Must-see UNESCO heritage sites of Sri Lanka

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Aurélie compiled a useful list of UNESCO designated attractions in Sri Lanka:

The alluring beaches aside, heritage sites make up for some of the best attractions in Sri Lanka. For a tiny island, Sri Lanka has a good number of fascinating UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Several of these places have been on island for millennia! Most of the heritage sites are located within the “Cultural Triangle,” which covers many spots on the island’s north-central and central regions.

Great thing about visiting Sri Lanka’s heritage sites is that they are located fairly closer together so they are all easily accessible. It is possible to cover all sites in couple of days, but I wouldn’t recommend cramming everything; instead, take some time to savor them.

Quick tip: when visiting holy sites, don’t forget to wear clothing that covers your knees and shoulders. Take off footwear and headgear when entering temples.

Alright, here goes my list of UNESCO sites in Sri Lanka:

Ruwanwelisaya chedi in the sacred city of Anuradhapura Sri Lanka

A restored stupa in the celebrated
heritage city of Anuradhapura.

Ancient city of Anuradhapura

Anuradhapura forms the northernmost point of the island’s well-trodden Cultural Triangle. This millennia-old former royal capital is the heart of the island’s celebrated classical civilization. This area is traditionally referred to as “Rajarata,” literally the “king’s land.” Scattered among the dry flatlands of the city are majestic remnants of one of Asia’s great medieval cities that reigned for some 1,300 years. You’ll never tire of exploring ruins of ancient palaces, bathing pools, water reservoirs and temples. You can tour the ruins on foot or go on an exciting cycling adventure.

Amazing ruins at Polonnaruwa.

Amazing ruins at Polonnaruwa.

Ancient city Polonnaruwa

After Anuradhapura fell, Polonnaruwa was established as the new royal capital. When designating Polonnaruwa as a heritage site in 1982, UNESCO called it “one of history’s most astonishing urban creations.” Polonnaruwa was the seat of several kingdoms, and as a result has remarkable variety of architecture. Marvel at the ruins of an enchanting garden-city, the Lankathilaka temple that has an enormous Buddha statue made from bricks and the Gal Vihara temple with massive rock statues. Go to Tivanka Pilimage monastery to be amazed by masterpiece frescoes.

Iconic frescoes at Sigiriya.

Iconic frescoes at Sigiriya.

Sigiriya Rock Fortress

Sigiriya is the most popular tourist attraction in Sri Lanka visited by multitudes of local and foreign admirers. Indeed, this massive fortress carved into solid rock is well worth a visit. Everything about Sigiriya—the art, the architecture, the scenery—is extraordinary. The rock dramatically rises about 200m high surrounded by lush, tropical jungle. Climb to the summit to explore the ruins of the “sky palace,” the ancient royal abode, and for a breathtaking view of the surroundings. On the ground are beautifully landscaped royal water gardens. Half way up the rock is its most iconic attraction—frescoes of semi-nude women.

Inside the Dambulla Cave Temples.

Inside the Dambulla Cave Temples.

Dambulla Cave Temples

Dambulla cave temple complex is a huge and remarkably preserved sacred site in Sri Lanka. Pilgrims have visited these temples continuously for centuries. The cave itself shows signs of habitation going back some 4,000 years. You can hike uphill to the temple complex through scenic, sloping trails. The spectacular interiors of the caves are filled with amazingly carved statues and exquisite wall frescoes. There are about 150 Buddha statues in 5 caves. Downhill from the cave temples is the Golden Temple with a giant golden Buddha statue, built with Japanese donations.

Kandy’s top attraction: the sacred Temple of the Tooth.

Kandy’s top attraction:
the sacred Temple of the Tooth.


The bustling city of Kandy is the southernmost point of the Cultural Triangle. Kandy was the last royal capital on the island that held its own against various European colonizers for 300 years. Kandy was for centuries an economically isolated and landlocked kingdom. As a result, a set of traditions and art developed over the years that are unique to this area. UNESCO calls this city an “outstanding example of a traditional type of construction…” The top attraction in Kandy is the sacred Temple of the Tooth, believed to house a tooth relic of the Buddha himself. Other than the religious dimension, the tooth relic is a symbol of political power. It is believed that whoever possesses the relic can rule the island! (And enigmatically enough, no one has ruled the island for long without it.) Nearby the holy temple is the lovely Royal Palace of the last sovereign king of Sri Lanka, and the serene Kandy Lake.

Trekking in the Horton Plains National Park.

Trekking in the
Horton Plains National Park.

Central Highlands of Sri Lanka (Horton Plains and Knuckles Range)

This is one of the 2 natural heritage sites of Sri Lanka. This designation applies to the montane forests of the south-central part of the island that make up the Peak Wilderness Protected Area, the Horton Plains National Park and the Knuckles Conservation Forest. Famous for alluring scenery, the central highlands is the ideal place in Sri Lanka for nature retreats. There are plenty of opportunities to go hiking, trekking, mountain climbing, camping, bird watching and more. The area brims with exotic animals endemic to the area, so you’ll never be bored on your trip here.

The spectacular Sinharaja: the last remaining pristine rainforest in Sri Lanka.

The spectacular Sinharaja: the last
remaining pristine rainforest in Sri Lanka.

Sinharaja Forest Reserve

Literally the “forest of the Lion King,” this legendary piece of natural heritage is the last undisturbed strip of pristine rainforest in Sri Lanka. Due to its importance, UNESCO has declared it both a biosphere reserve and a world heritage site. This is the best place in Sri Lanka to spot endemic birds, butterflies and rare species of mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Sinharaja is perfect for adventurous treks and waterfall exploration. Best times to visit are between December and early April, and from August to September.

The stunning colonial townscape inside the Galle Fort.

The stunning colonial townscape
inside the Galle Fort.

Galle Fort

If you’ve never heard of Galle, you probably would end up hearing about it before your flight takes off to Colombo. This historic seaport is famous for great beaches, excellent food and, above all, the Galle Fort. Imagine walking through narrow, European streets flanked by boutique stores and charming eateries in the tropical heat—yes, that’s Galle Fort. It was originally built by the Dutch, and despite many attacks, alterations and the tsunami, still manages to preserve its old-world townscape. Inside the fort is so unlike anywhere else in Sri Lanka; as UNESCO put it when they declared it a heritage site, Galle Fort is “an outstanding example of an urban ensemble which illustrates the interaction of European architecture and South Asian traditions from the 16th to the 19th centuries.” No tour of Sri Lanka is complete without visiting the atmospheric Galle Fort.

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