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Let me tell you about a place that left a big impression on me.

Since returning home from Sri Lanka, I’ve been asked multiple times what my favorite part of the trip was. As you might imagine, it’s impossible to single out a favorite place or activity. But I can tell you without a doubt the one place that will stick with me forever.

And it was the place I least expected. Anuradhapura, my first stop in Sri Lanka.

Why Visit Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

Anuradhapura is home to the 2,000-year-old ruins and religious sites of an influential capital that was defended, conquered, reclaimed, defended, conquered, reclaimed, and on for centuries.

The history here is staggering, especially for us Americans who consider stuff from the 1600s to be really, really old.

I’m not much of a museum person, but tangible, living history is a big draw for me. Ruins, customs, festivals – those things you can experience in their original environment and soak in their essence.

You will feel the history surrounding you. I certainly did.

I knew Anuradhapura was important and influential, but I wasn’t looking forward to it the way I was with other sights in Sri Lanka. It was a place to check off the visit list, to get acquainted with the culture and history before moving on to the cool stuff like giant rock fortresses! and safaris! and surfing! and hiking!

Even its close neighbor, Polonnaruwa, tends to get more fanfare because its ruins are younger and thus in better condition than the ancient sights of Anuradhapura.

And that’s where I think guidebooks, site reviews and even photos failed me. None of them could tell me how I would feel visiting Anuradhapura, inspired and humbled standing amidst 2,000 year old piles of bricks.

Please allow me to try to give you a sense of what to really expect if you visit Anuradhapura.

A Sensory Tour of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

You’ll wander through woods where crumbling walls and stone pillars emerge from overgrown grasses.

Ruins in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

You’ll walk deeper into the forest to discover what was once unknown, this 2,000 year old city revealing itself to you.

Places to see in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka: ancient ruins

You’ll stand among the silent ruins as you gaze in all directions. A breeze will stir the trees first on your left, then on your right, as it winds through the forest.

Ruins in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

The soft rustling of leaves will whisper the secrets of an ancient civilization.

Places to see in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka: ancient ruins

The dampness of the heat will stick to you in the middle of the day as you pad through unpaved paths leading to moss-covered brick walls and moonstones and thousand-year-old Buddha sculptures.

Ruins in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

You’ll wander from room to room in an abandoned building, eroded down to the foundation, wondering who might have walked these floors or lived in these rooms back when there were walls.

The history of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka lies in its ruins.

Giant stupas will tower over the largest trees, and you’ll realize that seeing a single one of these far on the horizon is more impressive than a modern city skyline.

Places to visit in Anuradhapura: Abhayagiri Dagoba

The Abhayagiri Dagoba dates back to the 1st century BC. A top place to visit in Anuradhapura, Lonely Planet compares its scale to Giza – a true architectural marvel from the ancient world.

You’ll walk the round bases of countless dagobas, craning your neck to see the top, gazing at the white plaster that makes them instantly recognizable throughout the country.

A dagoba in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

You’ll silently witness the devout as they pray and lay offerings at these active religious sites.

Women praying in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

Women pray near a stupa.

Buddhist offerings in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

A shrine with flowers and oils left by the faithful.

You’ll pass through white gates to set your eyes on the Sri Maha Bodi, the world’s oldest living tree standing resolute as it has for over 2,000 years. It will be surrounded by worshippers chanting, praying, and meditating beneath bright flags hanging from every pole as percussion reverberates across the rectangular courtyard. Smoky incense will rise from candle- and lotus-filled shrines to perfume the air.

Top places to visit in Anuradhapura: The Sri Maha Bodi

The Sri Maha Bodi, the world’s oldest (verified) living tree and one of the top places to visit in Anuradhapura.

Prayer flags in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

The faithful gather near the Sri Maha Bodi.

You’ll try to remember every sensation from this mystical place, because unless you live here, it will be like nowhere you’ve been before.

What to Know if You Visit Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

  • Lonely Planet has a good roundup of all of Anuradhapura’s sights for details not provided here.
  • Anuradhapura is in Sri Lanka’s historic Cultural Triangle in the north-central part of the country. I found my train trip on Sri Lanka’s railways to be very enjoyable (about 5 hours from Colombo, and trains also leave from Kandy), but the local bus system is also a good bet. If you don’t mind dropping some cash, care hire is also a viable option to get to Anuradhapura from anywhere else in the country.
  • You will want a bike or a tuk-tuk to take you around the sprawling grounds. A bike will cost about RS 300-500 for the day, and a tuk-tuk will cost between RS 1500-2500 depending on where you book and how well you haggle. The heat and humidity are formidable, so if you wilt easily a tuk-tuk will be the way to go.
  • Plan for a full day to explore, especially if you are going by bike. Tuk-tuk tours take about a half-day. Early morning is a good time to set out to beat the heat and crowds.
  • The entry fee to the site is $25 USD or about RS 3750.
  • The Sri Maha Bodi and Mirisavatiya Dagoba have separate entrance fees (RS 200 and RS 250, respectively).
  • Street food is available in some areas. Expect lots of roti and coconuts.
  • I stayed at the Milano Tourist Rest, a guest house in Anuradhapura, in an air-conditioned room. I had an excellent stay. They arranged a side trip for me to Mihintale the first night I was there, and also arranged for my tuk-tuk with a reliable driver for the my tour of Anuradhapura. I was offered a welcome drunk upon arrival and their restaurant is well known in the area for its quality. Total cost for one night at the guest house was RS 4950 or about $33 USD.

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