Kandy is probably part of every Sri Lanka travel itinerary. The reason is mostly the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic and the central train station to start the epic scenic train ride to Ella. I also included this historical city to my Sri Lanka itinerary and can tell you for sure, I did not regret it.
I spent 1,5 days/2 nights in Kandy. It was actually the only big city I’ve visited during my stay in Sri Lanka. The moment I arrived in Kandy I was already overwhelmed in the bus station because of the traffic, smog, honking cars and busses, not to forget the Tuk Tuks which stop in front of you every 2 seconds to ask where you want go.
Even though the first hours were very tiring I had a pleasant and relaxed stay in Kandy after all.
In this blog post: About Kandy Kandy Lake Traditional Fire and Dance Show Royal Botanical Garden Helga's Folly Things to do (or not) around Kandy Where to stay in Kandy? Where to eat in Kandy? How to get around in Kandy? How to get to/from Kandy? Warnings
In 1592 Kandy became the capital and home to the relic of the tooth of the Buddha as the Sinhalese tradition says “the protector of the relic is the ruler of the land”.
Kandy is the second-largest city of Sri Lanka, after Colombo. Thanks to the railway and motorway, it is the gateway to the Central Highlands (Ella, Nuwara Eliya, Badulla, etc.) of Sri Lanka.
The major ethnic community in Kandy is Sinhala, followed by Muslims and Tamils.
What to do and see in Kandy
Kandy Lake is an artificial lake built in 1807 in the middle of the city. A walk around Kandy Lake is 3.4 kilometres. I believe, it is the most favourite place of joggers in Kandy. Near to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic a decorative wall called Walakulu (clouds) runs for 630 metres (best place to watch the sunset). In the middle of the lake there is a mini island where the Royal Bathing Palace of the King is located.
The lake is home to many trees and a number of bird species. Around sunset I had also my “Birds the Movie” horror moment when all the birds (it must be thousands of them) started to twitter and shout loudly so that I was not even able to hear what my partner next to me. It was phenomenal AND scary. I’ve never seen (heard) such a thing before. Jurging from the white bird shit all over, this one special corner is apparently the meeting point for all the birds in the city.
I can’t say the walk around the lake was super pleasant, unfortunately the honking busses, autos and tuk tuks do not allow to have a relaxed walk. Around 6pm, near to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic the Buddhist religious music can be heard through the speakers installed in the trees. The pelican on one of trees and the Water monitor were my personal highlights.
Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic
Visiting the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (Sri Dalada Maligawa) is a highlight in Kandy you shouldn’t miss. As its name says the temple houses the tooth of Buddha and that’s why it is the most sacred temple in Sri Lanka.
The ritual of the sacred tooth is three times a day, at 5:30am, 9:30am and 6:30pm. The day tourists charted with shuttle busses visit the temple after the dance show, so I guess the ritual in the morning is the better option if you want to avoid the crowds.
Overall, visiting the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic was a very spiritual experience. Observing the people praying, making small gifts of flowers, lighting a candle for their wishes to become true… The temple itself is very well preserved and offers so many artistic details for curious eyes. Take your tie and study all the pictures on the walls and the symmetrical details. It is impressive.
Good to know:
- Entrance fee: 1000 LKR
- Opening hours: 5:30am – 8pm
- Like in other sacred temples in Sri Lanka, also here you need to take off your shoes and leave it in the Shoe-Rack Counter for a small amount of fee. As far I remember it was something like 100 LKR. The floors can be hot, so take a pair of socks with you.
- In total I spent 2-3 hours in and around the temple.
Traditional Fire and Dance Show
The fire and dance show is one of the traditional cultural highlights in Sri Lanka and Kandy seems to be the centre of these shows.
Good to know:
- Location: Near to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, there are 3-4 locations where you can visit a traditional dance and fire show.
- Show time: They all start at 5pm and last one hour. To get a good seat you should be there at least 30 min before the start.
- How much does it cost: The tickets costs 1000 LKR
Tip: If your are more than one day in Kandy, try to visit the temple between 5 and 6 pm to avoid day tourists.
As location I chose “Kandyan Art Association & Cultural Centre” based on Lonely Planet’s recommendation that it is easier to take photos as the auditorium is a half moon shaped open space.
The day tourists charted with shuttle buses of organised tours have their seats reserved. Very unfair that they have all the front seats reserved, so even if you are early enough there you won’t be able to sit in the first 5-8 rows.
What I personally think about the fire and dance show?
I believe if you have the chance to see the dancers and drummers as part of the yearly religious 10 day festival “Kandy Esala Perahera” around July/August, then it is probably really something special, as it is indeed a traditional dance show for the locals. But the one I saw, well, meh… It was a touristic attraction pure which in my opinion lacked authenticity.
Royal Botanical Garden
Remember, how I described the downtown of Kandy being super busy and loud. You will want to take a break of it and the Botanical Gardens is the best place to escape the busy streets and to relax under one of the huge trees.
The Royal Botanical Garden in Kandy is 59 hectares and houses over 4000 species under cultivation.
I was really impressed with the huge 100 years old trees. There are over 200 species of palms. 100 meters from the Main Entrance, you can find the Double Coconut from the Seychelles which produces the largest seed ever. It was bigger than my head!
Ooo and the bamboos! I didn’t know bamboos can be so big. The stem of the giant bamboo of Burma (the largest bamboo in the world) is 30-40m high and up to 20-25 cm in diameter. In the garden there is a bamboo forest where you can find all sorts of bamboos.
One other highlight was the palm avenue. Palms over 21 meters decorate left and right the road back to the main entrance. It was beautiful.
Also for Orchid fans there is the Orchid House where they present many sorts of orchids.
The thick long roots of the old trees were so big that I could use them as kind of a chair to escape the sun under the shadows. Apparently the Royal Botanical Garden is a place for young Sri Lankan couples to escape the crowds to have some romantic time.
By the way, if you always wanted to observe bats (I mean really big bats) sleeping in the trees or maybe on the fly, follow the road next to river with the funnily shaped long trees. I was amazed by the amount of the bats. There were maybe thousands of them. And it was absolutely easy to see them hanging and sleeping. And when they flew you could clearly see their almost transparent wings.
Good to know:
- Opening hours: 7.30 AM – 5.00 PM
- Entrance fee: 1100 LKR. For most up to date prices check the official website of Department of National Botanic Gardens.
- How to go: Almost every bus drives to Botanical Gardens. Bus tickets would be around 15-25 LKR depending where you get in. Of course you can also hire a tuk tuk.
Well, it was a recommendation of Lonely Planet, that it is worth a trip if you’re into surrealist modern arts. It is actually a hotel run by a Dutch lady named Helga de Silva, who grew up in Hollywood in the 50s. But you can visit it also as non-guest.
They have a weird admission fee system though. In the reception I asked them if it is possible to visit the interiors. The answer was yes and made me pay an entrance fee of 3 US$. BUT actually I just could have walked in, sit somewhere and order drinks and then walk around to rooms. After I realised it, I asked the guy in the reception just to count the entry fee to the drinks I wanted order, but his answer was no, because I had asked him that I wanted to visit the interiors ans did not mention that I wanted to have drink. Hahahaha… how ridiculous is this?! Paying 3 US$ in vain is not what I was angry about. The arrogant and customer-UN-friendly attitude was what annoyed me the most.
What to expect in Helga’s Folly?
Each room is decorated differently and includes several pieces of arts, some of them donated by famous artists. But honestly it appeared to me mostly like a collection of someone who collected everything which crossed her way over the years and added every new items to the old ones. And with years the collection got bigger and bigger. Most of the items did not match to each other. It was more kitsch than arts. Elegant sofas covered with cheesy cushions, nice wooden tables decorated with plastic statues, huge kitsch shiny christmas balls hanging from the ceiling, and so on. I guess if each item was presented separately one could appreciate it more, but everything put together without any concept behind it is not the type of art I appreciate. But it’s all about different tastes, right? So go and decide for yourself.
Things to do (or not) around Kandy
Scenic train ride to Hilly Country
Well, obviously Kandy Train Station is the start point for everyone who wants to catch the train for the epic scenic ride to Hill Country, Ella, Nuwara Eliya and Badulla. Also if you want to hike to Adam’s Peak you can catch the train in the direction to Nanu Oya and get off in Hatton. Most of the people in the train will get off here so you can’t miss it.
If you don’t have your train tickets, and definitely want to have reserved seats in 2nd or 1st class, make sure you have more than 2-3 days in Kandy. Otherwise you’ll have to stick to 2nd and 3rd class which might get very crowded with hundreds of other travellers (both locals and foreigners).
Read next: Epic Train Ride in Sri Lanka
For hiking fans Knuckles Range is easily reachable from Kandy. Most of the hotels in the area organise guided hiking trips.
Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage
Many people visit Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage during their stay in Kandy which I ruled out due to the fact that this place works rather as a touristic attraction where the elephants are kept in chains. The elephants get way to close to humans that it is not possible to prepare the elephants for the wild life anymore in long-term.
On the other hand it might be the only way to finance the orphanage by opening its doors to tourist and sacrifice a small group of elephants for touristic attractions while another big amount of elephants leave behind the doors and are really being prepared to be sent back to the wild life.
I’m not sure. At the end I decided for myself not to visit it as I didn’t want to see animals in chains. Observing elephants (or other animals) in the wild is something I rather support.
Off topic: I'm begging you all who read this! Please! Selfie with a tiger or riding an elephant is NOT cool! It is not natural! Those tigers and elephants are being captured as cubs and calves and kept in captivation for your joy and you make criminals rich. Seriously, you don't want to support this! Not for a lousy selfie which nobody wants to see anymore. You have a bigger heart than this! Thank you ❤️
Where to stay in Kandy?
I stayed at Primrose Inn which is a homestay with a Sri Lankan family. The owners lived in New Zealand and parts of Africa for a long time as English teachers and returned to Sri Lanka couple of years ago. He gave us some very valuable tips what to do in Kandy.
If you want to party till late, choose another place to stay. The owners are a rather old couple (with a disabled daughter) and close the doors at 10pm. The room is actually just one of the rooms in the house of the owners. Our room had no integrated bathroom but it was directly next to the room so that it was still ok(ish).
The owner prepares fresh made delicious hoppers for the breakfast! The views from the balcony in the room was really nice to fade out the day.
Where to eat in Kandy?
Our host recommended us Devon Restaurant and Bake House in downtown. One evening we had dinner in Devon Restaurant which was simple Sri Lankan menu for reasonably low prices. The other evening we tried one of the street food stalls on the bridge. I had the best (and hottest) Kothu Roti there, for 350 LKR!
How to get around in Kandy?
Within downtown everything is reachable in walking distance. Our guesthouse was outside the downtown up to the hill so that it was necessary to get a tuk tuk. In front of the train station there are many tuk tuks waiting for guests. An average tuk tuk drive in Kandy should not cost more than 300-400 LKR.
TIP: Arrange a pick up service with your guesthouse or hotel for your arrival. There are many people who would misuse your lack of local knowledge.
How to get to/from Kandy?
Kandy is very well connected with the rest of Sri Lanka, no matter which direction you’re coming from or heading to you will find your way.
From the train station you can catch the train in direction Hill Country (Ella, Nanu Oya, Badulla) or in direction to Colombo.
In the bus station, opposite to train station you will find a bus to every possible direction. From Dambulla to Kandy I took the bus. The drive takes only about 2 hours and costs 100 LKR.
- I have not experienced myself but I was told by other visitors (solo female travellers) that they faced harassment by young male locals.
- Tuk tuk drivers asking for unreasonable high prices. Just make sure you know how approximately an average drive in the city would cost. It shouldn’t be more than 400LKR.
- Avoid side streets away from the main street after sunset.
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For more insights from real pros I recommend Lonely Planet's Travel Guide for Sri Lanka. For price worthy accommodation check Booking.com or Agoda.com.
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