Boasting a marvelous plethora of natural and man-made sites, Sri Lanka certainly lives up to its adopted title of ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean’. Intrinsically linked to the spiritual traditions of its four major religions – Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and Hinduism – the land is scattered with sites of significant cultural importance and physical beauty.
“Sri Lanka is the best country in the world!” the proud and welcoming locals will tell you with smiles wider than you’ve likely seen before. And once you’ve navigated their country for yourself, indulged in the cuisine, experienced the hospitality of the Sri Lankan people, witnessed the magnificent scenery, wildlife, and ancient sites, you’ll likely be inclined to agree.
Visiting Sri Lanka’s wonderful UNESCO World Heritage Sites is an experience made that much more special by the relative lack of tourists compared to other south Asian countries. And from Kandy and Nuwara Eliya to Anuradhapura and Galle Fort, no visit to Sri Lanka is complete without taking in at least some of these marvels.
Dambulla Cave Temples, Dambulla
Dambulla cave statues | Photo courtesy of 4Neus, Flickr
Situated 148km east of Colombo, the Dambulla cave temples are one of Sri Lanka’s most impressive UNESCO sites to visit. Boasting over 80 caves, a multitude of revered statues and paintings are located within the five main caves. In total, there are three statues of Sri Lankan kings, four statues of gods and goddesses and 153 statues of Buddha. The site is the best-preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka, and the murals within it cover a total area of around 2100 square metres.
Central Highlands of Sri Lanka
Tea fields | Photo courtesy of 4Neus, Flickr
Made up of three significant environmental areas – the Peak Wilderness Portected Area, the Horton Plains National Park and the Knuckles Conservation Forest, the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka made UNESCO World Heritage status in 2010 due to its impressive biodiversity. Horton Plains is also home to the famous World’s End – a sheer abyss that makes for one of Sri Lanka’s most photographed spots.
Sacred Tooth Relic, Kandy
Kandy's Temple of the Tooth | Photo courtesy of McKay Savage, Flickr
Kandy’s Sacred Tooth Relic is one of the most sacred Buddhist icons in the world. Located within the royal palace – ‘The Temple of the Tooth’ – the tooth, Buddha’s tooth, is revered by Buddhists the world over. It’s believed that whoever holds the relic at any given time holds the governance of Sri Lanka. In actual fact, the whole town of Kandy is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, due largely to the presence of the Temple of the Tooth and the Tooth Relic within.
Buddhist monks at Anuradhapura | Photo courtesy of Stew Dean, Flickr
The original capital of Sri Lanka and the country’s first ancient capital, Anuradhapura is a hub of culture, history, religion and spirituality. Roughly 200km north of Colombo, the modern capital, the city boasts immaculate ruins of the Great Sri Lankan Civilisation – which was considered one of the greatest civilisations in the world. The monasteries surrounding the city cover an area of around 40 square kilometres, and the city is considered sacred among Buddhists because of this.
Sigiriya rock temple | Photo courtesy of 'Surreal Name Given', Flickr
Widely considered as the eighth wonder of the world, any visit to Sri Lanka's Sigiriya is sure to be a special one. Home to an ancient castle from the 5th century AD, the Sky Palace situated on top of the rock, the Lion Gate, the Mirror Wall and the famed Sigiriya Frescoes - the site gifts visitors an insight into an ancient world.
Polonnaruwa | Photo courtesy of R. Barraez D. Lucca, Flickr
Declared the capital of Sri Lanka in 1070 CE by King Vijayabahu I, Polonnaruwa is the second most ancient kingdom of Sri Lanka. The area boasts impressive ruins of this ancient kingdom, not least the Royal Palace, which is home to spectacular timeworn columns.
Sinharaja Forest Reserve
Sinharaja Forest Reserve | Photo courtesy of Stefan Krasowski, Flickr
Declared a World Heritage site in 1989 and Biosphere Reserve in 1978, the Sinharaja Forest Reserve is a national park of international importance. It’s name translates to ‘Kingdom of the Lion’ and is home to myriad endemic species, including a population of leopards. Despite its concentration of flora and fauna, the dense jungle makes wildlife spotting very tricky indeed.
Galle Fort | Photo courtesy of Indi Samarajiva, Flickr
A beach town located on the southwestern tip of the country, Galle is home to a magnificent colonial fort and is the finest example of a fortified city built by the Portuguese in south Asia. The town was later fortified by the Dutch and the British, lending it a distinct and rather romantic look and feel, even after being devastated by the 2004 tsunami.