The sacred city of Anuradhapura is an ancient capital in Sri Lanka and one of the country’s precious UNESCO Heritage Sites. This city is a living site in the sense that the ruins of Anuradhapura remain a pilgrimage destination for devout Buddhists in Sri Lanka and around the world: it was established around what people believe to be a branch of the Bodhi tree where Buddha attained enlightenment.
Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka was the country’s first capital city that flourished for more than 13 centuries. The city was abandoned after an invasion, after which the capital was shifted to Polonnaruwa. Today, the sprawling Anuradhapura ruins comprise of crumbling monasteries, temples and palaces that can be explored over the course of a day. Though some people opt to stay overnight in Anuradhapura, it is an easy day trip destination from Dambulla or Sigiriya. Read on for what you need to know before visiting the ruins of Anuradhapura!
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How to get to Anuradhapura
To get to Anuradhapura I would actually recommend that you base yourself in Sigiriya or Dambulla: 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 in addition to touring the Anuradhapura ruins.
In terms of distance, Anuradhapura is a 4 hour drive away from Colombo (or you can take a train – more details here), 90 minute drive away from Dambulla or Sigiriya, or a 4 hour drive from Kandy. It is easy to go on a day trip from Dambulla to Anuradhapura; I would not recommend going on a day trip from Colombo or Kandy to Anuradhapura due to the drive times. Your best bet is to ask your hotel to organize a van to take you to Anuradhapura and drive you between the various landmarks – expect to pay anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 LKR for the day if you’re visiting from Dambulla or Sigiriya.
How to get around Anuradhapura
It gets really, really hot in this part of Sri Lanka, and after 3 hours of sightseeing in Anuradhapura I suffered from heat stroke as there is zero-to-minimal shade. I do not recommend cycling or walking around if you want to cover the top places to visit in Anuradhapura. Moreso than Polonnaruwa, the sights in Anuradhapura are even more spread out and further apart.
The best way to see the ancient city of Anuradhapura, especially if you only have 1 day to see it all, is by (air conditioned) car. Google Maps is fairly accurate when it comes to the individual sights, or you can grab a map from the ticket office/archaeological museum.
Entry fees for Anuradhapura
I arrived at the Archaeological Museum (which doubles as the Anuradhapura ticket office) at approximately 10 am and was done by 2 pm. The Anuradhapura ruins are open from 7 AM to 5:30 PM every day, and I would recommend that you get an early start as the weather in Anuradhapura is stifling and overwhelmingly steamy. An adult ticket costs 25 USD or 4550 LKR. Tickets are half-priced for children from 6-12 years old. This ticket does not include entry to Isurumuniya Rajamaha Viharaya or Sri Maha Bodhi – each of these two sites has their own separate entry ticket, both are priced at 200 LKR. Bring cash to pay for your tickets.
As tickets are not checked at every single monument, some people either knowingly skip out on paying the entrance fee, or are scammed by guides or tuk tuk drivers who claim that you do not have to buy a ticket. However, your ticket cost goes towards the conservation of the Anuradhapura ruins – I highly encourage you to pay the entrance fee at the ticket office. In fact, it seems that the Central Cultural Fund is clamping down on people who scam the system – my ticket was checked twice during my time at Anuradhapura by security guards.
In addition to the price of entry, you will need to have some small change to pay 30 LKR at each of the parking lots.
What to wear when visiting Anuradhapura
The city is located within Sri Lanka’s “dry zone”, and the weather in Anuradhapura is oppressive. When I visited in April the temperature reached upwards of 35 degrees Celsius during the day. Opt for light, breathable clothing that covers your shoulders and knees as Anuradhapura contains religious shrines and monuments. You will also need to take your shoes off to enter the Anuradhapura temples, so wear shoes that are easy to slip on and off. As the concrete and brick floor gets extremely hot, you will absolutely need to bring some socks unless you want blistered feet.
Also bring sunglasses, sunscreen, water, a hat and camera but be prepared to take your sunglasses and hat off to enter religious shrines. It should also be noted that taking photos with your back facing the Buddha images or statues is prohibited at all of the monuments, and drones are not allowed at Anuradhapura.
What to see in Anuradhapura
There are a number of must-visit places in Anuradhapura – below is a Google Map of the different places to see in Anuradhapura so that you can make the most of your time in the ancient city. You should plan on spending no less than 3-4 hours in Anuradhapura.
1. Ruwanwelisaya (AKA Ruvanveli Seya)
Ruwanwelisaya is one of the most important temples in Anuradhapura and a major place of worship in Sri Lanka. The massive stupa is painted a brilliant white and was built by King Dutugemunu in approximately 140 BC. The shrines and temple are adorned with lotus and jasmine flowers by devout Buddhist worshippers. You will need to remove your shoes to enter.
2. Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi
The Sri Maha Bodhi is a sacred shrine built around the southern branch of the sacred Bodhi tree which was planted in the 3rd Century BC. It is the oldest historically documented tree in the world, and is one of the three symbols of Buddhist worship, the other two being the stupa and the image of Buddha. Buddhists have a strong belief that offerings made to this Bodhi tree will result in positive changes in their life.
When I visited, security guards looked over my outfit to make sure that I was decent, and there were also signs around the site asking that visitors wear white clothing. Though the shawl covering my shoulders was black, I was still allowed entry. I was also asked by another security guard not to take photos of the tree itself, though I was told by some other member of staff that it was fine – just something to be aware of. Entry requires a separate ticket that isn’t covered by your Anuradhapura ticket – it costs 200 LKR (just over US$1).
3. Isurumuniya Viharaya
The Isurumuniya Rajamaha Viharaya was constructed by King Devanpiyatissa in the 3rd Century BC. During his reign, 500 children were ordained and the Isurumuniya was built as a monastic complex to house all of them. There are several carvings at the Isurumuniya, the most famous one being the Isurumuniya Lovers dating back to the 6th Century; the temple also features other stone carvings including the Elephant Pond depicting 4 elephants bathing, and The Royal Family. Admission to Isurumuniya Vihara costs 200 LKR.
4. Mirisawetiya Stupa
Built by King Dutugemunu in 161 BC, the Mirisawetiya Stupa is a quieter temple enshrining the king’s ruling sceptre. It is located just 2 minutes away from the Archaeological Museum and is off the typical tourist trail at Anuradhapura. For this reason, it tends to be more peaceful and receives less visitors than say, Ruwanwelisaya.
5. Jethavanaramaya (or Jetavanarama)
Built in 276-303 BC by King Mahasen, Jetavanarama is one of the tallest brick monuments in the world and contains sacred relics including gold folios containing sutras (scriptures) with Buddhist teachings, coins, ceramics and other artefacts. For this reason, it is one of the most important temples in Anuradhapura.
6. Abhayagiriya Stupa
The second largest of the stupas in Sri Lanka, the Abhayagiri Stupa is 235 feet tall and was built by King Vattagamini (AKA Walagamba or Valagamba) in 89-77 BC upon a footprint of the Buddha in the terrace. It is believed that the broader monastic complex (extending over 200 hectares) was once an important educational institution, which today features sculptures, statues and residential units.
Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle is rich in culture, heritage and history. Click here for 7 places you must visit in the Cultural Triangle in Sri Lanka!
7. Kuttam Pokuna (Twin Ponds)
The Kuttam Pokuna in Abhayagiri is believed to have been built in the 8th or 9th Century for the water needs of the resident monks. The Twin Ponds feature stone steps leading into the water and is an example of Sri Lankan art and technology beyond its years. You are not allowed to step into the ponds but it is a beautiful piece of architecture not to be missed in Anuradhapura.
8. Samadhi Buddha Statue
The Samadhi Buddha Statue dating back to the 4th Century depicts the Buddha in deep seated meditation. The statue was sculpted into dolomite, and is in excellent condition – the Samadhi Buddha Statue is one of the most revered sites in Anuradhapura.
It is important to note that you are not allowed to take photos with your back facing the Buddha as it is considered extremely disrespectful – the landmark is patrolled by security guards. Head over here for more advice on what not to do in Sri Lanka.
9. The Moonstone
The Moonstone is a stone’s throw from the Abhayagiri Stupa dating back to the 7th or 8th Century. The Moonstone features realistic carvings that are thought to symbolize Samsara, the neverending cycle of birth and death, and breaking the cycle which leads to Nirvana, a state of enlightenment and freedom from suffering.
Bonus: Scenic view point
This beautiful view point in Anuradhapura is located by a reservoir and offers unobstructed views of the ancient stupas. There is no entry fee and can easily be accessed by car or tuk tuk. Click here for the location.
Have more time in Anuradhapura? You might also want to venture over to Mihintale, 13 KM east of Anuradhapura. The temple complex contains ruins, stupas and a small museum. Mihintale is one of the most revered pilgrimage sites for Buddhists in Sri Lanka as it is believed to be where Buddhism first arrived in the country.
Where to stay if you’re visiting Anuradhapura
Beyond the complex itself, there isn’t a ton of things to do in Anuradhapura. Instead, I recommend that you stay in Dambulla or Sigiriya where there are more hotel options, and plan a day trip to Anuradhapura instead.
Check out EKHO Sigiriya (formerly named 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! 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!
Another option for nature lovers is Diyabubula, a 5 bedroom eco-luxury jungle hideaway that was built with sustainability at the forefront. Diyabubula is the perfect retreat if you want to be immersed in nature – it is shaded by dense canopy and is filled with the sounds of birds chirping, butterflies fluttering and monkeys jumping from tree to tree. Read my full hotel review here, or check out the various room types (bamboo grove, water villa, tree house) at their website!
Want to stay overnight in Anuradhapura and looking for more choices? Click here for more accommodation options around Anuradhapura!
Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa?
I’m often asked whether it’s worth visiting both Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. From a logistics standpoint, Polonnaruwa is in a more convenient location as you can also visit Sigiriya, the Dambulla Caves and Minneriya or Kaudulla National Parks; Anuradhapura is located a little out of the way. The landmarks and sites in Polonnaruwa are also located more closely together, which makes them easier to visit; in contrast, Anuradhapura is a sprawling ancient city and it requires more, let’s say, effort to get around.
Both Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura are rich in history, but Polonnaruwa, in my opinion, offers more signage with information about what you’re looking at. Most of the places in Anuradhapura do not offer much by way of information, and the majority of the signage is in Sinhalese. Perhaps owing to the age of the relics, the ruins of Polonnaruwa are in better condition than those in Anuradhapura. You can read more about Polonnaruwa by clicking here.
That being said, there is a certain electricity in the air at Anuradhapura that you won’t find in Polonnaruwa. There are thousands of Buddhist devotees who worship at the various temples in Anuradhapura, and it offers a glimpse into the significance and importance of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. If you have more than 2 weeks in Sri Lanka, you might want to check out both of these ancient cities; however, if you are short on time then I would recommend sticking to Polonnaruwa to maximize your time in the country.
Have you visited Anuradhapura? What did you think of the ancient city?
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