A World Heritage Site is one that is chosen by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) as being of outstanding universal value. To be selected, the landmark or area must be of great historical, cultural or scientific importance.
There is a total of 1,092 sites currently included on the World Heritage List. Sri Lanka is home to eight of them. Six of them are cultural sites and the other two are natural sites. Cultural World Heritage Sites can include buildings of historical importance, or archaeological or memorial sites. Natural World Heritage Sites may include conservation areas or contain vital ecosystems.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka
Sacred City of Anuradhapura
Anuradhapura was the very first capital city of Sri Lanka. Buddhism was first introduced to the country in Anuradhapura back in the 3rd Century BC, and the city is therefore considered very sacred. Some of the main sights to see are the towering dagoba (a dome-shaped Buddhist shrine) built during the 2nd century and the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree, which was planted in 288 BC, believed to be derived from the Bodhi tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment.
Ancient City of Polonnaruwa
The city of Polonnaruwa became the second capital of Sri Lanka after the destruction of Anuradhapura in the 1st century. King Parakramabahu I ruled Polonnaruwa during the 12th century. He was a devout Buddhist and built the city during his reign. The remains include Bhramanic constructions from the Cholas civilisation as well as the monumental ruins of the garden-city created by the King.
Ancient City of Sigiriya
Some consider Sigiriya to be the eighth wonder of the world. The site is a rocky mountain which hosts the remains of an ancient palace. It was constructed under the rule of King Kashyapa (or King Kassapa as he is also known) in the 5th century AD. The palace is situated 200m above the ground on the flat top of the rock; it’s reachable by stairs that feature incredible statues of lion feet at the bottom.
Golden Temple of Dambulla
Also known as the Dambulla Cave Temple, this site achieved World Heritage status in 1991. The history of the temple and its five caves dates back to the 1st century BC. The many intricate paintings and murals along with the temple’s 157 statues are of particular importance and are a must-see for art and history enthusiasts.
Old Town of Galle and its Fortifications
The Old Town of Galle is situated on the southern tip of Sri Lanka. A fortified wall surrounds the town’s historical buildings and churches. It was built when Sri Lanka was a Dutch colony during the 17th century. The wall was initially designed to protect the town of Galle. It withstood the tsunami of 2004 and still stands proudly today.
Sacred City of Kandy
The city of Kandy was the capital of the Sinhalese Kings between 1592 to 1815. This site became a World Heritage Site in part because of the city’s temple - The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.
The temple houses a significant relic – the tooth of the Buddha, which is kept hidden in a gold casket inside the temple. Since ancient times, the sacred tooth has been of political value. It’s believed that whoever is in possession of the relic can hold power to govern the country.
Central Highlands of Sri Lanka
The Central Highlands of Sri Lanka includes the Knuckles Conservation Forest, Horton Plains National Park, and the Peak Wilderness Protected Area. This natural World Heritage Site rises 2,500 metres above sea level and is considered a biodiversity hotspot, filled with astounding scenic views and striking landscapes. Horton Plains, in particular, is excellent for hiking and cycling with a range of fantastic trails.
Sinharaja Forest Reserve
The Sinharaja Forest is the last remaining rainforest in Sri Lanka. The reserve is home to more than 50% of Sri Lanka’s endemic wildlife, and there are plenty of delightful trails to explore if you love nature.
Essential items to take with you
There are a few necessary things to pack in your suitcase so that you can make the most of your visit to Sri Lanka’s World Heritage Sites. They are:
- Appropriate clothing – the etiquette for temple visits requires that you wear clothing that covers your shoulders and legs and isn’t too tight fitting. The climate in Sri Lanka is tropical and is affected by the monsoon seasons so generally, it’s a good idea to take lightweight clothing (t-shirts, linen trousers, light sweaters) as well as a raincoat or umbrella.
- Flat shoes – exploring any of the World Heritage Sites will involve lots of walking around, so wear comfortable, strong trainers or hiking boots. They will probably get wet, so bear this in mind.
- Camera – to capture the exciting sights you’ll come across, take a fully charged camera or video camera with you.
- Suncream, hats, and sunglasses – the sun is intense in Sri Lanka.
- Mosquito repellent – there have been reports of dengue fever outbreaks in Sri Lanka, so avoid mosquito bites if possible. Pack a mosquito repellent that contains DEET. Read our Sri Lanka factsheet for further health information.
- Money – many of the sites listed here will have an entrance fee. Be sure to have some cash to hand and more than one bank card in case you experience problems at an ATM. Entry fees for sites mentioned in your Escorted Tour itinerary are included in your holiday price.
Sri Lanka Escorted Tours
You can visit many of Sri Lanka’s World Heritage Sites via one of our Escorted Eours. Can you imagine exploring the ancient cities of Polonnaruwa, Kandy, and Anuradhapura, climbing the rocky fortress at Sigiriya or browsing the boutique shops that lie behind the fortified walls at the Old Town of Galle?
Perhaps you’d like to witness the splendour of the Golden Temple of Dambulla and see the shrine that guards the tooth of Buddha at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. A half-day trek through Horton Plains National Park is an exhilarating experience, as is the view you’ll see of the magnificent Knuckles Mountain Range while staying in a luxury tented lodge.
There are many more incredible places to visit and activities to partake in on one of our Escorted Tours to Sri Lanka.