Described by Marco Polo as one of the world’s finest islands, Sri Lanka’s recorded history spans thousands of years. From the milder climate of its green hill country, with vast tea estates, to its white sandy beaches with turquoise waters, this tear-shaped dot in the Indian Ocean boasts more than its fair share of attractions. Here’s a look at some of the most interesting and scenic sites that travelers to Sri Lanka won’t want to miss.
The Sacred City of Kandy is of great significance to Buddhists, attracting devotees from all over the world to visit the Temple of the Tooth. Located in a 4th century AD palace complex, the temple is said to hold one of Buddha’s teeth, although the relic is not on show for visitors.
Surrounded by the mountains of the central highlands, Kandy also offers visitors an authentic taste of Sinhalese culture, dazzling those who arrive in the summertime, especially during the Esala Perahera festival. The event centers around a lively, elaborate procession of the sacred tooth relic through the streets of Kandy.
2. Sigiriya Rock Fortress
Standing 200 meters tall above the surrounding jungle, Sigiriya is an awe-inspiring natural rock formation. Adopted by an ancient civilization who created steep stairwells to the top, the rock was home to a vast palace complex, as well as a monastery. Today, many impressive frescos remain, as well as the remnants of some of the world’s earliest landscaped gardens.
Known as Lion’s Rock, Sigiriya is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is often referred to as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” With giant lion’s paw carvings still remaining at the site entrance, it is easy to imagine how impressive this architectural masterpiece was in its heyday. The entire complex resembles a gargantuan stone lion rising out of the jungle, visible for miles in every direction.
3. Dambulla Cave Temple
Another sacred Buddhist site and World Heritage Site, the Dambulla caves are free to enter on full moon days, making it especially busy at these peak times due to the religious significance of this lunar phase. Buddhists from all over the world make pilgrimages to Dambulla, leaving lotus flowers, burning oil lamps, and presenting other offerings to Buddha.
The Dambulla cave complex incorporates more than 80 separate caves that date back to 100 BC. The main five caves are decorated with elaborate paintings and statues. Archaeologists have counted more than 150 statues of the Buddha at the site, as well as statues of Sri Lankan rulers and Hindu gods and goddesses. The ceiling of one cave is covered with over 1,000 intricate paintings of the Buddha.
Around 800 years ago, Sri Lankan kings ruled from the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, a thriving religious and commercial center in the north-central region of the island. Archaeological treasures unearthed at the site provide glimpses of an opulent, sophisticated civilization. With its stupas, statues, temples, and tombs, Polonnaruwa remains a fascinating place to visit. Four hulking statutes of Buddha remain as impressive as ever at this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Carved out of a granite cliff face, they include a majestic reclining Buddha spanning 14 meters.
5. Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage
Three hours from the capital city of Colombo, this large wildlife sanctuary was established in 1975 to rehabilitate injured adult elephants and orphaned elephant calves found in the wild. The facility serves as an orphanage, nursery, and captive breeding ground, with a resident population of around 100 Asian elephants—the largest captive population of the species in the world. Young elephants and females are left to live as a herd, roaming freely about the reserve.
The site is also a world-famous tourist attraction, as it allows visitors to interact with these amazing creatures. Pinnawala presents the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for visitors to feed baby elephants with bottles, or help give adult elephants their daily bath in the river.
Situated on the southern tip of Sri Lanka 119 kilometers from Colombo, this major city bears signs of the country’s Dutch colonial heritage. It is home to Galle Fort, yet another of the country’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, as well as historic churches and plenty of museums.
A short distance from Galle, Unawatuna Beach boasts beautiful tropical scenery, with palm-fringed shores lapped by warm waters. It is a perfect spot to watch as the sun disappears over the horizon, setting the sky ablaze with vivid pinks, oranges, and purples, before night falls and the sky fills with glittering stars.
Once an epicenter of the decades-long Sri Lankan Civil War, Jaffna is in northern Sri Lanka. Unlike the south of the island, where the Sinhalese form the ethnic majority, the majority of Jaffna’s population are Tamil. The Tamils are a predominantly Hindu people, which sets them apart from the predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese.
Lying just 100 kilometers from the coastline of Tamil Nadu, India’s southernmost state, the city of Jaffna boasts several fascinating sights, including Jaffna Fort, the beautiful golden Nallur Kandiswamy Temple, and Delft Island, an outlying limestone and coral island that has been an important strategic outpost since the days of the Chola Empire more than 1,000 years ago.
8. Nuwara Eliya Famous for its tea estates and charming scenery, the city of Nuwara Eliya is sometimes called “Little England.” It is situated in an area with a relatively cooler climate than the rest of Sri Lanka, with lush green hills perpetually shrouded in wisps of cloud. Make sure to visit a tea estate or tea factory while you’re there, and visit St. Clair’s Fall, a picturesque series of cascades in the green hill country outside town.