that runs over the Mahaweli river bordering it on one side. The gardens are ideal for a low-key day out: spend the day walking down the meandering footpaths, being serenaded by monkeys and birds or take a nap in the great lawn in the heart of the park. Most visitors bring a picnic lunch but there are cafes inside too if you prefer to eat out. It is popular with tourists and locals alike so get in line early! However, the park is big enough to explore without it feeling too crowded and there are always less-frequented spots that are calm and quiet.
When you’ve had enough of nature and history, head on over to KCC, the one and only mall in Kandy and the life blood of teenagers roundabout. The shops are the usual combination of local and international brands but the food court on the top floor – aptly named ‘World Spice’ – is to die for. The prices are competitive and the sheer range of dishes on offer from Malaysian to Indian to Sri Lankan and more are worth a visit. The dining area overlooks the lake, it is super clean and neat, and the food is made fresh on the spot. There are broths, noodles, pizzas, pasta, rice, salads, wraps, sandwiches and even a gelato stand for dessert if you still have room after lunch.
Enjoy your visit to Kandy and don’t forget to take a selfie at the lake!