The waiters, elegantly dressed in white livery, move sophisticated and smooth between the tables. “Would you like some more tea, madam?” It must be the fifth time the waiter asks me if I want a refill on my cup of tea, and, of course, I say yes every time. The table is beautifully set with white exclusive porcelain tableware, and the cake stand is bulging with perfectly groomed sandwiches, mini burgers, and tiny cakes of all shapes and colors.
I look over my shoulder, and I swear I get a glimpse of both Poirot and Miss Marple sipping on a cup of tea with their pinky finger sticking out discussing a complicated crime.
We are having high tea at the Grand Hotel Nuwara Eliya, and it feels like we have stepped back in time by 200 years, back to when Sri Lanka was called Ceylon and was ruled by the British. Only the guest`s modern clothes and smart-phones reveal that we are not in the era of the British colonists that once chopped down the jungle in these hills and built the town Nuwara Eliya, also called “Little England,” and started planting tea bushes here.
We have brought my mom and dad for their first visit to Sri Lanka, to show them this beautiful country that we fell in love with in 2014. We had, however, never been to this city before and to our surprise, there are lots of things to do in Nuwara Eliya.
The History Of Nuwara Eliya
This cool hill area of Sri Lanka was once wilderness consisting of forest and jungle, located in the shadow of the 2524 m high mountain Pidurutalagala, aka Mount Pedro. The hill area was “discovered” by the British colonial officer John Davy back in 1819 who decided to build a sanatorium here.
The town Nuwara Eliya was founded in 1846 by Samuel Baker, an explorer that also discoverer Lake Albert in Uganda and explored the Nile river.
Nuwara Eliya, which means “City of Light,” soon became a favorite cool-climate escape for the British as well as a “home away from home” where they could grow English vegetables and fruits such as lettuce and strawberries. They also started to grow coffee here, but when the coffee plantations suffered a disease and died, they switched to tea.
The first tea bushes were planted in the mountains between Nuwara Eliya and Kandy and were a huge success both in taste and how fast the tea bushes grew here. The British soon started planting vast areas with tea bushes and one tea plantation after the other popped up, making Nuwara Eliya the tea capital of Sri Lanka’s Hill Country.
Well, the British did of course not plant these bushes themselves, oh no, they used Sri Lankan workers as well as Tamils brought over from India.
Nuwara Eliya Today
Today Nuwara Eliya still has this English country village vibe to it, with its red telephone boxes, pink brick Victorian post office, a well-maintained golf course, horse racing course, colonial bungalows, and rose gardens.
But at the same time, it is very Sri Lankan with water buffalos grazing the hillsides, green tea bushes everywhere, crazy traffic roaming the streets, the smell of rice and curry, and bustling markets and small shops in the streets.
Best Time To Visit Nuwara Eliya
Except for June till the end of August when there is a monsoon season in the highlands of Sri Lanka, Nuwara Eliya is a great place to visit all year round.
From November to February/ March, Nuwara Eliya is quite chilly with temperatures below freezing at night, quite the opposite from the west coast with its tropical climate and temperatures up to 40 degrees Celsius. So bring warm clothes, or buy some at one the street markets, or you might catch a cold like my mom did. We visited Nuwara Eliya in January and had only 5 degrees Celcius in the evenings.
April is the big spring month in this area, and all of a sudden this sleepy town explodes into a busy and crowded party-party town. It gets packed with Sri Lankan holidaymakers enjoying horse racing, street food, and hill climbing as they celebrate Sri Lankan New Year together with friends and family. In April the cost of accommodation skyrockets and it gets hard to find a hotel room. So it might be a good idea to avoid April if you can.
Things To Do In Nuwara Eliya
1. High Tea at The Grand Hotel
Hight tea at The Grand Hotel is the best tea experience in Nuwara Eliya, and maybe in the whole of Sri Lanka. Sipping tea and eating delicious cakes and sandwiches, in the middle of the tea capital Nuwara Eliya, in the majestic colonial Grand Hotel from 1891 is a must-do!
I would say it was one of the highlights of our visit to Nuwara Eliya, and I just wanted to have high tea here every day. That little chocolate fudge cake, ahh, just loved it!
High tea is served outside in the big garden in front of the Grand Hotel and the semi-open-air tea lounge to the left of the hotel`s entrance.
- When: Every day 15:30 – 18:00
- Cost: 800 Sri Lankan Rupees = 5 USD (and you can drink as must tea as you can manage!)
2. Victoria Park
The beautiful Victoria Park is located in the middle of Nuwara Eliya. It is well maintained and well worth a stroll around for an hour.
We accidentally met the chief gardener of Victoria Park when we were walking there with my parents, and he ended up showing us around and telling us about all the plants, trees, and flowers. Very interesting and so nice of him!
To our surprise, many of the flowers and plants were imported from our home country Norway because of the cold climate in Nuwara Eliya. Rather odd, who would have thought that?!
The gardener told us that the park is at its peak and most beautiful around March to May, and August and September when all the flowers are in bloom with all their colors.
- Opening hours: 07 – 18
- Cost: 300 Sri Lankan Rupees = 2 USD
3. Gregory Lake
We visited Nuwara Eliya on the weekend, and Gregory Lake and its surrounding park were filled with locals having an afternoon stroll, playing around with their kids, flying kites, and having some snacks at one of the many food stalls.
The paved walkway surrounding the lake is perfect for an afternoon stroll.
And if you get tired of walking, you can always rent a swan-shaped paddle boat, a water scooter, a rowing boat, a motorboat, or why not go for a pony ride?
Or do like us, grab a table at one of the small food stalls and order some roti and fresh potato chips.
- Opening hours: 08 – 18
- Cost: 200 Sri Lankan Rupees = 1,5 USD
4. Nuwara Eliya Town
Take a walk around the downtown of Nuwara Eliya and soak in the English town vibe. There are several colonial style houses like the old pink post office where you can send postcards to your loved ones.
Nuwara Eliya Golf Club
You can`t miss the Nuwara Eliya Golf Club, which is located right in the center of town. It was founded as early as 1889 and is well-maintained.
For 500 Sri Lankan Rupees per day, you can even do some putting if you want, and pretend you are an original British colonist. To hire golf clubs cost 1500 Sri Lankan Rupees per day, and golf shoes 500 Rupees.
In the Golf Club`s garden, right by the entrance, there is an old gravestone of a mad British governor that killed thousands of elephants just for sports. One day when he was out elephant hunting, a lightning strike hit him, and he fell dead to the ground. He got buried where the Golf Club is, and a couple of years after his death, another lightning strike hit his grave and broke his gravestone in two! Well, he had it coming if you ask me. Talking about karma and God`s revenge……
- Webpage: https://www.nuwaraeliyagolfclub.com
The Hill Club is a beautiful colonial style building, dating back to 1876, surrounded by a lovely garden covering 26 acres.
It was once a gentlemen’s club exclusive for the British colonists with a bar and a billiard room. Women and locals were only allowed in 1967. Today it is a hotel with 39 rooms.
You can also have dinner at the Hill Club, which is an event in itself with a four-course menu of typical English meals. There is a dress code, however, where men must wear a tie and jacket (you can rent this for free at the hotel), and women must wear formal clothes.
If you want to break a sweat, you can pay a visit to the Hill Club`s Tennis. It cost 500 Rupees per hour, including balls and racquet, and the club has four clay tennis courts. Be careful, however, not to kick the ball too hard as it might end up at the neighboring president`s residence. You might not get it back……
5. Tea Factory And Tea Plantation
A visit to a tea factory is a must! There are several tea companies in the area, obviously since we are in the middle of the tea capital of Sri Lanka.
We visited the Storefield Tea Factory where we got an informative guided tour of the factory and saw how the tea is picked, dried, heated, and sorted into different kinds of tea.
The tea production inside this factory takes place during the evening and night when it is colder, so we did not see much action. In the end, we got to taste the different type of teas that they produce.
Pedro Tea Estate, built in 1885, is another option located 3,5 km east of Nuwara Eliya.
We also went for a little walk up in the hillside above Nuwara Eliya town, through tea bushes belonging to Pedro Tea Estate. It was a nice walk, it felt like walking on a sea of green and lush leaves. From the tea plantation, we got a beautiful view of Nuwara Eliya town and Gregory Lake.
6. Moon Plains
Moon Plains National Park, also called Sandatanne and Sandagalatanne, is the newest attraction in Nuwara Eliya and opened in 2014, located just a few kilometers from Nuwara Eliya.
We had arranged with a driver with a jeep to pick us up at the hotel at 08 in the morning. The drive to Moon Plains is very scenic, through potato fields and farms growing different kinds of vegetables.
The road goes all the way through the park to a plateau called “the second Worlds End” (about 3 km from the entrance), the name taken from the more famous Worlds End at Horton Plains, where we enjoyed a 360-degree view of the surrounding peaks and towns. The area is home to Elk, wild buffaloes, leopards, dear and many different birds.
We were the first ones at the viewpoint and got to sit down on the grass overlooking the valley below and eating the breakfast that our hotel had provided for us in peace and quiet, just listening to the birds. It was a wonderful experience!
From the park you can see many mountains; Pidurutalaga (8,281 feet), Single Tree Mountain ((6,890 feet) Kikiliyamana Mountain (7,339 feet), Great Western Mountain (7,257 feet), Konical Hill Mountain (7,116 feet) Kirigalpoththa Mountain (7,835 feet), Thotupola Mountain (7,737 feet), Hakgala Mountain (7,110 feet) and Namunukula Mountain (6,667 feet).
Moon Plains looks a bit like Horton Plains, but unlike the excursion to Horton Plains which takes 6 to 8 hours, the trip to Moon Plains only takes about 2 hours. So if you don`t have a full day to spend on driving and hiking, Moon Plains is an excellent alternative to Horton Plains. It is best to get here early in the morning or in the afternoon as it is less hazy.
- Opening hours: 07 – 17:00 every day
- Ticket price: 50 Rupees for a local and 250 Rupees for a foreigner
7. Horton Plains
The Horton Plains National Park is bigger and more famous than Moon Plains and offers some great hiking opportunities over plateaus covered with grass, areas of thick forest, rock landscape, waterfalls, and lakes. Longer hikes are also possible, like the one to Mt Kirigalpotta and Mt Totapola.
The end of the plain, called World`s End, is an 880 m deep ravine and an excellent viewpoint overlooking tea plantation villages down below in the valley. You can even see all the way to the south coast on a clear day. The hike to World`s End is about 4 km, and with the loop to Baker` s Fall and back to the entrance, it adds up to 9,5 km, which takes about 3 hours to walk.
The thing about Horton Plains, however, is that it gets misty and cloudy from around 9 o’clock in the morning, so the best time to visit is early morning from 6 to 10 to beat the clouds. It is especially misty during the rainy season (April to September). Sundays and public holidays can be pretty crowded.
We only drove up to the gate of Horton Plains, and did not go inside the park nor did we do the walk to World`s End.
The reason for that was that the tickets are pretty expensive; 2175 Rupees/ person (14 USD) + 60 for the driver + 250 for the car + 1160 for service charge + 873 for tax! Yep, it adds up, for two people (one car) it will be 6550 Rupees.
It was also a Sunday and incredibly many tourists when we visited, so it would be like walking in a line like ants. Our driver was honest with us and said it was not worth the money. We had already seen the more peaceful and equally lovely Moon Plains. If you get there when it opens at 6, it might be worth it, otherwise, leave it.
If you are interested in doing scenic hikes, you should go walking in the area around Ella instead.
- Opening hours: 06 – 18
- Ticket price: 6550 Rupees for two people in one car
8. Dinner at Grand Indian
Grand Hotel has not only the best High Tea in town but also the best restaurant! The Grand Indian serves rich, delicious and spiced northern Indian food that melts in your mouth. The service is excellent too. Book a table in advance or expect to queue up for a table.
- Opening hours: 11 – 23
- Price range: Around 6-700 Sri Lankan Rupees = 4-5 USD for the main course
- TripAdvisor Reviews
How To Get To Nuwara Eliya
The most scenic way to get to Nuwara Eliya is by train. Nuwara Eliya is located between Kandy and Ella, and is on the famous train route named “The Worlds Most Beautiful Train Ride”.
There is, however, no train station in the center of Nuwara Eliya, but the train station Nanu Oya is only a 15-min drive with taxi or tuk-tuk from Nuwara Eliya.
So you can take the train from Kandy to Nanu Oya (and then take a taxi or tuk-tuk to Nuwara Eliya). This train ride takes about four hours and costs around 400 Rupees = us$2,5. There are two to three trains per day. You can check the trains for the date that you want to go to Nuwara Eliya in the timetable search HERE (search from Kandy to Nanuoya).
The other option is to take the train from Ella to Nanu Oya (and then a taxi or tuk-tuk into Nuwara Eliya). This train ride takes about three hours and costs around 300 Rupees = us$2. There are five to six trains a day from Ella to Nanu Oya. You can check the timetable for the date that you want to go to Nuwara Eliya HERE (search from Elle to Nanuoya).
You should buy these train tickets in advance as this is a very popular train ride.
Another option is, of course, to hire a car and driver like we did. The drive from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya takes about three hours, while the drive from Ella to Nuwara Eliya takes about two hours.
“City of Light,” “City on the plain (table land)”,”Little England”, Nuwara Eliya, the small hill town tucked away among thousands of tea bushes really lives up to its many names and there are lots of nice things to do in Nuwara Eliya.
It is pretty incredible that one can travel just a few hours from the coast of Sri Lanka, from 38 degrees Celsius, and end up in a totally different climate zone where the temperature drops below freezing at night!
The lazy atmosphere, yet the posh vibe of high tea and colonial styled high-class hotels are also a great part of Sri Lanka’s history and culture, alongside the white sandy beaches and crystal clear water that this island is famous for.
We really enjoyed our four-day stay in Nuwara Eliya, although I must admit, it was colder than I expected so the next time I will bring more warm clothes! My mom even got a heavy cold and a sinus infection after Nuwara Eliya and its cold temperatures.
Where To Stay In Nuwara Eliya
Nuwara Eliya is a very popular place to visit, both for foreigners and local Srilankans, so there is plenty of accommodation for all budgets. Below are some of the best accommodation options in Ella, including the place we called home for 3 nights, Grand Camellia.
Heritance Tea Factory
If you are looking for a special and unique hotel stay, the Heritance Tea Factory is a must-stay! It is a century old tea factory that has been converted into a boutique hotel, making it both a museum and a luxury hotel. Many of the old tea machinery is a part of the design. The service is excellent. The hotel also has two restaurants, with top-notch food. One of the restaurants is actually inside an old steam train carriage! How cool is that?! The hotel is located a 30-minute drive north-east of Nuwara Eliya.
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This is also a pretty unique place, with its spacious lush garden and colonial style bungalows with vintage furniture that date back to the British time. It feels like being back in the British era! The staff is super friendly and serves delicious food. They only have a few bungalows, so book well in advance.
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The Blackpool Hotel
Located above and a little outside of the busy main street of Nuwara Eliya, this hotel has great views and is located in a more quiet area of Nuwara Eliya. It actually has an infinity swimming pool and a fireplace! The restaurant is famous for its delicious food.
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One can not visit Nuwara Eliya without stepping into Grand Hotel, at least for their high tea and dinner in one of their excellent restaurants like the Indian restaurant. The hotel is very British and I`m sure it looked like this even back in the Ceylon time. This hotel has it all, big green lawns, a reading lounge, billiard rooms, a British pub, and even a tea salon. Some of the rooms are a little tired and could do with a refresh.
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We stayed here February 2017. Grand Camellia is a brand new hotel, opened in autumn 2016, and has spacious modern rooms. The hotel is located on the hillside above Nuwara Eliya and has a great view over Gregory Lake, although it is a bit outside of Nuwara main road so a tuk-tuk is best when you want to go into town. The staff is very friendly and the food is good. They gave us breakfast boxes with delicious sandwiches and fruits when we had to get up early to go on our trip to Moon Plains.
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Heaven Seven Hotel Nuwara Eliya
Located on the hill overlooking the city center of Nuwara Eliya, this hotel has a great view of both the tea plantations and the town itself. Many of the rooms have a balcony where you can sit and enjoy the view of Nuwara Eliya.
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Charming little guesthouse a few minutes drive from Nuwara Eliya town, or a 15-minute walk. Nicely decorated rooms and good breakfast, and awesome beds. It is a bit quirky property, located in a very green and lush garden.
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We used the Lonely Planet`s Sri Lanka travel guide on our trip. You can get that and other great books by clicking on the pictures below which will take you to Amazon.com (affiliate links):
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Have you been to Nuwara Eliya or other colonial cities around the world? Please comment in the comment area below! If you like this article and find it useful, please share on social media, thanks! 🙂