There’s a host of top Historic Sites in Sri Lanka to visit and among the very best are Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya. Other popular sites tend to include the Temple of the Tooth, the Dambulla Cave Temple and the Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba.
We’ve put together an experts guide to Sri Lankan cultural places, landmarks and monuments, with our top ten places to visit as well as a full list of Historic Sites in Sri Lanka, which shouldn’t be ignored if you have the time.
What are the best Historic Sites in Sri Lanka?
Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka was initially a temporary royal residence in the eighth century AD. However in the late tenth century, it became a capital city after the ancient capital of Anuradhapura was conquered and destroyed by King Chola Rajaraja I.
Overall, Polonnaruwa would remain the capital for three centuries, with the twelfth century seeing a mass building project undertaken under King Parakramabahu I. Parakramabahu constructed beautiful palaces, monuments, parks and gardens. The well-preserved ruins of many of the structures built during this time can be seen at Polonnaruwa today, such as its star attraction, the collection of vast Buddha sculptures known as the Gal Vihara.
The monuments of ancient Polonnaruwa are within easy reach of one another within the modern city, with many tourists hiring bicycles to get around.
Anuradhapura is a sacred ancient city in Sri Lanka which was founded in the fourth century BC and whose beautiful ruins are UNESCO-listed. Over time, Anuradhapura became one of the great capitals of Sri Lanka, garnering both political and religious significance.
Today, the modern city of Anuradhapura houses an incredible set of ruins belonging to its ancient counterpart, especially Buddhist shrines. There are numerous stupas and dagabas (mounds which house sacred relics), including the beautiful Ruwanwelisaya stupa with its thousands of elephant sculptures, the Thuparamaya and the vast Jetavanarama.
Sigiriya in Sri Lanka combines a natural phenomenon with history and religion. Comprised of a vast red rock mound rising over a thousand feet, it is thought that Sigiriya (meaning “Lion Rock”) was originally inhabited during the third century BC, when a Buddhist monastery was founded there.
The ruins of Kassapa’s castle can still be seen there today and include the remnants of a city at the foot of the rock. From these ruins, it is evident that the king’s city was a grand one with gardens, monuments and, of course, his palace.
One of the most notable sites at Sigiriya is its series of frescoes depicting numerous female figures. Originally, there would have been hundreds of similar frescoes. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1982, Sigiriya is now open to the public.
The Temple of the Tooth is a colourful temple which is said to hold the tooth of Buddha – one of the most important Buddhist relics. The Temple of the Tooth was part of Kandy, a royal city founded in the fourteenth century and which became the capital in the sixteenth century.
Visitors to the Temple of the Tooth can learn more about this sacred relic in a small museum. Visitors cannot view the actual tooth – a fact which had added to conspiracy theories as to its authenticity – but can view the elaborate case which holds it.
The Dambulla Cave Temple, often known as the Royal Rock Temple, is made up of series of five caves instilled with over twenty centuries of history and imbued with religious significance.
The temple contains a wealth of Buddhist art, including numerous statues and murals of Buddha. The largest and grandest of the caves is the second one, known as Maharaja Vihara.
The Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba is a magnificent Buddhist sacred site in the ancient city of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka.
Begun during the reign of King Dutugemunu (161BC-137BC), the Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba is a pretty white domed structure, although it is a shadow of its original glory, having suffered damage over the years.
Thuparamaya is believed to be the first ever Buddhist dagoba built in Sri Lanka. Constructed in around the third century BC by King Devanampiya Tissa, Thuparamaya, which is also known as the Thuparama Dagoba, is a white domed structure in the ancient city of Anuradhapura.
The shrine is most notable for housing one of the relics of Buddha – his right collarbone – making it a pilgrimage site for Buddhists from around the world.
The Abhayagiri Dagoba is a Buddhist shrine in the UNESCO-listed ancient city of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka.
Probably built in the second or first century BC, the Abhayagiri Dagoba was an important Buddhist monastery of its time and remains a pilgrimage site.
The Jetavanarama Dagoba is a vast Buddhist shrine – once the third tallest monument in the world – in Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka believed to hold part of a sash worn by Buddha.
With its huge dome and reddish-copper hue – accounted for by the millions of burnt bricks used to build it – Jetavanarama Dagoba is an incredible structure. Its construction was begun in the third century AD by King Mahasena.
The Sri Maha Bodhi Tree is one of Anuradhapura’s most important Buddhist sites and is a sacred place of pilgrimage.
It is thought that the Sri Maha Bodhi Tree grew out of a cutting of the fig tree under which Buddha himself gained enlightenment. This would make it up to 2,000 years old.
Visitors flock to see the Sri Maha Bodhi Tree, which is surrounded by railing and adorned with prayer flags.