Catch your breath in Kandy and the beauty beyond the bustle, writes Stephanie Holmes.

In the heart of Sri Lanka's central province, Kandy is a vibrant cultural destination with ancient and sacred foundations. If you're touring the country, it has enough to offer to keep you entertained for a couple of days, so make sure you include more than a fleeting visit.

The streets heave with people, ramshackle buses and motorised tuk-tuks — the latter the best way to get you up and down the city's steep, winding roads. In the centre of it all, is Kandy Lake — also known as Kiri Muhuda, or the Sea of Milk — an artificial lake built in the early 1800s by a former king, now a tranquil respite from the noise of the city streets.

On a cycling trip through Sri Lanka earlier this year, our group rested our weary legs and hung up our helmets for a couple of nights, and found plenty to keep us occupied. Here are some highlights:

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1. Find some peace in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Peradeniya

The Royal Botanic Garden, Peradeniya in Kandy, Sri Lanka. Photo / Stephanie Holmes
The Royal Botanic Garden, Peradeniya in Kandy, Sri Lanka. Photo / Stephanie Holmes

You'll adore this beautiful collection of botanic gardens, whether or not you have a green thumb. The land dates back to the 14th century, when it was exclusively for royalty. It was formally established as a garden in 1843, and now spans 60ha, with more than 4000 species of plants. Highlights include the orchid house, an avenue of coconut palms, a spice garden, and bamboo groves.

2. Visit the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic

Dalada Maligawa, otherwise known as the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, in Kandy, Sri Lanka. Photo / 123RF
Dalada Maligawa, otherwise known as the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, in Kandy, Sri Lanka. Photo / 123RF

One of the most culturally important sites in Sri Lanka, Sri Dalada Maligawa — or the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic — is part of the Royal Palace complex and houses what is believed by Buddhists to be a relic of the tooth of Buddha. As well as being an architecturally beautiful series of buildings, bridges and courtyards, the temple offers a fascinating insight into the ceremony and devotion surrounding this relic. Rituals performed three times a day are a riot of sound, colour and floral offerings. Be prepared for a scrum of people and a lot of noise. Wear clothing that covers your legs and shoulders, and leave your shoes outside.

3. Taste tea at a high-country plantation

A tour of a tea plantation gives a fascinating insight into Sri Lanka's biggest export. Photo / Stephanie Holmes
A tour of a tea plantation gives a fascinating insight into Sri Lanka's biggest export. Photo / Stephanie Holmes

You don't need to travel far from the city before you're suddenly surrounded by rolling hills covered in tea plants. The tea industry has been an important part of Sri Lanka's economy since 1867, when British planter James Taylor introduced it. Now, Sri Lanka is the world's fourth-largest producer of tea and the second largest exporter. Find out more, right from the source, with a visit to a tea plantation where you can tour a factory and see how it goes from plant to cup, and then taste different varieties, before stocking up at the factory shop.

4. Stroll the Central Municipal Market

Kandy's Central Municipal Market gives a good taste of local Sri Lankan life. Photo / Stephanie Holmes
Kandy's Central Municipal Market gives a good taste of local Sri Lankan life. Photo / Stephanie Holmes

For a glimpse of local life, head to the Central Market and mingle with Kandy residents going about their day. The maze of corridors is filled with vendors selling everything from fresh exotic fruits, to pungent dried fish, to an abundance of colourful spices. On the upper level, you'll find arts, crafts and souvenirs, all at very reasonable prices.

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5. Watch the Kandy Lake Cultural Show

In a slightly rundown theatre by Kandy Lake, you'll find a nightly cultural performance of music, dance, drumming and fire-walking, which is well worth your time. Although it's clearly put on for the tourists (you won't see many Sri Lankans in the audience), the performances are captivating and the traditional costumes are stunning. Dance is an important part of Sri Lankan culture, with each region having its own specific style that has been passed down through the generations.

DETAILS
Intrepid Travel's 14-day Cycle Sri Lanka trip is priced from $2950pp, twin-share, including accommodation, transport and most meals and activities.