Dusty Dambulla isn’t the most charming town in Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle, but you’re not here for the ambience – you’re here for the cave temple. Crammed with well-preserved Buddhist paintings and Sinhalese sculptures dating back centuries, this vast cave complex is an unmissable ancient wonder. Read on to discover the best places to stay during your cultural trip to Dambulla.
Sure, the rooms at Jetwing Lake are pretty swish; the Chinese restaurant is a nice change if you’re curried out; and the Dambulla Cave Temple is just a stone’s throw away – but the real star of the show here is the view. Every room overlooks expansive lawns with a huge pool, glittering lake and countless native and migratory birds.
Nature takes centre stage at Kalundewa Retreat Dambulla, where nine unique villas – including one floating on an emerald lake – overlook paddy fields and soaring mountains on a 100-acre (40ha) estate. Spot stork-billed kingfishers in the mangroves; help plant or harvest organic chillies, okra and aubergines at the hotel’s organic garden; or take a dip in the pool, fed by nearby spring waters.
Just a 10-minute tuk-tuk ride from Dambulla Cave Temple, red-brick Arika Villa feels a million miles away from the traffic-packed town centre. Nine high-ceilinged, balconied rooms wrap around a tempting pool, with ground-floor rooms featuring sky-lit showers. The riverside hotel operates on a BYOB basis – so, bring a bottle or two to enjoy under the stars with your evening meal.
Sitting halfway between Dambulla Cave Temple and Sigiriya Rock Fortress, Aswadduma Hotel comprises two crescent-shaped clusters of traditional thatched-roof cottages and modern tree-top suites. There are two pools and one giant hot tub (featuring six submerged full-sized loungers) in the forested garden, and the restaurant (which does a cracking breakfast buffet) features colourful frescoes depicting ancient Sri Lankan warriors and their elephants.
Set back just off the Kandy-Jaffna Highway, 15 minutes south of Dambulla, Governor’s Grand is basic but comfortable, with a well-kept English garden and pool. A huge mara tree grows up through the centre of the restaurant, where you can order fresh smoothies featuring fruit and veg from the organic onsite garden or sample healthy Ayurvedic cuisine.
With a shallow pool, super friendly staff and turquoise candy-stripe bedrooms, Nilambara Lake View is the ideal hotel for families. The palm-filled garden overlooks Ibbankatuwa Lake and is a 10-minute drive from Dambulla. History buffs should check out the Ibbankatuwa megalithic tombs (of which there are over 400) that spread over a square kilometre (0.4sqmi) near the main road, just a 15-minute walk away.
Despite being less than 10 minutes away from Dambulla Cave Temple, Tropical Life feels blissfully secluded. The pool sits on a raised sunbathing deck above a lily-filled lagoon, and the 12-acre (5ha) grounds are strewn with washed-up oruwa (traditional fishing boats) and old cartwheels, giving a nod to local culture and providing kids with something to clamber over. Borrow a bike from reception to explore the luscious site and beyond.
This peaceful, family-run guesthouse in Dambulla is right next door to a hot-air balloon centre, making it an ideal spot to stay before a sunrise flight. The large veranda (sometimes used for morning yoga sessions) backs onto a walled, bamboo- and frangipani-filled garden, which features understated treasures such as wind chimes, wood carvings and a chessboard made out of a tree trunk.
These recommendations were updated on January 6, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.