During a recent trip to Latvia, I had the chance of spending a few days in Gauja National Park. If you happen to visit the country, you should make it a point to go as this is a place where nature is pristine and at its best, and where you can completely unwind from the stress of life in the city and challenge yourself with some great nature walks, bike rides and much more.
In this post, I will share some background information about Gauja National Park, and share some tips and ideas on how to make the most of it.
Fun Things To See And Do To Make The Most Of Gauja National Park
Gauja National Park is the largest park in Latvia, famous for its biological diversity, for its forest of virgin pines which take up to around 50% of its territory, and for being a great combination of incredible nature as well as historical and cultural sights. The park, which takes its name from the Gauja river that flows through it, was established in 1973.
There are many things to see and do in Gauja National Park, including hiking, mountain biking, canoeing and camping. There, you will find a whopping 900 species of plants, around 150 different species of birds and 50 mammals. There also is a very high number of monuments of historical and cultural relevance – forts and castles, churches, old manors, windmills, small and quirky museums and architectural gems.
This national park is so vast (it stretches from Sigulda to Valmiera, and includes the city of Cesis and the town of Ligatne) that a day will hardly be enough to appreciate all that it has to offer.
Continue reading to discover the park’s main highlights and the best things to do there.
Some of the beautiful cliffs in Gauja National Park
The beautiful cliffs and rock formations
The main highlights of Gauja National Park are the beautiful sandstone cliffs, which are of a typical red, yellow and grey color and which date to around 350 million years ago. Scattered across the park there are several caves and rock formations.
Among the best known cliffs there are the Ainavu cliff; Eagles cliff (locally called Erglu cliff) – which is a great landing for canoes and reaches a height of 22 meters and from where you can enjoy majestic views of the River Gauja valley; Sietiniezis cliff, which reaches 15 meters in height and is about half km long, and where you can observe various kinds of sandstones.
Rock formations include the Ķaubju rocks which is a beautiful 45 meters high rock under which you’ll find a gorgeous swimming spot; and Zvartes rock, which with its 44 meters height is quite impressive.
Needless to say, the best way of admiring the cliffs and the rock formations is on a hike or bike ride.
The beautiful medieval castle of Cesis is one of the many historical sights of Gauja National Park
Cultural and historical sights
One of the things I appreciated the most in Gauja National Park is the huge amount of places of historical and cultural significance. There is a plethora of places that all deserve to be visited – some famous and easy to reach, other smaller and a bit more off the beaten path. There are watermills, castles, manor houses and much more.
Among the most famous castles, there are those of Sigulda and Cesis. Turaida Museum Reserve is located a bit out of Sigulda and it’s the place where the Midsummer celebrations take place.
Cesis Castle (in fact, there are two castles! One is a medieval castle and the other one is known as the new castle) is right at the heart of the Cesis Old Town and can be visited on extremely interesting guided tours.
Other sights include Amata river hydroelectric station, which was founded in 1925 and is one of the oldest ones in Latvia and has been placed where there once was a watermill. Not far from the hydroelectric station there is Kārļu fish breeding farm, one of the oldest in Latvia and which played an important role in the preservation of salmons and salmon-like fish.
There also is a Paper Mill Village in Ligatne – the mill is actually closed at the moment, and it’s unsure what will be of it, but the village is a very interesting site and a great example of early 20th century village developed around a factory in an attempt to make the living conditions of the workers more comfortable. Another thing you’ll spot in Ligatne is the many caves and cellars carved in the rock, which have been used (and in many cases are still used) for storage for household and even industrial needs.
Exploring Gauja National Park you’ll also find Viļņi, a pretty country home located in a gorgeous meadow; and Vieļas, which is a barn that has been recently restored and been brought back to its original splendor.
One of the most interesting and quirkiest places is the Chair-makers museum. It’s nothing more than a small room packed with antique work instruments that were used to make chairs – apparently one of the most viable businesses in the area until mass production took over. It’s a private museum, and visiting costs just €3. The owner, a lovely old lady, will take you through the local history and explain how chairs were made, and how important they were for the locals who lived in the area.
TIP: The Chair-makers museum is literally only opened when visitors are around, so make sure to call in advance to say you plan to visit. You may want to make sure you visit with someone who speaks Latvian, as the owners doesn’t speak English so you may need someone translating for you. The overall visit lasts about 1 hour.
Gauja river is perfect for boat rides
Flowing through Gauja National Park there are a few rivers, including Gauja, Ligatne and Amata, and many freshwater springs (I truly loved Gulbju avots – Swan spring, with water so clean that you can drink it there and then!). The Amata river is known as the fastest river in Lavia. I haven’t actually rode a boat or a canoe during my visit, but my guide Sigita stressed several times that the park is a very popular place for boating, and that every spring, when the water levels are higher, the park is crowded with boats and people celebrating the good weather.
As I visited at the end of June, the water levels weren’t so high – yet I was able to spot several people on canoes, enjoy the cool waters of the river and then docking to explore more of the park.
One of the gorgeous sights I came along while hiking the Amata trail
There are many hiking trails in Gauja National Park. Mind you, Latvia highest “mountain” is just 311 meters high, so this isn’t hiking as you know it. But it has its challenges and it definitely has its charm, and I surely enjoyed hitting the trails there. I walked the Amata trail, which proved to be just the kind of workout and views I needed.
Length: 15.5 km
Duration: up to 5 hours, depending on the number of stops
The Amata Trail starts from the fabulous Hotel Karlamuiza, located in the outskirts of a village called Kārļi, all the way to Veclauču Bridge. The trail is about 15.5 km long and it takes up to 5 hours to complete, depending on how many stops you make to take photos, swim in the river, and just catch your breath.
During the hike we stopped at some of the most famous spots in Gauja National Park, such as the Amata river hydroelectric station; Viļņi and Vieļas complexes of country homes in traditional Latvian style; and some of the most famous cliffs in the region, including Ainavu cliff and the gorgeous Ķaubju, Dzilnas, Zvartes and Lustūzis rocks.
I actually joined a guided hike with with Cesis Inside, a local company which runs excellent guided hikes in the region in a variety of languages and counts with great, knowledgeable guides. My guide was the lovely Sigita, who made sure that I had a real blast!
By all means, although Amata Trail is fairly easy to follow: it goes along the river and you need to follow the red markings on tree trunks. You won’t risk getting lost at all. However, I recommend not walking it alone as there really isn’t anyone on the trail and it goes deep into the very thick forest. I think that we met a total of two persons towards the very end of the hike!
The hike isn’t the strenuous kind you’d encounter in Patagonia, but it is actually more challenging than you may expect, with several steep downhill and uphills. You also have to consider the season in which you hike. Autumn and early spring may be the best seasons, with mild temperatures, gorgeous colors and not so many leaves on the trees so that you can admire all the cliffs that made Gauja National Park so famous. I hiked in the summer time, and the weather was incredibly hot!
TIP: Hotel Karlamuiza can only be reached by car. Alternatively, you can start the Amata Trail hike at Melturi Bridge, which is easy to reach via public transportation.
TIP: There are no kiosks, shops or water fountains along the trail, so make sure you bring enough water and food for the duration of the hike.
TIP: If you are hiking in the summer months, it may be a good idea to take a swimsuit and a light towel with you so that you can enjoy a refreshing dip in one of the many swimming spots!
The stunning views of the forest in Gauja National Park
I love mountain biking – I have done it in many places (San Gil, in Colombia, and Luxembourg, to name just a couple). If you like it as much as I do, you’ll be thrilled to know that there are many incredible biking trails in Gauja National Park. I recommend the trail that goes from Cesis to Valmiera.
Biking from Cesis to Valmiera
Length: 45 km
Duration: up to 6 hours, depending on the number of stops
Difficulty: moderate, with some strenuous sections especially through the forest. Appropriate biking gear is recommended.
This biking trail that goes from Cesis to Valmiera crosses some of the most beautiful landscape in Latvia. It goes along the Gauja river, through the thick forest, and it allows you to admire some of the most beautiful cliffs of Latvia, as well as some of the most unique places (that’s how I came across the Chair-makers museum which I described before). You’ll also be crossing some beautiful meadows and have the chance to admire the local flora and fauna.
It’s a 45 km route that can be tricky to follow in parts – make sure you keep an eye on the orange marks on trees, rocks or even on the ground, or on the wooden signs that have a bicycle symbol. You can even download the Enter Gauja app on your smartphone which will give you all the trails and maps you can follow – this is one of them. You can even download the itinerary here.
You can rent the bikes for the day at Ezi shop, in Cesis, and return them in the Ezi shop in Valmiera. Bike rental for a day costs €8.50 and there is an additional €3 for the helmet.
You can then return to Cesis by bus: there are regular services departing from Valmiera bus station. The bus ride lasts around 40 minutes and costs €1.60.
TIP: Before hitting the trail stop at the Info Point in Cesis to get a physical map of the itinerary, and make sure to carry a powerbank to charge your smartphone on the go – the app doesn’t work offline!
TIP: Make sure to bring enough water and food for the day as you won’t find any shop along the way!
TIP: You can also hike this trail: it will take you two full days, and the best place to spend the night is near Sietiniezis cliff, where there is a camping site as well as a shed where you can stay in case of rain.
With my guide Sigita during the hike. I am not sure what I was looking at!
Pratical Information About Gauja National Park
When to visit Gauja National Park
I visited Latvia at the end of June and I was incredibly lucky with sunny, long days. If anything, it was a bit warmer than I had expected! Having said so, I’d say that any time is a good time to visit Gauja National Park. In summer, you’ll be able to enjoy very long and mostly sunny days, but the trees will be in full bloom so the views may be obstructed.
If you visit in the spring, temperatures won’t be as hot and, at the beginning of the season, you’ll get beautiful unobstructed views. I can only imagine that the place looks gorgeous with the fall foliage colors, and it probably looks magic when covered in snow, in the winter time (by the way, it is supposed to be a great skiing destination!).
Needless to say, what you wear when visiting the park varies greatly depending on the season. By all means, make sure to always wear comfortable clothes that you can wash easily and that give you full mobility as this is a place that calls for active people! If you visit in the summer, take a swimsuit with you so you can jump in the river; and if you plan to go hiking, hiking boots are a must!
Public transportation is quite efficient in Latvia, and you can easily get from one place to the other by bus or train.
You can travel by bus from Riga to Cesis, Sigulda or Valmiera, which are all great access points to the national park, and you can use the bus to move from one place to the other.
Having said so, Latvia is a place that calls for a road trip – and driving is extremely easy as the road conditions are quite good. And in order to reach some isolated places (ie Hotel Karlamuiza, where the Amata hiking trail starts), a car will be necessary. So, I recommend renting a car to move from one place to the other. You can check the prices of car rental here.
Cesis is one of the prettiest towns in the Gauja region
Where to sleep and eat in Gauja National Park
You will have plenty of choice for accommodation and eating options in the Gauja National Park region. I have spent a few days there and I have found a few good places for you. Here is a selection:
Hotel Karlamuiza, in Kārļi, is a wonderful countryside hotel with very large, comfortable rooms and a unique countryside charm. The staff is incredibly friendly and helpful. Rooms face the countryside and the area is incredibly quiet, guaranteeing excellent quality of sleep. There is an onsite restaurant where guests can take their meals, that serves traditional Latvian food. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
Hotel Vanadzina Maja is located in the historic center of Cesis. Rooms are decorated in Scandinavian style, so they are plain and extremely comfortable. They all face a lovely internal courtyard. The on site restaurants is one of the best in the regions. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
Hotel Sigulda is located in the center of Sigulda, in a really quiet area. Rooms are extremely spacious. There is a nice small pool and a sauna and spa center that all guests can enjoy and there is an on site restaurant. Click here for the latest rates andhere for reviews.
In Cesis, Priede Café is a lovely small café right by one of the main squares. It has a good selection of light and more earthy meals. The keto bowl is delicious!
In Sigulda, Osvalds Pupa at the newly opened Jāņa Tirgus is a nice place for a pizza (Latvian style) or some daily specials.
Other useful information
Remember to get a good travel insurance for all your trips. Get yours here.
Legal Disclaimer: I was a guest of the Tourism Board of Latvia and of Enter Gauja during my visit of Gauja National Park and I wish to thank them for their incredible support and for helping me visit this splendid part of the country. Needless to say, the views expressed in this post remain my own.
There are many beautiful Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka. Buddhism is a huge part of Sinhalese culture and way of life, which explains why so many temples can be found scattered around the country. Most people who travel there already know about the famous Temple of the Tooth in the sacred city of Kandy.
Indeed, some temples in Sri Lanka are very famous and among the best known tourist attractions in the country. Others are lesser known but equally interesting to visit. Some are absolutely majestic and full of surprises; others are real hidden gems. Some have been built ad hoc; others have been carved in the rock. All of them deserve a mention and all of them are good enough reasons to visit Sri Lanka.
In this post, I highlight the nicest Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka and share some tips to make the most of them upon visiting.
The Temple of the Tooth in Kandy is the most famous Sri Lanka temple
7 Beautiful Buddhist Temples In Sri Lanka You Absolutely Have To Visit
Temple of the Tooth (Kandy)
Locally known as Sri Dalada Maligawache, the Temple of the Tooth is thought to be one of the holiest places in Sri Lanka and it’s the main reason why tourists and locals alike go to Kandy. This is a very important pilgrimage destination for Buddhists, as it is the place that holds a tooth that is supposed to have belonged to Buddha. This tooth was thought to have a strong political value, as whoever held the relic was meant to become governor of the country.
The temple is located in the heart of of the city, in the Royal Palace complex, where you’ll find also other temples and museums. The tooth relic is guarded in a gold casket – you actually won’t be able to see the tooth, but just the casket that holds it.
The prayer (puja) takes place three times per day – one at dawn, one at midday and one in the evening. That’s when the Temple of the Tooth attracts most local visitors, and those are times you really should avoid if you are not a fan of the crowds.
It costs $10 USD to enter the temple complex. This is one of the most expensive temples in Sri Lanka for travelers, but worth visiting given how important it is for the Buddhist faith.
Make sure to dress modestly for your visit. Both men and women should cover their knees and shoulders, and take off their shoes once inside the temple.
TIP: Make sure to be dressed appropriately upon visiting. Both men and women should cover their legs and shoulders, or else they will be denied entry.
The Nanumura Mangallaya, a ceremony during which the relic is bathed with an herbal preparation of scented water and flowers, takes place on Wednesdays.
Embekka Devale is one of the lesser visited temples in Sri Lanka
Embekka Devale (Kandy)
The Sri Lanka temple of Embekka Devale is located a bit outside of Kandy and makes for a nice day trip out of the city. It’s a lovely small temple where you will find almost no tourists, but lots of locals praying and making their offers – so the atmosphere is very relaxed and pleasant.
The temple was meant to be a three story buildings, but unfortunately throughout time the two upper floors collapsed. It has three main sections. The Sanctum of Garagha is where the statue of god is located. The Dance Hall is dedicated to the wife of the king who ordered the construction of the temple. The third section is the most beautiful one, which is the Drummers Hall, where you can observe beautiful wood carvings.
While I don’t recommend attending the puja at the Temple of the Tooth, I think you can and should do so in Embekka Devale, as it won’t be nearly as crowded and it is a much more local experience.
There is a very small fee for visiting – in the range of $1 USD or so. Make sure to be dressed modestly. You will have to leave your shoes at the entrance.
Lankatilaka can be seen on a day trip from Kandy
Lankatilaka Vihara (Kandy)
You can visit Lankatilaka Vihara temple the same day you also visit Embekka Devale. This is one of the most scenic temples in Sri Lanka, in terms of setting. You can walk there from the bottom of the road, but as it often rains in the region you may be better off asking a tuk tuk to take you all the way up.
You can see the temple emerging from the lush vegetation from the road below, as you approach it.
The temple was built in the 14th century and has two main sectors – the Buddha image one and the Temples of the Gods. The Buddha Image house has beautiful walls all covered in paintings that date back to the time during which the temple was being built. At its center, there is a large golden statue of a sitting Buddha.
There is a small fee for visiting, but most of the time there is nobody collecting money or checking tickets. You can enter the temple from two gates – one facing the village and one on the side of the hill (known as the rock) on which it is built. Both of them involve a flight of stairs, but if you approach from the rock the views of the surrounding countryside are incredible.
If you’d rather go on a day trip to all the Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka that are located right outside of Kandy, you can book it here.
Dambulla Cave Temple is one of the most famous in Sri Lanka
Dambulla Cave Temple (Dambulla)
Dambulla Cave Temple is thought to be one of the best preserved cave temples in Sri Lanka. So beautiful and unique it is that it’s been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s a place of pilgrimage that you shouldn’t miss during your trip to Sri Lanka.
Dambulla is located at around 20 minutes drive from Sigiriya, and while the town itself is not really worthy of a mention, the temple is.
Known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla, there are over 80 caves in this location, though the biggest attractionis the five caves that are packed with intricate carvings, statues and paintings of Buddha. There are 153 statues and murals which are meant to represent the story of Buddha.
The entry fee to Dambulla is $10 USD. As the site can be visited en route to Sigiriya, you may have your luggage with you. You can leave it in storage at the bookstore at the main gate for a small fee.
Make sure to be dressed modestly or you will be denied entry – both men and women should cover their legs and shoulders. You will also be required to take off your shoes – there is a deposit you can use for a very small fee, or else you can put them in your bag.
I recommend hiring a guide to take you around the temple and share information about its religious and cultural significance.
Pidurangala is located right in front of the more famous Sigiriya, it costs about a tenth of the price to visit, and it’s a beautiful place. From up there, the views of the surrounding countryside and those of the rock of Sigiriya are simply breathtatking. This is one of the best places in Sri Lanka to admire sunset.
More than that, Pidurangala also is one of the most unique temples in Sri Lanka. This Buddhist temple was carved in the rock, and subsequently refurbished by King Kashyapa who donated it to the Bhikkhus who used Sigiriya for their meditation after he had requested them to move.
It costs around $3 USD to enter Pidurangala. Once there, you have to follow a trail where in parts you will find uneven steps, and in parts just a basic trail on uneven terrain. Make sure to wear good shoes – sandals or flip flops are not recommended – as the trail is slippery in parts. Bring a jacket along as it gets very windy at the top, and it often rains.
Mihintale is a Buddhist pilgrimage site located at around 11 km from Anuradhapura and a great place to visit on a day trip from there. Thought to be the cradle of Buddhism, this is where King Devanampiyatissa converted to Buddhism under the influence of Mahinda, the son of an Indian emperor.
Mihintale is packed with monasteries, stupas and cave temples. The most impressive structure there is a staircase built around the side of a mountain. If you follow that, you’ll get to the first level of the complex of Mihintale. Once there, you will be able to enjoy 360 degrees views of the gorgeous surroundings.
It costs $3 USD to visit Mihintale, to which I recommend adding the fee of a guide to take you around and help you make sense of all there is to see.
Mihintale can be reached from Anuradhapura by tuk tuk. Plan to visit in the morning to avoid the intense afternoon heat. You can also book a guided tour to Mihintale online here.
Buduruwagala is one of the lesser visited temples, yet worth going
Buduruwagala is one of the nicest and most hidden Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka. It is located at around 7 km south of Wellawaya, and at around 30 from the famous Ella, and it is quite off the main tourist route.
The name means “the rock of Buddhist sculptures” and is an accurate description of what the temple looks like. This Sri Lanka temple consists of seven Buddha figures which have been carved in the rock. The temple, which belongs to the Mahayana school of thought, dates back to the 10th century.
The setting of the temple is idillic, as it is entirely surrounded by the forest. It’s very quiet, the only noise you’ll hear that of the wind sweeping the trees. The temple gets more animated at puja time, when locals arrive to place their prayers, but even then it is hardly a crowd.
It costs less than $2 USD to visit Buduruwagala. You can reach it by tuk tuk from Wellawaya or by bus and a short tuk tuk drive from Ella. The bus from Ella to Wellawaya takes around 45 minutes.
You can visit Buduruwagala on a day trip from Yala or from Ella, or even en route from Yala to Ella. These are some good tours:
Anuradhapura is one of the best kept archeological sites of Sri Lanka, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a lovely place to visit if you wish to learn a bit more about the interesting history and culture of this beautiful country. This was the capital of the Sinhalese Kingdom between the 4th century BC and 11th century AD.
But there’s more! Thought the modern Anuradhapura is truly nothing special and not worthy of a tourist’s attention, the area is thought to be one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, and an important center for Buddhism – something which is still visible today on the sacred site. That’s why you really need to go.
In this post, I highlight the things to do and places to visit in Anuradhapura and share some tips for your visit and practical information to organize your trip there.
Anuradhapura is one of the nicest places to visit in Sri Lanka
5 Things To Know Before Visiting The Sacred City Of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
The cost of visiting Anuradhapura
Must like all other sites of historical, cultural and religious significance Anuradhapura is actually quite expensive to visit. Access to the whole site costs $30 USD for a day. To that, you’ll have to add the cost of a tuk tuk or a bike to go around, so your overall cost for a day will be no less than $40 USD.
TIP: Make sure to keep your ticket with you and handy at all times, as police officers patrol the area and they often stop visitors to make random checks and ensure they have tickets.
How to visit Anuradhapura
Anuradhapura is a huge site and there is no way you can just walk around. You need some sort of transportation to take you to the various places to visit on the site. Whether you decide to go around by bike or by tuk tuk, you will spend an average of six hours exploring the site.
Most visitors opt to explore Anuradhapura by bike. Rentals are available close to the entrance of the site, and cost between $7 and $10 USD for a day. Make sure to double check that your bike actually works – breaks and all – because bikes are often in dire conditions.
By tuk tuk
If you don’t like the idea of biking in the heat, then hiring a tuk tuk for the day is a good idea. This should cost you around $10 USD – remember to always bargain the prices. You will have to book it in advance and pay for your entrance fee separately.
On the way to the sacred city of Anuradhapura
Best guided tours of Anuradhapura
When I visited Anuradhapura I opted to go around on my own, by bike, and though I enjoyed my time there, I regret not having a guide that would help me put what I was seeing in context. Indeed, Anuradhapura is a very vast site, and unless you are an expert in Sinhalese culture or history, making sense of what you will be seeing will be impossible. I wholeheartedly recommend hiring a guide to take you around (it should cost you between 800 and 1000 Rupees for the day), or joining a guided tour for your visit.
These are some of the best guided tours of Anuradhapura:
Anuradhapura self guided tour– a fantastic option if you still want to feel completely independent. You will receive instructions to download an app and will be able to go around on your own terms. It’s very budget friendly.
Anuradhapura cycling tour – a good option if you like going around by bike. You will have a guide taking you to all the most important places.
Make sure to dress modestly for your day in Anuradhapura. Remember that most of it is a holy site, with people praying. Wear a pair of pants or a long skirt, and sandals (though not flip flops in case you are going to bike) and bring along something to cover your shoulders when you enter holy sites.
You will have to remove your shoes any time you visit a temple.
Make sure to also bring along a hat and sunglasses, and to wear a lot of sunblock. Finally, carry enough cold water for the day. There are a few vendors in the biggest sites, but at times it may be a while until you find one!
Continue reading to discover all the must sees in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.
One of the many stupas you’ll get to see in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
10 Places To Visit In Anuradhapura Sri Lanka
Sacred Bodhi Tree
Sri Maha Bodhiya, or the Sacred Bodhi Tree, is a sacred fig tree thought to have been propagated from the original Bodhi Tree where Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism and often referred to as Gautama Buddha or just Buddha, achieved enlightenment.
The tree was planted in 288 BC, and is the oldest living tree in the world. It is a place of pilgrimage, an important Buddhist relic and you will see pilgrims praying around it.
Ratna Prasada Guard Stone
Ratna Prasada is a monastery that was built in the 1st century. It used to be a very grand building, which was however demolished when the area was invaded in the 8th century and then rebuilt during the reigns of King Mihindu II and Mihindu IV. Inside the Ratna Prasada, you will find an 8th century guard stone that features a cobra king and which is very well kept. This is one of two stones that guarded the entrance to the monastery.
Abhayagiri Vihara Monastery
Abhayagiri Vihara monastic complex can be found in the northern side of Anuradhapura. It was built under orders of King Vattagamini in 88 BC and it is said that up to 5000 monks could live there at once, making it the largest in Sri Lanka. It is a beautiful monastery with statues, a stupa, a moonstone and bathing pools.
Kuttam Pokuna (Twin Ponds)
Kuttam Pokuna are the twin ponds located inside the Abhayagiri Vihara monastery. They were built between the 8th and the 10th century and monks could access them to cleanse themselves using the granite stairs. Despite their names, the twin ponds aren’t actually identical – in fact, one is larger than the other.
The ponds are surrounded by a beautiful forest and attract lots of visitors. It is not uncommon to see street entertainers there, some of them with dancing monkeys. Please do not tip these people, do not encourage them to continue exploiting animals!
Women placing their prayers in one of the temples of Anuradhapura
Moonstone of Abhayagiri Vihara
The moonstone at Abhayagiri Vihara Monastery was crafted in the 1st century BC. It’s a beautiful piece of artwork with intricate ornaments and carving of various animals, including elephants, bulls, lions and horses, as well as the lotus flower. It is thought that the moonstone represents the temptations humans face in this world and the lotus flower inside if the ultimate achievement – the Nirvana.
Access to the Isurumuniya Vihara is an extra 200 Rupees. This monastery is carved in the rock, and it used to house around 500 issira. These were children coming from wealthy families that showed an interest in the teaching of Buddha. Once they’d become proper monks, they would continue living separated from the rest of the society of Anuradhapura.
Inside the monastery you’ll find a colorful statue of a reclining Buddha, surrounded by paintings that depicts the various phases of his life. There is also a museum and some bathing ponds.
The massive Jetavanaramaya stupa reaches 122 meters and was built using bricks made of sand and clay. Next to the stupa, a museum has a nice small exhibits showing the various finds of the excavation and reconstruction.
One of the many temples of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
With its 290 meters circumference, this is the second largest stupa in Anuradhapura. It was built on orders of King Dutugemunu in 161 BC, and was completed around 140 BC. It is thought to be one of the most sacred places for the Buddhist faith.
Thuparamaya Dagoba is the oldest stupa in Sri Lanka, built in the 4th century, and thought to be the place that holds a collarbone relic of the Buddha. Only the pillars are original, whereas the rest of the building you will see is a reconstruction dating back to 1862 after it had been destroyed and rebuilt several times.
At around 11 km from Anuradhapura you’ll find Mihintale, a Buddhist pilgrimage site that is a great place for a day trip. Thought to be the cradle of Buddhism, it’s here that King Devanampiyatissa converted to Buddhism thanks to the convincing work of Mahinda, the son of an Indian emperor.
In Mihintale you will find plenty of monasteries, stupas and cave temples. The most notable thing to see is an impressive staircase around the side of the mountain, that brings visitors to the first level of the complex of Mihintale and from where you’ll gain a 360 degrees view of the surroundings.
You can get to Mihintale from Anuradhapura by tuk tuk. It costs 500 Rupees to get it. Make sure to go quite early in the morning to avoid the terrible heat of midday and early afternoon, and to hire a local guide to take you around once there. You will find English speaking guides at the entrance.
If you’d rather book a guided tour to Mihintale online, you can do so here.
The quaint train station of Anuradhapura
Practical Information To Organize Your Trip To Anuradhapura Sri Lanka
Where to stay in Anuradhapura Sri Lanka
There are some good accommodation options in Anuradhapura. I recommend staying a bit outside the center to avoid the noise and dust. The best choice will be staying in a local guesthouse or homestay. These are usually very budget friendly; you can get your home cooked meals there and the owners often have a tuk tuk that you can hire to go around.
This is a selection of excellent places to stay in Anuradhapura:
Guided tours of Sri Lanka that also go to Anuradhapura
Sri Lanka is an easy country to travel around on your own. However, if you don’t have time to research about your trip and plan it, or if you simply prefer to leave the tedious organization job to the experts, you will be happy to know that there are some excellent guided trips. These are the best tours on the market:
Discover Sri Lanka – a 12 day G Adventures and National Geographic tour that goes to all the best places to visit in Sri Lanka.
The modern city of Anuradhapura is not nearly as nice as the ancient one
How to get to Anuradhapura
Anuradhapura is a small town and it takes a bit of effort to get there, but it is worth it. There are no direct buses from Negombo (you’ll have to change somewhere halfway). It takes about 4 hours by bus to get there from Kandy, and the bus stops in Dambulla. In fact, there are direct buses from Dambulla to Anuradhapura.
Alternatively, you can consider hiring a taxi or a private transfer to take you there. The following are some good options:
Taxi2Airport transfer – a very good and reliable service that offers transfers from the airport to a variety of locations around Sri Lanka.
Anuradhapura is fairly small and you won’t need to worry about moving around there – you can really walk everywhere. For longer distances you may want to hire a tuk tuk. I recommend either renting a bike or hiring a tuk tuk to take you around the huge site – in both cases, make sure to bargain the price and in the case of bikes, do check that the breaks and tires are ok before setting off for the day.
When to visit Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
There are two monsoon seasons in Sri Lanka. December to March are good months to travel, with less chances or rain and nice sunny days, but the country will be more crowded and the prices a bit higher than usual. If you aren’t too bothered by rain, just visit at any time. I went between August and September and found it mostly rained in the afternoon and at night, so I wasn’t too disturbed by rain during the day as I was out exploring.
There are many things to do in Sigiriya, Sri Lanka – this is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. Most people travel here to visit the famous Rock of Sigiriya, but if you give it enough time you’ll discover a beautiful region, with lush nature and hidden gems that all deserved to be explored.
In this post, I highlight all the unmissable things to do in Sigiriya and share some practical information to organize your visit.
These are some of the best guided tours of Sigiriya and its surroundings:
Why is Sigiriya so special? This is a massive column of rock, around 200 meters tall, where a fortress was built right on top. Frescoes were painted around the fortress, as well as a huge mirror wall – though this actually is “just” a highly polished rock where apparently the kind could see his reflected image any time he walked by.
The Rock is located at the center of a beautiful garden which is very pleasant to visit, and from where you can reach the lion staircase that goes all the way up the fortress.
TIP: I wholeheartedly recommend hiring a guide or joining a guided tour to visit Sigiriya, so that you can make sense of all there is to see and get useful information that will help you put everything in context.
It costs $30 USD to enter. The price includes a ticket to visit Sigiriya Museum.
Best time to visit
The best time to visit is in the early morning, before the heat becomes unbearable and to lower the chances of being caught by the rain which will inevitably start dropping around midday (I only know too well!). Or else, try to go in the late afternoon, around 4:00 PM when it is a bit cooler.
Climbing the rock
It takes around one hour to climb Sigiriya Rock, longer if you stop along the way. Climbing is not hard – it’s just a series of step. It may take you longer when it is crowded, as a line will inevitably form and this will move much more slowly.
The view of Sigiriya from Pidurangala
Right in front of Sigiriya, Pidurangala is smaller, less visited and significantly cheaper site to visit (it costs less than $3 USD to get in). If the views from Sigiriya are beautiful, the ones from Pidurangala are breathtaking to say the least, especially if you can see Sigiriya from up there. Make sure to climb in time for sunset for a fabulous experience.
To be completely honest, much like other off the beaten path sites of Sri Lanka,Pidurangala is actually way more fascinating than its mainstream equivalent. If you have limited time and if your are traveling on a smaller budget, just go straight to Pidurangala.
TIP: While there are stairs leading up to Sigiriya, the path that leads to Pidurangala is much rougher and I recommend wearing a pair of good shoes to walk up there. You may also need a jacket as it gets very windy in the late afternoon.
You can visit Dambulla on a day trip from Sigiriya
Go on a day trip to Dambulla Cave Temple
Dambulla cave complex and the Golden Temple have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site and are a place of pilgrimage. They are very well preserved – in fact, one of the best preserved cave temples in Sri Lanka. Since they are located at just 20 minutes drive, visiting is one the things to do in Sigiriya.
In fact, depending on where you are coming from, you can visit en route on your way to Sigiriya, as I did – I just left my bags in storage in the book store by the main gate.
I must admit it that Dambulla was hardly my favorite place of all the ones I visited in Sri Lanka, and found the $10 USD entry fee a bit overpriced, but I guess that if you are in the area, you should visit. I recommend actually hiring a guide to make a bit more sense of what there is to see – I think that’s the mistake I made, actually!
A day trip to Polannaruwa is one of the things to do in Sigiriya
And on one to Polannaruwa
Polannaruwa is one of the nicest sites to visit in Sri Lanka. It’s a lovely place to spend a few hours exploring the site – another UNESCO World Heritage Site, in fact! This used to be the royal capital of the Sinhalese and Chola kingdom, and a bustling commercial center and a religious site around 800 years ago, and nowadays you can see what is left of its splendor in the many ruins of temples and religious buildings.
The site is at about one hour drive from Sigiriya, so an easy day trip. The entry fee is $25 USD, but considering that it’s much better to actually have a guide to take you around, I recommend joining a guided tour.
These are some good guided tours of Polannaruwa departing from Sigiriya:
Anuradhapura is actually a little bit further from Sigiriya compared to Polannaruwa and Dambulla, but it can still be seen on a day trip. It’s an interesting site to visit, with lots of temples and ruins, and locals often spotted praying. You can visit independently if you go there by bus and then rent a bike, but I honestly recommend a guided tour or to at least hire a guide once there to avoid getting lost (the site is actually very big) and to make a bit more sense of what you are seeing. Alternatively, you can book a guided tour of Anuradhapura departing from Sigiriya here.
Minneriya National Park is a short drive from Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
Visit Minneriya National Park
Minneriya National Park is the site of the largest Asian elephant gathering that occurs every year between July and September. You may not visit Sri Lanka at that time of year, but if you want to see elephants in all their glory, one of the things to do in Sigiriya, Sri Lanka, is visiting Minneriya. It’s at less than 30 minutes drive, and you’ll be able to see many of them, as well as lots of other wildlife (especially birds).
Once you get to the park, you have to hire a jeep to take you around. I wholeheartedly recommend doing some research beforehand to hire a responsible company, as too many are sadly known for driving recklessly around national parks, or getting too close to the elephants causing them discomfort.
Villages in Sri Lanka are usually very rural, but people are so welcoming and the culture so interesting that it’s nice to visit some of them. One of the things to do in Sigiriya is exploring the village. If you manage to arrange a guide you will have higher chances of conversing with the locals, who at times speak little to no English. In some cases, for a small fee, you can even have lunch with a local family.
Back of Beyond is one of the nicest places to stay near Sigiriya
Practical Information To Organize Your Trip To Sigiriya Sri Lanka
Where to stay in Sigiriya Sri Lanka
You won’t really find many good places to stay in Sigiriya village, but the surroundings have some excellent accommodation options with boutique hotels, resorts and some fantastic ecolodges where you can completely immerse yourself in nature and disconnect from the rest of the world. Picture places with lush vegetation, no wifi or phone reception, good food, animals roaming about and just the right amount of pampering.
This is a selection of excellent places to stay in Sigiriya:
Guided tours of Sri Lanka that also go to Sigiriya
You can easily travel around Sri Lanka independently, but if you don’t have time to research and organize your trip or if you simply prefer to leave the job to the experts, you will find that there are some excellent guided trips. I have selected the best tours on the market for you:
Sri Lanka encompassed – a fantastic 14 day G Adventures tour that goes to all the most popular places to visit in the country.
Sigiriya is only a small village so the only buses you’ll find will be those to Dambulla, which is well connected to Kandy, Jaffna and Trincomalee.
There are direct buses to Sigiriya from Dambulla that run between 6:30 AM and 6:00 PM. The bus ride is very cheap and should take you around 30 minutes. The bus will drop you off on the main street and from there you’ll have to take a tuk tuk or walk to your accommodation.
Alternatively, you can take a tuk tuk directly at Dambulla – the ride should cost you around 1000 rupees, depending on where you asked to be dropped off. Make sure to bargain the prices and triple check that the driver actually knows where to take you. Oftentimes, tuk tuk drivers are very keen on offering you a ride but they don’t actually know the address of your hotel and you may be stuck for a while before they find the way there!
If you’d rather book a private transfer to Sigiriya from either Colombo, Kandy or other places in the country, the following are some good options:
Chances are you will be staying in one of the many marvelous hotels around Sigiriya rather than in the village itself, which doesn’t have much to offer. If this is the case, you will have to rely on the transportation offered by the hotel in the form of tuk tuk or private car services to take you around to the best places to visit.
When to visit Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has two monsoon seasons, and you can break your head trying to plan your trip to avoid them, but to make a long story short you won’t be able to. December to March are good months to go, with higher chances of dry weather and sun, but the other side of the coin is that places may be more crowded and prices higher than you had hoped for.
Having said that, just go ahead and do your best trying to avoid the rain, but by all means go. In any case, keep in mind that it usually starts raining in the early afternoon around 12:00 or 1:00 PM, so if you plan to leave early in the morning for your visits, you will be done when it starts raining!
Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka, is one of the nicest places to visit in the country. It is known as “Little England,” as this is the place where the British colonizers built their holiday homes in typical Victorian style.
This small town in the heart of the Hill Countryis a nice place to spend a few days to enjoy the landscape which is quite unique, and if anything because the cooler climate will give you a break from the otherwise incessant heat of Sri Lanka. Nuwara Eliya is also the best place to go to admire the gorgeous tea plantations and to find some excellent tea.
In this post, I will highlight all the best places to visit and things to do in Nuwara Eliya, and share some tips to organize your trip there.
These are some good tours of Nuwara Eliya for a nice introduction to the city:
Victoria Park is one of the nicest places to visit in Nuwara Eliya
13 Places To Visit And Things To Do In Nuwara Eliya Sri Lanka
Victoria Park is one of the best places to visit in Nuwara Eliya. This is the main city park and takes its name from that of Queen Victoria. It’s a vast park where you’ll find lots of foreign flowers and trees and where you’ll be able to enjoy a walk away from the chaos of town. What I love about it is that it’s the kind of place where you’ll see local families hang out – sitting down for a picnic, children running around playing ball games and the like.
It costs 300 Rupees to get in, and it’s totally worth the price. With your ticket you also get access to Victoria Park Museum, which has a nice small exhibit of photos from the last 100 years, showing what life used to be like in the region.
Did you know that Nuwara Eliya is famous for the production of strawberries?
Gregory Lake is an artificial lake in the heart of Nuwara Eliya, built between 1872 and 1877 by Governor William Gregory. It was used to play water sports. This is one of the unmissable places to visit in Nuwara Eliya. It’s an urban park with lots of trails, where you’ll be able to hire a boat to go around the lake. It’s the kind of place where you’ll spot plenty of local families at weekend, though to be fair I wouldn’t argue that the views are impressive.
Right outside Nuwara Eliya there are lots of factories for clothes and outdoor gear of large, famous brands. The faulty items as well as the perfect ones usually end up at Bale Bazaar, also called Winter Market since most of the stuff on sale is winter clothing. You’ll be able to get some bargain prices for the best known brand – though make sure to triple check what your are buying and to bargain the prices. If you forgot to pack winter clothes for your trip to Sri Lanka and need something to wear in the cold weather of this region, shopping there is one of the things to do in Nuwara Eliya.
One of the nicest buildings in Nuwara Eliya is the main post office. It is housed in a Tudor Manor that was built in 1894 and it’s one of the oldest post offices in Sri Lanka. Make sure to pass by, if only just for a photo.
There are several nice farms in the surroundings of Nuwara Eliya
Adma Agro Farm
Visiting Adma Agro Farm is one of the coolest things to do in Nuwara Eliya if you like strawberries. Much like in England, strawberries find the chilly weather of this part of Sri Lanka ideal to grow. At Agro Farm you’ll be able to taste them right off the plant!
The grounds of Pedro Estate, near Nuwara Eliya
The Hill Country of Sri Lanka is famous for its tea production, and it is only fair that you try tea there. One of the nicest places to visit in Nuwara Eliya is Pedro Estate, a tea plantation and tea factory where you’ll be able to see the tea making process from the tea being grown in thick bushes and then being picked, to the tea served to customers.
It’s a nice short trip from the center of town. You can take in the views from the estate, then walk its beautiful grounds where you’ll encounter several women busy picking the leaves, and eventually visit the cafeteria where you can enjoy a fabulous cup of tea and also buy some tea to bring home with you.
These are some good guided tours that go to Pedro Estate:
Thought to be the highest botanical gardens in the world, on the way to Badulla, the Hakgala Botanical Gardens are one of the nicest places to visit in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka. It’s somewhat surprising to see the amount of plants that grow here despite the low temperatures, and even more so it’s surprising to find some very rare, precious plants like orchids flourishing.
A woman picking tea near Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
Horton Plains National Park and World’s End
Horton Plains National Park is a fantastic place you can visit from Nuwara Eliya (it’s at about 30 km from town), where you’ll find an abundance of hiking trails, including the one to the famous World’s End, a massive cliff at the end of a plateau.
If you’d rather join a guided tour to Horton Plains, these are a few good options:
One of the least famous places to visit in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka, but that is getting increasingly more attention is Moon Plains, This is an area of fields, mountains, forests and lots of walking trails where you can spend a day in the open.
What’s shocking about Moon Plains is that it once was a massive garbage dump where the waste of the city used to be dropped. The area was finally cleared off garbage in 2010 and since then it’s been attracting more and more visitors that go there to hike, bike or even simply drive around the park. Lots of animals live in the park now.
TIP: Try to go to Moon Plains in the morning, before it starts raining, or else the fog will overtake the area and you won’t be able to see much.
Not far from Nuwara Eliya you’ll find some of the most beautiful waterfalls of Sri Lanka, all of them worth visiting. The closest one is Lover’s Leap, which is at a short drive from the center of town and is thought to be one of the nicest ones in the country (though I am a huge fan of Ellewala, near Wellawaya in a more off the beaten path location).
There are many nice waterfalls near Nuwara Eliya
Bomburu Ella Waterfall
This is the widest waterfall in Sri Lanka, and at a close distance from Nuwara Eliya so it’s obvious that you should visit. It’s in the same direction of Moon Plains, so it is a nice addition to a day trip there.
St. Clair’s Falls
St. Clair’s is one of the widest falls in the country and often referred to as the Little Niagara of Sri Lanka. St. Clair’s comprises two smaller falls. The greater fall is Mala Ella; while the smaller one is Kuda Ella. A nice place to admire the falls is the restaurant of The Waterfall Villas.
Devon Falls are located at around 30 minutes drive from town, a bit further from St. Clair’s. Visiting is one of the nicest things to do in Nuwara Eliya – in fact, you can see them both on the same day. The best view of the waterfalls is from Mlesna Tea Castle, where you will be able to enjoy a nice cup of tea.
Oatland by Jetwings is one of the nicest hotels in Nuwara Eliya
Practical Tips To Organize Your Trip To Nuwara Eliya Sri Lanka
Where to stay in Nuwara Eliya
Nuwara Eliya has a very good selection of accommodation options, as it is a popular destination for both locals and foreigners. There are some excellent boutique and luxury hotels and some very good budget options.
This is a selection of good places to stay in Nuwara Eliya:
Guided tours of Sri Lanka that also go to Nuwara Eliya
It’s actually very easy to travel around Sri Lanka independently, but if you aren’t a fan or organizing your trips or prefer leaving the tedious bits to the experts, you can count on some fantastic guided tours. These are the best tours of Sri Lanka that also go to Nuwara Eliya:
Sri Lanka encompassed – a 14 day G Adventures tour goes to the most popular tourist attractions of Sri Lanka, including Nuwara Eliya.
Discover Sri Lanka – a 12 day G Adventures and National Geographic tour that will go to fewer places, which you’ll explore in more depth.
Nuwara Eliya is well connected by train – though the station is at Nanu Oya
How to get to Nuwara Eliya
Nuwara Eliya is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Sri Lanka, for both local tourists and for foreigners, so it is fairly well connected to the rest of the country via a web of buses and trains.
Traveling by train is one of the best things to do in Sri Lanka. Trains are slow, but the rides are very enjoyable as they go through the countryside and tea plantations and you’ll be afforded magnificent views. Though there is no train station in Nuwara Eliya, there is one in Nanu Oya, which is at just 9 km from the center of town. Nanu Oya is connected by train to Ella and to Kandy.
One thing to keep in mind is that though train tickets are very cheap, good seats in first class sell out quickly. Second class doesn’t have assigned seats so for chances of getting a first class seat make sure to head to the station very early or to buy tickets in advance. You can get train tickets to travel from Kandy to Nanu Oya here.
Nuwara Eliya is well connected to the rest of Sri Lanka by bus. I arrived there from Kandy (unfortunately I couldn’t get train tickets as I made it to the train station way too late) and it was a pleasant ride, if only a but too long and on a windy road.
Public transportation in Sri Lanka works well. Buses can get very crowded, and it won’t be comfortable to jump on when you have your big backpacks with you. People however are very friendly, especially women who will always keep an eye on solo female travelers and help them get a seat on the bus, and then chat with them throughout the journey.
The good news is that depending on where you are traveling from, you can actually book a bus and a seat. If you are traveling from Colombo, you can book your bus here.
The station of Nanu Oya is the one serving Nuwara Eliya
By private transfer
I know some people rent tuk tuks and drive around Sri Lanka. I’m not sure I’d do it – traffic can be a bit crazy there at times. If you aren’t a fan of public transportation, you can hire a private driver to take you around for your trip, but you’ll have to haggle prices.
If you are only looking for a ride from Colombo, you can book your transfer here.
How to move around Nuwara Eliya
Nuwara Eliya is easy to explore on foot, but if you plan to visit the surroundings you will have to either use the convenient and cheap – if only a bit uncomfortable – buses, or hire a tuk tuk. Remember to bargain the prices of tuk tuks.
When to visit Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
According to one theory, Nuwara Eliya is called “Little England” because of the Victorian style buildings. Frankly, I believe it’s called so because it rains every single day. If this is bad news, however, don’t worry so much: the rain normally starts at around 1:00 PM, so this leaves you plenty of time to explore outside in the morning. Besides, knowing that it rains throughout the year, you won’t have to worry about planning in order to avoid rain.
Though the temperatures in Sri Lanka tend to be hot, Nuwara Eliya is actually mostly chilly and in fact you will feel cold in the evenings, so I recommend packing a jacket and a sweater for your visit.
Having said that, remember that Sri Lanka has two monsoon seasons, so try to plan the rest of your trip to avoid rain as much as possible.
Hi, my name is Claudia. One day I packed my life and started traveling… except I packed too much. Follow me as I fill my life with dreams, drop the weight and inspire you to live your dreams. View and download my media kit here (updated Oct 2018). Learn more about me here…