Nuwara Eliya was by far my favourite place in Sri Lanka. It is however where we lived, so I admit – I’m a bit partial.
Nuwara Eliya is a small town, located way up in the mountains in the south central part of Sri Lanka. In fact, it is the highest major town on the island, over 6,000 feet above sea level. This makes for a very pleasant climate – not too much different than the end of a Canadian summer.
Whereas Westerners often flock to sunny beaches for a getaway, locals in Sri Lanka escape the every-day heat by coming to Nuwara Eliya, especially next month, in April when they have their New Year celebration. After that, the rainy season starts and drags on for most of the remaining year. It’s a stark contrast to the weather elsewhere around the island. As you travel up in elevation towards the town, you can feel it getting cooler and cooler.
Nuwara Eliya is very reminiscent of the colonial days and still has a British feel to it. It is also the center of the tea-growing industry and agriculture in Sri Lanka. Every inch of the hills around it are covered with tea plants or terraced vegetable gardens. The town is also the site of Lion Brewery – the main brewery in Sri Lanka.
Nuwara Eliya is home to both Sinhalese and Tamils, as well as Muslims (they run most of the shops) and Christians (the large Catholic church is a prominent landmark).
Street Map of Nuwara Eliya
Area around Nuwara Eliya
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Roads to Nuwara Eliya – From Colombo, there are two main routes to get to Nuwara Eliya – via Kandy or via Hatton. Both roads are narrow, bumpy and windy but both have incredible views. If you’re coming by car or van, I would recommend the Hatton way. The road itself is a bit better, it’s less busy and the climb is not quite as steep. Plus, you get to see the spectacular view from the St. Clair’s Tea Center in Talawakalee. The Kandy road is neat too – the switch-backs at Ramboda are quite the experience. From Colombo, a rented van will cost Rs2000-3000. From Kandy Rs1000-2000.
Buses there and away – Most buses from Colombo go via Kandy. For a trip that long, go by Inter-city bus, which will land you at and leave from the Private Bus Stand. The Public bus stand, where all the big yellow buses go is a bit closer to town. An air-conditioned InterCity bus from Colombo costs about Rs100 and from Kandy about Rs50.
Riding the train – The train from Colombo goes through Kandy as well but actually takes longer than the bus. If you get car-sick though, I recommend the train since it doesn’t have to do all the winding along the bumpy roads. A second class ticket from Colombo is about Rs 150. The only problem is that the train doesn’t go all the way to Nuwara Eliya. You’ll have to get off at Nanu Oya and catch a taxi (about Rs125) or bus (about Rs15).
Getting around the town – Nuwara Eliya is a small town and everything is within walking distance. However, tuk-tuks are available near the Post Office and at Cargill’s. A ride anywhere within town should cost Rs 30-50.
Day Trips – You can go by bus to just about anywhere or you can rent a van. Most of the taxis hang out “downtown” – if you come up from the bus stand, you’ll find a row of them on the left side of the street, from the temple to the market area.
The Grand Hotel – This is the main hotel in Nuwara Eliya and also the best. It’s an old British colonial-style place. It has a pub (with billiards), two restaurants, several tourist shops and a beautiful lawn. The rooms in the new wing are much nicer. See this page.
Glendower – This spot is just down the road from the Grand – expensive but small and cozy (hosts the King Prawn restaurant – see below).
St. Andrew’s – This is owned by Jetwing Hotels (a big hotel chain in Sri Lanka). It’s the second-largest hotel and it is currently expanding. See their home page.
Windsor Hotel – This middle-range place is in the center of town.
Hill Club and Golf Club – These are very posh places (especially the Hill Club!) but usually for members-only. The Hill Club has the only tennis courts in town.
Along Badulla Rd, south of the town, there are many small places to stay that are quite cheap. I recommend the Ceybank Resthouse.
Places to Eat
King Prawn – In my opinion, this is the best restaurant in Nuwara Eliya. It offers a good balance between quality atmosphere and local taste. It’s not a cheap place (better than the big hotels though) so we only went there for special occasions.
Milano’s – This was the place we frequented most. It’s more of a local joint, rather than a tourist spot. Good food, good prices, friendly and pretty clean.
Prima Chicken – If you need some Western-style fast food, come here. Prima is a chain of stores in Sri Lanka and this one in Nuwara Eliya just opened in 1998. It’s very clean and you can get take-out fried chicken and french fries.
Grand Bakery – This take-out spot is just down from the Grand Hotel. They serve mini-pizzas (chicken or veggie) and a variety of short eats.
Food Lanka – This place is a lot like Milano’s, but not as good. We always got poor service there.
Saphire Hotel – Instead of going to Food Lanka, I would walk across the street to this place. It’s just a very small hopper shop but if you want to get some truly local stuff, it’s one of many place to go.
Uplands Bakery – You can find some tasty treats here, if you’re looking for something on the sweet side.
Brinda – We would often get veggie curry packets from this place. Very hot!!!
The Grand, St. Andrew’s and Windsor all have restaurants but they are very pricy and in my opinion, serve terrible food compared to what you can get at a more local spot. However, if you want an alcoholic drink, these are the most appropriate places to go.
Note: Hotel Amalas used to be a good place but it closed in 1998.
And don’t forget to check out the Central Market or the various smaller markets too. You might find some cool fruit that you haven’t tasted before. Cheap and delicious.
Banks – You’ll find the following banks in town: Hatton National Bank (recommended), Bank of Ceylon, Seylan Bank and Commercial Bank.
Communications – There’s a central post office as well as several other small private ones that allow phone calls, faxes, photo copies, etc. I recommend the red one on the corner of Kandy Rd. and St. Andrew’s Drive. It just opened in 1998.
Haircuts – There are many salons around the bus stand.
Film Development – There’s a Konica shop near Cargill’s.
Laksala Gifts – This is the best place for tourist items. Good variety and good prices.
The Grand – The Grand has lots of tourist shops (silk, batiks, tea, masks, figurines…) but everything will be over-priced.
In April, dozens of temporary shops open up between the bus stand and the racecourse. This is the best place to barter for good deals on just about anything.
Mayura – This is a good store to buy saris, sarongs or other textiles. It also sells a variety of local music tapes. There are several shops nearby too that are very similar.
Cargill’s – This is the main grocery chain in Sri Lanka. The one in Nuwara Eliya is small with a limited selection but it’s still the best place to go for Western-style groceries, alcohol or pharmaceutical items. There are also loads of small grocery shops throughout town where you can buy soft drinks or ice cream.
If you want a real taste of an Asian outdoor market, check out the Sunday fair, held behind Cargill’s.
Things to Do
Enjoy the scenery – The thing I like best about Nuwara Eliya is getting there. The mountanous area around it is just so beautiful, making the trip itself worthwhile.
The Tea Factory Hotel – About a 30-45 minute ride from Nuwara Eliya is a town called Kandapola, where Aitken-Spence (another large hotel chain in Sri Lanka) has turned an old tea factory into a high-class hotel. It’s a great place to visit, eat or even stay overnight. The rooms are gorgeous and the food is superb! It was one of my favourite places in Sri Lanka.
World’s End – There’s been some new roads built recently and it now takes only about an hour and a half to get to Horton Plains – a national park that hosts various wildlife, Baker’s Falls and a 3,000 foot drop-off, known as World’s End. It’s a nice day-trip from Nuwara Eliya and it is a must for any visit to Sri Lanka.
Adam’s Peak – Nuwara Eliya is also a good staging ground if you are planning to climb Adam’s Peak. It’s about a 2 hour ride to the base of the mountain. The Peak is a famous pilgrimmage center and is known for the foot-print on top, supposedly belonging to Adam, Buddha or Shiva. The climb (well-lit path or stairs all the way) takes 3-4 hours and is best done at night, when it is cool. You can watch the sunrise at the top and see the triangular shadow of the mountain against the mist.
Golfing – If you like to golf, Nuwara Eliya is the place to do it in Sri Lanka. The large course covers the length of the town.
Laboukelle Tea Factory – This is an actual factory, just north of Nuwara Eliya, on the way to Kandy. They have a nice shop and they offer tours of the facility.
Single Tree Hill – This mountain overlooks the town from the south and is an easy climb. It offers a great view at sunset.
Lover’s Leap – This is a mini-version of World’s End, not far from town.
Hakgala Botanical Gardens – This beautiful park is about 20 minutes towards Badulla. It costs about Rs150 though.
Victoria Park – This is the central park in town. It costs Rs5 to enter.
Gregory Lake – This is a peaceful setting, not far south of town.
Mount Pidurutalagala – This is the highest point in Sri Lanka, overlooking the town to the north. You cannot walk to the top anymore but there is a small path off Waterfield Drive that leads to a waterfall. From there, you can follow the river up via seven more waterfalls – a neat hike for adventurous folk! You can also go as far as the 7,000 foot marker.
There’s also a few temples you can visit in and around the town.
Is it safe?
I would say yes. In fact, it is probably one of the safest parts of the island these days. It is far removed from the war’s battlefronts and it is not as likely a target for terrorist attacks as Kandy or Colombo.
Although there is a large majority of Tamils, the Tamils that live in Nuwara Eliya are of a slightly different background than their Northern counterparts and they have lived there in relative peace now for several years (There were a lot of problems in 1983 and again in the early 90’s).
While we were there in 1998, there was a bomb at the power plant (no fatalities) but just about every town was targeted in this way that year. There was an occasional labour disagreement but nothing that would affect tourists. However, as with any place in Sri Lanka, check the latest news first – things could change at any moment.
The Island of Sri Lanka
For a complete guide to this beautiful island, please see the January 2000 article: Sri Lanka Guide
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Do you have a warm spot in your heart for the people of Sri Lanka? Check out Schools for Asia’s proposal for Pedro Institute in Nuwara Eliya.
Originally from Canada, Matt lived in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka for a year while he and his wife were teaching English as a Second Language.
They had the chance to travel extensively throughout the island and learn much about the culture. Check out their personal homepage.