The cultural quadrangle of Sri Lanka is home to four major landmarks that all travellers to Sri Lanka should see: Sigiriya, the Dambulla Caves, Polonnaruwa, and Anuradhapura.
They can each be visited as day trips from Kandy, or as part of a continuous tour around the area utilising overnight accommodation nearby to each location before moving on to the next one. As with all tourist attractions in Sri Lanka, it is the norm to be charged extortionate admission prices to these attractions simply because you are a “foreigner”. However, this should not put you off, as in the central region of Sri Lanka you can find some of the most wondrous ancient sites in the whole Indian Sub-Continent!
As you can see from the map above, it is much easier visiting these ancient attractions from Kandy than it is from Colombo, although many travellers do still come from the west coast, as after all, this is where the international airport is located. It is possible to catch the train from Colombo to Kandy, and this route is very scenic, although train journeys to other areas such as Sigiriya or Anuradhapura are not quite as easy.
Anuradhapura is the northernmost site within Sri Lanka’s Cultural Quadrangle. Anuradhapura was a political Ceylonese capital which was abandoned after invasion in AD 993, at which time the locals turned their attention to a new capital city at Polonnaruwa. Hidden by the jungle for many centuries, Anuradhapura now is partially restored to its former glory and is available for tourists to peruse. A lot of people find Anuradhapura disappointing after some of Lanka’s other cultural attractions, but there are plenty of dagobas and monasteries here, not to mention a famous Bodhi Tree.
Getting to Anuradhapura from Colombo will take over 4 hours by car on the Puttalam-Anuradhapura-Trincomalee Highway. Intercity trains from Colombo Fort Station will call at Anuradhapura New Town Station enroute to Jaffna, and the journey should take around 3 hours and 25 minutes. 1st class and air-conditioned cabins are available on these trains, however it is cheaper to go by road.
Anuradhapura from Kandy takes around 3 hours by road via the Katugastota-Kurunegala-Puttalam Highway, although this is not advisable as the journey takes you quite close to Sigiriya and the Dambulla Caves, so you’d be better off stopping at those sites before continuing your journey northbound. There are no direct trains from Kandy to anywhere near to Anuradhapura.
Anuradhapura Admission Price: $25
Anuradhapura Opening Hours: 7am-7.30pm
Anuradhapura Recommended Visit: 6 hours (at least)
Established in the 3rd century as an important Buddhist site, there are a total of five cave complexes at Dambulla, in which around 157 statues of various sizes are said to be stored, as well as rock paintings which are more impressive than the murals seen on Lion’s Rock at Sigiriya. Most people will consider the Dambulla Caves as a sideshow to their visit to Sigiriya nearby, rather than an attraction in its own right, but it is still considered an important part of this central region of Sri Lanka.
Dambulla Caves Admission Price: Free
Dambulla Caves Opening Hours: 7.30am-7pm
Dambulla Caves Recommended Visit Time: 1-2 hours
Climbing Lion’s Rock at Sigiriya is one of the highlights of the Indian Sub-Continent. The atmosphere of the site, situated in the middle of dense tropical jungle (not to mention the threat of crocodiles, leopards, elephants, and deadly hornets), is one of the reasons Sigiriya rates so high on tourists’ priority lists when exploring the Cultural Triangle, but even if climbing is not for you, there are plenty of other things to do around the area, including a visit to the Dambulla Caves.
Getting to Sigiriya from Colombo by car is quite straightforward, but it does take time (this is Sri Lanka, after all, and roads here are not known for their quality! It will take approximately 5 hours to drive up the Ambepussa-Kurunegala-Trincomalee Highway. Another option to get from Colombo to Sigiriya is to use the train to Dambulla or Habarana, and then hop on a bus for the rest of the journey to Lion’s Rock itself (no more than 24km).
From Kandy, Sigiriya is even easier to visit. Just 2 hours and 20 minutes in a taxi up the Kandy-Jaffna Highway and you will find yourself there! If you’re coming from the charming town of Kandy, then you should make Sigiriya your home for a few nights and check out the Dambulla Caves while you’re there, and then head up to Anuradhapura for the next leg of your Cultural Quadrangle exploration. Sigiriya to Anuradhapura will take less than 90 minutes by taxi, so the journey northwards is broken up into a much more manageable portion than if you’d come straight from Kandy non-stop.
Sigiriya Admission Price: $30
Sigiriya Opening Hours: 7am-5.30pm
Sigiriya Recommended Visit: 4-5 hours.
The Ancient City of Polonnaruwa is – after Anuradhapura – the second oldest of Sri Lanka’s former capital cities, and with all the cultural relics on display seemed like an open-air museum, much like Luxor in Egypt.
As the site in the Cultural Quadrangle that is farthest east, it is clearly not wise to come here direct from Colombo. The journey by road would take in excess of six hours, and you would effectively pass through the Sigiriya region enroute. You could stop off there before arriving at Polonnaruwa – but this is only advisable if you’re planning to skip Kandy below and Anuradhapura above. You could also catch the Trincomalee-bound train from Colombo Fort Station to Polonnaruwa, and this journey takes around 5 hours (leaving early morning and arriving after midday). 1st class cabins are not available on this route, and the 3rd class cabins are way too cramped for comfort, so do yourself a favour and make sure you buy a 2nd class ticket!
From Kandy – where you could acclimatise to the Sri Lankan weather beforehand – it will take around 2 hours and 50 minutes to reach the old town of Polonnaruwa by road. There are cheap, air-conditioned intercity buses plying the route and as it is a major tourist journey the roads are typically safe. There are no trains from Kandy to Polonnaruwa.
Polonnaruwa Admission Price: $25
Polonnaruwa Opening Hours: 7.30am-6pm
Polonnaruwa Recommended Visit Time: 6 hours
Whatever you decide to do when you’re in this region of Sri Lanka, make sure you enjoy it, as there is nowhere else in the world that has this concentrated amount of ancient cities so close together! Just watch out for those deadly hornets!