Sri Lanka’s Historical Places: 9 Places You Must Visit

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Sri Lanka is by no means an underdog in the tourism industry. The country attracts millions of tourists and is a worthy holidaying destination. Sri Lanka is known for many things, including delicious food, vivid culture, natural scenery, and historical places. When itinerary planning, we’d recommend dedicating a large proportion of your time to researching Sri Lanka’s historical places.

Sri Lanka is a hot spot for World Heritage Sites. So, if you are a history lover, Sri Lanka will almost certainly be up your street. Whether you want to incorporate a hike, natural scenery, or even shopping into your historical experience, Sri Lanka has a diverse selection of historical places to discover.

Of course, with so many options, which of Sri Lanka’s historical places should you prioritize visiting? We’ve listed our top recommendations below to help you narrow down your selection. Here are Sri Lanka’s nine best historical places to visit.

1. Anuradhapura

Anuradhapura is one of the best of Sri Lanka's historical places. This image shows the round Jetavanaramaya stupa with tourists at the base.
The Jetavanaramaya stupa via Pexels.

When you see images of Anuradhapura, you’ll likely see the domed pyramid shape of the Jetavanaramaya stupa in the city’s monastery ruins. The stupa has become the face of the historical city and is a notable addition to any Sri Lanka itinerary. However, there are plenty of alternative attractions to see in Anuradhapura.

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The city itself is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site – making it one of Sri Lanka’s most famous historical places. Anuradhapura was Sri Lanka’s first capital city and is documented as far back as the 4th century BC. Nowadays, the city is the capital of Sri Lanka’s North Central Province, while younger Colombo holds the title of the main capital. However, that doesn’t stop the number of visitors to Anuradhapura, drawn by the city’s historic allure and many well-preserved attractions.

The Sri Maha Bodhi is one of these well-preserved sites, containing a huge tree grown from a cutting from Buddha’s Bodh Gaya. The tree has become a point of religious pilgrimage and awe for Buddhists and tourists alike. And, the story behind Sri Maha Bodhi makes it one of the best of Sri Lanka’s historical places.

2. Rangiri Dambulla Cave Temple

The Dambulla Cave Temple is an excellent addition to an itinerary of Sri Lanka's historical places. This image shows a golden Buddha on top of the Golden Temple.
Cave Temple via Pixabay.

Another UNESCO world heritage site, the Rangiri Dambulla Cave Temple, also combines nature and history. The natural cave was converted over centuries to accommodate Buddhist monks in a large and impressive temple complex.

The temple complex contains five different caves, each with a sanctuary. The Dambulla Cave Temple is a popular pilgrimage site for Buddhists since monks have inhabited the complex since the 3rd Century BC. However, tourists will also enjoy exploring the temple, which you could easily dedicate a full day to wandering and appreciating the elaborate architecture. The complex’s location inside the cave is novel enough to inspire a visit, and its history is a winning bonus.

3. Adam’s Peak

This image shows a golden Buddha with prayer flags strung behind. Behind the statue, there are tree-covered Sri Lankan mountains.
Adam’s Peak via Pixabay.

For those in search of a hiking opportunity, fitness challenge, and historical place in one, Adam’s Peak is for you. In central Sri Lanka, Adam’s Peak is a 2,243m mountain with a pilgrim site at its summit. If more than 5,500 steps sound enough of a challenge to you, rest assured you won’t be doing the climb alone. Thousands of visitors hike each year – either for spiritual purposes or sole tourism.

Why the draw, you may ask? Well, aside from the 360-degree views over Sri Lankan countryside below, Adam’s Peak has a footprint-shaped mark on the summit. In Buddhism, the footprint is believed to be Buddha’s, while in Christianity and Islam, the footprint is said to be Adam’s. The mountain’s multi-religious significance makes it an influential spiritual and historical site, which has attracted visitors for centuries.

Typically, visitors time their climb to reach the summit at dawn to catch the sunrise. If you are comfortable climbing in the dark (pack a good head torch), we’d recommend aiming for sunrise for the ultimate views.

4. Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa is one of the best of Sri Lanka's historical places. This image shows the city ruins.
Polonnaruwa via Pixabay.

While we’ve covered Sri Lanka’s first capital, Anuradhapura, its second capital, is just as revered in the modern day. Polonnaruwa also holds a title as a UNESCO world heritage site. Partially inhabited today in the New Town district, Polonnaruwa’s remaining area is hailed as one of Sri Lanka’s most important archaeological sites.

It is wise to dedicate at least a full day to sightseeing in Polonnaruwa. The site has many different historical ruins to explore, and it is easy to get burnt out attempting to squeeze too many ruins into a short period. Instead, pace yourself nicely and prioritize the ruins you are most interested in by conducting some prior research.

The King’s Royal Palace, the Swimming Pool, the Sacred Quadrangle, and the Pabalu Vehera are notable ruins for your Polonnaruwa itinerary.

5. Kandy City

Kandy is one of the best of Sri Lanka's historical places. This image shows a series of waterfront buildings framed by greenery.
Kandy via Pexels.

Kandy is a stellar addition to our list of Sri Lanka’s historical places and is a major city scattered with historic architecture and sacred sites. Of course, the city’s most renowned historical place is the Temple of The Sacred Tooth Relic.

As far as historical and religious sites go, this temple is respectably niche. The sacred tooth is said to belong to Buddha and is protectively encased in a Russian doll structure of multiple gold caskets. Both Buddhists and tourists are welcome to viewings, having the opportunity to admire the architecture and complex grounds after. The Temple of The Sacred Tooth Relic is well-deserving of a couple of hours in your Sri Lanka itinerary and is one of the country’s leading attractions.

Aside from a visit to Buddha’s tooth, visitors to Kandy should consider visiting the National Museum, the World Buddhist Museum, and the Bahirawakanda Vihara Buddha Statue. Kandy is a great destination to start when visiting Sri Lanka’s historical places.

6. Yapahuwa

This image shows a man with tattoos on both his arms and a backpack walking up stone steps. Next to him, there is a small waterfall and tree roots clinging to the rocks.
A man hiking via Pixabay.

Yapahuwa is another notable destination when visiting Sri Lanka historical places. Once a capital city and home to the sacred tooth relic, Yapahuwa has plenty of claims to fame. The city dates back to the 13th century, providing a unique, well-preserved snapshot of Sri Lankan architecture.

Yapahuwa is built under the shadow of a 300-foot rock, which is home to a fortress that visitors can explore the remains of today. Unlike many archaeological sites, the Yapahuwa Rock Fortress is in relatively good condition, so you can get a good experience of how the site originally stood. Reaching the fortress is quite a walk, although nowhere near the climb required to reach Adam’s Peak! Allow yourself approximately 20-minutes to reach the summit via a steep path and steps. Don’t worry, the views and historical site at the summit is well worth your efforts.s

After you’ve spent a morning at the Rock Fortress, there are plenty more ruins to discover in the city below. So, make sure to allow some extra time to explore before continuing your journey.

7. Sigiriya Rock

Sigiriya is one of the best of Sri Lanka's historical places. This image shows an aerial view of the rock and the complex ruins at the summit.
Sigiriya via Pexels.

If you are planning a trip to Sri Lanka, you’ve likely heard of Sigiriya Rock before. We want to reassure you that you’ll be visiting the best of Sri Lanka’s historical places. Combining nature, hiking, and history, the 660 feet tall rock houses palace garden ruins and were once the stronghold of a Sri Lankan king.

King Kashyapa chose the spot for its tactical, elevated position. With 360-degree views, the King’s forces had lots of warning for attack and an advantageously higher position than any attackers. The King enjoyed a protected city before his famed defeat in 495 CE.

Now, Sigiriya Rock is one of Sri Lanka’s most popular attractions. To climb to the top, it will take you approximately an hour, and you’ll complete over 1,200 steps. As a UNESCO world heritage site, the archaeological complex at the summit is widely agreed to be worth the climb. Nature lovers may also be swayed by the promise of toque macaque monkeys, which will keep you entertained throughout your climb.

8. Galle Fort

Galle Fort is one of the best of Sri Lanka's historical places. This image shows a tall white lighthouse on the waterfront against a grey sky.
Galle Fort via Pixabay.

Like many countries, Sri Lanka has experienced lots of colonialism. And, to experience the remnants of European architecture, Galle Fort is one of the best of Sri Lanka’s historical places.

Galle Fort was built by Portuguese invaders during the 16 Century, before trading hands to the Dutch, then English, before returning to Sri Lankan rule. Galle’s situation as a port town left it vulnerable to invaders, resulting in a mixture of colonial architecture today. The Fort is now classified as a UNESCO world heritage site and attracts thousands of visitors each year.

Galle Fort contains many sites for you to explore, including an old hospital, police station, court, lighthouse, and multiple museums. It is wise to leave yourself at least half a day to visit the Fort, if not longer, should you wish to visit all the museums.

9. Independence Memorial Hall

Independence Memorial Hall
Photo by iStock

As an ode to relatively recent history, the Independence Memorial Hall celebrates Sri Lankan independence from British rule. The memorial was erected in 1948 and stands in Sri Lanka’s modern capital, Colombo.

For those short of time or only visiting Colombo, the Independence Memorial Hall is a great way to experience one of Sri Lanka’s historical places. The memorial is extremely easy to access and sits in the scenic surrounds of Cinnamon Gardens. If you need any more persuading, the memorial has no entrance fees, so it welcomes travelers on a budget as well.

To contemplate Sri Lankan history, it doesn’t get much more peaceful than in a gardens complex under the shade of the Independence Memorial Hall.

What is the most historical place in Sri Lanka?

The most historical place in Sri Lanka is Sigiriya Rock. It is the most famous attraction, and the legendary story of the rogue King makes it extremely historically significant.

How many World Heritage Sites are there in Sri Lanka?

There are eight UNESCO world heritage sites in Sri Lanka.

What is the national monument of Sri Lanka?

The national monument of Sri Lanka is the Independence Memorial Hall.

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Eibhlis Gale – Coleman is a freelance writer from the UK who is driven by a fierce love of adventure, unique cultural experiences, native animals, and good coffee. She is a passionate traveller and has explored Europe, Southeast Asia, North Africa, and Australia.