Last capital of the ancient kings’ era of Sri Lanka
Our next destination in Sri Lanka, a day trip from Colombo to Kandy, the cultural capital of the country, and one of the most historical cities. This would also be our last day having the base in Colombo before moving north to Anuradhapura as our next base and continue with our tour through the remaining must-see places in Sri Lanka. For now, a great day in Kandy totally different to the day before in Galle. Both unique in their own character and history. While one is a masterpiece combining Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial influence, Kandy in the other hand is the masterpiece of several kings. The very last of the places to surrender to the British rule, yet never conquered in full by the Portuguese and Dutch.
Kandy is the second largest city in the country after Colombo. But bear in mind one and the other are nothing to compare. In Sri Lanka the great majority of population is living in metropolitan Colombo, hence Kandy feels more like a village rather than a city. It does have in any case, a very well defined and compact city centre where the large majority of the historical sights are, with the Royal Palace complex the reason number one why to visit the city.
Although the entire Royal Palace complex has been designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site, the main reason behind is the Temple of the Tooth Relic. One of the most sacred places in the entire Sri Lanka, and one of the most traditional cities in the country; somewhat slowly developing in the shadow of the frenetic construction and thriving live day and night of Colombo.
Coming to Kandy, although easy and straightforward, and even though it is little over 100 kilometres northeast, is a bit more time consuming yet a very scenic railway ride. As later I explain below, I would recommend you the train instead of the bus, it is faster, and crosses through beautiful landscapes and mountains.
Kandy is great as a day tour either from Colombo if that is your base, or other cities in the central region as Sigiriya, Dambulla or farther north Anuradhapura. Its size make it perfect for enjoying all the sights in a day without any rush, not needing to wake up super early to get there, nor having to leave back to your base late either. The most time spent will easily be transporting you there and back.
Please take note that you need to cover down your knees before entering the Royal Palace Complex, otherwise you will be turned down at the entrance security gates. Do not panic nor worry if this is the case, right around the corner you can buy a cheap sarong to cover your legs, easy task. The rest of the city outside the Palace complex has some bits here and there such as glorious Victorian architecture buildings, a nice lake where to get perfect pictures around, and a must I strongly recommend, is to get to the viewing point just behind the Royal Palace Park from where you can see the entire city below and the postcard perfect view of the Royal Palace and lake at the front.
For more information about Kandy check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Sri Lanka’s currency is the Rupee (LKR). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Kandy
- City Centre A short walk north from the bus/train stations is the beginning of the historic town that extends from the Clock Tower Roundabout to the north along 3 avenues and few streets cutting perpendicularly, and east with the Royal Palace and Kandy Lake.
-Clock Tower Located at the southwest corner of the city centre at the main roundabout, and an easy icon and beginning of your tour. Built in 1950 by Haji Mohamed Ismail in memory of his son Mohamed Zacky Ismail, who died in an accident.
-Sri Dalada Veediya The main street from the Clock Tower Roundabout at the West to the Royal Palace in the East. A short street in distance but the most beautiful fully packed with colonial buildings.
-Bank of Ceylon Branch The first significant building from its architecture at the roundabout.
-Ismail Building Next after the Bank of Ceylon, back then the Ismail family were the largest importers of British cars in Sri Lanka.
-Great War War I Monument A stone cross in a little garden.
-The White House Building Easy to recognise, as its name describes, now home to a nice restaurant and bakery.
-The Queens Hotel At the eastern end of the street is this grand historic British colonial hotel opened in 1895. It faces the main entrance to the Royal Palace complex and Kandy Lake.
-Kandy Lake This artificial lake was built by the last king of Kandy Sri Wikrama Rajasinhe to beatify the Temple of the Tooth Relic. It was made by excavating the paddy fields that were in place in 1807. Along its shores there are great views of the city and hills all around.
-North part There is nothing worth sightseeing north from Sri Dalada Veediya Street. Very few colonial buildings have survived scattered here and there in the middle of very busy commercial streets, and the residential areas in the north.
-The Royal Palace Complex Reason number one to visit the city of Kandy. The entire historic site of buildings is listed an UNESCO World Heritage Site, making up the majority of the city’s sights. It was the last Royal Palace built in Sri Lanka, for King Sri Vikrama Rajasinha until he was overthrown by the British in 1815. There in an entrance fee of LKR 1500 for non Sri Lankan citizens, well say, all tourists need to pay.
-Pattini Devale The first of the buildings after you enter the complex on the southwest. Is one of the four Hatara Devale in Kandy. Dedicated to Pattini, the goddess of chastity which is still the most popular deity among the peasantry of Sri Lanka.
-Natha Devalaya Across the road from Pathini Devale, is another of the four Hatara Devale in Kandy. This one dedicated to the back then highest ranking deity, Natha. In order, the deities were first Natha, then Vishnu, Kataragama and as last, Patini.
-Bodhi Tree Shrine Like in any Buddhist temple, the shrine on a tree cannot be missed. It lies in between the Pathini Devale and St Paul’s Church.
-St Paul’s Church The Anglican British colonial church built in 1848 in neo-Gothic style.
-Former Dharmaraja College The first Buddhist High School in Kandy, founded by Colonel Olcott. Facing side by side with St Paul’s Church.
-Vishnu Devale At the northernmost side of this quadrant, is another of the four Hatara Devale in Kandy. This one dedicated to the deity Vishnu. The main entrance is through a 2 storey doorway into a hall with timber columns with a nice carved stone flight of steps and the drumming hall.
-Drench The small canal divides all the previous constructions with the palace quadrant complex itself.
-The King’s Palace (Raja Wasala) The main building of the former residence is nowadays a branch of the National Museum, showcasing collections of the bygone kings of Sri Lanka, in especial artefacts from the Kandyan period. It is a long building with a central doorway, a flight of steps entering in to an imposing hall decorated with stucco and terra-cotta works.
-Museum of Royal Tusker (Wadahindina Mandappe) Used to be the place where the king was meeting with Adigars (high officers of the Kingdom of Kandy) and other visitors.
-Ran Ayuda Mandapaya East from the King’s Palace, was built in 1592 for King Wimaladharmsooriya I, making it one of the oldest buildings still standing. Believed to be the place where the crowns and sword of the Kandyan kings were designed, moulded and bejewelled.
-Royal Audience Hall (Magul Maduwa) Used as the place of public audience and centre of religious and national festivities connected with the Kandyan Court. The building is finely carved in wood and completed in 1783. It lies in between the King’s Palace and the Tooth Relic Temple.
-Temple of the Tooth Relic It is one of the most sacred places of worship in the Buddhist world. The relic through the centuries came to be regarded as a symbolic representation of the living Buddha.
-National Museum of Kandy Right behind the Tooth Relic Temple, housed in what used to be the Palle Vahala (King’s Harem), is the main collection for artifacts of the Kandian era (17 to 19th Century).
-The Queen’s Bathing Pavilion (Ulpange) Is located at the southern part of the complex right by the lake. Originally built as the name suggests for bathing recreation of the Queens of Sri Vikrama Rajasinha. The British expanded and used as a library, and nowadays is a police station.
-Royal Palace Park Nowadays known as Wales Park. Located at the southwestern edge of the Lake Kandy, few meters south from the Sri Dalada Veediya Street.
-Viewing Point Almost next door to the Royal Palace Park, literally continuing up from the main gate of the park. Since it has a good elevation there are great views from the top of the lake and the entire Royal Palace.
- Outside the City Centre Surrounding the old town itself and lake are many temples and Buddhist schools/colleges. While the most important sights are the ones described under City Centre, easy and good for a whole day; if time permitting you can go to some of the following, especially if you planning to stay in Kandy more than a day.
-Bahirawakanda Temple Located at the top of a hill in the northwest of the city, at its very top there is a large statue of Buddha, visible from other places around Kandy. At its top you will get the best views of the entire Kandy (but not much of the Royal Palace). The entrance fee for tourists is LKR 200. It is recommended you get a rickshaw to the top (for LKR 200 previous strong negotiation) and walk your way down.
-Royal Botanical Garden Located just north of Kandy University, 6 kilometres west of the city centre. Is the best botanical garden in Sri Lanka and definitely worth the visit. You can get on a bus from central Kandy directly there. Entrance fee 1100 Rupee.
- Outside of Kandy There are plenty of places you could visit in the nearby Kandy region. This will only be possible if you are staying in this region for at least 2 or 3 days. To name just a few:
-Hindagala Viharaya Temple South of Kandy University and along Mahaweli Ganga River, in an idyllic location is a rock monastery with traces back from the 6th century. Worth the visit if you have the time to spare.
-Lankatilaka Temple Located by Daulagala Road some 15 kilometres southwest of Kandy, is considered the most magnificent architectural edifice created during the Gampola era, and the best preserved example of traditional Sinhalese temple architecture. Entrance fee 300 Rupee.
-Gadaladeniya Temple 13 kilometres west of Kandy, near Pilimathalawa village and train station. Designed in South Indian style, has some remaining paintings from the Gampola era. Entrance fee 300 Rupee.
The chances that you are getting to Kandy from Colombo are almost 100% guaranteed. It is 115 kilometres distance between each other making it one of the easiest tourists spots in the country with very easy and more or less quick access to the Capital. Trains and buses from Colombo head northeast to Kandy’s Good Shed Bus and Train Station, walking distance west of the city centre and lake. For train times check the official website here.
Buses take approximately 3 hours, and depart from the CBT bus station in Colombo for a cost of 300 Rupee in nice air-con buses. The more scenic and nicer way to reach Kandy is by train, where a 1st class ticket on an intercity express costs 750 Rupee (that’s just barely £4) and guarantees you a nice seat. A 2nd and 3rd class ticket costs 220 and 180 Rupee respectively but you are in an unreserved seat risking travel standing all the way through. Unfortunately trains sell too quickly, and foreigners have little option since it is not possible to buy train tickets online.
If you are planning to get to Kandy from Colombo, and back, then take our advice as explained here. We could not get any reserved ticket, even though we were at the station querying for this 3 days before the actual intended day of departure. They do work on a basis of cancellations then, therefore you need to arrive to the Fort Station right when they open the counters at 06.00am and try your luck. Obviously, by that time there was already a bunch of people that got the remaining tickets available, so the only option left was to get a 3rd class ticket from counter number 4, and run for a seat once the train arrives as everyone does. It worked well for us and managed a nice seat all the way. As for the return, since trains are not that frequent and again, they sell out well in advance, we opted to take the bus. These go from nearby Kandy’s railway station at a frequency of every 20 minutes. From 16.00pm onwards they get full all the time and the queue of people waiting for the buses keeps growing, so bear this in mind; however, buses run until 22.00pm so there is plenty of time.
Within the city, the old town core itself is very compact and easy to walk everywhere around. That’s the best way out of question especially in a city where public transportation is not too efficient. You might still need some transportation to go to the farther temples or the Botanical Gardens, and the best for this is getting a rickshaw negotiating the price beforehand. Unfortunately there is no UBER yet (as of September 2016). There is no need for getting a driver for the day since Kandy is small enough with the sights very compact and mostly located within the same area.
Kandy has a very decent selection of hotels of any kind, from top luxurious to more modest and everything in between. Of special mention is the historic colonial the Queen’s Hotel. The choice is not as large as Colombo of course, but great enough to anyone’s need. However, I cannot recommend any place here in this city since our base was Colombo from where we came as a day trip and therefore, I will be commenting on our experience in that city instead. For a full guide of Colombo and the 3 hotels we stayed there, check the travel guide here.
Colombo, not only is the largest city in the country, it is also a very important tourist place, entry door to almost 100% of the visitors to Sri Lanka. The amount of hotels is endless! Of every kind, every level of luxury and comfort, and range from low budget to some of the top hotels in the world. Getting a great deal is not too hard, but prices can vary greatly depending what you chose.
Historic and famous hotels such as the unique Galle Face can easily be out of anyone’s hands unless you are looking for a top luxury experience and willing to pay the prices. Ever since its construction has been the number 1 hotel for the worldwide Royalties, presidents, politicians, artists and general high classes of the society. But this is not the only one. There are dozens that fall into this class, not only in the city but across the country.
For a great location, try to stay near the Fort Area which is the historical old town, or immediately out in the Pettah Area. Both are great as you will be walking distance to almost every sight of the city, and also near the bus and train stations from where to get your transport to Galle.