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Cycling Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka’s Ancient Capital


Modified: December 27, 2023

by Arabella Blakley



Welcome to Anuradhapura, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka and a haven for history enthusiasts and adventure seekers alike. Located in the heart of the Cultural Triangle, this UNESCO World Heritage site is a treasure trove of archaeological wonders and cultural landmarks. But instead of exploring the city on foot or by car, why not embark on a thrilling cycling adventure to truly immerse yourself in the rich history and natural beauty of this remarkable destination?


Cycling in Anuradhapura offers a unique and exhilarating way to explore its sprawling ruins, sacred temples, and serene lakes. The city is known for its well-preserved ancient ruins dating back to the period of the Anuradhapura Kingdom, which flourished from the 4th century BC to the 11th century AD. As you pedal through the city, you’ll be transported back in time, witnessing architecture and sculptures that reflect the ingenuity and craftsmanship of ancient Sri Lankan civilization.


Aside from its historical significance, Anuradhapura boasts stunning natural landscapes that are best experienced on two wheels. From lush green parks and tranquil lakes to dense forests and vibrant paddy fields, the city offers a diverse range of cycling routes that cater to all levels of adventurers. With its relatively flat terrain and well-maintained roads, Anuradhapura is a cyclist’s paradise, allowing you to cover more ground and discover hidden gems at your own pace.


Not only does cycling allow you to embrace the beauty of Anuradhapura up close, but it also provides a more sustainable and eco-friendly way to explore the city. By choosing to cycle, you reduce your carbon footprint and contribute to the preservation of this ancient capital for future generations to enjoy.


In this article, we will delve into the history of Anuradhapura, explore the best cycling routes, highlight must-visit places, provide essential cycling tips, and suggest the best time to embark on your cycling adventure in this captivating city. So, hop on your bike, strap on your helmet, and get ready to pedal through time and immerse yourself in the wonders of Anuradhapura.


History of Anuradhapura

Anuradhapura holds great historical and cultural significance as it served as the capital of Sri Lanka for over a thousand years. Founded around the 4th century BC, it was the first capital of the ancient Sinhalese kingdom, known as the Anuradhapura Kingdom.


The city flourished under the rule of several successive kings, who built magnificent structures, developed a complex irrigation system, and introduced Buddhism to the island. Anuradhapura reached its golden age during the reign of King Devanampiya Tissa, who embraced Buddhism after the arrival of Arahat Mahinda, the son of Emperor Ashoka of India.


During its heyday, Anuradhapura was not only a political and religious center but also a hub of trade and culture. It attracted merchants from various parts of the world, including India, China, and the Middle East, contributing to its cosmopolitan nature and the exchange of ideas and goods.


The city’s prosperity was reflected in its architectural marvels, such as the Jetavanaramaya, which was one of the tallest structures in the ancient world, and the Ruwanwelisaya, a massive stupa that houses relics of the Buddha. These buildings showcased the advanced engineering and artistic skills of ancient Sri Lankan craftsmen.


However, the glory of Anuradhapura started to decline in the 11th century AD due to frequent South Indian invasions. The city was eventually abandoned, and the capital was shifted to Polonnaruwa. Anuradhapura remained hidden beneath the dense jungles until its rediscovery by British archaeologists in the 19th century.


Today, the ancient city of Anuradhapura stands as a testament to Sri Lanka’s rich heritage and acts as a pilgrimage site for Buddhists worldwide. Its well-preserved ruins and sacred sites continue to awe visitors with their grandeur and historical significance.


Exploring the ancient capital on a cycling adventure allows you to connect with this fascinating history on a deeper level. As you pedal through the ancient ruins and monastic complexes, you can imagine the vibrant city that once thrived in this very place. It’s a journey through time that will leave you in awe of the achievements of the ancient Sri Lankan civilization.


Exploring the Cycling Routes

Anuradhapura offers a variety of cycling routes that cater to different interests and fitness levels. Whether you are a history enthusiast, a nature lover, or simply looking for an adventurous ride, there is a route for you to explore in this ancient capital.


One of the popular cycling routes in Anuradhapura is the Sacred City Circuit, which takes you through the heart of the ancient city. This route allows you to visit iconic sites such as the Sri Maha Bodhi, the oldest documented tree in the world that is said to be a sapling of the original Bodhi Tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. You can also marvel at the Abhayagiri Dagoba, an impressive stupa that once stood at a height of 370 feet.


For those seeking a more adventurous ride, the Wilpaththu Trail offers an exciting off-road experience. This trail takes you through the Wilpaththu National Park, known for its diverse wildlife and beautiful lakes. Cycling through dense forests and catching glimpses of elephants, deer, and various bird species adds an element of thrill and adventure to your journey.


If you prefer a more leisurely ride, the Nuwara Wewa route is a perfect choice. This circular route around the Nuwara Wewa reservoir offers breathtaking views of the serene lake, lush greenery, and ancient stone bridges. Take a moment to soak in the tranquility and enjoy the cool breeze as you cycle along this scenic route.


For those looking to combine history, nature, and a bit of physical challenge, the Mihintale route is ideal. Mihintale is a mountain peak located a few kilometers away from the main city, and it is considered the cradle of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Cycling uphill to reach the ancient monastic complex rewards you with panoramic views of the surrounding countryside and the opportunity to explore monastic caves and rock-cut dwellings.


Before embarking on any cycling route in Anuradhapura, it is advisable to check the local regulations, hire a reliable bike, and carry the necessary equipment and supplies. It’s also a good idea to bring a map or use a GPS device to navigate through the city and ensure you don’t miss any important landmarks.


Exploring Anuradhapura on a bicycle allows you to witness the city’s historical sites up close while enjoying the fresh air and beautiful scenery. It’s an immersive and rewarding experience that will leave you with lasting memories of this ancient capital.


Must-visit Places in Anuradhapura

When exploring Anuradhapura on a cycling adventure, there are several must-visit places that should be on your itinerary to truly experience the city’s rich history and cultural heritage. These iconic sites will take you on a journey through time and offer a glimpse into the grandeur of the ancient Anuradhapura Kingdom.


The Sri Maha Bodhi is undoubtedly the most sacred and revered site in Anuradhapura. It is a sacred fig tree believed to have grown from a cutting of the original Bodhi Tree in India, where the Buddha attained enlightenment. Cycling to this sacred site and witnessing the devout pilgrims paying their respects is a humbling experience.


The Ruwanwelisaya is another awe-inspiring site that you shouldn’t miss. This massive stupa stands at a height of 338 feet and is one of the most important religious monuments in Sri Lanka. The intricate carvings and architectural details will leave you in awe of the ancient craftsmanship.


The Abhayagiri Dagoba, once one of the tallest structures in the ancient world, is another must-visit. As you cycle towards this imposing stupa, you’ll be amazed by its sheer size and the peaceful atmosphere that surrounds it.


If you’re interested in ancient monastic complexes, don’t miss out on the Jetavanaramaya. This colossal brick structure was once the third tallest building in the world and is a testament to the engineering marvels of the ancient Sri Lankans. The scale and intricacy of the ruins will give you a glimpse of the grandeur that once adorned this city.


For a true cultural immersion, make sure to visit the Isurumuniya Vihara. This temple complex is adorned with ancient rock carvings depicting scenes from Buddhist folklore and is known for its serene ambiance. Exploring the rock-cut caves and observing the beautiful sculptures is a unique experience.


As you cycle through the city, you’ll also come across smaller but equally fascinating sites such as the Thuparamaya, one of the oldest stupas in Sri Lanka, and the Samadhi Statue, a stone sculpture depicting the meditating Buddha.


These are just a few of the many remarkable sites that Anuradhapura has to offer. Each location will immerse you in a different aspect of the ancient city’s history and leave you with a deeper appreciation for the cultural heritage of Sri Lanka.


Cycling Tips in Anuradhapura

When embarking on a cycling adventure in Anuradhapura, it’s important to keep a few essential tips in mind to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience. Here are some cycling tips to make the most of your time in this ancient capital:


1. Plan your route: Before setting off, plan your cycling route in advance. Familiarize yourself with the locations of the main historical sites and landmarks you wish to visit. This will help you navigate through the city more efficiently and maximize your time.


2. Wear suitable clothing: Dress comfortably and wear appropriate cycling attire. Consider the weather conditions, as Anuradhapura can get quite hot and humid. Opt for lightweight, breathable clothing and don’t forget to wear a helmet for safety.


3. Stay hydrated: Carry plenty of water with you to stay hydrated during your cycling adventure. The sun and physical exertion can cause dehydration, so make it a priority to drink water regularly throughout your ride.


4. Be mindful of traffic: Anuradhapura can have busy roads, so it’s important to be cautious and mindful of traffic. Stick to the designated cycling lanes or use the side of the road where cycling is permitted. Always obey traffic rules and signals.


5. Take breaks and rest: Cycling around Anuradhapura can be physically demanding, especially if you’re visiting multiple sites in one day. Take regular breaks to rest, admire the surroundings, and recharge before continuing your journey.


6. Lock your bike: When stopping to explore a site or taking a break, make sure to lock your bike securely. Anuradhapura is generally safe, but it’s always better to take precautions and protect your belongings.


7. Explore off-the-beaten-path: While visiting the main historical sites is a must, don’t be afraid to venture off-the-beaten-path and discover hidden gems. Anuradhapura is filled with lesser-known ruins, scenic spots, and local villages that can offer a unique and authentic experience.


8. Respect the cultural heritage: Anuradhapura is a sacred and culturally significant city. Show respect for the religious sites and local customs during your visit. Dress modestly when entering temples and observe any rules or regulations provided by the authorities.


9. Carry essential supplies: It’s a good idea to carry some essential supplies with you, such as sunscreen, insect repellent, first aid kit, and a mobile phone for emergencies. These items will ensure your comfort and safety throughout the cycling adventure.


10. Enjoy the journey: Above all, don’t forget to enjoy the journey! Take the time to soak in the rich history, stunning landscapes, and cultural beauty of Anuradhapura. Cycling allows you to connect with the surroundings in a unique way, so savor every moment and create lasting memories.


By following these cycling tips, you’ll be well-prepared to explore the remarkable city of Anuradhapura on two wheels and have a truly unforgettable experience.


Best Time to Visit Anuradhapura

Anuradhapura, being located in a tropical climate, experiences warm temperatures throughout the year. However, there are certain times that are considered the best to visit the ancient capital, taking into account weather conditions and cultural festivals.


The dry season, which runs from May to September, is generally considered the best time to visit Anuradhapura. During this period, the weather is dry and sunny, with minimal rainfall. The pleasant weather allows for comfortable cycling and exploring the ancient ruins without the interruption of heavy rain showers.


Additionally, the dry season aligns with the Esala Perahera, one of the most important cultural festivals in Sri Lanka, held in July or August. This festival involves grand processions with traditional dance performances and beautifully decorated elephants parading through the streets of Anuradhapura. Experiencing the dazzling cultural festivities during the dry season adds an extra layer of excitement and cultural immersion to your visit.


However, if you prefer to avoid crowded tourist sites and are willing to tolerate some occasional rainfall, the shoulder seasons of April to May and October to November can also be pleasant times to visit. During these periods, the city is less crowded, and you may have more serene and uninterrupted moments to explore the historical sites.


It’s worth noting that December to February is the northeast monsoon season in Anuradhapura, characterized by intermittent showers. While the rain can bring a refreshing respite from the heat, it may also hinder your outdoor activities and exploration. Therefore, it is recommended to avoid this period if you have a strong preference for dry and sunny weather.


Ultimately, the best time to visit Anuradhapura depends on your preferences and priorities. If you prioritize fewer crowds and don’t mind occasional rain showers, the shoulder seasons can offer a unique and more serene experience. However, for optimal weather conditions and the chance to witness the vibrant Esala Perahera, the dry season from May to September is the ideal time to plan your visit to this ancient capital.


Regardless of the time of year you choose to visit, Anuradhapura’s rich history and cultural heritage will captivate you and leave you with memories to cherish for a lifetime.



Anuradhapura, with its rich history, captivating ruins, and enchanting natural beauty, offers a truly unforgettable cycling experience. Exploring this ancient capital on two wheels allows you to immerse yourself in the grandeur of the Anuradhapura Kingdom, pedal through time, and witness the architectural marvels of the past.


From the iconic Sri Maha Bodhi to the towering stupas of Ruwanwelisaya and Abhayagiri Dagoba, every pedal stroke in Anuradhapura reveals a new facet of its fascinating history and cultural heritage. The well-preserved ruins, combined with the tranquil lakes, lush greenery, and vibrant paddy fields, create a picturesque backdrop for your cycling adventure.


As you cycle through the city, remember to plan your route, dress appropriately, and stay hydrated. Respect the cultural heritage of this sacred city and take the time to explore both the popular landmarks and the hidden gems that Anuradhapura has to offer.


The best time to visit Anuradhapura is during the dry season, from May to September, when you can enjoy sunny weather and witness the magnificent Esala Perahera. However, the shoulder seasons also offer their own unique charm and opportunities for a more tranquil experience.


Whether you’re a history enthusiast, a nature lover, or an adventure seeker, cycling in Anuradhapura is a breathtaking journey that will leave you with a profound appreciation for the rich cultural heritage of Sri Lanka. So hop on your bike, pedal through time, and create memories that will last a lifetime in this ancient capital.