Explore ancient history at these seven Sri Lanka points of interest and discover it’s rich culture, architectural prowess, religious history and palace intrigues.
Ayubowan. This gentle Sri Lankan greeting means “long life” and is presented with prayer hands and a smile. Think of it as the “aloha” of South Asia. Ayubowan is not just a form of welcome, it’s also a metaphor for the well-preserved cultural treasures to be found in these seven Sri Lanka points of interest.
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Of course, I was aware of Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage before going to the country. But seeing Sri Lanka’s historical places surprised me nonetheless. I had half expected ancient cities and temples smothered by an encroaching jungle. I’ve visited so many Mayan sites like that with piles of rocks and tree roots representing what was once a sophisticated civilization. Not so with Sri Lanka. They have eight sites on the UNESCO World Heritage list, a remarkable number considering the small size of the country.
Many of these cultural places of interest in Sri Lanka aren’t just well-preserved, they’re also still in functional use. Visiting them is a lesson on the ongoing Buddhist influence in the country. What follows is a list of seven historical places in Sri Lanka that will give you a lesson on both its ancient history and also its present day culture.
The Cultural Triangle in Sri Lanka
Colombo might be Sri Lanka’s modern capital, but its ancient capitals are all located within a triangle in the center of the country. Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle represents the heart of its historical, religious and economic power.
This fortress rock shoves itself up from the valley floor and demands attention. Built by King Kashyapa in 477 BC as a fortress and pleasure palace, the ruin still gives off a whiff of decadence. From the painted frescoes, the lion’s paw stairway and the vast view of the elaborate gardens, Sigiriya sends a message of power.
Sigiriya in on the UNESCO register and is recognized as one of the best preserved examples of ancient urban planning. The site is architectural marvel that utilizes the natural features of the rock slab with interlocking man-made elements such as stairs, a huge carved lion paw and hydraulic systems.
Visiting these places of interest in Sri Lanka doesn’t come cheap and Sigiriya is the most expense of the lot with a ticket price of $30USD. I’ve seen Trip Advisor reviews questioning whether it’s worth it but for me it was. You want to learn more about ancient Sri Lanka, then you would do yourself a disservice by skipping one of its more important historical places.
Pro Tip: It should take you about 2.5 hours to climb and tour the temple. We went at 8:30am. But if you can go at dawn, all the better. It will be cooler and there will be fewer crowds.
2. Dambulla Caves in the Cultural Triangle
This temple cave complex was originally built in 89 BC but it was a multi-century work in progress. The interior statues were added in 12th century. Ceiling paintings were added in the 18th century. And the temple veranda was created in the 1930’s. They are stuffed full of buddha statues and the ceiling has stunning delicate frescoes. I was awed by these caves and, while it’s not the most popular stop in the Cultural Triangle, for me is was one of the most interesting places in Sri Lanka.
There were two things that impressed me most about this site. The first is that while the caves are natural, they have been painstakingly modified with carved drip ledges and large statues hewn out of the rock. So despite the added frescoes and statuary, there is still an organic feeling to the caves.
The second notable fact is that the Dambulla caves are still a functioning monastery. Visitors are expected to respect the site as they would any other religious building. The caves are open to visitation only for specific hours and then they close for worship.
Pro Tip: Ticket price is $10USD. Ask your guide or hotel for the temple schedule. You don’t want to climb all the way up to the temple only to find that it is closed for prayers.
3. Polonnaruwa in the Cultural Triangle
in 1070 AD, King Vijayabahu established himself as the leader and built a capital in Polonnaruwa worthy of his ambitions. In 1155 the city designed an elaborate reservoir and waterway system to support the agricultural economy.
While viewing the waterworks, I thought about the Romans. I’ve been to Hadrian’s Wall in the UK and was impressed by the Roman’s advanced water engineering and enduring structures. But unlike Hadrian’s structures, the water infrastructure in Polonnaruwa is still in use today.
The palace is also notable for both it’s scale and beauty. The palace ruins are known for their unique carved granite columns, moonstone slabs and Buddha statues. The Gal Vihara reclining Buddha took my breath away with its soft features and marbled granite surface.
Pro Tip: The ticket prices is $25USD. The site is huge. If you have a guide, as we did, they can drive you to the various sites. Otherwise, you’ll want to rent a bike to get around.
And if you like getting around by bike and also want to see all of the old Sri Lankan kingdom’s, check out sightseeing Anuradhapura by bike.
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4. The Sacred Buddha Tooth Relic in Kandy
The last kingdom of Sri Lanka was located in Kandy and ran from the 15th-19th centuries before finally succumbing to British colonial rule. Most notable in Kandy is the relic of the Buddha’s tooth. Now, I’m a religious skeptic and find the notion of relics to be sort of creepy. But I went into the temple with an open mind.
The relic itself is enshrined like a Sri Lankan/Russian nesting doll. The temple site is protected by a security perimeter, then grassy grounds, a large exterior temple structure, a small interior temple, a set of doors, and then the relic. Which visitors can’t see other than during the Esala Perahera festival. Nonetheless, amidst the shove of tourists, there were plenty of sincere worshipers placing fragrant jasmine offerings and taking a quiet moment to pray.
Pro Tip: The ticket price runs $10USD. You can easily get to Kandy on either the bus or the train. The town center is fairly compact. Kandy is the transit point for taking the scenic train ride into tea country. But beware that there are two train stations in town so get yourself to the correct one.
If you want to see more of Kandy than just the tooth relic, check out this 1-day full tour:
Sri Lanka Points of Interest Outside of the Cultural Triangle
5. Dutch Canals in Negombo
Before there was British Colonialism, there was Dutch Colonialism, and before that were the Portuguese. In the mid 1600’s, the Kandyan king invited the Dutch to help him defeat the Portuguese. The Dutch did just that, opening up Sri Lanka for a trade monopoly in cinnamon and other spices.
The Dutch built series of canals to aid the transport of goods to port. Well, say “ayubowan” to the canals too because they are still in use today. They extend 125 kilometers north out of Colombo through Negombo. It’s worth it to get out on the water if you are staying in Negombo. You can hire a boat right in the center of town near the fishing docks and it costs ~$27USD for four people.
Pro Tip: Nebombo is a good base for spending your first and/or last night in Sri Lanka. It’s very close to the airport, has nice beach, a wildlife refuge and the canals.
Get prepared for your trip and buy the Lonely Planet guide
6. Galle Fort
Galle Fort is another artifact from the Dutch occupation. The Portuguese built it in the late 1500’s and the Dutch expanded it in 1659. Parts of the fort have been reconstructed and the new ramparts actually helped to save the town during the 2004 tsunami.
You can tour the fort ruins and nearby churches and lighthouses. Galle is also a popular destination to get away from the crazy hustle of Colombo. It’s an easy 1-1/2 hour train ride down the coast and is fairly close to the beautiful beaches in Marissa.
Pro Tip: Galle has become quite touristy so you may want to visit earlier or later in the day to avoid crowds.
If you want to visit Galle but don’t want to stay there, you can easily do it as a day trip from Colombo or Negombo with this tour:
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7. Gangaramaya Temple
Gangaramaya is not an ancient site, but it is a religious touchstone in downtown Colombo. Frankly, it’s one of the weirder things to do in Sri Lanka. The temple was established 120 years ago as a center of worship and learning. It is also a jumble sale of statuary, texts and Buddhist knick knackery– all housed in an architecture inspired by an MC Escher drawing.
Their intentions are genuine but wandering the temple is a a kooky experience. Don’t let that stop you, though. Take the opportunity to explore all the nooks and crannies of the temple as if it were your own personal treasure hunt.
Pro Tip: This is a major tourist site. And yet the tuk tuk drivers can’t seem to find it. I presume that they are just running the meter. Do yourself a favor and get a local SIM card so that you can map yourself around the city.
Get the Sri Lanka travel guide for travel planning tips and itinerary ideas.
Why Visit Sri Lanka Now?
Sri Lanka is a hot destination right now. They were a no-go zone during the civil war in the 80’s and 90’s. But they have since settled into a stable economy with a reasonably well-developed tourism infrastructure. And most Sri Lankan’s speak at least some English.
Your travel dollar goes very far in Sri Lanka. So if you are a budget traveler, you can do a lot for a little. But you can also do luxury for less in Sri Lanka with four star properties often going for far less than $150USD per night.
But beyond your budget you should consider the cultural value offered by the Cultural Triangle and other points of interest in Sri Lanka. These well preserved treasures are a testament to Sri Lanka’s long and rich cultural life. Ayubowan.
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