It may not look like much more than a large rock from the photo, but believe me when I say it is so, so much more. Sigiriya, AKA “Lion Rock”, is a rock fortress located in central Sri Lanka, approximately 3 hours from Colombo, and consists of the ancient Sky Palace that sits atop of a massive 200-metre-tall rock, a mid-level terrace that features the Lion Gate (sadly, the head is no longer) and is surrounded by beautiful gardens and moats on the lower levels. It has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is one of Sri Lanka’s most popular landmarks.
What You Need to Know Before Visiting Sigiriya
I am not a fan of heights. My quads do not like hiking up hundreds of steps. But I survived, and you can too! The vertical climb up to the top of Sigiriya is challenging, but not impossible, and will take you anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour (it took me about 45 minutes with a few sweaty breaks. Do not wear grey-coloured clothing for this climb! You have been warned!).
To begin, you’ll have to head to the ticket booth and pay the entrance fee (US$30 or 4620 LKR for tourists, or 50 LKR for Sri Lankan citizens). Here’s my biggest travel tip for visiting Sigiriya: start the climb at around 4:30/4:45 PM.
This way, you can bask in the comfort of knowing that the climb will only get easier and cooler as you progress, rather than hiking up in the morning and guaranteeing yourself a blazing hot walk up (and back down). Trust me on this one, Sigiriya gets stinkin’, brain-melting hot.
I’ve also heard that the crowds tend to be smaller in the afternoon, and there’s also the additional bonus of watching the sunset once you get to the top! Just make sure you purchase your ticket before the entrance closes at 5 PM, wear sunscreen and bring a bottle of water!
For an amazing view of the rock from your hotel room, check yourself into EKHO Sigiriya, a small boutique hotel adjacent to the rock palace.
The climb consists of approximately 1200 steps and can be divvied up into a few phases. There are steps all the way to the top, and can get very crowded, steep and narrow in certain sections, so it’s important to pace yourself, rest when needed, and remember to catch your breath. When we were there, some people were walking up barefoot, and while I truly believe in “to each his own”, I cannot imagine doing this in anything other than comfortable walking shoes.
The stairs through the gardens at the base of the rock are wide and very easy to climb, but don’t let this deceive you. There are a number of terraces, caves and platforms that you can walk around, and areas where you can rest and stretch your calves, hammies and quads, so use them wisely.
This is where the vertigo and leg cramp-inducing part of the climb begins. Narrow metal spiral staircases dangle off the side of the rock to lead you up to the fresco caves. Arguably a highlight of the tour, I was too shaken up by the walk up as well as dreading the claustrophobia-exacerbating walk back down those slightly shaky staircases to truly appreciate the well-preserved murals that lined the internal cave.
It was here where we witnessed Sigiriya claim its first victim: a 15/16-year-old Sri Lankan schoolgirl who was sweating buckets and looked like she was in dire need of hydration. You are not allowed to take photos of the murals, and there are guards there making sure that you don’t sneak a shot – we even saw a guard snatch a woman’s phone out of her hand to check her recent photos and delete ones that she had taken.
I breathed a huge sigh of relief once we got back down to the base and continued up the marble stairs towards the Lion Gate and had another opportunity to sit down for a few minutes. I consider myself relatively fit, but this climb isn’t exactly a cakewalk. The Lion Gate now features two massive sets of claws that guard the final pathway up to the Sky Palace, and leaves you wondering how majestic and perhaps intimidating it would have looked before the lion’s head disintegrated.
Once you’ve regained feeling in your legs and mentally prepared yourself, it’s time for the last and what many believe to be the most challenging portion of the climb: the Lion Staircase. As you can see from the photo above, it is steep and literally hangs off the edge, providing an unobstructed view across the plains surrounding the rock fortress. My key takeaway? Don’t look down, and if you have a partner, hold onto him or her for dear life.
Another very important thing to be aware of is that you should keep your voice down as there are wasp nests around. When I visited for a 2nd time in 2017, we experienced a cloud of wasps that swarmed around the Lion Staircase. We were forced to (quietly) retreat back down to the terrace and were ushered into a netted makeshift room. We waited 5 minutes or so being told that the coast was clear and that we could proceed up the Lion Staircase.
Phase III: The Sky Palace
What do they say about hard work again? Oh yeah: “With hard work comes great reward.” This perfectly encapsulates my feelings about making it to the Sky Palace. How many times in your life are you going to be able to say that you walked around an ancient palace at the top of a 200-metre-tall rock? Exactly.
Almost every part of the summit can be explored, which is incredible given that most landmarks set up a hundred different perimeters to stop you from walking around. You can easily spend an hour moving from edge to edge, taking in 360-degree panoramic views over the horizon and watching the sun set across Sigiriya. The views are indescribable, so I’m not even going to attempt to put it into words.
Wondering what to see apart from Sigiriya in Central Sri Lanka? Click here for my guide to Polonnaruwa, an ancient city just an hour away from Lion Rock, here for my guide to Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka’s first capital, or click here for a list of 7 places you can’t miss in Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle!
Where to stay in Sigiriya
After our incredible stay at Madulkelle Tea & Eco Lodge in Kandy, we made our way over to the Heritance Kandalama, a Geoffrey Bawa-designed hotel that prides itself on being built “as one” with nature. We had one goal and one goal only: to climb to the top of Sigiriya rock, so planned on only staying in the area for one night. Apart from being relatively close to Sigiriya (45 minutes by tuk tuk) and incredibly high-powered air conditioning in the room, the hotel itself was underwhelming, and seemed to be better suited to accommodating busloads of tourists or convention-goers.
Instead, check out EKHO Sigiriya (formerly named Zinc Journey Sigiriya) – it is half the price of Heritance Kandalama and while it has no pool, it does have beautifully decorated rooms, incredible service and is right next to Sigiriya Rock. You can even see the rock from the hotel! I wish we had stayed here on our first trip to Sigiriya. The hotel staff can also arrange safaris to Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks to spot wild elephants. Click here to book your stay at EKHO Sigiriya! Looking for more choices? Click here for more accommodation options around Sigiriya!
Another option for nature lovers is Diyabubula, about an hour away from Sigiriya Rock. Diyabubula means “bubbling fountain” as it is built on top of a natural spring. It opened in 2016 and may be lesser-known to the average traveler to Sri Lanka, but not in the architecture and design community as it was designed by renown Sri Lankan artist Laki Senanayake. The 5 bedroom eco-luxury jungle hideaway was built with sustainability at the forefront, and building materials were upcycled from 100-year-old railway sleepers combined with local timber.
Diyabubula is the perfect retreat if you want to be immersed in nature – it is shaded by dense canopy after Laki replanted the forest 40 years ago, and is filled with the sounds of birds chirping, butterflies fluttering and monkeys jumping from tree to tree. Check out the various room types (bamboo grove, water villa, tree house) at their website!
Have you visited Sigiriya? What was your experience? Leave a comment below and tell me all about it!
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This article was first published in May 2016 and was last updated in October 2017.
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