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Polonnaruwa is a place I had never heard of before researching places to visit for our Sri Lankan visit. I still can’t pronounce it, but it is a place we really loved and should definitely be on your radar when planning your own Sri Lankan adventure!
There are fabulous ruins, national parks and a pretty lake all situated in or close by Polonnaruwa. To make a visit here super easy, it is also on a train line between Colombo and the east coast. We chose it for all these reasons – we wanted to visit an ancient city and this seemed like the best one, we wanted to visit a national park and Minneriya sounded perfect and we wanted a pleasant and easy place to go. Check, check, check!
Below you will find all the information from our visit like Polonnaruwa places to visit, great accommodation, how to get around, how to get here and how much everything costs.
There is enough Polonnaruwa attractions for a couple of days although you could fit in everything in here in one busy day. There are some nice relaxing guest houses though and it’s a very easy place to be, so I suggest you give it longer and soak it all up.
Polonnaruwa Ancient City was the main reason for our visit to Polonnaruwa, and it did not disappoint.
Polonnaruwa was the capital of the central plains of Sri Lanka 800 years ago. There are hundreds of ancient structures – palaces, temples, tombs, statues, it’s all here in a relatively compact space which makes it very easy to explore, especially with kids.
The ruins are basically divided into five groups. They are all close together and we were rarely in our rickshaw for long. It would be too far and hot to walk around them, but you can hire a bicycle which would be a great option. It is hot though so keep this in mind. Everything is well sign posted.
Below are the main sites we visited in the order in which we found them.
Royal Palace Group
Our first stop was at the Royal Palace group. The kids loved walking around the old Royal Palace and pretending they were kings and princesses. There was also a council chambers and some other ruins. This was probably my least favourite group of what we visited, so if you are very short on time, I would skip here.
The Quadrangle is a raised site with many important monuments some of which are temples of the tooth of Buddha. This area is one of the highlights as there are many buildings in a small space meaning our kids found it far more interesting. S vowed to go on every one and it was extra fun to explore this area.
Siva Devale No. 2
This building is the oldest in Polonnaruwa and is still much like it was when it was built.
This was by far my favourite group with lots of amazing monuments and ruins. Rankoth Vehara dagoba pictured above is just massive at 54 metres high – the fourth highest in Sri Lanka. The other bonus at this Polonnaruwa attraction is that there are some of the best toilets I have ever experienced at an outdoor attraction as well as about a zillion monkeys nearby.
Nearby are the highlights of Polonnaruwa ancient city – the giant dagoba above, Lankatilaka and Gal Vihara which are all very close together and are all sacred sites. Lankatilaka is a huge temple with 17 metre walls and a standing (headless) Buddha. At Gal Vihara, there are beautiful rock carvings.
There is also a museum where you buy the entry tickets.
My one complaint about visiting this ancient city is the VERY hot ground at the big dagobas where you need to remove your shoes. The ground is also covered in gravel and it was too hot and bumpy to enjoy walking around.
If you are trying to decide between here and Anuradhapura, the ruins in Anuradhapura are older but are not meant to be in nearly as good condition. We are happy we picked Polonnaruwa.
Entry costs a whopping US$25, half priced for kids 6-12 and free for under 6’s (thankfully!). Our rickshaw ride was 1300 rupees for 4 hours. Some of the ruins are sacred and you will need to remove shoes and hats. I saw some foreigners also use a shawl to cover their shoulders if they were bare. I am not sure if this is required or not – I played it safe and wore a t shirt.
A tank is an ancient reservoir and there are many of these in Sri Lanka. Polonnaruwa is the on the banks of Topa Tank, and it is beautiful. It is raised up from town so you only see it if you walk to it (very quick from the old town). This makes it extra peaceful.
From Polonnaruwa, it is very easy to go on a safari to Minneriya or Kaudella National Parks which are especially renowned for their elephant populations.
You can book a safari through your guest house. We did this very easily and had a great afternoon exploring this part of Sri Lanka. It cost 4,500 rupees per adult. You can read more about it in my full review.
Polonnaruwa has three areas – Old Town, New Town and Kaduruwela. Old Town is the most recommended place to stay – it is right by the tank and Polonnaruwa ancient city. There is everything you need here as well as many guest houses. It is where we stayed and we highly recommend it.
J looked at quite a few guest houses when we arrived and decided Manel Guest House was the best deal. There are some fabulous triple rooms here in a new building. Our big room was beautiful with air conditioning, a new bathroom and a big mosquito net. The best part was big floor to ceiling windows with a private patio looking over a rice paddy. It was great.
It is budget option though so don’t expect daily servicing, toiletries etc, but it is very nice. The staff are very helpful and they also do laundry, book tours and serve meals and drinks. It was a very easy place to stay and just fabulous for kids (although we were the only family there).
J bargained a triple room for 4300 rupees including breakfast for the four of us. The breakfast consisted of toast, eggs and fresh fruit. My only gripe is that the breakfast took a crazy long time to serve.
We thought this was a good price (and it was relatively compared to the other guest houses J was seeing) until we were writing this article and checked the prices online – Agoda actually has priced around 3600 rupees at the moment. We definitely recommend booking this guest house in advanced for this reason. They were also full during our stay.
Other Polonnaruwa accommodation options in the Old Town:
Our concern that there wouldn’t be readily accessible food and restaurants in Sri Lanka was disproved yet again. There are plenty of places to eat in Polonnaruwa. Apart from our guest house, we had inexpensive meals at Dineth Restaurant and Ariyasinhala Hotel. Neither was a stand out but they do provide some standard local options such as curry and rice, hoppers, kotthu and fried rice.
Be warned that the vegetable kotthu at the Dineth is one of the few dishes to ever be too spicy for me. The Ariyasinhala Hotel was much better for people who want to avoid spice.
Polonnaruwa is easily accessible thanks to being on a train line and has buses going to many places.
We caught the train from Colombo which took about 6.5 hours and the bus from Polonnaruwa to Kandy in 4 hours. Both options were fine and you can read more details and see photos in our Sri Lanka travel guide.
It is easy to get around Polonnaruwa. There are inexpensive rickshaws everywhere (although they do take some bargaining and we still seemed to pay a price that was too high) and public buses. We paid 300 rupees to and from the bus/train station to Polonnaruwa Old Town.
Polonnaruwa is a great place to visit with kids. All the Polonaruwa attractions we visited were enjoyable for all of us. The Old Town itself is easy to navigate, hassle free and the kids were welcome everywhere.
Visiting a site such as the ancient city was a new one for us with kids. They enjoyed it for a little while but then did get bored preferring to build their own “castles” from stones and sticks. This was fine. One of us would sit at the entry to the ruins with the kids while the other visited and then we would swap over. S did enjoy our final site at the rock carvings at Gal Vihara though and had lots of questions about religion after that.
Polonnaruwa was always going to be our most expensive stop in Sri Lanka thanks to the safari and the entry price of the ancient city and we expected to go over our AUD$110 (USD$86) a day budget. We ended up spending $120/day which shows what great value Sri Lanka is as we had a great room and did some great activities. This was helped by the fact that food was very cheap. Most meals were under 500 rupees for the four of us.
We had a great time in Polonnaruwa. What is there not to love?
The safari was a first for all of us and we had a great time. We were very glad we made the effort to visit Polonnaruwa ancient city as it was great with the bonus that it was practically tourist free – we only saw other foreigners at Gal Vihara. The town and our guest house itself was a great place to lounge around.
All in all, we are very glad that we made the effort to visit this part of Sri Lanka. Many people seem to skip this region in favour of the highlands and the coast but don’t! It’s another experience and one very worth having.
You can also read our full travel guide to Sri Lanka.
What do you think, is Polonnaruwa somewhere you would like to explore?