We need to take a moment and talk about Sri Lanka. This country is incredible.
One area in particular that blew me away was North Central Sri Lanka. Within a few hundred kilometres are some of the countries most important sacred sites and a half-dozen UNESCO world heritage sites.
In the morning you could be discovering the history of some of the countries ancient sites and then end the day with an elephant safari!
A Guide to North Central Sri Lanka
North Central Sri Lanka is the perfect place for first-time visitors to visit. It’s an area that will awe and educate you; yet you can easily cover with just one week in Sri Lanka. It’s also a great place to start in and then go off to explore other parts of this incredible country.
It’s easily accessible to the capital, Colombo and provides a great oversight into the country. After a few days in the province, you could head south to the beachside of Galle or continue north-east to Trincomalee great surfing; escape the heat and travel to Nuwara Eliya in search of plantations and ‘little England’ or head back to Colombo for a few days of city bustle before departing home.
Sigiriya: the Ancient Rock Fortress
My first stop in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka and the main draw to this region for many is the iconic Sigiriya.
Known as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ and described to me by my friend and guide as ‘the Uluru of Sri Lanka’; Sigiriya is an ancient fortress sitting atop a massive rock nearly 200 metres high.
What makes it incredibly special for visitors, aside from being an eye-catching site among the plains, is that atop this regal rock is the remains of the palace and fortress built by King Kasyapa in around 477 CE after he moved the capital and his residence from the traditional capital of Anuradhapura.
Today locals and visitors alike can climb to the top to see this UNESCO world heritage site from a unique perspective. It really gives you an appreciation for the ancient palace and its features, like the lion’s claw staircase, moat and water gardens.
If you want great photos of Sigiriya, head over to Pidurangala Rock. This offers the best viewing spot of Sigiriya Rock as it is only slightly lower. Pidurangala is a popular spot for sunrise as you can enjoy 360-degree views of not only the valleys but also Sigiriya Rock.
It seems daunting but there is a rest-point half way up and the view from the summit is incredible.
Please be smart and wear closed toe shoes or sneakers. You’ll see people dressed in all types of attire like saris, school dresses, I even saw one person try in platform sneakers… please don’t! You’ll be dealing with a whole lot of steps, uneven footpaths, and depending on how late in the day you go there will be a lot of people travelling along the narrow paths.
Keep climbing for between 30-45 minutes and you will reach the top. You can do it!
Click here for tips on what to see and how to climb Sigiriya.
Being based at the luxurious Cinnamon Lodge Habarana meant I was surrounded by the countries most significant heritage sites. Here’s a few more I highly recommend –
Explore Dambulla cave temple
The Golden Temple of Dambulla, known simply as Dambulla cave temple, is one of the best-preserved cave temple complexes in Sri Lanka. There are more than 80 caves in the surrounding areas and the five largest of these are open to the public.
While you can wander the lower grounds and explore the museum, you will be rewarded with an incredible sight if you choose to climb the stairs up 160 metres to the complex.
Built into an overhanging rock are the temples. Inside are 153 absolutely stunning Buddha statues and paintings, some of Sri Lanka’s most important and evocative religious art. Alongside the Buddha statues are three statues of Sri Lankan Kings and a number of statues of gods and goddesses.
Having travelled there with a private driver as opposed to a tour, I took my time to explore each cave. The complex is well-known for its impressive earthy toned murals that cover many of the walls and roofs. It was also home to a Buddhist monastery and you can take part in blessings with the monks.
The Ancient Kingdom of Polonnaruwa
In north-central Sri Lanka there are two ancient cities most people visit – Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. If you are short on time, I highly recommend the latter.
While smaller than Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa’s ruins and temples cover a much more compact area allowing people to rent a bicycle to see them. Also, they’re in much better condition than those at Anuradhapura.
For three centuries it was the royal capital, of both the Chola and Sinhalese kingdoms. It is the second most ancient of Sri Lanka’s kingdoms. By the 13th century, the cities glory was fading and shortly after abandoned. The capital was moved to Colombo where it remains today.
You can see ruins of the Royal Palace, complete with swimming pool, audience hall, and sacred temples. Judging by the ruins alone, Polonnaruwa would be been an incredible sight in its heyday.
To really appreciate the history, I highly recommend organising a tour to Polonnaruwa or bringing a guide.
Currently, Polonnaruwa is undergoing a major redevelopment project known as the ‘Awakening of Polonnaruwa’ so it’s not uncommon to see scaffolding and builders doing work on the site, and major upgrades taking part along the local roads and in the towns.
While you are at Polonnaruwa, make sure you visit the Buddha figures at Gal Vihara. These four Buddha’s are cut from solid granite and are in perfect condition.
My personal favourite was the 14 meters long reclining Buddha pictured entering Nirvana.
Go on Safari in Kaudulla National Park
Sri Lanka is said to have the largest population of elephants in Asia and I couldn’t wait to meet some of them.
While most people travel to Minneriya National Park in North Central Sri Lanka which can be overrun by tourist filled jeeps during peak season – August to October – to see the countries elephant population, right next door is the much smaller and lesser-known Kaudulla National Park.
Situated between Minneriya and Wasgomuwa National Parks, Kaudulla acts as something of an elephant corridor between the two.
It only took about 10-minutes of driving in the open-top jeep before we saw our first elephants. Coming into an open field along the lake, there were dozens of elephants eating grass, playing with each other, and even a couple of males fighting.
I visited during peak season yet saw only eight jeeps (including the group I was with).
Intent on giving their occupants the best experience possible, some of the drivers are a little more ballsy and will get a little too close to the elephants. This one charged and the driver sped away, spinning muddy tracks in his wake. (Photo below!)
I was quite happy my driver stayed back and gave the elephants space. I still saw a few baby elephants and got to see these beautiful Asian elephants in their natural environment. It’s a memory that will stay with me for a long time.
From sacred sites to safaris, North Central Sri Lanka has a lot to offer its visitors. My photos really don’t do the country justice but my memories are clear as day.
Now I just need to plan my next visit to Sri Lanka!
If you have time, consider visiting these places in (or near) the North Central Province of Sri Lanka too!
- Anuradhapura – The capital of the North Central Province of Sri Lanka and a UNESCO World Heritage site, Anuradhapura was the political and religious capital for the Ceylonese people for more than 1,300 years before it was abandoned. This breathtaking city is thriving once again after being lost in the dense jungle for years.
- Mihintale Mountain – Sixty-eight cave dwellings provided the monks’ shade and shelter when Buddhism arrived in Sri Lanka.
- Kandy – Sri Lanka’s second largest city, is a UNESCO world heritage site, in part due to The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (Sri Dalada Maligawa). Built within the royal palace complex, the relic has played an important role in local politics since ancient times as it’s believed that whoever holds the tooth relic holds the governance of the country.
For cricket lovers, Kandy is also home to Asgiriya Stadium where a number of international test matches are held.
Where to say in North Central Sri Lanka
I was based at the luxurious Cinnamon Lodge Habarana. In this central location, you are surrounded by significant heritage sites. It’s just a short drive to get to Sigiriya – it’s important to get there early in the morning because Sri Lanka is seriously hot in the middle of the day – or one of the other sacred sites for early morning explorations.
For those on a budget, next door to Cinnamon Lodge Habarana is the very cool, eco-friendly Chaaya Village Habarana. I have stayed here as well. It’s a great option for those who want comfort at a good price, without sacrificing quality.
I’ve put this map together to help you see the location of the hotels (blue) and some of the most historical sites in north central Sri Lanka (orange), including ones mentioned in this article.
Plan your trip to Sri Lanka with these posts:
I visited Sri Lanka as a guest of Cinnamon Hotels and Sri Lankan Airlines.
All thoughts, feelings and that one pair of shoes I wore a hole through are, as always, my own.