Sigiriya Drawings
© BT Images

Ancient sites and historical places to visit in Sri Lanka

Wander among ancient ruins and immerse yourself in Sri Lanka's unique history and spiritual heritage

By Time Out editors

Sri Lanka is a country rich in history: the cultural triangle covering Anuradhapura, Dambulla and Kandy, the eight ancient kingdoms, impressive colonial architecture, numerous UNESCO world heritage sites and the ancient rock fortress at Sigiriya, to name but a few. Even if you’re not a history nerd, you’re sure to be be impressed when you see some of the jaw-dropping feats accomplished by ancient civilisations. Whether you want to learn about traditional ways of life or explore the island’s historical religious influences, our guide to Sri Lanka’s historical sites will help point you in the right direction.


Attractions Historic buildings and sites Anuradhapura

An incredible city of the past, Anuradhapura brings to life scared historic sites, structures and tales of yore. Boasting numerous age-old Buddhist temples, archaeological evidence of the existence of mighty kingdoms dating from as far back as and even before the 5th Century BC, its sprawling walkways yield views of ancient ruins and magnificent stupas rising over countless neem and bodhi trees, which are home to langur monkeys. Some of Anuradhapura’s voluminous, revered sites include the Sri Maha Bodhi, known to have grown from a cutting taken off the bodhi tree under which Buddha was enlightened; Ruwanweliseya, a giant stupa built by King Dutugemunu; Thuparamaya, believed to be the first dagoba built after the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka; Samadhi Statue, an eight feet structure of one of Buddha’s meditation postures, and a similar standing Buddha known as Aukana; Abhayagiriya dagoba built by King Valagamba; Isurumuniya, a ruin of a once stone carving near Tisawewa; Jethawanaramaya, once a great temple civilisation as evidenced by its many ruins… and many more. The best way to get to Anuradhapura is on the Colombo-Kurunegala-Anuradhapura road or book a ride on the Colombo-Anuradhapura train. 


Attractions Historic buildings and sites Polonnaruwa

A city renowned for its ancient ruins, Polonnaruwa’s kingdom once reigned supreme over the island for a relatively short period, from the 11th to the 13th Century. Its archaeological square is a great place to experience age-old artefacts; tombs, stupas, structural remains of temples and statues.  The statue of King Parakramabahu I is one to look out for. This king was responsible for the building of several monasteries and temples during his rule. The Thuparamaya shrine room was one of the first structures and the King’s Royal Palace also stakes claim to the magnificence of his well known architectural sense.  Another prominent ancient structure is the Nissankalata Mandapaya or King Nissankamalla’s (1187-1196) Council Chamber.  Hailing from the Kalinga Dynasty, this King too was accountable for major organisational developments in the Polonnaruwa kingdom. 



Attractions Historic buildings and sites Matale

When many talk of the city of Sigiriya, they’re usually referring to its ancient Rock Fortress as this mass of 600 ft rock was actually presumed a city in itself. Its King, Kasyapa (477-495AD) reigned from this fortress, which was also his palace, ornamented with what was believed to be over 500 frescoes of women. These, have now faded, however a few are still visible on parts of the rock faces.  Other sites along the climb up to the Rock’s summit include ancient moats, walkways, ruins of what once used to be gardens or courtyards, ponds and stairwells. The ascent begins at an entrance way through a large carving of a lion; the remnants of its stone paws clearly noticeable. There are  corridors that lead to glimpses of giant worn frescoes, and at the summit or Sky palace, smaller ruins.  Take the Colombo-Katunayaka expressway and follow through to Minuwangoda and then towards Kurunegala… Sigiriya is accessible there on. Another way is via Kandy. 


Attractions Historic buildings and sites Kandy

An ancient kingdom, renowned for its architecture, age-old tradition and its veneration of the Buddhist culture; cities on the island don’t get any more traditional than Kandy. The last kingdom in Sri Lanka (15th-19th Century) is now a vastly populated metropolis, with as many people as there are ancient structures still preserved. Kandy is definitely eye candy for those looking to take an express tour of a city that’s even in the family of world heritage sites.  The Temple of the Scared Tooth Relic rests on the hallowed square where also is seen the four shrines of the gods Vishnu, Natha, Kataragama deviyo, and the goddess Pattini. Alongside this centre square are museums with artefacts from the former kingdom.  Kandy Lake was built by the last king and boats can be hired to tour the lake and gaze at the ancient temples. Don’t miss out on a visit to the historic Embekke, a wooden temple with intricately carved wooden pillars, off Pilimatalawa. If you visit in August then you will be in time for lovely weather as well a spectacle that brings visitors from the world over every year to watch: the Kandy Perahera.   The Colombo-Kandy train ride to Kandy is definitely recommended.



Attractions Historic buildings and sites Jaffna

An agricultural marvel, although without lakes and rivers, it’s amazing what productiveness past kingdoms can throw so far into the future that they are still ongoing to this day. The Keeramalei tank still supplies fresh water for many savoured agricultural food products, which are only grown best in Jaffna.  Although predominantly a Hindu city, Nagadeepa temple, a boat ride from the Jaffna peninsula, a historic site, fosters evidence of Buddhist culture that existed over 2,500 years ago.  Other popular sites include: Nilavarei bottomless well, the island of Delft, just off the peninsula; the ancient Kovils of Nallur and Vallipuram which practice traditions received from centuries past; Jaffna Fort hailing from Portuguese colonial times. The Jaffna library has been recently rebuilt in its former traditional style.  Take the train for a comfortable, no hassle trip to Jaffna or drive, taking the A9 route, or it’s also possible to fly there. 


Attractions Historic buildings and sites Kurunegala

Yapahuwa is a 300ft rock fortress that was once home to Buddha’s Sacred Tooth Relic and also the capital of Sri Lanka during the reign of King Buvenekabahu (1273-1284 AD). It is often scaled  as an alternative to climbing Sigiriya. The rock kingdom was heavily guarded with a moat and a high-rise wall. The Yapahuwa stone Lion sits smiling at its visitors while an amazing stone stairway revives evidence of an entrance to the King’s fortress, which was also his royal palace. A cave temple, the Yapahuwa Raja Maha Vihara was built by the king for monks at the rock’s summit. Recent archaeological excavations uncovered remnants of Chinese ceramics and it is believed that the King may have had ties with China.  Yapahuwa is just three miles from Kurunegala; a scenic walk would be a great to experience the countryside or public transport is always an option.



Attractions Historic buildings and sites Galle

For culture and tradition with a bonus of sights, sea and sun, then Galle would be your hot spot for an intriguing time in the past, as well as enjoying time in the present. Galle was a thriving hub for commercial trade even before the Dutch era. Today trading is less although tourist business supplements the income from cinnamon and fisheries.     Historic sites to look out for:  Galle Fort, overlooking the Indian Ocean; declared a World Heritage site, the Fort itself is a vibrant part of this city as is apparent as you walk through its inner streets,  where houses have been converted into restaurants, art galleries and antique and fashionable shops.  The Dutch Reformed Church, since 1754, located in the Fort has records of matrimonies and baptisms. The former Dutch hospital that expanded to become government offices under the British and Sri Lankan administrations has been transformed into the Old Dutch Hospital Shopping Complex with gem shops and restaurants. Other sites worthy of visiting due to their historical value include the Galapatha Temple, located not far from the main city, which houses the tooth relic of Arhat Maha Kassapa, a revered monk, who lived out his Bikku life in the temple; the Richmond castle;  Nupe market and the Keechimalai mosque. Another must see is the ancient technique of pole fishing that could be witnessed along the shallow waters of the southern Coast starting from the Galle District.  Galle is just over an hour’s drive via the southern


Attractions Historic buildings and sites Dambulla

The home of the iconic Cave, Rock or Golden Temple, Dambulla is definitely one site that shouldn’t be missed. While 150 Buddha statues fill up five caves within the temple, paintings thought to be from far back as the 8th Century, shed light on various eras of its representation.  Although there isn’t a whole lot to see around town, be sure to take advantage of scenic walks nestled in its surroundings.  A distribution hub for local agricultural produce from neighbouring country farms and also vegetables from Nuwara Eliya, numerous stalls, as far as the eye can see, selling freshly harvested items along the main road is a fascinating sight. Dambulla can be easily accessed by visitors passing through Kandy and Kurunegala.  



Attractions Historic buildings and sites Kataragama

If veneration takes you anywhere in Sri Lanka, then Kataragama should be your first place to visit. Frequented by thousands of devotees and pilgrims from various religious backgrounds, particularly Hindus and Buddhists, through the ages travelling here to receive blessings for a new house, car, children’s education, good health, and for absolutely anything as a matter fact, Kataragama is considered the home of true sanctity. Why? Mainly for its many temples and houses of worship. The shrines and stupas within these temples are timeless pieces of work, dating as far back as the 1st Century BC. Kirivehera stupa is one such structure. The Maha Devalaya, just beyond, houses three main shrines, with its dedication being to a principle deity, god Katharagama.  Sella Kataragama is a little town located a few kilometres from the city. It boasts pleasant walkways and humbly scenic surroundings. It is also recognised as the place where god Kataragama met one of his partners, Valli Amma, under the tamarind trees. Don’t miss: Tissamaharmaya, a neighbouring city to Katharagama; renowned for making the best buffalo curd in the country, the view from atop Vedihiti Kanda, and Kebilitha Devalaya in heart of Yala National Park.


Attractions Historic buildings and sites Trincomalee

Renowned for its pristine beaches, this town on the east coast has another appeal mostly for lovers of history and culture, as well as beach activities and even whale watching expeditions.   A once ancient sea port responsible for transit points from where many aspects of the Buddhist culture was spread across Sri Lanka, Trincomalee, then called Siri Gonamala, has a  history dating back to about the 6th Century BC.  Vehera Gala temple used to stand where the Portuguese built Fort Fredrick now rests, and which dates back to the 16th Century.  Tiriyaya Stupa and Koneswaram temple, two of some of the earliest religious edifices built in Trinco, show how intermingled Buddhist and Hindu cultures were then.  The legendary Kannya hot springs, still miraculously brimming away, go back nearly 26 centuries, is something from the past that’s refreshingly mind boggling.  Trincomalee can be accessed through Habarana. 


    You may also like