The stunning island of Sri Lanka is a beloved destination for all types of travelers. Known for its tropical beaches and lush green scenery, the coconut island is truly a paradise. Yet, no trip to Sri Lanka is complete without visiting one of the majestic ancient cities. The ancient city of Polonnaruwa, located in the heart of the country, is undisputedly one of the highlights of the cultural triangle. The former capital is one of the best places to visit if you would love to learn more about Sri Lanka’s rich history and cultural essence. Home to many former Sinhalese kings and once the resting place of the holy tooth relic of Buddha. This UNESCO World Heritage site was the second main capital and houses many well-preserved ruins and Buddha statues. You will be wandering through ancient palaces, picturesque shrines, and impressive temples dating back to the 11th century AD.
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13 Amazing places to explore in the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa
Prior to wanting to travel to Sri Lanka and planning our trip, we actually hadn’t heard of Polonnaruwa. After visiting Anuradhapura we were still in doubt, not really sure what else to expect from this ancient city. Was it going to be any different? Is it even worth visiting? It’s safe to say we were really impressed by this hidden gem.
In this insightful guide, you can find the must-see places in Polonnaruwa and learn more about Sri Lankan heritage. As well as all the travel essentials and practical tips you need to prepare for your trip. Further, we will cover the main differences between both Ancient Cities, Anuradhapura, and Polonnaruwa. With the abundance of ancient sights in Sri Lanka, picking just one might be quite a challenge. Luckily we are here to help you make a decision that fits your planning.
Disclaimer: Prices in this travel guide to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa are indications and are based on the daily currency rate during our stay in Sri Lanka. Bear in mind that the Sri Lankan currency is currently heavily fluctuating due to inflation. We also advise you to check current travel advice to Sri Lanka due to the ongoing economic crisis. This has led to possible shortages of basic necessities (such as food and fuel), power cuts, and overall unstable security situations.
History of the ancient city of Polonnaruwa
Polonnaruwa thrived as the capital of the Chola dynasty from the 11th century up until 1310. After the destruction of Anuradhapura, the royal capital grew to be a prosperous commercial and religious center. For 3 centuries, the ancient city served as the power seat for both the Chola and Sinhalese kingdoms. Polonnaruwa’s greatest advantage as new capital was its strategic position in the heart of Sri Lanka. The kingdom benefited from its protection against the rebellious Ruhunu Sinhalese kingdom.
Eventually, the south-Indian Cholas were driven off the island by Sinhalese king Vijayabahu in 1070. Under his Sinhalese rule, Polonnaruwa reached its absolute glory as the capital of Ceylon. His successor, King Parakramabahu added to the richness of the kingdom by investing in irrigation systems. Massive water tanks were created to tackle the central plains’ water crisis. Prosperity was created everywhere, resulting in the construction of many glorious palaces and temples. It is the archeological treasures of this glorious era that we can see today in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa.
As a matter of fact, the third king Nissanka Malla bankrupted Polonnaruwa by attempting to match his predecessor’s achievements. Early 13th century the seat of power shifted to Colombo. Polonnaruwa’s era of glory was fading over time, leaving the old capital abandoned for the next 700 years. Until 1982, when the ancient city was declared a UNESCO world heritage site. Today Polonnaruwa is considered to be one of the best-preserved historic cities in the whole world.
Essential travel information & tips
Entry ticket at the archeological museum
Your adventure takes off at the Archaeological museum where you will have to buy your ticket for the ancient city. See the location here. Tickets are priced at 5900 LKR (~€24) for foreigners and you will receive a map. The museum is the only place where you can get a valid entrance ticket. So don’t get scammed into buying elsewhere.
We noticed that overall entrance tickets to UNESCO world heritage sites in Sri Lanka are more on the pricier side. Thankfully these fees contribute to the maintenance of the sights. Also if you are truly interested in the place’s history, it’s well worth its price. Unlike Anuradhapura, the ancient city of Polonnaruwa is located within a well-defined bounded area. It almost gives the feeling of a huge open-air museum.
Before heading out of the museum, we strongly encourage you to explore the well-preserved artifacts and historical treasures inside. Miniature reconstructions of the ruins show you what the city used to look like. The museum gives you a nice introduction to the sites and a chance to read up on its history. All in all the visit won’t take more than 30 minutes.
If you are interested in taking a tour guide for the city, there are multiple standing outside the museum. They will probably approach you themselves and they charge around 3000 LKR (~€12). We wouldn’t necessarily say you need one since you can find English background information signs all over the grounds.
TIP | Download the app ‘Heritage Lanka’ which allows you to scan QR codes at several sites and gives you more background information.
How to get around Polonnaruwa
There are a few ways to explore the ancient city of Polonnaruwa: by foot, by bike, by tuk-tuk, or by car.
By foot – The first option, exploring the site on foot, you shouldn’t even consider. The weather gets really hot and the area is quite widespread. It would take you a long time to see everything, and not to forget it’s exhausting.
By bike – A fun and easy way to discover the ruins is by bike. You will be able to see more of the ancient city at a faster pace while enjoying a cool breeze. Many hotels in Polonnaruwa offer the extra service of a bike rental. Otherwise, there are several to be found close to the entrance and the bus stop. Prices usually go around 500 LKR (~€2) for the full day. You will at least need half a day to explore the whole site.
By tuk-tuk – Another option is to explore the grounds by tuk-tuk. You can hire one directly in Polonnaruwa, or go with the one you came with if you are staying in another city. This is exactly what we did since our accommodation was in Dambulla. We paid 5500 LKR (~€22) for bringing us back and forth plus driving us around in the ancient city. An easy and breezy option on those hot Sri Lankan days.
By car – We did see some bigger groups exploring the ruins by car or by tour bus. You can find many tours online from other cities like Dambulla or Kandy for the day to the archeological park. This is a convenient and air-conditioned option, but probably a bit more expensive.
Best time to visit
The best time to visit this region of the country is between November and March. During the dry season, there are fewer chances of downpours and the climate is more favorable overall for sightseeing activities. Sri Lanka is extremely hot all year round though, so keep this in mind for your outdoor activities. Just like most popular sights, we advise you to head out for Polonnaruwa as early as possible. Chances are there are fewer tourist buses at that time and you can beat the heat. The archeological site opens at 7 AM and closes around 5.30 PM.
REMINDER | Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! Little vendors around the major sights sell cold drinks including delicious king coconuts.
Temple etiquette for the ancient city of Polonnaruwa
- Bring a hat and wear loads of sunscreen to protect yourself from the scorching sun.
- When entering a temple site, you will have to remove your hat and footwear. It’s best to wear slippers or loose sneakers since you will be taking them off and on very often.
- Walking barefoot on the hot temple stones can get quite unpleasant, so we always suggest packing a pair of white socks.
- Out of respect for the holy places you have to cover up your knees and shoulders. Dress appropriately or bring a scarf or sarong, this is both for men and women.
- When taking pictures with a buddha statue, remember not to stand with your back towards it, as it’s considered to be highly disrespectful. Be mindful when taking selfies.
What to see in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa
Once you scored your entrance tickets at the archeological museum, head over to the Royal Palace to start your explorations. From there work your way all the way up north to see all the sights. Allow yourself enough time at the Sacred Quadrangle, the largest concentration of temples and fascinating ruins. The largest monuments such as the Lankatilaka shrine and Rankoth Vehera stupa can be found in the northern part. In the west of the city lies the artificial lake, the Parakrama Samudra which was created by King Parakramabahu to serve as an irrigation system. It gives the ancient city a beautiful backdrop and is perfect for a scenic stroll at the end of your visit.
The ruins are scattered over an extensive area of around 25km². There are enough ancient tombs, well-preserved dagobas, and buddha statues to keep you entertained for a full day. In case you are time-bound, it’s even possible to see the main highlights in half a day. Here you can find the top 13 sights you have to see in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa:
The Old Royal Palace
The first group of buildings after entering the grounds is the Royal Palace group. Constructed in the 10th century, the majestic royal palace of King Parakramabahu I stands as a symbol of the splendor that Polonnaruwa once was. The royal palace is believed to have once been seven stories high, making it one of the tallest buildings of its time. It’s a little bit hard to imagine today, but the majestic palace complex supposedly consisted of 1000 chambers.
Today only crumbling remnants of the historical attraction can be found. The higher floors were made out of wood, which decayed over time. In the 3m thick walls, you can see the holes where the floor beams used to be for the higher floors. At the museum, you can find a miniature model to get a better impression of what it looked like 800 years ago.
The audience hall or Council Chamber
On the other side of the palace, you can find the council chamber. This was where the King used to hold all his important meetings with his ministers. Its walls are beautifully decorated with carvings of elephants, with each of them in a unique pose. A stunning well-preserved moonstone (also known as entrance stone) adorns the foot of the stairs. The stairs lead you to the top where on each side of the entrance a beautiful lion welcomes you. On the top, only a set of pillars remain, since the rest of the building was once made out of wood.
Next to the audience hall are stairs leading you to the king’s swimming pool (Kumara Pokuna). It has a central lotus island and two crocodile-mouth spouts remaining that were used to lead fresh water to the pools. We don’t think this seems to be the case anymore given the muddy green water. You might not wanna bathe in that.
The Sacred Quadrangle (Dalada Maluwa)
A short walk up north you find the Sacred Quadrangle, a compact group of prominent religious shrines on top of a raised platform. This is where one of the most famous pictures of Polonnaruwa is taken. The Dalada Maluwa is undoubtedly the heart of the ancient city and holds much historic worth. As it once was the home of the sacred tooth relic of Buddha, which nowadays resides in Kandy.
The Sacred Quadrangle contains 10 key buildings, which are a must-visit for a better understanding of Buddhism in Sri Lankan culture. Marvel at the astounding architecture and beautiful carvings of lotus, lions, and king cobra. Next to being home to a Boddhi Tree Shrine, Thuparama Image house, and a Bodhisattva shrine, we will go into detail about the major ruins here:
The main showstopper is without a doubt the Vatadage, a circular two-tiered relic house unique to Sri Lanka. It’s one of the most impressive buildings here with exquisite carvings and well-preserved details. The moonstone that adorns the northern entrance is supposedly the finest in all of Polonnaruwa.
The circular relic house has four entrances that lead up to the central dagoba positioned at the heart of the structure. Four Buddhas are surrounding the dagoba, each facing the cardinal directions. Local devotees always go around a sacred monument or dagoba clockwise for prayer. Legend says that the Vatadage once housed Buddha’s Sacred Tooth Relic, the one that is now kept in Kandy.
The Hatadage or also known as the Shrine of Sixty Relics is positioned right across from the Vatadage. This sanctum was built by King Nissankamalla in the 12th century in 60 hours, hence its name. The shrine is in poor condition today but nevertheless very intriguing to visit. It’s characterized by its symmetric chambers and pillars, within the back of the temple 3 Buddha statues.
Nissanka Lata Mandapaya
This rather unusual-looking temple was built by Nissanka Malla. The dagoba is encircled by these curved stone pillars that are shaped like lotus stalks. It is said that the king used to sit inside the temple listening to Buddhist chanting.
In the northeast corner of the Quadrangle, you can find this unique square pyramid-shaped tower, called a rectangular ziggurat. The Satmahal Prasada consists of now six stories, which used to be seven.
Siva Devale No.2
Located north of the Sacred Quadrangle there is a small track leading off the main road. It will lead you to a bit of a hidden Hindu temple, the oldest one in Polonnaruwa. Siva Devale was built by King Rajaraja in the 10th century AD during the Indian Chola dynasty period. If you look closely you can see Tamil inscriptions on the temple that speak about the Chola rule. It is one of the few Hindu temples that exist on the grounds and is still active today.
Rankoth Vehera stupa
This 54m tall dagoba is the largest one in Polonnaruwa, built in the 12th century by King Nissanka Malla. It is entirely made out of bricks, with a characteristic bubble-shaped dome. You can clearly see it was built in the same architectural style as the one in Anuradhapura, the capital before Polonnaruwa. Devotees walk around a dagoba clockwise for prayer. A walk around makes you realize how huge it is. Especially when it’s burning hot and you are questioning your choice.
With its 17m high walls, the Lankatilaka temple is an impressive sight to see. The cathedral-like corridor leads to a 14-meter-high standing Buddha at the end made out of bricks. Unfortunately, the head of the statue and the roof have collapsed a couple of centuries ago. Nonetheless, the structure is absolutely breathtaking inside and out. Make sure to take a walk around and pay attention to the beautiful carvings on the outside walls.
Gal Vihara Buddha statues
One sight you shouldn’t miss is the Gal Vihara, a group of four beautifully intact Buddha statues, all carved from one large granite slab. These masterpieces are in pristine condition and are the best example of the high point of Sinhalese rock carving.
Thivanka Image House
These were the final impressive ruins that we visited in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. The building is located all the way north at the very end of the archeological site. The exteriors of the Thivanka Image House are absolutely breathtaking and masterfully carved. On the inside, it houses a headless Buddha statue called Thivanka, which means ‘thrice bent’. It refers to the fact that the statue is bent in three spots, which is normally only reserved for female statues. On the walls inside you can find Jataka frescoes. Unfortunately, they are hardly visible today, but they are supposed to depict Buddha in his past life. They are the only surviving murals in Polonnaruwa and it is not allowed to take any pictures.
On our way back to the exit we passed quickly by the Nelum Pokuna or lotus pond. As you can see the pond is carved in the shape of a lotus flower with 5 descending rings of eight petals each. Most likely monks used it back in the day to bathe in.
Other things to do around Polonnaruwa
Combine the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa with a safari trip
You can easily combine a visit to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa with a safari trip in the afternoon. Polonnaruwa is a great starting point for a jeep safari in nearby Minneriya and Kaudulla national parks. Unless you are a history buff and like to go in-depth on every sight, exploring the ruins takes only half a day. The coconut island has an extensive animal kingdom and offers many safaris all over the country. In Minneriya National park, you will mostly encounter big groups of wild elephants, which is an experience of a lifetime. Other wildlife that you might spot are Leopards, Sloth bears, Spotted Deer, Grey Langers, and Mongoose.
We decided to skip these national parks because our itinerary didn’t allow it anymore. Thankfully we already experienced an unforgettable safari at Wilpattu National Park earlier that week. And the icing on the cake was spotting some wild elephants on the side of the road to Polonnaruwa, which was extraordinary.
- The safari game drives take place in the morning between 5.30 AM and 8.30 AM or in the afternoon between 3 PM and 6 PM.
- Prices are around €90 for two people. These vary on the number of people for the jeep, and whether or not you take a private jeep. This price is an estimated total price for the entry fee to the park + jeep with a guided driver.
BOOK A SAFARI | Here you can find different kinds of safari trips for Minneriya national park. Make sure to check what’s included and what’s not. Usually mentioned prices are only for the jeep and guide. The entrance fee has to be paid directly at the park.
Climb Sigiriya or Pidurangala Rock
Sigiriya is located only a little over an hour away from Polonnaruwa and is the perfect base to stay. The town is mostly famous for the Lion Rock, an ancient fortress located on top of a massive rock. The site dates back to the 5th century AD and was once a majestic palace with royal gardens, colorful frescoes, and an impressive Lion gate. This UNESCO world heritage site is visited by millions of tourists annually and is something that you can’t miss on a trip to Sri Lanka.
Hiking Pidurangala rock has also become a popular pilgrimage for tourists and is a must when traveling to Sri Lanka. Located adjacent to Sigiriya Lion rock, it provides the most epic views of the surrounding green central plains and jungle. After an adventurous climb, the summit will reward you with an incredible panoramic view of Lion Rock itself. Want to know more about the climb itself and what to expect? Wondering which one of the two rocks to climb? Read more in our extensive guide below.
Which Ancient City to visit: Polonnaruwa or Anuradhapura?
Many travelers only have time to include one archeological sight in their Sri Lankan itinerary. The island has amazing ancient cities, but each is significantly different making it difficult to pick a favorite. Although Polonnaruwa covers a smaller area of ruins, they are far better preserved than the ones in Anuradhapura, making it easier to get a grasp of Sinhalese culture. It offers an impressive collection of sights such as the Lankatilaka temple and the sacred Quadrangle which Anuradhapura can’t beat. Many of the ruins at Anuradhapura are in bad condition, which makes it sometimes hard to envision the greatness of what it once was.
Having said that, Anuradhapura has its own kind of mystique, giving you the opportunity to experience the culture in a more authentic way. Since the town is mostly a pilgrimage for devotees and has way fewer tourists. We personally had an amazing experience visiting Anuradhapura, which was also thanks to our guesthouse host at the Water Front Home Stay. Further, we also fell in love with Mihintale, located right next to Anuradhapura and known as the birthplace of Buddhism. It was one of our absolute highlights! For this sight alone we would recommend taking time to visit this area of the country. In conclusion, depending on your time and interest, we would advise visiting the ancient city of Polonnaruwa.
Where & what to eat in Polonnaruwa?
We highly recommend having a big breakfast before heading out on your day trip to Polonnaruwa. The ancient city doesn’t have that many food options. You will find a few stands around the major temple sites selling snacks or king coconuts, but that’s about it.
TIP | If you bring snacks, make sure to put them safely away in zip-lock bags in your backpack. As at most ancient sights, there are monkeys all over the place, waiting for careless tourists. For the record, they don’t ask you politely if you could share some.
Near the Sacred Quadrangle, we decided to have a break and get ourselves some refreshing king coconuts. While chilling in the shadows, we witnessed a couple of monkeys cleverly stealing food from the snack stands. They even tried to snatch the belongings of our tuk-tuk driver, which he thankfully recovered after an intense pursuit.
We were quite hungry after a whole morning of exploring, so once we left the ancient city we made a stop at the side of the road. Our driver helped us pick some amazing vegetable Roti filled with potatoes and spices. They were indeed a bit heavy on the hotness, but absolutely delicious! You can find these types of snacks on the side of the road all over Sri Lanka, so definitely give them a try. They are vegetarian and filling snacks to go or to take with you on a picnic.
As a restaurant, we got recommended Gami Gedara in Polonnaruwa, a Sri Lankan buffet restaurant serving traditional Sri Lankan curry. It’s supposed to be the best one around and is located in the most idyllic place right between the rice paddy fields.
Where to stay for visiting Polonnaruwa ancient city?
Most people book accommodation in Dambulla or Sigiriya when they are visiting this area of the country. From those two towns, you can easily take the bus or a tuk-tuk for a day trip to Polonnaruwa. We advise staying in Sigiriya if you would like to experience an idyllic setting in nature. You can find plenty of houses scattered around the jungles of Sigiriya for everyone’s budget. The area also offers multiple laidback and authentic restaurants that you can enjoy at the end of a day exploring.
Sigiri Rock Side Home stay : This gorgeous guesthouse stay is perfect for those on a budget. This scenic homestay is located in the lush green surroundings of Sigiriya near Lion Rock. Their porch is the perfect slice of heaven to enjoy the end of an adventurous day.
The Cattleya Guest House: Another beautiful guest house, with modern, spacious, and clean rooms. They provide family rooms with their own private terraces to enjoy. The stay offers a cozy patio and garden from where you can catch views of the Lion rock itself. Located close to restaurants, it’s also perfectly possible to enjoy a traditional Sri Lankan meal at the place itself.
Water Garden Sigiriya: Feel like splurging on a luxurious hotel with the best location possible? This stunning hotel has a pool with a direct view of Lion Rock. Imagine yourself relaxing next to the pool, surrounded by rice fields, and spotting an occasional elephant in the distance. This resort is known to offer top-quality service. Further, it also comes with everything included from its spa and pool to a bar and restaurant at your disposal.
BOOK ACCOMMODATION | See all hotels & guesthouse stays in Sigiriya HERE
How to get to the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa?
Most people don’t stay in Polonnaruwa itself but take a day trip to the ancient city from their accommodation in Dambulla or Sigiriya. The easiest way to get there is by taking the bus or a tuk-tuk. In case you are coming from Anuradhapura (up north), Kandy (down south), or Colombo (west) you will be first passing through Dambulla since this is the main city. Find all information you need on how to get to Dambulla in our post here. Once in Dambulla, you will have to shift to one of the following options:
By Bus | Take a bus at the Dambulla Main bus station that heads for Kaduruwela. Buses leave every 20-30 minutes starting from 7 am in the morning. The trip takes between 1,5 hours to 2 hours and will cost you around 220 LKR (~€1).
By Tuk-tuk | Ask your homestay to arrange a tuk-tuk driver or get one on the main road yourself. A tuk-tuk all the way from Dambulla to Polonnaruwa will take around 1,5 hours to 2 hours one-way, and will cost you around 5500 LKR (~€22). This price we negotiated for taking us back and forth + driving us around the ancient city. You can always talk to the driver to have him wait for you outside the grounds, while you go out to discover the ruins by bike.
By bus | If you want to take the bus from Sigiriya to Polonnaruwa, you will first need to get to the Inamaluwa junction. The easiest and fastest way is to first grab a tuk-tuk, which will cost you around 500 LKR (~€2). At the junction, you can jump on the bus in direction of Kaduruwela. Always double-check with the bus driver if it’s the correct one. The journey will take around 90 minutes and cost you only 100 LKR. Buses are really cheap in Sri Lanka and come quite often. Once arrived in Polonnaruwa it’s only a 500-meter walk to the entrance.
By tuk-tuk | Taking a tuk-tuk directly from your homestay to Polonnaruwa is the easiest and quickest way. You can discuss a price with the driver and they can even take you to all the sights within the ancient city. If you prefer to discover the ruins by bike, it’s common to discuss a price with your driver to take you back and forth. So while you enjoy your bike ride, the driver waits for you at the entrance until you are done. The one-way drive takes around 90 minutes, and the drive back and forth (including driving you around) will cost you around 5000 LKR (~€20). This is what we arranged with our driver, for almost a whole day and taking us around to the sights.
Book a tour of the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa
You can also book a private organized tour from Sigiriya like this one. Or join a whole day trip that includes both the ancient city of Polonnaruwa + a safari trip to Minneriya national park. For prices, details and availability click here.
BOOK TRANSPORTATION | Book a train, bus, or taxi to Polonnaruwa with 12Go Asia HERE
We absolutely enjoyed our day trip to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa and can’t recommend it enough. It totally reminded us of Inwa in Mandalay, the old capital of Myanmar, or Ayutthaya in Thailand. The type of places where it feels like you are traveling back in time. As we said, you can even enjoy the main highlights in one morning, so it’s easily combinable with one of the other recommended activities.
Let us know in the comments below if this post was helpful and if you are planning on visiting Polonnaruwa. You can show some ❤ and support for the blog and help us share more adventures! Our travels are entirely self-funded, so any show of support is greatly appreciated. It allows us to keep writing helpful travel guides and gather information to make it easier for people to discover the world.
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