Matara, the most important settlement on the south, is situated at the end of the south coast railway line, 160km from Colombo. The town contains many remnants of Sri Lanka’s colonial past such as Dutch forts, churches and the famous statue of Our Lady of Matara. Matara was popular in the olden days due to its strategic location for trade of gems, spices and elephants. The name Matara was formed after the use of the names Mahatara and Maturai by the Portuguese which meant Great Harbour and Great Fortress respectively.
The Nilwala Ganga – the islands’ third longest river splits the old town of Matara from the new. Though there are some beaches in Matara town, it is not a beach resort. Polhena is the most famous beach of Matara. Slowly picking up as a tourist destination are the beaches of Mirissa which offer a quiet, beautiful beach alternative to the more vibrant Hikkaduwa and Unawatuna.