Explore the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa: A Cultural Treasure in Central Sri Lanka

Polonnaruwa is an ancient city in Sri Lanka and forms part of the “Cultural Triangle” along with Sigiriya, Anuradhapura, Kandy and Dambulla. It served as the capital city for nearly 2 centuries between the 11th and 13th centuries AD and is an incredible day trip destination in Sri Lanka. During its time as a capital, Polonnaruwa was ruled by the Kings Vijayabahu I, Parakramabahu the Great and Nissanka Malla – all 3 of these rulers devoted themselves to fostering agriculture, religion and social development and the kingdom prospered under their reign during this era.

Much like the ancient city of Angkor in Cambodia, being able to walk relatively freely through the ruins, temples and shrines is an incredible way to take in the history of the country and imagine what it must have been like in its heyday. If you are planning a visit to Sigiriya Rock Fortress, then you must venture over to Polonnaruwa to explore the ancient ruins. Read on for what you need to know before you visit and the top things to see in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa!

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What you need to know before visiting Polonnaruwa

How to get to Polonnaruwa

To get to Polonnaruwa I would recommend that you base yourself in Sigiriya: this way, you can climb the giant rock fortress, visit the Dambulla Cave Temple and go on a safari in Minneriya or Kaudulla National Parks. Sigiriya is a 3-hour drive away from Colombo, and Polonnaruwa is only an hour away from Sigiriya by car.

How to get around Polonnaruwa

It gets really, really hot in this part of Sri Lanka, so I would not recommend walking. The best way to see the ancient city, especially if you only have 1 day to see it all, is by (air conditioned) car. If you are on a budget, you can rent bicycles to get from site to site. Google Maps is fairly accurate when it comes to the individual sights, or you can grab a map from the ticket office.

How much time to spend at Polonnaruwa

The city of Polonnaruwa comprised a citadel (inner city) and an outer city. The citadel had 2 types of buildings – the king’s palace/royal court as well as administration buildings. The outer city contains religious shrines, with the main shrine being the Sacred Quadrangle.

The monuments within the ancient city are concentrated in one area, and it is fairly easy to see the main sights within 1 day, especially if you have a car. The main sights are scattered along a one-way road. We arrived at the ticket office at approximately 10 am and were done by 3 pm. The site opens from 9 am to 6 pm every day.

There aren’t any restaurants within the complex so I would recommend eating a hearty breakfast and bringing a light snack or water with you.

Entry fees for Polonnaruwa

An adult ticket costs 25 USD or 3850 LKR, and tickets for children cost exactly half of that. More information here.

What to wear when visiting Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa contains religious shrines and monuments, so it’s important to dress appropriately. Shoulders and knees should be covered (men and women), and you will have to take your shoes off to enter the shrines so bring shoes that are easy to slip on and off. Because of the weather in the area, the ground gets steaming hot, so bring some socks along so you don’t burn your feet.

It should also be noted that taking photos with your back facing the Buddha images or statues are prohibited at all of the monuments.

What to see in Polonnaruwa

There are an incredible number of monuments all situated close to one another. This is the order in which I would recommend you visiting them in to make the most of your time in the ancient city. I’ve listed the monuments as they are named on the official map from the Central Cultural Fund, but if you are using Google Maps some monuments may be spelled slightly differently: for example, Rankot Vehera is “Rankoth Vihara” on Google Maps – but don’t worry, they’re the same place. Below is a Google Map of the different monuments, or you can click here for a photo of the official map from the Central Cultural Fund.

Start at the Archaeological Museum/Ticket Office

Before you enter the archaeological site you will need to purchase your ticket from the ticket office. In the same building you will also find the Archaeological Museum where you can learn about the history and excavation of Polonnaruwa. While you’re here, use the bathroom as they’re not that easy to find within the complex itself.

Outside the ticket office there are many guides that you can hire if you’d like someone to show you around the ancient city and talk you through the history, but when we were approached by the guides they were all extremely pushy, so we decided against it and read up on the history ourselves instead.

Royal Palace, Citadel and Kumara Pokuna

Believed to once have been a very large building (seven-storeys high), only the foundations remain of the Royal Palace. The red brick walls of the palace are still standing and when you walk in you see what is thought to be the audience hall. In its prime it is thought to have comprise queen chambers, official quarters, parks and baths. The Kumara Pokuna is an example of a royal bath made entirely of stone.

Siva Devale #1 and #2

Due to the Chola invasion there is a high influence of the Hindu culture and religion within Polonnaruwa. At least 14 Hindu shrines have been found, including Siva Devale No. 1 and No. 2. Both were built according to South Indian architectural traditions using stone around the 13th century and are shrines to the Hindu god Shiva.

Siva Devale #1 and #2 are located in separate parts of the city.

Sacred Quadrangle

The Sacred Quadrangle is a group of monuments including the Vatadage (AKA Watadage), Hatadage, Sathmahal Prasada, Nishshanka Latha Mandapaya, Gal Potha and more. The Vatadage is thought to be where the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha was enshrined, and is surrounded by four well preserved seated Buddha statues.

At the entrance you will see a perfect moonstone that depicts the Polonnaruwa era. The Hatadage is named as it is thought to have been built within 60 days – once you walk through the main gates you will find standing statues of Buddha. Next to the Hatadage is a stone slab known as Gal Potha: it measures about 8 metres in length and 1.2 metres in width and shows incriptions describing the work of King Nissankamalla. Learn more here.

Vatadage Moon Stone Sacred Quadrangle Polonnaruwa Sri Lanka
Gal Potha Polonnaruwa Sri Lanka
Hatadage Sacred Quadrangle Polonnaruwa Sri Lanka 2
Hatadage Sacred Quadrangle Polonnaruwa Sri Lanka

Rankot Vehara

Rankot Vehara is a massive brown-coloured stupa and follows the architectural style of the city of Anuradhapura. There is a stone pathway that leads to the stupa and gateways that open at the cardinal points. It is 1 of 2 main stupas within the Polonnaruwa complex.

Alahana Parivena complex

The Alahana Parivena complex was founded by King Parakramabahu. The monastic complex includes the Baddhasima Prasada chapter house, statue and frescoes at Lankathilaka and the gleaming white stupa Kiri Vehera.

Lankathilaka Polonnaruwa Sri Lanka
Lankathilaka Polonnaruwa Sri Lanka 2
Baddhasima Prasada chapter house

Gal-vihara

Gal-vihara Polonnaruwa Sri Lanka 3
Gal-vihara Polonnaruwa Sri Lanka 2
Gal-vihara Polonnaruwa Sri Lanka

To enter Gal-vihara you need to produce your ticket again, so make sure you haven’t misplaced it. This rock shrine consists of a group of rock sculptures showing Buddha seated, standing and lying down. The standing Buddha statue is especially rare as it shows Buddha’s arms across the chest which is not seen often.

Lotus Pond

Venture a little further north and you’ll find the lotus pond, named that way after its unique shape. It was once used by monks for bathing and its tiers provided seating for them.

Click here for even more travel guides and tips for visiting Sri Lanka!

Where to stay if you’re visiting Polonnaruwa

Check out Zinc Journey Sigiriya – it offers beautifully decorated rooms, incredible service and is right next to Sigiriya Rock. The rooms are spacious and some even open up to the front garden – 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 Zinc Journey Sigiriya!

Want to stay overnight in Polonnaruwa and looking for more choices? Click here for more accommodation options around Polonnaruwa!

Zinc Journey Hotel Sigiriya

Kaudulla National Park Sri Lanka Elephant Gathering

The ruins of Polonnaruwa are in excellent condition, and the Sri Lankan government’s Central Cultural Fund has done a wonderful job of preserving the architecture and heritage. In my opinion it is just as incredible as Sigiriya, and is a must-visit destination if you are spending time in Sri Lanka’s Central Province. Have you visited Polonnaruwa? What did you think of the ancient city?

Planning a trip to Sri Lanka? Don’t miss my two week itinerary for the Pearl of the Indian Ocean!

This article contains affiliate links. If you choose to book using these links, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you for supporting my website by using these links, I only recommend products or services that I have personally used & hotels I enjoyed visiting.

Yogawinetravel.com: Explore the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa, A Cultural Treasure in Central Sri Lanka. Polonnaruwa is an ancient city in Sri Lanka and forms part of the Cultural Triangle along with Sigiriya, Anuradhapura, Kandy and Dambulla. Read on for how to get there, what you need to know before you go and the top things to do and see in Polonnaruwa!

Yogawinetravel.com: Explore the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa, A Cultural Treasure in Central Sri Lanka. Polonnaruwa is an ancient city in Sri Lanka and forms part of the Cultural Triangle along with Sigiriya, Anuradhapura, Kandy and Dambulla. Read on for how to get there, what you need to know before you go and the top things to do and see in Polonnaruwa!

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20 Discussion to this post

  1. I haven’t been to Sri Lanka but I am a fan of heritage sites. Truly amazing structures those temples and shrines are. You can’t help but wonder how they built it during those times.

  2. I teach ancient history which includes ancient religions so this is right up my alley. I can’t believe all of these amazing structures are so close to each other. Good advice about bringing socks so your feet don’t burn. I would have never thought about that!

  3. David says:

    This post is amazing! I want to visit Sri Lanka so much! This is so helpful, I’ve saved it for future.

  4. This is why I read travelblogs. I have never heard of this place and now I want to go there really badly!

    The images are stunning and the freedom to walk through the grounds is awesome.

    The image of the lotus pond is especially cool.

    Touring through the Sacred Quadrangle alone would be enough to make the trip worthwhile.

    Thanks for sharing. Keep traveling blogging. Adventure is better when shared with friends!

    • Flo says:

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read this, Anthony! The Lotus Pond is small but extremely unique – plus, there weren’t any other tourists when we were there!

  5. Nick says:

    The timing on this post is perfect! I’ve been thinking about going to Sri Lanka in the latter half of the year, along with some bumming around the Maldives. How far is Polonnaruwa from Kandy?

  6. lee says:

    i really thought this place is in cambodia. never thought there is some amazing place like this in sri lanka. i plan to visit the country in 2018 and will re visit this article soon! how much did you spend per day?

  7. Yogita says:

    Polonnaruwa sounds like an excellent place to visit. I enjoyed reading all the cultural and hitten treasure of Polonnaruwa and Sir Lanka. Loved the Photos 🙂

  8. This is an incredibly detailed and helpful guide with awesome pictures, too! I have yet to visit Sri Lanka. Would you also recommend this place to a first-timer to Sri Lanka or should I prefer other places when visiting Sri Lanka for the first time (let’s say, with a week’s time)?

    Cheers,
    Dennis

    • Flo says:

      Thanks for taking the time to read this, Dennis. Yes – I’d absolutely recommend Polonnaruwa for a first timer to Sri Lanka (along with Sigiriya and Dambulla Caves which are all within an hour from Polonnaruwa).

  9. Polonnaruwa seems so charming and rich in history, Flo. I love ancient sites, and this place goes to my bucket list right away. Is a day trip enough to explore Polonnaruwa?

    • Flo says:

      Hi Agness! Thanks for checking this out – as I mentioned in the post, it can easily be done within a day. The main sights are scattered along a one-way road – we arrived at the ticket office at approximately 10 am and were done by 3 pm 🙂

  10. Rob says:

    Wow, this looks great, we visited Sri Lanka but didn’t have time to visit Polonnaruwa. We’ll need to make sure to add this to the list. Thanks Flo!

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