Dambulla Cave Temple is the largest temple complex in Sri Lanka and dates back to the 1st century BC when King Valagamba took refuge in this giant rocky outcrop in central Sri Lanka. He had magnificent temples carved out from the caves here, some 150 meters above the surrounding plains. Today, the caves are recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The hike up to the cave temples is via a gentle slope and there are some superb views when you reach the top, with the Sigiriya Rock Fortress visible in the distance. It is thought that there are more than 80 caves in the area, but there are five main ones that attract the most attention. These contain various images of the Buddha, including reclining Buddhas and statues situated under makara toranas (arches decorated with dragons). There are also plenty of paintings depicting the life of the Buddha, most of which are from the 19th century.
If you only have a day, visiting Dambulla Cave Temple is best combined with a trip to Sigiriya Rock Fortress and most tours leave from different departure points across the country. If you have a bit more time, a three-day tour will allow you to add Polonnaruwa to your itinerary as well as take a jeep safari to Minneriya National Park. To really explore the history and culture of Sri Lanka, join a seven-day heritage tour or a 10-night UNESCO World Heritage Sites tour. Couples can also visit Dambulla as part of six-day honeymoon package, which includes a romantic candlelight dinner at Mangrove Cave.
Insider’s Tip: It is best to visit the caves in reverse order, starting with cave number five and working backwards. Exploring the temples in this way means you will see them in gradually increasing degrees of grandeur (although cave two is perhaps the most spectacular of them all).
If not arriving as part of an organized tour, you can take a tuk tuk from Dambulla bus station to the cave temple complex. When you reach the site, you’ll find the ticket office at the gate next to a more modern temple (built in 2000). Tickets are then checked upon entry at the base of the hill.