Polonnaruwa: A complete guide

Nov 4, 2019 | Asia, Global travel, Sri Lanka

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(Last updated on: 02/04/2020)

When I travelled to Sri Lanka I had never heard of Polonnaruwa. But I am so glad that I did some research before hand (from reading blogs like this one!) and added it to my tour around Sri Lanka with a baby. Polonnaruwa really is a Sri Lankan gem and it should certainly not be overlooked if you’re planning a trip to Sri Lanka.

Check out everything you need to know if you’re considering visiting Polonnaruwa in this guide.

What is Polonnaruwa?

Located in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka, South Asia, Polonnaruwa is a large town. It is split into two distinct areas: Kaduruwela, the new town, and the Kingdom of Polonnaruwa. The latter is the royal ancient city that draws so many visitors to the area.

Polonnaruwa is the second most ancient of the Sri Lankan kingdoms. It was first established in the 10th century by the Chola dynasty. The ancient city is classed as a World Heritage Site, while the new town is undergoing major development: the Awakening of Polonnaruwa project is set to improve the roads, education, agriculture, health and more.

sri lanka with a baby
Exploring the ancient site of Pollonnaruwa

Getting to Pollonnaruwa

If you’re remotely interested in history or archaeology, you should definitely consider visiting Polonnaruwa. No matter where you’re staying, consider taking a short trip to the area.

When flying into Sri Lanka, most people land at Bandaranaike International Airport. This is located in Katunayake, 20 miles north of Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo. The airport is around 4.5 hours from Polonnaruwa by car.

For DIY and budget travellers, getting from Bandaranaike International Airport to Polonnaruwa is actually quite straightforward:

  • Walk around 15 minutes to Katunayake Airport Bus Station, and take the 187-E CMB to Colombo. This costs the equivalent of around £1 GBP, and takes 45 minutes to get to Colombo Bastian Mawatha Bus Terminal. The bus leaves every 30 minutes.
  • From Colombo Bastian Mawatha Bus Terminal, walk for approximately 10 minutes to Fort Station. Here you can catch a train (5 times per day) to Habarana. It’ll cost you the equivalent of £1-3 GBP and takes just over an hour.
  • At Habarana, take a taxi to Polonnaruwa. This will take just under an hour, and only cost you the equivalent of around £11 GBP – if there’s a few of you travelling together, or you happen to bump into some fellow travellers going the same way, splitting costs makes it even cheaper!

TIP: if you are already staying in Colombo, follow the above journey from Fort Station to get to Polonnaruwa!

Because we were travelling with a young baby, I didn’t want the hassle of public transport so we opted to book a private tour for our two week trip. It was great because we could customise the tour to include any stops and accommodation that we fancied, including a trip to Polonnaruwa. You can see more details of the tour that we took here.

Whilst I am usually big on hiring cars, Asia isn’t always the easiest place to drive and drivers are readily available and reasonably priced. So for this reason I wouldn’t personally recommend hiring a car in Sri Lanka.

Things to see in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa

Once you’re there, what is there to see? Plenty! Polonnaruwa was built at a time when Hinduism was flourishing, so the ancient city has stunning temples and statues. It also has an irrigation system so good that the kingdom was completely self-sufficient during the reign King Parakramabahu! Here are some of the best things to marvel at when visiting Polonnaruwa…

At the entrance of the ancient city you’ll find the Archaeological Museum. If you want a brief introduction to what you’re about to see, head inside!

TIP: the entry fee for the ancient city is 4500 LKR (around £19 or $25). Visitors from SAARC countries pay half price with a valid passport shown on arrival.

When you first enter the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, you’re greeted with a group of ruins known as the Royal Palace Group. Here you can walk around what remains of the King’s Royal Palace, the Audience Hall (one of the most well-preserved structures, with elephants carved into the walls and stone lions greeting you at the top of the steps) and the king’s swimming pool.

Statues at Pollonnaruwa

The Scared Quadrangle is another group of ruins, located within their own raised up platform. You can see The Vatadage, a circular house with four entrances. An enormous Buddha guards each entrance.

TIP: visitors are advised to cover their knees and shoulders, as many of the ruins in the ancient city are sacred.

Shiva Devale No.2 is the oldest building in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. It is a stunning Hindu temple, barely touched by time and weather – a real must see to get a feel for how the area once looked.

Gal Vihara is another part of Polonnaruwa that you simply cannot miss. It is a group of four buddhas, in perfect condition, cut from one long slab of granite.

See the ancient city in this video!

There are hundreds of statues, temples, houses and buildings in the ancient city as well as jungle traces too. A lot of the trees have boards built into them – why? You can climb up and look out for elephants who have wandered away from the nearby National Parks.

TIP: considering hiring a bicycle to get around the ancient city –  many people do this. You can also book a guide to take you around Polonnaruwa.

Where to stay

There are a variety of places to stay that are close to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. Here is a handful of them…

Livinginn Polonnaruwa has single, double and family rooms available. There’s free WiFi and parking, and you can hire bikes here easily. The accommodation has a spacious garden, 24-hour check in, and the location is near to the ruins of the ancient city. Previous guests praise the food, and say that it’s safe for solo travellers.

Seyara Holiday Resort is 1.2 miles away from the ancient city. It offers budget, standard and deluxe rooms. The hotel has a pool, free WiFi and free parking. There is a restaurant on site, and they offer bike rental too. Reviews praise it as having great food and being child-friendly.

Pharo Lake, on the shore of the stunning Lake Parakrama, has incredible views and elegant decor. There’s an outdoor pool, free WiFi, an airport shuttle service and free private parking. With a 24-hour front desk, evening entertainment and bike rental, this is also a place where you’re likely to spot elephant while eating your dinner!

So that’s everything you need to know about visiting Polonnaruwa, particularly the old town. Enjoy!

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Hi, am Dr Hayley Stainton

I’ve been travelling, studying and teaching travel and tourism since I was 16. Through Tourism Teacher I share my knowledge on the principles and practice of travel and tourism management from both an academic and practical perspective.

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