This is one of the most stunning historical sites of Sri Lanka. It's also very popular and heavily crowded at times. We show you how to avoid the crowds and make the most out of your visit. Also, make sure to read our 7 must-know tips before you visit at the end of the article.
Avoiding the Crowds
It's significantly less crowded in the early morning and in the late afternoon. If you want to avoid midday heat and beat the crowds at the same time, be there at 7 a.m. sharp or visit in the late afternoon. Visiting later in the day (about 2 hours before they close) also gives you the perfect light for a good shot of Sigiriya Rock. Especially the intriguing fresco paintings are at their best in the late-afternoon light. However, for a perfect photo, it needs to be sunny. Avoid weekends and public holidays if possible, as in addition to foreign tourists many local and domestic visitor are there. Overview of public holidays: Sri Lanka Public Holidays. Opening hours from 7 am - 5:30 pm. The entrance fee is costly (30 $ in 2017), and the experience may get spoiled when you arrive at midday while sharing the place with tons of other tourists.
Climate / Weather
'Dry season' in this area is from May to August/September but often overcast from June to August. It's a tropical climate with humidity around 80 % most of the year. October until December are the wettest months. From January to May it's frequently sunny. We spent two days at Sigiriya in January, and the weather was quite nice. Helpful weather overview: Climate - Average Monthly Weather Sigiriya
Sigiriya is a year-round destination. It usually offers the most pleasant weather conditions between January and June. However, showers can occur throughout the year.
Rising almost 200 meters (660 ft) from flat plains, this ancient rock fortress provides visitors with one of the most dramatic views in Sri Lanka. Often called the 8th wonder of the world, Sigiriya became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. It's one of the best-preserved examples of ancient urban planning. The stunning height on which a palace complex was built amazes even today's architects and engineers.
'The Ancient City of Sigiriya' is located in the heart of the cultural triangle. It is formed by Anuradhapura and Mihintale in the north, by Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya to the south-east with Dambulla in the middle and to the south by Kandy and Matale Vihara. The triangle includes five of the eight world heritage sites in Sri Lanka.
The massive column of rock is a volcanic plug that was formed over 2 billion years ago. Volcanic plugs are created when magma hardens inside a vent on an active volcano. After the volcanic activity ceased, the plug forms through erosion: The surrounding rock is removed over time by wind and rain, while the hard volcanic plug material remains.
The first clear signs of inhabitants at this structure date back to the 3rd century BC (= 300 years before year 1). Apparently, monks and ascetics lived there in rock shelters and caves. There is also evidence that the area was occupied even earlier, almost 5000 years ago. However, the formation of sophisticated architecture happened later when King Kashyapa (reigned 477–495) built a palace on the summit of the rock during the 5th century AD. It is said that it served him a safeguard against enemies as well as a pleasure palace. Sigiriya was developed not only into a fortress but also a complex city surrounding the rock. Most of the constructions on the rock summit and around it, including defensive structures, palaces as well as garden constructions, dating from the period of the king's reign.
After the king was defeated in 495 he died a violent death. Then Sigiriya was converted into a Buddhist monastery complex. It was used by the monks until the 14th century. After this period, no records are found on Sigiriya for a very long time. Although some archaeological work began already during the 19th century, only British explorer John Still discovered important parts of the site later in 1907. Sigiriya today is an impressive ancient monument. The ruins show how a rock was once transformed into a complex fortress and palace.
Some of the most magnificent ancient frescoes in the world are found at Sigiriya. Fresco means 'fresh' in Italian and is the oldest known painting technique. The painting becomes an integral part of the wall which results in an extreme durability. The earliest known examples of frescoes date from the Egyptian culture 2600 BC.
The Sigiriya Frescoes are found in the Cobra Hood Cave which can be reached after climbing up on a narrow spiral staircase (see below). They decorate the walls with colorful and intriguing art. Painted over 1,500 years ago during the reign of King Kashyapa. The frescoes depict women (maybe the king's wives) of the royal court performing various tasks like showering flowers upon the humans below. It is estimated that there were more than 500 paintings, but due to the tropical climate, most of the frescoes got destroyed. Only 19 of the paintings survived as of today. Most visitors say, that these are the most stunning frescoes they ever saw. It is said that you are not allowed to photograph them. However, on our visit, we were only told not to use flashlight.
Sigiriya in Sri Lanka is not only the rock itself but the remains of a complex fortress structure including several gardens with ponds, canals, alleys, and fountains: Sigiriya Lion Rock Complex. There were almost 100 swimming pools and ponds as well as an incredible series of fountains. Thus the gardens are an important part of this historic site. It is said that they are among the oldest landscaped gardens on our planet. They are divided into three linked forms: The symmetrically planned water gardens, the boulder gardens, and the terraced gardens.
Probably the most interesting construction from an architectural and engineering point of view is the gravity fed fountains in the water gardens. They were built over 1600 years ago and display a very sophisticated hydraulic technology, dating from an Early Historic Period. Even today the fountains still function to a small degree and can be experienced during the rainy season from October to December.
Climbing Sigiriya Rock
After receiving your entrance tickets you are free to roam the area, including the garden complex. However, we decided to start climbing the rock immediately. The climb to the top (about 1200 steps) takes about 1 and 1,5 hours, depending on your fitness, age, the crowds and how fast you'd like to go of course. Due to the steepness and the humidity, it can become quite a strenuous climb. However, the first few stairways are fairly easy ones in the Fountain Gardens and the Boulder Gardens. A number of caves and small platforms can be spotted along the way there. Then the first challenge starts with a series of steep stairs in the Terraced Gardens and a grand staircase leading up to the Mirror Wall.
Besides the frescoes, the Mirror Wall is one of the most amazing aspects of Sigiriya. During the reign of King Kashyapa, the wall was carefully polished in order to produce reflections of the king. Now the plaster is gone and it is painted with inscriptions, including poems, left by visitors. The oldest inscriptions date back to the 8th century, proving that Sigiriya has been 'tourist destination' for quite a while. Today there are signs which warn visitors not to add their own inscriptions. The next stop is probably the highlight of your visit: The Frescoes. More details about this intriguing feature can be found in the text above. The fresco paintings can be reached by a separate and very narrow spiral staircase. You ascend the steep stairs about 20m and later descend back down before continuing to the next part: On a small plateau, halfway up to the top of the rock is a portal which looks like an enormous lion, therefore the name Lion Rock.
From here the "lion" staircase is carved out from a rock and continues on newly constructed iron steps to the top. A climb to the top of the rock is worth the effort. You see the ruins of the former palace. And the view from the top is mesmerizing.
On the summit of Sigiriya, you'll realize that this wasn't just a simple palace the king built. Instead, it was a collection of fascinating buildings, pavilions, tropical gardens and ponds. It is said, that the palace on the top was only used in summer. During the wet season the king retreated to a palace at the bottom of the rock.
7 Must-Know Tips
'Skip' the Gardens
Although the gardens must have been quite a fascination during the king's reign, you don't have to spend a lot of time there. Look around on your way to the rock and when you head back. No need to roam around a lot.
Don't Hire a Guide
There are many guides roaming around the entrance area offering their services. It's not necessary at all to use one. All paths are clear and well explained via signs. For detailed background information, you should read this article :) and buy an additional guidebook (see below). However, a guide for the area (driving to the sites) is highly recommend. If you stay in Colombo: Private Day Tour Sigiriya Rock & Dambulla Cave Temple (via TripAdvisor)
Climb to the Very Top
Unless you have a severe fear of heights or your physical condition doesn't allow it: Climb all the way up to the top! It's definitely worth it. Some visitors stop at the lion plateau and then head back. It can be a tough climb to the top but the views from there are just stunning.
Seems like a simple advice but it's a life-saver: Bring a bottle of water! The climb to the top can get very strenuous due to its steepness and the humidity.
Dodge the Crowds
It's a much more enjoyable climb without the tourist crowds. Follow our tips from above and be very early when there are virtually no other visitors around. Alternatively get there later in the afternoon.
Follow our tips above and start early or late to avoid the crowds. That way you can take your time and enjoy the climb, which we didn't actually (well, we enjoyed it but didn't take enough time). There are so many excellent photo opportunities on your way to the top. While rushing through you'd probably miss these.
Beware of the Hornets
There are reports that hornets are occasionally aggressive and sting people on the top of the rock or on their way up. It might be dangerous for people with an allergy and young children. In that case, wear appropriate clothing and don't make too much noise.
Avoid the Monkeys
There are lots of cheeky macaque monkeys. Although they seem cute at first, you should definitely keep your distance. These little thieves can steal almost everything: Food, bags, sunglasses etc.
- Name: Sigiriya Rock, also called 'Lion Rock'
- Entrance Fee: LKR 4,500 per person (about $30 USD or £28 GBP)
- Hotels/Lodges: There are many excellent accommodations nearby. We wouldn't recommend a specific one, instead suggest to browse the best hotels and lodges here: Sigiriya Rock - Accommodations
- Guides/Books: For your Sri Lanka adventures we definitely recommend a guide. You'll see so many things with different eyes and notice some wonderful details you would've missed otherwise. Below are the 3 guides/books we recommend (click on the images to look inside):
A part of the original Duran Duran music video 'Save a Prayer' was shot on top of Sigiriya Rock in 1982: 'Save a Prayer' by Duran Duran