Matara is the largest city on Sri Lanka's south coast and at the end of the railway line from Colombo. Today it is an no-fuss commercial hub where visitors can experience the day-to-day life of urban Sri Lanka, within reach of some gorgeous beaches. In past centuries it was a thriving port, central to the spice and gem trade with the East and Holland and Matara was originally established on a narrow peninsula in the Nilwala River, which was fortified by the Dutch.
The original walls still stand, containing some rather dilapidated old buildings dating from the Dutch colonial era. The town also contains a number of beautiful temples, including the enormous Buddha of the Weherahena Temple; and the oldest and most beautiful lighthouse in Sri Lanka, located at Point Dondra.
Matara was severely damaged by the 2004 tsunami; however, the city has recovered from this tragedy and there are plenty of interesting markets and shops, as well as some good restaurants to explore. Matara is scenically attractive, surrounded by paddy fields and tea estates on the fertile river floodplain. The area also boasts some sandy, safe beaches with coral reefs good for snorkelling (although hungry crocodiles mean swimmers should stay out of the Nilwala River). These regional assets have ensured that the city is a popular tourist destination, far removed from the sometimes troubled north of the island, where civil unrest remains a possibility.