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8 Epic UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka

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8 Epic UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka

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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 has fewer sites – five.)

UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka
The ancient city of Polonnaruwa was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982 | © Patty Ho, Flickr

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.

Cultural Triangle map
The Cultural Triangle is marked by the cities of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy (all World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka)

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 Sri Lanka itinerary includes most of these UNESCO sites.

1) Ancient City of Sigiriya

Sigiriya rock fortress
Climbing up the Sigiriya rock fortress is one of the best things to do in Sri Lanka!

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.

Sigiriya frescoes
Do these Sigiriya paintings depict King Kasyapa’s favorite consorts? Probably

Just past the Sigiriya frescoes, there’s the Mirror Wall – a glazed plaster wall 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”).

Sigiriya lion paws
King Kasyapa built a lion-shaped gateway to his palace on the top of Sigiriya 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.

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. (If you’re afraid of heights, you may not want to tackle the final climb from the lion’s paws to the top; many people turn around here.)

2) Sacred city of Anuradhapura

sacred city of Anuradhapura
The vast ruins of Anuradhapura are part of Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle of ancient cities | © Jorg Reuter

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, it’s guarded by a wall of 344 elephant statues.

UNESCO World Heritage sites in Sri Lanka, Anuradhapura
Anuradhapura’s white Ruvanvelisaya stupa contains relics sacred to Buddhists | © Gwen Fran, Flickr

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.

Anuradhapura monks
Monks stroll the grounds outside the Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba | © Adam Jones, Flickr

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

Added by UNESCO to the list of Sri Lanka world heritage sites in 1991, the Golden Temple of Dambulla isn’t just one temple – it’s actually a very well-preserved cave temple complex, built on a 600-foot high rock.

Dambulla temple
Entrance to the Dambulla temple complex

While it dates back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC, what you see today was restored in the 18th century by the Kingdom of Kandy. (The city of Kandy, No. 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!

Golden Temple of Dambulla
Buddha statues inside the Dambulla Cave Temple complex

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.

Monkeys at Golden Temple of Dambulla
Monkeys at Dambulla | © Joanne Goldby, Flickr
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. Oh, and wear socks. You have to take your shoes off but can keep your socks on – good foot protection as you run on the sizzling hot stone pavement to the cave entrance!

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.

Temple of the Tooth in Kandy
The Temple of the Tooth in Kandy is the main reason the hill city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

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.

Temple of the Tooth in Kandy
The temple is decorated inside with intricate carvings and paintings made from lacquer, ivory and exotic woods.

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:  Sri Lanka’s most scenic train journey is between Kandy and the hill town of Ella. Maybe visit Kandy so you arrive or depart by train?

5) Ancient city of Polonnaruwa

UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka - Polonnaruwa
One of many temples at 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.

ancient city of Polonnaruwa
The Quadrangle was the sacred heart of the ancient city of Polonnaruwa | © Patty Ho, Flickr

Other must-see attractions among the Polonnaruwa ruins include the beautiful milk-white Dagoba Kiri Vihara (built for the king’s queen 700 years ago and still in perfect condition); 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.

ancient city of Polonnaruwa
This beautiful 46-foot long reclining Buddha is one of four carved from granite at Polonnaruwa | © Patty Ho, Flickr

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

Old Town of Galle
Built inside the remnants of Galle fort, the 1938 lighthouse is probably Galle’s most photographed spot today

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.

Old Town of Galle
The All Saints Church in Galle

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.

SINHARAJA FOREST RESERVE
Purple-faced langurs are only found in Sri Lanka | © Jeroen84

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.

Sinharaja Forest Resere
This little creature in the Sinharaja Forest Reserve is well-camoflaged! | © Nadeera Jayasinghe, Flickr
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
Central Highlands of Sri Lanka
Driving through the misty forests of Horton Plains | © Hassage, Flickr

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.

Central Highlands of Sri Lanka
A woman picks tea in the highlands | © PlanetLight, Flickr
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 to see the location of the various UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka.

Visiting these historical places in Sri Lanka

Sparklink Travels can arrange your Sri Lanka holiday, offering 24/7 service.

About:

Founded in 1979, Sparklink is a leading, IATA-accredited Sri Lanka travel agency and the local country representative for Thomas Cook Holidays and Contiki. They have a fleet of comfortable vehicles with licensed guides/drivers, so they can design your custom Sri Lanka itinerary with hotel bookings.

Website:

See Sparklink Travels for more information.


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UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka

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.


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Victoria

Sunday 2nd of September 2018

I'm itching to go to Sri Lanka too! However, India keeps calling instead! I've been to India and will be going again in a few months, but people do tell me that both Sri Lanka and Nepal are better, and quite unique!

'Hopefully, we'll all find out!

Janice and George

Sunday 2nd of September 2018

Oh, you'll have to let us know. India is also on our travel wish list... So many places in the world to go!

Perfect Golden Triangle Tours

Thursday 30th of August 2018

Sri Lanka is a beautiful place to explore and your pictures are saying everything. You can have a great time in Sri Lanka. Very nice read to your blog which is related to best heritage sites in Sri Lanka. thanks for posting this detail here.

Janice and George

Friday 31st of August 2018

Glad you enjoyed our post :-). We're looking forward to visiting Sri Lanka in future!

Anda

Monday 27th of August 2018

Your beautiful pictures make me want to go Sri Lanka. There are so many interesting sites to explore, I wouldn't know where to start. Climbing up the Sigiriya rock fortress would probably be the first think I'd do in Sri Lanka! I don't like that it's hot and humid there. About how long did it take you to visit all these sites?

Janice and George

Monday 27th of August 2018

We're lusting to visit Sri Lanka too :-). And climbing the Sigiriya rock is tops on our list also.

It took quite a lot of time to research all these places properly (but we've not actually visited). We mention this in the Disclosure -- hopefully it's clear enough? Anyway, visitors usually need at least 2 weeks to do a circle loop of Sri Lanka, taking in most of these UNESCO sites.

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