Hiking Sigiriya Lion’s Rock in Sri Lanka

The Lion's Rock.

Hiking Sigiriya Lion’s Rock in Sri Lanka

No visit to Sri Lanka is complete without a visit to the Sigiriya Rock Fortress. Sigiriya Rock is one of Sri Lanka’s wonders, and it’s a must-see attraction on any visitor’s itinerary. Sigiriya, meaning Lion Rock in Singalese, is an ancient city in the central Matale district of Sri Lanka.

It’s easy to spot this two hundred meters high rock as you drive through the Matale district; it dominates the skyline! Although nowadays the fortress is mainly ruins, the lure of Sigiriya is really the hike to the top and the awesome views that accompany it. The palace ruins are surrounded by an extensive network of fortifications, water gardens, boulder gardens, reservoirs, moats, and alleys. It will take you a good half a day to explore them all. 

What’s the history of the Sigiriya rock?

In the 5th century, King Kashyapa chose to build his new capital upon this rock. He built his palace at the top of the rock and decorated the sides with colourful frescoes. On a plateau halfway up, he built a gate, guarded by a statue of a lion. This gave rise to the name Lion Rock. You can still see the remains of the lion’s paws, although its head is long gone. After the death of King Kashyapa, the capital and royal palace were both abandoned, before being used as a Buddhist monastery up until the fourteenth century. It is now one of Sri Lanka’s seven UNESCO World Heritage sites and the most visited attraction in the country.

The rock from afar.
The rock from afar.

The Climb

Once through the entrance gate, you will find yourself amongst the fortress’s gardens. The gardens are lovely to walk around, especially as there are many monkeys to entertain you! Try not to bring any food with you, as they might try and rob you! My advice would be to complete the hike to the top first, before exploring the gardens. 

The moat at the entrance of the gardens.
The moat at the entrance of the gardens.
A monkey in the gardens.
On our way to the top.
On our way to the top.
The first set of steps.
The first set of steps.

To reach the top of Sigiriya, you will need to climb 1200 steps. Even though it sounds daunting it’s not that hard. We saw many older people doing it, and there are many places to stop and catch your breath. The trick is to take regular breaks, and let’s face it, with all those photos to be taken, how could you not!

The view over the gardens.
The view over the gardens.
The view from the hike.
The view from halfway through the hike.

The frescoes

Halfway to the top, you have the option to climb a spiral staircase, which leads to the beautiful frescoes and the mirror wall. These magnificent frescoes are housed inside a sheltered area, set against the sheer rock face. During Kasapya’s reign, the western wall of the fortress was almost entirely covered in frescoes, but today only eighteen remain. The frescoes depict naked women (who are believed to be Kasyapa’s wives, concubines, or priestesses) performing religious rituals. It’s pretty amazing that they still appear almost untouched after all these years.

More frescoes.
The frescoes.
The beautiful frescoes.

The mirror wall

Next, you will reach the mirror wall. The mirror wall used to be so polished that the king could see his own reflection when he walked alongside it. The wall is now covered with inscriptions and poems written by the visitors to Sigiriya. All of these inscriptions date from before the 8th century. This suggests that Sigiriya was a tourist attraction well over a thousand years ago. These days it is strictly forbidden to write on the wall.

The mirror wall.
The mirror wall.

Note: Since our visit in 2015, the photographing of the frescoes and the mirror wall has been banned.

As you reach the last set of stairs before the top, you will come across the huge lion paw carvings. They are impressive, making you imagine how big the lion head must have been.

The last set of steps.
The last set of steps.
The Lion's paw.

As we made our way through the last set of stairs, we came across many wasp nests clinging to the rock-face. Signs warned tourists to be quiet, so as not to disturb them. That was a little unnerving!

Some wasp nests hanging on the side of the rock.
Some wasp nests hanging on the side of the rock.

The summit

When we finally made it to the top, we were greeted by spectacular views and ancient temple ruins. The summit covers an area of 1.6 hectares, and we spent a while walking around the remains of the palace, enjoying the gardens and the views over the surrounding countryside. There’s a large pond made from solid rock that looks like it would have been a lovely swimming pool for the king. I bet a swim in it would have been amazing back in the days, especially with that view!

We've made it!
We’ve made it!
Ruins at the top.
Ruins at the top.
The view from the top.
Incredible view from the top.
The ruins of the fortress at the top of the rock.
The top of the rock.
The ancient swimming pool.
The ancient swimming pool.

The Cobra Hood Cave

On our way down to the south gate via the Boulder Gardens we came across the Cobra Hood Cave. This rocky projection is shaped like an opened Cobra’s hood. Hence its name. The interior of the cave used to be embellished with many floral and animal paintings but of course with time most of those disappeared. Only a couple of faint paintings now remain. 

How much is Sigiriya?

The entrance fee to the fortress is not cheap, 4200 rupees (US$30) for foreigners and includes entrance to the Sigiriya Museum. While Sri Lanka is normally quite affordable, tourist attractions seem to be quite pricey, especially for Asia.

The Cobra Hood Cave
The Cobra Hood Cave on our way down.

Where to stay in Sigiriya?

We stayed at the Aliya Resort and Spa for two nights, which was very close to the rock. The resort offered a great view of the rock itself from the reception area, and main restaurant and bar. But the best part was its huge infinity pool. From there you can sip a cocktail, staring out at the rock, or hang out after a morning of hiking!

Click here to checkout their latest prices.

The pool of our hotel!
The pool of our hotel! You can see the Lion’s Rock in the background.

Other Accommodation

Best on booking.com

Top reviewed: Sigiriya King’s Resort or Sajee Nature Cottage

Good value: Sigiri Anu Homestay or Sigiri Sithru Home Stay

Best location: Roy’s Villa Hostel or Thuruliya Residence

Use the search box below to find hotels in Sigiriya:

Tips for an enjoyable hike

  • Go as early in the morning as you can; it opens at 7 am. Not only will you beat the crowds, but you’ll beat the heat too!
  • Remember to bring lots of water, you will need it. It gets pretty hot once the sun rises higher in the sky.
  • Wear sturdy shoes (no flip-flops). Some sections are quite slippery, so shoes with proper grip underfoot are more suitable and more comfortable.
  • Take many breaks along the way, enjoy the scenery, take pictures, and drink water. It will make the hike a lot more enjoyable.
  • Stay somewhere with a pool, so you take a refreshing dip after your big day out!
  • If you have an extra day in the area, why not hike the Pidurangala Rock. It’s nearby and a lot less crowded. Plus, you’ll find a great view of Lion’s Rock from the top!
View of Pidurangala Rock from the top of Sigiriya. We really wish we had time to hike this one too!
View of Pidurangala Rock from the top of Sigiriya. We really wish we had time to hike this one too!

Don’t forget the Dambulla Cave Temple

Only 17 kilometres away from Sigiriya, is another UNESCO World Heritage Site that shouldn’t be missed, the Dambulla Cave Temple. The Dambulla Cave Temple is a monastery and is the largest and best-preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka. It is set under a vast overhanging lava rock and consists of five caves each with many statues of buddhas, intricate religious paintings and wall murals. The caves are very atmospheric and well worth the climb. From the top of the temple, you get a beautiful view of the region and a view of the Sigiriya Rock in the distance.

You can get to the Dambulla Cave Temple by bus or tuk tuk from Sigiriya.

The Dambulla Cave Temple

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  • Lois Alter Mark

    How beautiful! It totally reminds me of the rock where Mufasa lifts up baby Simba in The Lion King! Congrats on making it to the top. Those wasp nests would have freaked me out!

    October 21, 2017 at 8:10 pm
  • Megan Jerrard

    Wow, it definitely dominated the skyline! What an incredible and imposing rock! Would love the opportunity to hike to the top of Sigiriya Rock, Sri Lanka has been on my list for a while now, I hope to visit next year. Cool that the hike begins in the fortress gardens – but good tip to complete the hike first – I always take snacks with me on long hikes, and I don’t particularily feel like donating my food to the monkeys!

    The views from the top are stunning, and what an opportunity to view historic frescoes – they’re so beautiful. Lucky that you got in before 2015 and were able to take photos! I wonder why they banned it.

    Thanks for the tip on staying at Aliya Resort and Spa – that infinity pool overlooking the rock and surrounding country looks stunning. Can’t wait to make it happen!

    October 22, 2017 at 1:11 pm
  • knycx.journeying

    Great summary and good tips. I enjoyed seeing the photos as well! Sigiriya is a very important heritage site and I now learned that there are so many valuable carvigs, paintings and engravings on the rocks! @ knycx.journeying

    October 22, 2017 at 7:20 pm
  • Ozzy

    One of the oldest spots of Sri Lanka with so much history within itself.

    A great post to showcase an often overlooked piece of history. Hiking to the Sigiriya Rock has been on my to do list for a while now. This should give that last bit of push required. 🙂
    It is a little sad that no photography is allowed on the rock anymore.
    Must say that you got some great shots.

    October 23, 2017 at 12:56 am
  • Sandy N Vyjay

    The hike to the Sigiriya rock looks really interesting. I am fascinated by the history of the place and the fact that it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The paws of the lion look so huge. I can just imagine how the place would have looked in its heyday, with the palace atop the rock. I think this is definitely a place one must visit in Sri Lanka.

    October 23, 2017 at 4:37 pm