Sri Lanka - 6 Captivating Destinations Every History Buff Should Visit
Renowned as the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean”, Sri Lanka is a beautiful tiny island for holidaymakers, with the tropical climate, sandy beaches and green tea hills. It’s also the perfect place for those in search of a long rich history, featuring the centuries of Buddhist heritage and sleep towns stuck in a bygone era. If you’re after the ancient wonders of the world, keep on reading this post about the best historical places to visit in Sri Lanka which are all UNESCO World Heritage Sites and will certainly enthral every history buff.
1. Ancient City of Polonnaruwa
Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1982, Polonnaruwa is an excellent example of how a royal ancient city of the Sri Lankan Kingdom looked in its heyday when it was an important commercial and religious centre. The city was first established by the Chola dynasty in the 10th century, then flourished under the patronage of King Prakramabahu I in the 12th century. Today, Polonnaruwa remains one of the best planned archaeological parks in the country, with hundreds of ancient structures – Buddhist temples, statues, Shiva monuments, stupas and tombs – in good condition within a compact core.
• Best things to do: Explore the impressive temples and ruins like the Sacred Quadrangle, Shiva Devale, and Rankot Vihara, Visit the gigantic statues of Buddha, Discover Parakrama Samudraya (Sea of Parakrama), a huge antique man-made rainwater tank
• Insider’s tip: The best way to explore Polonnaruwa is by bike
2. Ancient City of Sigiriya
Referred as the Eighth Wonder of the World, Sigiriya, otherwise known as the Lion Rock, is probably one of the most visited tourist destinations of Sri Lanka. This ancient fifth-century fortress complex is carved on an enigmatic column of rock nearly 200 metres high and visitors have to climb a series of passageways cut into the sheer walls to reach the top, where you’ll find remnants of a ruined palace, an extensive network of fortifications, ponds, gardens, canals and fountains. Sigiriya today is a World Heritage Site and is an outstanding example of ancient urban planning.
• Best things to do: Climb to the top of Sigiriya and see the impressive ancient ruins, Take pictures of fabulous frescoes and a pair of colossal lion's paws, Visit the Sigiriya Archeological Museum, Shop for handmade wooden souvenirs
• Insider’s tip: You can climb Pidurangula Rock to enjoy amazing views of Sigiriya from its wide summit and avoid the $30 entrance fee to Sigiriya
3. Old Town of Galle and its Fortifications
A visit to the old town of Galle is an interesting journey back to the colonial era. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this seaside city on the southwest coast of Sri Lanka was first built in 1588 by the Portuguese, then later fortified extensively by the Dutch during the 17th century. Today, Galle charms travellers with its pleasant ambience and plenty of imposing Dutch-colonial buildings, ancient mosques and churches, stylish cafes and quirky boutiques. An exploration on foot. through the backroads of this iconic town will take you into endless stories and secrets of the Galle Dutch Fort.
• Best things to do: Wander along the Galle Ramparts, Admire majestic structures like the Groote Kerk, the Galle Lighthouse and Clock Tower, Visit Marine Archeological Museum, Chill out on the beach in Unawatuna, Do some shopping for local souvenirs and goods
• Insider’s tip: The Triton Bastion is among the best places to witness the sunset over the Indian Ocean and you can watch local cricket games in the Rampart greens nearby
4. Rangiri Dambulla Cave Temple
Buddhism has played a key role in Sri Lanka’s history and you can easily learn about its particular significance in Rangiri Dambulla Cave Temple. Also known as the Dambulla Rock Temple, this living Buddhist centre is a World Heritage Site (1991), with its five sanctuaries carved into a rock towering 160 meters over the surrounding plains. Inside these cave shrines, visitors will see paintings and murals covering an area of 2,100 square metres with 157 statues of the Buddha and Hindu gods, making it the largest and best-preserved cave-temple complex in Sri Lanka.
• Best things to do: Explore the ancient cave shrines with fabulous paintings, Take pictures of the Buddha statues (but not any of you with the Buddha), Admire sunrise and sunset from the top
• Insider’s tip: The climb up to the caves is over 300 steps long and there are no shops at the top, make sure to take your water with you. Monkeys are everywhere, so keep an eye on your valuables
5. Sacred City of Anuradhapura
One of the eight World Heritage Sites of Sri Lanka, Anuradhapura is a sacred ancient capital, famous for its huge collection of architectural and archaeological wonders illustrating an ancient Sinhala civilization and the flourishment of Buddhism since the 3rd century B.C. in this South Asian country. Not a museum-like destination on the banks of the historic Malvathu River, Anuradhapura’s enormous dagobas, monasteries and holy temples are vibrant with frequent ceremonies and religious activities, making it a good place to soak in the local culture and history.
• Best things to do: Admire the Sri Maha Bodhiya, or the Sacred Bodhi Tree, Visit popular stupas and dagobas (e.g., Ruwanwelisaya, Abhayagiri Dagoba, Jetavanarama, Thuparamaya), Take a day trip to nearby Mihintale religious complex
• Insider’s tip: Tourists need to remove their shoes and dress appropriately when entering most temple sites. Also wear airy clothing, sunglasses, sunscreen, and comfortable walking shoes for touring Anuradhapura
6. Sacred City of Kandy
Located in a green valley surrounded by the Knuckles and the Hanthana Mountain Ranges, this sacred Buddhist city is the cultural capital of Sri Lanka and home to a plethora of medieval Buddhist temples, which gave it a World Heritage Site title in 1988. The most famous pilgrimage site in Kandy is clearly the Temple of the Tooth Relic (Sri Dalada Maligawa), within which the sacred tooth relic of Lord Buddha is worshipped through generations. Other highlights are the Royal Botanical Garden, Peradeniya, daily Kandyan cultural show, and many imposing colonial-era buildings.
• Best things to do: Visit the Temple of the Tooth Relic, Watch a traditional dancing show, Walk around Kandy Lake, Take a stroll through the Botanical Gardens, Explore one of the many Museums
• Insider’s tip: If you want to get out of the bustling Kandy downtown, Udawattakele Forest Reserve (just north of the Temple of the Tooth) is a great place to enjoy the greenery and tropical wildlife.
Have fun at your Sri Lanka historic holiday as you immerse in local stories and legends. If you need some help in planning the perfect trip in Sri Lanka and Asia, just give our Asia Tours experts a call and we are always happy to help you design a trip of a lifetime!