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What are Sri Lanka's must-see heritage sites?

What are Sri Lanka's must-see heritage sites?

Despite being a relatively small island nation, Sri Lanka is packed-full of fascinating heritage sites that relate to more than 2,000 years of human civilisation. In fact, the country has no fewer than eight UNESCO World Heritage sites, which can make it quite tricky to decide exactly where to visit when you're on holiday.

This is why we’ve taken on all the hard work for you and reduced the considerably long list of historical places to just four outstanding ones that no one visiting Sri Lanka should miss out on:

  • See the giant rock fortress and ancient city of Sigiriya
  • Admire the amazing rock Buddha sculptures in Polonnaruwa
  • Stand in awe at the largest and best preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka at Dambulla
  • Experience one of Buddhism’s most sacred temples in Kandy

The above sites are not only the most impressive and best known but they are also easy to arrange even on a short holiday to Sri Lanka.


Polonnaruwa Walled City

Translating as “Lion Rock” in Sinhalese, Sigiriya is one of Sri Lanka’s most captivating and striking heritage sites, standing as the most visited historic site in the country. The imposing rock fortress and UNESCO World Heritage Site that gives this city its name dates from the 5th century and visitors can admire the most impressive part of the ancient ruins right at the top of this vast rock, towering above the forest.

Selected by King Kassapa I as his new capital in 477 AD, his palace was built at the top of the massive rock with beautiful al fresco decorations on the sides. The entrance built about half way up the top is particularly spectacular, originally done in the shape of the mouth of a lion. Climbing to the top of this colossal rock formation is an absolute must, not only for the spectacular views but also to see the king's throne and the remains of his court.


Polonnaruwa Walled City

To the east of Sigiriya is Polonnaruwa, another of the country's UNESCO-protected attractions. This amazing walled city became the capital of Sri Lanka towards the end of the 10th century and is home to a number of fascinating landmarks. The most famous of these is the Temple of the Tooth Relic - one of more than 1,000 Buddhist sanctuaries that were constructed here.

Impressive rock sculptures of Buddha are dotted throughout the remains of the city, with the Gal Vihara or Rock Shrine boasting some of the most striking of these statues. The Ancient City of Polonnaruwa is also home to the gigantic ruins of the garden city created in the 12th century byParakramabahu.

Dambulla Cave Temple

Dambulla Cave Temple

Now we move on to what can probably be described as Sri Lanka’s most remarkable landmark – one of the largest, most ancient and best preserved sites in the country: the Dambulla Cave Temple. This monumental temple, also known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla, towers over surrounding plains at a height of 160 metres and is home to over 80 caves, of which five are the major attraction.

Prepare to be taken aback by the sheer quantity of Buddha statues (153 of them!) and paintings depicting his life. The exquisite murals on the walls extend over 2,100 square metres! If all this weren’t enough, at Dambulla you’ll also be standing on prehistoric ground as nearby you'll find the burial sites of the dwellers that lived in these caves long before Buddhism arrived to Sri Lanka, about 2,700 years ago.

Temple of theTooth, Kandy

Temple of theTooth, Kandy

Our final choice for a heritage site not to miss in Sri Lanka is the Sacred Temple of the Tooth in Kandy. This is one of Buddhism's most sacred relics, although don't get excited about the prospect of seeing the tooth itself, as this is kept in a closed shrine that only the monks are allowed to enter.

Wandering around the temple complex in Kandy is a moving experience though, as the whole area is an oasis of tranquillity that contrasts starkly with the busy streets of the city. The temples are adorned with beautiful and intricate wood carvings and murals that you can spend hours admiring. There's also a fascinating museum here that displays relics from throughout Sri Lanka's past - it's a great place to learn more about the history of this amazing country.


It’s not hard to see that despite being a small country Sri Lanka has a lot to offer and even by visiting just a few of the many heritage sites the country is home to you’ll discover more than you probably imagine. So let us conclude with the wise words of Sir Aurthur C. Clarke who famously said about this rich land:

"It may well be that each of Sri Lanka's attractions is surpassed somewhere on Earth … but I find it hard to believe that there is any country which scores so highly in all departments."

If you liked our short list on Sri Lanka's best cultural places, don’t miss our travel advice post next week when we’ll be hand-picking a selection of the best cultural landmarks in the Riviera Maya, Mexico - the Top Mayan Sites to Visit without the Crowds in Mexico.

Laura Rawlings

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Laura Rawlings

Laura Rawlings

Family Expert

An energetic mum of three and an avid traveller with a passion for discovering new sights and...

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