Are you looking for the best places to visit in Anuradhapura? You’ve come to the right place!
The ancient city of Anuradhapura is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the most historically, culturally, and religiously significant places in all of Sri Lanka.
Founded in the 5th century BC, Anuradhapura was the capital of Sri Lanka for nearly 1,400 years – from 377 BC to the 11th century AD. It’s a fairly big place with many things to see and do.
I spent a few days here earlier this year and was really blown away by the place. There’s definitely something special in the air here.
The thing I love most about Anuradhapura is the sheer amount of history and culture that can be seen in every corner. It’s packed full of important monasteries, monuments, and other sights.
However, unless you have a week to spend here, you’ll need to be selective. That’s why I’ve written this guide – to help you get the most out of your time in the city.
🤩 Short for time? Check out this excellent value day tour of Anuradhapura’s most famous sights
19 Best Places to Visit in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
Here’s my pick of the best things to do and places to visit in Anuradhapura.
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Sacred Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi Tree
Located within the Mahamewna Gardens, in the historic centre of Anuradhapura, Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi is a sacred fig tree that holds immense religious significance.
It’s believed to be a sapling from the original Bodhi tree in India under which Lord Buddha attained enlightenment. It’s also said to be over 2,250 years old, making it the oldest documented tree in the world.
In fact, most of the ancient city of Anuradhapura was actually structured and built around this sacred tree.
Today, pilgrims and visitors gather around the Bodhi tree to pay their respects, meditate, and offer prayers, food, and flowers.
The serene environment, the sounds of chanting pilgrims, and the colourful prayer flags create a deeply spiritual atmosphere.
There are people selling flowers at a few places along the road leading up to the Sri Maha Bodhi tree. If you like, you can buy some and leave them on the tables and altars that surround the edge of the sacred tree.
It’s a really special and moving place.
I came here twice – once at the end of the day, and the second time early in the morning. It was especially atmospheric at sunset, and if you have the chance to visit at that time I’d highly recommend it.
It’s one of the most unique and important places to visit in Anuradhapura – don’t miss it.
Location: 89VW+WVH, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
Opening times: 6:15 am–9 pm, Mon–Sun
Ruwanweli Maha Seya (also known as Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba)
The Ruwanweli Maha Seya is an enormous ancient stupa (or “dagoba”) and another of the most important pilgrimage sites in Sri Lanka. It’s also one of the largest stupas in the country.
Built around the 2nd century BC, the towering dome stands approximately 91 metres tall. It’s painted a brilliant white and can be seen from many different places of the city.
Ruwanweli Maha Seya is a majestic sight to behold and stands as a testament to Sri Lanka’s rich Buddhist heritage.
Buddhists from all over the world come here to prey, give offerings, and partake in various other religious rituals.
Ruwanweli Maha Seya is definitely one of my favourite places to visit in Anuradhapura. Standing there, among the chanting pilgrims, I felt an indescribable energy that moved me in a way I can’t describe.
As I walked slowly around the stupa with the pilgrims and devotees, they made me feel so welcome. Many said hello, waved, or simply smiled at me as I went past.
As I made my way around, I couldn’t help but wonder how many people had done this before throughout history. It was wonderful to feel the peace and tranquility of this amazing place.
It felt like time stood still in a timeless place.
Everything about the experience was very powerful and is one that will stay with me forever.
Opening times: 5:30 am–9 pm, Mon–Sun
Isurumuniya Rajamaha Viharaya Temple
Isurumuniya Rajamaha Viharaya Temple is a historic Buddhist temple that’s known for its ancient rock carvings, including the famous Isurumuniya Lovers’ Carving.
The temple complex is partly carved out of a giant boulder and features a number of serene ponds and beautiful statues. In addition to its beauty, the temple holds great religious significance for Buddhists.
It was built between 307–267 BC, making it one of the oldest significant sites in Anuradhapura. It’s also believed to have been the first temple to house the sacred relic of the tooth of Buddha, which is now inside the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy.
When I visited, the place was full of pilgrims of all ages who had come here to pray, give offerings, and soak up the beautiful and spiritual ambiance.
The Lovers’ Carving is housed inside one of the side buildings and depicts an intimate embrace between two figures. (You aren’t allowed to take photos inside here sadly.)
As well as this famous carving, there are many other examples of exquisite ancient craftsmanship, including rock carvings, woodwork, artefacts, and a number of beautiful frescoes.
There’s also a colony of bats that lives inside one of the caves. They’re cute (but very loud)!
With its rich history and spiritual importance, you should definitely include this temple in your Anuradhapura itinerary.
Location: 89MR+R4J, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
Opening times: 7:30 am–6:30 pm, Mon–Sun
Jetavanaramaya (Jethawanaramaya) Stupa
Jetavanaramaya is one of the most iconic places to visit in Anuradhapura. It forms the focal point of the Jethawanaramaya Monastery Complex.
The majestic stupa was once the tallest building in the world and was built during the 3rd century AD by King Mahasena.
At the time it was built, it was also the third-largest structure in the world (after the two Pyramids of Giza in Egypt). It’s believed to be the tallest stupa ever built and contains over 93 million bricks!
When it was originally constructed, Jetavanaramaya soared to a height of 122 metres (400 ft). Following damage in the 11th century, it now stands at 71 metres but is still very impressive.
Its construction is a testimony to the skill and craftsmanship of Sri Lanka’s ancient architects. (A little like Sigiriya, which is also incredible and definitely worth visiting if you haven’t already!)
Running around the edge, there is a large terrace with guard stones and an intricate carving of a cobra with seven heads. You’ll also see the shrine room, which was built at a later stage and contains several Buddha statues.
Opening times: 5:30 am–11 pm, Mon–Sun
Abhayagiri Monastery Complex
The Abhayagiri Monastery was once one of Sri Lanka’s largest and most important monastic complexes. It was established over 2,000 years ago, in the 1st century BC, and has been a major pilgrimage destination ever since.
The Abhayagiri Monastery Complex is one of Anuradhapura’s three main monastery complexes. As well as housing up to 5,000 monks at its height, it was also an important library and theological centre.
It’s a pretty large site, spread over around 200 hectares.
Although most of the ancient monastery complex now lies in ruins, many of its most prominent features are still fairly well preserved. Many artifacts uncovered during archaeological excavations have also been displayed around the site.
Wander among the stupas, ponds, halls, and temples and you’ll get a great sense of what this ancient city would have been like 2,000 years ago. Keep an eye out for the various stone carvings, sculptures, and murals.
The Arahant’s chamber, in particular, contains a range of stone inscriptions and murals depicting stories from Buddha’s life.
Location: 999V+WRF, B341, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
Note: The following 5 items (Abhayagiriya Stupa, Samadhi Statue, Lankaramaya Dagoba, Ratnaprasada, and Kuttam Pokuna/Twin Ponds) are all found inside the Abhayagiriya Monastery Complex.
I’ve given them their own sections to break things up a bit. But you can easily visit all 5 of them in one go. Allow a couple of hours in total to see them all.
The main stupa of the Abhayagiri Monastery, this towering structure is 75 metres high and made entirely from bricks.
It was damaged over the centuries and was left to ruin, crumbling and becoming gradually more overgrown. However, in the 1980s and 90s, a massive restoration project was undertaken to conserve and repair the stupa.
True to the original construction method, no cement was used in the repair works.
Around the edge of the structure, you’ll find the ruins of a meeting hall, an alms hall, and a hostel that provided monks with shelter and a place to sleep.
There are countless statues of Buddha located all over Sri Lanka. But the Samadhi Buddha Statue in Anuradhapura is one of the most famous and important.
This beautiful sculpture is 7 feet tall and depicts Lord Buddha sitting cross-legged and meditating.
It’s located inside the Abhayagiri Monastery complex and was carved at some point around the 5th century AD.
I was really struck by the sculpture’s facial expression. It’s so lifelike and expressive, a perfect representation of serenity and calmness. I found myself gazing at it for quite a long time, utterly transfixed.
This is an iconic symbol of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist heritage and you should definitely include it in your list of places to visit in Anuradhapura.
Location: 999X+X73, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
Lankaramaya Dagoba is one of the smallest major stupas in Anuradhapura. But it has several unusual and unique design features that make it worth checking out.
Most strikingly, it’s surrounded by a ring of carved stone pillars. Archaeologists and historians aren’t certain of the purpose of these pillars, but they might indicate that a structure was built around the stupa, enclosing it inside.
It’s believed that this dagoba was an important meeting place for monks, scholars, and the city’s ancient rulers.
There are a number of beautiful carvings around the edge of the stupa that show stories from ancient Buddhist mythology. Keep an eye out for the elephant carvings, elaborate floral patterns, spirals, and decorative lotus petals.
Ratnaprasada (/Rathna Prasadaya) (or Jewel Palace)
Ratnaprasada, also known as the Jewel Palace, is a fascinating ruin located inside the Abhayagiri Monastery complex.
It was once a grand palace built by King Parakramabahu I and served as a residence for his family and courtiers.
The ruins of Ratnaprasada offer a glimpse of what the ancient city would have been like at the height of its power. In terms of scale, grandeur, and opulence, the Jewel Palace would have been virtually unmatched at the time.
Some of its treasures still remain, including various murals stone carvings, and bronze statues.
The Ratnaprasada Moonstone
The famous Ratnaprasada Moonstone is located at the entrance of the palace.
Moonstones are important and unique features of ancient Sri Lankan architecture. They are usually found at the bottom of staircases, and particularly at the entrances of important buildings.
This particular one is a semi-circular stone slab with elaborate carvings arranged in a concentric pattern radiating out from the centre. Look closely and you’ll see lotus flowers, various animals, vines, and flames.
It’s believed that the design layout and the carvings themselves are symbolic of the teachings of Buddha.
Kuttam Pokuna (Twin Ponds)
Anuradhapura is located in Sri Lanka’s Dry Zone. Droughts have been a common feature of this area for all of its recorded history.
The city’s ancient engineers designed and built a creative solution to these water shortages. They dug two deep reservoirs side by side to collect and store drinking water for use during times of scarcity.
However, Twin Ponds (or Kuttam Pokuna) are not just two large wells. They are in fact an example of fairly advanced hydraulic engineering and were constructed with a series of underground pipes and even an inbuilt filtration system.
As well as being cleverly designed, the Twin Ponds are very beautiful. They have a precise symmetrical design, with elaborate stone carvings, and grand staircases leading down to the water.
Lovamahapaya (Brazen Palace)
The Lovamahapaya (or Brazen Palace) was once a nine-story building built for monks. At the time it was built (around the 2nd century BC), the Lovamahapaya was thought to have been the tallest building on the island of Sri Lanka.
Each floor had its own purpose, including assembly halls, dwelling places, and an “image house” containing images and statues of Buddha.
Despite being ruined by fire centuries ago, around 1,600 of the stone pillars that supported the building remain standing today.
You definitely need to use your imagination a bit, but this is still an atmospheric and interesting place to visit in Anuradhapura.
There are also gardens surrounding the Lovamahapaya where you can stroll or rest and enjoy the peaceful surroundings.
Vessagiriya Cave Temples
Located close to Isurumuniya temple, Vessagiriya is a large and intriguing complex of caves and rock temples.
The caves themselves are home to some well-preserved inscriptions and carvings. These are believed to have been inscribed during the reign of King Vasabha (67-111 AD) and offer a fascinating glimpse into Sri Lanka’s cultural history.
For hundreds of years, this place served as a retreat for Buddhist monks. Many of the natural caves have been converted into cells and other rooms for the resident monks.
Vessagiriya is also home to various sacred Bodhi trees, which can be found both within and around the edge of the cave complex.
Visiting the Vessagiriya cave temples is one of the less famous things to do in Anuradhapura. But it’s definitely worth spending at least an hour or so exploring this fascinating site.
Opening times: 7 am–5 pm, Mon–Sun
Part of the oldest Buddhist Temple in Sri Lanka, Thuparamaya Dagoba was built during the reign of King Devanampiya Tissa in the 3rd century BC. This is when Buddhism was first introduced to Sri Lanka.
It’s believed to be the first stupa ever built in the country and was built to house a sacred collarbone relic of Buddha. This makes it one of the most important stupas in Anuradhapura, despite its relatively small size.
The whitewashed external structure that you can see today is a restoration that was completed in the 1860s. However, the remains of the original stupa and its important relic are still supposedly housed inside.
It also has some unique design features, like the moonstone which runs around the edge of the stupa and represents the eternal cycle of rebirth according to Buddhism.
It also has a number of other stone carvings and pillars from the original temple structure.
Location: 994W+4HQ, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
Ranmasu Uyana (Royal Park)
The Sacred City of Anuradhapura is a vast site and exploring it is hot and tiring work (although absolutely worth it).
If you’re looking for somewhere green and shaded to cool off and relax, head over to Ranmasu Uyana (Royal Park). It’s located close to the Vessagiriya cave temples.
This used to be the royal pleasure garden and is tranquil and peaceful. Three ornamental ponds are fed by a network of underground pipes, and there are several seating areas, elegant pillars, and lots of greenery.
Location: 89QQ+9W9, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
Mirisawetiya Dagoba is another impressive dagoba in Anurahdapura.
(Yes, there are A LOT of important stupas in Anuradhapura!).
It’s older and smaller than Ruwanweli Maha Seya but is somewhat similar in appearance.
This ancient stupa was built by King Dutugemunu in the 3rd century BC. According to legend, Dutugemunu buried his royal scepter inside the dome.
There are intricate carvings in various places around the edge of the dome.
Here you’ll probably see pilgrims and worshipers offering flowers, chanting, and burning incense. It’s another special and deeply spiritual place.
Nuwarawewa Lake is the largest human-made lake in Anuradhapura. It was constructed over 2,000 years ago, mainly to conserve water given the city’s hot and dry climate.
It was built by damming a local river and diverting the water into a giant tank. The tank itself was formed of a naturally-occurring depression, with an artificial steep-sided embankment built around the edge.
It’s huge – approximately 5 kilometres long and over a kilometre wide at its narrowest point.
A path runs along a large stretch of the shore embankment, and it’s a perfect place for a stroll in tranquil surroundings.
I saw a few local people swimming here too. I have no idea whether it’s technically allowed or not, but it seems like you can!
Location: Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
Tissa Wewa is another large reservoir, located directly behind Isurumuniya temple.
Smaller than Nuwarawewa Lake, but just as old, it was built mainly to supply the city with water for agriculture.
Today, it’s a calm and beautiful spot for a walk and to take in the views of the surrounding area. You can see several of the city’s giant stupas from here.
There are still rice paddies dotted around the edge of the lake, where this staple food is grown today just like it was in ancient times.
Tissa Wewa is still an important source of fish for local villagers too, and you’ll probably see a few people fishing here, either in little boats or from the shores.
Tissa Wewa is also a great place for birdwatchers. It’s home to a wide range of endemic and migratory birds, such as bitterns, kingfishers, cormorants, egrets, woodpeckers, pelicans, herons, and storks.
Location: Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
Located about 11 kilometres east of Anuradhapura railway station, Mihintale is a sacred mountain that’s believed to be the birthplace of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
It’s an important pilgrimage site and one of the best places to visit near Anuradhapura. Partly for its historical, cultural, and religious significance. But also for the panoramic views of the surrounding area from its summit.
Sri Lankan Buddhists believe that this is the place where the Indian monk and missionary Mahinda met King Devanampiyatissa and converted him to Buddhism in 247 BC.
On top of the mountain, there is a giant white statue of Buddha in a seated position as well as a large white stupa, plus a number of shrines and cave temples.
To reach the summit, there’s a steep path (with around 1,840 steps) that was built more than 2,000 years ago. It’s well worth making a detour to visit this place on your way to or from Anuradhapura.
It can also be reached as an easy half-day trip from Anuradhapura, with regular buses running between the two. You can even take the bus directly from Anuradhapura train station to Mihintale and back again.
Location: Mihintale, Sri Lanka
🤩 I love this half-day tour of Mihintale from Anuradhapura (includes transport)
(BONUS) – Wilpattu National Park
Okay, it’s not technically in Anuradhapura, but Wilpattu is my favourite national park in Sri Lanka. You can also easily visit it as a (half or full) day trip from Anuradhapura, so I thought I’d include it here.
Wilpattu National Park is the largest and oldest national park in the country. It’s home to some of Sri Lanka’s most iconic wildlife, including leopards, sloth bears, elephants, crocodiles, water buffalo, spotted deer, and mongooses.
I highly recommend taking a jeep safari tour of Wilpattu. Your driver will take you deep into the heart of the park where you’ll get to enjoy the beautiful natural scenery and spot a range of exciting wildlife.
Of course, sightings aren’t guaranteed – these are wild animals after all.
But when I did a safari in Wilpattu I was lucky enough to spot all of the above animals and many more too. Leopards and sloth bears are particularly shy and elusive, so I was thrilled to see these amazing animals in the wild.
Most Wilpattu safari tours can be arranged to pick you up from your accommodation in Anuradhapura. It’s very easy and convenient.
I’ve done several jeep safari trips in Sri Lanka – including at the more popular Yala National Park – and the one in Wilpattu was the best by far.
There’s a similarly amazing range of animals, but a tiny fraction of the number of other visitors. It’s way less crowded, much wilder, and the animals seemed overall more relaxed and not stressed out.
In Wilpattu, I only saw another 8 or 9 safari jeeps all day. In Yala there are hundreds, all jostling for position to get the best sightings.
If you only have the chance to go on one safari during your time in Sri Lanka, I definitely recommend picking Wilpattu.
🤩 Check out this excellent full-day Wilpattu National Park safari (pickup & dropoff in Anuradhapura)
Opening times: 6 am–6 pm, Mon–Sun
How to Get to Anuradhapura
Anuradhapura is a major city in Sri Lanka and there are several different ways to get there.
The cheapest method is usually to take a public bus. You can get direct buses to Anuradhapura from many different places, including Colombo, Kandy, Trincomalee, Dambulla (close to Sigiriya), and Jaffna.
Bring cash to buy your tickets on the bus.
Anuradhapura also has a fairly major train station. Services running from Colombo to Jaffna all stop here so it’s easy to reach from either city by train.
If you’re pressed for time and don’t have a particularly tight budget, travelling by taxi, Uber or tuk-tuk will probably save you time and effort.
When in doubt about the cost of a taxi or similar, it often pays to ask the people where you’re staying as they should be able to give you an idea of a fair price to pay for your trip.
Additionally, they may even know someone who can take you on your journey and provide you with an even better fare. This happened to me on several occasions – you just need to ask.
Another way to visit Anuradhapura is to join a tour that will take you there (and possibly to other surrounding attractions too). This is one of the most expensive options, but is very convenient so might be good for people with less time.
If you’re coming from Kandy, check out this private and fully-customisable day tour.
You can even book a private transfer to Anuradhapura direct from Colombo Airport.
However, my personal favourite option for getting around Sri Lanka is to hire your own tuk-tuk and drive yourself. I did this a few times during my 4 months in Sri Lanka.
It’s definitely the most fun way to get about and allows you to explore as much as you want at your own pace.
If you’re interested in doing this, I’d highly recommend going with Tuk Tuk Ceylon Ride. Their customer service is fantastic, they sort out all the necessary permits, and they’re generally better value than the more popular tuktukrental.com.
If they don’t have any availability, another option could be this highly-reviewed tuk-tuk rental company.
Where to Stay in Anuradhapura
Anuradhapura has a wide range of places to stay, with something to suit all budgets and preferences.
An excellent budget option is Ceylonima Home Stay.
I’ve personally stayed here and it’s simple but very comfortable, spotlessly clean, and great value. The rooms have air-con and outdoor terraces, the hosts are friendly and welcoming, and they do delicious food too.
If you’re looking for a highly-reviewed mid-range option, check out Aryana Boutique Hotel.
If cost isn’t an issue, Uga Ulagalla is a beautiful high-end resort with several luxurious private villas located just south of Anuradhapura.
FAQs About the Best Things to Do in Anuradhapura
Here are answers to some commonly-asked questions about visiting Anuradhapura.
Is Anuradhapura worth visiting?
Yes, Anuradhapura is definitely worth visiting. It’s home to many of the country’s most important historical, cultural, and religious sites and is a fascinating place to explore.
Why is Anuradhapura important?
Anuradhapura served as the capital of Sri Lanka for almost 1,400 years. It was a major political, cultural, and religious centre and contains many of the country’s most important ancient monuments.
Which are the best places to visit in Anuradhapura?
The most important places to visit in Anuradhapura are the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi Tree, Ruwanweli Maha Seya, Isurumuniya Rajamaha Viharaya Temple, Jetavanaramaya, Mirisawetiya Dagoba, Lovamahapaya (the Brazen Palace), Lankaramaya, Abhayagiriya Stupa, and Thuparamaya.
What’s the best time of year to visit Anuradhapura?
Anuradhapura is an incredible destination year-round. However, if possible, I recommend coming during the cooler months between December and March.
Sightseeing and exploring the temples will be much more comfortable and pleasant then, although it will still probably be quite hot.
What is the dress code for Anuradhapura?
Be respectful of local customs and dress modestly. When visiting the temples and sacred sites, both men and women need to cover their knees and shoulders.
Either wear comfortable loose-fitting long trousers or bring a sarong to tie around your waist.
You also need to take off your shoes when visiting many sites throughout the sacred city.
Hint: The ground can get extremely hot during the day, so I’d recommend bringing a pair of socks to protect the soles of your feet if you’re not used to walking around barefoot!
What are the Eight Sacred Places of Anuradhapura?
The Eight Sacred Places (or Atamasthana) of Anuradhapura are the eight most sacred sites in the ancient city.
These are: the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi Tree, Ruwanweli Maha Seya, Thuparamaya, Abhayagiriya Stupa, Lankaramaya, Jetavanaramaya, Lovamahapaya (the Brazen Palace), and Mirisawetiya Dagoba.
What time of day to visit Anuradhapura?
It’s best to get up early and see as much as you can in the morning before it gets too hot.
I recommend finding somewhere cool (and ideally air-conditioned) to rest and avoid the heat of the day. Then, you can reemerge and continue exploring when the temperature is more bearable again.
How many days do you need in Anuradhapura?
How much time to spend in Anuradhapura depends largely on your interests and priorities. If you’re looking to get a good overview of the city’s main ancient sites, temples, and monasteries, two or three full days should be enough time.
Final Thoughts: Things to Do in Anuradhapura
Anuradhapura is a special place that will stay with you long after you leave. From the amazing ruins to the buzzing spiritual atmosphere, there are so many things to experience, explore, and enjoy in this ancient city.
Sometimes I find ancient ruins can feel a little dead and detached from the current day. But Anuradhapura is totally different.
It’s a living, breathing place that’s just as important to people today as it was over 2,000 years ago.
Whatever your beliefs, it’s a totally unique place to visit and well worth it.