8 Sri Lankan UNESCO Sites You Need to Hit
When visiting the wondrous country of Sri Lanka, you may feel slightly overwhelmed by the sheer amount of awesome activities and amazing landscapes it has to offer. From stunning beaches, to amazing cultural landmarks, to the intense wildlife of the jungles, to temples and more, it may be hard for you to figure out how to spend your time here! Luckily for you, UNESCO has already named a few sites worth seeing.
So you’re about to get hit with a comprehensive guide to the 8 UNESCO Heritage sites in Sri Lanka! There are a couple different ways you can take the route around the island, and equipped with this knowledge, you’ll be sure to get an idea of where you’d like to go and what you want to see.
Let’s get into it!
First up on the list is the city of Anurahdapura, located approximately 205 km north of Colombo. It became a UNESCO Heritage site in 1982, and for good reason- this picturesque city which is situated on the riverbank shows incredible versatility you won’t want to miss!
The city was the first capital of Sri Lanka, established back in the 4th century BC. Having such a long history, this city is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. Because of this, you’ll be able to see the diversity in the combination of ancient ruins of Old Town and the modern infrastructure of the much smaller New Town.
Many visit this city in large part to visit the Ancient City. The Ancient City is home to many historical sites such as the oldest tree in the world under which the Buddha himself achieved enlightenment, the Sri Mahabodhi Tree, the 1600+ pillars of the Brazen Palace of Loha Prasada, and Thuparama Dagaba, the first Buddhist building in the area. Entrance to the city is 25$ USD, though tickets are rarely checked. Get a ticket if you can, but you’ll also be able to hire tuk tuk drivers to take you around for the day at a lesser price!
Trains from Colombo take around 4-5 hours, with busses taking more than 5. Starting off your trip in Anurahdapura will not only gain you access to this awesome city of ruins, but it’s also a great place to push off from to visit these next destinations.
If you’re coming up from the south, you can end off here and make your rounds back to Colombo as well.
The ancient city of Sigiriya, established as a UNESCO site in 1982, is home to the wondrous Sigiriya Rock. For both trekking enthusiasts and history buffs alike, the hike up this rock takes you to the incredible palace/fortress at the top.
If you’d like to be one of the many tourists who climb this rock a year, you’re going to pay a $30 USD fee to be able to scale the 200m climb. It’s a bit steep, but climbing this rock, which is also known as the Lion Rock, is a unique and beautiful experience that is definitely worth the money! If you’re wanting a different experience, climbing the Pidurangala Rock is a cheaper alternative with views to rival that of the more popular Sigiriya Rock.
Should you decide to come here, you’ll be able to slide on over to the next destinations right away! Sigiriya lies a little bit south from Anurahdpura, and is also in very close proximity to Dambulla, about a 30 minute drive.
On to the next!
Dambulla Cave Temple, or the Golden Temple of Dambulla, became a UNESCO site in 1991. You’ll be right in the center of the country, 148 km east of Colombo and 72 km north of Kandy. This temple complex dates back to the first century BC, layering history onto itself in the marvelous art which is still held there today.
Being the biggest and most well preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka, it’s a popular historical site that will totally wow you! There are more than 80 documented caves in the surroundings, but you’ll have the most access to the 5 caves which host the major attractions. There are countless statues, paintings, and murals all dedicated to the Buddha and Buddhist stories in these caves. Towering at 160m, the views here are pretty awesome, especially if you can catch the sunset!
You can take a few days in Dambulla to really get your fill of the art here. From Dambulla you can also take day trips out to Sigiriya and/or Polonnaruwa.
Polonnaruwa is another ancient capital of Sri Lanka. Declared a UNESCO site in 1982 due to its rich history and amazing ruins, it’s been around since the 11th century and was the capital up until the 13th.
This city was said to have an excellent irrigation system in its inception. Today it’s still used to water the paddy fields, so you can check that out as you’re seeing the ruins too.
It will cost you $25 USD to access these sprawling ruins. Be warned: there’s little to no hostels in this area, and so you’d be wise to take a day trip out of Dambulla. A day should be enough, especially if you rent out bicycles. It’s a great cost efficient way to pleasantly wander around the ruins. Watch out though- there’s also a ton of cool wildlife out here ranging from monkeys, eagles, and lizards!
As it’s an ancient city complex with ruins a little more compact, you may choose to skip Anurahdapura in favour of Polonnaruwa depending on how much time you have.
The Central Highlands of Sri Lanka are the most recently named UNESCO site, being crowned as such in 2010. This area is great for hiking and trekking with amazing rainforests and jungles for you to explore.
There are a few sites here for you to check out: the Peak Wilderness Protected Area, the Horton Plains National Park and the Knuckles Conservation Forest. The elevation here reaches about 2,500 m above sea level. Adam’s Peak is a very famous hike that you won’t want to miss when you’re out here. The backpacking hub to base yourself out of will be Ella, a picturesque little village in the mountains with tons of accommodation to choose from.
Remember you’re going to be in the mountains here, so keep in mind it’s going to be a bit colder than the rest of the country. So dress in layers!
And if you’re staying in Ella, be sure to take one of the most beautiful scenic train rides in the world to Kandy, or vice versa! It lasts about 7 hours and is a world renowned journey that takes you through breath-taking landscapes and amazing scenery.
Next up on the list is the sacred city of Kandy, declared a UNESCO site in 1988. You’ll find the city situated right in the middle of the country.
The city is an age-old safeguard of the Buddhist religion, harbouring the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, a temple that holds a tooth of the Buddha! This temple is a large part of why Kandy is a World Heritage Site. Entry for tourists is going to cost you 1000 LKR, with an extra 500 LKR fee to enter the museum. You can also get away from the crowded bustle of the city to visit the beautiful Kandy Lake to watch some birds and wildlife. Just be on the lookout for scams in this area, as this is a populated tourist spot!
Kandy is about a 3 hour train ride from Colombo, but you can also easily access Sigiriya and Ella by train from here too. Some choose to start their journey in Sri Lanka here. If you’re on a time crunch, start off here and either focus on the north or the south from there!
Sinharaja Forest Reserve, named a World Heritage site and Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1988, is a national park and a biodiversity hotspot in Sri Lanka.
The reserve has a grand variety of endemic species, including trees, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. There’s no elephants, but there are reportedly 15 leopards roaming around the area. To see all this, you’re going to have to take a local bus to get to one of the three entrances, and from there it’s a 500 LKR charge to enter the forest.
This area is the most difficult to navigate of the list, so it’ll be a good idea to hire a local guide to help you around and to get the most out of this experience.
Galle is an absolute must on this list- you can’t skip it! The southernmost UNESCO site, named as such in 1988, is a quaint little port town overlooking the water with a very blended history.
Galle, specifically the Galle Fort, was a city in Sri Lanka before the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century, turning it into a colonial township. At this stage it was a port town, and throughout time its custody was passed through the Dutch and the British. You’ll be able to lookout for the blend of architecture as well as a couple different sites. The National Maritime Museum, St. Mary’s Cathedral, and more are within the walls. You’ll have a unique experience here as it’s unlike the rest of Sri Lanka.
You’ ll find Galle on the southwest coast and is near to many surfing beaches and tourist spots in the area- including our hostel, The Rockstel ! When you’re looking to explore Galle, The Rockstel is the perfect place to be to have easy access to this world-renowned historical site- it only costs about 20 LKR to get there by bus!
Feel free to use this guide to aid you in your journey. If you’re wondering more about how to get around, use this link to for a more in-depth look at how trains run through the country: https://www.seat61.com/SriLanka.htm
If you’re planning a trip to Sri Lanka, hopefully this guide helps you figure out where’s the best places to be! Share this post with your friends to spread the word about this cool island country, and we hope to see you soon!
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I visited all of them but skipped the Sinharaja Forest