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.
Are you planning a trip to Sri Lanka? Make sure to read my posts “Everything You Should Know Before Backpacking Sri Lanka” and “13 Fabulous 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.
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.
- Anuradhapura ancient city tuk tuk tour – a good tour if you’d rather avoid biking in the heat.
- Anuradhapura ancient city day tour from Colombo – a good option if you are visiting from Colombo.
What to wear and bring when visiting Anuradhapura
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.
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!
For more tips on how to become a responsible tourist, check out my post “The Complete Guide To Becoming A More Responsible Traveler.”
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.
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.
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:
- Heaven Upon Rice Fields is a bit outside the city, but in a idyllic setting. All rooms have views of the rice fields. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
- Willwin Park is a fantastic homestay, with small but comfortable, clean rooms. You can get your home cooked meals there. It’s a great budget friendly option. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
- Hotel Heladiv has modern, spotless rooms. It’s outside the city but close to the sites. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
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.
- Hidden Lanka: an off the beaten path adventure – it actually only makes a quick stop to Anuradhapura, but it visits some incredible places.
- 8 days land tour of Sri Lanka – it explores some of the holiest sites and the Hill Country too.
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:
- Private transfer from Colombo to Anuradhapura – another good option if you wish to head straight there from the capital.
- Private transfer from Negombo to Anuradhapura – a good service that takes you from your hotel in Negombo to your accommodation in Anuradhapura.
Are you traveling to the Hill Country? Make sure to read my posts “A Complete Guide to Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka,” “A Guide To The Things To Do In Sigiriya Sri Lanka” and “A Complete Guide To Kandy, Sri Lanka.” If you are going to Galle, check out my post “A Complete Guide To Galle, Sri Lanka”
How to move around Anuradhapura
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.
Other useful information
Remember that you need a visa to enter Sri Lanka. You can easily apply for your visa online here.
As for all trips, I recommend also getting a good travel insurance prior to your trip to Sri Lanka. Get yours here.
Check out my post “Why You Need A Good Travel Insurance.”
Finally, for further readings about Anuradhapura and Sri Lanka, you can check one of these books:
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