Have you ever visited Sri Lanka? If you did, you would probably say that there is no other place like it. Colorful culture, smiling sun all year round, beautiful beaches, delicious food, ancient cities, scenic waterfalls, wildlife safaris, nature hiking, ayurvedic therapies, striking festivals and lovely people. Where else can you get all these things in one place?
This small exotic island is abundant with spectacular discoveries suited for any visitor. While there are a lot of well-known and even unknown sights in the country, in this article, I am going to mention the top 5 iconic places to visit in Sri Lanka.
1. Sigiriya (The Lion’s Rock)
Locals refer to Sigiriya as “the Eighth World Wonder.” It’s in the northern Mathale District, between the towns of Dambulla and Habarana in the Central Province of Sri Lanka. At 200 meters (661 ft), the Sigiriya Rock Fortress is rising high above the surrounding jungle. According to the “Mahavanshaya” and “Choolavanshaya” (ancient Sri Lankan chronicles), Sigiriya was built by the King Kashyapa (477-495 CE) and pronounced as his new capital.
Sigiriya’s complex includes remnants of a ruined palace, encircled by an extensive network of fortifications, vast gardens, ponds, canals, alleys, and fountains. Some of the hydraulic systems are surprisingly still working to this day. The main entrance’s design includes a huge stone lion, whose feet have survived as well, though the upper parts of his body did not.
Katapath Pawra (The Mirror Wall) is one of the most striking features of Sigiriya. In the old days, it was polished so thoroughly that the King Kashyapa could see his own reflection in it. The Mirror Wall also has numerous inscriptions and poems written on its walls. Lastly, Sigiriya features some of the oldest landscaped gardens in the world.
- Opening hours: 7:00am – 5.00pm. The best light to take a good shot of Sigiriya’s rock on a sunny day is in the afternoon. If you want to avoid the midday heat plus beat the crowds, be there around 7:00am sharp (or in the early afternoon)
- Time required: 4-5 hours
- Price: around $30 USD or 3330 LKR (adult)
- Accommodations: the nearest hotel is called “Hotel Sigiriya.”
2. The Temple of Tooth – Kandy
The Temple of Tooth, also known as “Sri Dalada Maligawa” is a stunning temple in the city of Kandy in Sri Lanka. It was once part of a royal complex, and it houses the only surviving relic of Buddha, his tooth – hence it’s name. Furthermore, this sacred relic has played an important role in the local politics since the ancient times. According to an old belief, whoever held the Temple of Tooth’s relic would hold the governance of the whole country, which caused the kings to protect the temple with great effort. As to the city of Kandy – it used to be the capital of the Sinhalese kings.
Nowadays, it’s a very popular tourist and pilgrimage site in Sri Lanka, due to its significant historical background as well as its beautiful design. On the outside, the Temple of Tooth might not look as magnificent or elaborately decorated as it does inside. Its simple white and red rooftops, cluster around the Kandy Lake. However, in striking contrast to the plain exterior, the temple’s interiors are richly carved and are decorated with inlaid woods, ivory, and lacquer.
- Opening hours: 5:30am – 8:00pm; the tooth relic is usually brought out at 6:00pm; also try to avoid visiting during the Poya days
- Time required: 1-3 hours
- Price: around $10USD (adult)
- Official Website: www.sridaladamaligawa.lk
3. Dambulla Cave Temple (Rangiri Viharaya)
Dambulla Cave Temple, also known as “Rangiri Dambulu Viharaya” or “The Golden Temple” is in the city of Dambulla, which is 148 kilometers east of Colombo and 72 kilometers north of Kandy. It is one of the seven World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka. This temple was built by the King Walagamba (89-77 BC).
You can access the Cave Temple’s premises only through the Vahalkada entrance. Upon passing the gate, you will step onto the stone paved terrace of the Cave Temple. There’s a Bo tree right in front and a small temple called “Devaraja Viharaya” on the right side. There are five caves in total, and they all differ in size. Each cave hosts numerous large, and old statues of Buddha. It’s one of the best places to relax your mind.
- Opening hours: 7:00 am – 7:00 pm; it’s best to come here early in the morning
- Time required: 3-4 hours
- Price: around $10USD (adult)
4. Horton Plains National Park
The Horton Plains National Park is a splendid park situated in the highlands of Sri Lanka. It was also known as “Maha Eliya” in the ancient times. It’s about 20km south of Nuwara Eliya and 20km west of Haputhale. The average annual temperature in this area is around 16C. Although, with high winds in the evening, it can be quite chilly.
The park covers 3,160 hectares and is a mixture of highland forests and wet grassland. It’s the only national park in Sri Lanka where visitors are allowed to walk on their own, on some designated tracks. There are no accommodations at the site, except two lodges and three camping sites, which you must reserve in advance.
Sambar deer is the most common animal there, though you can also spot wild boars, leopards and Sri Lankan white-eye birds in this area. Nearly 750 species of plants from 20 different families grow in the park. “Maha Rath Mal” tree is one of the most attractive local plants in the Horton Plains. In addition, two of the most popular places in the park are the “World’s End” and the “Baker’s Falls.” The “World’s End” is a breathtaking 4,000 feet straight vertical drop. As to the “Baker’s Falls,” you will find them about 3.3 km away from the trailhead.
- Opening hours: 6:00am – 6:00pm; best to visit it during early afternoon (between 11:00am – 2:00pm)
- Time required: 3 – 6 hours
- Price: around $20USD (adult)
5. Polonnaruwa Ancient City
The Polonnaruwa Ancient City lies 216 km northeast of Colombo, 140 km northeast of Kandy and 104 km southeast of Anuradhapura in the north-central province of Sri Lanka. This medieval city is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site which rose to fame as the capital (between 10th – 12th century AD) after the decline of Anuradhapura.
This well-preserved sight includes some ancient dagobas, moonstones, beautiful parks, massive buildings and stunningly beautiful statues. The majestic King’s Council Chamber, the Lotus Bath, the Pothgul Viharaya, Thiwanka Pilima Geya, the Lanka Thilaka Viharaya, the Gal Viharaya (rock temple) and the statue of one of Polonnaruwa’s great kings, Parakramabahu, are just a few of this capital’s memorable sights.
- Opening hours: 7:30am – 6:00pm; it’s best to visit during late mid-afternoon since it gets very hot in the early afternoon; plus you are not allowed to wear your shoes upon entering some religious places, like “Thiwanka Pilima Geya.”
- Time required: 3 – 7 hours
- Price: around $25USD (adult)