Sri Lanka, an island that looks like a teardrop, is among the most interesting and entertaining destinations in the world. Indeed, there are alluring beaches, a plethora of quaint inns, and breathtakingly beautiful train excursions where you can stick your head out the window and take in the sights. There are eight wonderful UNESCO World Heritage sites in Sri Lanka, in addition to being rich in culture and history. For such a compact nation, it has a very large number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka

For UNESCO, a site must have both cultural and physical importance to be designated as a World Heritage Site. It could be a landmark, a temple, a city, a forest, or any other kind of unique location. Historic sites make up six of Sri Lanka’s eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

 

The majority may be found in Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle, an area in the island’s geographic center that is home to several historic sites. Each of the three cities that make up the Cultural Triangle in Sri Lanka—Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, and Kandy—has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Natural areas make up Sri Lanka’s other two UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Jethawanaya-Monestry-Anuradhapura

1. Anuradhapura, the oldest city in Sri Lanka

Anuradhapura, one of the three historic cities that make up the Cultural Triangle, served as Sri Lanka’s first capital from the fourth century B.C.E. until the eleventh century A.D. The biggest of Sri Lanka’s historic towns, Anuradhapura, is a stunning sight.

Over 16 square miles are taken up by ruined temples, brick pagodas, and Buddhist monasteries. The Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba is often featured in photographs as one of the most popular attractions in the area. The white Dagobah, which was first constructed in 140 BC and later refurbished in the modern era, is protected by a wall of 344 sculptures of elephants.

 

Another important Buddhist site in Anuradhapura is the enormous holy fig tree, said to be a direct descendant of the tree under which the Buddha first reached enlightenment. There are still a lot of Buddhists who go to their temples to pray, so there are always rituals going on.

Eingang zum Rundtempel Vatadage in der antiken Ruinenstadt Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka
Polonnaruwa - World Heritage Site

2. The historic city of Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa is Sri Lanka’s second-oldest ancient kingdom, after Anuradhapura. In the 12th century, it was at the height of its power as the political, economic, and ecclesiastical capital of the kingdom. It is one of the three cities that make up the Cultural Triangle, together with Anuradhapura and Kandy.

Over a thousand tombs, shrines, and other structures formerly stood within the boundaries of the modern archaeological site. They resemble the temples of Bagan, Myanmar, which you may recognize if you’ve been there. The exterior walls of the elevated stone ruins are sculpted with lions and lotuses, and each of the four entrances leads to a central dagoba housing four sitting Buddha images.

3. The Most Sacred City in Sri Lanka, Kandy

Kandy is a charming city in the highlands at the island’s geographic center, surrounded by verdant forests and tea plantations. Kandy’s ornate, golden-roofed Temple of the Tooth is a crown jewel since it served as the capital of the Sinhalese monarchs from 1592 until 1815.

The major reason Kandy is a UNESCO World Heritage Site is because of the Temple of the Tooth. A Buddha’s tooth is kept as a relic at the temple. Those who had the tooth were seen as the de facto leaders of the country, making the artifact a potent political tool.

Intricate carvings and paintings adorn the inside of the temple, which is decked out in materials like exotic woods, lacquer, and ivory wood. The lavish 10-day Festival of the Tooth takes place in Kandy between July and August and features massive processions of adorned elephants, dancers, drummers, fire jugglers, etc.

Tooth Relic Temple - World Heritage Sites in Sri lanka
Tooth Relic Temple - World Heritage Site

4. The Ancient City of Sigiriya

The massive palace and castle of King Kasyapa, constructed on the flat top of the rock in the 5th century, may be reached by climbing 1,202 steps up the side of the protrusion. Here, you see Sigiriya. It’s also one of the most visited tourist spots in Sri Lanka and maybe the most well-known historical site there.

Don’t worry about making the ascent all at once. There are resting areas with platforms and garden terraces spaced out along the route. About halfway up the rock is a metal spiral staircase, and within that staircase is a small, sheltered alcove covered in exquisite murals depicting half-naked damsels who were likely members of the king’s harem.

Formerly, there were 500 of these alluring women adorning the waistline of Sigiriya Rock with expensive jewelry and clothing, but currently, just 19 remain.

5. The Ancient City of Galle

Once you’ve made your way southwest from Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle, you’ll find yourself in Galle. The Portuguese established Galle around 1505 and constructed a fort there, but the city did not flourish until the Dutch began construction in 1663.

Dutch churches, gorgeous old Dutch residences, and the Old Dutch Hospital may all be found inside the fort’s massive walls. It’s okay if the historic district of Galle makes you think of Holland.

This bustling neighborhood is what makes Galle Fort so endearing. Take a leisurely stroll along the winding cobblestone lanes and check out the unique stores, local businesses, galleries, studios, and cafes you’ll come across. You may have a cone of ice cream if you stop. You could even come across a snake charmer performing with a cobra that is dancing!

Sigiriya Rock Fortress - World Heritage
Sigiriya Rock Fortress - World Heritage

6. The Golden Temple of Dambulla

In 1991, UNESCO added the Golden Temple of Dambulla to its roster of Sri Lankan world historic monuments. However, it is not just one temple. It is indeed a complex of cave temples erected atop a 600-foot-tall rock and meticulously maintained to this day.

The temple was built during the second and third centuries B.C. However, the present-day appearance is the result of restoration efforts by the Kings of Kandy in the 18th century. 

Only five of the eighty caves known to exist are particularly noteworthy. The caves are filled with religious artifacts, including 153 Buddha sculptures and statues of Sri Lankan rulers and Hindu goddesses and deities. Not to mention, they’re magnificent!

7. Central Highlands of Sri Lanka

The most recent site to be added to Sri Lanka’s list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites An abundance of unique species has given rise to the region’s reputation as a biodiversity hotspot. Generally speaking, there are three distinct regions within the Central Highlands:

Travelers may climb Adam’s Peak or the less strenuous Little Adam’s Peak, marvel at cascading waterfalls, discover hidden tea plantations, and experience quaint hill villages with a lingering British colonial vibe.

World Heritage - Knuckles Mountain Range
Knuckles Mountain Range

8. Sinharaja Forest Reserve

Though its size may be rather modest, it has a veritable ark full of species unique to Sri Lanka. This national park is home to several endangered species of birds, amphibians, mammals, reptiles, butterflies, and monkeys. 

Unfortunately, your chances of seeing one of the region’s leopards are quite low. To get around the reserve as a tourist, you’ll need to use your feet. Join a guided tour or consult a park ranger to learn about the wildlife hiding in the underbrush.