Travel to Anuradhapura

Visit Anuradhapura on your Sri Lanka holiday to experience some of the world’s most spectacular ancient sites. From giant stupas that tower high above tropical parkland and jungle, to mystical moonstones, vast monastic complexes and one of the oldest trees in the world, Anuradhapura is a destination rich in history, spirituality and splendour. The city is a devout centre of Buddhism and centres around the Sacred Sri Maha Bodhi Tree, a 23-century old cutting of the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya in India under which the Buddha gained enlightenment. Ruins of the ancient city – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – are scattered over a few square miles and deserve at least a day or two of your time to fully explore.

History of Anuradhapura

Anuradhapura’s story begins in 377BC when it was founded by Pandukabhya, the third king of the Vijaya Dynasty. A succession of 112 kings followed until the city was abandoned in 1073 after repeated Indian invasions pushed the royal capital south to Polonnaruwa. For nearly a millennium, Anuradhapura’s kings had commissioned opulent palaces, vast monasteries, some of the first hospitals in the world, intricate sculptures and vast stupas to house sacred Buddhist relics. The city’s stupas were amongst the biggest ever attempted in the ancient world, and are second in size only to the great pyramids of Giza. The vast network of tanks (man-made reservoirs) and irrigation canals (many of which exist to this day) constructed to preserve the precious monsoon rains and feed the rice paddies demonstrate a breathtaking innovation in early age engineering. Buddhist culture was allowed to flourish and this, combined with the city’s architectural achievements, meant Anuradhapura was greatly admired across Asia, and even as far afield as Europe.

Where is Anuradhapura?

Anuradhapura is located in the North Western Province of Sri Lanka within Sri Lanka’s history-rich Cultural Triangle. It is 2-hours’ drive from Polonnaruwa, 3-hours’ drive from Kandy, and 200-kilometres from Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo. The ruins may be visited when travelling to the east coast from Wilpattu National Park or as a long-ish east coast day trip as Anuradhapura is a 2-hour drive from the famous town and beaches of Trincomalee.

Why visit Anuradhapura?

Anuradhapura is one of the best attractions in Sri Lanka and certainly one of the most significant of its kind in Asia. The sheer scale of its stupas, surviving ruins and monasteries – all painstakingly excavated from the jungle – makes Anuradhapura one of the most magnificent ancient cities in the world, and one that continues to be inhabited today.

What is a stupa?

To better understand Anuradhapura, it’s useful to know what a stupa is and why it was built. As you travel Sri Lanka, you’ll come across hundreds of these hemispherical buildings, yet none are quite as huge as those built in Anuradhapura’s early days. A stupa (also known as a dagoba) is a brick-built dome surmounted with a spire made from a semi-precious material. Located within a temple or monastery, stupas were designed to enshrine holy relics of the Buddha. There are around six types of dome – those in Anuradhapura today tend to be either bell-shaped (Thuparamaya) or bubble-shaped (Ruwanwelisaya).

What are the highlights of Anuradhapura?

Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi: The Sri Maha Bodhi is an ancient fig tree thought to date back to 288BC. It’s believed to be a sapling of the holy tree in Bodhgaya where the Buddha attained enlightenment, and the oldest planted tree in the world.
Ruwanwelisaya Stupa: Built by King Dutugemunu in 140BC, this white stupa rises to a height of 103 metres and has a circumference of over 290 metres. A frieze of 344 elephants (most are life-sized modern replacements) guard the entire perimeter. It is thought to contain the most Buddha relics of any other stupa in the world.
Thuparama Stupa: Dating back to the reign of King Devanampiya Tissa (247-207BC), this is one of the oldest stupas in the world. Built shortly after Mahinda introduced Buddhism to Sri Lanka, it is believed to enshrine a collarbone of the Buddha.
Jetavanarama Monastery & Stupa: Built in the 3rd century, the Jetavanarama Stupa rises high above eastern Anuradhapura. At its inception, the 122-metre-high stupa was the tallest of its kind and the third highest structure in the world (after the Egyptian pyramids) though today it is around 70-metres high. Surrounding it are the ruins of a monastery that may once have housed over 3000 monks.
Abhayagiri Monastic Complex: The Abhayagiri Dagoba originally stood at some 100-metres high, and was the centerpiece of the 5000-strong Abhayagiri Monastery. It may have shrunk to 75 metres, but its form is still incredibly impressive.

What is Anuradhapura famous for?

Anuradhapura is chiefly famous for being one of the world’s most advanced ancient cities of its time. Today, its relics – many of which have been painstakingly preserved – stand as a testimony to the magnificence of what it was once like to live during Anuradhapura’s golden era. The city is probably best known for its vast stupas yet is also home to the oldest (and most sacred) tree in the world, and a beautiful collection of Buddhist-era art.

Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa?

Many visitors to Sri Lanka have time to visit just one of Sri Lanka’s ancient cities, Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa, yet the difficulty can lie in choosing which one to see. The two sites are, unhelpfully, hard to compare as they have their own distinct attractions. Where Polonnaruwa is more compact, which suits those poor on time, Anuradhapura’s ruins are spread over a wider area, and are deserving of a few days. Polonnaruwa’s sites are better preserved, and the artistry of Gal Vihara and the Quadrangle undeniably impressive, although the sheer scale of Anuradhapura’s ruins is truly extraordinary. There is also a certain vibrancy to Anuradhapura, brought alive by the plethora of devout residents and visitors, and proximity to the pilgrimage site of Mihintale.

Quick guide to Anuradhapura

Do I need to buy tickets?
Yes. Buy your tickets at the Museum before you enter the precinct. The Museum is open daily between 9am and 5:30pm.

Where can I hire bicycles?
There are bicycle hire places in/around Anuradhapura and at the entrance to the site. Your hotel will be able to organise this for you.

What are the opening hours?
The site is open from 7am to 5.30pm, however to do the site justice you’ll want to arrive as early as possible.

How long does it take to tour the whole site?
Plan on a whole day to see the main sites though if you’d like to explore in more detail plan a few days for your visit. Be prepared. Decide in advance what you’d like to see, and plan your visit accordingly. A guide will make pre-planning much easier.

Can I take photographs?
Yes. However, never photograph a person with their back to a Buddha statue.

What should I wear to visit Anuradhapura?
There is a modest dress code for visiting temples in Sri Lanka. Knees and shoulders must be covered. It’s very humid so if you do wear shorts, pack a sarong for when you enter the temples. Be prepared also to remove your shoes if entering a temple site.

When’s the best time of day to visit Anuradhapura?
To avoid the heat, start exploring as soon as the ticket office opens.

What’s the best time of year to visit Anuradhapura?
Anuradhapura can be visited throughout the year.

What else is there to see in/around Anuradhapura?

If you’re visiting Anuradhapura, don’t miss this:
Mihintale: When visiting Anuradhapura, we highly recommend a trip to the unforgettable birthplace of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Mihintale. Its stupas, shrines and caves, reached via an exhausting series of 1,840 steps, are sprinkled in amongst a striking backdrop of wooded hills. This is where Indian Missionary Mahinda met King Devampiyatissa in 247, later establishing Buddhism as Sri Lanka’s state religion.