Temple towering above the forest in Anuradhapura

Anuradhapura – Old Royal Capital of Sri Lanka

This post was last updated on April 9th, 2020 at 10:46 am

For more than 1,000 years, Anuradhapura was the stage of Singhalese kings who controlled their kingdom from this city. It was one of the largest and most important Sri Lankan royal capitals of that time. The glory has somewhat faded but Anuradhapura is still a beautiful city with palaces, stupas, beautiful gardens, and impressive history.


Anuradhapura; An Old-World City

The city is located over 200 kilometers (124 miles) inland, north of Colombo, and has an impressive history behind it. For more than 1,200 years, Anuradhapura was the city where everything happened.


It was the political, cultural and powerful capital of the Anuradhapura Empire. Although the mystique of an old royal city has faded a bit, the city still houses many great sights to see.


Today, many still see Anuradhapura as a holy city, partly because of the Tree of Enlightenment, also known as the Bodhi Tree. This is the fig tree under which Buddha found his enlightenment. Anuradhapura is, therefore, an important place of pilgrimage in Sri Lanka.


You have to pay US$25 per person to enter the park. It is open every day from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.


Reclining Buddha statue between trees
You will find many holy reclining Buddha statues here


6 Best Things to See in Anuradhapura

The city is still of great value which is evident from the fact that it is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The city has many highlights that are worth visiting, with the Bodhi Tree, Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba, and Loha Prasada being the best-known.


1. The Bodhi Tree

The Bodhi Tree is one of the most important places in the world for Buddhists. It is this fig tree where Buddha would have found enlightenment.


Since Buddhism from Sri Lanka has spread all over the world, it is an important place for many Buddhists. Around the tree you will find four 80-meter high stupas to protect this Buddhist site.


Although it is not uncommon to encounter 2,000-year-old olive trees in Greece and the Middle East, the Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura was planted in 288 BC, making it one of the oldest living trees in the world!


It is protected by a wall and is honored by thousands of Buddhist pilgrims who pay tribute every day of the year.


TIP – Be respectful of the tree and its nearby ground.


Giant Bodhi tree, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
The Giant Bodhi tree


2. The Loha Prasad

This palace must have been gigantic in its glory days. It was built by King Dutugemunu in the second century BC. In those days it counted thousands of sleeping places and nine floors.


Unfortunately, there is not much left of the palace as it was. Today it is the more than 1,600 pillars that honor parts of the palace.


3. The Abhayagiri Vihara Complex

This complex was built by King Vattagamini in 88 BC and had the capacity to accommodate 5,000 monks at a time. For nearly 600 years this was the largest monastery in Sri Lanka.


The monastery complex, which covers more than 500 hectares (1235 acres), has Buddha statues, a stupa, one of the most beautiful moonstones in Sri Lanka and two very famous swimming pools, the Kuttam Pokuna.


TIP – Also don’t forget to visit the Sandaka Pahana, a.k.a. the Moonstone.


4. The Most Beautiful Dagoba; Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba

It is seen by many as the most beautiful dagoba in the city. King Dutthagamini built this temple in about 140 BC and it seems to have been one of the nicest. It is surrounded by a beautiful garden where both locals and travelers can relax.


The Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba is not to be missed in the city as this white structure is 55 meters high and is decorated with beautiful details. Well worth a visit during your stay in Anuradhapura.


White stupa towering above green trees
The impressive Ruwanwelisaya Chedi stupa


5. The Isurumuniya Vihara

The Isurumuniya Vihara is a monastery complex carved from a rock. Built by King Devanampiyatissa, it was used to house 500 monks. They were Issira children of noble families who were willing to devote their lives to Buddha and the road to enlightenment.


Pilgrims bring flower offerings to a statue of a reclining Buddha, dressed in a bright red cloak. The statue is surrounded by beautiful paintings that depict the Buddha’s life and legends from the ancient world of Anuradhapura.


Isurumuniya Buddhist Temple carved from a rock in Anuradhapura
Must have been hard to carve this temple out of a rock


6. Jetawanaramaya Monastery

The monastery and stupa of Jetawanaramaya were built by King Mahasen. It has a height of 122 meters and it was one of the tallest structures in the world when it was completed. Only the Egyptian pyramids at Giza were higher.


Built with stones made from sand and clay, the Jetawanaramaya stupa is as much a testament to ancient technology as it is to spirituality. It is an impressive sight if you are right in front of the stupa.


TIP – Have a look at Ranfer Travel for day trips from Colombo.


The tall Jetavanaramaya Monastery behind green grass and trees
The impressive Jetawanaramaya Monastery from a distance


A Day Trip to Mihintale

Mihintale is a Buddhist place of pilgrimage about 13 kilometers (8 miles) east of Anuradhapura. It is believed that this is the place where Mahinda introduced Buddhism to King Devanampiyatissa.


Mahinda was the son of an emperor from India but became a Buddhist monk instead of the emperor. Mihintale, or “Mahinda’s Mountain”, eventually became the starting point of Buddhism and Sinhalese culture. For centuries this was a complex of cave dwellings, monasteries, and stupas that were used and built by monks. Fortunately, the ruins of some of these buildings can still be seen.


Best Things to See in Mihintale

The large staircase in Mihintale is quite impressive with 1,840 steps. It brings visitors to the first level of the Mihintale complex. There are several ruins here. Other ruins to visit are the Lion Pond, Naga Pond, Mahinda’s Cave, Kantaka Cetiya Stupa, Maha Stupa, and the Aradhana Gala Rock. Be sure to go to the top of Aradhana Gala. From here you have beautiful views, especially around sunset.


TIP – In the month of June, many Buddhist pilgrims come to Mihintale to celebrate Posen Poya, the holiest day of the year. Access to Mihintale costs 500 Rupees (US$2.80).


Tufted gray langur monkey in Anuradhapura
Hey, buddy!


How to Get to Anuradhapura

To make it easy, Anuradhapura has three bus stations; Colombo Bus Station, New Bus Station, and Old Bus Station. Buses depart from all of these three bus stations to and from the entire country. You can also come here by train, but that is slightly less common.


Colombo Bus Station

Buses leave from Colombo Bus Station to the following places;

  • Colombo ➜ 400 – 550 Rp (US$2.25 to $3.10) – 6 hours
  • Dambulla ➜ 170 Rp (US$0.95) – 2 hours
  • Kandy ➜ 350 Rp (US$2) – 4 hours


New Bus Station

Buses leave from New Bus Station to the following places;

  • Jaffna ➜ 330 Rp (US$1.85) – 6 to 8 hours
  • Mihintale ➜ 30 Rp (US$0.15) – 30 minutes
  • Polonnaruwa ➜ 120 Rp (US$0.70) – 3 hours


Old Bus Station

Buses leave from Old Bus Station to the following places;

  • Colombo via Negombo ➜ 250 Rp (US$1.40) – 5 hours
  • Dambulla ➜ 100 Rp (US$0.55) – 2 hours
  • Kandy ➜ 200 – 350 Rp (US$1.15 to $2) – 4 hours


Anuradhapura Accommodations

Anuradhapura used to be one of the most important cities in Sri Lanka. Today travelers are mainly drawn to the city by the rich history that the city has.


Due to growing tourism, many accommodations can be found in and around the city.


Most accommodations are located in the old city center. Plenty of budget accommodations can be found in this area. The more exclusive accommodations are more on the outskirts of the city.


So you can choose to be close to all the activities in the middle of the city or seek the tranquility of the suburbs.


TIP – Book your accommodation in Anuradhapura here.


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