Where to take a Sri Lanka tea plantation tour

Sri Lanka's lush green hill country is a patchwork of rolling, seemingly endless tea plantations. A visit to one of these estates is a defining experience of any trip to this magnificent country. Read on to discover how best to take a Sri Lanka tea plantation tour.
Tea pickers at work on a plantation in Sri Lanka's verdant hill country. Photo: Rawpixel/Shutterstock
Tea pickers at work on a plantation in Sri Lanka's verdant hill country. Photo: Rawpixel/Shutterstock

The lower mountain slopes of Sri Lanka’s lush highlands are swathed in millions of tea bushes making up the estates. These historic tea plantations are a legacy of British colonial culture, while the sight of Tamil pickers in colorful garments gathering delicate tea leaves by hand remains an archetypal image of Sri Lanka.

Advent of tea

The Chinese Emperor Shen-Nung is generally credited with discovering tea around 5,000 years ago, when a few leaves from a wild tea bush fell into a pot of water he was boiling. Rather than waste the contaminated water, he drank it, and in so doing became the first person to taste a cup of tea. In the 19th century, the topography of Sri Lanka’s highlands was changed forever by the advent of tea. 

History of tea in Sri Lanka

During the 1860s, a universal blight that destroyed Sri Lanka’s extensive coffee plantations led to the cultivation of tea instead. Plants imported from India flourished in the crisp, damp air of the central highlands, and large tracts of the hill country were hurriedly cleared by waves of British settlers attracted by the possibilities of the island’s so-called 'green gold.' Fortunes were rapidly made as Sri Lanka’s highland environment was transformed within two decades, from thick jungle to endless swathes of manicured tea bushes that continue to blanket the hill country today. 

Fresh tea leaves.

Freshly harvested tea leaves in Sri Lanka. Photo: Chanut Adrien/Shutterstock

How tea is made

Tea begins its journey from hillside to cup with a gentle tug between the thumb and forefinger of one of the island’s thousands of Tamil tea pluckers. The freshly gathered leaves (only the topmost bud and two leaves are plucked in order to guarantee the freshness and purity of the resultant tea) are promptly carried off to the nearest tea factory. The leaves are first withered in blasts of hot air to remove excess moisture, then rolled and crushed to release any remaining sap and trigger fermentation. After a carefully calculated length of time, the leaves are fired in huge ovens to produce bulk black tea, and sifted into different-sized particles. This entire process, from bush to finished tea, takes no more than 24 hours.

Sri Lankan tea

Sri Lankan teas are ranked according to their point (and height) of origin: 'high-grown' (the finest teas, grown at altitude in the estates around Nuwara Eliya), 'mid-grown,' and the fuller-flavored but relatively coarse 'low-grown' teas, produced in the foothills. Expert tea tasters will then classify the tea according to strength, flavor and color, before the graded teas are sold at auction. Much of the best tea is exported, although an increasingly wide selection of local teas is becoming available in local shops. Look for unblended, single-origin teas from leading up-country estates – an authentic taste of Sri Lanka in a cup.

Stay in restored colonial bungalows on a Bogawantalawa Valley tea estate and discover the tea production process on a tour of the plantation as part of Insight Guides' Sri Lanka Deluxe trip.  

Tea plantation in hill country near Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka. Photo: maheshg/Shutterstock

Sri Lanka tea plantation tours

A number or tea factories and estates in Sri Lanka’s Hill Country offer informative tours for visitors. West of Kandy, at the venerable Geragama Tea Factory, you can observe how plants are grown in the estate and discover how different types of tea are produced in the factory, before enjoying tea and a slice of cake. 

Heading south towards Nuwara Eliya, the Blue Field Tea Factory at Ramboda offers comprehensive tours detailing the manufacturing process, and a variety of different teas are available to purchase.

Not far away, at the Damro Labookellie Tea Centre, you can take a tour, stroll through the verdant plantations, or just stop for a reviving cup of tea and the chance to buy freshly plucked leaves from the estate.

At the 19th-century Pedro Tea Factory, north of Nuwara Eliya, you can visit the tea fields and factory before taking in views of the estate as you sip a refreshing brew.

Further south, Dambatenne Tea Factory outside the town of Haputale offers enlightening tours explaining the production process and is within easy reach of Lipton’s Seat where you can enjoy panoramic views of the historic plantations as you savor, you guessed it, a restorative cup of tea.

Discover the beauty of the tea country hills around surrounding Nuwara Eliya on Insight Guides' Unforgettable Sri Lanka trip.

Ready to take a trip to Sri Lanka?

Insight Guides can plan help plan and book wonderful trips for you in Sri Lanka. Simply get in touch to let us know your ideas for the trip and when you would like to travel. Local travel experts will then create a personalized itinerary especially, which you can amend until you're totally happy with every detail before booking. Browse our existing itineraries for inspiration, and keep in mind that they can all be tailored to meet your specific needs.

Updated 15 November, 2019