Matara Travel Guide

Matara is a coastal town in the Southern Province of Sri Lanka, located about 160 kilometres south of Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. The city perfectly blends natural beauty, history, culture, and delicious seafood. In this travel guide, we will explore some of the top things to do in Matara.

History of Matara

Matara has a rich and varied history. It was part of the Kingdom of Ruhuna in Sri Lanka and was named “Mapatuna” when it served as the capital under King Weerabamapanam. Ancient kings built a temple in the town, which is still a popular place of worship for Buddhists.
During the 16th and 18th centuries, Matara was ruled by the Portuguese and the Dutch, respectively. The Dutch captured the Maritime Provinces in 1756 and divided it into four administrative areas, with Matara District covering the most significant area. The fort in Matara was attacked by forces from the Kandyan kingdom in 1760 but was recaptured by the Dutch in 1762. Matara was an important fort for the southern maritime provinces of the Dutch and served as a commanding base for some inland forts.

Places to Visit and Things to Do in Matara

Here are some of the top places to visit and things to do in Matara:

1. Visit the Matara Fort

Matara Fort is one of the significant landmarks in Matara. It was initially built by the Portuguese in the 16th century and later expanded by the Dutch. The fort was a military base and is now a popular tourist attraction. Visitors can explore the ramparts and enjoy stunning views of the Indian Ocean.

2. Explore the Dutch Quarter

Matara has a rich colonial history; the Dutch Quarter is a testament to that. The area is filled with charming Dutch-era buildings that have been restored and now house shops and restaurants. Walking around the Dutch Quarter is a great way to soak up the town’s history and culture.

3. Relax on the Polhena Beach

Matara has some beautiful beaches where visitors can relax and unwind. Polhena Beach is one of the most popular beaches in the area. The Beach has crystal-clear waters and is excellent for swimming, sunbathing, and snorkelling.

4. Go Snorkeling and Diving

Matara has some of the best snorkelling and diving spots in Sri Lanka. The waters around Matara are home to a diverse range of marine life, including colourful fish, turtles, and coral. Visitors can book a snorkelling or diving tour and explore the underwater world.

5. Nilwala River Crocodile watching and boat safari 

Many saltwater crocodiles make their home in the Nilwala River. Tourists go to watch the crocodiles, which may be spotted lounging in the sun on the riverbanks or swimming in the water. Although crocodiles aren’t particularly dangerous, staying your distance is best.

Seeing the crocodiles and other animals of the Nilwala River on a river safari is a popular activity. Local boatmen lead the safaris, taking visitors up and down the river. The safaris offer an excellent opportunity to get close to crocodiles and other creatures, such as monkeys, birds, and fish.

A terrific area to unwind and take in the stunning scenery of Sri Lanka is along the banks of the picturesque Nilwala River. River safaris bring visitors to witness crocodiles and other animals in their natural habitat.

6. Take a Trip to the Dondra Head Lighthouse

The Dondra Head Lighthouse is a must-visit attraction for anyone travelling to Matara. Located at the southernmost tip of Sri Lanka, it is the island’s tallest lighthouse standing at the height of 160 feet. The lighthouse was built in 1890 during the occupation of the British Empire, and it serves as an iconic symbol of the colonial heritage of the southern coast of Sri Lanka.

7. Visit the Wewurukannala Viharaya

The Wewurukannala Viharaya is a Buddhist temple located about 10 kilometres from Matara. The temple is known for its impressive statue of Saman, a Buddhist deity standing over 50 feet tall. Visitors can also explore the temple’s beautiful murals and carvings.

8. Go Shopping for Souvenirs 

Matara has many markets and shops where visitors can find unique and interesting souvenirs to take home. One of the best places to shop is the Matara Old Dutch Market in the city’s heart. This market is known for its vibrant atmosphere and various goods, including fresh fruits and vegetables, spices, and traditional Sri Lankan handicrafts.

9. Enjoy the Local Cuisine

Every trip to Matara is complete with trying some of the local cuisines. The city is famous for its seafood, cooked with a blend of spices and served fresh. Some of the must-try dishes in Matara include:

  • Ambul Thiyal: This is a sour fish curry made with tuna and dried goraka, a fruit native to Sri Lanka.
  • Kottu Roti: This is a popular street food in Sri Lanka made with shredded roti, vegetables, and meat, all stir-fried with a blend of spices.
  • Wambatu Moju: This is a sweet and sour brinjal pickle made with eggplant, vinegar, sugar, and spices.
  • Parippu Curry: This lentil curry is a staple in Sri Lankan cuisine and is usually served with rice.
  • Pol Sambol: This coconut relish is served as a condiment with most Sri Lankan dishes.
10. Visit Parey Dewa Temple 

Parey Dewa Temple is located on a small island off the coast of Matara and is accessible by a short boat ride. The temple is a popular pilgrimage site believed to have been built in the 18th century. The temple is dedicated to the goddess Pattini and is surrounded by stunning views of the Indian Ocean. The island also has a small beach where you can relax and enjoy the peaceful surroundings.

11. Matara Bodhiya

The origin of a famous tree in Matara, Sri Lanka, is said to be linked to a tragic story involving King Kumara Dharmasena and his friend Kalidasa. According to the tale, the king was with a courtesan when he saw a bee trapped in a lotus flower and was inspired to write two poetic lines. He offered a reward for anyone who could complete the poem, and the courtesan took the lines to Kalidasa, who finished the poem. The courtesan then killed Kalidasa to keep the reward for herself. When the king saw his friend’s handwriting, he uncovered the ruse, and upon Kalidasa’s cremation, the king and five official queens threw themselves into the flames in grief.

Local legend says that seven Bo trees were planted over the seven tombs, and these trees are known as the “Hath Bodhis” and are still standing at six different places around Matara. The Matara Bodhiya is one of those trees revered and protected by the local Buddhist community.

12. Star Fort Museum 

The old town of Matara, located on a strip of land between the ocean and a lagoon, is protected on one side by Matara Fort, which has impressive ramparts. The town has quiet lanes with colonial-style houses and an empty field behind the walls where children now play cricket. There used to be four elephant stables and a tank for washing the elephants behind the town, but there are no traces now. After the Matara Fort was determined to be invulnerable, Van Eck constructed Star Fort, a small fortress across the lagoon. The Star Fort has thick walls, a well, and a ring of low buildings for ammunition and provisions. It has recently been renovated and now houses a museum.

13. Dutch Reformed Church

The Dutch constructed the Dutch Reformed Church in 1706, located in Matara Fort, Sri Lanka. It is one of the oldest Protestant churches in the country and is still in use today. However, the church may have existed before 1706, and evidence of greater antiquity can be found in the gravestones which pave the church floor. The church’s architecture is simple and plain, in keeping with its Calvinist heritage, and can accommodate 200 seats. The 2004 tsunami slightly damaged the church, but services resumed despite the damage. The Wolvendaal Foundation, established by the Dutch Reformed Church, undertook restoration works on the church, which was completed in 2 years. The Archaeological Department of Sri Lanka has subsequently made further improvements to the roof. The church is now a food distribution centre for the suffering population and aims to further cordial relations between various races and religions on the island.

14. Devinuwara Gal Ge ( Stone House ) 

An interesting structure made entirely of granite blocks called Galge is located near the Devinuwara Raja Maha Viharaya and the Upulvan Devalaya. It was first noticed in 1914 and declared an Archaeological Reserve in 1927. However, the structure had to be dismantled and rebuilt in 1947 due to heavy rain damage, during which it was discovered that the shrine had been reconstructed in ancient times. The monument is attributed to the 7th century and is described as a shrine of God Upulvan. The only ornamentation is on the doorway, and it is believed to be the only one of its type, possibly the first stone building constructed in Sri Lanka.

15. Kotikagoda Temple

The Kotikagoda Rajamaha Viharaya is a temple near Matara in Walgama town. It was believed to have originated during the reign of King Mayadunne, but the existing structures were constructed in 1829 AD. The Archaeological Department maintains the temple, which is well-known for preserving historical paintings from the Kandyan era.

16. Explore Matara Beach 

Matara Beach is a popular coastal destination located in the city of Matara, Sri Lanka. It is a beautiful stretch of sandy shore that attracts locals and tourists. The Beach offers stunning views of the Indian Ocean, and the waves are perfect for surfing and other water activities. Visitors can also enjoy sunbathing on the Beach, dipping in the ocean, or simply strolling along the shore. Matara Beach is also known for its picturesque sunsets, a must-see for anyone visiting the area. Several restaurants and cafes along the Beach allow visitors to enjoy delicious seafood and other local cuisine while enjoying the beautiful scenery.

17. Kirala Kele Sanctuary

Kirala Kele is a marshy area in the south of Sri Lanka, known for its wetland biodiversity and mangrove forests. It is a habitat for 83 flora species, 13 mammal species, 48 bird species, and 25 freshwater species, including the Green-faced Leaf Monkey. Around 16,000 people living around the area rely on it for fishing, raising cattle, and cultivating crops. The wetland is easily accessible by tuk-tuk and is a birdwatcher’s paradise. However, various construction processes around the area need to improve their quality.

18. Old Dutch Market

The Old Nupe Market, also known as the Old Dutch Market, is a historic European-built building in Matara, Sri Lanka, about 3.2 kilometres from Matara Fort. It was constructed in the late 18th century, possibly by the British or the Dutch and was used as a market for selling vegetables, meat, fish, textiles, and household items. The open-sided building is shaped like a ‘T’ and has a tiled roof supported by large stone pillars with an ornate wooden frame. The market’s two wings were used for selling vegetables, meat, and fish, while the stem of the T was used for selling textiles and household items.

19. The Shrine of Our Lady of Matara

The Shrine of Our Lady of Matara is a Catholic church in Matara, Sri Lanka. It houses a 400-year-old statue of the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus, which has been damaged and lost multiple times, including during the 2004 tsunami. According to church legend, fishermen discovered the statue in a wooden crate that was completely dry. After a cholera epidemic, Catholics prayed before the figure, and the area was declared safe. Early in the 20th century, a man in Middlesbrough defaced a statue after renovating it in Belgium, which led to its loss and recovery. The statue was eventually returned to the church in Matara.

20. Devinuwara Upulwan Devalaya

Devinuwara, also known as Dondra, is a town in southern Sri Lanka with a rich history. It was a prominent seaport and place of pilgrimage from the 13th to the 16th century, with a magnificent temple that overlooked the ocean. According to legend, Devinuwara was a flourishing city during King Rawana and is connected to the Indian Epic of Ramayana. The temple is dedicated to the deity Vishnu, who is highly revered by Sri Lankans and believed to be a future Buddha. The Portuguese army attacked and destroyed the city in 1587, but King Rajasinghe II later restored it. The Devalaya dedicated to the deity Vishnu draws devotees from around the country, especially during the Esala Poya Period in July. The origin of the Esala festival dates back to the 13th century when King Parakramabahu II restored the dilapidated temple and established the celebration in honour of the deity Upulvan.

21. Swim at SK Town Beach

SK Town Beach is one of the best tourist attractions in southern Sri Lanka. It is a great place to visit if you are stressed and want to relax in a calm and peaceful atmosphere. Walking along the Beach and enjoying the surroundings can make you feel happy and calm. However, it is essential to remember not to pollute the area and to keep it clean for others to enjoy.

22. Enjoy with family at Matara Beach Park

Matara Beach Park is a beautiful park situated in Matara, Sri Lanka. It boasts a long stretch of white sandy Beach and various facilities such as a playground, picnic area and car park. The park is a popular attraction for both locals and tourists to relax, swim, sunbathe, and play games. In addition, the park offers a breathtaking view of the sunset, making it a perfect spot for an afternoon or evening visit. Activities at the park include:

  • Relaxing on the Beach.
  • Swimming in the ocean.
  • Playing games such as volleyball, football, and cricket.
  • Having a picnic at the designated picnic area.
23. Surf at Madiha Beach

Madiha Beach is a stunning beach in the Matara district of Sri Lanka. It is renowned for its long stretch of golden sand, crystal-clear turquoise waters, and consistent waves, making it one of the most sought-after surf destinations in the area. The Beach is a popular spot for locals and tourists, with several activities.

One of the most popular activities at Madiha Beach is surfing. Whether you are a beginner or an experienced surfer, the waves are consistent, and several surf schools offer lessons for all levels. In addition to surfing, swimming is another great activity to do at Madiha Beach. The water is warm and clear, making it perfect for swimming.

24. Relax on Paravi Duwa Beach

Matara Paravi Duwa Beach is a beach located in the city of Matara, Sri Lanka. It is a popular tourist destination known for its beautiful scenery and clear blue waters. The Beach is surrounded by palm trees and other lush vegetation, making it a perfect spot for relaxation and enjoying the area’s natural beauty. Visitors can swim in the calm waters, sunbathe on the sandy shore, or walk along the Beach to explore the area. The Beach is also a great place to watch the sunset, which is known to be particularly stunning at this location.

25. Weherahena Temple

Matara, Sri Lanka, is home to the Buddhist Weherahena Temple. It is a significant draw for sightseers from far and wide. The temple’s massive Buddha statue is renowned across Sri Lanka.

Reverend Parawahera Rewatha Thero, a monk, constructed the temple in the early 20th century. As a punishment, the monk’s instructor exiled him to the region. He planned to build a tunnel temple and the world’s most enormous Buddha statue. Therefore, building work began with Anagarika Dharmapala’s help. This temple features artwork illustrating various Jataka tales.

Spread across over three acres; the temple features several paintings and statues. In addition, the library of the temple houses several important Buddhist books. The Weherahena Temple is a major tourist destination because it honours Sri Lanka’s long and illustrious cultural heritage.

Places to Stay in Matara

How to reach Matara

By Air:

The nearest airport to Matara is the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, about 90 km away. However, only some international flights operate at this airport. The closest international airport is the Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo, which is about 160 km away from Matara.

By Train:

The train is one of the best ways to reach Matara. The journey from Colombo to Matara takes around 2.5 to 3 hours, and the trains run frequently. The train journey is very scenic, and you can enjoy the beautiful views of the coastline and the countryside.

By Bus:

There are regular bus services that operate from Colombo to Matara. The journey takes around 3.5 to 4 hours, depending on the traffic. The buses are comfortable and affordable, providing a great way to explore the countryside.

By Private Car:

If you prefer a more comfortable and convenient option, hire a private car to take you to Matara. The journey takes around 2.5 to 3 hours, and you can stop to take pictures or explore the countryside.

By Tuk-Tuk:

Tuk-tuks are a popular mode of transportation in Sri Lanka and a fun way to explore the city. For example, you can hire a tuk-tuk from Colombo to Matara, which will take around 3.5 to 4 hours.

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