Visiting the ancient city of Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka is a must-see for anyone interested in immersing themselves in rich cultural history.
In this complete guide, you will find everything you need to know about visiting the ancient city, from all the essential information to the top 9 places to visit in Polonnaruwa. We’ve also included the best time to visit, where to stay, and all the tips you need to have an incredible experience in Polonnaruwa.
Learn more about Sri Lanka's ancient history and wander among the ruins of the island's second largest kingdom!
What is the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa?
Polonnaruwa offers beauty, religion, and cultural significance.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site was the second ancient capital of Sri Lanka for three centuries. It was a city that flourished between the 10th and 13th centuries AD. What remains now are well-preserved ruins from the Polonnaruwa Ancient Kingdom that are a must-see when visiting Sri Lanka.
Polonnaruwa's ancient city is full of temples, palaces, stupas, tanks, and irrigation works that are worth seeing and provide an interesting insight into Sri Lanka's rich history.
Best Time to Visit
The ancient city of Polonnaruwa is open all year, but the best months to visit are from May to October. During these months, the weather is mild, and you can expect the least rainfall. Because it is located in the dry zone, it is best to visit early in the morning or later in the afternoon to avoid the midday sun.
The ancient ruins are open from 7:30am to 6pm. We recommend exploring as early as you can to avoid the crowds and the heat.
Read More: Best Time to Visit Sri Lanka
How to Get to Polonnaruwa
By Car: The fastest and most convenient way to reach Polonnaruwa from Colombo is to book a car. The drive takes about 3.5 to 4 hours, depending on the traffic, and you can expect to pay at least 65 USD.
By Train: Taking the train is the cheapest option to reach Polonnaruwa from Colombo. Head to the Fort Station, then take the train heading to Polonnaruwa Railway Station, which takes about 6 hours. The ticket costs around 2 USD for a third-class seat and 3 USD for a second-class seat. There are only two trains leaving daily: at 6:05am and 3:05pm. You can find the most updated pricing and schedule online.
By Bus: Another option for reaching Polonnaruwa is taking a 6- to 7-hour local bus ride from the Bastian Mawatha Bus Station in Colombo. You can catch the bus route 48 to Kalmunai or the bus route 48/3 heading to Kaduruwela. Both bus routes stop in Polonnaruwa, and two buses leave every hour. A local bus ticket costs around 4 USD per person.
By Car: The fastest way to reach Polonnaruwa from Sigiriya is to book a car. The drive takes about 2 to 3 hours, depending on the traffic, and you can expect to pay around 40 USD.
By Motorbike: Alternatively, you can also rent a motorbike for the day and drive for about 2 hours to Polonnaruwa. This will give you more freedom to explore the ancient city, and you get to drive the scenic route to the town. Arrange your motorbike rentals at your accommodation for the best price.
Where to Stay in Polonnaruwa
Most visitors explore Polonnaruwa on a day trip from the more well known town of Sigiriya. So if you wish to explore the ancient ruins for more than a day, we recommend staying in Polonnaruwa. By staying in town, you will also have the opportunity to visit the ruins earlier in the day, avoiding the crowds and the heat.
Here are the most highly rated hotels we’ve found in Polonnaruwa.
How to Get Around in Polonnaruwa
The most popular way to explore the ancient ruins is to rent a bicycle. Bike rentals are available next to the museum, and most accommodations rent them for free. But it can be challenging as you might need to cover some distance between ruins, and cycling in the heat can be tiring.
You can also find tuk-tuks to rent to drive you around the ruins. This is a better option if you have limited time and if you’re traveling with someone. Not only will you save time as the drivers know more about the ancient areas, but they can also act as your guide. Just make sure you arrange a reliable tuk-tuk guide with your accommodation to avoid getting scammed.
If you have limited time but still want to explore on your own, it is best to rent a motorbike. Arrange your rental with your accommodation for the best prices.
The ticket price for foreigners is 30 USD per person. For SAARC countries, the price is half. However, you will need to have proof that you are from a SAARC country. So remember to bring your passport.
Where to Buy your Tickets
You can buy your ticket at the Archaeological Museum Complex. You can also reserve online through the government's e-ticket reservation website.
Top 9 Things to See in Polonnaruwa
The ancient city of Polonnaruwa spans over a large area of land, and visiting for a day can be daunting. That’s why we’ve put together this list of the top 9 things you must see when visiting the area.
1. The Archaeological Museum Complex
Visiting the Archaeological Museum Complex is a great place to start before walking around the archaeological sites. It is close to the foreigners' ticket counter, and it has great insight into the ancient civilization. You can find detailed maps, while models of the kingdoms are displayed with tags and descriptions that explain everything very clearly.
2. The Palace of King Nishshanka Malla
The Palace of King Nishshanka Malla is set in a beautiful location next to the Parakrama Samudra reservoir on the west side of Polonnaruwa. King Nishshanka Malla was a king of Sri Lanka who ruled the country from 1187 to 1196. In this complex, you’ll find the royal bathing pool in the south of the palace and the King’s Council Chamber. If you look closely into the pillars, you can see inscriptions of the king's ministers and state officials, as well as their seating arrangements.
3. The Royal Palace of King Parakramabahu
The Royal Palace of King Parakramabahu was built in the 12th century AD and was once 7 floors tall. As a result of its destruction by South Indian invaders, there are now only three levels visible. Burn marks are still visible on some parts of its wall. And if you look closely, you’ll also find some intricate details that the architects focused on when constructing the palace. The Royal Palace is a true testament to the ancient kingdom's architectural craftsmanship and houses a great history of the great King Parakramabahu.
4. The Council Chamber of King Parakramabahu
The Council Chamber of King Parakramabahu is another great construction that can be found in the Palace Complex of King Parakramabahu, just opposite the Royal Palace. This stone building has three steps and two beautiful stone lions at the entrance. You will also find rows of elephants at the bottom, while the second level is decorated with lions.
5. Vatadage - 39
The Polonnaruwa Vatage is an amazing archeological treasure known for its beautiful carvings and religious significance. It is one of the best-preserved ruins from the Polonnaruwa Kingdom and a highlight of the ancient city. It is believed to be a sacred site that used to hold the tooth relic of Buddha. What stands now is beautiful architecture and craftsmanship that showcases intricate carvings at the entrance of the staircase. You can also see the well-known moonstone carvings at the foot of the first flight of steps at the northern entrance.
6. Lankathilaka Image House
Lankathilaka Viharaya is the largest image house built in ancient Sri Lanka by the Great King Parakramabahu. This impressive stone building has a huge statue inside and outer walls that are incredibly thick. You can find wonderfully carved details of palaces and gods all over the brick structure. The stucco relief sculpture on the exterior walls also shows South Indian influence. It is a place you shouldn’t miss during your visit to Polonnaruwa.
7. Rankoth Vehera (Rankoth Dagaba)
Rankoth Vihara is the biggest pagoda in Polonnaruwa and the fourth largest in the country. It is located in the Alahana Pirivena Complex, close to the image house. Its design resembles the Ruwanwelisaya, which is a traditional stupa in Anuradhapura. The stone inscription found within the area includes records of donations and the war victories of King Nissanka Malla. It is believed that the exterior of the stupa was originally white. But when the British discovered the pagoda and found it overgrown, they restored it to what it is now.
8. Kiri Vehera
Kiri Vehera is the second largest stupa in Polonnaruwa. It is also located in the Alahana Pirivena Complex, next to the Image House. Though nothing is known about the ancient name or the builder of this stupa, it is speculated that it is the work of Queen Subhadra, a consort of King Parakramabahu the Great. The present name probably derives from the fact that the lime plaster of the dome is better preserved compared to most other stupas found in Polonnaruwa.
9. Gal Vihara (Rock Temple)
Last but not least is Gal Vihara. During our visit to Polonnaruwa, we were not able to see this famous rock temple due to time constraints. However, it deserves a place in this list of the top things to see in Polonnaruwa.
Gal Vihara is a stone temple displaying the four giant statues: the standing, seated, and reclining Buddhas, which were carved from solid granite. This site has been identified as the Uttararama, built by King Parakramabahu the Great. The Gal Vihara perfectly showcases the skill and expertise in the art of stone sculpture in Sri Lanka. The carvings are well preserved and were beautifully done with detailed expressions and exquisite workmanship.
And that’s the top 9 things to see in Polonnaruwa!
However, if you have the time, spend a little more time on each complex and fully discover the surrounding areas. You might find some interesting ruins that are tucked away in a corner or some that may not be as popular but are more significant. For us, that’s the beauty of exploring on your own. You get to find the little gems in these beautiful ruins.
How Not to Visit the Ancient City
Our visit to the ancient city was very eventful, to put it nicely. First, we didn’t research where to go and what to visit. Second, having not researched anything, we got ourselves into situations we are not proud of. For example, our "guide" or tuk-tuk driver let us pay entrance fees to places where tickets were not required (we discovered this much later on). Third, the realization that we had been scammed came too late, and we were so far out of the city that there was no point in returning. In short, our experience consisted of entering the gated ancient cities through broken barbed wire and crossing some vegetation in fear of facing some wild monkeys. All in hopes of seeing the ruins!
And, because we don't want you to have the same experience as we did, we'll explain how to visit the ancient city of Polonnaruwa legally and properly so you can make the most of your visit.
Most importantly, you have to buy your ticket at the ticket counter located close to the museum. There are many guides or tuk-tuks waiting in front of the museum and offering a much cheaper price, which can be tempting. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and your ticket price goes towards the upkeep of the ruins.
If you decide to book a guide, we recommend arranging it with your accommodation so you get a reliable one. Also, discuss the fee with your guide and confirm the price at the start of the tour. Make sure to also pay the entrance fee at the ticket counter instead of to the driver.
But it is possible to visit the ancient sites on your own, as most of the ruins have English signs that will give you information on their history.
Top Tips on Visiting the Temples of Polonnaruwa
- Dress code: Knees and shoulders must be covered to enter most of the ruins. You can also bring a sarong with you that you can take out once you leave the ruins if you’re wearing a short or sleeveless.
- Things to pack: Bring water and snacks with you. It can get very hot during the day, so apply some sunscreen and you might also want to bring a hat with you.
- Watch out for signs: Some ruins require you to remove your shoes and hat off to enter. You’ll also see signs of not taking pictures with your back towards the buddha statues.
- Wear socks: As you need to remove your shoes, you might want to keep your socks on as the floor gets really hot especially in the afternoon. And you also have to walk on little pebbles as you discover the ruins.
- Look out for the macaques: You can find them everywhere within the ancient city. Though they are very much used to tourists, they can also be unpredictable. Do not get too close and do not feed them.
And that’s the complete guide to visiting the ancient city of Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka.
Visiting the ancient city of Polonnaruwa is sure to be an amazing experience, and with this complete guide, you can make the most of your trip. If you haven't decided on an itinerary yet, check out our ultimate Sri Lanka itineraries, which will ensure you see the best of what the country has to offer!
Now, which of the ruins are you most looking forward to seeing in person? Let us know in the comments down below.
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