World Heritage Sites of Sri Lanka

World Heritage Sites of Sri Lanka

The beautiful island nation of Sri Lanka is home to eight UNESCO World Heritage sites. And there’s some great variety here – ancient ruins, important religious sites, beautiful scenery. So read on for our guide to the World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka!


Sacred City of Anuradhapura

Abhayagiri Dagoba in Anuradhapura, a World Heritage Site in Sri Lanka
Abhayagiri Dagoba in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

The Sacred City of Anuradhapura is an important Buddhist site in the central north of Sri Lanka. It was founded in around 300 BC, and was the capital of many Sri Lankan kingdoms for well over a thousand years. These days, the ruined city features a whole bunch of still-active Buddhist shrines, many dagobas (or pagodas), monasteries, palaces, and water-tanks. The site also features a sacred Bo Tree, which apparently dates back over two thousand years!

Ancient City of Polonnaruwa

A ruined temple in Polonnaruwa, a World Heritage Site in Sri Lanka
A Buddha statue still stands in a ruined temple at Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

The next UNESCO World Heritage site in Sri Lanka is the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa, another of the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka. The city here was built from around the 11th century AD, and was constructed to be the new capital of King Vijayabahu I. The ruins here are absolutely stunning in their scope and preservation. You can clearly see the Royal Palace, temples, monasteries, dagobas, water fountains, and much more besides. There’s also incredible carvings and artworks to see all over the site.

Golden Temple of Dambulla

Buddha statues in the Golden Temple at Dambulla
Some of the many Buddha statues in the Golden Temple at Dambulla, Sri Lanka

Located in a series of caves, high on a hill above the town of Dambulla, this World Heritage site covers five decorated caves. These caves are sacred shrines to Buddha, and packed full with over 150 statues and thousands of paintings. The artwork is mostly about the life and teachings of Buddha, though several kings make appearances as well. Although the caves and monastery here date back to the first century BC, it’s likely that much of the artwork is far more recent – likely from the past few hundred years – but it’s still absolutely stunning.

Ancient City of Sigiriya

The Ancient City of Sigiriya, one of the World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka
Sigiriya Rock looms above the city below, at Sri Lanka’s most famous World Heritage site

The Ancient City of Sigiriya is one of the most incredible sights in all of Sri Lanka. Constructed from around the 5th century AD, it’s both a palace fortress, and a city. The top of the palace sits high on the flat top of an enormous rock above the plains below. Below, you find lower terraces featuring the amazing Lion Gate staircase, a cave with beautifully preserved frescoes, and the famous Mirror Wall. And right at the bottom, the palace is surrounded by an entire city complex, where you can clearly see the remains of buildings, temples and monasteries, plus water features and gardens too. It’s a supremely beautiful place, and probably our favourite site in all of Sri Lanka.

Sacred City of Kandy

Temple of the Golden Tooth Relic in Kandy, a World Heritage Site in Sri Lanka
Part of the Temple of the Golden Tooth Relic in Kandy, Sri Lanka

Although most of central Kandy is included in this World Heritage site, the highlight is easily the Temple of the Golden Tooth Relic. This gleaming white temple on the waterfront is part of a larger palace complex, and holds a relic sacred to all Buddhists – one of Buddha’s teeth. The Tooth itself has been a symbol of Sri Lankan royalty for centuries, which explains why the temple is within a palace complex. Although the relic itself is only displayed at infrequent intervals, this is a fantastic place to come and experience the atmosphere. There’s also a really interesting museum with paintings showing the story of the Tooth, and its journey from Buddha’s funeral pyre to the modern city of Kandy. And as a nice bonus – Kandy has some beautiful colonial buildings too.

Central Highlands of Sri Lanka

Rugged mountains in the Central Highlands, a World Heritage Site in Sri Lanka
Peaks in Knuckles Forest, part of the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka

This world heritage site covers three separate wilderness areas in the centre of Sri Lanka. There’s the Peak Wilderness, the Horton Plains, and Knuckles Conservation Forest. Packed full of rugged mountains, rainforests, and tea plantations, and they’re also home to an incredible variety of species too. Although we weren’t able to see much on our hike due to really poor weather! But other visitors can expect to see all sorts of monkeys, slender loris, birds and insects. And some incredible vistas as well!

The Old Town of Galle and its Fortifications

Bastion walls surrounding the town of Galle
Some of the immense walls guarding the Old Town of Galle, Sri Lanka

The Old Town of Galle is a major city on the south-western coastline of Sri Lanka. Although it was a key seaport for centuries, Galle’s history took a dramatic turn when Portuguese explorers arrived in the early 16th century. However, it was the later Dutch and then British colonists that transformed Galle into the impressive trading post and fortress we can see today. The fortifications are immense, with huge stone walls and bastions. Inside the fortress there’s a grid layout of streets with many beautiful colonial era buildings.

Sinharaja Forest Reserve

Sinharaja Forest Reserve, a World Heritage Site in Sri Lanka
Beautiful scenery in the Sinharaja Forest Reserve, Sri Lanka

The last World Heritage site in Sri Lanka is a small biosphere of lowland rainforest in southern Sri Lanka. It’s among the best-preserved forest areas in the whole country, and has a very high rate of endemic tree species. We had a great day here, hiking trails through the rainforest. Up and down hills, looking at beautiful waterfalls and marvelling at the lizards, snakes, birds and many other animals.

So, there you have it! A brief tour of the eight Sri Lanka World Heritage sites. There’s a bit of history, a bit of nature, and more! Be sure to check out some of our other region guides, like Denmark or Tuscany. Or if you’re interested in how World Heritage sites get selected, check out World Heritage Sites – Your Questions Answered!

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