For anyone with any interest in history, archaeology, hiking, or epic sunrise views, you won’t want to miss the chance to hike Pidurangala and Sigiriya Rock located in north central Sri Lanka. Although both hikes are relatively easy, you’ll want to go early in the morning to avoid the heat, crowds, and to get the most amazing sunrise views.
If you’re a bit pressed for time and can’t decide whether to hike Pidurangala or Sigiriya Rock, don’t worry — you can hike both! Plan to wake up early and get one of the best workouts of your life. But it will all be worth it to see an unforgettable sunrise, and to beat the heat and crowds when visiting these incredible archaeological sites.
WHICH HIKE TO DO FIRST?
The first question you’ll need to answer is which mountain you want to hike for sunrise. Personally, I recommend Pidurangala, as there are fewer people who make this climb, and the views out onto Sigiriya Rock at sunrise are incredible. From Sigiriya Rock, the views are less interesting, and it will be much more crowded.
Pidurangala dates back to the 1st or 2nd century BC, during which period the massive rock housed a Buddhist monastery that became especially prominent during King Kasyapa’s reign in 473-495 AD.
After the king killed his father and fled to avoid retaliation from his brother, the king set up his palace, capital, and citadel on Sigiriya Rock, relocating the monastery there to Pidurangala. As a sort of compensation, the king refurbished the temple at Pidurangala and held it in high regard.
You’ll want to arrive at the bottom of Pidurangala with plenty of time to make the hike before sunrise (which is around 6am year-round). Typically, the hike takes about 20-30 minutes to reach the top, depending on how many breaks you end up taking. I suggest arriving by 5:15am, so that you can settle in comfortably to watch the sky light up. Spend around 20 minutes enjoying the Pidurangala sunrise. You’ll want to start hiking down Pidurangala by 6:20am in order to make it over to Sigiriya in time to beat the crowds and the heat.
Hiking down Pidurangala should be a bit quicker than hiking up (it’s easier and you won’t be doing it in the dark), so plan for 20 minutes to get down. You should be back down to the car park by 6:45am.
Pidurangala is much less expensive than its more famous neighbor, Sigiriya Rock. A ticket to access Pidurangala is 500 Rph (about 5 USD). It’s technically a “donation” but please pay it —it’s minimal and helps support the temple.
WHAT TO WEAR
Because you’ll pass through Pidurangala Royal Cave Temple, you’ll be asked to keep your knees and shoulders covered. You can rent a sarong from the ticket booth if necessary.
Most people were wearing athletic wear (e.g. tank tops and shorts) and didn’t cover up during the hike, because it was incredibly hot and most people didn’t even notice when they walked past the Cave Temple so early in the morning. If you intend to visit the smalltemple at the base of Pidurangala and walk inside, however, you’ll definitely want to be sure you’re covered up (although if you’re following the time schedule suggested in this post, you won’t have time to explore the temple, unfortunately).
Proper shoes are necessary especially for the rock scramble near the top. A head torch is also very helpful on this section.
THE HIKE: WHAT TO EXPECT AND WHAT TO LOOK FOR
The hike up Pidurangala is fairly easy, albeit a bit steep and swelteringly hot at certain times of the year (even before the sun is up). Towards the top of the mountain, you’ll come across a giant reclining Buddha statue inside a shallow cave (more about this Buddha statue below). Honestly, you might not even notice it on your way up if it’s dark outside!
From there, the climb gets a bit more difficult. There are arrows periodically painted onto rocks pointing hikers in the right direction, but eventually they’ll point you right into a giant boulder. The hikers in front of us were certain they had gone in the wrong direction and tried to turn around, but we eventually realized that we needed to scramble up the boulders up to reach the top.
For this section of the climb, you’ll want to make sure you have proper shoes, a head torch (trying to climb boulders while using a hand-help flashlight or iPhone light is not a great idea), and are reasonably fit (there were young children doing the climb as well, but if you have mobility issues, you might want to skip this hike).
At the top, there is one large section of rock where everyone will sit to watch the sunrise views. At the lower section of the rock you’ll be able to get amazing views of Sigiriya Rock — fewer people will be here because it doesn’t really look onto the sunrise, so you might want to enjoy the sunrise for a while, and then quickly hop to the lower rock section to get some photos with Sigiriya Rock in the background without anyone else around.
As you hike down Pidurangala, be sure to take some time to appreciate Pidurangala Royal Cave Temple, with its impressive, 6th-century giant reclining Buddha carved out of brick. This site dates back to the earliest days of Sri Lankan Buddhism, when King Kasyapa built his palace on Sigiriya Rock and offered Pidurangala as a “concession” to the Buddhist monks who were forced to relocate from Sigiriya Rock.
GETTING FROM PIDURANGALA TO SIGIRIYA ROCK
The drive from Pidurangala to Sigiriya is quick, about 10 minutes by car or tuk-tuk. You can easily find a tuk-tuk when you get down from Pidurangala, so no need to hire one in advance and pay for waiting time
Sigiriya Rock is an ancient rock fortress known for its massive column of rock that reaches nearly 200 meters high. The site dates back to the reign of King Kasyapa (477-495 AD), who chose this site as his new capital. He decorated the walls with frescoes, and built an impressive palace right on top of the rock column, accessible only through the mouth of an enormous carved lion.
The site is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is considered an Eighth Wonder of the World.
Hiking up Sigiriya Rock takes about 45 minutes each way. If you arrive by 7:00am, you should be able to reach the top by around 7:45am, when it’s not too hot and the crowds haven’t yet arrived.
I came down off of Sigiriya Rock around 8:30am, and there were already massive crowds of tourists lined up just to get onto the staircases. It looked hot and miserable and the lines didn’t appear to be moving much at all. I promise, you’ll want to beat these crowds, so force yourself to stay on a tight schedule so that you can arrive to Sigiriya as early as possible.
Sigiriya Rock tickets cost 30 USD (or about 5,300 Rph), which is one of the most expensive historic sites you’ll find in Sri Lanka. However, if you’re at all interested in history and pretty amazing ancient architecture, then it will definitely be worth it!
WHAT TO WEAR
Hiking Sigiriya will be hotter and longer than hiking Pidurangala. It’s technically an easier climb, mostly up even staircases, and can be done in sandals.
You can wear athletic wear or casual clothes, and do not need to have your shoulders and knees covered.
THE HIKE: WHAT TO EXPECT AND WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Sigiriya Rock is one of the best-preserved and most impressive and elaborate examples of ancient urban planning. You’ll want plenty of time to explore the gardens, monastery and cave temples, and palace ruins, but I recommend hiking to the top fairly quickly and then exploring a bit more on your way down. That way you won’t get caught up in the crowds of tourists who arrive around 8:30.
As you enter Sigiriya, you’ll first walk through a series of beautiful gardens as you make your way to the towering Lion’s Rock ahead. The water gardens, cave and boulder gardens, and terraces gardens at Sigiriya are among the oldest landscaped gardens in the world, so be sure to take some time to appreciate them!
After passing the gardens, you’ll approach a staircase which slowly winds its way up Sigiriya Rock. One section of the staircase will allow you to view some of the ancient frescoes painted on the cave walls. These paintings are similar to those of the Anuradhapura period but have a distinct style in the way the lines and shadows are drawn.
To add to how impressive these ancient paintings are, it’s believe that the original paintings would have covered the entire face of Sigiriya Rock — an area 140 meters long and 40 meters high. Definitely take the extra few minutes to view the paintings and try to imagine what Sigiriya would have looked like in all its painted glory thousands of years ago. As John Still suggested in 1907: “The whole face of the hill appears to have been a gigantic picture gallery . . . the largest picture in the world perhaps”
Photos are not allowed in this section in order to preserve the paintings.
THE MIRROR WALL
Just past the frescoes, you walk alongside what is known as the “mirror wall” — a wall polished so heavily that the king would have been able to see his reflection on the surface. You’ll see names and notes scribbled into the wall, some from as early as the 8th century, by visitors to Sigiriya. One translated writing reads: “I am Budal [the writer’s name]. Came with hundreds of people to see Sigiriya. Since all the others wrote poems, I did not!” Some things never change. Further graffiti is banned in order to protect these ancient writings.
THE LION PALACE
At a plateau near the top, you’ll come across a giant carved lion, which was once the gateway to King Kasyapa’s palacel. A switchback staircase winds through and within this carved lion, until you reach the top of Sigiriya Rock and can walk amongst the ruins of the ancient palace and soak in the incredible views of the lush green Sigiriya landscape, and beyond.
Although the palace at Sigiriya Rock was abandoned after the king’s death, it was used as a Buddhist Monastery until the 14th century. Be sure to walk through the remains of the monastery on your way down, taking note of the cave temples, the cobra rock (a giant protruding rock that looks like a cobra head), and the beautiful gardens flowing throughout the space.