Ultimate Guide to the Sigiriya Lion Rock in Sri Lanka

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The Sigiriya Lion Rock in Sri Lanka is one of the country’s most fascinating and spectacular tourist attractions. This UNESCO World Heritage Site comprises an enormous, distinctive rock fortress that is unlike anything else found anywhere else in the world.

This is one of the most legendary places in Sri Lanka, and the fortress dates back centuries, and over the years has had many uses and has fulfilled many rules for local kings, rulers and religious leaders.

It’s a stunning example of ancient architecture and human ingenuity and one of the best sites to visit in Sri Lanka.

As well as ruins that are thousands of years old, you can find exceptionally preserved rock art and frescoes, as well as extensive gardens that were landscaped over time and that surround the giant rock itself.

This is a place not to be missed, and to help you to plan your here trip here, this is our visitor’s guide to Sigiriya Sri Lanka.

Don’t leave home without: Lonely Planet Sri Lanka (Travel Guide)

Sigiriya Lion Rock in Sri Lanka: Plan Your Visit

Lina Stock on the top of the Sigiriya Lion Rock in Sri Lanka

Where is Lion Rock in Sri Lanka?

Sigiriya, Sri Lanka is located in the central province of the country, in a historically important region that comprises many ancient sites. The rock itself is quite isolated, and the nearest large town and transport hub is located around 20 miles away at Dambulla.

This is the gateway to Sigiriya and you can find buses here from across the country.

Colombo is around 120 miles away, and to travel from the capital would take a minimum of 4 hours on public transport. You can also travel from popular destinations such as Kandy to the south or Anuradhapura to the north.

From Dambulla, you can catch the public bus to Sigiriya or hire a local tuk-tuk driver to transport you.

Entrance to the Lion Rock in Sigiriya

Best Time to Visit Sigiriya

Sigiriya can be visited all year round as long you don’t mind risking heavy rainfall during the wettest parts of the year. The region’s dry season runs from April to September and outside of this, monsoons frequently occur in the area.

The busiest season, when the rock can be completely crowded, is, of course, the dry season, so traveling in the monsoon can be an opportunity to see this impressive site with few others around, as long as you don’t mind getting a little wet.

When you do visit Sigiriya Sri Lanka, it’s best to try and arrive as early as possible to avoid both the intense heat and the worst of the crowds.

To get to the summit of the rock involves climbing a huge set of steps, so it’s best done in the morning to avoid overheating in the scorching Sri Lankan sun.

Drone image of the ancient city of Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

The Ancient City of Sigiriya

Sigiriya is one of the most astounding remnants of a past Sri Lankan civilization. The name of the huge rock itself translates to English as the Lion’s Rock, because of the enormous Lion’s Paw that was carved by the entrance guarding the way in.

The rock is almost 200 meters high and geologically is a plug leftover from the remains of a long-extinct volcano.

The giant rock is impressive enough on its own account, and that’s before you even begin to consider the long history and the incredible ruins that are found here.

The area is thought to have been inhabited for thousands of years, and early Buddhist monks were some of the first locals to take shelter in the extensive caves found in the rock.

In 477 AD, when King Kashyapa took power, he started to move his capital city to Sigiriya Sri Lanka, and he began to turn this rock into not only his palace and fortress but into a huge planned city.

The king’s empire though fell in 495 AD and the Lion’s Rock began to fall into disuse and disrepair. The new ruler of these lands gave the rock to Buddhist monks, and it remained an important temple complex for many centuries until it again was abandoned and left to be overgrown by nature.

It was ‘rediscovered’ in 1831 by British soldiers in Sri Lanka, and since then it has been the focus of much archaeological scrutiny, while in more recent years it’s become one of the country’s most visited tourist attractions.

Our top recommended tours including Sigiriya:

Lina Stock in the ancient city of Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

Visiting the Sigiriya Lion Rock in Sri Lanka

The summit of this impressive rock can be reached by a set of steep stairs that encompass almost 1200 steps.

It’s a sweaty and arduous slog to the top, but it’s worth every step to experience not only the expansive views but the ruins of the palace and fortress that are waiting for you.

Before you begin the climb though, at the main entrance to this large compound you need to pass through the local museum.

This tells the story of the legends and myths that surround Sigiriya as well as providing a detailed history that will give you a great insight into the importance of the site for past civilizations, particularly for the founding king who built his palace here more than 1500 years ago.

The museum also focuses extensively on the many excavations that have been made over the last hundred years, beginning with the British who in the 1890s began to realize its importance only several decades after they had initially rediscovered it.

When you enter the compound itself, you will soon realize that this was more than just a fortress. Sigiriya was an entire city, planned and designed to perfection by the early architects who built it.

Once you are through the main gate, you will be inside the extensive gardens. Sigiriya was built symmetrically, and the planning involved the construction of a huge water reservoir that could sustain thousands of people who lived in this royal capital.

Even more impressive though are the gardens. To reach the rock, you must walk through the beautiful, verdant landscapes that have been here for centuries.

The king ordered these to be built as a symbol of status and for the nobles and royalty to enjoy at leisure. They are thought to be one of the earliest examples of landscaping in the world, and today they are kept luscious and green by an army of workers toiling in the heat.

Our top recommended tour including Sigiriya Lion Rock: Sigiriya Lion Rock Fortress day tour

two people approaching the lion rock in Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

Hike to the Summit of Lions Rock

After you have admired the gardens, it’s time to climb the rock. Come well prepared with plenty of water, sunscreen and of course a hat to keep off the intense sun. The rock is almost vertical in shape, and to reach the top, almost 1200 steps were literally carved into the mountainside.

The path is steep in places, so take it slow and enjoy the incredible views on your way up. On the walk, you can enjoy the many cave frescoes painted onto the rock walls itself.

Another important site is the Mirror Wall, which was so highly polished that when it was first constructed, it was thought to have been quite literally used as a mirror by the king.

After an hour of upwards walking, you will reach the summit, where not only will you be greeted by expansive views over the gardens below and the surrounding, green forests, but you can explore the ruins of the palace.

There is little left, as the ravages of time have caused much of the brickwork to crumble through the centuries, but you can still enjoy a sense of the grand architectural designs and elaborate construction work that allowed this place to be built atop the rock.

Of course, the only way back down is to walk, but the way back of the trail is much easier on the downhill.

Pidurangala Temple Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

Visiting the Pidurangala Temple

Pidurangala Temple is found just a mile away from Sigiriya. This temple is found at the base of a rock that’s equally as distinctive and dramatic as Sigiriya, however, it’s not nearly as frequented by tourists and you will find it to be much less busy.

Although historically, it’s not as important as its neighbor, this rock also offers incredible views over the surrounding area, and from its summit, you can actually see Sigiriya in the distance.

This makes it an excellent place to get a sense of the size and scale of this huge, ancient undertaking. To get here, it’s advisable to take a tuk-tuk, as the walk is hot and tiring.

Cinnamon Habarana Lodge in Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

Where to Stay Near Sigiriya

While you can choose to stay in the nearby town of Dambulla, which acts as the regional transportation hub, you can also choose to stay closer to Sigiriya itself, as there are several hotels on the road to the entrance itself.

Budget travelers will be better off staying in Dambulla and then either taking a tuk-tuk or public transport to the rock, but if you want to splash out a little, then you can stay closer, and then have the opportunity to head in even earlier than everyone else to experience the rock without the crowds.

The most well known and impressive hotel option close to the rock is the Hotel Sigiriya, which is actually located within the boundaries of the UNESCO World Heritage Site and offers the best rooms and service in the area.

Personally, we stayed at the Cinnamon Habarana Lodge and it was spectacular! They have an extensive and private estate that is surrounded by nature. The rooms are huge and the service is very good. 

They can also arrange safaris in nearby Kaudulla or Minneyira, depending on the season, as well as visits to Dambulla and Polonnaruwa.

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About Lina Stock

Lina is an award-winning photographer and writer that has been exploring the world since 2001. She has traveled to 100 countries on all 7 continents. Member: SATW, NATJA, ATTA, ITWA

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