Six of the Best: UNESCO World Heritage sites in Sri Lanka

SIGIRIYA ROCK FORTRESS

As impressive as Cambodia's Angkor temples and the ancient Inca city Machu Picchu in Peru, the lesser-known Sigiriya Rock Fortress consists of the remains of two palaces built in the fifth century. The winter palace, later a Buddhist monastery, was built on top of the rock 350 metres above sea level. It can be reached by climbing more than 1200 stairs (those afraid of heights should probably give it a miss). The summer palace below featured four elaborate gardens, including a water garden where the king's 500 concubines would bathe topless while he looked on. There's also a fascinating archaeological museum showcasing a treasure trove of artefacts, including stone tools, deities and recreations of the sultry frescoes of damsels, from the rock's caves. See srilanka.travel

POLONNARUWA

Most famous for its large statues of Buddha forged out of granite, Polonnaruwa was built by King Parakramabahu in the 12th century and served as the medieval capital for two centuries before the Indian army invaded. It remained overgrown until it was rediscovered when the British arrived in the 19th century. It's easy to spend a day exploring the relics of the ancient garden city, which include the ruins of the royal palace, circular Buddhist temples built to protect stupas, pavilions where monks chanted, Hindu temples, monasteries and council chambers. See whc.unesco.org/en/list/201

GALLE

Recognised for its mix of European and Asian architectural styles, the walled city of Galle was founded on the south coast by the Portuguese in the 16th century, fortified by the Dutch and later colonised by the British. Many of its colonial-style buildings have been converted into boutique hotels, art galleries, jewellery stores and cafes, and its narrow streets buzz with brightly coloured tuk-tuks. Walk along the wall and circumnavigate the city, see Sri Lanka's oldest lighthouse and learn about traditional fishing methods at the Marine Archaeological Museum before stopping at Pedlar's Inn Café, on the ground floor of the former British post office in Pedlar St, for a refreshing mango lassi. See srilanka.travel

DAMBULLA CAVE TEMPLE

From the roadside, the kitsch Golden Temple, with its neon sign and 30-metre high golden Buddha on top, doesn't look overly inviting. But it's worth hiking up the hill behind the modern temple and past the mischievous monkeys to the ancient Dambulla cave complex. A sacred pilgrimage site for more than 2000 years, it consists of five caves carved out of granite filled with statues of Buddha, Sri Lankan kings and Hindu gods and goddesses. Murals depicting the life of Buddha also decorate the rock walls. The largest cave, the Temple of the Great King, is more than 50 metres wide and seven metres tall. See whc.unesco.org/en/list/561

KANDY

In the centre of the country just over 100 kilometres from the capital, Colombo, Kandy is home to the Temple of the Tooth Relic, where Lord Buddha's left upper canine is said to have been enshrined after it was taken from him on his funeral pyre in India and brought to Sri Lanka for protection in 313AD. Tourists and pilgrims queue up to see the golden casket which houses the tooth at the temple in the royal palace complex. At an altitude of nearly 500 metres above sea level, the city is surrounded by hills and centred around a large, man-made lake. See srilanka.travel

CENTRAL HIGHLANDS

In the south-central part of Sri Lanka, the Central Highlands encompasses three wilderness areas recognised for their biodiversity. Horton Plains National Park has several endemic species, including the Horton Plains slender loris, the endangered western purple-faced langur and the Sri Lankan leopard. One of its highlights is a four-kilometre hike to see the Baker's Falls waterfall and take in the view from World's End lookout. The Peak Wilderness Protected Area includes Adam's Peak, which has a 1.8-metre footprint of Lord Buddha near the summit, while Knuckles Conservation Forest, in the Knuckles Mountain Range, was named because it resembles a clenched fist. See srilanka.travel

Angela Saurine travelled as a guest of G Adventures.

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