Is Kandy worth visiting? Let’s put it this way – we think it’s the most enthralling and enticing city in the whole of Sri Lanka. Granted, there aren’t that many big towns here, but this one really stands out from the crowd for a whole host of reasons…
It’s the cultural capital of the nation, home to some of the most striking Buddhist temple complexes and religious pilgrimage sites. It’s got a stunning location on the edge of the Central Highlands, under the gaze of lushly forested hills and by the side of a lily-spotted lake. It’s also brimming with life, throughout the bazaars and the teahouses and the vegan curry canteens.
Yep, we think you’ll love it here. That’s why we’ve slung together this guide. It answers the question ‘is Kandy worth visiting?’ by focusing in on seven of the most amazing things about the city, from its bucket-list train connections through the Sri Lankan mountains to its revered religious spots. Let’s begin…
The train ride to Ella
There’s one thing that draws travelers to Kandy above all else. Oddly, it’s not even in the city. Instead, it’s actually a train connection out of town, linking all the way through the rising Central Highlands of the island to the long-lost tea town of Ella. Kandy is the starting point for the most breathtaking part of the trip, though you can join the train in Colombo earlier on if you’d like.
Things begin as the train weaves south, skirting the edge of the peaks on the side of the snaking Mahaweli River. Thre, you’ll weave through humid banana plantations and see ramshackle towns butting right up to the tracks. After a couple of hours, the train bears west and starts creeping up into the plateaus in the heart of the island. There’s pitstop in the old colonial hill station of Nuwara Eliya, before winding, weaving tracks push on through a sea of tea plantations and into Ella itself.
Is Kandy worth visiting to catch the train to Ella? You bet it is! This is one of the most sought-after experiences in the Teardrop of India. In fact, it’s so sought-after that you’ll need to book tickets ahead of time if you want to secure yourself a seat on the train. Generally speaking, the right-hand side of the carriage has the better views for most of the trip, though the left gets better on the approach to Ella.
The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic
The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, also known as just the Temple of the Tooth, and locally as the Sri Dalada Maligawa, is up there with the most important religious sites in all of Sri Lanka. Scratch that, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic is the most important religious site in all of Sri Lanka. It sits plum on the lakeside in the middle of Kandy and is the cultural must-see of the town.
A tour of the site should include a walk around the exquisite grounds. They host exotic trees and flowers and are even stalked by a few naughty crab-eating macaques. Once inside, you can wander the great hall where the relic – thought to be the actual tooth of the Buddha that came to Sri Lanka by way of India – is kept, flanked by rows and rows of gold-glimmering elephant effigies.
Truth be told, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic is actually more of a palace. Legend has it that whoever controls the tooth is the divinely anointed ruler of the island, so the place where it was held quickly became synonymous with Sinhalese royalty some centuries ago. As such, the royal palace is attached to the relic chamber on its north side, offering a glimpse of even more glorious architecture and art.
Is Kandy worth visiting for the view? Darn right it is. This town occupies a startlingly lovely corner of the island. It’s just about where the foothills of the Central Highlands begin; the point where the rolling peaks and troughs of the western coastal plains leave off. Anyone traveling into Kandy will be greeted by an amphitheater of rising ridges, all of which seem to draw in halos of cloud like magnets.
Today, virtually the whole of the south side of the town is given over to hotels. It’s the closest thing to a hotel district here and it’s easy to see why…Most of the stays there have sweeping, 180-degree panoramas that take in the Temple of the Tooth below, the shimmering waters of Kandy Lake right next to it, and the overarching forested rises of the Udawatta Kele Sanctuary beyond (more on that later!).
Some of the best lookout points are totally free, though. You can walk or catch a tuk-tuk up to the Kandy City View Point, or settle for the slightly-lower green spaces of Wales Park. Alternatively, you can book a room up there that offers a panorama of the town. We especially like OZO Kandy Sri Lanka ($$) and Serene Kandy ($$), as both come with rooftop pools.
Parks and sanctuaries
Kandy is certainly a hotspot for adventure travelers. The town is sandwiched by mountains to the west and the tea fields of the Central Highlands to the south. Those parts of the island are dotted with more protected areas, high climbing peaks, and nature reserves than you can shake a cup of Ceylon tea at.
Let’s start close to the city itself. The north side of Kandy Lake is given over to the Udawatta Kele Sanctuary. It covers over 250 acres and hosts thickets of twisted and gnarled lianas vine trees next to soaring mahoganies. A few marked out hiking routes navigate their way through, offering visitors a chance to spot everything from barking deer to lorises, parakeets to palm civets.
You can also break out to the banks of the massive Victoria Reservoir. It runs eastwards from the center of Kandy and contains the Pettigala hiking area, where you can scramble between caves and boulders to lookout points over the water. Also on the horizon is the feral Knuckles Forest Reserve. That’s one of Sri Lanka’s best, with waterfalls and over 30 marked trails, through you do need an official guide to get in.
Day trips and onward travels
Religious temples and wildlife-brimming reserves aside, Kandy is also a fantastic place to base yourself for further expeditions throughout the Teardrop of India. Yep, you can plan day-long outings to the totemic palaces of old Sigiriya from here if you’d like. It’s about a two-hour transfer through the Knuckles Mountains to the north but means you get to see an ancient citadel that’s now a UNESCO site.
We’ve already mentioned the joys of the train journey across to Ella from Kandy. That’s worth reiterating – it’s stunning! But the main point is that Kandy is a well-located pitstop for anyone putting together a cross-island itinerary. This could be a break before you go to hike Adam’s Peak, for example, on en route to the surf-washed haven of Arugam Bay on the east coast. There’s loads.
Granted, the most famous tea plantations of Sri Lanka are now located further into the mountains than this. Most of the big names make their home in the bona fide tea town of Ella, or around the hill station of Nuwara Eliya. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get a taste of the famous brews while staying in Kandy. You absolutely can. In fact, Kandy was the place where tea cultivation actually began on the island…
Take the Kadugannawa Tea Estate. It’s just 20km outside of city limits to the west and offers a glimpse at a fully-fledged tea processing factory, where you’ll be able to sample everything from red tea to unclipped green tea fresh off the press. Then there’s the Ceylon Tea Museum, which has an immersive exhibit all about the history of Ceylon tea growing.
For visions of emerald tea fields swathed in mist, you might have to push a little further out from Kandy. That sort of experience is on offer at the Rothschild Estate Tea Factory. That’s more your classic sort of plantation plus factory in one, complete with a stunning location just under the peaks south of Pussellawa.
The buzz of the city itself
Kandy isn’t anywhere near as electrifying as Colombo. It’s WAY smaller than the capital and comes with just a wedge of a downtown core that spans about seven blocks or so. We actually found it a great place to get used to the vibes of Sri Lanka without the added stress of being in a metropolis, especially since there’s an undeniable energy about the place nonetheless.
Head down to the main strip of Senanayake Veediya to see what we mean. Cohorts of purring tuk-tuks and the scents of frying veggie dosas combine there in a haze of activity, while streams of pilgrims heading in and out of the Temple of the Tooth balance the scene out.
Downtown Kandy is a great place to do a little souvenir shopping. Check out the half-underground bazaars around the Kandy Clock Tower and Torington Park to taste samosas and buy spices and tea. Alternatively, sample some of the local cooking at Nagalingam’s Bhavan, a fantastic Jain eatery that caters to vegans and veggies.
Is Kandy worth visiting? Our conclusion
Is Kandy worth visiting? It sure is. We’ve always had a wonderful time in the cultural hub of Sri Lanka. You’ll be welcomed by amazing temples that host iconic Buddha relics and get to taste spicy vegan food in the canteens. On top of that, Kandy is downright beautiful, what with its nature reserves and lakeside location on the edge of the Sri Lankan mountains. We don’t think you’ll regret adding this one to the itinerary!