Studying the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka

by | May 6, 2023

Below is a list of 8 UNESCO sites in Sri Lanka in order of year of inscription – 2 of which are natural sites and 6 are cultural sites. You can explore these attractions by opting for the UNESCO World Heritage sites tour in Sri Lanka – which is a well-prepared itinerary by Blue Lanka Tours, catering to visitors who are interested in learning about the same.

  1. Sacred City of Anuradhapura
  2. Ancient City of Polonnaruwa
  3. Ancient City of Sigiriya
  4. Old Town of Galle and its Fortifications
  5. Sacred City of Kandy
  6. Sinharaja Forest Reserve
  7. Golden Temple of Dambulla
  8. Central Highlands of Sri Lanka

Sacred City of Anuradhapura

Inscribed in: 1982

As the oldest civilization and the most ancient capital of Sri Lanka, Anuradhapura is recognized for its cultural significance. In fact, Anuradhapura is renowned as one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. Located in the North Central Province, the city is recognized for the well-preserved ruins of Sri Lanka’s ancient civilization. The city gets its ‘sacred’ tag because it served as the center of the Theravada Buddhism for several centuries, thus making it sacred to the Buddhist world.

Ruwanwelisaya in Anuradhapura

Ancient City of Polonnaruwa

Inscribed in: 1982

Polonnaruwa is the main town of the district with the same name – located in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka. This city measures 122 hectares in size, is the second oldest Kingdom of the country, and is protected by UNESCO. During the 11th century AD, the medieval capital of Polonnaruwa became Sri Lanka’s first city. Three Kings dominated throughout the history of this city – taking it to heights of prosperity in the 12th century. Destruction then occurred by invaders during the following centuries. However, the old glory and splendor has remained along with its well-preserved ruins, thus obtaining protection by UNESCO as a heritage property.

Polonnaruwa Day Tour Banner

Ancient City of Sigiriya

Inscribed in: 1982

The ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya is the highlight by which the city is recognized into the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list. The site is dominated by a gigantic column of rock, 200 meters in height, and presents significant cultural and archeological importance. King Kasyapa ruled in Sri Lanka from 477 to 495 CE, during which he built his palace on the top of a rock, and decorated it with frescoes. In addition to that, halfway to the top of the rock, the King built a majestic entrance in the form of an enormous lion. After his death, the palace and fortress were abandoned, and eventually used as a Buddhist monastery, until the 1300s.

Tip: The city of Sigiriya is located in the Central Province of Sri Lanka, and is usually combined with Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa by the tourism industry in light of the ‘cultural triangle’ of Sri Lanka.


Old Town of Galle and its Fortifications

Inscribed in: 1988

Historically, Galle is known as the port where the Portuguese first landed and entered Sri Lanka during the early 16th century. In the next two centuries, it was the Dutch that ruled the region. Therefore, a visit to Galle gives out the vibes of a town in Holland – and the Dutch influence in Galle is still evident today. There are over 90 acres of forts and ramparts constructed in the mid-17th century. You can also visit some churches, monuments, old Dutch houses, a maritime museum, and narrow alleys that now have cafeterias and boutiques on either side.

Tip: schedule a visit in Galle during your stay in the southern coast of Sri Lanka, or Galle is an ideal location to base yourself to explore popular beaches in the island.

Galle Dutch Fort

Sinharaja Forest Reserve

Inscribed in: 1988

The Sinharaja Forest Reserve is a biodiversity hotspot as well as a national park. The main component of this UNESCO recognized natural property is the lowland rainforest eco-region – a hilly virgin rainforest in the landscape. The inaccessibility of the site was crucial in ensuring the region remained preserved and away from commercial logging. Although the reserve is an area of only 21kms, it boasts a prized collection of endemic species of plants and animals. At present, experts state that there are 26 endemic birds in Sri Lanka, of which 20 of them have been seen at the Sinharaja forest reserve.

Tip: Easily accessible from southern coast destinations in Sri Lanka.

Sinharaja Rain Forest Day Trek

Sacred City of Kandy

Inscribed in: 1988

Kandy was inscribed as a ‘sacred city’ due to it being home to a sacred Buddhist site and a pilgrimage site well known amongst Buddhists around the world – the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. Also located in the Central Province of Sri Lanka, Kandy was the last capital of the Sinhalese Kings. During their reign, the Dinahala culture significantly flourished and remained for over 2500 years.

Tip: Kandy is along the route to popular destinations such as Nuwara Eliya and Sigiriya, thus you can prepare a route accordingly.

Golden Temple of Dambulla

Inscribed in: 1991

Located right at the center of the country, is Sri Lanka’s largest and best-preserved cave temple complex. Offering significant cultural importance, this cave temple was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list in 1991. Rising up to a height of 160 meters, the rock tower offers splendid views of the surrounding plains. At the top, 4 of a documented 80 caves are the major attractions as they have cultural paintings within the caves as well as statues that depict the life of Gautama Buddha. Historians explain that there are a total of 153 Buddha statues, 3 statues of Sri Lankan kings, and 4 statues of gods and goddesses that are found within these caves!

Tip: just a short drive from Sigiriya and thus can be combined on the same day in your itinerary.

Caves Temple in Dambulla

Central Highlands of Sri Lanka

Inscribed in: 2010

As the second natural site on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka, the Central Highlands comprise three important regions: Peak Wilderness Protected Area, Knuckles Conservation Forest, and the Horton Plains National Park. Thus, the site is composed mainly of a rainforest area at a height of up to 2,500 meters above sea level. This attraction holds global significance because it is a natural habitat to a wide range of mammal species such as the slender loris, bear monkey, and other sub-species of mammals.

Tip: can be combined with hill country destinations such as Kandy, Nuwara Eliya and Ella.


Horton Plains National Park in Sri Lanka