8 Beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka

Golden Dambulla Temple | © Koshy Koshy / Flickr
Golden Dambulla Temple | © Koshy Koshy / Flickr
Photo of Orana Velarde
Sri Lanka Hub Writer16 December 2017

A UNESCO World Heritage Site is an important landmark in the world chosen by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as a protected area. The places selected to be UNESCO World Heritage Sites are usually in a historical location with cultural and anthropological importance. Sri Lanka is home to eight such sites—six cultural and two natural. Keep reading to find out what they are, and plan your trip!

Sacred City of Kandy

Kandy, a mountain city in Sri Lanka, was home to the Sinhalese kings from 1592 to 1815. It is also the site of Sri Dalada Maligawa, also called the Temple of the Tooth, as a special container holds a tooth of the Buddha. Over the years, the relic came to be very important politically; the belief was that the holder of the sacred tooth was the one who would have power over the Buddhist population. The Sacred City of Kandy was appointed the status of World Heritage Site in 1988, mainly due to the Temple of the Tooth.

Sacred City of Kandy, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Ancient City of Sigiriya

The rocky outcrop of Sigiriya holds the ancient remains of King Kassapa’s palace from the 5th century AD. The top is reachable by stairs built on the side of the mountain and features the Lion Rock and the remains of the palace and fortress. Visitors will see the magnificence of the place when they reach the top, complete with a 360-degree view of the jungle below. The water reservoirs that collect rainwater are still there and in good condition. Sigiriya was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.

Ancient City of Sigiriya, Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

Sacred City of Anuradhapura

The city of Anuradhapura was the first ancient capital of Sri Lanka, and it is still a sacred Buddhist religious center. It lies around 200 kilometers (124 miles) north of Colombo, the current capital. Buddhist worshippers and pilgrims visit the well-preserved ruins of the temples and religious centers along the bank of the river Malwathu Oya year-round. The city is also home to one of the largest and most sacred Bodhi trees in Sri Lanka, believed to be a descendant of the Bodhi tree where Buddha was illuminated. Anuradhapura became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.

Sacred City of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

Old Town of Galle and its Fortifications

The Dutch built the fortified town of Galle in the 16th century. It sits approximately 130 km (81 miles) south of Colombo and is a town worth visiting. Thick stone ramparts, which were built to protect the goods stored there during the times of the Dutch East India Company in the 17th and 18th centuries, surround the historical buildings and churches. The entire fort has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988.

Galle Dutch Fort, Galle, Sri Lanka

Ancient City of Polonnaruwa

After the destruction of Anuradhapura in the 1st century, Polonnaruwa became the second capital of Sri Lanka. The remains include Bhramanic constructions from the Cholas civilization as well as the garden city that was constructed on the site in the 12th century. Polonnaruwa is part of the Cultural Triangle, along with Anuradhapura and Sigiriya. This site was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.

Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

Sinharaja Forest Reserve

Forest, Park
Map View
The Sinharaja Forest is one of the two natural UNESCO World Heritage Sites—designated in 1988—in Sri Lanka. The last remaining primary rainforest in Sri Lanka, the Sinharaja Forest Reserve is full of endemic trees and species; the little creature in the photo below is one of many rare amphibians that make the reserve their home. The Sinharaja Rainforest Reserve is a great place to visit if you love nature.

Central Highlands

The Central Highlands of Sri Lanka includes Horton Plains National Park, the Knuckles Conservation Forest and the Peak Wilderness Protected Area. At over 2,000 meters (6,562 feet) above sea level, this natural UNESCO World Heritage Site joined the others in 2010. There are plenty of hiking trails in the Central Highlands, and it’s a biodiversity haven for naturalists.

The Central Highlands | © claire rowland / Flickr