Anuradhapura is a sprawling complex of ruins and impressive architectural wonders. As you explore the giant dagobas and soaring brick towers, you’re sure to wonder how the architects managed to design such huge monuments back in those times. The scale of this World Heritage site is jaw dropping and there are several places to visit in Anuradhapura where you will be filled with wonder.
I’d venture to say that of all the historic places to visit in Sri Lanka, Anuradhapura is my favourite so if you’re planning a longer trip around the country take a look at our 10 days in Sri Lanka itinerary.
Why go to Anuradhapura?
Anuradhapura’s temples were constructed during the time when Sinhalese kings ruled over Sri Lanka. This was between the fourth century BC until the 11th century AD. Later, the capital of Sri Lanka shifted to Polonnaruwa.
Anuradhapura is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was the centre of Theravada Buddhism for centuries. It’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.
Where is Anuradhapura?
Anuradhapura is 205 km (127 miles) north of Colombo. Its located in Sri Lanka’s North Central Province, on the banks of the Malvathu River. Watch this video for some tips on places to visit in Anuradhapura and other parts of Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle.
Places to visit in Anuradhapura
Many of Anuradhapura’s ancient sites are still used as holy places and temples.
When visiting Anuradhapura, you’re likely to catch some action at a local temple ceremony or school children on a study excursion or local women who are shy but willing to pose for photos.
Besides the dagobas, which is what the Sinhalese call a Buddhist stupa, an aura of mystery shrouds the sprawling complex.
The mound-like structure of the dagobas house relics used for meditation by Buddhist monks.
The top three places to visit in Anuradhapura are the Archaeological Museum, Sri Maha Bodhi and Abhayagiri Dagoba.
1- The Archaeological Museum
The Archaeological Museum has a collection of artwork, carvings and historical items such as a restored relic chamber unearthed during the excavation of the Kantaka Chetiya dagoba in Mihintale.
The museum’s grounds have beautiful stone squat-style toilets carved by monks and other fascinating sculptures.
2- Sri Maha Bodhi tree
Don’t miss the Sri Maha Bodhi, the sacred bodhi tree that is Anuradhapura’s central spiritual focus.
The 2000-year-old tree is possibly the oldest Bodhi tree in the world and planted from a cutting from Bodhgaya in India.
Besides being a holy tree, the tree also has a fascinating story. Princess Sangamitta, the sister of Mahinda (who introduced the Buddha’s teachings to Sri Lanka), brought the cutting from India.
Thousands of devotees gather around the tree, especially on full-moon days and weekends.
3- Abhayagiri Dagoba
Of the four monumental stupas (Jetavana, Ruyanvelisaya, Mirisavati and Abhayagiri), Abhayagiri is the most impressive. Abhayagiri is actually a dagoba.
Just the thought of the 75m (it was originally 100m) high Abhayagiri dagoba being built during the 1st century BC is enough to take your breath away.
This gigantic dagoba was once the focus of a huge monastery and a wonder of the ancient world.
In Sri Lanka, Abhayagiri dagoba is as impressive as the pyramids of Giza. (and nearby Jetavanarama).
Look for the carving of the elephant pulling up a tree and the slab with Buddha’s footprint on the northern side.
Discover Sri Lanka
What is the difference between a stupa and a dagoba?
Stupas and dagobas may look similar as they are both dome-shaped Buddhist monuments, however, a stupa contains valuables while a dagoba contains relics.
How to travel around Sri Lanka
The best way to explore Sri Lanka is on a road trip. Driving around the country is safe and fun. The roads are reasonably good and there are restaurants and rest houses with clean western-style toilets.
Sri Lanka is nowhere near as chaotic as India so if you have been to India, you’ll be surprised at how orderly Sri Lanka appears to be. Most travellers either start or end their trip in Colombo. Here are some things to do in Colombo.
Another attraction to visit while in Sri Lanka is the Dambulla Cave Temple.