Perhaps one of the most famous landmarks in Sri Lanka – besides the beautiful, Instagram-worthy beaches – is the unique, unmissable archaeological site of Sigiriya. With UNESCO World Heritage status, the famous Lion Rock is an enormous square that rises from the landscape in the picturesque, green area of the Central Province.
The hefty price tag of the attraction is something that makes many budget travellers in Sri Lanka quiver. At $30 USD (around 4500Rs), the attraction isn’t something that can be easily factored into a budget itinerary – particularly when you consider that you can eat dinner for as little as 300rs ($2 USD) and a budget double room can be as little as 1000 rs ($7 USD). In fact, $30 USD is over half of mine and James’ combined daily budget (we have spent on average $50 USD / 7500Rs a day, which includes accommodation, transport, food and activities.)
However, many of us pay the price without batting an eyelid, because this is considered one of Sri Lanka’s must dos. What many people don’t realise is that there is another way to see Sigiriya, a way that you can see Sigiriya on a budget – a secret I’ll share with you here.
The ‘must do’ site: Sigiriya’s Lion Rock
To make the most of your $30 USD, visit Lion Rock is in the early morning, as soon as the park opens at 7:30am. This way, you can climb the rock before the heat of the day kicks in – and there is no cover on the climb so remember to wear suncream – even at 7:30am! It took us an hour to climb the Rock from the entrance of the park to the summit. There are 1200 steps in total. I recommend saving a walk around the gardens until after you’ve climbed the rock to get the hard work done as soon as possible!
After climbing the base of the Rock, which is a series of steps through the boulders and terraced gardens, a winding staircase leads to a cave-like gallery with a number of paintings of women which represent apsaras – King Kassapa’s concubines. As they are shaded by the cave, the paintings are in very good condition, however you are not allowed to take photos.
Descending the spiral staircase, you enter a corridor with the rock face on your right and a huge 3m tall wall on your left. Coated with a smooth paint, the “Mirror Wall” supposedly reflects the light in such a way that it looks like a mirror (personally I couldn’t really tell!). Ancient inscriptions can be found here which detail visitors’ opinions of the frescoes above. You aren’t allowed to touch the wall; it’s guarded heavily and walkers are encouraged to move on so as not to block the route.
Next you’ll come to a platform where the main attraction is the remains of a giant brick lion; today all that remains are his paws. The stairway used to enter his mouth. This is why the rock is named ‘Lion Rock’.
After this point, the walk becomes a little unsettling – particularly if, like me, you aren’t a fan of heights. There is a metal staircase attached to the side of the rock face, and luckily you can use the handrail to help you up; I tried my best not to look down!
The summit spans 1.6 hectares and the ancient ruins cover all of it. They are only the foundations of the ancient structures; at a glance they aren’t particularly impressive and, although they are labelled with signs to advise what they used to be, there isn’t an awful lot of information provided. We were not given a guidebook or information leaflet when we bought our tickets so we were a bit clueless really. Expect to pay around 1000Rs for a guide.
A cheaper alternative: Pidurangala Rock
A 30 minute walk from Lion Rock lies Pidurangala Rock; it’s signposted from the main complex. Few people bother to go to this attraction as well as to Lion Rock – probably because they don’t want to climb two hills in one day, or possibly because they don’t know about it – but some choose to skip Lion Rock completely and choose Pidurangala instead. Why? Because you get views like this:
The climb to the summit of Pidurangala isn’t as straightforward as the track up Lion Rock. It begins at a temple, which isn’t necessary to enter but you must cover your shoulders and knees as you walk past it. The path then follows the rocks through the shade of the trees, passing a cave where a statue of a Reclining Buddha can be found.
You then reach some much larger rocks that require climbing up in order to reach the summit. The route is well signposted with large arrows guiding the way. Only the last part of the hike is difficult; we saw people of all ages doing it, however, I must make it clear that the last part of the climb is more “bouldering” or “rock climbing” than “hiking” or “walking”.
But the views at the top of the rock make it more than worthwhile. We actually thought the views here were more impressive than those at the top of Lion Rock, because Lion Rock became the subject of our photographs. And, perhaps because it’s a little more difficult to get to, we felt a real sense of achievement when we reached to the top. Oh, and the cost? 500Rs per person.
Am I missing out if I don’t go to Lion Rock?
Each of the attractions is very different from the other, and if you have the chance, I would encourage you to visit both Lion Rock and Pidurangala. However, sometimes the budget won’t stretch that far and it’s clear that Pidurangala Rock is the more affordable option – but I do not believe you will be missing out by deciding against going to Lion Rock.
Personally, I found I enjoyed my experience at Pidurangala Rock more than at Lion Rock. This is because I found the hike to the summit more enjoyable (it’s in the shade and I liked climbing the boulders at the end), I found the views more rewarding (with Lion Rock in them, as opposed to being on top of it) and there were hardly any tourists there (compared to the many tour groups at Lion Rock). Plus, you can visit the small temple at the bottom. And of course it was 8x cheaper.
That aside, the only other major factor to draw you to Lion Rock is the historical significance of the place. Sigiriya dates back to 477AD, when King Kassapa used it for royal and military functions; he built the gardens and a palace at the summit. Some believe the palace was in fact a monastery. However, I didn’t gain much historical knowledge from my experience at Lion Rock because no information leaflets were provided by the organisation. I believe that in order to truly learn about the history of Lion Rock, you need to take a guide with you (they normally charge 1000Rs +), or invest in a decent book/ internet search ahead of your visit. I took my Lonely Planet Sri Lanka guidebook which has a good amount of information on Sigiriya in it.
All in all, I don’t think you will be missing out if you choose not to visit Lion Rock. We went to both Lion Rock and Pidurangala, despite having read numerous blog posts and forums telling us why either one was worthwhile. This is simply because I have a little case of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), where I worry that if I miss something, I’ll regret it. I’m glad I visited both attractions as each has its own benefits and setbacks. I enjoyed the visit to Lion Rock but I don’t think it was worth $30 USD. I preferred Pidurangala.
Can I sneak in?
Some people try to sneak into Lion Rock, but don’t get very far. You can cross the moat that runs outside the complex and enter it from an entrance other than the official one, however there are guards patrolling the grounds and you must show your ticket at a number of checkpoints as you climb the the Rock. So no, you can’t really sneak in.
Failing to pay the $30 USD entrance fee risks a fine of a greater sum. Although it’s steep, the fee is used to maintain the grounds and the attraction for tourists. If you want to enter the complex and climb Lion Rock, please pay the fee.
Where to stay in Sigiriya
There are some accommodation options in and around Sigiriya. If you stay at a guesthouse close by, you are likely able to rent a bicycle to explore. Use the booking form below to make a reservation. We chose to stay in Dambulla and took daytrips to Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa from here. We stayed at the Lotus Inn, a small, family run guesthouse – basic but functioning.
How to get to Sigiriya
The cheapest way to get to Sigiriya is by bus. You can’t take the train as there is no station!
From Dambulla, we took the 6:15am bus from the central bus stand (opposite Bentota Restaurant) to Sigiriya for 80Rs per person (one way). We took the bus back at around 2:30pm (80Rs). Buses run regularly (every 30 mins or so) until around 4pm.
If you’re physically able, I would recommend the hike to the top of Pidurangala Rock to everyone looking to visit Sigiriya, even if you plan to climb Lion Rock as well. There is no disabled access unfortunately, and the track is a little difficult towards the end, but the views at the top are really worthwhile.
Have you visited Sigiriya? Would you rather climb Lion Rock or Pidurangala Rock – or both? Do you ever have a Fear Of Missing Out if you choose not to visit a famous attraction?
Thanks for reading & happy travels
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