The Ancient Cities

This dry area of Sri Lanka contains the most famous cultural and archaeological reminders of a rich civilization more than 2500 years old. Escavations during the last 100 years have pushed back years of jungle encroachment and restored many ancient sites and access to them. The Ancient cities have brought Sri Lanka’s history alive in the most enthralling manner for millions of travellers. It covers the north central towns of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, Dambulla and Kandy where extensive archaeological ruins provide a glimpse into the island’s history, dating back to the 4th century BC. It is here that Sri Lanka’s
kings developed remarkably advanced civilisations. The extensive archaeological ruins of the Cultural Triangle are now protected by UNESCO as World Heritage sites.




The ancient city of Anuradhapura is a vast ancient archaeological site of palaces, monasteries, temples and dagobas, mostly in ruins though some have been restored. This was once one of the grandest monastic cities the world has ever seen, established in the 4th century BC then rising to become the major centre for Buddhist pilgrimage and learning in Sri Lanka. It is home to the 2,300‐year‐old sacred Bo tree, the Sri Maha Bodhiya, which was brought by Sangamitha Theri as a sapling from the Bo tree in India under which Buddha attained enlightenment. The great kings of Anuradhapura oversaw a golden age in the island's history, building colossal dagobas that rivalled the pyramids of Egypt in scale, and developing a sophisticated irrigation system consisting of vast reservoirs and canals scattered across a 250 square kilometre area that are still in use today. The Jethawanaramaya Stupa is one of the largest ancient monuments in the world, a remarkable feat of engineering. Anuradhapura eventually fell into decline in the 10th century AD,
enduring frequent invasions from India. A thriving town has grown up next to the ancient site and both remain an important centre for Buddhism, welcoming pilgrims and monks throughout the year, especially at full moon festivals. Due to the vast scale of the ancient city and the hot weather, travellers usually drive to the various sites, maybe walking between a few of them.


In the 12th century AD, the capital of Polonnaruwa was one of the great urban centres in South Asia. Today, the well preserved ruins give you the chance to experience the grandeur of this period and marvel at the artistry of the island's early craftsmen. Highlights are the Royal Palace and Council Chamber, and the four graceful Buddha statues of Gal Vihara (Stone Temple), the pinnacle of Sri Lankan rock carving. The site also hosts the Royal baths and the vast artificial Parakrama Samudraya reservoir (Sea of Parakrama) as well as many distinctly South Indian‐style Hindu temples. Set amongst gently undulating woodland, the monkeys, giant lizards and birdlife in abundance, Polonnaruwa’s historical site is visited using a combination of driving and on foot

Sigiriya Rock

The 5th century Sigiriya Rock Fortress (also known as Lion Rock due to the huge lion that used to stand at the entrance to the palace), is one of the island's most awe‐inspiring archaeological sites and its prime tourist attraction. For just two decades in the 5th century AD, the king set up his capital at Sigiriya; his creation was a remarkable feat of engineering and a true work of art. You can stroll through the ruins of the palace and gardens down below and admire the rock, but to fully appreciate Sigiriya it is worth climbing up the steep steps that take you up one side of the rock to reach the summit. At the top, there are majestic views of the surrounding jungle and the foundations of a Royal Palace, whilst on one of the stairways part‐way up the rock, you will find ancient frescoes of 21 life sized damsels (believed to be the king’s concubines), still shining in their original colours.

Dambulla Rock‐Cave Temple

Hewn into a 160m granite outcrop are the remarkable cave temples of Dambulla. Used as a refuge since the 1st century BC, each cave is filled with murals depicting scenes from the Buddha’s life and gilded statues of the Buddha in various poses. The temple is spiritual and mesmerising with no less than 150 Buddhist statues in the five caves. Cave 2, the Maharaja Vihara, is the largest and most spectacular. This visit involves a 10‐15 minute uphill climb on foot, though you are also rewarded with wonderful views looking over the plain.