Our first stop backpacking Sri Lanka was Kandy, the cultural capital of Sri Lanka.
Yes, it’s a busy, clogged city that some travellers choose to avoid, but if you schedule to visit it before the beaches, it’s a great insight into Sri Lankan culture, and for families, there are a lot of things to do in Kandy with kids.
Kandy’s location right in the heart of the island is a welcome stop if you’re heading to the East coast during the Yala monsoon (Yala blows from April-Aug & affects the South West coast). Our month visit was during August so bang in the middle of Yala season. This is why we chose to travel firstly to the middle of the island, then finishing off on the East coast.
Kandy splits up the journey to the East coast nicely. It’s only 3-4 hours from Negombo, Bandaranaike International airport or Colombo by private taxi.
Kandy is the last capital of the ancient kings of Sri Lanka and is a sacred place for Sri Lankans and all Buddhists, being the home of the revered tooth relic of Buddha, The Tooth Temple – a world heritage site.
Kandy is a good point to start digesting Sri Lanka’s culture. We advise visiting Kandy at the beginning of your trip when it’s still high on your agenda, rather than homeward bound when chilled out beach vibes are bound to clash with hectic city life.
Kandy is also the starting (or end) point for the infamous train ride to Ella. Labelled one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world, this is a must do when visiting Sri Lanka.
Here’s are our top things to do in Kandy, Sri Lanka with kids.
1. Dive headlong into Sri Lankan culture at ‘Esala Perahera’
If you’re lucky enough to visit during the 10 days of Esala Perahera in Kandy, then be sure to book tickets for the spectacular finale on the 10th night which culminates into a dramatic, breathtaking procession under a full moon.
Esala Perahera takes place during the month of Esala (July/Aug) and is not to be missed if you’re in town. Bear in mind it’s a long festival (4-5hours) starting from the Tooth Temple as a cannon roars at 8pm
Thousands of dancers take to the street with more than seventy elephants robed in lit up costumes parading the streets surrounded by serious fire throwers, skillful stilt walkers and sensational whip crackers. This, the most important festival in Sri Lankan Buddhist calendar, celebrates the sacred ‘tooth relic’ housed in the temple on Kandy lake. The legend is that the tooth is said to have been rescued from Buddha funeral pyre and smuggled into Sri Lanka in the hair of a princess. This revered religious relic is the crux of Buddism in Sri Lanka so it’s no wonder crowds are gathering on the pavements lining the procession route for hours before the show begins.
We arrived late afternoon in Kandy, our taxi weaving slowly through the heaving traffic following diversion signs to our homestay. Uniforms of military police litter the streets, crowds ten deep line the streets, patiently sat on brightly coloured tarps. The din of helicopters buzzing above signal the arrival of Ranil Wickremesinghe, the Prime Minister and other VIPs or government officials arriving. It was clear to us then, that we couldn’t sit this one out – to witness the most spectacular show in Sri Lankan history.
Expect to pay 15,000 lkr for Kandy perahera tickets. This is for a plastic seat on the steps of a bank or one of the other buildings lining the procession route. It’s definitely a huge outlay but miles better than waiting it out on a piece of plastic tarpaulin with the masses. Be warned the procession takes 4-5 hours with 2 hours of waiting beforehand. If your kids are little, give this one a miss until they’re a bit older. Ours were fed with haribos at times to give them a boost but then couldn’t shut them up at 1.30am when we’d all finally fallen into bed!
2. Visit the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kandy
The Royal Botanical Gardens are one of the best things to do in Kandy with kids. Created for royalty, these gardens were off limits to mere commoners. Thankfully we’re now allowed in and the vast gardens are perfect for a chilled out afternoon with kids. They’ll love exploring the ‘Jurassic Park’ giant sized plant life.
Sip on a cup of Ceylon tea at the colonial cafe and watch your kids burn out their energy on the Great Lawn surrounding the huge Javan willow tree. It’s a fabulous place to play under the great shady boughs. Monkeys hang out at the far end or towards the river on the East side.
Our advice is to visit the ardens in the afternoon so you can spot the fruit bats congregating in the trees at dusk – a fascination for our girls. Fruit bats swoop and dive at dusk before finding a favourite tree to hang in.
The Kandy botanical gardens entrance fee is 1500lkr adults and 750lkr for kids. The gardens are a 20 minute tuk tuk drive out of Kandy, in the the nearby suburb of Peradeniya. A one way tuk tuk from Kandy centre is 500lkr. The bus back is easy to catch. Walk past the fruit sellers on the right as you exit the gardens to find the bus stop.
3. Get measured up for a Sri Lankan saree
One of the most memorable things on our entire Sri Lankan adventure was to get Sri Lankan saree tailor made in Kandy. If you’ve got girls, it’s the perfect souvenir.
Sri Lankan saree shops in Kandy are a feast for the eyes. The bold colours, sparkling sequins, thoughtful ladies picking out beautiful bolts of cloth, and attentive attendants. After choosing our saree fabrics (to the delight of the entire store) we followed our guesthouse ‘boy’ (who was pushing 60 years of age) who escorted us to the tailor. Five minutes later we were squeezed into a tiny cube of a room. Two ladies sat next to antique sewing machines amid towers of cloth, wearing huge smiles. Various measurements were swiftly taken and a few days later the parcel arrived at our Arugam Bay cabanas to screams of delight.
The saree were worn so much on our trip, that I’m surprised they didn’t come home in tatters.
Girls. Sri Lankan saree. Win win. A fabulous experience and one we will never forget.
Be sure to do this in Sri Lanka if you’ve got little girls in tow.
4. Catch the train to the Ella
If there’s one train journey you take in Sri Lanka, make it this one. The train journey from Kandy to Ella is incredibly slow (around 6 hours) but takes in such incredible scenery, it’s a real joy.
Revel in the rickety, clackerty clack and stare out of your window for hours at the endless rolling hills lined with smartly tended to tea bushes. Fluffy white whisps of mist add to the atmospheric ambience as the vivid blue train curves through the incredible scenery. You’ll feel like you’re in a film and was hands down the most relaxing journey we took in Sri Lanka.
The secret is out on this one though, so don’t expect to rock up to Kandy train station a week early and reserve tickets. You can book from the UK ahead of your visit if you don’t mind paying a bit more wonga on Visit Sri Lanka Tours. In fact, I would definitely do this second time around. I’ll talk a bit more about how to wangle a ticket from touts and disclose our number one tip on how to beat the queues if reserved seats evade you, on another post soon.
Read our 6 Things to Do in Ella with Kids here
5. Take a wander around Kandy lake
The lake next to the Temple of the Tooth dominates Kandy and is a pleasant respite from the hustle and bustle of the city and the clogged traffic. A wander round the lake is a nice way to spend an evening or early morning and is a gentle introduction into Kandy life. Spend an hour people watching, buy a cone of popped rice and feed the fish or watch the huge lotus flowers floating on the lake light up at night.
6. Visit the Temple of the Tooth
Chances are you won’t hit town, like us, a mere hours before the annual Esala Perahera festival. In this case, visit the Temple of the Tooth on the lake’s shores to check out Buddha’s tooth and this incredible World Heritage Site. We didn’t visit here as we’d seen the tooth being carried through the streets on the back of the largest, most impressive elephant during Esala Perahera. It’s not to be missed and we’ll be certainly make a beeline for it on our next visit.
If time is short and you’ve bagged a nice guesthouse near the lake, Kandy is also a good place to do day trips from (Dambulla Caves, Sigiriya)
A couple of days in Kandy is enough but two places that we’ll be checking out next time is the Bahiravokanda Vihara Buddha Statue and Helga’s Folly.
Bahiravokanda Vihara Buddha Statue, an 88 ft Buddha, dominates the Kandyan skyline. Get a tuk tuk to race you up where apparently you can climb up to its shoulder with fab views over the city.
Helga’s Folly is a bizarre hotel which has become infamous in Sri Lanka with many celebrities staying there. Rather than stay there though, you can pop in for a drink. The Telegraph deems it ‘child unfriendly’ as children might find it scary – have a look on Helga’s website and you be the judge of that.
Have you visited Kandy in Sri Lanka? What other places would you recommend for travelling families?
Kandy is a gateway to other sightseeing attractions in Sri Lanka. Many points of interest are only a short distance from Kandy.