Sri Lanka is peppered with UNESCO World Heritage Sites (eight to be precise), areas of outstanding natural beauty and vibrant cities, so which attractions should you place at the top of your list if you’re visiting the country on a gap year?
Here are just a few suggestions to get you started.
The Golden Temple of Dambulla
This amazing religious site dates back to the 1st century BC, so you truly will be stepping back in time when you spend a few hours exploring here. It’s a series of cave temples and, unsurprisingly, is one of the cultural locations on the UNESCO list. There are over 100 religious statues in and around the caverns, while the walls are covered with stunning murals, some of which are 2,000 years old.
Don’t imagine that you’ll have to get down on your hands and knees or squeeze through small spaces either, as the largest of the grottos – the Templeof the Great King – is 52 m high, 23 m long and up to seven metres high in places. This is a truly magical spot to visit and you can almost feel the history seeping through the rocks – although you will have to climb up to the temples with bare feet!
Sigiriya Rock Fortress and city
If you’ve made the ascent to Dambulla’s temples, you’ll probably have already caught a glimpse of this impressive building across the plains – but make sure you investigate it more closely! Also known as Lion Rock, Sigirya was constructed in the 5th century AD and is a true feat of engineering. The fortress sits on top of a huge rock that towers above the surrounding forest. Originally, the entrance to this complex was through a gateway modelled as a lion – visitors walked through its mouth – now, however, only the paws are really visible, but it’s impressive nonetheless.
Halfway up the slopes, you’ll reach the Sigiriya frescos, which are beautiful paintings of 21 female figures known as the Maidens of the Clouds. At the bottom of the mountain, you’ll find the remains of the city’s lower levels, which are worth exploring to appreciate the irrigation system and terraced gardens that were once situated here.
Sinharaja Forest Reserve
You might not know this but Sri Lanka is where some of the world’s first nature reserves were established, thanks to the Buddhist tradition of conservation which goes back centuries. To experience some of the country’s most amazing wildlife, pay a visit to the Sinharaja Forest Reserve, which has – you guessed it – been designated a natural World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Spanning around 190 sq km, it’s the last viable area of primary tropical rain forest on the island, with around 60 per cent of the flora endemic to the forest, while approximately half of all Sri Lanka’s native species inhabit the region. Among the creatures you may be lucky enough to spot are the ruddy mongoose, giant squirrel, Sri Lanka blue magpie and even leopards.
Dating back to around the 5th century BC, this was Sri Lanka’s first capital and there are countless temples and buildings you can still explore today. It is one of the most important sites for Buddhists, with the Bodhi tree near the Brazen Palace of particular significance. This fig tree is believed to have grown from a cutting brought here by Buddha as long ago as the 3rd century BC.
You’ll really need a full day to appreciate the sights and sounds ofAnuradhapura properly, so don’t try to squeeze it in as an afterthought. The most impressive sights are the dome-shaped dagobas and temples, some of which tower over the other ruins. Thuparama is home to a relic from Lord Buddha, while the Abhayagiri and Jetawana dagobas stand around 120 m high.
If you’re in Sri Lanka between October and April, you shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit Kosgoda beach on the island’s south-west coast. You’re bound to want to spend a few days of your gap year travel sunning yourself on the sand anyway and, if you visit this location, you’ll also be in the perfect place to see a host of turtles.
The beach itself is a nesting ground and, to try and protect the population of these creatures in the area, several hatcheries have been established where you can see the little turtles before they are released back into the wild when they’re a few days old.