The teardrop-shaped island of Sri Lanka is one of the most fascinating places in the world to visit.
Yes, it’s blessed with seductive beaches, boutique hotels galore and impossibly scenic, hang-your-head-out-the-window train rides.
But it’s also steeped in culture and history – there are eight fabulous UNESCO World Heritage sites in Sri Lanka.
That’s a lot of UNESCO sites for such a small country! (Thailand, for example, is eight times bigger than Sri Lanka, but only has five sites.)
UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka
A World Heritage Site is a landmark listed by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) as having special cultural or physical significance.
It can be a monument, temple, city, forest or other distinctive place.
Six of the country’s UNESCO landmarks are historical places in Sri Lanka.
Most are concentrated in Sri Lanka’s famed Cultural Triangle, a treasure trove of temples, monuments and ancient cities in the center of the island.
The other two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka are natural places.
When planning your Sri Lanka visit, you’ll want to take in as many of these Sri Lanka attractions as you can!
Most visitors plan to spend two weeks in the country on a circuit tour. And the “usual” two-week itinerary includes most of these UNESCO sites.
1) Ancient City of Sigiriya
Climb 1,202 steps up the side of a gargantuan granite outcropping, and you reach the 5th century palace and fortress of King Kasyapa, built on the flat summit of the rock.
This is Sigiriya.
And it’s perhaps the most famous of the country’s heritage sites (certainly one of the top Sri Lanka tourist attractions).
Don’t fret about climbing up all in one go – platforms and terraced gardens along the way allow you to catch your breath and take photos.
Half-way up the rock, a spiral metal stairway leads to a protected indentation painted with beautiful frescoes of semi-naked damsels (believed to have belonged to the king’s harem).
At one time, 500 of these beguiling ladies, adorned with fine jewelry and garments, decorated the waistband of Sigiriya rock, but only 19 are visible today.
Just past the Sigiriya frescoes, there’s the Mirror Wall.
This glazed plaster wall is emblazoned with centuries-old graffiti, capturing visitors’ erotic impressions of the ladies and their bountiful bosoms in the gallery above.
Rock on, because you soon reach a large plateau with two giant lion’s paws carved into the stone (Sigiriya means “Lion Rock”).
The most challenging part of the climb is the final ascent between the lion’s paws up through what was the mouth of the lion. (If you’re afraid of heights, you may not want to tackle this; many people turn around here.)
At the summit, you see ruins of the king’s Sky Palace and a vast water-filled pool (likely for water storage), along with spell-binding 360 degree views of the forest below you.
Pssst: Plan your climb up the Sigiriya lion rock for early morning or late afternoon, when it’s cooler. The Sigiriya paintings are best seen in the late-afternoon light.
2) Sacred city of Anuradhapura
One of three old cities marking the three points of the Cultural Triangle, Anuradhapura was the first ancient capital of Sri Lanka (from the 4th century BC to the 11th century AD).
A gawk-worthy sight, Anuradhapura is the largest of the ancient cities in Sri Lanka.
The sprawling ruins, with their crumbling temples, brick stupas and Buddhist monasteries, cover an area of over 16 square miles.
Among the most photographed structures is the Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba (stupa means “dagoba” in Sri Lanka).
Originally built in 140 BC then renovated in the 20th century, the white dagoba is guarded by a wall of 344 elephant statues.
Anuradhapura is also home to a huge holy fig tree, believed to be a descendent of the tree under which the spiritual founder of Buddhism was enlightened.
Many Buddhist worshippers still visit the temples, so you often see ceremonies taking place.
Pssst: Today, the streets of the chilled town of Anuradhapura (50,000 inhabitants) are perfect for bicycling, with colorful local markets, picturesque gardens, lakes and religious stupas to explore.
3) Golden Temple of Dambulla
The Golden Temple of Dambulla was added by UNESCO to the list of Sri Lanka world heritage sites in 1991.
It isn’t just one temple though – it’s actually a very well-preserved cave temple complex, built on a 600-foot high rock.
The temple complex dates back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC.
But what you see today was restored in the 18th century by the Kingdom of Kandy. (The city of Kandy, #4 below, is also one of the eight Sri Lanka UNESCO sites.)
Five of the 80 documented caves are significant.
They contain some 153 Buddha statues (plus other statues of Sri Lankan kings and Hindu gods and goddesses) and many religious cave paintings.
And they’re exquisite!
Cave No. 2 (Maharaja Viharaya), the most impressive of the caves, has a tall Buddha statue standing on a stone lotus pedestal underneath a dragon-decorated archway.
You have a 15-minute walk uphill to reach the Dambulla Cave Temple entrance.
Chances are you’ll be accompanied by cheeky monkeys along the way.
You’ll want to wear or bring socks. You have to take your shoes or sandals off but you can keep your socks on – they’re good foot protection as you run on the sizzling hot stone pavement to the cave entrance!
Pssst: Visit in the late afternoon and you could have the caves all to yourself (most people visit in the early morning). You might also catch sight of the thousands of swallows that gather around the cave entrance at dusk.
4) Sacred City of Kandy
Surrounded by lush forest and tea plantations, Kandy is a delightful town perched high in the hills of the island center.
The capital of the Sinhalese kings from 1592 until 1815 (when the British arrived), Kandy’s jewel in the crown is its intricate, golden-roofed Temple of the Tooth.
The temple supposedly houses a relic of a tooth belonging to Buddha.
The relic was politically important because it was believed that whoever held the tooth had power over the nation.
Thousands of devotees come here to worship, and while you can’t see the actual tooth, you might get a peek at the dagoba-shaped golden casket in which it’s enshrined.
If you time your Kandy visit for when the extravagant 10-day Festival of the Tooth takes place (between July and August), you’ll witness huge processions of dancers, drummers, fire jugglers and decorated elephants.
Another of the best places to visit in Kandy is the Peradeniya Royal Botanical Gardens.
At one time, they could only be enjoyed by Kandyan royalty.
Green thumb or not, you’re sure to love the fine collection of orchids, royal palms and intriguing Cannonball Tree.
Pssst: The scenic train journey between Kandy and Ella is one of the world’s most famous train rides. Maybe visit Kandy so you arrive or depart by train?
5) Ancient city of Polonnaruwa
After Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa is the second oldest of Sri Lanka’s ancient kingdoms.
It reached its glory as the country’s commercial and religious center in the 12th century. And like Anuradhapura and Kandy, it too is one of the three points marking the Cultural Triangle.
Today, the fenced archaeological site is home to hundreds of tombs, temples and other ruins. If you’ve been to Myanmar, it may remind you a little of the temples of Bagan.
The main highlight is the Sacred Quadrangle.
A raised set of stone ruins, carved with lions and lotuses on the outer walls, it has four staircase entrances leading to a central dagoba with four seated Buddha statues inside.
There are other must-see attractions among the Polonnaruwa ruins.
They include the beautiful milk-white Dagoba Kiri Vihara (built for the king’s queen 700 years ago and still in perfect condition).
Also don’t miss the four large Buddha images carved into a long slab of granite; the Audience Hall in the Royal Palace; and the king’s swimming pool with crocodile-mouth spouts.
Polonnaruwa is more compact than Anuradhapura, and you can bicycle around the site in a day (the area is mainly flat).
Tuk-tuks are also available or you can drive around; four parking areas allow you to get out at different places and explore by foot.
Pssst: If you have to choose between visiting Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa, pick the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. It’s easier to combine Kandy, Sigiriya and Dambulla with Polonnaruwa because they’re closer together.
6) Old Town of Galle
Moving from the Cultural Triangle to Sri Lanka’s southwest coast, you come to Galle.
Founded by the Portuguese in 1505 who built a fort here, Galle really took off when the Dutch started building in 1663.
Behind big fortress walls, you find Dutch churches, picturesque old Dutch houses, the Old Dutch Hospital…
You’re forgiven if the Old Town of Galle reminds you a little of Holland!
What makes Galle Fort especially charming is that it’s a thriving community.
Stroll the narrow cobblestone alleys past boutique shops, small business offices, art galleries, photo studios and cafés.
Perhaps stop for an ice-cream cone. You might even see a snake charmer and dancing cobra!
Pssst: Don’t miss seeing Galle from the fortress walls at dusk. The sunsets are also unbeatable from this vantage point.
7) Sinharaja Forest Reserve
It may be small (13 miles by 4 miles in size). But it packs in a Noah’s Ark of Sri Lanka’s endemic species.
The Sinharaja Forest Reserve is the country’s last remaining tropical rainforest.
Rare amphibians, reptiles, butterflies, birds and mammals like the Purple-faced langur (an Old World monkey) all thrive in this lush national park.
Leopards also live here, but chances of seeing them are slim.
As a visitor, the only way to explore the reserve is on foot.
Go with one of the park rangers or a guide, who can point out the critters in the dense vegetation for you.
Pssst: It’s easier to spot the animals and birdlife in the drier months from January to April.
8) Central Highlands of Sri Lanka
The newest addition to the list of Sri Lanka UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Central Highlands region encompasses three areas:
- Peak Wilderness Protected Area
- Horton Plains National Park
- Knuckles Conservation Forest
“The region is considered a super biodiversity hotspot,” noted UNESCO when announcing the heritage site designation.
This is where you go to hike up Adam’s Peak (the island’s highest point at 7,400 feet above sea level) or the easier Little Adam’s Peak; gape at rushing waterfalls; explore tea plantations; and soak up the British colonial atmosphere in scenic hill towns.
Pssst: Cooler than the rest of the island, the Central Highlands are a haven for nature and adventure lovers.
Map of Sri Lanka’s World Heritage Sites
Click on the icons on this interactive Google map we created to see the location of the various UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka travel guides
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Disclosure: We loved our visit to Sri Lanka, so we happily teamed up with Sparklink Travels to bring you this post! All research and writing is our own, however.