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For a small island, Sri Lanka sure packs a lot into its limited area. The island nation is now offering one-month visas on arrival to entice visitors back after it was rocked by explosions earlier this year and Australians are returning in support. Discover beautiful beaches and misty highlands filled with tea plantations, as well as national parks where elephants and leopard roam free. Arguably its greatest treasures, however, are its historical sites, from atmospheric temples to ancient cities that have been saved from the jungle. Be sure to add these UNESCO World Heritage-listed sites to your itinerary.
The Lion Rock
The Lion Rock fortress, also known as Sigiriya. Photo: Supplied
Sri Lanka's King Kassapa, who ruled 1500 years ago, knew how to make an impression. His grand palace, entered through a gate in the form of a huge stone lion, was surrounded by gardens: water gardens, boulder gardens, terraced gardens. The fact that he built this entire complex atop a giant rock plateau 200 metres above the surrounding jungle just adds to the effect. Exploring the ruins of Kassapa's palace, known as Sigiriya or Lion Rock, involves a steep climb; take it slow, and don't forget your sunscreen and your water bottle. All that is left of the lion gate is the oversized paws, but the remains of the gardens are intriguing, as are the ancient frescoes and the highly-polished Mirror Wall. The views are an added bonus.
The Sacred City
Ruwanweliseya buddhist stupa in Anuradhapura Photo: Getty
For over 1000 years was Sri Lanka's greatest city, housing more than two million people, including tens of thousands of monks. Rent a bike to see the best of this sprawling site, from the two-metre tall Buddha to the revered sacred fig tree, a 2000 year old plant grown from a cutting brought from India. Among the most impressive sights is the gigantic Ruwanweliseya stupa, 55 metres high and twice as wide, guarded by an army of near-to-life-size sculpted elephants. Even the less-maintained sites make an impact, such as the 1600 pillars that are all that remains of the Brazen Palace, which once contained 1000 windowed chambers beneath a shining copper roof.
The Living Fort
Meeran Jumma mosque in Fort Galle Photo: Getty
When the Dutch originally began building the Galle Fort in 1663, it was a defensive compound, surrounded on three sides by the sea. These days, the colonial buildings that line the Fort's narrow lanes house an alluring range of bars and boutiques, mansions and museums, restaurants and boutique hotels. However, there is another side to the Fort: it is also a vibrant community where people live, work and go to school. Start by exploring some of the Fort's historic buildings, including the rock-hewn All Saints Anglican Church, the lovely all-white Sunharmalaya Temple and the Meeran Mosque. Then enjoy a spot of window-shopping before joining the locals strolling the ramparts or playing cricket on the green as the sun sinks into the Indian Ocean. Finish up with a rooftop dinner at one of the many inviting restaurants.
The Cave Temples
The interior of Dambulla Golden Temple. Photo: Supplied
When you walk up the hill to Dambulla's cave temples, you are following in the footsteps of 2000 years' worth of pilgrims. And, like them, you will be dazzled by what you find. Over the centuries, generations of worshippers have filled these five caves with an extraordinary collection of images. There are more than 150 statues of Buddha – some seated, some standing, some imposingly large, others small but intricately carved - as well as statues of Vishnu and Ganesh statues. Throw in intricate murals slathered across more than 2000 square metres of cave wall, from delicate tendrils to geometric patterns, and the effect is slightly dizzying and entirely joyous.
The Lost City
The ancient city of Polonnaruwa is a dedicated World Heritage Site. Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto
Anuradhapura may be bigger, Sigiriya may be higher, but if it's atmosphere you are after, Polonnaruwa is the place to go. Like Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa was rediscovered centuries after it had been reclaimed by the jungle and in some places giant buttress roots still curl protectively over ancient walls, adding to the ambience. Polonnaruwa's surviving buildings include the elegantly circular Vatadage, where every entrance is guarded by a sentinel statue and every surface, including the steps themselves, is covered with intricate carvings. Other highlights include the huge headless Buddha in the Lankatilaka temple, and the serene statues in the Gal Vihara rock temple, all carved from one giant block of granite.
The Ancient Ritual
The Kandy Esala procession held annually. Photo: Supplied
They come three times a day, every day, clad in white and proffering flowers. The worshippers at Kandy's Temple of the Tooth are here to behold one of Buddhism's most sacred relics: a tooth of the Buddha himself. The ceremony is a colourful affair, with musicians wearing white pants and red cummerbunds and priests wearing flaming saffron robes. The aim of the exercise is to catch a glimpse of the golden container which protects the tooth and is kept in an inner sanctum. As the crowds get closer to the relic they get more unruly – there is plenty of cheerful pushing and shoving. Restore your sense of tranquillity afterwards by joining the quiet worshippers lighting a prayer candle at a nearby shrine.