Sri Lanka’s Top 6 Must-See Historic Sites

Sri Lanka’s heritage, and deep-rooted Buddhist culture, can be explored through its historic sites, some of which are more than 2,000 years old.

May 19, 2024By Lisa Barham, MA & BA Fine Art

sri lanka must see historic sites


Sri Lanka is an ancient country with a rich history dating back to the 4th century BCE. It has thrived under great kings and suffered under numerous invasions, first by the neighboring Indians, and later, by Europeans seeking to colonize the country. The small Indian-Ocean island has known many rulers, and many names, during its existence. It finally attained independence in 1948. Scattered across the island are historic sites that tell the fascinating story of the country. Here are six of the most important.


1. Anuradhapura: Sri Lanka’s First Capital

abhayagiri dagoba anuradhapura photo
Abhayagiri Dagoba in the ancient city of Anuradhapura. Source:


The ancient city of Anuradhapura was founded in 377 BCE and was the heart of the first major Sinhalese kingdom. It was built by King Pandukabhaya (reigned 380–367 BCE), who named it after his great uncle, Anuradha. For nearly 1,400 years the city retained its prominence as the country of Sri Lanka developed around it. As Buddhism arrived and gained a following on the island, from around 246 BCE, Anuradhapura became a center of Buddhist learning and pilgrimage. The new faith helped to develop a distinct Sri Lankan culture as the country found a sense of national identity, and the architecture of Anuradhapura reflected the Sinhalese’s new-found religious beliefs. The city’s huge stupas were among the greatest monuments in early Asia.


For more than a millennium, Anuradhapura was the pre-eminent city of Sri Lanka. Scores of kings and queens ruled from this seat of power. The period was far from peaceful. It saw coups, murders, kings dethroned, and regular attacks from South Indian forces. After hundreds of years of chaos interspersed with short periods of peace, Anuradhapura was sacked for the final time in 993 CE when South Indian soldiers attacked and reduced the city to ruins.


The remains of the once-great city offer a glimpse of the golden age of Sinhalese culture. The city’s monuments and temples are some of the greatest architectural feats of the period, second only in scale to the Great Pyramids of Giza. One element that has survived over the centuries is the Sacred Bo Tree (Sri Maha Bodhi). More than 2,000 years old, the tree is said to have grown from the cuttings of the tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment.

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2. Dambulla Cave Temples

sri lanka dambulla cave
Cave Temples at Dambulla. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Cave Temples at Dambulla date back to the 1st century BCE and the reign of King Valagamba (reigned 103 BCE and 89–77 BCE). In 103 BCE, after just five months on the throne, the king was overthrown by Tamil invaders and was forced into hiding for 14 years. During this time, he sought refuge in the caves at Dambulla. After successfully regaining the throne, he ordered the construction of temples at the caves that had provided him shelter. What was once one large cavernous space was divided by man-made partitions to create five separate caves. Over the centuries, successive rulers have embellished, remodeled, and restored the temples and much of what can be seen today is from the 17th and 18th centuries. The temples contain statues carved from solid rock; dozens of reclining, seated, and standing Buddhas; and walls adorned with colourful murals.


3. Sigiriya

Lion Rock at Sigiriya. Source: BBC Travel


Sigiriya was Sri Lanka’s shortest-lived, but most extraordinary, medieval capital. Although it had been used by monks as a religious refuge as early as the 3rd century BCE, it was around 700 years later that Sigiriya became a place of great significance in Sri Lankan history. The citadel’s construction was swift and borne of dramatic circumstances. Kassapa, the younger son of King Dhatusena (reigned 455–473 CE), exiled his brother, and heir to the throne, to India and killed his father in a bid to claim the kingdom for himself. Fearing the inevitable retaliation from his brother, Mogallana, Kassapa built a new palace and fortress atop Sigiriya Rock, which towers 200m above the surrounding jungle, some 50km southeast of Anuradhapura. A new city was constructed around the base of the rock in just seven years.


In 491 CE, Mogallana returned to reclaim the throne. Kassapa’s fate was sealed when he made the fatal error of leaving his impenetrable fortress to meet the attacking troops on the plains below. At the height of battle, his elephant fled, leaving Kassapa open to capture and defeat as his troops fell back, and so he killed himself rather than face capture. The new king promptly moved the capital back to Anuradhapura, ending Sigiriya’s 18-year stint as Sri Lanka’s capital city.


Sigiriya once again became a place of religious retreat for more than 600 years. It was eventually abandoned in 1155 and lay forgotten for centuries. Today, the site, with its water gardens, palace ruins, and famous stone lion’s paws, is one of the most visited places in Sri Lanka. It is also where the only non-religious paintings from ancient Sri Lanka can be found. The famous frescoes, known as The Sigiriya Damsels, were painted on the rock face in the 5th century. Only 21 damsel images survive of the original 500.


4. Polonnaruwa

lankatilaka vihara temple polonnaruwa photo
Lankatilaka Vihara temple, Polonnaruwa. Source: Unsplash


The expansive and well-preserved remains of the ancient city of Polonnaruwa illuminate the culture and achievements of medieval Sri Lanka. Having existed since the 3rd century as an important commercial city, it became the place at which the Cholas of South India set up base after they had destroyed Anuradhapura in 993 CE. After 75 years, Sinhalese rule was resumed when Vijayabahu I (reigned 1055–1110) ousted the Cholas. The king made Polonnaruwa the new capital; it was farther away from India and more defensible than Anuradhapura. Vijayabahu’s successor Parakramabahu I (also known as Parakramabahu the Great; reigned 1153–86) oversaw a Sinhalese Golden Age at Polonnaruwa during the 12th century and transformed it into one of South Asia’s great cities.


It was under Parakramabahu that many of Polonnaruwa’s greatest buildings and monuments were constructed. Engineers and architects were imported from India who left their mark in the form of Hindu shrines. The Royal Palace and the impressive Lankatilaka Vihara temple were erected under Parakramabahu’s campaign of building works. So too was the iconic Vatadage (a circular relic house) that takes center stage in the famous Quadrangle and stands as the jewel in the crown of medieval Sinhalese architecture.


However, the expense of the building projects initiated by Parakramabahu and Nissankamalla (reigned 1186–96), who followed, took an economic toll on the city. The early 13th century was a period of chaos as Polonnaruwa suffered from a series of weak rulers and attacks from Tamil invaders. By the middle of the century, following a hundred years as the pre-eminent city of Sri Lanka, Polonnaruwa’s population began to move southwards. It was eventually abandoned entirely in 1293 and left to be enveloped by the jungle where it languished almost unknown for nearly 700 years.


5. Galle Fort

sri lanka lighthouse galle fort photo
Lighthouse at Galle Fort. Source: The Sunday Morning Herald


At the heart of the modern city of Galle—Sri Lanka’s fourth largest—is the fortified old Dutch quarter, Galle Fort. During its time, the city has been under Portuguese, Dutch, and British rule. Long before Europeans arrived on Sri Lanka’s shores, Galle was already an important trading post thanks to its natural harbor and position on the trading routes between Arabia, India, and Southeast Asia. The Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka in 1505, and in 1589 established themselves at Galle erecting a small fort, later extended by the addition of bastions and walls.


In 1638, the Dutch, who had arrived early in the 17th century, began attacking the Portuguese along the coast and driving them out. In 1640, following a four-day siege, the Dutch captured Galle Fort. A few years later, they expanded the fortifications and the city flourished under their rule for over a century. A new era was ushered in in 1796 when Sri Lanka was ceded to the British after the Dutch defeat in the Napoleonic Wars.


Over the following century, Galle continued to act as the country’s most important harbor. It gradually fell into decline in the early 20th century as Colombo became Sri Lanka’s most important commercial hub. Today, walking through the entrance gate feels like stepping into another time, where Dutch-period villas line the quaint streets next to colonial churches and historic landmarks. Galle is Sri Lanka’s best-preserved colonial town and has seen a revival thanks to the restoration efforts made by the property owners who have renovated many of the original buildings.


6. Temple of the Tooth: Sri Lanka’s Most Important Pilgrimage Site

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Photograph of the Temple of the Tooth around 1890 – 1901, by William Louis Henry Skeen. Source: The Royal Collection, UK


The main attraction in the hill country city of Kandy is the Temple of the Tooth. Legend says that parts of Buddha’s remains were rescued after his cremation in 543 BCE, including a tooth. After being smuggled into Sri Lanka in the 4th century CE, the tooth was first taken to Anuradhapura, then Polonnaruwa, followed by other important cities. It was always housed by the Sinhalese king in the current capital and as such assumed significant political importance as a symbol of sovereignty in Sri Lanka, as well as being a religious relic. It briefly returned to India in 1284 after being captured by an invading South Indian army and was reclaimed for Sri Lanka four years later.


The tooth eventually arrived in Kandy in 1592, and the original temple to house it was built around 1600. Although the original no longer exists, the shrine of the current temple dates to the turn of the 18th century and the reign of Vimala Dharma Suriya II (reigned 1687–1707). The temple has been modified, enlarged, and embellished over the centuries, notably during the reigns of Kirti Sri Rajasinha (reigned 1747–81) and Sri Wickrama Rajasinha (reigned 1798–1815).


Modifications have been made as recently as 1987 with the addition of a golden roof over the relic chamber, gifted by President Premadasa. A little over a decade later, the Tamil Tigers militant organisation detonated a bomb outside the entrance causing serious damage to the temple. More than twenty people were killed and the building’s façade was reduced to rubble. Swift and efficient restoration work means there is little visual evidence remaining of the attack. The temple remains the most important Buddhist shrine in Sri Lanka and a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists wanting to visit the sacred tooth relic.

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By Lisa BarhamMA & BA Fine ArtLisa is a contributing writer with a background in art. She holds a BA and MA in Fine Art from the University of Kent, and has worked at Tate Modern and the National Gallery, London. She now writes full time whilst travelling and exploring new countries and cultures across the globe.