Sigiriya, Sri Lanka’s most visited site, is a 200m high towering rock topped with the ruins of an ancient palace and decorated with frescoes that has been recognized as a UNESCO site since 1982.

Going up Sigiriya

Going up Sigiriya

The rock was chosen in 477 BC by King Kasyapa as the site for his new Palace and capital of Sri Lanka thus moving the center of the empire from Anuradhapura to Sigiriya. When he died, a mere two decades later, the capital was moved back to Anuradhapura and Buddhist monks returned to the monastery that was there for eight centuries before the palace was built. The monastery was occupied until the 14th century.

Lion's feet

Lion’s feet

King Kasyapa seized the throne from the legitimate son of the King through a coup and knew that his half brother would come back for it. Afraid of a vengeful invasion, he considered the rock a much safer place than Anuradhapura. The Palace was built as a defensive structure and its position at the top of the rock were considered of immense strategic value.

View from the mountain

View from the mountain

Going up hill the 1,250 steps one passes several defensive mechanisms from boulders ready to be slid down the side of the rock to oncoming attackers to steep walls and stairs. Even to this day, with proper steel staircases, the ascend requires a lot of faith in the strength of the construction and a focus on going up. Turning you head to look down is a sure way into Fearland, especially in the last few steps to the top.

Sigiriya stairs

Sigiriya stairs

The structure is so impressive that it is hard to believe that an ancient civilization that inhabited the island over 1,500 years ago had the skills and techniques required to bring all the materials up the 90 degree walls. Old stairs carved on the face of the rock show how the monks and visitors made their way up.

It is not just the constructions which are impressive, the frescoes could have been as high as 40m and as long as 140m with beautiful women in colorful dresses when they were first painted. Some of them are perfectly visible today but most have disappeared. Legends recount that the women depicted were part of the King’s harem.

Sigiriya gardens

Sigiriya gardens

The rock received the name of Sigiriya, or Lion Rock, because of a lion statue located at the main entrance on the plateau that can be found half way up the climb. Today, only the lion’s claws remain as the head collapsed years ago but it is not hard to imagine the grandeur and power that the statue must have caused on the visitors’ mind when walking through its mouth.


View from on top of the rock

The King not only decorated the rock with frescoes but also constructed a Mirror Wall that was so polished he could see himself reflected on it. Today, the wall is a century’s old witness to the historical relevance of the site. Through the years, visitors used to scribble poems and sentences on it professing their love and admiration. It is believed that some of these poems date back to the 8th century making Sigiriya a pilgrimage and popular place for visitors for over one thousand years.

On the lower levels there are caves and various spaces dedicated to teaching, audiences and other. The entrance to the rock is a large garden with a middle fountain. From above, one can see three types of gardens: water gardens, boulder gardens and terraced gardens with various water conduits, subterranean rivers, hydraulic systems, dams, ponds and pools. They are some of the oldest landscaped gardens in the world and unique in their form and structure. Overgrown vegetation and trees have now taken over a lot of the structures giving the place an eerie feeling.

Looking down

Despite the crowds descending on Sigiriya, with snaking queues overflowing through the various stairs, most of the lower and even some of the top level structures, are deeply peaceful and it is easy to find a quiet spot even in a site that receives thousands of visitors every year. The location was fit for a King’s Palace of Pleasure as some of the tales and old chronicles claim it was.

Go to Sigiriya in the early morning before the crowds arrive after 8am. The site closes at 5,30pm so you won’t be able to see the sunrise of sunset from there. Doors open at 7am so you could enjoy golden hour and still see the sun rising if you are there are soon as they open. Tickets are USD30, like most other Sri Lankan UNESCO sites. A steep price when compared to the half a dollar paid by the locals. Take it easy around the area and explore all the gardens. Avoid just get in and out, take your time to get lost in the top construction but also in the lower level gardens and caves. Truly magical.

  • Can you go for sunrise if you get there early enough? Our Sri Lankan friends are so passionate about Sigiriya but we skipped it during our trip in Sri Lanka mainly due to time (we chose to do a safari at Yala and Udawalawe instead). Beautiful pictures as ever Mar 🙂

  • Sabrina Barbante

    Such a great place to get lost!

  • Penny Sadler

    I don’t know if I’ll ever make it to Asia but places like this call to me.

  • TravelingWellForLess

    Gorgeous!! Loved your review, now I’ve GOT to visit. 🙂

  • What a fascinating historical place! I was imagining how intimidating the fortress must have looked so high up on that rock. Those stairs are no joke, but the climb looks absolutely worth it. Love the photos, Mar!

    • Thanks Jackie! It tested my stamina but it was a real treat from the top. I’m glad it showed in the photos!

  • Tamara Wilcox

    I had never heard of this palace site, but it was very interesting, and I loved your photos! What a gem!

  • Sara (Belly Rumbles)

    Absolutely stunning and well worth tackling those rickety looking stairs.The view from the top is breath taking.

  • This definitely looks like a place I could spend hours in! Especially at the hefty price tag. You gave a really good overview of the history, and your photos are gorgeous!

  • Girl Unspotted

    These are absolutely gorgeous! Sri Lanka has never been on my list but lately I’ve been reading more about it and I’m really liking how it’s definitely off the beaten path for now.

  • Jenna

    That’s too bad you can’t watch sunrise or sunset there–looks like it would be a great spot for it! But, still looks like a gorgeous place to visit during the day regardless–I would love to check it out! Such an interesting history and so pretty!

  • It’s my favourite place from Sri Lanka! Loved it! 🙂

  • that was a very interesting read! enjoyed all the facts that you build into your article. Haven’t been to sri lanka yet but when I go I’ll make sure to inlcude sigiriyas 🙂

    • Glad you enjoyed it! I’m featuring many other places in Sri Lanka this week too, there is so much to see. 🙂

  • Karla Ramos

    Was wondering, how much is ticket price for the locals, but I think the $30 ticket does pay off in the end, because the view is so majestic.

  • Jen Ryder

    Each of your posts about Sri Lanka has me wanting to jump on a plane and go! What incredible views and an interesting historical site. You took some amazing photos!

  • It looks amazing. My first thoughts were how busy it looks and the staircase! Reassuring that they are “proper steel”. I don’t believe I would down while walking along the cliff edge.

    30USD is quite pricey but looks well worth it.

    • The staircase looked amazing as it is, snaking up the statue. It is quite, but it was well spent 🙂

  • Melody Pittman

    Omg that is gorgeous, and so photogenic. Looks strenuous but for views like that AND a UNESCO heritage site, I could manage. 😉 Loved your photos.

  • Phenomenal Globe Travel Blog

    Sri Lanka, jup, on my Places to Visit list! Your pictures are amazing, thanks for sharing 🙂

  • The view from the top is absolutely beautiful. Hope to make it to Sri Lanka some day. Love the tip to go early to beat the crowds. Thanks for sharing.

  • Those are a lot of stairs to climb, but the view from the top is amazing.

  • Andrea Leblang

    You’ve captured Sigiriya perfectly! I’ve been dying to visit, and I’m finally visiting Sri Lanka this year. Thanks so much for the tips. I’m getting up and over there as early as possible. Such a fascinating spot!

    • Thats wonderful to hear, thank you! I’ve uploaded quite a few posts on my trip there, definitely check them out – there’s so much to see!

  • it always amazes me to see these amazing architectural feats! We will definitely stop here when in Sri Lanka!

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