Sri Lanka’s “Cultural Triangle” is an area spanning across several cities in the centre of the teardrop-shaped island and includes 6 out of 8 of Sri Lanka’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites including the ancient capital of Anuradhapura, the ruins of Polonnaruwa, the rock citadel of Sigiriya and the sacred city of Kandy.
This region shouldn’t be skipped, especially if it’s your first time to Sri Lanka. The culture and heritage has been preserved fairly impeccably, and it is an amazing exhibit of the rich history of Sri Lanka. You can reach the Cultural Triangle from Colombo by traveling inland for 3 hours or so by car, or there are trains and buses from Colombo to Anuradhapura if you’re on a budget. Read on for how to spend an amazing few days in Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle!
Looking for even more Sri Lanka insider tips and guides? Click here for everything you need to plan your dream trip to Sri Lanka!
Helpful things to know before you go to Sri Lanka
- The currency is the Sri Lankan Rupee (different from the Indian Rupee), and the exchange rate varies from approximately 165-180 LKR: 1 USD. There are plenty of places to exchange money in Sri Lanka, and there are also ATMs in cities like Colombo and Galle where you can withdraw money.
- Local SIM cards and data packages can be purchased at the airport once you arrive, but you may need to provide your passport in order to register the number. Data is cheap and 3G is fairly stable throughout Sri Lanka.
- There is a lot of ground to cover in Sri Lanka! For such a small country there is tons to do. Getting around Sri Lanka is relatively easy and train travel is cheap and reliable(ish) in Sri Lanka, but not every train has first or even second class carriages. Seats can be reserved in person at a train station up to 30 days before the trip and scenic routes fill up FAST. Train travel through tea country is an amazing experience!
- The best way to travel around Sri Lanka is by car, especially if you are short on time. Most hotels can help you to book a private car and driver to your next destination but do not expect the prices to be dirt cheap, a one-way 3-4 hour car ride can cost anywhere from US$100 to $140, but may be worthwhile if you have a large group of people. Hiring a car and driving around yourself is not really a thing in Sri Lanka; you can probably find car rental places in Colombo, but your best bet is to take a train or hire a driver.
- Traveling around by bus is also dirt cheap, but not highly recommended because they drive like absolute mad men!
- Sri Lanka is unlike some other Asian countries in the sense that it is still relatively modest. The primary religion is Buddhism so be mindful of your attire when you visit temples. Let me put it this way: I would not recommend that you drive shirtless on a scooter or walk around in a bikini when you are travelling around Sri Lanka.
- Sri Lanka has a few different climates so you may need to bring a sweatshirt or two if you’re visiting hill country as it can get fairly chilly.
- There are a plethora of hotel options suiting every budget, but prices tend to be higher than in countries such as India, Thailand, Cambodia or Vietnam. I personally look for comfort, beautiful decor and warm hospitality when I travel – click here for some of the best boutique and luxury hotels to stay at in Sri Lanka.
Best time to visit the Sri Lanka Cultural Triangle
The Cultural Triangle in Sri Lanka tends to be extremely dry and hot – temperatures can reach upwards of 35 degrees Celsius. Though it may experience some rainfall towards the end of the year, the conditions are fairly stable and manageable. This means that you can visit the Cultural Triangle in Sri Lanka any time during the year as long as you come prepared – bring lots of sun screen and a hat!
This region is home to the incredible Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks, where the biggest annual gathering of Asian elephants takes place during the dry season from June/July to September. If witnessing “The Gathering” of hundreds of elephants is on your bucket list, time your visit to Sri Lanka during these summer months.
Though Sri Lanka is becoming an increasingly popular destination, the crowds are nothing compared to tourist-heavy places in Japan, Italy or India. You can easily avoid the hordes of people if you visit these sites in the early morning or late afternoon.
How long to spend in the Cultural Triangle in Sri Lanka
One of the biggest travel mistakes you can make in Sri Lanka is to underestimate the amount of time that it takes to travel between places. Sri Lanka is only about 430 KM tall and 220 KM wide, but it can take you hours and hours to travel from place to place as the roads can be extremely busy.
Expect to wait for cows to cross the road, the occasional monkey appearing out of nowhere, crazy bus drivers and sometimes even a stubborn elephant or massive water monitor in the middle of the road.
You should aim to spend a minimum of 3-4 days in the Central and North Central provinces of Sri Lanka if you want to explore the majority of the UNESCO heritage sites.
7 places not to miss in the Cultural Triangle in Sri Lanka
The sacred city of Anuradhapura is an ancient capital in Sri Lanka. This city is a living heritage site and still a pilgrimage destination for Buddhists around the world as it was established around a branch of the Buddha’s fig tree. Anuradhapura was a capital city that flourished for more than 13 centuries, but was abandoned after an invasion, after which the capital was shifted to Polonnaruwa.
Like the Angkor complex in Siem Reap, Cambodia, today the site’s ruins comprising palaces, monasteries and temples can be explored over the course of a day. Read my full guide on what to see and do in Anuradhapura here.
Where to stay in Anuradhapura: Beyond the Anuradhapura complex itself, there isn’t a ton to see or do in this city. As a result, the majority of the hotels are smaller guesthouses and villas, though the majority are reasonably priced and extremely clean. Click here to see highly rated hotels in Anuradhapura! Instead, I recommend that you stay in Dambulla/Sigiriya where there are more options – read on.
Sigiriya Rock Fortress is an amazing ancient palace that has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sigiriya (AKA “Lion Rock”) is approximately 3 hours from Colombo, and consists of the ancient Sky Palace that sits atop of a massive 200-metre-tall rock, a mid-level terrace that features the Lion Gate (sadly, the head is no longer) and is surrounded by beautiful gardens and moats on the lower levels.
I would recommend doing the climb in the afternoon as the temperature cools, and staying for the sunset once you’re at the top. The entrance fee costs approximately US$30 for adults, so many budget travelers opt to climb up the neighboring Pidurangala Rock instead.
Sigiriya is a fantastic place to stay for 2 nights as you can easily use the town as a base to venture out for day trips to Polonnaruwa (1 hour away), Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks (30 minutes to 1 hour away), as well as the Dambulla Cave temples (20 minutes away).
Where to stay in Sigiriya: EKHO Sigiriya (formerly named Zinc Journey Sigiriya) is a fantastic hotel right next to Sigiriya Rock and offers beautiful, spacious rooms and excellent service. You can actually see the rock fortress from the hotel! Click here to check current rates and room availability at EKHO Sigiriya, or click here to see more accommodation options around Sigiriya!
Polonnaruwa is another ancient city in Sri Lanka and served as the capital city for nearly 2 centuries between the 11th and 13th centuries AD and is an incredible day trip destination in Sri Lanka. During its time as a capital, Polonnaruwa was ruled by the Kings Vijayabahu I, Parakramabahu the Great and Nissanka Malla – all 3 of these rulers devoted themselves to fostering agriculture, religion and social development and the kingdom prospered under their reign during this era.
The city of Polonnaruwa comprised a citadel (inner city) and an outer city. The citadel had 2 types of buildings – the king’s palace/royal court as well as administration buildings. The outer city contains religious shrines, with the main shrine being the Sacred Quadrangle. Read my full guide on what to see and do in Polonnaruwa here.
The ruins are incredibly well preserved and can be easily explored by car or bicycle in a day. Polonnaruwa is a 1 hour drive from Sigiriya, so I would recommend that you stay in Sigiriya where there are more options for hotels and venture out for a day trip.
4. Minneriya or Kaudulla National Park
Once a year, the Asian elephants of Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks congregate for what is known as “The Gathering”. The two parks, though separate, are next to each other and divided by the “elephant corridor” jungle that stands between them. This is precisely why I have chosen to write about the two parks together, because the elephant population in this region frequently travels between the two.
The Gathering is believed to be the largest gathering of Asian elephants in the world and takes place during the dry season from June/July to September when the rivers dry up and the elephants are forced to travel to large reservoirs in Minneriya and Kaudulla to bathe, find drinking water and graze on fresh grass.
Like Polonnaruwa, Minneriya and Kaudulla can easily be visited as a day trip from Sigiriya. From Sigiriya, the drive to Minneriya National Park will take approximately 30 minutes, and the drive to Kaudulla National Park will take just under an hour. Click here for my full guide to a wildlife safari drive in Minneriya or Kaudulla National Park!
Want to visit Yala National Park or Udawalawe National Park in southern Sri Lanka instead? Click here for my Yala safari guide or click here for my Udawalawe safari guide!
5. Dambulla Cave Temple
A sacred pilgrimage site for 22 centuries, this cave temple complex consists of 5 caves covered from top to bottom in Buddhist mural paintings and more than 150 statues. The site, also known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla, is a living temple, which means that Buddhists from Sri Lanka and beyond travel to worship and pray at this complex.
Spend a few hours exploring the various caves and appreciating the rich details in the wall paintings. The temple is located just 20-30 minutes away from Sigiriya Rock.
Where to stay in Dambulla: You can stay in Sigiriya which is only about 30 minutes away by car, or check out Diyabubula, a 5 bedroom eco-luxury jungle hideaway that was built with sustainability at the forefront. Diyabubula is the perfect retreat if you want to be immersed in nature – it is shaded by dense canopy and is filled with the sounds of birds chirping, butterflies fluttering and monkeys jumping from tree to tree. Read my full hotel review here, or check out the various room types (bamboo grove, water villa, tree house) at their website!
6. Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Kandy
In steep contrast to the arid landscape of Sigiriya and Anuradhapura, Kandy is located in hill country and features a large lake and lush mountain ranges. Kandy is most well known as the last capital of the Sri Lankan kings and for the golden-roofed Temple of the Sacred Tooth, home to Buddha’s Tooth that was brought to Sri Lanka in the 16th century.
The temple is a spiritual hub of activity for daily rituals and worship, so it’s important to make sure that you’re dressed appropriately when you visit – that means covered shoulders and knees, no exposed midriff and shoes off inside the temple. Click here to read more about visiting Kandy and the must-visit places in the city.
Where to stay in Kandy: Instead of staying in Kandy city, I recommend staying at Madulkelle Tea & Eco Lodge for easy access to Knuckles. The property is only 45 minutes away from Kandy in the heart of tea country, and you can sleep in luxury glamping tents surrounded by lush tea plantations. If you’re not an avid hiker, you can lounge by the infinity pool and take in the view of Knuckles Mountain Range from afar (wine optional). Click here to see availability and current rates at Madulkelle Tea & Eco Lodge.
Alternatively, Yoga lovers should head to Rukgala Retreat in Digana, also about 45 minutes away from Kandy. The beautiful retreat venue has 10 bedrooms overlooking the mountains and Victoria Lake, and Yoga classes are held twice daily in their beautiful open-air shala. Click here to check current rates and room availability at Rukgala Retreat or click here to see more highly rated hotel options in and around Kandy!
7. Knuckles Mountain Range
Named after the ridges along the mountain range that resemble knuckles of a closed fist, Knuckles is a UNESCO Heritage Site that features stunning flora and fauna, waterfalls and hiking trails; the entire region is considered a super biodiversity hotspot.
Where to go after the Cultural Triangle in Sri Lanka
You have several options depending on which direction you are traveling in (north to south) or whether you are just starting your trip in Sri Lanka or ending your journey.
If you are just starting your trip to Sri Lanka, head to Nuwara Eliya or Ella to spend some time in tea country. Nuwara Eliya is a good starting point if you want to hike to Horton Plains, World’s End or Adam’s Peak.
Alternatively, if you are not a hiker then head straight to Ella where you can check out the beautiful Nine Arch Bridge, Ravana Falls and Mini Adam’s Peak. Afterwards, head to the beautiful beaches along the south coast of Sri Lanka and explore Galle Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Click here for my full 2 week Sri Lanka itinerary or head on over here for my express 1 week Sri Lanka itinerary if you’re short on time.
If you are winding down and ending your Sri Lanka trip, head to Colombo or Negombo if you need a place to stay before your flight out of the country.
Good hotel options include Colombo Hotel by Ceilao Villas, a 6-room boutique hotel with spacious rooms, fantastic service and 2 pools, or OZO Colombo, which has a great rooftop bar facing the ocean and comfortable rooms. Click here to check current rates and room availability at OZO Colombo or click here to check room rates at Colombo Hotel by Ceilao Villas.
Alternatively, head to Kalutara which is located about an hour and a half away from the airport in a lakeside down called Kalutara for a splash of luxury. Anantara Kalutara is a stunning sun-filled property that offers fantastic food, a beautiful pool and amazing spa services. Read my full review here or click here to check current rates and room availability at Anantara Kalutara!
Colombo can be easily explored within 1 day. Click here for my guide to seeing Colombo in 24 hours!
Have you visited any of these beautiful heritage sites in Sri Lanka? Tell me about it in the comments section below!
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