The sacred city of Anuradhapura is a must-stop on your travel itinerary if you want to get a taste of the rich history that Sri Lanka has to offer. We absolutely loved this place and it just might have been one of our favorites from our 3-week backpacking trip. This Ultimate travel guide to Anuradhapura will take you through the best places to visit, where to stay, travel tips, and much more. Enjoy a 2 or 3-day stay, while biking your way through ancient ruins in this marvelous historical-filled city.
The UNESCO world heritage site was the first capital of Sri Lanka and holds major cultural, religious, and historical significance. Its religious significance makes the destination an important pilgrimage for devotees. Over an area of around 40 square kilometers, you will find many remnants of gigantic dagobas and temples scattered. Together with its neighboring sightseeing Mihintale, Anuradhapura is the perfect destination to learn more about Sri Lanka’s culture & history.
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The Ultimate Travel Guide to Anuradhapura: All you need to know about the Sacred City of Sri Lanka
Is Anuradhapura worth visiting?
While planning our 3-week journey through Sri Lanka we were going back and forth on whether or not to add Anuradhapura to our itinerary. Since we are more in favor of slow travel, we had to make some cuts on what to visit. When researching, we noticed it often doesn’t make the list despite its impressive attractions. This ancient city seems to remain rather an off-the-beaten-path destination.
In the end, we decided to make a stop, and we sure didn’t regret it. Besides being an absolutely beautiful scenic place, the locals and its atmosphere just stole our hearts. Anuradhapura was one of the perfect places to get a better taste and feel of Sinhalese daily life. Since we encountered fewer tourists here compared to other popular places like Ella and Sigiriya, it was definitely a more serene experience. Here you can peacefully cruise between temples surrounded by rice fields without encountering another soul for a while. We would 100% recommend putting it on your Sri Lanka itinerary, for which two days are just the perfect amount.
Travel Guide Anuradhapura: History of the Sacred City
The sacred city of Anuradhapura is located in the northern-central part of Sri Lanka. Next to Jaffna, it is probably the most visited destination towards the north of this island. For our 3-week Sri Lanka itinerary, we decided to follow the north-to-south loop. After our safari adventure in Wilpattu National Park, we found our way to Anuradhapura.
*Disclaimer: Prices in this travel guide to Anuradhapura 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.
The first capital of Sri Lanka
Anuradhapura used to be one of the greatest monastic cities, dating back to the 5th Century BC. The city flourished as the first capital of Sri Lanka, serving as the royal seat from 380 BC to the 11th century AD. During the 1400 years as the capital of the country, more than 130 kings took reign. Buddhism found its way from India to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BC when the king of Anuradhapura at the time encountered the Indian monk Mahinda. After this Buddhism rapidly spread around the whole island.
Anuradhapura, as the old center of Theravada Buddhism, gives the perfect glimpse of pre-Christian times into the glorious Sinhalese Buddhist civilization. The marvelous stupas or dagobas, that tower along the sky, are the perfect example of ancient Sri Lankan engineering. The many ruins of former royal palaces and temples, together with some remarkable rock carvings, show the richness of its culture.
Unesco World Heritage
These archeological treasures make the destination most beloved among history buffs. The area covers around 40 square kilometers and is filled with excavated temples and remains of the old king’s city. Because of its historical significance dating back to the ancient Sinhalese civilization, the ancient town became a UNESCO world heritage site in 1982. Together with Kandy and Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura is part of the famous cultural triangle of Sri Lanka. A 1000 years ago this cultural triangle used to be the center of thriving commercial and religion.
Over the centuries though the whole country had to deal continually with incursions coming from India. These invasions made people start abandoning Anuradhapura, after which the city fell into oblivion. Nature started to take over, overgrowing the temples and dagobas with plants. It was only until the beginning of the 20th century under the British, when Sri Lanka was better known as Ceylon, that Anuradhapura was excavated.
Travel Guide Anuradhapura: The best things to do & see
We arrived at our guest house stay in Anuradhapura around noon, where we would stay for the coming 2 nights. Since we still had the full afternoon, we decided to already head out to explore the temple complex of Mihintale. This was probably one of our favorite sights in Sri Lanka and the perfect place to enjoy the colorful sunset. The next day we spent the day discovering the ancient city of Anuradhapura. We decided to rent a tuk-tuk with a driver to take us around the whole area.
It is perfectly possible to see both Mihintale and the old city of Anuradhapura in one day, but then you will be looking at one hectic full day. We personally like to take our time and would recommend staying 2 nights. This way you can also get to see more of local life and experience the place in another way. We definitely also advise joining a dinner at your local guesthouse if they offer it. A must if you want to experience authentic Sri Lankan food and learn more about their cuisine. More on that later in our Travel Guide Anuradhapura.
Explore the ancient city of Anuradhapura
The old royal city of Anuradhapura is bursting with UNESCO world heritage sites, filled with stupas and temples. As one of the key places in the cultural triangle, it holds significant historical importance for Sri Lanka. Below you can find the main highlights of the ancient city. There are way more sights on the historic grounds, but we wanted to list the most interesting ones.
- Put on your alarm clock and set out in the early morning to start exploring. Temperatures tend to be very hot, so try to beat the heat. Another wonderful thing about going early is there is practically no other tourist in sight, only locals that come for their morning prayer. It’s a beautiful sight to witness devotees all dressed in white clothing.
- On average it will take you around 4 to 5 hours to cover the most important parts of the grounds.
- In order to access the ruins of the sacred city, you will need to buy a day pass. The ruins are open daily from 7h30 AM to 5h30 PM. The entrance fee is around 5500 LKR or €25 and you can purchase tickets near the archeological museum.
- Some sights are free, only the Isurumuniya Viharaya temple is not included in the day ticket and costs additional 200 rupees.
- The sites are spread out over an area of 40 square kilometers and that’s quite some ground to cover. It makes the most sense to rent a bike or tuk-tuk with a guide to get around.
The whole area almost feels like one big park, with lakes and rice fields surrounding the sights. The archeological site is actually not a well-defined area, unlike the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, and they don’t check your ticket systematically. Some of the sights are for free and therefore not included in the ticket, so some might opt to not get the actual ticket. However the main sights require a ticket check, and you don’t want to miss out on these.
Sri Maha Bodhi
The sacred Sri Maha Bodhi tree is one of the holiest sites in Sri Lanka and is located in the spiritual center of Anuradhapura, Mahavihara. It’s the heart of the ancient city and home to the oldest, historically authenticated tree in the world (it’s believed to be 2000 years old). Rumors say it’s even the sacred fig tree where Buddha attained Enlightenment. Thus, making the holy Bodhi tree the center of Anuradhapura, spiritually but also physically (being literally in the center of the temple, which surrounds the sacred tree).
Originally this Bodhi tree is supposed to stem from a branch of the Bodhgaya tree from India. Hence why it’s one of the most popular attractions in Anuradhapura. People often tend to stand in line and come to recite mantras together. It’s very fascinating to observe the local traditions that take place within this serene place. The entrance is free.
This remarkable giant white stupa is considered one of the most sacred Buddhist places, as well as one of the world’s tallest ancient structures. The dagoba used to be the biggest in the world. Nowadays it stands tall at 55m, which is way less than its original height due to the much damage it had to endure. Regardless it was still an impressive sight to see and made us feel really small. Its beautiful dome shape and the wall of 344 elephant statues guarding the structure left us in total awe. The white limestone construction sticks out beautifully with the colorful Buddhist flags and ropes. The Ruvanvelisaya dagoba is known to be home to some sacred relics of Buddhism: As allegedly some of Buddha’s ashes are enshrined here.
Although a part of the stupa was under construction at the moment of our visit, it was really interesting to see how they actually freshen it up. The place itself can get very crowded on a Sunday and might be the busiest place in the holy city. Some recommend avoiding it during the weekend, but then you might miss Sri Lankans performing their traditions. Locals usually bring lotus flowers as an offering before walking clockwise around the stupa.
Another beautiful site is Isurumuni Viharaya, a Buddhist temple carved out of a rock dating back to the reign of Devanampiya Tissa (300 BC). The rock temple’s design is quite unique and is set around a lotus pond with carvings of playful elephants. It’s possible to climb around the back to the top, revealing a small viewing platform over the surrounding rice fields. Up here you can get a better look at the bell-shaped stupa which is located to the side. When descending you will pass a Buddha shrine underneath a gorgeous tree.
The small museum near the entrance showcases several beautiful stone carvings, amongst them the famous Isurumuniya lovers sculpture. It portrays a woman sitting on the lap of a man, which supposedly depicts Prince Saliya from the 5th century AD. It was said he gave up the right to the throne in order to marry a girl from a lower caste.
ENTRANCE FEE | 200 LKR (~ €1)
OPENING TIMES | 7.30 am to 6.30 pm
The Abhayagiri dagoba used to serve as the ceremonial area of the Abhayagiri Monastery where thousands of Buddhist monks used to gather. This colossal dagoba dates back to the 1st century BC and was originally over 100m high. In ancient times it was regarded as one of the greatest structures next to the famous pyramids of Giza. Today the red brick dagoba ‘only’ measures around 75m after its reconstruction but is still breathtaking. The massive unplastered dome rises above the surrounding forest from far away. Contrary to its twin-looking brick dagoba, the Jetavanarama, the tip is still intact. Interesting to know: the name of the dagoba translates to ‘Hill of Protection’ or ‘Fearless Hill’.
Another huge white stupa, but lesser visited than the Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba. It was built by King Dutugemunu and the story goes that the King went to bathe in the Tissa Wewa, leaving his scepter on the bank. The scepter supposedly contained a relic of Buddha. When he returned from his bath he couldn’t move the scepter anymore, which was anchored to the ground. The king took this as a sign, building a dagoba on the very spot.
Mahasena Temple (Moonstone)
More northwest of the Abhayagiri Dagoba you can find the ruins of an old monk residential complex. It’s mostly known for its well-preserved moonstone (or Sandakada Pahana). Moonstones were typical Sinhalese architectural elements usually found at the entrance of a temple. The design of these moonstones is usually a half-round stone with detailed carvings. In the center, you can see a lotus flower surrounded by intertwined leaves, followed by swans. Lastly, in the outer circle, you can see a row of animals. It typically shows elephants that represent growth, lions that symbolize energy, horses that stand for power, and bulls that represent patience.
Located just 100 meters further you can find the Ratnaprasada or ‘Jewel palace’. Sadly today only ruins are left but originally the palace was seven stories high. You can still spot some well-preserved guard stones or Muragala at the entrances where the palace used to be. It depicts the Cobra King holdings a flowering branch and a vase of abundance in his hands. At his feet, you can spot a little dwarf and his crown is framed by a cobra.
Further south you come across a big pool of water, known as the Elephant pond (Eth Pokuna). It used to serve as ancient water storage for the monastery. However, our guide told us it might have also been used as a pool for the elephants. Hence its name and size. Supposedly the tank can fit 6 Olympic-style swimming pools, so I would say big enough to bathe some elephants.
The Kuttam Pokuna (Twin Ponds)
Another swimming pool looking like construction is the Twin ponds or Kuttam Pokuna from around the 8th century. Unfortunately, we missed these on the drive. It is basically two identical pools next to each other, fitting for its name. The ponds show some significant craftsmanship by the early Sinhalese in terms of hydrological and architectural engineering. Water found its way to the ponds through underground pipes where it even went through a water-filtering system. It finally entered the ponds through the mouth of a Makara, a mythical hybrid beast. The ponds were most likely used by monks from the Abayagiri dagoba, one for bathing and the other for drinking.
Finish your tour at the Tessa Wewa lake
Throughout the grounds of Anuradhapura, you can find three lakes, which are actually big artificial water reservoirs (or Wewa). They were provided by the king and meant for the irrigation of the land. It’s the perfect place to catch the sunset or drive by with the bike to catch a glimpse of the white stupa. You can easily get here coming from the Isurumuniya Vihara.
View the sunset from Mihintale
In the afternoon upon arrival in Anuradhapura, we decided to head out to explore Mihintale and view the sunset from this temple complex. Little did we know that the views over the valley would be this impressive. We absolutely fell in love with this place and made our stop in Anuradhapura one of our favorites on our whole trip. If there is one place we can absolutely advise to put on your Sri Lanka itinerary it’s this one. You will not be disappointed!
The birthplace of Buddhism
Mihintale is considered to be the birthplace of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, making it one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in the country. So you will most likely see more locals here than tourists. The sacred area is located on a small mountain, accessible by a long stair path. The main temple site includes a white stupa in the middle surrounded by 3 higher platforms. On one, there’s a big white Buddha statue, reachable by small stairs, carved into the rock. On the other side thrones a rock, better known as the ‘meditation rock’ offering magnificent views. This one needs a bit more effort to get up, a little adventure! The last platform holds a colossal white dagoba, the perfect hangout spot to catch the sunset.
You should consider planning in half a day to explore this unique site. Some people combine this with the ancient city in one day, which is possible but might make your day too hectic and you ought to miss something. The area is located ~15 kilometers east of the city. The easiest way to reach it is by taking a tuk-tuk which would cost you around 2500 rupees (round trip). Another cheap option is taking the bus from Anuradhapura bus station, which costs only 40 rupees (~ €0,15).
ENTRANCE FEE | 1000 LKR (~ € 4,50)
OPENING TIMES | 9 am to 5 pm
Travel Guide Tips for visiting the ancient city of Anuradhapura
Go as early as possible!
We will admit, that we are not the biggest early birds ourselves, but we were able to adapt our rhythm in Sri Lanka naturally. We often woke up with the sunlight coming through the windows and the sound of the birds chirping. In the end, it really pays off to get the most out of your days here! So try to start your days around 7 am-8 am to start exploring. This way you will beat the heat (it’s starting to get really hot around noon) and avoid the big crowds. In the early morning, you will mostly see locals and devotees going for prayers in the temples, which is a fascinating experience to be a part of!
Get around by tuk-tuk or bicycle
Don’t underestimate the distances between the different heritage sites in the old city of Anuradhapura. If you want to get the most out of your day ticket, we advise against walking to the sights in the scorching sun. When researching our trip we saw people recommending to rent a bicycle, to go from temple to temple. This is a great way to soak up the atmosphere and get some movement in. A lot of guesthouses or hotels offer this as a service and there are enough bicycle rentals along the road. Renting a bike will cost you around 500 LKR (~ €2,5) for the day. Definitely a good option if your stay isn’t too far from the ancient city. Don’t forget to drive on the left side of the road ;).
However, we personally decided against it, considering the heat (it’s typically above 30 degrees) and huge distances (the terrain is over 40 km²). To be able to see the most and not get a heat stroke we recommend renting a tuk-tuk with a driver that takes you around. This costs around 3500 LKR for the whole tour which takes about 5 hours. We found the best way is to ask your host or hotel for help (They usually have somebody reliable available). Make sure to specify if you want a guided driver or somebody, who just drops you off at every place. Taking a guided driver is a plus as you get to know more about the history, background stories, and culture. This really makes your visit to this ancient town complete.
It’s a good idea to bring a pair of socks (white works best) since you will be walking barefoot a lot and the grounds can get really hot and rocky. It might not look fashionable under a dress but you will thank me later! It’s of course allowed to wear your slippers/shoes outside the temple area. Often, the moment you have to take them off is indicated on a sign. We always took the Buddhist flags as a rough indication of where to walk barefoot.
Since the major sites are considered sacred, it’s important to prepare yourself and dress modestly. Just like any other holy place in the world, this is out of respect for the culture and simply you might not be allowed to enter otherwise.
- When entering a temple site or a sacred place, remove your shoes and hat. It makes sense to wear suitable clothing from the start since you need to cover your upper arms and knees. So for women, long dresses with a little sleeve come in handy. It’s always handy to bring a sarong or light scarf when you are wearing a top or shorts. This is both for men and women.
- You will notice that a lot of Sri Lankan pilgrims are wearing white in the temples. The color white is considered a holy color and stands for purity in Buddhism and openness to learning So in case you are carrying something white with you, that’s a good option to go with. It also helps reflect strong sunlight, another tip ;).
- Photography – Of course, it’s allowed to take pictures, but there is one important rule: Never stand with your back to a Buddha statue or stupa (think about selfies!).
- When you are visiting a dagoba or stupa, remember to walk around the dome clockwise. As that is usually the way worshippers take when walking around the monument.
Also, don’t forget to hydrate often in that heat, for example with a delicious refreshing coconut from one of the food stands. These tips from our Travel Guide Anuradhapura should help you get around!
Travel Guide Anuradhapura: Where to stay?
The location of your stay might be an important thing to consider. If you are opting to see the archaeological complex by bike, you want to stay as close as possible to it. Also considering going for dinner or grabbing a snack, it is a nice option to go by foot and not always have to grab a tuk-tuk. So ideally you should look to book your accommodation downtown or in the surrounding area. As for most of our stays in Sri Lanka, we opted to go for a guesthouse stay with a local family. Not only is this way of accommodation more affordable, but it also gives you the chance to connect to locals and have a more authentic experience.
BOOK ACCOMMODATION | See all hotels & guesthouse stays in Anuradhapura HERE
Water Front Home Stay
We stayed at the Water Front Home Stay, which is the best example of an excellent and heartwarming homestay. The owner, Wasantha was the friendliest and most helpful host we could have wished for in Sri Lanka. He and his family made us feel right at home. From a delicious welcome drink, and great conversations about Sri Lanka’s culture to an amazing authentic dinner. Every dish was carefully prepared and explained, we really recommend having dinner there!
The room itself was absolutely clean and very quiet since its location is far enough from the busy roads, yet close enough to restaurants. It also comes with air conditioning and a fan, excellent WiFi and the bathroom is clean and spacious. These are generally points important to us when booking and the Waterfront Home Stay really ticked off all the boxes. We paid €25 a night, which included a very nice breakfast, which was so worth its value.
Another option we were looking at was Heaven Upon Rice Fields, a charming guest house stay located right between the rice fields. This place has really good reviews too and the rooms look spacious and clean, with a wonderful view over the surroundings. However its location is a bit more north and away from the center with all its restaurants, so you might need to take a tuk-tuk every time.
Travel Guide Anuradhapura: Where & what to eat?
Although Anuradhapura is not like Ella with all its hipster and Instagramable places, it still offers good quality spots to eat out. The city is overall less touristic, so you will love it for its peacefulness and pleasant atmosphere. We really enjoyed going for some fresh juices and milkshakes near the Kumbichchan Kulama lake. Here you can find several juice bars lined up next to the water where a lot of families gather. After our day exploring the old town, we found ourselves having refreshments at Fresh juice bar. They offer a wide variety of juices to choose from, for only 180 rupees each (~ less than €1). You can imagine we let ourselves go a little.
Recommended restaurants in Anuradhapura
Downtown you can find most of the restaurants. We heard good things about Gemi Gedara Restaurant where they offer a lunch buffet and traditional Sri Lankan dishes. The setting is truly beautiful, with its open spaces and wooden tables in a treehouse-looking area. Another favorite is Ambula, north of the lake, which also offers an all-day buffet with all kinds of curries and rice platters. The setting of the restaurant is really cozy with its timber and palm leaves aesthetic.
On our first evening in Anuradhapura, we didn’t want to go too far from our stay and opted to have dinner at Bro Restaurant. It’s a rather new restaurant and they give a modern twist to traditional dishes. We had the chicken Kothu and devilish chicken, both Sri Lankan favorites, which were outstanding (be careful, the devilish chicken is super spicy!). We paid around 1700 rupees (~€7,5) for both of us, which is a bit more pricy by Sri Lankan standards but the portions were huge.
Dinner at your guesthouse
However, we genuinely recommend trying to have dinner at your guest homestay if they offer it! Like we did at the Water Front Homestay, an amazing authentic experience. They usually serve a traditional Sri Lankan curry, which differs totally from an Indian kind if that’s what you are visualizing. It consists of several small dishes, mostly vegetables as you can see in the picture. At our homestay, we had lentil curry (or Dal), cucumber curry, and coconut sambal with poppadoms.
They usually ask you if you want a fish or chicken curry with that. We noticed that the meat portions are on the smaller side in Sri Lanka since there is less going around and they tend to eat more vegetarian. But overall the served portions are more than enough, no worries! The owner explained all the dishes and even surprised us with a homemade dessert, buffalo custard with locally made syrup. Absolutely divine! After that, we almost ordered it every time when we saw it on the menu.
Travel Guide Anuradhapura: How to get to Anuradhapura?
How to get to Anuradhapura from Colombo / Negombo?
If you have just arrived in Sri Lanka and you planned the north-to-south loop, the best way to get from Colombo to Anuradhapura:
- Bus: 200 LKR (~€ 1), 5-6 hours
Overall bus transportation is one of the cheapest ways to get around. It will probably cost you around 200 LKR. Keeping traffic in mind, you will be looking at around 6 hours of travel time, also depending on the bus line you take (15, 57, or 4). You can check the following website for bus lines and schedules. However, we suggest double-checking your bus at the bus station (Pettah bus stand near Fort Station).
- Train: 240-370 LKR (~€ 1,5-€2), 5-6 hours
This option is the quickest and most budget-friendly way to get to Anuradhapura. It will take you around 5,5 hours and costs roughly 240-370 LKR. For the schedule of the trains, check the following website. You can easily buy your tickets directly at Colombo Fort train station, but for booking online we recommend using 12Go Asia. Note: Online prices will be higher compared to buying at the train station.
- Pick Me Taxi: 9,000 LKR (~€ 40), 4 hours
This is the most comfortable option, but it also comes with a price. The Pick Me app (the equivalent to Uber) is mostly available in the bigger cities, so you can order one upon arrival through the app. The drive takes around 3 to 4 hours and will cost you around 9,000 LKR.
- Tuktuk: 6,000 LKR (~€ 30), 5 hours
The most common way of transportation throughout Sri Lanka, however, may be less advisable for longer distances.
How to get to Anuradhapura from Dambulla / Sigirya?
There is no train line running between Anuradhapura and Dambulla. Also, the option of an Uber is less likely in these areas. Next to renting a private car or tuk-tuk, the bus will be your best option. Local buses between Dambulla and Anuradhapura run quite frequently, usually every 20min. However, from personal experience, we can tell you this is not always the case. Public transport usually doesn’t show up on time and we had to wait an hour in the past as well due to the fact that the bus was overcrowded. Anyways, if you are coming from Sigiriya or Dambulla, head over to the main junction in Dambulla and get on bus number 42 or 43 (line Kandy – Vavuniya) heading north to Anuradhapura. We suggest taking the 43 since it’s the only one with AC ;). The drive only takes 1,5 hours and costs 400 LKR per person.
How to guide your travel to Anuradhapura from Kandy?
If you are traveling from Kandy you will have to travel the same way as from Dambulla, since it’s the same bus line.
BOOK TRANSPORTATION | Book a train, bus or taxi to Anuradhapura with 12Go Asia HERE
We hope this travel guide to Anuradhapura was helpful and inspires you to discover this ancient city in Sri Lanka! Let us know in the comments what you think! 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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