Here are the best world heritage sites in Sri Lanka

Have you been to Sri Lanka’s best Unesco Unesco World Heritage Sites? Source: Kathleen Poon.

ALMOST 10 years after the end of its civil war, Sri Lanka has been named by Lonely Planet as Destination of the Year 2019.

It’s no wonder that Sri Lanka has been named as such, for this tiny island has diverse and spectacular attractions that fascinate travelers from all over the world.

The Pearl of the Indian Ocean is blessed with ancient ruins and Buddhist temples, caves and mountains, forts and walled cities, and wilderness areas that seven of the best cultural and natural spots have been declared and listed as Unesco World Heritage Sites.

Here’s you should put these Sri Lankan destinations on your travel bucket list.


Kandy is the second largest city in Sri Lanka, but it’s mostly known as the cultural capital of the island. And no visit to Kandy is complete without visiting the Temple of the Tooth.

The Temple of the Tooth is a former palace of the Kandyan kingdom, and it houses the relic tooth of Buddha.

According to legend, when Buddha died, his tooth was taken from the funeral pyre. The tooth was later hidden in the hair of Princess Hemamali when she fled from Hindu armies who attacked her father’s kingdom in India, to Sri Lanka.

Source: Shutterstock.

Since then, the relic tooth has become an object of great reverence and brought out in jeweled caskets during Esala Perahera, a 10-day parade of dancers, drummers, and elaborately decorated elephants.

Kandy gained Unesco World Heritage status in 1988 which has ensured the safeguarding of the Temple of the Tooth. Kandy is also a great city to explore the Royal Botanical Gardens situated in nearby Peradeniya – the gardens have a fine collection of orchids, royal palm trees, Burmese bamboo trees, and other flora species.

Dambulla Caves

Just a two-hour drive from Kandy is the Dambulla Cave Temple, the largest and most well-preserved cave complex in Sri Lanka.

Listed as Unesco World Heritage since 1991, the cave complex comprises five caves situated under an overhanging rock which were converted into shrine rooms, containing numerous Buddha statues and Sinhala murals. The statues and murals are related to Buddha and his life.

Source: Kathleen Poon.

To access the Dambulla Caves, one has to walk up Dambulla Rock where you can enjoy a panoramic view of the surrounding flatlands as well.

Sigiriya the Lion Rock

Sigiriya is a massive rock that’s 600 feet high and on the flat top of the rock was once a palace of King Kasyapa. The entire site – which dates back to the 5th century – was built as a palace and fortress with gardens and moats, and was considered one of the best examples of urban planning in ancient times.

Sadly, the fortress and the palace were abandoned since the king’s death.

Source: Kathleen Poon.

Sigiriya means Lion Rock in the Sinhala language, referring to the palace gateway built at a mid-level terrace in the form of lion’s paws. Sigiriya was awarded the Unesco World Heritage status in 1982.


In the same year, Polonnaruwa was awarded the Unesco World Heritage Site title as well. This ancient royal capital of Sri Lanka was a fortress city to defend the kingdom of Anuradhapura from foreign invaders in the 11th century.

Source: Kathleen Poon.

Polonnaruwa is a massive site. Therefore, it’s advisable to allocate about four to five hours to explore the area.

You can hire a driver to take you from one ancient site to another within Polonnaruwa, or you can rent a bicycle to wander at your own pace.


The Sacred City of Anuradhapura marks the point at which Buddhism was first introduced to Sri Lanka from India.

Since then, Anuradhapura was the center of Theravada Buddhism for many centuries.

Previously hidden away in dense jungle, this sacred city is now one of the world’s major archaeological sites with ancient pools, crumbling temples, palaces, monasteries, and monuments.


Galle is a walled city and historical town comprising Portuguese and Dutch colonial buildings, churches and mosques, mansions and museums, cafes, boutiques, art galleries, bookshops and heritage hotels.

Source: Kathleen Poon.

Amazingly well-preserved for over 400 years, Galle is a delightful town and is easy to explore on foot or bicycle.

Central Highlands

The Central Highlands is the first natural site to be given a Unesco World Heritage status in 2010.

The region consists of the Peak Wilderness Protected Area, the Horton Plains National Park and the Knuckles Conservation Forest – a bio-diversity habitat of rainforests, national parks and mountains up to 2,500m high.

Source: Shutterstock.

Adam’s Peak is situated in the Central Highlands at 2,243m above sea level, and climbing Adam’s Peak has a spiritual significance as Buddhists in Sri Lanka believe that the mountain peak bears the footprints of Buddha.