There are those who think of Sri Lanka and imagine tropical beaches, and others who think of misty mountains – and both would be correct. However what people often don’t know is that Sri Lanka is one of the oldest cultures in the world, and interestingly Sri Lankan culture has continued uninterrupted for thousands of years, despite being colonised on numerous occasions. It is believed that stone age people lived in Sri Lanka believed to be the origin of Sri Lankan culture, and they were known as Yaksas and Nagas. Today a small number of descendants from these tribes continue to live in Sri Lanka, and are known as the ‘Vedda Community’. The Sri Lanka we know today is a melting pot of cultures and is home to more than half a dozen UNESCO world heritage sites.
There are so many cultural hotspots in Sri Lanka, that it would take multiple visits to see them all, but we have compiled a list of ‘must visit’ cultural sites, to give you a little taste of what this ancient country has to offer.
Let’s begin with one of the most visited places in Sri Lanka, the Sigiriya Rock Fortress, which rises 200m from the jungle scrubland.. When you set eyes on the incredible Sigiriya Rock, it is truly awe inspiring. It is easy to understand how this is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The majestic moat which surrounds the rock and the beautiful water gardens could be an attraction on their own! Let your mind travel back thousands of years as you gaze at the world-renowned frescoes of the heavenly, risque maidens of Sigiriya. Don’t miss them as they are in a sheltered rock cave, as you approach the spiral staircase. All this and you haven’t even reached the unbelieve sights at the top. Make sure you savour the moment, so always allow yourself plenty of time at the top, insider tip – you don’t really want to be descending in the dark!
While you are in the area we will share with you another, often unseen, cultural hotspot. Pidurangala Rock has an unparalleled view of her much more famous sister, Sigiriya Rock. Pidurangala was used as a Buddhist monastery and gained importance during the reign of King Kashyapa (473 – 495 AC). Climbing the rock takes between 30 minutes to an hour depending on fitness levels, and note that the path to the top is well maintained up until you reach the Pidurangala Cave Temple. After the cave temple, the “hike” becomes more of a scramble and you must find your own path to the top over some large rocks and boulders. Remember that as you will be passing through the temple it is essential that you have something to cover your shoulders and knees. We suggest timing your climb to view either sunset or sunrise, and note that the ticket office opens at 5 am and closes at 6 pm, but you can stay up at the rock until dark. For those travellers on a budget, the entrance fee to Pidurangala is much cheaper than for Sigiriya, even though we wouldn’t suggest missing either for the sake of a few dollars.
While you are in the cultural triangle, you should not miss Anuradhapura, which was built in the 5th century BC and was the Sinhalese capital of Sri Lanka from the 4th century BC until the 11th century, when invasions from South India forced the capital to shift. Interestingly this ancient city was then abandoned and the surrounding jungle overtook it. It was only in the 19th century that it was rediscovered by the British and has since been a Buddhist pilgrimage centre. Anuradhapura is probably Sri Lanka’s most famous ancient city and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.
Mihintale is a mountain peak near the ancient city of Anuradhapura. The belief is that this mountain is where Buddhism in Sri Lanka began, with the meeting of a Buddhist monk Mahinda and King Devanampiyatissa. It is said to be one of the 16 places that the Lord Buddha visited and is regarded as one of the most sacred places on the island. Now a major pilgrimage site, Mihintale is home to several religious monuments dating all the way back to the first century BC. Exploring the ancient ruins is an experience you won't forget and we suggest doing the short 20 minute climb in the early morning or the late evening. Note that you must bring something to cover your shoulders and knees and will need to take off your shoes in certain places.
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site not to be missed is Polonnaruwa, built in the 12th Century, it's the second oldest of Sri Lanka's kingdoms and one of the country’s best- planned archaeological sites. Set on a sprawling complex just north of the modern-day town of Polonnaruwa, it comprises eight major archaeological sites littered with thousands of statues, temples and artefacts to explore! While Sigiriya is more accustomed to tourists, you can find yourself lost (in a positive way) amongst the ruins in the Polonnaruwa, perfect for you culture vultures out there.
Visiting the magnificent cave temple complex, known as Dambulla Rock Temple, in Sri Lanka is a once in a lifetime experience too. There are more than 80 documented caves in the surrounding area and the 5 main caves on the rock are the best-preserved in the whole country, located under the vast overhanging rock. With over 150 Buddha statues, endless murals and still being a functional cave monastery – this is a must see.
The cultural hotspots are not just in the Cultural Triangle, Galle Fort, located on the South Coast is another ‘must see’. initially built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, the fort was later conquered and fortified by the Dutch in the 17th century and then later fell to the might of the British. For hundreds of years Galle was a crucial trading port for spices and other goods, and today you have the pleasure of soaking up all this history in a living fort. The Galle Fort offers stunning architecture, beautiful boutiques, an array of mouthwater restaurants and iconic views from the ramparts. For many travellers the Galle Fort, and the surrounding tropical beaches, are a highlight of the time on the island. Of course we have only mentioned a handful of the cultural delights that Sri Lanka has to offer, but as you can see Sri Lanka has enough cultural hotspots to keep you in awe and admiration for many, many trips to this paradise island.
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