Think of Sri Lanka and, aside from images of Tamil Tiger strife, it might be hard to picture anything except palm trees, azure seas and sumptuous white sand beaches. And it’s true that sinking into the sands of Mirissa or Bentota, you might be tempted to do little more strenuous than ordering a Lion lager for the remainder of your stay. But if you can summon the energy to wrest yourself from its sandy southern reaches, there’s plenty to see but sea on this stellar island, whose architectural heritage is as rich and varied as its boutique hotels’ fine dining menus.
The obvious first step on a Sri Lanka architectural itinerary is 17th century Galle walled fort, one of seven UNESCO World heritage sites on the island, and set just steps away from those glorious beaches on the south coast. Originally founded in the 16th century by the Portuguese, work commenced in earnest on the fort in 1663 under Dutch colonial rule, when it became the country’s primary port. Its maritime significance seeped away once Sri Lanka was ceded to the British in 1796, but the fort today, comprising 36 seafront hectares, remains part of a living, working city. Admire its architecture simply by wandering the streets, before taking a trip out to examine the 19th century frescoes at the nearby Kataluwa Purvarama Mahavihara Buddhist temple, nestled in dense forest and originally built in the 13th century. For stunning views out over both fort and sea, return to complete a full round of the Galle fort walls at dusk, then replenish with tasty fusion cuisine at the Galle Fort Hotel, once a gem merchant’s mansion.
Travelling upcountry to Kandy, the green hill country heart of Sri Lanka, the architectural legacy moves from colonial to religious, with Buddhist structures in abundance. Step in line with numerous pilgrims in Kandy’s UNESCO-rated Sacred City to visit the Dalada Maligawa, also known as the Temple of the Tooth and home to the country’s most important Buddhist relic - allegedly a tooth of the Buddha. Then, to peruse the city’s colonial past (it fell to the British in 1815) ramble the lanes of the British Garrison Cemetery, whose deaths, detailed on carved Victorian headstones and including sun stroke, jungle fever and rampant elephants, paint a fascinating picture of colonial perils.
Slightly further afield, Sri Lanka’s so-called ‘cultural triangle’ – comprising the area bounded by Kandy, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa – hosts Sri Lanka’s most celebrated archaeological and cultural sites, and four more of its UNESCO World Heritage sites. Ponder civilisations long-past at Polonnaruwa, home to the ruins of a 12th century ruler’s elaborate garden city; gape at the remains of the 5th century city of Sigiriya, built into and atop a massive granite peak. Explore the palaces and monasteries of the Sacred City of Polonnaruwa, and wander the mural-filled cave monastery of Dambulla.
And even back on the south coast, hidden behind the heat and horn-honking of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, you’ll also find a trove of architectural treasures, many legacies of the country’s melting-pot religious heritage. Savour the century old, candy-striped Jami-Ul-Alfa Mosque, explore the 19th century Kelaniya Raja Mahar Vihara Buddhist temple, visit the Sri Kailawasanathar Swami Devasthanam Hindu temple- the oldest in town – then look in on the shrine of St. Anthony’s Church, where devotees stand in line to deposit offerings to its technicolour shrines. Meanwhile, for something more modern, detour to the Lionel Wendt Centre to examine the contemporary art on display, then, come nightfall, see the light-dressed silhouettes of the Seema Malakaya on Beira Lake, two island pavilions designed in 1985, one filled with bronze Thai Buddhas and the other centred around a sacred bodhi tree.
Alternatively, if you prefer to stay in your historic architecture rather than simply walk around it, check into one of the country’s soothing heritage hotels, all sure to relieve you of the stresses of a temple-filled afternoon. Sleep in Colombo’s colonial era Park Street Hotel, bed down at the immaculately restored Illuketia estate near Galle, or, if urges for the beach are simply too strong to ignore, opt for an extended stay at the Dutch colonial Beach House bungalow near Tangalle, where, amid antiques and attentive staff and a personal stretch of private beach, you can experience history and hedonism in equal, enchanting measure.