Matara preserves a few Dutch colonial buildings and an atmospheric old fort area which has much of the old charm but none of the tourists of Galle – well worth a couple of hours if you’re on the vicinity. A few kilometres away, the attractively low-key beachside suburb of Polhena, with its small cluster of guest houses, quiet strip of beach and good snorkelling, offers a convenient escape from the hustle and bustle of the town itself. The city tends to be a lively place given a youthful touch by the presence of students of the Ruhunu University, 3km east of town.
The area around Matara boasts a couple of mildy interesting and little-visited sights, including the giant Buddha and the unusual underground temple at Weherehena and the town of Dondra, whose slender lighthouse marks the island’s southernmost point – Dondra Head. Matara itself (from Mahatara, or “Great Harbour”) is an ancient settlement, although no traces of anything older than the colonial era survive. The Portuguese used the town intermittently, but it was the Dutch, who were 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.