Sri Lanka's Sigiriya: How to Experience the Impressive Fortress

Sri Lanka Insider Guides
by Ashley Welton Dec 10, 2017

The ancient city fortress of Sigiriya is built on top of a massive 200-meter-high monolithic rock in the Matale District Central Province of Sri Lanka. Dating back to the 5th century, the stone fortress was constructed by King Kasyapa to avoid attacks from his brother Moggallana, the rightful heir.

The name Sigiriya originates from the Sinhalese word Sihagri, which translates to Lion Rock. About halfway up the ascent of the rock, Kasyapa built a giant lion gateway which is where the name derives. Kasyapa had selected this site for the new capital of Sri Lanka, and it remained so until he was defeated in 495CE. The capital and the palace were abandoned after his death, and today all that remains are ruins. That said, it is still one of the best architectural examples of urban planning. In 1982 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site — some say it’s the eighth wonder of the world — and is the most popular tourist attraction in Sri Lanka.

After his defeat and death, Sigiriya reverted to serving as a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century when it, too, was abandoned. The rock-top fortress isn’t the only interesting site to behold at Sigiriya though. Surrounding the monolith are some of the oldest landscaped gardens in the world. The water garden channels fill in the rainy season and circulate throughout the entire area of Sigiriya. The fountains are equally impressive and are some of the oldest functioning. You’ll also find caves with ancient frescoes and what remains of the western wall of paintings — all examples of a Sri Lankan school of classical realism.

The site is architecturally and historically significant, and it absolutely worth a visit. It’s amazing now; imagine what it must’ve been like 1500 years ago!

How to get there

Sigiriya is located about 25km from the town of Dambulla. There are frequent buses that run between the two from 6:30AM to 6PM.

What to consider

  • Admission to climb the rock is ~$27.
  • The ticket office is cash only.
  • There are approximately 1200 steps to reach the fortress at the top of the 200-meter rock.
  • It’ll take you 1.5-2 hours to get up and back down.
  • A guide is not necessary, although there are several who will try to tell you otherwise and sell you their services.
  • The Sigiriya museum is an interesting visit. It shows excavation photos, fresco reproductions and some translations. If you plan to visit, allow an hour.

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