Close to the southernmost point of the island, the bustling town of MATARA (pronounced “maat-rah” the middle syllable is virtually elided) provides a taste of everyday Sri Lanka that may (or may not) be welcome if you’ve spent time in the coastal resorts. Standing at the terminus of the country’s southern rail line, the town is an important transport hub and a major centre of commerce – a lively place given a youthful touch by the presence of students from the nearby Ruhunu University. Matara preserves a few Dutch colonial buildings, an atmospheric old fort area and an attractive seafront (though you wouldn’t want to swim here). A couple of kilometres either side of town, the low-key beachside suburbs of Polhena and Medawatta offer good snorkelling and surfing respectively, while the area around Matara boasts a couple of mildly interesting and little-visited sights, including the giant Buddha at Weherehena and the town of Dondra, whose slender lighthouse marks the island’s southernmost point.

Matara itself (from Mahatara, or “Great Harbour”) is an ancient settlement, though no traces of anything older than the colonial era survive. The Portuguese used the town intermittently, but it was the Dutch, attracted by the deep and sheltered estuary of the Nilwala Ganga, who established a lasting presence here, fortifying the town and making it an important centre for cinnamon and elephant trading.

As at Galle, Matara divides into two areas: the modern town and the old Dutch colonial district, known as the Fort. The two are separated by the Nilwala Ganga, a fine and remarkably unspoilt stretch of water, edged by thick stands of palm trees and spanned by the town’s most impressive modern construction: the six-lane Mahanama Bridge, constructed with Korean help and unveiled in December 2007 on the third anniversary of the tsunami.

Book through Rough Guides’ trusted travel partners

Sri Lanka features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

10 Sri Lankan foods you need to try

10 Sri Lankan foods you need to try

The tear-shaped Indian Ocean island of Sri Lanka is a true culinary treat. Through years of colonisation and trade, many cultures have influenced its cuisine, c…

15 Nov 2017 • Sarah Gilbert insert_drive_file Article
16 evocative pictures of Sri Lanka

16 evocative pictures of Sri Lanka

After a couple of weeks travelling across Sri Lanka, photographer Nori Jemil shares why this Indian Ocean island is a perfect subject. Here are 16 of her favour…

11 Oct 2017 • Nori Jemil insert_drive_file Article
Sri Lanka: 10 tips for first-time visitors

Sri Lanka: 10 tips for first-time visitors

Sri Lanka’s heady mix of British colonial heritage, beautiful landscapes and incredibly friendly locals make it a beguiling destination. But the tropical isle…

29 Aug 2017 • Chloe Cann insert_drive_file Article
View more featureschevron_right

Weekly newsletter

Sign up now for travel inspiration, discounts and competitions

Sign up now and get 20% off any ebook