Anuradhapura is one of the most unique towns I have ever been to. Its significance in Sri Lankan culture, religion, and history is impossible to overstate. Despite boasting some of Sri Lanka’s most beautiful and impressive attractions, it maintains an off-the-beaten-path vibe. There are still relatively very few international tourists to this part of Sri Lanka, although its religious significance makes it a big destination for pilgrimages and devotees.
Is Anuradhapura Worth Visiting?
This was one of the questions I had to keep Googling before deciding whether or not I would go to Anuradhapura. I prefer slow travel and spending a lot of time in a few places, and with only three weeks to spend in Sri Lanka, I wanted to narrow my trip down to five or six cities at most. Ella, Kandy, Sigiriya, Arugam Bay and several national park visits didn’t leave room for much else.
However, I decided to just go for it and hopefully figure it out some more along the way. I’m glad I decided to go because Anuradhapura is definitely worth the visit. It is scenic, peaceful, and can at times feel like a surreal experience. I’ve never been to a countryside where massive stupas and dagobas jutted out in the distance. My first sunset in Anuradhapura confirmed to me that I had made the right decision.
Slowly cruising down the countryside on my bicycle as I passed by ruins and friendly waving locals was unlike anything I had ever done before. The golden glow of the setting sun added to the surreal experience. Everywhere you looked, there were remnants of a long-gone era, from crumbling ruins to still-towering stupas. I encountered hardly any other tourists while I was in Anuradhapura although it is pretty well set up for tourism. If you’re questioning whether to put Anuradhapura on your Sri Lankan itinerary, I would 100% recommend it. You don’t need more than two days to see all of the major things. If you are short on time, it might even be possible to take a fast-paced day trip from Dambulla.
How To Get To Anuradhapura
Anuradhapura is in the northern-central part of this island country. Aside from Jaffna, it might be the northernmost tourist destination in Sri Lanka. This makes it a great place to kick off a north-to-south loop or cap off a south-to-north loop.
How To Get To Anuradhapura From Colombo
You can take the train from Colombo Fort up to Anuradhapura. It takes about five and a half hours. You can also take a bus, which will take about the same amount of time but might be more or less depending on how traffic is.
How To Get To Anuradhapura From Kandy
You can take the bus to Dambulla and then take another bus up to Anuradhapura. There are also direct buses going all the way up to Anuradhapura from Kandy.
How To Get To Anuradhapura From Dambulla or Sigiriya
Local buses go to Anuradhapura from Dambulla quite frequently. Get to the main bus stop in Dambulla and wait for a bus heading north to Anuradhapura. I know that sounds self-explanatory and simple but public transportation in Sri Lanka is unbelievably easy. You’ll get the hang of it quickly.
Where To Stay in Anuradhapura
Location is the important thing to consider. You want to be close enough to the archaeological complex that the bike ride isn’t too grueling to get there. The accommodation in Anuradhapura is very cheap but very standard. I booked a private room at Hotel Freedom Palace for $16 USD a night. It had Wi-Fi and air conditioning, although neither really worked. For the price though, it was tough to beat. Most of the places in Anuradhapura will have weak Wi-Fi and only offer the most basic of amenities.
However, as you will come to find in Sri Lanka, the staff are always accommodating and eager to help in any way they can. Most places will have bikes available to rent, which is the best way to explore the ruins.
A lot of the accommodation in Anuradhapura might also not show up online. I saw fliers advertising rooms to stay in for as low as 500 LKR, or less than $3 USD. Although I’ll admit, even as a budget backpacker, I was not particularly keen to find out why those rooms were so cheap… If you have more courage than I do, let me know how your experience was.
A few more hostels have popped up on Hostelworld since I was in Anuradhapura, so those might also be worth checking out.
Things To Do in Anuradhapura
The main thing to do in Anuradhapura is explore the immense archaeological ruins and impressive religious sites. There are a number of ways to do this, although I highly recommend renting a bike and taking it at your own pace.
The entrance fee for the archaeological complex of Anuradhapura is $25. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its status and significance as a major center for Buddhism. It is also one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It truly makes you feel like you’ve been transported to an entirely different time period as you explore. Seriously, I felt like I was on a Star Wars planet half the time.
The Best Things To See In Anuradhapura
Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi
This is one of the holiest sites in Sri Lanka. It is home to the oldest historically-authenticated trees in the world, the sacred fig tree believed to be where Buddha attained Enlightenment.
This is one of the holiest and most magnificent monasteries in the world. It is also one of the oldest, founded in the 2nd Century BC.
This Moonstone is the second largest in Sri Lanka and one of the best-preserved. It is just a quick ride away from Abhayagiri Dagoba towards the north of the Archaeologocial Complex.
The name Kuttam Pokuna means Twin Ponds, a fitting name for these two pools next to each other. Kuttam Pokuna is considered to be one of the most significant achievements by the early Sinhalese in terms of hydrological and architectural engineering.
This is the first Buddhist temple in all of Sri Lanka. This stupa is the first to be constructed in Sri Lanka, dating back to the 3rd Century BC.
This is the world’s tallest stupa, standing at a gargantuan height of 122 meters (400 feet). At the time it was built, it was the third-tallest structure in the entire world, ranking behind only the Pyramids of Giza and the Lighthouse of Alexandria.
This stupa is another one of the ancient world’s tallest structures. It stands at a gargantuan 103 meters (338 feet) tall. Ruwanwelisaya Stupa is also home to some of Buddhism’s most sacred relics.
This is another of Anuradhupara’s most beautiful stupas. It is a bit further away from the main complex but very peaceful compared to the other places.
Sri Sarananda Maha Pirivena
This temple is home to a large Buddha and is right on the edge of the Anuradhpura archaeological site. It was my first stop, and a quick walk through the temple’s “museum” sort of thing helped give me a good introduction to the history of religion here, despite mostly trying to decipher the pictures since it was all written in Sinhala.
Isurumuniya Rajamaha Viharaya
This Buddhist temple is carved into a rock and is one of the beautiful sites in Anuradhapura. It is home to many famous carvings, like the Isurumuniya Lovers, Elephant Pond, and Royal Family.
The Best Way To See The Ruins of Anuradhapura
There are four main ways to see the immense Anuradhapura archaeological site.
Exploring Anuradhapura By Foot
No, just no. This is too ambitious in the sizzling Sri Lankan heat. Anuradhapura is massive and spread out. The only situation that this makes sense in is if you only want to see a small portion of the complex.
From the ticket office, you can cover the museum, the ruins behind the museum, the Jethawanaramaya Dagaba, and then walk over to the Bodhi tree and Ruwanwelisaya Stupa. Those are two of the main areas of the ruins and I’d say you would easily get your $25 worth just seeing those two complexes.
Exploring Anuradhapura By Bike
This is how I did it and I couldn’t recommend it enough. It gives you freedom and versatility, a little bit more speed, and it is the most affordable of the wheeled options. The best part is the feeling of wonder and freedom as you cruise through the Sri Lankan countryside. You get to see a lot more, including things that you would not have noticed if you were inside a car.
Renting a bike costs about 500LKR or $3 USD. All in all, the heat and exertion of effort is the only drawback. However, you can break your excursion through Anuradhapura up into chunks. I started early in the morning, around 7 AM before the sun started getting too hot. I took a quick break in the afternoon before heading off for a second round of exploring at around 4 PM.
Exploring Anuradhapura By Tuk-Tuk
I was originally considering going by tuk-tuk just because of the sheer size of Anuradhapura. However, I read online about an experience someone had with dishonest tuk-tuk drivers who bypassed the ticket offices and take you to the less impressive structures where there would be fewer security guards checking for tickets.
Although the price of $25 might seem steep, it is essential to preserving and restoring these beautiful and majestic ruins. I accidentally bypassed the ticket office as well on my early morning bike ride through the archaeological site but made sure to head straight to the ticket office in the evening before I ventured off to the other sites that I had not hit yet. You’ll get your money’s worth. Don’t worry.
Exploring Anuradhapura By Car:
This is definitely one of the more ideal options if you have the money to spend and know where to rent a car. However, I can imagine that it is much more expensive than any of the other options. While you will be able to see the ruins much faster and much more comfortably, I think it takes away a little bit of the fun of just cycling through the Sri Lankan countryside with ruins flanking you on each side. It was one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had, especially when the setting sun started to hit the monumental stupas and dagobas with its golden glow.
If I haven’t made it clear yet, my personal opinion is that seeing Anuradhapura by bike is the way to go. Actually, Anuradhapura is the way to go. If you have been wondering whether or not to make a visit to this incredibly historic and cultural city, then I’ll make your decision for you. Yes.
The city of Anuradhapura is more off-the-beaten-path than other touristic cities in Sri Lanka. It was my first stop and it is still one of my favorites. It gave me a glimpse into the authentic way of life of Sri Lanka before being overwhelmed by the more tourist-riddled destinations. The rural landscapes, jaw-dropping architectural achievements, and cultural significance make it one of the most unique and unforgettable cities I have ever been to.
Also make sure to check out the ruins of Polonnaruwa while you are in Sri Lanka.