More than just beaches and wildlife, Sri Lanka is also full of culture, from temples to national parks, ancient cities to vast highland regions. For that reason UNESCO has selected eight locations to be listed as World Heritage Sites, important landmarks in the world chosen by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as a protected area. The places selected to be UNESCO World Heritage Sites are usually in a historical location with cultural and anthropological importance and Sri Lanka is home to eight such sites—six cultural and two natural! Enough to plan a trip there, don’t you think?
Ancient City of Sigiriya
Sigiriya is arguably Sri Lanka’s most popular tourist attraction and is often thought of as the 8th Wonder of the Ancient World. It is both a rock fortress and palace constructed by King Kasyapa at the end of the 5th Century, and the gateway was once decorated by a huge lion cut into the rock itself. For this reason, it is also known as ‘The Lion Rock’ by locals and tourists alike.
It is just over 1200 steps to the top where you can wander among the remains of the palace and look out for miles over the surrounding forest and perfectly landscaped gardens below. On the hike up you will walk past the famous ‘mirror wall’ which contains verses dating back to the 8th Century and will have the opportunity to see some beautifully colorful frescoes which have adorned the walls for over 1600 years.
Sacred City of Anuradhapura
Anuradhapura is the cradle of ancient Sri Lankan civilization and the sacred center of the island’s Buddhism. There are some well-preserved ruins of ancient palaces, monasteries, and monuments attracting visitors to explore. It also contains the holy 2,000-year-old Bo Tree, grown from a sapling of the Bhodi tree under which the lord Buddha attained enlightenment. This ancient city is renowned one of the world’s major archaeological sites and boasts the most unearthed Buddha’s relics according to historical records. If you’re convinced to book the next flight there, make sure to check out our great options right in Anuradhapura!
Ancient City of Polonnaruwa
The second city listed in Sri Lanka’s long line of kingdoms, Polonnaruwa became the kingdom in 1070 AD. Created by King Parakramabahu, it is the largest man-made rainwater reservoir in the country, spanning an area of 2,500 ha and remains a primary source of water for agriculture in the district. South of this vast expanse of water is the standing statue of its creator carved out of rock with the king holding a stack of manuscripts written on ola leaves. There are many other effigies in the city among the fascinating ruins, including a 16m carving of Buddha, all of which can be viewed. A good option to visit there is to go with Best of Lanka.
Old Town of Galle and its Fortifications
The Dutch built the fortified town of Galle in the 16th century. It sits approximately 130 km (81 miles) south of Colombo and is a town worth visiting. Thick stone ramparts, which were built to protect the goods stored there during the times of the Dutch East India Company in the 17th and 18th centuries, surround the historical buildings and churches. The entire fort has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988. In case you’re in town and needs to get some work done, a good option is Barista Cafe, good wifi and great environment.
Golden Temple Of Dambulla
This cave temple was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka for its cultural significance, as it is located in the central part of the country and is recognized as Sri Lanka’s largest and best-preserved cave temple complex. The rock towers rise up to 160 meters in height that dominates over the surrounding plains. Meanwhile, the towers have about 80 documented caves!
The major attractions within the Golden Temple of Dambulla are distributed over 4 of these caves. Within the caves are culturally significant paintings and statues that are related to the life of Gautama Buddha. Habarana Adventures offers great day tours to the temple.
Sacred City Of Kandy
Surrounded by a forest and tea plantations, Kandy is a delightful town located high in the hills of the island center.
The capital of the Sinhalese kings from 1592 until 1815 (when the British arrived), Kandy’s crown jewel 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.
Sinharaja Forest Reserve
A national park and a biodiversity hot-spot, Sinharaja Forest Reserve is the country’s last undisturbed area of primary tropical rainforest. It is home to an abundance of rare species including mammals, butterflies, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians (although they are difficult to spot in the drier months due to the dense vegetation and as such we recommend visiting between August and September and between January and April if you are keen to see some of the residents!)
It is one of the two sites on the list that have been inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List as natural sites rather than those of cultural significance and is just a short distance from Galle should you wish to tick two sites off in one go!
Central Highlands of Sri Lanka
The newest addition to the list (being included in 2010), Sri Lanka’s highlands are made up of three wet-zone parks: the Peak Wilderness Protected Area, the Horton Plains National Park and the Knuckles Conservation Forest. Adam’s Peak is the highest point, which has become a significant center for Buddhist pilgrims.
It’s a biodiversity hotspot with an incredible range of species and even several endangered species can be found here, such as the western-purple-faced langur, the slender loris, and the Sri Lankan leopard. If you’re planning a trip there, the central highlands are pleasantly cool and relatively dry from January to April.