Climbing Sigiriya - Lions Rock

Climbing Sigiriya - Lions Rock

Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka

When Is the Best Time

This is one of the most stunning historical sites of Sri Lanka. It's also very popular and heavily crowded at times. I show you how to avoid the crowds and make the most out of your visit. Also, make sure to read my 8 must-know tips before you visit at the end of the article.

Avoiding the Crowds

Lions Rock staircase up to the top
Staircase up to the summit of Lions Rock

It's significantly less crowded in the early morning and the late afternoon. If you want to avoid midday heat and beat the crowds at the same time, be there at 7 a.m. sharp or visit in the late afternoon.  Visiting later in the day (about 2 hours before they close) also gives you the perfect light for a good shot of Sigiriya Rock.  Especially the intriguing fresco paintings are at their best in the late-afternoon light. However, for a perfect photo, it needs to be sunny. Avoid weekends and public holidays if possible, as, in addition to foreign tourists, many local and domestic visitor are there. Overview of public holidays: Sri Lanka Public Holidays. Opening hours from 7 am - 5:30 pm. The entrance fee is costly (30 $ in 2021), and the experience may get spoiled when you arrive at midday while sharing the place with tons of other tourists.

Weather

Sigiriya is a year-round destination. Day temperatures are high ranging between 30-35°C and night drop to 25-20°C. Showers can occur throughout the year! It is a tropical climate with humidity around 80 % most of the year.

View from the top of Sigiriya - Lions Rock
View from the top of Lions Rock

Drier Season - January to September

It usually offers the most pleasant weather conditions between January and June; though April is slightly wetter. The drier season in this area starts in January and last until September. It is often overcast from June to August. From January to May it's frequently sunny. We spent two days at Sigiriya in January, and the weather was quite nice.

Rainy Season - October to December

The humidity can be an issue, especially in the rainy season. October until December are the wettest months. Also April experience slightly more rain.

Helpful weather overview: Climate - Average Monthly Weather Sigiriya

Hotel with pool with a spectacular view to Lions Rock

Hotels/Lodges: There are many excellent accommodations nearby. I wouldn't recommend a specific one, instead suggest to browse the best hotels and lodges here: Sigiriya Rock - Accommodations

Best Months to Visit

Jan
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Location and Tips

Sigiriya
Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka

Rising almost 200 meters (660 ft) from flat plains, this ancient rock fortress provides visitors with one of the most dramatic views in Sri Lanka. Often called the 8th wonder of the world, Sigiriya became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. It's one of the best-preserved examples of ancient urban planning. The stunning height on which a palace complex was built amazes even today's architects and engineers.

The summit of Sigiriya Rock
Sigiriya at the Golden Hour

Though the entrance fee is a bit pricey for foreigners, it’s utterly worth it. We organized a guide by the hotel. He recommended the afternoon with better light and fewer tourists and he was rifht. Before climbing to the top make a stop at the restrooms. There isn’t any on the rock itself. The museum at the entrance is informative. Nature and wildlife are also beautiful.

Sigiriya Location

'The Ancient City of Sigiriya' is located in the heart of the cultural triangle. It is formed by Anuradhapura and Mihintale in the north, by Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya to the south-east with Dambulla in the middle and to the south by Kandy and Matale Vihara. The triangle includes five of the eight world heritage sites in Sri Lanka.

Volcanic Formation

The massive column of rock is a volcanic plug that was formed over 2 billion years ago. Volcanic plugs are created when magma hardens inside a vent on an active volcano. After the volcanic activity ceased, the plug forms through erosion: The surrounding rock is removed over time by wind and rain, while the hard volcanic plug material remains. As a result, a distinctive upright landform is left. 

5 Facts About the Exciting History

The magnificent ancient frescoes at Sigiriya
One of the well-preserved frescoes
  1. The first clear signs of inhabitants at this structure date back to the 3rd century BC (= 300 years before year 1). Apparently, monks and ascetics lived there in rock shelters and caves. There is also evidence that the area was occupied even earlier, almost 5000 years ago.
  2. However, the formation of sophisticated architecture happened later when King Kashyapa (reigned 477–495) built a palace on the summit of the rock during the 5th century AD. It is said that it served him a safeguard against enemies as well as a pleasure palace. Sigiriya was developed not only into a fortress but also a complex city surrounding the rock. Most of the constructions on the rock summit and around it, including defensive structures, palaces as well as garden constructions, dating from the period of the king's reign. After the king was defeated in 495 he died a violent death.
  3. Then Sigiriya was converted into a Buddhist monastery complex. It was used by the monks until the 14th century. After this period, no records are found on Sigiriya for a very long time.
  4. Although some archaeological work began already during the 19th century, only British explorer John Still discovered important parts of the site later in 1907.
  5. In 1982 Sigiriya became a UNESCO World Heritage Site; as one of the best-preserved examples of ancient urban planning. Today it is an impressive ancient monument. The ruins show how a rock was once transformed into a complex fortress and palace.
Intriguing Frescoes

Another magnificent ancient frescoe

Some of the most magnificent ancient frescoes in the world are found at Sigiriya. Fresco means 'fresh' in Italian and is the oldest known painting technique. The painting becomes an integral part of the wall which results in extreme durability. The earliest known examples of frescoes date from the Egyptian culture 2600 BC.

The Sigiriya Frescoes are found in the Cobra Hood Cave which can be reached after climbing up on a narrow spiral staircase (see below). They decorate the walls with colourful and intriguing art. Painted over 1,500 years ago during the reign of King Kashyapa. The frescoes depict women (maybe the king's wives) of the royal court performing various tasks like showering flowers upon the humans below. It is estimated that there were more than 500 paintings, but due to the tropical climate, most of the frescoes got destroyed. Only 19 of the paintings survived as of today. Most visitors say, that these are the most stunning frescoes they ever saw. It is said that you are not allowed to photograph them. However, on our visit, we were only told not to use a flashlight.

Garden Complex

The lush Sigiriya gargen with people walking on a path
View from the top of Sigiriya Rock

Sigiriya in Sri Lanka is not only the rock itself but the remains of a complex fortress structure including several gardens with ponds, canals, alleys, and fountains: Sigiriya Lion Rock Complex. There were almost 100 swimming pools and ponds as well as an incredible series of fountains. Thus the gardens are an important part of this historic site. It is said that they are among the oldest landscaped gardens on our planet. They are divided into three linked forms: Symmetrically planned water gardens, boulder gardens, and terraced gardens.

White-throated kingfisher at a lake
White-throated kingfisher in the garden of Sigiriya

Probably the most interesting construction from an architectural and engineering point of view is the gravity-fed fountains in the water gardens. They were built over 1600 years ago and display a very sophisticated hydraulic technology, dating from an Early Historic Period. Even today the fountains still function to a small degree and can be experienced during the rainy season from October to December.

Climbing Sigiriya Rock

The Lion Paws of Sigiriya
View down from the top of Sigiriya Rock

After receiving your entrance tickets you are free to roam the area, including the garden complex. However, we decided to start climbing the rock immediately. The climb to the top (about 1200 steps) takes about 1 and 1,5 hours, depending on your fitness, age, the crowds and how fast you'd like to go of course. Due to the steepness and the humidity, it can become quite a strenuous climb. However, the first few stairways are fairly easy ones in the Fountain Gardens and the Boulder Gardens. A number of caves and small platforms can be spotted along the way there. Then the first challenge starts with a series of steep stairs in the Terraced Gardens and a grand staircase leading up to the Mirror Wall.

A staircase leading to the mirror wall
Entrance to the mirror wall and frescoes

Besides the frescoes, the Mirror Wall is one of the most amazing aspects of Sigiriya. During the reign of King Kashyapa, the wall was carefully polished in order to produce reflections of the king. Now the plaster is gone and it is painted with inscriptions, including poems, left by visitors. The oldest inscriptions date back to the 8th century, proving that Sigiriya has been 'tourist destination' for quite a while. Today there are signs which warn visitors not to add their own inscriptions. The next stop is probably the highlight of your visit: The intriguing Frescoes. The fresco paintings can be reached by a separate and very narrow spiral staircase. You ascend the steep stairs about 20m and later descend back down before continuing to the next part: On a small plateau, halfway up to the top of the rock is a portal which looks like an enormous lion, therefore the name Lion Rock.

Climbing the staircase to the mirror wall
Markus is climbing the staircase to the mirror wall

From here the "lion" staircase is carved out from a rock and continues on newly constructed iron steps to the top. A climb to the top of the rock is worth the effort. You see the ruins of the former palace. And the view from the top is mesmerizing.

On the summit of Sigiriya, you'll realize that this wasn't just a simple palace the king built. Instead, it was a collection of fascinating buildings, pavilions, tropical gardens and ponds. It is said, that the palace on the top was only used in summer. During the wet season, the king retreated to a palace at the bottom of the rock.
 

8 Must-Know Tips

My husband and a macaque monkey
Be aware of the monkeys

A Guide Is Not Needed but Helpful

There are many guides roaming around the entrance area offering their services. It's not necessary at all to use one. All paths are clear and well explained via signs.  However, a guide for the area (driving to the sites) is highly recommended.

Climb to the Very Top

Unless you have a severe fear of heights or your physical condition doesn't allow it: Climb all the way up to the top! It's definitely worth it. Some visitors stop at the lion plateau and then head back. It can be a tough climb to the top but the views from there are just stunning.

Bring Plenty of Water

It's hot and you definitely get thirsty when climbing to the top. It can get strenuous due to its steepness and humidity.

Dodge the Crowds

It's a much more enjoyable climb without the tourist crowds. Follow my tips from above and be very early when there are virtually no other visitors around. Alternatively get there later in the afternoon.

Best Light for Perfect Shots

The best time of the day for stunning pictures of Lions Rock is in the afternoon. We were glad our guide told us the day before.

Don't Rush

Follow my tips above and start early or late to avoid the crowds. That way you can take your time and enjoy the climb. There are so many excellent photo opportunities on your way to the top. While rushing through you'd probably miss these.

Beware of the Hornets

There are reports that hornets are occasionally aggressive and sting people on the top of the rock or on their way up. It might be dangerous for people with allergy and young children. In that case, wear appropriate clothing and don't make too much noise.

Avoid the Monkeys

There are lots of cheeky macaque monkeys. Although they seem cute at first, you should definitely keep your distance. These little thieves can steal almost everything: food, bags, sunglasses etc. They are annoying. 
 

Hornbill on top of Sigiriya
Hornbill on top of Lions Rock

Noteworthy

A part of the original Duran Duran music video 'Save a Prayer' was shot on top of Sigiriya Rock in 1982: 'Save a Prayer' by Duran Duran

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Created by
Micha Herber-Bleich
Micha Herber-Bleich
I love adventurous trips and my husband…