There’s a huge number and variety of things to do in Sri Lanka. Our advice is to try not to cram it all in otherwise your trip can end up being rushed and exhausting.
At the same time we don’t want you to miss out on seeing places and doing things you’ll love. For that reason we thought it best to put down a selection of ideas and let you decide what you want to do. Some of the suggestions involve a fair bit of dosh, others are virtually free. Either way, you can make your own plans or we can pre-arrange visits and days out for you.
Polonaruwa and Anaradhapura
The ‘ancient cities’ of Polonoruwa and Anaradhapura make up two of the key points on Sri Lanka’s so-called Cultural Triangle.
They’re both fascinating destinations, revealing a culture and civilisation that in many respects far outstripped those of Europe at the time. Both are, to a greater and lesser extent, still being pulled out of the jungle – exploration and restoration of their ancient ruins having started in the early part of the last century.
Depending on where you’re staying you may want to make a half day visit to one or both. Given temperatures up in the dry zone, a morning is likely preferable. Few but the most inquisitive will want to take in both and which one to visit is a common question.
For us, Polonoruwa is a neater, cuter, more museum-like reflection of an old Sinhalese world. The ruins are more varied and, to an extent, more interesting for it. Anaradhapura, though, with its vast daghabas and stoopas has a more spiritual, living feeling.
It’s a moving thing to see modern-day pilgrims visiting monuments as others did thousands of years ago. Entrance fee for the main sites at both is around $25 per person (and guides, which you’ll need, are around $12).
Sigiriya and Pidurangala
When things got particularly hairy for the Sinhalese kings in their capitals further north they’d make for the rock fortress of Sigiriya.
King Kasyapa, fearful of invasions from south India, is thought to have designed and built his palace on the great rock structure in the late 5th century and deigned it his permanent capital.
It was later a monastery, the monks of which did their best to remove the erotic frescoes from the walls leading to the top. Those particularly difficult to reach remain intact.
Of all of Sri Lanka’s more touristy spots, we really like Sigiriya. The gardens and moats speak of a lavish, wealthy kingdom and, from the ruins on top, it’s possible to imagine a sort of Tolkien-esque existence.
A short walk from the main Sigiriya rock, and more off the tourist track is Pidurangala. It’s another whacking piece of geology; more dome-shaped than cubic. It’s a scramble rather than a walk (up steps) to climb it but worth it. There’s a minimal ‘entrance fee’ and you have a stunning view back towards Sigiriya – in some ways preferable to being on the thing yourself. There are also small cave temples to stop at on your way up.
The entrance fee is currently around $30 per person for Sigiriya and $7 for Pidurangala. Guides will be around $10.
Dambulla Cave Temple
Located just south of Sigiriya is Dambulla Cave Temple, also known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla and recognised as a World Heritage Site in 1991. The caves date back to the third and second centuries BC and remains the largest and best-preserved ancient edifice in Sri Lanka.
In first century BC the Valagamba of Anuradhapura sought refuge here after being exiled from Anuradhapura by South Indian userpers, and converted the caves into a more civilised temple. After reclaiming his title and Kingdom he developed the a new temple at Dambulla in thankful worship and over the next centuries several Kings added their mark on it, creating a total of 5 cave temples, and it became recognised as a major religious centre, which is very much remains today. The caves represent Hindu deities, as are the kings Valagamba and Nissankamalla, and Ananda – the Buddha’s most devoted disciple and a total of 153 Buddha statues.
In peak season it can get quite crowded, but in our opinion, it is a fascinating place and well worth the visit.
We hope you enjoy your visit to this ancient area of Sri Lanka.