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Anuradhapura: Visiting Mihintale and the Ancient City

Anuradhapura is one of the most important cities in Sri Lanka. Known for its ancient ruins dating back over 2,000 years ago. It’s part of the Cultural Triangle (the other parts being Polonnawarru and Kandy). Most of its sites are located in the Old Town’s archaeological site.

Nearby Mihintale, a mountain peak featuring ruins and temples, is also easily accessible from Anuradhapura. In this guide we won’t go into detail on every site, just the ones we found were the most interesting.

For a full list of the sites check out TripAdvisor.

Mihintale - The birthplace of Buddhism in Sri Lanka

Mihintale is located just 13km outside of the town centre of Anuradhapura. It makes for a great half-day excursion and is not to be missed if you’re in this part of the country.

Regarded as being one of the birthplaces of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Mihintale is a culturally important place to Sri Lankans and you’ll see devout buddhists and monks making their pilgrimage here.

In preparation of Purnama

Inside the main complex you’ll find ruins, stupas and a giant Buddha statue. These are all easily accessible. There is also the mountain peak which you can climb. Unfortunately, we had to miss this due to heavy rain that happened halfway through our visit, forcing us to end it early.

Entrance Cost: 500 rupees (as of 12/12/19)

Exploring Anuradhapura - Guides, entrance & transport options

Anuradhapura is guarded behind a steep entrance fee. To be honest, we aren’t quite sure which parts are required to have the ticket and which parts aren’t as we didn’t end up paying until halfway through our tour.

There is the option of cycling around the different sites or renting a car/tuk tuk. We originally had our hearts set on renting bicycles but the heavy rain the night before ensured us that it wouldn’t be pleasant, so we opted for the tuk tuk. This ended up being a good decision as our driver spoke great English and gave us a good amount of background on each site we visited.

Hiring a driver with knowledge of the ruins makes for a good alternative if you don’t want to splash out for a guide. However, local guides are available.

Touring the ruins by bicycle will take up to 8 hours, whilst via Tuk Tuk could could take 4 – 5 hours depending on how long you spend at each location.

Entrance Cost: 25USD (The cost is dependant on the exchange rate at that time)
Bicycle Rental: 500 rupees
Tuk Tuk Tour: 2500 – 3000 rupees

Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi - Home of the oldest known tree in the world

Drummers leading a parade to take the orange cloth to Ruwanwelisaya

Our first stop of the tour was Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, home of the sacred Bodhi tree that’s the oldest known and documented tree in the world. It was supposedly born from a sapling from the Bodhi tree that Buddha sat under when he gained enlightenment.

The tree itself is held up by golden railings and a temple complex surrounds it. It’s a deeply important religious centre for Buddhism and thousands of Buddhists bring offerings here every day.

Buddhists dressed in white with offerings and incense

The best part about visiting this place of worship is to witness the level of dedication. We were fortunate to see a ceremony begin where the local people (and tourists alike) were holding a very long orange cloth, intended on being wrapped around Ruwanwelisaya, led by drummers through the temple (pictured).

Throughout the complex are a number of smaller sites to visit as well.

Ruwanwelisaya - The white stupa

Buddhists following a monk around the stupa exterior and the stupa's spiral peak

Close to the Bodhi Tree is Ruwanwelisaya, a wonder of the ancient world dating back to 160 BC. Standing at 92 metres with a golden, jewel-encrusted spire this stupa is also of huge significance to Buddhists.

An engineering and architecture marvel of its time, the stupa is truly a sight to behold. There are many spots to take great photos of the monument and the best thing to do is take your time walking around its exterior, likely talking to friendly locals along the way.

Into the Ancient City

Monks visiting Kuttam Pokuna, the twin ponds

Next we enter the main archeological zone of all the different sites in Anuradhapura. This area has more guard stations who will be on the lookout for people without tickets.

Some of the ruins are over 2,000 years old and are in bad shape. So be ready to use your imagination to picture what this area would have looked like back then.

Our guide defining the visual differences between types of stupas

There are many fascinating stops you’ll make along the way, including Kuttam Pokuna (The twin ponds), Jetavanaramaya (the worlds tallest stupa), the Samadhi Buddha statue and the Moonstone.

Last thoughts: Should you visit Anuradhapura?

Monks and local Buddhists entering a stupa and a design similar to the Moonstone

We could only imagine how it feels to visit a place of such cultural significance as if we were Buddhists, but visiting as we are was a very special experience and one of our highlights in Sri Lanka.

Depending on how much time you have in Sri Lanka and where else you plan on stopping is what will ultimately factor in to your decision to visit Anuradhapura. You may experience ‘temple-fatigue’ if you combine this with the likes of the Dambulla Rock Caves or the other ancient city, Polonnaruwa.

We feel it’s worth visiting Anuradhapura over the others due to its significance and less touristy feel. A lot less people make the journey this far north so you will have less families and selfie-stick aficionados to contend with.

Where to stay - Amsterdam Tourist Rest

It’s entirely possible to visit as a day trip from Sigiriya, however we feel it’s best to stay nearby. It’s a long day to explore the area in full. Especially when you factor Mihintale in as well.

We stayed at the Amsterdam Tourist Rest and had a fantastic 1 night stay. The owner was lovely and helped us arrange all our tours and transport options. The food was also delicious. However, there are plenty of local eateries not too far away if you prefer to eat outside your guesthouse.