The former illicit Pleasure Palace of an ill reputed king, Sigiriya (also known as Lion Rock) is both a city and the more well known rock fortress that stands 660 feet above the city. The fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a marvel for its advanced use of irrigation and urban planning techniques. Many visitors, like us, travel here only to see the fortress before moving on to Kandy. We left wishing we had more time to explore the lush fields and quiet oasis of Sigiriya the city. We would definitely recommend spending more time here! In this post we cover tips for seeing Sri Lanka’s most visited monument without the crowds as well as suggestions for other noteworthy temples to visit on the journey from Sigiriya to Kandy.
How to Reach Sigiriya
Sigiriya is 100 miles/165km from Colombo so be prepared for a long drive. It is about three to four hours via private transport from the airport to Sigiriya. Our flight arrived late and luckily did not have much traffic departing the city. As you approach Sigiriya, prepare for winding roads through lush vegetation – this is where there’s such great value to having a driver for the trip. Here are other options for reaching Sigiriya:
- Bus: 4 hours
- Train: 5-6 hours
- Plane: 30 minute
We chose to stay near Lion Rock as we intended to visit first thing in the morning. There is an abundant amount of options for places to stay around Sigiriya as a local hotel chain recently opened up a hotel in the area. There are also many locally run bed and breakfast options.
What is Lion Rock?
Lion Rock or Sigiriya is the most visited site in Sri Lanka and also has the highest entrance fee at $30 USD per person. This massive rock structure was converted into a pleasure palace for King Kasyapa in 477 A.D. and later used as a monastery. There is prehistoric evidence of use before it was a fortress. Cave drawings indicate that early 3rd century monks were using the caves for meditation. There are several unique features including a giant wall that is called Mirror Wall as the former king used to have it polished so he could see his own reflection. There are also al fresco paintings of naked ladies that have been preserved in caves inside the rock.
At the very top of the rock is an oasis of water, cave, and terrace gardens built for the King’s pleasure.
Visiting Lion Rock Without the Crowds
Our biggest advice: arrive early. It opens at 7am and we were there 6:50am to get our tickets. Here’s Jesse with our driver Erwyn at 6:55 AM, the first and only person in line for tickets:
There is a slight morning mist which creates a beautiful looming cloud over the structure. The climb up isn’t hard (no need for hiking shoes) but not for those afraid of heights. We spent a relatively quiet and secluded two hours there and were happy we came early as we saw the tour groups climbing up as we departed around 9.
From the entrance gate there is a long sidewalk that leads to the base of the Rock. This is some of the best spots to take photos of Sigiriya. Again, early morning you are able to get photos with the sidewalks empty. Once you arrive to the rock, there are a series of ascending steps that lead up to a long walk way along the rock. Below a photo of the steps when we were descending at 9am. This is around the time all the tour groups arrive. When we were ascending at 7am, this entire section was empty.
At the top of the staircase, you will walk down a long pathway along the rock. This leads to a spiral staircase that is the entrance to the cave drawings.
We were in fact so early that the cave wasn’t yet open to visitors as they were not properly staffed. Visitors in the past were allowed to take photos with the flashes off, but the recent influx of tourists who did not follow these rules forced the park administration to place a guard at the caves to enforce a strict no photo policy inside the cave. We were able to circle back and see the cave drawings on our descent.
The walkway continues along the Mirrored Wall to the base of your final climb up to the top. You are also not allowed to take photos as you walk along the Mirrored Wall. At the base of the final climb are a pair of massive clawed feet, the only remnant of the former lion shaped peak which gives it the name Lion Rock:
The final climb are metal steps that aren’t very hard, but not for those who fear heights. We saw one other visitor turn around at this point.
The sun was rising high into the sky as we ascended and we took a moment to enjoy the views of the lush green fields below. In the distance you can spot the gold glimmer of the large Buddha statue in town.
The views at the top of the rock were pretty amazing:
Here is Jesse at the tallest point of the rock:
We were amazed by the advanced landscaping that was constructed into this palace, but also recognized that many lives were most likely lost constructing this. We always feel this bittersweet sense of awe and sadness when we visit these intricate ancient structures.
After Sigiriya we left for Kandy wishing we had planned for more time to explore the surrounding area. On the road to Kandy there are several temples to visit. We will admit that we generally do not spend much time in ancient buildings, so these were quick stops for us. Below in order are the possible stops on the road from Sigiriya to Kandy.
Dambulla Caves/ Golden Temple
A World Heritage site, we arrived in the heat of noon and left without venturing into the caves as the entrance was filled with other tourists. We were told by our guide that it’s disrespectful to take a photo with your back to a Temple so you’ll see most of our photos have our back to the camera.
This Temple is used by both Hindus and Bhuddists. Pictures are not allowed inside but the decor on the outside of the temple are well worth the stop. There is a guard on duty and entrance fee is about $1USD
Built in the 8th or 10th century, this ancient Hindu Temple is a quiet visit off the tourist track as most buses won’t come here. There is no entrance fee. This was perhaps our favorite stop as it was a quietly tucked away in a forest and we had the entire temple to ourself.