Kandy is a city of contrasts.
A mix of beauty and pollution, old British colonialism and Buddhism, it jolts the senses.
The city’s heart is the serene Bogambara (or Kandy) Lake where ducks swim, but beyond that, the streets are a riot of noise and color, confusion and congestion.
If you visit Sri Lanka, chances are Kandy will be on your itinerary.
Because, despite the chaos, some Kandy attractions are simply astounding. (Hello, Temple of the Tooth!)
The bustling hill city of Kandy (population 125,000+) – one of eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka – is, rightfully, a top tourist destination in the teardrop island.
Here’s our travel guide featuring all the best places to visit in Kandy.
9 Unforgettable places to visit in Kandy
1) Temple of the Tooth
Touring the splendid Temple of the Sacred Tooth (Sri Dalada Maligawa) tops the list of things to do in Kandy.
Indeed, the temple is one of the best places to see in Sri Lanka!
Following Buddhist temple etiquette, we took off our shoes and deposited them at the front entrance.
George wrapped a sarong around his bare knees (it kept falling off and puddling around his ankles, attracting a few giggles from onlookers).
A moat encircles the temple complex, in which we spotted a giant water monitor, larger than an alligator, swimming around fish in the dark muddy water.
Buddha tooth relic temple:
Built in the late 16th century, the Temple of the Tooth was expanded upon in 1802. The original structure was kept as a shrine to hold the sacred relic of the Buddha’s left tooth.
The tooth is the holiest relic in Sri Lanka – legend has it that the person guarding the tooth has the authority to be the rightful king.
As we admired the gigantic elephant tusks guarding the shrine room, throngs of local and Western pilgrims and visitors, along with gaggles of giggling school children dressed in white uniforms, streamed by.
Some pilgrims meditated quietly in corners; others laid lotus flower offerings on a table in front of the shrine.
A few worshippers found a seat on the marble floor wherever they could – perhaps just to breathe in the incense and fragrance of the flowers or to enjoy the cool reprieve from the heat outside.
Buddhist statues and paintings:
Moving beyond the shrine room, we entered a very interesting hall with some 22 Buddha statues. Made from ivory and other materials, they’ve been donated by Thailand, Japan and other countries.
Decorative paintings on the walls also detail the travels of the tooth over the years – from the time it was first rescued from Buddha’s funeral pyre in 500 BC to the time 900 years later (when it was taken to Sri Lanka, hidden in the hair of a princess) to the tooth’s future travels, when guarded by various kings, it was moved from city to city to keep it safe from attackers.
In addition, a shiny gold “new” Buddha (about 6 feet high) is displayed in a modern shrine at one end of the hall.
Raja Museum, Kandy
Before leaving the Temple of the Tooth, we popped into the museum dedicated to Raja the Tusker.
Raja is the celebrated elephant who served at the temple for more than 50 years. Each August, he carried the tooth out in a casket in a glorious procession during the annual Festival of the Tooth.
To honor Raja when he died, he was stuffed and installed in his own museum.
He now stands behind glass, surrounded by old photographs – some show Raja beside prime ministers proudly holding on to his tusk; others show him resplendent in his gold coverings when out in the annual procession.
Raja died in 1988 at the grand old age (for an elephant) of 75. And apparently he’s the only known elephant who has been taxidermatized.
2) Bahiravokanda Vihara Buddha Statue
You can’t miss the giant Buddha statue towering above the city.
Built in 1992, it’s located on top of a hill beside a Buddhist monastery and is over 88 feet high.
Climbing up the stairs behind the Buddha, we were treated to a glorious Kandy view point with panoramic views of the city.
Note: There’s a small fee to visit, and you need to remove your shoes as you approach the Buddha.
3) Peradeniya botanical garden
When you need an escape from the hustle and bustle of the city, head to the Kandy botanical gardens. They’re located in the town of Peradeniya which abuts Kandy, hence the name of Royal Botanic Gardens Peradeniya.
Dating back centuries, the Peradeniya gardens at one time could only be visited by Kandyan royalty.
Later in the 1800s during colonial rule, the British imported plants from London’s famous Kew Garden and formally established the botanical gardens in 1843.
The gardens are so large (60 hectares) and beautiful, you should allocate a few hours to exploring them.
Ideally, go first thing in the morning when it’s still relatively cool. (We visited the gardens on our second sightseeing Kandy day; we were too pooped to include the gardens on our first day!)
What to see?
An extensive collection of orchids, a fabulous cannonball fruit tree, avenues framed by towering palms and so much more – the gardens are home to 4,000 different plant species and more than 10,000 trees.
Many cute macaque monkeys entertained us too, doing somersaults on the lawns and swinging from tree branches.
It was fascinating to watch how they worked together to get food – a mother monkey, baby clinging to her chest, sat under a tree, while another high up in the branches picked fruit then threw it down to her so she could eat.
Also engrossing were the thousands of large fruit bats which flew in black clouds through the air and then settled in trees to hang upside down while flapping their wings.
4) Kandy War Cemetery
This exceptionally well-maintained cemetery (looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) honors soldiers who died during WWII defending Sri Lanka (plus one soldier who died during WWI). During the Second World War, Kandy was the home of the Allies’ South East Asia Command.
There are 198 identified casualties buried here.
Wandering around the manicured grounds blooming with flowers, it was quite sad to read the tombstones of the many men and women who died young – just in their early 20s.
Most were British. But there were also East Africans, Sri Lankans, Italians, Indians and French. We spotted several Canadian gravestones too.
5) Geragama Tea Factory
Tea and Sri Lanka go hand-in-hand – the country is one of the world’s biggest tea producers.
Interestingly, it was coffee, not tea, that flourished first in Sri Lanka. In the early- to mid-1800s, Ceylon coffee was hailed as the best in the world. But the coffee industry came to a grinding halt when a leaf disease known as “coffee rust” wiped out the coffee plantations.
And so tea plants were introduced, and the rest, as they say, is history!
Located just outside Kandy, the Geragama Tea Factory (also known as the Giragama Tea Estate) is one of the oldest in Sri Lanka.
On a tour, we learned how the tea pickers pluck the leaves, saw the cleaning and processing of tea, and tasted various teas.
“White tea” – which is minimally processed and made from the youngest buds – is considered the premium tea and believed to have even more health benefits than green tea.
Our tour of the Giragama Tea Plantation felt a bit rushed, however.
Perhaps that was because we packed it in at the end of our first day of sightseeing in Kandy. Also, we enjoyed a much longer, more indepth tour of a tea plantation in Ella after we left Kandy. Ella is higher in the hills and smack-dab in “real” tea country.
If you’re visiting Ella (or nearby Nuwara Eliya) in Sri Lanka, you could probably save your tea touring for then and skip the Giragama Tea Factory in Kandy. But if not, then this Kandy tea factory is definitely worth while.
6) Kandy Lake
Built in 1807 in the heart of the city by the last king of Sri Lanka, Kandy Lake (or Bogambara Lake) is lovely to stroll around, especially at sunset. Quacking ducks and perhaps even monkeys will be your companions.
The small island in the center of the lake is said to have been connected to the king’s palace by a secret tunnel and used for swimming and bathing by his harem.
The walk around the lake takes about an hour.
7) Kandy wood carving shop
If you fancy a large hardwood elephant in your living room, check out Oak Ray Wood Carvings.
Artisans craft some beautiful wood carvings – from intricate chess pieces to masks to furniture – and you can watch them at work. We actually seriously coveted a dining room table and chairs, but at $4,000, the cost was a wee bit more than our souvenir budget.
8) Gem museum, Kandy
Across the street from the wood carving museum is Isini Gems. The Kandy gem museum and shop is owned by the same businessman who owns Oak Ray Wood Carvings (and the locals quite respect his business flair).
Even if you’re not interested in rubies, sapphires or other bling, the film shown on gem mining and production is actually quite interesting – plus the viewing room is air-conditioned!
And like the wood carving shop, no hard sales tactics were employed to get us to buy something. We were thanked for our time and free to go after watching the film.
9) Udawattakele Forest Reserve
We unfortunately didn’t have time to walk through this wild urban jungle in the city. But, like the Royal Botanical Gardens (#3 above), the wildlife sanctuary and forest garden makes for another great escape from Kandy’s hustle and bustle.
Several walking loops wind their way through Uudawattekele.
Keep any eye out for monkeys, barking deer, turtles and even snakes!
Budget about two hours to hike most of the park.
If it rains, be aware you may encounter leeches.
2 Days in Kandy
As you can see, there’s too much to do to cram all the tourist attractions in Kandy into one day of sightseeing.
Yes, it’s possible to do a whirlwind tour of Kandy in a day. But if you can allocate two days in Kandy, you’ll enjoy your visit more.
We spent three nights in Kandy, touring the city by tuk-tuk arranged by our B&B.
Sightseeing Kandy by tuk-tuk
All of Kandy seems to be under perpetual construction. Streets are potholed, and there are no street lights.
And amid the maze of street diggers and trucks spewing fumes, gazillions of feisty tuk-tuks weave in and around crowded buses, all passing each other, while motor scooters whiz around corners on the wrong side of the road – every one honking at scurrying pedestrians who dare to cross the road.
One perky little blue tuk-tuk we noticed had this slogan painted on the back: “No seatbelts. No airbags. But God is with us.”
Still, tuk-tuks are the best way to get around Kandy. They’re agile, cheap (we paid $18 USD for six hours of touring) – and, well, exhilarating!
Where to stay in Kandy?
We stayed at some very nice places in Sri Lanka. But we were a little disappointed with our Kandy B&B, so we won’t recommend it.
Here are a couple of top-rated places we would have preferred:
The Secret Kandy:
Tucked amid shady trees – a mere 5-minute walk from the Temple of the Tooth – is this lovingly restored villa. The small quaint hotel has just 5 rooms with polished wood floors and garden views. (In Ella, we stayed at its sister hotel, The Secret Ella – and absolutely loved it.)
Bonus: The Secret Kandy boasts a beautiful courtyard pool.
Secluded and quiet, this luxury boutique hotel with modern rooms has an outdoor pool.
Where to eat in Kandy?
After full days of sightseeing, we weren’t the most adventurous in going out to eat at night. We ended up hitting the same restaurant – Slightly Chilled Lounge – on two of the three nights we stayed in Kandy.
Run by a British bloke and his Chinese wife, Slightly Chilled (formerly the Bamboo Garden) is a casual open-air rooftop hangout with terrific views of the city’s twinkling lights at night.
The deep-fried shrimp, cashew chicken and other Chinese-style dishes are tasty. And you can get beer, cider and gin-and-tonics too.
Best of all? Slightly Chilled was close to our B&B and (thankfully) just a short tuk-tuk ride away.
See TripAdvisor reviews of the Slightly Chilled Lounge Bar.
Note: Places close to temples don’t sell alcohol, so if you want a frosty beer with your meal, check first before sitting down at a restaurant near the Temple of the Tooth.
Best time to visit Kandy
The peak season is December to March. That’s when the weather is dry and cooler, with temps ranging from 22C to 30C. It’s the best time to visit Kandy.
August – when the grand Festival of the Tooth (Kandy Esala Perahera) occurs – is another popular time to visit.
The wet season is between October and November, when Kandy experiences the Maha monsoon. This is the least desirable time to visit.
Take a peek at these Kandy tours to pre-book before your trip…
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All photos (except 1 to 4, 26, 29, 31, 32, 34 and hotel photos, which are courtesy of the respective hotels) are © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase