If you fancy a culture hit, then head straight to the heart of the country from the airport. Lay down roots in Dambulla or Kandy, and explore the remains of various cities, temples and monuments dating back over 2,000 years.
The perfect stop-off on your journey from the airport to Dambulla or Kandy is this elephant orphanage where stray and injured wild elephants roam freely on a 25-acre coconut plantation. Arrive at 10am or 2pm to see newborns and elderly matriarchs parade through the town to the Ma Oya river for a leisurely bath. Watching the bottle-feeding is beyond cute.
The island's medieval capital, where the showstopper is the remains of the Royal Palace; once a magnificent seven-storey, thousand-room structure with frescoes. Because the grounds are so extensive, it's impossible to see everything, so you'll be making just a few stops at the key pieces of architecture and decoration.
Dambulla Cave Temples
The largest and most well-preserved complex of caves towers 160 metres over the surrounding plains. The major attractions are spread over five caves, which contain statues and paintings related to Lord Buddha. It's best to visit them in reverse order, starting at Cave 5, to see the caves in increasing degrees of magnificence. At the bottom of the steps up to the caves there's the rather bizarre Golden Temple – topped by a 30-metre seated golden Buddha.
Worthy of being called the "eighth wonder of the world", Sigiriya is Sri Lanka's answer to the Taj Mahal. This ancient castle was built in 5AD, and today you can admire the remains of the upper palace at the flat top of the rock. The Lion staircase, a gigantic figure that leads to the palace garden on the summit, is nothing short of breathtaking. It's a pretty steep climb to the top, so best to head over there early morning or late afternoon; the walk takes about 45 minutes and starts off nice and slow.
Spices, arts & crafts
There are several places to stretch your legs on the journey from Dambulla to Kandy, one being Matale Spice Garden. Learn about the various spices grown across the island, stroll around the fragrant greenery in the shade of huge tropical trees, taste a herbal brew or enjoy an Ayurvedic massage. There's also plenty of wood carving and silk workshops en route – expect a short guided tour and then a hard sell (and, if you're lucky, a cup of tea!).
The stunning 17th-century Temple of the Tooth Relic is believed to house the left upper canine tooth of the Lord Buddha himself. While it's a daily draw for white-clad pilgrims bearing lotus blossoms and frangipani, it is also one of the most visited attractions of this attractive city. The tooth is removed from the shrine in late July for Esala Perahera, a 10-day torchlight parade of dancers, drummers and ornately decorated elephants. If you have time, take a stroll around Peradeniya's Royal Botanical Gardens. Or, stop for lunch at one of the many hill-side restaurants for scenic views over Kandy Lake, at the heart of the city.
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