For a small island, Sri Lanka is brimming with a wide variety of attractions to suit any kind of traveller.
The economic capital, home to the Colombo International Airport, will usually be your port of entry. It is a destination in its own right. You can jumpstart your Sri Lankan adventure with a visit to to the National Museum and the Dutch Period Museum, once the residence of the Dutch governor. Visit the Seema Malaka temple on serene Beira Lake, and check out the seafood restaurants near Mt Lavinia Beach. Marvel at the Sri Kailawasanathan Swami Devasthanam, one of the oldest Hindu temples in the city.
North of Colombo is the city of Anuradhapura, a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site and the sacred centre of Theravada Buddhism for many centuries. Theravada (“Way of the Elders“) is one of two major Buddhist schools, the other being Mahayana (“Greater Vehicle“). Theravada Buddhists claim to adhere most closely to the original doctrines and practices taught by the Buddha, and accept as authoritative the Pali canon of ancient Indian Buddhism.
Here in Anuradhapura you’ll find the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, one of the oldest planted trees in the world. It is said that Gautama Buddha reached enlightenment while sitting with his back against a tree. This tree, a species of fig now called Ficus religiosa (sacred fig or bodhi tree), is now venerated. A branch of the original sacred fig is said to have been planted in Anuradhapura in 288 BC, which grew to become the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi.
You can also visit the Brazen Palace, once a multi-storied residence for monks dating back to the 2nd century BC, leaving behind more than 1,000 stone columns. Also dating back to the same period is the white Ruwanweliseya, a stupa housing the largest collection of the Buddha’s relics.
The 5th-century Sigiriya (“Lion Rock”) is an ancient rock fortress that was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1982. According to ancient chronicles, the site was said to have been built by King Kashyapa (477-495 AD) as the capital of his kingdom. The capital was abandoned after his death, and later used as a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century.
The ruins of his kingdom can be found on top of a gigantic column rising 200 metres from the scrub jungle. The rock was the innermost stronghold of the 70-hectare fortified town. The site opens at 7 AM, and it is advisable to arrive early as the narrow stairwells will soon be clogged by tourists eager to reach the peak. There are 1,200 steps to reach the top.
The rock fortress is also surrounded by a network of gardens, so there is plenty to see at the base of the fortress as well.
Another World Heritage Site worth exploring is the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, which became the second capital of Sri Lanka after the destruction of Anuradhapura in 993. You’ll see many well-preserved ruins including the Royal Palace, Audience Hall, and four statues of Buddha carved out of rock. The city’s great artificial lake, the Parakrama Samudra built during the reign of King Parakrambahu the Great (1164-1196 AD) covers an area of 6,000 acres, feeding a network of irrigation canals and minor tanks.
The Dambulla rock temple was built by King Walagambahu in the 1st century BC and is a World Heritage Site. It is the most impressive of Sri Lanka’s cave temples. The complex of five caves with over 2,000 square metres of painted walls and ceilings is the largest area of paintings found in the world. It contains over 150 images of the Buddha, of which the largest is the colossal figure of the Buddha carved out of rock spanning 14 metres.
Nuwara Eliya (“city of light”) is Sri Lanka’s most popular hill resort. Located at an altitude of 1,868 metres and overlooked by Sri Lanka’s highest mountain, Pidurutalagala, Nuwara Eliya has a cool climate that attracted British civil servants working on the island. It is also referred to as “Little England” as many of the buildings retained architectural styles from the colonial period. You can see it in Nuwara Eliya’s post office below.
These are just a few of the places to explore in Sri Lanka. If you want to learn more, join us on our tour to Sri Lanka — simply click through to see the full itinerary and sign up!