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Essential Sri Lanka

Visit the Must-See Spots

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If this is your first Sri Lanka travel experience, there are some iconic cities, sites and destinations that are simply a must-see for first-time travel to Sri Lanka, which include Dambulla,  Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, Kandy, Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage, Uda Walawe National Park, Nuwara Eliya and Galle. If this is your second trip to Sri Lanka or you prefer to get off the beaten path, explore our Extended Sri Lanka page.

CULTURAL TRIANGLE

Hidden away in dense jungle for many years, no less than five UNESCO World Heritage sites are clustered in the island's heartland: the sacred caves of Dambulla and the ancient cities of Anuradhapura, Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa and Kandy. Their splendid palaces, monasteries and monuments comprise the crown jewels of Sri Lankan culture. All can be accessed during your Sri Lanka tour via day trips from Dambulla, except Kandy, which is best explored as a destination unto itself.

Dambulla

Dambulla is a World Heritage site and is the most impressive of Sri Lanka's cave temples. The complex of five caves with over 6,000 square feet of painted walls and ceilings is the largest continuous series of paintings found in the world.

The caves also contain ancient statues and relics, including over 150 images of the Buddha. The Golden Temple featuring a gilded seated Buddha at the entrance was a recent gift from the Japanese.

Anuradhapura

This was the island's first capital and undoubtedly the grandest city of ancient Sri Lanka. It flourished for 1,400 years, trading with China and India, then was sacked by invading Tamil Indian forces in the 11th century. The capital seat then moved to Polonnaruwa.

The Sri Maha Bodhi (Sacred Bo Tree) is central to Sri Lanka's Buddhist religion. The sapling was brought from India over 2,200 years ago: it is believed to have originated from the very tree under which Siddhartha (the Buddha) attained enlightenment. It can make an honest claim to being the oldest historically documented tree in the world, and has been protected by an uninterrupted series of guardian monks since it was planted. You may experience the tug of an ancient spiritual gravity here, as you make your way up ancient steps through clouds of prayer flags, to behold the massive original tree and its offshoots.

At Loha Prasada (Brazen Palace), circa 2nd century B.C., 1,600 stone columns are all that remains of a magnificent multi-storied residence for 1,000 monks who tended the tree. A healthy imagination is needed to envision the formerly glorious nine stories covered in bronze, silver and gems. It is perhaps worth pondering the sacrifices made by nearby villagers on behalf of the sacred tree: lay people have supported, fed and clothed the guardian monks for over two millennia.

The imposing Ruvanvelisaya (2nd century B.C.) is the city's most famous dagoba (monument containing a relic of the Buddha, known as pagoda elsewhere in Asia). Rows of carved stone elephants surround the structure. Samadhi Buddha Statue (4th century A.D.) is one of the most famous of the island's statues, and depicts the Buddha in a state of samadhi (deep meditation).

Isurumuniya Vihara is a rock temple (3rd century B.C.) known for its erotic carvings. Gracefully rendered embracing couples echo the influence of India's sexually explicit temple carvings, and indicate a culture which, while devout, was clearly far from Victorian in its celebration of the sensuous.

Thuparama Dagoba (3rd century B.C.) is the oldest dagoba in the island, said to enshrine the right collarbone of the Buddha. Finally, the Anuradhapura Archaeological Museum is also worth a visit during your tour of Sri Lanka, exhibiting interesting exhibits and relics of the ancient city.

Polonnaruwa

We highly recommend a day excursion from Dambulla to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa during your Sri Lanka trip. A scenic two-hour drive through lush countryside passes numerous lakes along the way, which are actually the remnants of a vast network of thousands of human-made ancient irrigation tanks.

These represented sophisticated cultivation practices at the time of development. Many have silted up, but those that remain provide habitat for wildlife and a plethora of bird species. You may need to stop the car for elephants crossing the road in search of refreshment; a delightful diversion and a great photo opportunity.

Polonnaruwa was the second capital city of Sri Lanka, built in the 11th and 12th centuries A.D., and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its ruins are better preserved than the older city of Anuradhapura. As you tour Sri Lanka, spend a tranquil day exploring all the sites, either covering the short distances between them by car, or better yet, by bicycle.

Gal Vihara (Cave of the Spirits of Knowledge) contains four splendid statues of the Buddha in "Upright," "Sedentary" and "Recumbent" postures carved out of the granite outcrop. The imposing standing image is 23 feet tall. This is a sacred pilgrimage site for devotees of Buddhism.

The Royal Palace is at the center of the complex. The wooden upper stories have not withstood the test of time, and all that remains is the first floor, made of stone. Superbly rendered elephant carvings and seated stone lions grace the Audience Hall, which was used by the ancient kings to hear petitions and meet with foreign rulers. The remnants of the Royal Bathing Pool are also in evidence.

The Shiva Devale (Shiva Temple) celebrates the Hindu god of destruction. It dates from the 13th century Indian conquest, and evidences the precise stonework for which India is famous. The Khiri Vihara makes for an interesting stop on any tour of Sri Lanka. Khiri means "white," and this aptly named dagoba's whitewashed plaster survived seven centuries of abandonment to the jungle.

The area known as the Quadrangle houses the richest collection of ancient buildings in Sri Lanka. Explore the circular Vatadage reliquary, with four entrances leading to a central shrine which contains four seated Buddha images.

The Thuparama exhibits strong Hindu influences, while the Latha-Mandapaya, a miniature dagoba, displays the classical Buddhist lotus buds. The Khiri Vihara formerly housed the sacred Tooth Relic, since moved to Kandy where it is currently housed.

The Hatadage is another former tooth reliquary. The Gal Pota, or Stone Book, was used to record Buddhist texts and royal genealogies. The Satmahal Prasada is a six-story, pyramid-like structure, unlike anything else in Sri Lanka, and appears to exhibit Khmer influences.

Sigiriya

For many, a visit to the 5th century Sigiriya Rock Fortress is a highlight of a trip to Sri Lanka. This site is a UNESCO World Heritage site, commissioned by King Kasyapa (477-495 A.D.). It is a must-see on any Sri Lanka itinerary.

The "Lion Rock" is a citadel of unusual beauty rising 600 feet from the scrub jungle. The rock was the innermost stronghold of a fortified town. A moat, rampart and extensive gardens-including the renowned water gardens-ring the base of the rock.

Visit the world-famous frescoes of the Heavenly Maidens of Sigiriya, sheltered in a pocket of rock approached by a spiral stairway. These frescoes are painted in earth pigments on plaster. To access them one must ascend stairs carved from massive boulders, but this is a most worthwhile exertion. The more adventurous may climb to the very top of the rock fortress, where remains of the fortress are evident; one is rewarded with 360-degree views of the surrounding countryside and jungles.

Kandy

This UNESCO World Heritage city is an essential stop on any tour of Sri Lanka. It is the cultural cradle of the islands, where legends, traditions and folklore continue to flourish. It is incredibly lush, with a profusion of lovingly tended gardens as well as wild foliage surrounding lakes, temples and wildlife sanctuaries.

From many angles throughout the city a huge statue of a serene Buddha may be seen contemplatively peering over the treetops.

A visit to the Peradeniya Botanic Gardens is worthwhile. This botanic garden was first built as a pleasure garden by a Sinhala king and was expanded by the British. Discover an amazing variety of trees, plants and flowers.

Visit the Lankatilake Temple built in 1314 in traditional Sinhala style. Then see the Gadaldeniya Temple, built almost exclusively in stone in the same year. Both these temples are on a hilltop with a commanding view of the countryside. It's also worth a visit to see the 14th century Embekke Devalaya, built using wood.

Take a drive around Kandy Lake, built by the last Sinhala king in 1798. Explore the bazaar, the arts and crafts center, and stop by the gem museum and lapidary. Kandy is a good place to take in a cultural show featuring traditional Sri Lankan dancing for an authentic Sri Lanka travel experience. Ask your Travel Specialist to include an evening performance during your stay.

Lastly, no visit to Kandy is complete without a stop at the Temple of the Tooth Relic. A tooth purportedly belonging to Buddha is thought to be interred within the walls of this dagoba. Join the boisterous crowd of locals as they wait in line to peer through a small opening in hopes of glimpsing the tooth. Unlike the deeply contemplative spirituality of Tibetan Buddhism, or the calm contentedness of the Thais, Buddhism in Sri Lanka often manifests a rambunctious, chaotic quality generally associated with the mind-blowing vagaries of Hinduism. Nowhere is this more apparent than at Kandy's tooth relic, where banging cymbals serenade jostling worshippers, many of whom appear less concerned with the Eightfold Path than with the suspect presence of dental remnants. There is a good natured, wacky feel to the ritual, and it is a quintessentially Sri Lanka travel experience.

Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage

On a day trip from Kandy (or from Colombo to Dambulla) it is possible to visit the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage. Established in 1975, this orphanage is now home to about 60 elephants, many of whom are baby elephants that were found orphaned in the wild. They are cared for, fed and trained by wildlife authorities.

The best time to visit is during the feeding times, when you can see baby elephants being bottle-fed. Then accompany the elephants as they venture to a nearby river for their daily baths. This is a delightful sight, and provides insight into the close bond between humans and elephants in Sri Lanka.

Uda Walawe National Park

Sri Lanka has a recorded history of protecting the environment that goes back over 2,000 years. A reverence for wildlife is a central tenet of Buddhism, and in Sri Lankan society it formed the basis for establishing sanctuaries.

By royal decree, what may be the world's first wildlife sanctuary was established circa 200 B.C.

Furthermore, the larger environment was, and is, seen as sacred and endowed with a spiritual presence, almost as though it were a living being. The fortunate upshot of this philosophy is that Sri Lanka is home to nearly 100 protected areas, including vast wilderness reserves and numerous wildlife sanctuaries. Uda Walawe is one such sanctuary, and its logistical ease makes it a great choice for a Sri Lanka itinerary.

Enjoy a 4WD-and-walking wildlife safari at this superb park. It is world famous for its elephants-whole herds of them, adults and babies-bathing and playing in the water and feeding. You may also see spotted deer, sambar, barking deer, gray langur, water buffalo and jackal. A profusion of birdlife is in evidence, including crested serpent eagle, changeable hawk eagle, grey-headed fishing eagle, painted stork, Indian cormorant, Malabar pied hornbill, blue-faced malkoha, common coucal, and grey hornbill.

Nuwara Eliya

Take a scenic drive through landscape that transforms from steamy tropical jungle to mountainous tea plantations as you head into the county's hill stations. Quaint roadside stalls dot the landscape, with welcoming locals plying fresh fruit and betel nut.

Nuwara Eliya is Sri Lanka's most popular hill resort and the heart of Sri Lanka's tea industry, producing a significant share of the world's best tea. The island's highest mountain Pidurutalagala (8,282 feet) forms a beautiful backdrop. Stroll through the green rolling hills of the plantation, then tour the tea factory and learn how tea is grown and produced. Take the opportunity to concoct your our own custom blend for a great gift for friends back home or a lovely memento of your Sri Lanka travel experience. A section of the tea factory has been converted into a lovely hotel, which makes for a comfortable stay in this area.

Galle

This 17th century port city is the finest example of a fortified city built by Europeans in South Asia. It showcases the melding of European architectural styles and South Asian traditions. Unlike the ancient ruined cities in the island's interior, Galle is a living city and still a major shipping center. Stroll the walls of the historic Fort at dusk, and visit the Dutch Period Museum within its walls.