Dating back five centuries before the birth of Christ, Sri Lanka’s early Sinhalese civilizations have bequeathed us some of Asia’s most spectacular ancient monuments, from the huge stupas of Anuradhapura and the jaw-dropping rock-top citadel of Sigiriya through to the gorgeously carved shrines and statues of Polonnaruwa and the intimate cave-temples of Dambulla. The following itinerary offers the ultimate tour of the most memorable monuments from the island’s extraordinarily long and rich religious and architectural history, easily do-able in between around five days and a week.
Begin at the beginning, in the ancient city of Anuradhapura, capital of the island for over a thousand years and the driving force behind Sri Lanka’s remarkable early civilization. Marvel at the city’s colossal stupas, bigger than any other structures ever built in the ancient world bar the great Egyptian pyramids, and at the ruins of the great monasteries which originally stood amongst them, then join the throngs of pilgrims paying their respects at the Sri Maha Bodhi, a venerable bo tree said to have been grown from a cutting taken from the original Indian tree under which the Buddha himself attained enlightenment. And be sure to take a half-day trip to nearby Mihintale, the place at which Buddhism was first introduced to the island, with frangipan-shaded pathways winding picturesquely between the temples.
Hire a car and driver and head south, stopping off at the forest monastery of Ritigala, with its ancient stone buildings half-buried in thick jungle, and then continue to the second of the island’s great ruined capitals: Polonnaruwa. Smaller and more easily digestible than Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa is home to the island’s finest cluster of ancient monuments, including the gorgeously carved Vatadage and the famous rock-carvings at the Gal Vihara, not to mention another collection of supersized stupas towering above the surrounding countryside.
From here it’s a short drive to the extraordinary ancient palace-citadel of Sigiriya. Perched atop a sheer-sided rock, Sigiriya seems to defy common-sense – not to mention gravity – and the climb to the top is one of the island’s most unforgettable experiences. Close by, the magical cave temples of Dambulla are home to a marvellous treasure trove of Sinhalese Buddhist art, stuffed with statues and colourful murals.
From here, you could continue due south, via the gorgeous little Hindu-influenced temple at Nalanda to Kandy, with its myriad temples and other historic monuments. Alternatively, if you want to really get off the beaten track continue northwest from Dambulla to the village of Aukana, home to the most famous of Sri Lanka’s many supersized Buddha statues and then continue to Yapahuwa, another of the island’s former capitals and home to assorted remains including the remarkable stone-staircase, guarded by snarling lions, which features on the island’s ten-rupee note.
Colombo Sri Lanka in a Day … idyllic temples and bustling bazaars
Explore Sri Lanka’s Galle Fort … historic stronghold on the southwest coast
Romantic Sri Lanka … share the love on one of Asia’s most romantic islands
Sri Lanka Family Holidays … something for all ages and interests
Sri Lanka Grand Tour … see the very best in two weeks
Sri Lanka Hill Walk Around Ella … hike through hills and tea plantations
Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle … the heart of the island’s most ancient kingdom
Sri Lanka’s Historic Anuradhapura … mapping your way through the myriad ruins and monuments
Sri Lanka’s Kandy in a Day … explore the temples, museums and music of the cultural capital
Sri Lanka’s Polonnaruwa … touring the stunning ruins and shrines of a great medieval capital
Sri Lanka’s Ten Best Beaches … sand and sea, plus plenty of great places to stay
Wild Sri Lanka … take a walk on the wild side through Sri Lanka’s spectacular landscapes and national parks