Historic sites in Sri Lanka

If you’re looking to explore Historic Sites in Sri Lanka and the surrounding area then you can explore our interactive map above or navigate further by using the links below.

There’s a fantastic selection of  Historic Sites in Sri Lanka and you can plan some great things to see on your trips by browsing our selection. Once you’ve explored the  Historic Sites in Sri Lanka you can use our itinerary planner tool to plan out your trip and then print off a free pocket guidebook.

Our database of historic sites is growing all the time, but we may not cover them all. Remember, if you know of other  Historic Sites in Sri Lanka, you can always add them to Trip Historic now by visiting our upload page.
 

Sri Lanka: Site Index

Photo by YIM Hafiz (cc)

Anuradhapura

Anuradhapura is a sacred ancient city in Sri Lanka the remains of which are UNESCO-listed.

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Anuradhapura is a sacred ancient city in Sri Lanka which was founded in the fourth century BC and whose beautiful ruins are UNESCO-listed. Over time, Anuradhapura became one of the great capitals of Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon), garnering both political and religious significance.

The third century BC saw Anuradhapura grow in importance for the Buddhist faith. In around 250 BC Anuradhapura gained its first Buddhist sovereign, Tissa and, in the same century, the city was gifted with a highly sacred object in the shape of a tree cutting. The fig tree from which the cutting originated is believed to be the same one under which Siddharta – the founder of Buddhism - became enlightened. Today, visitors can see the tree which is said to have grown from this cutting, which attracts Buddhist pilgrims from around the world.

The kings of Anuradhapura ruled for centuries, establishing a series of impressive monuments, from palaces and monasteries to sculptures and dagobas. However, the city suffered numerous attacks by the Tamils, Pandyas and Cholas. The final blow occurred in around 993 AD with an attack by King Chola Rajaraja I, after which Anuradhapura was abandoned in favour of Polonnaruwa.

Today, the modern city of Anuradhapura houses an incredible set of ruins belonging to its ancient counterpart, especially Buddhist shrines. There are numerous stupas and dagabas (mounds which house sacred relics), including the beautiful Ruwanwelisaya stupa with its thousands of elephant sculptures, the Thuparamaya and the vast Jetavanarama.

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Colombo National Museum

The Colombo National Museum is a museum of Sri Lankan history and art.

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The Colombo National Museum houses an interesting collection of historic artefacts and artwork from throughout Sri Lanka. Spread out over two floors, the Colombo National Museum is well organised, with each room on the ground floor dedicated to a different period and each room on the upper floor to a different theme.

From stone and bone tools in the prehistoric and proto-historic section to Sinhalese artefacts from the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruva periods right through to the Kandy period, the Colombo National Museum gives a good overview of Sri Lanka’s history.

On the upper floor, visitors can see everything from nineteenth century art to a collection of weaponry.

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Gal Vihara

Gal Vihara is a set of twelfth century stone statues of Buddha in the city of Polonnaruwa.

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Gal Vihara, also known as Gal Viharaya, are a series of stone sculptures of Buddha built during the reign of Sinhalese king Parakrama Bahu (1153–1186) in the city of Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka.

Originally part of the king’s Northern Monastery, the Gal Vihara is comprised of four such carvings, each with an individual pose – thought to each represent a different stage in Buddha’s life - and of different sizes.

The largest one is 46 feet high and depicts a reclining Buddha while the oldest of the group, which shows Buddha standing, is 23 feet high. Today, the Gal Vihara statues are contained within an unsightly metal structure, but are still well worth seeing.

Kandy National Museum

The Kandy National Museum is a museum of the history and culture of this city.

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The Kandy National Museum is a museum of the history of the city of Kandy, particularly as it relates to the Kandyan period, between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. It is housed in what was the Palle Vahala – home of the country’s queens (and concubines) – during the reign of Sri Wickrama Rajasingha (1780-1832).

Today, the Kandy National Museum displays an array of historical objects – over five thousand in all – right up to the 1815 document that transferred power to the British.

Photo by james.gordon6108 (cc)

Kiri Vihara

The Kiri Vihara is a twelfth century dagoba in Polonnaruwa.

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Kiri Vihara is a dagoba in the medieval UNESCO-listed city of Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka. A dagoba is a mound which holds in the relics of a sacred person and it is believed that the Kiri Vihara was dedicated to Subhadra, the queen of King Parakramabahu (1153-1186).

Like other dagobas, Kiri Vihara is a domed structure, which would have been a stark white colour (in fact, its current name means “milk white shrine”).

Photo by rahuldlucca (cc)

Lankatilaka Vihara

The Lankatilaka Vihara is a twelfth century sacred shrine in Polonnaruwa which houses a giant medieval Buddha statue.

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Lankatilaka Vihara was a large sacred building known as a “gedige” in the medieval city of Polonnaruwa which would be used to house images of Buddha. One such impressive sculpture of Buddha remains in the ruins of Lankatilaka, albeit without its head.

The Lankatilaka Vihara is believed to have been built during the reign of Parakramabahu (1153-1186) and to have been restored by Vijayabahu IV (1513-21).

Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa contains the UNESCO-listed ruins of what was the medieval capital of Ceylon.

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Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka was initially a temporary royal residence in the eighth century AD. However in the late tenth century, it became a capital city of Ceylon (the former name of Sri Lanka) after the ancient capital of Anuradhapura was conquered and destroyed by King Chola Rajaraja I. The Chola dynasty favoured Polonnaruwa over Anuradhapura as it was thought to be easier to defend.

Despite this reasoning, in 1070, King Vijayabahu I of the Sinhalese kingdom conquered Polonnaruwa and made it his capital, exiling the Cholas. Vijayabahu set about adorning Polonnaruwa with Buddhist monuments, as opposed to the Brahmanist monuments of the Chola dynasty.

Overall, Polonnaruwa would remain the capital for three centuries, with the twelfth century seeing a mass building project undertaken under King Parakramabahu I.

Parakramabahu constructed beautiful palaces, monuments, parks and gardens. The well-preserved ruins of many of the structures built during this time can be seen at Polonnaruwa today, such as its star attraction, the collection of vast Buddha sculptures known as the Gal Vihara.

Another monument created under Parakramabahu is the Lankatilaka, a grand sacred structure known as a “gedige” which houses a large headless Buddha statue.

The monuments of ancient Polonnaruwa are within easy reach of one another within the modern city, with many tourists hiring bicycles to get around.

Polonnaruwa has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1982.

Polonnaruwa Archaeological Museum

The Polonnaruwa Archaeological Museum houses artefacts from this medieval capital.

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The Polonnaruwa Archaeological Museum exhibits finds excavated from the medieval city of Polonnaruwa, a UNESCO-listed site.

This is a great place to start a trip to Polonnaruwa, particularly as its models of the city’s buildings allow visitors to see what they would have looked like.

Moving through the museum, visitors can learn about this former capital by theme and the highlights include a series of Chola bronzes.

Polonnaruwa Council Chamber

The Polonnaruwa Council Chamber was the throne room of the king.

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The Polonnaruwa Council Chamber is a mound which was once the site of the king’s throne. The throne is now housed in the Colombo Archaeological Museum.

Polonnaruwa Royal Palace

The Polonnaruwa Royal Palace was the regal home of King Parakramabahu.

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The Polonnaruwa Royal Palace was the once grand residence of King Parakramabahu (1153-1186).

At its peak, the Polonnaruwa Royal Palace would have been a complex of buildings, some as high as seven storeys. What remains now are a pretty set of ruins, with some walls still standing.

Just south of the main palace, one can see the remains of the king’s audience hall and his bathing pools.

Sigiriya

Sigiriya is a vast rock used over time as a Buddhist monastery and as a fifth century royal fortress.

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Sigiriya in Sri Lanka combines a natural phenomenon with history and religion. Comprised of a vast red rock mound rising over a thousand feet, it is thought that Sigiriya (meaning “Lion Rock”) was originally inhabited during the third century BC, when a Buddhist monastery was founded there.

In the fifth century AD, it is thought that Sigiriya’s use changed from a sacred site to a royal one. It is said that, having assassinated his father King Dhatusena and taken the throne, King Kassapa I of the Anuradhapura Kingdom sought an easily defensible place to build his palace and that he chose to construct it atop Sigiriya.

The ruins of Kassapa’s castle can still be seen there today and include the remnants of a city at the foot of the rock. From these ruins, it is evident that the king’s city was a grand one with gardens, monuments and, of course, his palace.

In the late fifth century, Kassapa was defeated in battle and Sigiriya once again became a Buddhist monastery, eventually falling into decline.

One of the most notable sites at Sigiriya is its series of frescoes depicting numerous female figures. Originally, there would have been hundreds of similar frescoes. There is a debate as to whether these were created under Kassapa or whether these were the creation of the Buddhist monks as numerous representations of one of their deities.

Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1982, Sigiriya is now open to the public.

Temple of the Tooth

The Temple of the Tooth is one of the most sacred Buddhist shrines. UNESCO-listed.

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The Temple of the Tooth (Dalada Maligawa) is a colourful temple which is said to hold the tooth of Buddha – one of the most important Buddhist relics.

The subject of fierce fighting, it is said that the tooth was first brought to Sri Lanka in the fourth century AD. However, the Temple of the Tooth itself was first built in 1603, with the current temple dating back to the eighteenth century.

The Temple of the Tooth was part of Kandy, a royal city founded in the fourteenth century and which became the capital in the sixteenth century. Subject to various colonial invasions, Kandy fell to the British in 1815. The Royal City of Kandy is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Visitors to the Temple of the Tooth can learn more about this sacred relic in a small museum. Visitors cannot view the actual tooth – a fact which had added to conspiracy theories as to its authenticity – but can view the elaborate case which holds it.

The Abhayagiri Dagoba

The Abhayagiri Dagoba is a Buddhist monastery built in around the second or first century BC.

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The Abhayagiri Dagoba is a Buddhist shrine in the UNESCO-listed ancient city of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka.

Probably built in the second or first century BC, the Abhayagiri Dagoba was an important Buddhist monastery of its time and remains a pilgrimage site.

The Brazen Palace

The Brazen Palace was a grand structure built in the second century in the ancient city of Anuradhapura.

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The Brazen Palace (Lovamahapaya) in Anuradhapura was once a magnificent structure initially built during the reign of King Dutugemunu of Sri Lanka (161BC-137BC).

Rebuilt on several occasions, at its peak, it would have had over a thousand rooms and would have risen nine storeys.

Today, the sole remains of the Brazen Palace are 1,600 neatly aligned granite columns arranged in forty rows.

The Dambulla Cave Temple

The Dambulla Cave Temple is a sacred Buddhist site carved into caves as early as the third century BC.

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The Dambulla Cave Temple, often known as the Royal Rock Temple, is made up of series of five caves instilled with over twenty centuries of history and imbued with religious significance. The temple contains a wealth of Buddhist art, including numerous statues and murals of Buddha.

Inhabited since prehistoric times, it was in the third century BC that a monastery was initially constructed at Dambulla. In the first century AD, the caves began to be transformed into shrines, a process which continued until the eighteenth century. The largest and grandest of the caves is the second one, known as Maharaja Vihara.

Since 1991, the Dambulla Cave Temple has been a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Jetavanarama Dagoba

The Jetavanarama Dagoba is a vast Buddhist shrine in Anuradhapura built in the third century AD.

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The Jetavanarama Dagoba is a vast Buddhist shrine – once the third tallest monument in the world – in Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka believed to hold part of a sash worn by Buddha.

With its huge dome and reddish-copper hue – accounted for by the millions of burnt bricks used to build it - Jetavanarama Dagoba is an incredible structure. Its construction was begun in the third century AD by King Mahasena.

The Kuttam Pokuna

The Kuttam Pokuna are two well-preserved ancient pools in Anuradhapura.

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The Kuttam Pokuna are a pair of pools in the ancient city of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka.

Possibly built in the second or first century BC, they are extremely well preserved, with their stone steps still intact.

The Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba

The Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba is a sacred second century BC Buddhist site in Anuradhapura.

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The Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba is a magnificent Buddhist sacred site in the ancient city of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka.

Begun during the reign of King Dutugemunu (161BC-137BC), the Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba is a pretty white domed structure, although it is a shadow of its original glory, having suffered damage over the years.

The Sri Maha Bodhi Tree

The Sri Maha Bodhi Tree is derived from a cutting of the tree under which Buddha was enlightened.

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The Sri Maha Bodhi Tree is one of Anuradhapura’s most important Buddhist sites and is a sacred place of pilgrimage.

It is thought that the Sri Maha Bodhi Tree grew out of a cutting of the fig tree under which Buddha himself gained enlightenment. This would make it up to 2,000 years old.

Visitors flock to see the Sri Maha Bodhi Tree, which is surrounded by railing and adorned with prayer flags.

Thuparamaya

Thuparamaya is a third century BC Buddhist shrine believed to hold one of Buddha’s relics.

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Thuparamaya is believed to be the first ever Buddhist dagoba built in Sri Lanka. Constructed in around the third century BC by King Devanampiya Tissa, Thuparamaya, which is also known as the Thuparama Dagoba, is a white domed structure in the ancient city of Anuradhapura.

The shrine is most notable for housing one of the relics of Buddha – his right collarbone – making it a pilgrimage site for Buddhists from around the world.