During the past Matara was called “Mahathota". The river running through Matara is 'Nilwala River. There was a wide area across this river. Hence it was called "Mhathota" which means "The great ferry ".Out all the other "great ferries in Sri Lanka, Mahathota attracted the attention of the poets. According to Reverend Sri Rahula's" Paravi Sndesaya " it is mentioned that Weerabamapanam made Matara as his capital and named "Mapatuna". Portuguese Priest Quarries’ reason for the name "Matara" is also referring to Nilwala River. Portuguese called this place as “Maturai”, and which means a great fortress. Portuguese called as" Maturai" in 1672. In 1744 Hide Matheren called as "Madarai". One thing that is clear here is that the Portuguese mis-pronounced the word. According to the old books it is clear that the Portuguese called it as "Maturai". "Thurai" which is a Tamil word means "Ferry". The presently used name "Matara" has been in used for the last three centuries connecting its contact with the river "Nilwala".

Historical chronicles have it that Matara served the dual role of a port and a resting place for weary travelers who invariably have to cross the river Nilawala at Mahathota on their way to Giruwapattuwa from Colombo along the road running along the southern littoral. Matara also became famous among travelers, local and foreign, for its elephant Krall of yore where wild elephants captured from jungles of Giruwa and Magampattu were herded before being put to auction. The venerable Thotagamuwe Rahula thero in his epic poems known as ‘Sandeshayas’, have depicted in beautiful verse, the scenes of elephants bathing at Mahathota port.

Matara was also one out of the four regions the country was divided into by the Portuguese following their capture of the country’s coastal areas and was treated it as one of the most important as well as largest areas under their control. The historical deed given to the Portuguese says that the large swathes of lands stretching from Kotte to the river Walawe belonged to Matara region.

However Matara was not a part of the three regions to which the country was divided into by the Dutch, but was administered as Matara Disawa under a separate government agent and came under the purview of the revenue division of Galle. Forts and buildings erected by the Dutch as a defense can be seen in Matara even today.

During the reign of the British, the Matara district was reported to have been bordered by Giriwapattua West, the Galle District, the Sabaragamuwa province and the Indian Ocean. 

According to Ptolemy, the Greek academic who landed in Lanka in 150 B.C, Matara was an area dominated by the Nagas, a tribe of people inhabited mountainous areas of the region. This explains many village names beginning with ‘Na’ in Matara even today. Nayimana, Nayimbala and Nakulugamuwa are just a few examples.

Matara, with a history dating back to many centuries, has become a household name due to the legend of Kalidasa-Kumaradasa during the reign of Sinhala kings, the celebrated king Dapulusen who constructed many a temple in and around his kingdom of Devinuwara, King Parakramabahu the 2nd who built a massive sea port to ensure protection of maritime provinces of the country and King Parakramabahu the 6th, a colossal literary figure.

In more recent times too, the Matara district which was home to some of the greatest Buddhist monks, scholars, authors, poets, administrators is replete with scenic and natural beauty, thriving townships and suburbs, villages and hamlets with a well-connected road network and fertile land yielding plentiful harvests.

Veherahena Temple – Matara

Veherahena temple is famous in Matara for the 25 m high colorful Buddha statue. Veherahena temple is 2 km from the town Centre.

Wevrukannala – Matara

Wevrukannala temple, situated near Dickwella, is known for a 150 ft. high Buddha statue. It is the highest Buddha statue in Sri Lanka, which can be accessed from inside by tourists and ascended to enjoy the view from top. The temple also displays hundreds of brightly painted and gilded models depicting scenes from the life of Buddha.

Old Dutch Church – Matara

Old Dutch Church is situated inside the Matara fort, and is one of the oldest structures in Matara.

Devinuwara – Matara

Devinuwara is a famous village in Matara district that is known for the Visnu temple. There is a huge festival organized in Devinuwara to honor God Visnu.

Mulgirigala Rock Temple – Matara

Mulgirigala, 16 km from Tangalla, is a monolithic rock temple with numerous images of reclining Buddha in smiling repose.

Beaches – Matara

The sea front at the boundary of Matara city is half a kilometer in length and provides a serene look to tourists. There are also numerous small beaches lying in between Galle and Matara. Divers enjoy Hikkaduwa beach, where there is a marine sanctuary abundant with coral and tropical fish. Unawatuna beach near Galle provides a beautiful stretch of safe sandy beach. At Kudawella a novel feature is a blowhole that throws huge columns of water into the air when ocean waves break on the rocks.

Matara beaches are also known for Stilt fishing that means fishing by standing on stilts in the water.

Polhena Beach – Matara

An important attraction for tourists coming to Matara is the beach of Polhena, which is a nice beach resort. The beach is safe for swimming as the coral reef that encircles the beach provides protection and makes the water level around the beach shallow.

Lighthouse – Matara

The Lighthouse was built by British in 1894 at Devinuwara (Dondra edge). The height of the lighthouse is 172 ft. that makes it one of the highest lighthouses in Southern Asia. Dondra, 3 miles from Matara, is the southernmost point of Sri Lanka.

Crow Island – Matara

The Crow Island stands facing the beach of Matara covered completely with greenery. The river Nilwala meets the sea at Totamuna that is also a part of the city. There is also the crow island that stands facing the beach of Matara covered completely with greenery.