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After roasting in the heat in Tangalle and Yala National Park for two weeks, Sam and I were ready to go somewhere where we could walk more than three steps without sweating through our clothes. So we hopped on a bus and headed north.
Our first stop was Nuwara Eliya, a British-influenced, fantastically chilly little town in the hill country. The three days we spent in Nuwara Eliya were some of our favorite of the month we spent in Sri Lanka (especially for Sam, who gets sunburned if he stands too close to an 80 watt light bulb).
Here is our guide to visiting Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka’s chilliest town!
What to Do in Nuwara Eliya
Nuwara Eliya, also known as “Little England,” was a favorite spot for British colonialists due to its temperate climate. As a result, the town retains a noticeable British influence that sets it apart from other parts of Sri Lanka. Here is what to do in Nuwara Eliya:
High Tea at the Grand Hotel
The Grand Hotel is an iconic luxury hotel located in Nuwara Eliya. Since actually staying at the hotel was well outside our budget (much to my disappointment!), we settled for the next best thing: afternoon high tea. I’m something of a tea addict, so I was in heaven.
Every afternoon at 3:30pm, high tea is served in the tearoom or on the well-manicured lawn. And the experience is a must for visitors to Nuwara Eliya. Not only did we receive as many cups of tea with milk as we could gulp down (I think I lost count at four), but we were also served a three-tiered platter of small sandwiches and cakes—all of which were delicious, and all of which we consumed in three minutes flat. We’re not really the “enjoy the journey” type.
If you plan to attend, we recommend arriving at least 10 minutes early to ensure you get a table. We arrived shortly before 3:30 and took the last spot!
And don’t worry if you don’t have super fancy clothing. Most of the people we saw were dressed casually. Though you certainly could dress up if that’s your thing and you happened to pack something fancier than t-shirts and flip-flops.
High tea costs 1,300 rupees per person, which is a fantastic deal when compared to similar high tea experiences in other parts of the world—especially Europe. We ate so many dainty sandwiches that we ended up skipping dinner that night, saving even more money.
On a side note, the Grand Hotel has the fanciest bathroom we saw on our entire trip. And after using a Sri Lankan bus depot bathroom—an experience I wouldn’t wish on a puppy-kicking, elephant-poaching, airplane seat-reclining serial killer—experiencing a nice bathroom really is something to write home about.
Queen Victoria Park
For an afternoon stroll, head to Queen Victoria Park, an urban garden that further showcases Nuwara Eliya’s European influence. We found that parts of the park were really beautiful and other parts weren’t as well maintained. But Queen Victoria Park is still certainly worth visiting on a trip to Nuwara Eliya.
Our favorite part of our visit to Queen Victoria Park was stumbling across a beautiful greenhouse filled with exotic-looking plants. It reminded me of the herbology classroom in Harry Potter.
Few of the flowers were in bloom when visited in February, so I imagine the park is more impressive at other times of year.
Entry costs 300 rupees per person.
Lake Gregory is a reservoir lake located in the heart of Nuwara Eliya. With a walking path circling the lake and paddleboat rentals available, Lake Gregory is a nice place to spend a peaceful afternoon in Nuwara Eliya.
Because there is an entrance fee—which, as is typical in Sri Lanka, charges foreigners a significantly higher price than locals—we ended up not going inside the gate. Admittedly, the admission cost is quite low. But we were tired and didn’t want to pay to enter if we weren’t planning to stay long.
Though the paid section of the lake looked well maintained and pretty (we had hoped to go inside for a jog one morning but ran out of time), we ended up just walking around the part of the lake that didn’t require an admission ticket. And, honestly, we were pretty horrified by the amount of litter that we found lying around—not to mention the droppings from the ponies that give rides to visitors.
So if you’re planning to visit the lake, we recommend paying the admission fee and entering the much larger nicer section!
Admission costs 200 rupees.
Mackwoods Tea Tasting
When in Sri Lanka’s hill country, you really can’t drink too much tea. Especially if you’re a tea addict like me! We stumbled on Mackwoods Tea almost by accident, but it ended up being one of the best things to do in Nuwara Eliya.
The Mackwoods Tea store sells every imaginable type of tea, and they are all delicious. We bought a tin of loose-leaf black tea and it was one of my favorite black teas I’ve ever tasted.
But what makes a trip to Mackwoods Tea extra special is the free tea tasting. We were taken upstairs to the posh tasting room, and after a presentation about the different types of tea, we were able to choose several teas to sample for free.
The experience was completely unexpected but a lot of fun!
Sadly, Mackwoods Tea is only sold in Sri Lanka, the UK, and China, so be sure to stock up if you don’t live in one of those areas. It is truly high-quality tea and I enjoyed drinking it for several weeks after we returned home.
Hiking in a Tea Plantation
If you’ve noticed a hot and steaming theme running throughout this list, it’s because a huge percentage of the tea Sri Lanka produces is grown in the hill country near Nuwara Eliya.
For active travelers—or travelers who indulged in a few too many petit fours at high tea—a hike through a tea plantation is a must. Our guesthouse owner told us about a hike we could take up to the radio tower that would give us a sweeping view of the city below. He encouraged us that it wasn’t too difficult of a climb.
So, the next morning, I set out wearing my nearly brand new Sauconey athletic shoes for a mildly strenuous pleasure stroll.
Well, two minutes into our hike I stepped in a heaping mound of cow manure, and things only got uglier from there. The path—though that’s a generous term for the small, unmarked worker’s trail we took—led up the hill at an incline that would make an ibex stumble. At some points I was literally crawling on all fours and grasping at the vegetation and Sam’s hand, back, legs, and clothing to keep myself from tumbling backward to a certain death.
At the top, however, the view of the town and Lake Gregory really was spectacular. We could even see Adam’s Peak in the distance!
While we were panting and sputtering at the top, a car filled with Sri Lankan police officers pulled up near us. I was immediately convinced that they were there to arrest us for trespassing and that I’d end the night alone in a dark Sri Lankan jail cell smelling like cow manure, sweat, and regret. But they just smiled and offered a lift down the hill.
Ever the self-punishing purists, we refused their offer and began our descent soon afterward. This time, though, we walked along the road. It was a much more manageable experience.
If you wish to enjoy the views without endangering your life along the way, we recommend hiking along the road!
Dinner at the Grand Indian
After our hike, we had really worked up an appetite. And, of course, nothing sounds better after nearly tumbling to your death down a steep tea plantation than tikka masala. Enter the Grand Indian, a posh Indian restaurant operated in conjunction with the Grand Hotel. The hotel and its accompanying restaurants and cafes are basically a small village.
The restaurant opened at 6:30pm, but we arrived at around 6:00pm. We were glad we did—there was already a mob of people waiting. As soon as the doors opened, every table was filled instantly.
Though pricier than most of the meals we ate in Sri Lanka, our dinner at the Grand Indian was one of my favorites of our entire trip. We could certainly understand why it was so popular.
There is also a Grand Thai restaurant, which we, sadly, didn’t have time to try.
Where to Stay
Nuwara Eliya is a popular tourist town, so there are plenty of accommodation options. If you’ve got room in your budget for some swank, splurge on a stay at the Grand Hotel.
If your budget more closely resembles ours, there are also a lot of affordable guesthouses. We stayed at the Lassana Villa guesthouse, which was affordable, comfortable, and included a delicious breakfast. Just keep in mind that it is located at the top of a steep hill, so I wouldn’t recommend it to people who have limited mobility, though there are usually tuk tuks around to offer a lift.
Climate in Nuwara Eliya
Unlike the rest of the island, the climate in Nuwara Eliya is temperate. Though the weather is often comfortably warm during the day (I wore shorts and a t-shirt when we visited in February), the temperature drops significantly at night. After the sun went down, I wore long pants, a tank top, a sweatshirt, and a windbreaker just to stay warm. Of course, after sweating buckets along the southern coast for two weeks, we certainly weren’t complaining!
If you’re planning to visit Nuwara Eliya (and you should!), be sure to take some warm clothing.
Since I find that airplanes typically have a climate reminiscent of the arctic tundra, I always take at least one warm outfit on every trip to wear on the plane anyway.
Further Reading: What to Pack for Sri Lanka: One Month in a Carry-On
Getting to Nuwara Eliya
Nuwara Eliya is accessible via local bus or train. We took the bus from Tissamahara to Nuwara Eliya (with changes in Wellawaya and Ella). The journey—including a lunch break in Ella—took us roughly 6 hours from start to finish.
For a more scenic route, particularly if you’re headed to Nuwara Eliya from Ella or Kandy, taking the train is a good option. The trip from Kandy to Ella is considered one of the most scenic train journeys in the world, and Nuwara Eliya is located along that route.
Just be aware that, because it is so famous, it is also an extremely popular route. We recommend buying your tickets at least a few days in advance. Also keep in mind that if you don’t have a reserved seat, you may not get a seat at all. We ended up standing for most of the 4-hour train ride from Nuwara Eliya to Ella.
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