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A quick guide to Sri Lanka’s UNESCO attractions

Updated: 13th November 2022

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Sri Lanka is renowned for its golden sand beaches and tea-plantation-coated countryside, yet there are plenty of historical sites to explore too. In fact, there are eight World Heritage Listed locations across the country, and Sri Lanka’s UNESCO attractions provide an alluring mix of spirituality, ancient kingdoms, and endemic fauna and flora.

On my first visit to the country, truly one of the most beautiful Islands I’ve visited, I was left in awe by the dazzling beaches, verdant and lofty tea country, and the ancient citadels and temples that bejewel the nation.

With a rich and varied history that has seen the island ruled by various monarchs and powers over the years, the UNESCO attractions of Sri Lanka range from ancient pilgrimage sites to colonial towns.

While Sri Lanka has suffered in recent years, not just from the global pandemic but also from political and economic upheaval, the country remains open for tourism, and the UK government has now lifted its advice against travel. Still, you’ll need to check for current covid restrictions and Electronic Travel Authorisation requirements (a type of pre-arrival visa) prior to planning your trip to this magnificent nation that captured my heart.

Here’s a quick rundown of Sri Lanka’s UNESCO attractions, and if you want to discover even more reasons to visit the country, be sure to check out this more in-depth Sri Lanka travel guide.

Dambulla Caves Inside Sri Lanka
Inside the Dambulla Cave Temples, one of Sri Lanka’s UNESCO attractions

Golden Temple of Dambulla

I’ll start with my favourite of Sri Lanka’s UNESCO attractions, the pilgrimage site that is the Dambulla Cave Temple.

For over two millennia, pilgrims have been flocking to this complex of temples, and across the five sanctuaries, there are some incredibly well-preserved cave paintings to be seen.

Tucked away behind the imposing Golden Buddha of Dambulla statue, which is easily reached from Sigiriya (meaning the two UNESCO attractions can be combined), a staircase leads up to the caves above.

With more than 150 statues decorating the complex, and the magnificent Buddhist murals inside the caves, it’s a true sight to behold and shouldn’t be missed.

Ancient Polonnaruwa

While the Kingdom of Polonnaruwa isn’t one of the oldest UNESCO attractions in Sri Lanka, it doesn’t make it any less worthy of a visit.

This was actually the second capital of the country (after Anuradhapura, see below), serving as the nation’s helm between the 11th and 13th centuries. As one of the best preserved ancient cities, it’s unsurprising that Polonnaruwa has earned world heritage listed status.

Of particular fascination is the forward-thinking irrigation system constructed under the rule of King Parakramabahu. Keen to expand the country’s cultivation, an impressive network of water channels and reservoirs was constructed, and these can be best appreciated at Parakrama Samudra, alongside the medley of ancient monuments.

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Sigiriya Citadel, Sri Lanka’s UNESCO attraction high above

Ancient Citadel of Sigiriya

While this ancient citadel is impressive from afar, climbing Sigiriya is certainly the best way to appreciate this ‘city in the clouds’ that was constructed in the 5th century. 

Perched atop ‘the Lion’s Rock’ –  which peaks at an impressive 180-metres – this historic settlement is a true masterclass in ancient engineering. Sadly, much of what was once crowning the granite peak has been lost, however, ruins and low walls remain, and the panoramas across the Central Province spilling out below are spectacular.

Most interesting, to me at least, was again the water systems used here, as it’s no easy task to get water pumped up to this height. Equally as impressive is the huge lion’s mouth, which dominates one of the final staircases – you’ll certainly want to pack your camera for this one!

If you only have time to visit a few of Sri Lanka’s UNESCO attractions, then Sigiriya and the nearby Dambulla Caves can be combined together into a long day trip.

Historic Sacred City of Anuradhapura

The heart and soul of Sri Lanka for centuries, only falling in 993 following an invasion, Anuradhapura is one of the most storied UNESCO attractions in Sri Lanka.

Enveloped by dense jungle, the first capital of Sri Lanka was defined by Buddhism and dates back as far as the 5th century BC. Having played home to countless Kings over the following centuries, unsurprisingly, the city flourished, and a wealth of grand palaces, temples, shrines, and monasteries were constructed here.

Nowadays, you can visit ancient sacred trees, explore lakeside temples such as Isurumuniya, and still see weather ponds that were used for irrigation, another testament to Sri Lanka’s ancient engineering practices.

Old Town Galle Lighthouse
Old Town Galle Lighthouse

Old Town Galle

Situated on a southwestern headland, the historic city of Galle and its fortifications are another of Sri Lanka’s UNESCO attractions. The historic core tells a more ‘recent’ side of the nation’s history, in particular, the times of European invasion and colonisation.

Founded and constructed by the Portuguese in the 16th century and then later fortified and developed by the Dutch, by the time the British invaded and claimed the island, Galle had become well-established as a trading port for spices.

This continuous flow of people, and products, has led the Old Town to develop its own style, differing slightly from the rest of the country. With a mix of European and Asian architecture, it’s a delight just to spend a day wandering here, hopping between the historic mansions, clock tower, church, and museums.

Galle, and the nearby beaches, make for a great and peaceful base to explore this part of the country and discover some of the best things to do in Sri Lanka.

Inside a temple in the Sacred City of Kandy
Inside a temple in the Sacred City of Kandy

Sacred City of Kandy

While the whole ancient City of Kandy is World Heritage Listed, it’s the Temple of the Tooth that is perhaps the best-known reason for this destination being a popular UNESCO attraction in Sri Lanka.

A vast and important Buddhist site that dates back to the 14th century, Kandy was the final Sinhalese monarch’s capital before the British took control of the country. Once you enter the complex, you’ll feel a serene sense wash over you, although the crowds can make this disappear quite quickly.

If you have the chance to visit the Temple of the Tooth, which houses a sacred tooth from Lord Buddha, you’ll encounter the busiest part of Kandy, as the doors to this temple only open three times daily.

Central Highlands

While Sri Lanka’s UNESCO attractions mainly focus on ancient architectural and archaeological treasures, two of the World Heritage Listed sites are natural rather than man-made.

The most spectacular, to me at least, is the Central Highlands, which span across the south-central region of the country. Clambering thousands of metres above sea level, forests line the mountainsides, and wildlife, such as the Sri Lankan leopard, find refuge in the untouched quarters.

Crossing Sri Lanka’s inland beauty is just as majestic as lounging on the beaches, and the now iconic Kandy to Ella train journey is one of the best ways to traverse the lush and verdant interior.

Tea fields in Sri Lanka's lush interior
Tea fields in Sri Lanka’s lush interior

Sinharaja Forest

The final UNESCO attraction on the list is one I sadly didn’t make it to, the Sinharaja Forest Reserve.

A biodiverse national park, its position inland from Galle means it’s not that hard to visit location-wise, although, to protect the rich fauna and flora, you can only enter the park on foot when you are escorted by a certified guide.

Housing endemic trees and endangered species of birds, wildlife, and amphibians, this almost untouched tropical rainforest promises one of the most natural experiences in the whole country, and hopefully, its World Heritage Listed statues helps keep it that way!

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