Travel guide Sri Lanka: all you need to know about the ancient city of Anuradhapura

Last Updated on by Charlotte van de Sande

After arrival and spending two nights in Negombo, Anuradhapura is our next stop in Sri Lanka. We go here for the beautiful temples and the old king’s city. In this blog I will tell you everything about our time in Anuradhapura, I give you tips about visiting the different temples and I tell you about our favourite hotels in Anuradhapura.


Anuradhapura: temples surrounded by rice fields

Anuradhapura is located in the north of Sri Lanka and is the very first capital of the country (from 308 BC to the 11th century AD). The city itself is not much and feels more like a big village, but the reason why most people come to Anuradhapura is the old town, a large site full of excavated temples, baths and museums.

Mihintale Buddha-2

Two days in Anuradhapura

We arrive at our hotel in the afternoon. The coming two nights we will stay here, and after unpacking our bags, we jump right into the lovely swimming pool. It is very hot so this is a welcome refreshment! At the end of the afternoon, we decide to go to the Mihintale temple complex. This is located approximately 10 kilometres outside the city. It is beautiful, even though we don’t see a real sunset because it is too cloudy.

An early morning in the old city of Anuradhapura

The next morning the alarm clock is set at 6 a.m. Today we are going to see the old city and since the weather forecast predicts it will be very hot today, we want to be there as early as possible. And we succeed, just after seven we are already in front of the first temple. There is no other tourist, only Sri Lankans who have come here to pray and make sacrifices. A beautiful sight: the people are dressed in white clothes except for the monks, who wear bright orange robes. This contrasts well with the white stupas and buildings.

After visiting seven locations per tuktuk, we return to our hotel three hours later. It is now 10.00 am and it is already very hot. Unfortunately, there is a problem with the swimming pool at our hotel, but the owner makes sure that we are being taken to another hotel with a swimming pool. We spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing there.

Tempel Anuradhapura 5

How long do you stay in Anuradhapura?

Two days in Anuradhapura is enough to have seen everything: we continued our journey to Trincomalee, a beach town in the east. You could also continue to Sigirya, climb the Lion rock or travel directly to Kandy.

Tip: buy the tickets for the train journey from Kandy to Ella in Anuradhapura. This increases the chance that there are still reserved seats available in the first or second class!


Is your next stop Kandy? Read about this place in our travel guide!


What can you see in Anuradhapura?

Explore the ancient city of Anuradhapura

The reason that most people go to Anuradhapura is the old city. This city dates from the third century BC, but the excavations were not started until the end of the nineteenth century. Dozens of temples, remains of stupas and monasteries emerged from the ground, all of which have been restored. Don’t expect Pompeii-like scenes from excavations. The majority of the temples have been completely rebuilt, refurbished and look brand new. A strange idea, since it doesn’t feel like an old city here at all.

The site of the old city is spread over an area of 40 square kilometres. It feels a bit like a big park: you see a lot of greenery between the temples and buildings. There are lakes and even rice fields.

Temple Anaradhapura

Access to the ancient city of Anuradhapura: $25 per person

Yes, you read that right. Entry to the ancient city of Anuradhapura is $25 per person. And this price does not include all buildings, only the five largest. We are currently travelling for a longer period and therefore are on a budget. So this is a bit too expensive for us and that’s why we decide to skip these five temples. We do hire a tuk-tuk with a guide (Rs3000 for three hours) that takes us to the other temples and places of interest. In the end, we visit seven places, the majority of which are free. At just one single temple we have to pay an entrance fee (Rs200 per person, approximately €1.00).

Anuradhapura tempel 2

We visit the following places:

  1. Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi: A sacred tree grows here, which according to legend is 2000 years old.
  2. Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba: This giant white temple is guarded by 344 elephant statues. The temple is currently under construction.
  3. Isurumuniya Vihara: Built-in a rock in the 3rd century BC, this temple apparently has the oldest visible pagoda in the world.
  4. Ranmasu Uyana: Also known as the Royal Pleasure Garden, is a garden where once unmarried kings and queens came to bath and meet new partners. A kind of Tinder from 2000 years ago
  5. Vessagiriya: This complex has not been rebuilt or renovated. A monastery was once housed here among the rocks where Indian monks lived. These monks were not welcome in monasteries where Sri Lankan monks lived since the Sri Lankan monks were much better educated
  6. Sri Sarananda Maha Pirivena: There is a huge white Buddha in this meditation area.
  7. Mirisawetiya stupa: This is another large white stupa, very beautiful and hardly any visitors.

Anuradhapura pond

We have definitly not seen everything, the old city is very big and to see everything you will need at least two full days. But after three hours we are saturated and it is enough for us. Are you crazy about temples, then dedicate enough time for this large complex!

In retrospect, it was the right choice to skip the five largest temples (for which you have to pay $25) and to choose other temples and places to visit. We had a nice morning, saw a lot of beautiful buildings and have definitely tasted the atmosphere of the old city.

Buddha offers

4 Tips for visiting the ancient city of Anuradhapura:

1. Cycling or go by tuk-tuk

Most people visit the old city by bicycle. This is a great way to experience the atmosphere, get some exercise and go from temple to temple. However, keep in mind that the terrain is over 40 km2 and that it is very hot in Sri Lanka. In our case, it was 32 degrees Celsius but the temperature felt more like 40 degrees Celsius and that is pretty hot! We, therefore, decided to rent a tuktuk with driver/guide and visit several temples in this way. A very good alternative!

2. Do you want to cycle: choose a hotel close to the old city!

If you want to go cycling, make sure your hotel is close to the old city. Most hotels offer bicycle rental, including ours. However, our hotel is more than seven kilometres from the complex. This means another 14 kilometres extra cycling through the burning sun. The location of our hotel made the choice to go by tuktuk instead of by bike, very easy!

Anuradhapura tempel 3

3. Go as early as possible!

I really mean EARLY! Make sure to leave between six and seven. This way you will arrive before the big tourist crowds do and you only will see local people. You will also avoid the hottest part of the day (between 11 am and 3 pm). We were back at our pool at 11 am, so nice!

4. Besides a sarong, take socks with you

You have to take off your shoes or slippers around the temples. So you walk barefoot, and the stones can get quite warm. Socks offer protection! Also, do not forget to wear suitable clothing (knees and shoulders covered).

Tempel Anuradhapura 6


Click here for our travel guide on beach town Trincomalee!


View the sunset from the Mihintale temple complex

This beautiful temple complex, about 10 kilometres outside of Anuradhapura is really worth it. To be honest I find it even more beautiful than the old city. You will find here several, white-white temples on top of rocks. Sometimes it is scrambling to get to the top (barefoot, with a cloth around your shoulders and a camera in your hand this is not always easy), but the view over the green rice fields and forests that you have from here, is it more than worth it!

Mihintale Budhha cloudy

We visited this place at sunset, really a must! It is a lot less warm but it is also wonderful to see the white stupas against a purple-pink sky!

The entrance fee for the Mihintale temple complex is Rs 500 per person (approximately € 2.50). A return ticket costs Rs 1200 (around € 6).

Please note: the guides at the bottom of the complex would be happy to give you a tour. The moment they talk to you and keep walking with you to the temples, they will expect you to pay them. So be very clear when you do not want to use a guide.

Mihintale Stupa-3

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Where do you sleep in Anuradhapura?

We had really found a nice hotel near the centre with a good rating. Unfortunately, Belmond Lake Hotel turned out to be a bit overrated … they had lost our booking, we would suddenly have to pay € 10 extra for the air conditioning and our room was in a sort of basement. Really not recommended! Fortunately, we were able to cancel for free via booking.com and within no time ordered a tuk-tuk. This brought us to Hotel Heladiv (see below) for which we paid a little more, but it was definitely worth it! Below you will find more nice budget guesthouses and more luxurious boutique hotels!

Heaven Upon Rice Fields

Heaven Upon Rice Fields Anaradhapura

As the name suggests, this nice guesthouse is situated among the rice fields. From your room, you will look out on these fresh green plains! The family where you are a guest does everything to welcome you. You sleep here from € 18 per night (2 people).

Book now!

Hotel Heladiv €€

Hotel Heladiv Anaradhapura

This hotel is located a bit outside the center, but has nice rooms and a wonderful swimming pool. You can have breakfast, lunch and dinner here. You can stay here from € 30 per night (2 people).

Book now!

Aryana Boutique hotel €€€

Aryana Boutique Hotel Anaradhapura

This small boutique hotel is close to the center but is still an oasis of peace due to its location and garden. The rooms are clean and fully equipped. You sleep here from € 60 per night including breakfast (2 people).

Book now!

Budget tip: do you stay in a hotel that is not located in the city centre with restaurants nearby? Then there is a good chance that you will eat in the hotel, where meals are sometimes more expensive. Do you want to save some money on your breakfast or lunch? No problem! Mobile bakers pass by several times a day. You can recognize them by a cheerful tune that you can hear from afar. Here you can buy sweet pastries, pizza rolls or filled buns with curry.


Will you also travel towards Sigiriya (Lion Rock)? Click here for our travel guide on this place!


How do you reach Anuradhapura from Negombo / Colombo?

By taxi – € 50, 3-4 hours

Normally we use public transport as much as possible, but I did not feel well on the day we were travelling to Anuradhapura and so we rented a taxi together with another Dutch couple. This taxi ride lasted 4 hours and cost RS 10,000, 50 euros. Shared by two couples it was 25 euros, which is a great price. Our taxi driver told us a lot about Sri Lanka and stopped several times to point us to factories, bats and coconut plantations. In Sri Lanka it’s common to tip the taxi driver as well. A tip between 5% and 10% will do.

By bus (via Colombo) – € 8-10, 6-7 hours

To travel from Negombo to Anuradhapura you first have to go back to Colombo, this can be done by taxi, with an Uber Tuk this costs about seven euros. From the Colombo Bastian Mawatha bus station you take the bus that will take you to Anuradhapura in more than five hours.

Railway station

By train (via Colombo) – € 9-11, 6-7 hours

If you want to travel by train, you also depart from Colombo (Uber Tuk from Negombo to Colombo is approximately 7 euros). Get dropped off at the Fort Station where you take the train to Anuradhapura. Please note, this train does not run every hour, so it is useful to check in advance at what time the train leaves.


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