White dome chapel with ruins in front in Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa – Ancient Royal City – East Sri Lanka

This post was last updated on April 8th, 2020 at 10:27 am

Polonnaruwa is an ancient royal city in the east of Sri Lanka. From this city, several kings ruled the country 800 years ago. Polonnaruwa was the commercial and religious center. The ancient temples and ruins that you can still find here today give a nice picture of what this royal city must have looked like in its heyday.


The Temples of Polonnaruwa

The special thing about Polonnaruwa is that the city is more than 800 years old, but still in very good condition today. You will find beautiful temples and ancient ruins that have a clear Hindu influence (from the Tamils).


Many travelers agree that the temples at Polonnaruwa are better preserved than those at Anuradhapura.


The entrance fee is US$25 per person and you can buy tickets at the Archaeological Museum.


Old Royal City

This old royal city goes back quite a while. The city was founded by the Indian Chola dynasty in the 10th century. It later became the capital of the Sinhalese Kingdom under King Vijayabahu.


However, the city of Polonnaruwa as we know it today was built by King Parakramabahu. He was responsible for building various temples and parks. The city became the thriving commercial and religious center of the Sinhalese Kingdom.


Ruins of ancient temples in Polonnaruwa
It is very calming to walk among the ruins


Best Things to See & Do in Polonnaruwa

The old city itself with its ruins and temples is the biggest attraction. Yet you will find most of the ruins in the old core of the city. Here you can find the most beautiful and impressive ruins of the old royal palace.


In the days when Polonnaruwa was the most important city in Sri Lanka, the royal palace was an impressive seven-story structure. Today only two are visible.


1. Royal Palace

The first group of ruins you see in the Ancient City is the Royal Palace. This group of buildings dates from 1153 to 1186. The King’s Royal Palace used to be a gigantic structure.


Today only a few walls are left. It is still an impressive sight and the details on the walls are still visible.


TIP – The With Locals organization offers fun tours organized by locals.


Ancient pillars and stairway in ruins
You will find many stone pillars here


2. Gal Vihara

Gal Vihara is a group of four beautiful Buddha statues that are all in perfect condition. All statues are cut from a large rock. The standing Buddha is 7 meters long and is often considered the most beautiful of the four statues. The reclining Buddha is 14 meters long.


The reason the statues are so clearly visible is that they are protected by a casing. This is necessary to protect the statues against the weather conditions here, although it is not conducive to the atmosphere around the temples.


Rent a Bike

The nicest way to explore Polonnaruwa is by bike. Polonnaruwa is not very big but the distances are just too big to walk. Renting a bike costs you between 350 and 450 Rs (US$2 to $2.55) per day.


3. Vatadage

This is one of the most striking buildings in Polonnaruwa. This stupa has a diameter of 18 meters and four entrances. The most special thing about this stupa, however, is the large number of Buddha statues that stand here.


The walls, statues, and stairs are all covered with beautiful details. It is great to see that the Vatadage is still so clearly visible today.


Front view of a circular temple with a buddha statue in the middle
Front view of the Vatadage Temple, impressive!


4. Atadage

The Atadage used to be a beautiful building. Today it is a collection of dozens of stone pillars. That certainly does not make the view any less beautiful. Especially with the standing Buddha statue in the background, Atadage is one of the nicer places here.


5. Hatadage

The names here all look alike. Yet they are all really different temples and shrines. This too is a ruin of what once should have been one of the larger temples. If you are in the right place you can see the round Vatadage temple from the Hatadage temple.


TIP – Wear suitable clothing. When you enter Buddhist buildings you should cover your shoulders and knees.


Ruins of Hatadage in Polonnaruwa
Hatadage ruins


6. Rankot Vihara

Strangely enough, this stupa is not considered the most beautiful structure of Polonnaruwa. Admittedly, compared to the Vatadage, for example, this brown/white stupa is not the most beautiful, but it is very impressive. The dome of the stupa is quite large.


Extra Tips

Polonnaruwa, together with Anuradhapura, is the best place to visit temples. If you like culture, this is definitely recommended. The temples that you see here are really impressive, and we have seen quite a few in Asia!


Are you planning to go to Polonnaruwa? Check out these final tips;


Entrance Fee

Entrance tickets are US$25 per person for adults and US$12.50 per person for children.


Rent a Bicycle

It is useful to rent a bicycle if you want to explore the temples in the area. The distances are just too great to walk and by renting a bicycle you have more time to visit the temples.


You can rent a bicycle in many places. Most accommodations have this option, while others have plenty of rental companies in the area. You can also rent a tuk-tuk, but this is much more expensive than cycling yourself.


Dress Appropriately

The temples are Buddhist so you will have to cover your knees and shoulders when entering the temples. Bring appropriate clothing when you go to the temples.


In addition, never stand with your back to the holy Buddha. This means that you shouldn’t take selfies with Buddha statues!


Bring Socks

Last but not least, bring socks when you visit the temples. You have to take off your shoes at the different temples and the ground temperature can get quite high here.


If you do not want to have burnt feet, socks are highly recommended!


Buddha Statue at Gal Vihara in Polonnaruwa
Buddha Statue at Gal Vihara


How to Get to Polonnaruwa

This is one of Sri Lanka’s most famous sights, so transportation is well organized. Most travelers come by bus from Colombo (6 hours), Kandy (3 hours), Anuradhapura (3 hours) or Dambulla (1 hour). You can also rent a car with a driver. Slightly more expensive, but you have more freedom.


By Bus

Most travelers arrive by bus from Colombo (6 hours), Kandy (3 hours), Anuradhapura (3 hours) or Dambulla (1 hour). Buses leave and arrive at the Kaduruwela bus station just outside the city.


By Train

The city has a train station so it is also possible to travel to Polonnaruwa by train. The city is connected to the Colombo – Batticaloa track. These cities can, therefore, be reached from Polonnaruwa.


The train ride to Batticaloa takes about 2.5 hours in total. The total train ride to Colombo takes 6 to 7 hours and departs twice a day. There is a train running during the day and this route also includes a night train.


By Car

You can also rent a car with a driver to get into the city. This is more expensive but gives you a lot more freedom. You can then stop at any time for a photo or to eat something. It is often a lot more expensive than public transport.


By Taxi (Cab)

Although taxis are relatively cheap, it is still an expensive option to use it as a standard mode of transport.


This is doable for the small trips, but we do not recommend that you take hours of long taxi rides. If you’re going to be on the road for a while, it’s better to think about a cheaper option.


Polonnaruwa Accommodations

Polonnaruwa is one of the most famous places in Sri Lanka and that is why there are enough accommodations in the region. There are no specific neighborhoods where you can best stay.


Most accommodations can be found in the city center. Most budget accommodations can also be found here. The more luxurious accommodations and resorts are more secluded on the outskirts of the city.


TIP – Book your Polonnaruwa accommodation here.


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1 thought on “Polonnaruwa – Ancient Royal City – East Sri Lanka”

  1. I have never found an article that is so well written about this travel destination. Thanks for this piece. Hope that you keep sharing more valuable content like this.
    Thank you for sharing this valuable content, this is a very nice article

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