A World Heritage Site is a landmark or area selected by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) because it has cultural, historical, scientific, or another form of significance, and then protected by international treaties.
Although not as numerous as in some other countries around the world, there are a number of unique historical world heritage sites in Sri Lanka for visitors to explore, including the ancient rock fortress Sigiriya, the once-forgotten jungle village Anuradhapura, and the Golden Temple of Dambulla, a unique cave-temple filled with depictions of Buddha. There are also two nature reserves included on the UNESCO World Heritage list in Sri Lanka where visitors can explore the island nation’s native flora and fauna.
In order to travel to the country to explore all of its cultural and historical sites, the majority of foreign citizens are required to have a visa to enter Sri Lanka. Eligible foreign citizens are now able to obtain a Sri Lanka visa online, which permits holders a 30-day stay in the country for tourism or business purposes. Eligible applicants are able to apply through the Sri Lanka Travel Authorization application online to receive an approved Sri Lanka electronic travel authorization via email.
How Many World Heritage Sites Are in Sri Lanka?
There are eight World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka, all of which should be on the travel itinerary of anyone serious about thoroughly exploring the history, culture and natural environment of the country.
When planning your itinerary to take in all of the World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka, it’s important to keep in mind that driving in Sri Lanka is largely considered dangerous for foreign tourists unaccustomed to road conditions in the country. A far better option is renting a car with a driver to take you from one historical site to the next.
This unique site in the center of the island nation was declared a World Heritage Site in Sri Lanka by UNESCO in 1982, and is made up of the remains of the royal ancient city of the Kingdom of Polonnaruwa. One of the best planned archeological relic sites in the country, visitors can stroll around the extensive compound and explore the ageing ruins of an extravagant garden-city dating back to the 12th century.
Sigiriya was also made a World Heritage site in Sri Lanka in 1982, and is considered by many to be one of the eight wonders of the world. This ancient palace-fortress was built by King Kassapa I in the 5th century and is cut into the sides of a dramatic rock formation. The ruins of the old city are guarded by the lion gate, an enormous sculpture of a lion from whose mouth extends the staircase which allows visitors to climb to the top of the structure.
The Golden Temple of Dambulla
Also known as the Rangiri Dambulla Cave Temple, or golden rock temple, this cave-temple complex was made a World Heritage Site in Sri Lanka in 1991. A sacred site of religious pilgrimage for over 22 centuries, this unique monastery boasts 80 documented caves containing over 150 statues of Buddha and paintings relating to his life, as well as depictions of famous Sri Lankan kings, gods and goddesses.
This World Heritage village in Sri Lanka was established around a cutting from Buddha’s fig tree, commonly known as the ‘tree of enlightenment’, which was brought to Anuradhapura in the 3rd century B.C., by Sanghamitta, the founder of an order of Buddhist nuns. The village, which contains a variety of impressive palaces, monasteries, and monuments, was hidden away in dense jungle for many years, and has only recently been made accessible to visitors.
The Sacred City of Kandy
This city in south-central Sri Lanka contains the Sri Dalada Maligawa, a site of sacred pilgrimage. It also known as The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, as it houses the tooth relic of the Buddha, an artifact which has played a major role in Sri Lankan politics since ancient times. As the holder of the relic is believed to hold governance of the country, this sacred city has been fiercely protected over the years, as well as naturally fortified by the surrounding mountains and jungle terrain.
Sinharaja Forest Reserve
This strict nature reserve in south-west Sri Lanka was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988 and is the last viable area of primary tropical rainforest in the country. More than 60% of the trees are considered rare species, and the reserve is also home to over 50% of the country’s native species of mammals and butterflies. Visitors to the reserve can also see a variety of reptiles and amphibians native to Sri Lanka, including tree frogs and the green pit viper.
Old Town of Galle and its Fortifications
The best example of a fortified city built by Europeans in South and South-East Asia, Galle was founded by the Portuguese in the 16th century before the British rule of Sri Lanka began. Located on the southwestern tip of the island, Galle is a unique cross between European architectural styles and South Asian traditions and boasts a variety of notable landmarks including a natural harbour, an imposing Shiva temple, and several historic churches.
Central Highlands of Sri Lanka
The most recent attraction to be declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site in Sri Lanka, in 2010, the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka are located in the south central part of the island and comprises the Peak Wilderness Protected Area, the Horton Plains National Park, and the Knuckles Conservation Forest. Considered a super biodiversity hotspot, the region is home to several endangered species including the western purple-faced langur and the Sri Lankan leopard, as well as a huge range of native flora and fauna.