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Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle is a unique part of the country.
It’s located in the center and is definitely Sri Laka’s historical capital. The “triangle” is made up of three cities: Kandy, Polonnaruwa, and Anuradhapura.
Two of them are only ruins, but they all have historical and cultural significance, so there is a lot to see and do here. I spent ages pouring over reviews and itineraries before finally finding the cultural triangle to do list that worked for me.
We decided to hire a private car for our Sri Lanka itinerary, so we were picked up at the airport in Colombo and drove straight to Kandy. We spent two nights in the city, then two nights in Sigiriya where we visited the rest of Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle destinations.
Daniel and I only spent four days in Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle, but without a time crunch we easily could have spent a few weeks here instead. Unfortunately we had to prioritize the top sites, and I think we made the right choices.
Here are the top five must see destinations in Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle.
Cost: About $25 per person
Time: Half day to full day trip
Location: One hour drive from Sigiriya
This was honestly my favorite day of our whole two week trip.
Polonnaruwa is amazing, there’s just no other word for it. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, so it’s been well preserved over the years. A thousand years ago this city was the capital of Sri Lanka, but now the sprawling ruins lay abandoned, slowly being taken over by the encroaching jungle.
What makes Polonnaruwa so special?
It’s not a widely visited tourist destination, so it wasn’t over crowded. That meant we were able to explore areas completely silent and away from the rest of the crowds. I think that helped a lot in feeling the eeriness and weight of the history this location holds.
Beautiful carvings, designs, and even giant buddha statues surrounded us and transported us back to an ancient time. We also rented bikes at the ruins, and rode them around to see a lot of crumbling temples and statues off the main road.
Polonnaruwa is only about an hour drive from the town of Sigiriya (where the famous Lion’s Rock is located) and we did our whole trip to the ruins in a half day. I could have easily spent more time exploring, but we were hit with a rain storm and decided to leave.
There’s also a nice museum at the entrance center to learn more about the ruins before you visit the site or even hire a guide to take you on a personal tour. Just keep in mind this is an important place, so everyone needs to have their legs and shoulders covered to enter.
2. Sigiriya (Lion’s Rock)
Time: 3 hour trip. Try to do it in the early morning or late afternoon for the best lighting and views.
Location: Just outside the town of Sigiriya
This site has two different names. The locals call it Sigiriya, and the tourists call it Lion’s Rock.
This is easily one of the most popular destinations in the entire country and for good reason. 1,500 years ago a badass king saw this giant rock and decided to build his palace on it.
The rock is over 600 ft high, but that didn’t stop this dreamer. He built a kingdom on and around the rock, even carving pools into the top, and the ruins of his palace still remain there today. Now, you can enter the park at the base and climb staircases to the top.
Oh, and beware of bees. We passed multiple signs telling us to be “still and silent in the case of a hornet attack” and to walk quietly so we wouldn’t disturb the giant hives that were everywhere. If you’re allergic to bees, you honestly might want to give this one a miss.
If you do make it to the rock unscathed, the next challenge is making it to the top. It’s more of a climb than a hike, and most of the trek up was on staircases or bridges attached to the rock face. The climb only took about 25 minutes and wasn’t too hard. Finally, we reached the top.
The ruins were ok, it was the view that was so amazing to me. Lion’s Rock lies in the middle of a pretty flat area, so we could see for miles. There were lakes, rolling hills, forests, and green as far as the eye could see. Absolutely stunning.
This is definitely a can’t miss location for any visitor in Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle.
3. Dambulla Golden Cave Temple
Cost: Normally $10, we visited on a holiday so we got in free.
Time: We spent about 2 hours at this site
Location: Situated between Kandy and Sigirya. Best seen as a pit stop on the drive between the two towns.
The Dambulla cave temple is a really interesting site in Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle because the temple is built into a maze of caves in a large rock. It’s also over 2,000 years old!
These ancient caves are dark and cool, and have many large buddha statues and paintings in them. Also, on the walk up to the caves you will see plenty of monkey families hanging out on the trails and in the trees. Be careful with your belongings, though, because they’ve been known to snatch food and shiny things straight out of visitors hands! We spent 30 minutes just sitting and watching them all play around us.
Once in the caves, things are much more solemn. The Buddha statues and paintings are highly respected, and the caves are still an active monastery and place of worship today. Because of this, just like most other places in Sri Lanka covered knees and shoulders are required at Dambulla.
We spent about an hour wandering through the caves, then returned to the base of the temple where we enjoyed a snack and the view of the largest Buddha statue in Sri Lanka.
History, monkeys, amazing views… what’s not to love about this must see site in Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle?
4. Stay in a Treehouse
There are surprising amount of treehouse options in Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle and you can find one for any budget.
We stayed at the Inn on the Tree in Sigiriya. This hotel is amazing, budget-friendly, and will make any trip to Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle go from awesome to unforgettable.
It was such a spectacular experience sleeping high up among the trees in the jungle. The sides of our treehouse were open air and we even had a balcony to relax on and enjoy a drink. The beds had nets to protect us from bugs, but if you’re really not fond of them you might want to stick to a traditional hotel.
If you want to relax and escape from the real world for a bit, booking a treehouse stay during your trip through Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle is a MUST.
5. Visit Kandy
We spent two days in Kandy at the beginning of our trip to Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle, and we had a good time. There’s a lot to see in the town, most notably the Temple of the Tooth.
This temple is painted beautifully and features an important Buddhist relic… a tooth from the Buddha himself. Spend some time here wandering the ornate hallways, saying a prayer, and exploring the grounds.
Other things to do in Kandy include visiting the lake and botanical gardens, shopping at the silk, gemstone, and wood markets, checking out the giant Buddha statue with a view of the city, enjoying the night life, and going to a cultural show.
The cultural show we went to was only a few dollars each to enter, and performed by locals with costumes and dances. At the end, there were even fire walkers for the finale. It was a cool way to learn more about the traditional Kandy tribe and their culture.
Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle is an amazing part of the country’s history and heritage.
I learned so much about the country, and was very surprised to see temples and ruins that were thousands of years old! If you visit, make sure you don’t miss my five favorite places and sites in the area.
PS not sure how to start your Sri Lanka vacation planning? Use my two week travel itinerary to learn the best way to travel through Sri Lanka, then explore the guide to climbing Adam’s Peak and learn everything you need to know about the elephant safari in Uda Walawe National Park