The ruins of Anuradhapura are one of South Asia’s most evocative sights. The sprawling complex contains a rich collection of archaeological and architectural wonders: enormous dagobas (brick stupas), ancient pools and crumbling temples, built during Anuradhapura’s thousand years of rule over Sri Lanka. Today several of the sites remain in use as holy places and temples; frequent ceremonies give Anuradhapura a vibrancy that’s a sharp contrast to the museum-like ambience at Polonnaruwa.
Kings ruled the central plains of Sri Lanka from Polonnaruwa 800 years ago, when it was a thriving commercial and religious centre. The glories of that age can be found in the archaeological treasures that still give a pretty good idea of how the city looked in its heyday. You’ll find the archaeological park a delight to explore, with hundreds of ancient structures – tombs and temples, statues and stupas – in a compact core. The Quadrangle alone is worth the trip.
Rising dramatically from the central plains, the enigmatic rocky outcrop of Sigiriya is perhaps Sri Lanka’s single most dramatic sight. Near-vertical walls soar to a flat-topped summit that contains the ruins of an ancient civilisation, thought to be once the epicentre of the short-lived kingdom of Kassapa, and there are spellbinding vistas across mist-wrapped forests in the early morning.
Sigiriya refuses to reveal its secrets easily, and you’ll have to climb a series of vertiginous staircases attached to sheer walls to reach the top.
Dambulla’s famed rock cave temple is an iconic Sri Lankan image – you’ll be familiar with its spectacular Buddha-filled interior long before you arrive in town. Despite its slightly commercial air this remains an important holy place and should not be missed.
The town of Dambulla is of no interest, cursed by heavy traffic heading for one of Sri Lanka’s biggest wholesale markets. A night here is tolerable, but consider visiting the site as a day trip from the more relaxing environs of Kandy or Sigiriya.
Some days Kandy’s skies seem perpetually bruised, with stubborn mist clinging to the hills surrounding the city’s beautiful centrepiece lake. Delicate hill-country breezes impel the mist to gently part, revealing colourful houses amid Kandy’s improbable forested halo. In the centre of town, three-wheelers careen around slippery corners, raising a soft spray that threatens the silk saris worn by local women. Here’s a city that looks good even when it’s raining.
Galle is a jewel. A Unesco World Heritage Site, this historic city is a delight to explore on foot, an endlessly exotic old trading port blessed with imposing Dutch-colonial buildings, ancient mosques and churches, grand mansions and museums. Wandering its rambling lanes you’ll pass stylish cafes, quirky boutiques and impeccably restored hotels owned by local and foreign artists, writers, photographers and designers.
Sinharaja Forest Reserve is the largest lowland rainforest in Sri Lanka. This Unesco-listed, richly biodiverse habitat, bordered by rivers, is rich in wildlife, including rare mammals and many endemic birds. Unlike most Sri Lankan national parks, access to the forest is only on foot, accompanied by a ranger or guide. Most visitors base themselves in the nearby settlements of Deniyaya or Kudawa.
Because the forest is so dense, wildlife-spotting is not as easy here as it is in many other Sri Lankan reserves and parks. A good guide certainly helps.
CENTRAL HIGHLANDS (Horton Plains, Knuckles Mountain Range, Adams Peak)
Sri Lanka’s highlands are situated in the south-central part of the island. The property comprises the Peak Wilderness Protected Area, the Horton Plains National Park and the Knuckles Conservation Forest. These montane forests, where the land rises to 2,500 metres above sea-level, are home to an extraordinary range of flora and fauna, including several endangered species such as the western-purple-faced langur, the Horton Plains slender loris and the Sri Lankan leopard. The region is considered a super biodiversity hotspot.