Sri Lanka - Getting to know the Cultural Triangle

Five UNESCO World Heritage sites, one excellent National Park, all within four hours drive - little wonder that Sri Lanka’s ‘Cultural Triangle’ region is a huge draw. Its temptations include the 2,000 year old cave temples of Dambulla, the impressive ruins of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa (Sri Lanka's first & second capitals, from about 300 BC-1215 AD), an extraordinary rock fortress called Sigiriya, and the ancient-but-still-thriving sacred city of Kandy… and we haven’t even mentioned Minneriya NP, with its huge herds of elephants.

Sri Lanka The Cultural Triangle Travel Guide

For many who visit Sri Lanka, the area known as the 'Cultural Triangle' is the sole reason to visit the spice island; others consider it a remarkable bonus. It’s home to five of Sri Lanka's seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and easily rivals Myanmar's Bagan region and the Angkor temple complex in Cambodia. 

Whilst Sri Lanka undoubtedly offers many wildlife and cultural highlights - as well as the odd nice beach (read 'dozens') - the Triangle will likely become a highlight of your trip, if not the place you enthuse about most on returning home. Along with its world-renowned sites, it contains scores of other temples, ruins and dagobas that are very much worth a visit, despite not holding the much-revered UNESCO status.

The actual Triangle has Anuradhapura as its northern corner, with Polonnaruwa marking the east and Kandy the southernmost points. Sigiriya and Dambulla sit near the centre, not far from the fantastic Minneriya National Park - handy if you fancy some wildlife mixed in with your ancient wonders. Minneriya centres on a reservoir built around 300 AD, and is visited once a year by the largest gathering of Asian elephants in the world.

What to do in the Cultural Triangle

  • Climb the stone steps to the Golden Temple of Dambulla, which has drawn pilgrims for 22 centuries. It comprises five inner sanctums, dug into a rocky outcrop & filled with gleaming Buddhist icons.
  • Marvel at the Sacred City of Anuradhapura, which began to flourish in 288 BC around a fig tree grown from a cutting of the Buddha’s own tree of enlightenment. The city became the first capital of Sri Lanka, & a key Buddhist centre. The tree still flourishes today, amidst several square miles of ancient architecture.
  • Stroll beside tranquil mandala-ponds & admire elegant impressive religious statues in Polonnaruwa, an ornate Hindu garden city.
  • Relish the dramatic views from Sigiriya, a fortified citadel perched atop a 180m high granite outcrop, which juts from a flat jungle-covered plain.
  • Get a sense of the scale of the region by going up in hot air balloon!

Sri Lanka’s 3rd century irrigation engineers used inventions that didn’t reach Europe til the 1800s

Beyond the ruins

  • Although very much part of the Triangle, the Sacred City of Kandy is no ruined metropolis - it’s a thriving, charming city that’s very much alive, in a beautiful mountain setting en route between the central Cultural Triangle’s and Tea Country or Colombo. Founded during the 1300s, Kandy is Sri Lanka’s second largest city, and world-famous for its temple, which protects one of the Buddha’s teeth and attracts thousands of pilgrims each year.
  • Minneriya National Park protects a crucial water source that has helped this hot dry area to thrive for nearly 2,000 years - it’s known as the ‘Minneriya Tank’, and was built by one of the kings of Anuradhapura to supply his citizens with water and freshly grown crops.

    Now, it irrigates a lush landscape populated by macaques, langurs, leopards, deer, hundreds of bird species and several large reptiles. Most famously, the reservoir attracts hundreds of migrating elephants, who stop off each year during dry season to snack on vital vegetation sustained by the steady water supply.

Read more about the Cultural Triangle's highlights

Climate control

For much of the year, the Cultural Triangle region is hot and dry, as the Central Plains see little of Sri Lanka's two wet seasons. It’s best to allow yourself at least three nights to cover the entire Triangle at a comfortable pace, but it is possible to tailor a short itinerary to suit your preferences.