sigiriya lions rock

Everything You Need To Know About Climbing Sigiriya

Sigiriya, or Lion Rock, is an ancient rock fortress located in the central plains of Sri Lanka. As one of many UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the country, it’s a must-do if you’re visiting Sri Lanka. Boasting an extensive network of surrounding gardens and a museum, Sigiriya has a lot to offer.

Standing at over 200 meters, with over 1,200 steps, Sigiriya usually takes 1.5 to 3 hours to climb and descent. Despite being a strenuous hike, and scary for height-phobics like me, it was an incredible experience that I recommend to anyone! The site is open daily from 7am to 5:30pm. Early morning and late afternoon are the best times to visit for avoiding the heat and crowds. It cost me $30 usd (February 2019) as a foreigner, or Rs50 for locals.

Once I began researching my trip to Sri Lanka, I knew climbing Sigiriya was high on my to-do list. However given my fear of heights, and the fact I’d be alone as a solo backpacker, I wasn’t sure how doable this would be. I hope this guide helps any other height-phobics know what to expect.

My Experience Climbing Sigiriya

My first stop in Sri Lanka was Dambulla – a great base to explore the wider areas, including Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa. I met two guys in my homestay who kindly let me join their Sigiriya trip. We decided to book a private driver, who not only navigated us to our bucket-list destinations brilliantly, but acted as a knowledgeable tour guide! I’d highly recommend considering a driver for this part of Sri Lanka, particularly if you’re short on time. Public transport is more limited here compared to other areas of the country and the sites are spread out.

Climbing Sigiriya

After a 20 minute drive from Dambulla, in the torrential rain, we arrived at Sigiriya. It happened to be Sri Lanka’s Independence Day, so without realising it, I’d chosen the busiest day of the year to visit. Because of this, it took over 2 hours to ascent the rock, with the entire route being congested with queues of people. Take my photos with a pinch of salt, as it’s apparently never normally this busy. The constant queuing worsened my fears, as we had to wait on scary parts of the climb for long periods of time.

Starting the Climb

The start of the climb takes you up several hundred stairs, surrounded by stunning scenery. From a height’s perspective, this part of the climb was fine. I made the rookie mistake of not bringing enough food or water, which I regretted by the time we got to the top. Luckily as it was overcast and raining, I didn’t struggle too much with the heat! The first part of this section was easy and we were moving at a good pace.

The sheer number of people climbing that day meant that within 15 minutes of climbing, we joined a massive queue of people. The route remained this crowded for the rest of the climb. The surrounding views as we climbed were incredible and you can see for miles ahead with each step up you take. However, moving at snail pace meant that the daunting spiral staircase looming ahead made my nerves. I highly recommend going early in the morning to avoid congestion, as this would have been a lot easier mentally had we been able to power walk our way up.

The Famous Spiral Staircase of Sigiriya

The spiral staircase takes you to murals in the cave, known as the Frescoes. There are only 23 left out of the original 500, and are really beautiful to look at. You’re not allowed to take photos of these, and there are people patrolling to make sure you don’t. However, it’s worth noting that this part of the route is optional! If you have bad vertigo and don’t want to climb this staircase, you don’t have to. It won’t take you to the next part of the route. If I had known this ahead of time I definitely would have avoided it as I found this section very unnerving with my fear of heights.

Spiral Staircase Sigiriya
Spiral Staircase

After completing this part of the climb, we arrived at the foot of Lion Staircase. This is a great place to stop and take a break before tackling the summit. At this point, I noticed some people turn round and head back down…I nearly joined them after seeing the Lion staircase in person.

Lion Staircase – The Summit

In all honesty, I found the climb up the lion staircase terrifying. The stairs were slippery from the rain and completely rammed with people. We often had to stand and wait, which prolonged the journey up. My tip is to really focus on looking up and holding on the the railing (or wall depending which side you’re on) for balance. Again, I believe it’s never usually this busy. If it were empty, I would have just powered up and got it over with quickly.

Lion Staircase
Sigiriya Lion Staircase

After a nerve-wracking 15 minutes, I finally made it to the top! The unbelievable views at the top absolutely made the summit worth it. I spent about 30 minutes walking around the stone ruins, gardens and pools! It was fascinating to hear about the history of the palace, so I’d recommend going with a tour guide or spending time in the museum below beforehand. This area is completely exposed to the elements, so consider bringing an umbrella, hat or other sun protection.

After a lovely experience, I wobbled my way down and started the descent down Sigiriya. Going down was much easier and the traffic of people was constantly moving. It was also easier to enjoy all the stunning surroundings as you walked down, so be prepared to stop a lot for photos.

Sigiriya Lion Staircase
Sigiriya Lion Staircase

Tips for Climbing Lion’s Rock

  • Pick a day/time that isn’t extremely busy. This could mean early in the morning (good to avoid the hottest time of day too) or on a weekday.
  • Bring water and snacks with you. Refreshments are available near the main entrance, however you won’t be able to buy anything within the site.
  • Use a bathroom ahead of time near the entrance. There are no toilet facilities within the site.
  • Lather up in high factor sun cream. The route is largely exposed to the sun, especially at the top! I got a bit burnt, even though it was cloudy, rainy weather.
  • Wear comfortable walking shoes. I wore trainers, but I saw lots of people walking in flip flops. Given the time spent on your feet, I’d recommend wearing proper shoes.
  • Consider taking an umbrella – again, there’s no shade during the summit or at the top, so it’ll help protect you from the sun (or rain in my case).
  • If you’re scared of heights it is important to factor in that some areas are steep or require going up nerve-wracking stairs. If you go ahead, take it one step at a time and break up the journey by stopping at rest points along the route. If I can do it, you can.

I hope anyone reading this with a fear of heights feels reassured that climbing Sigiriya is absolutely possible. Just break the route up by resting at each stopping point. The photos of Sigiriya really don’t do it justice, so definitely go see it for yourself.

Sigiriya FAQs

How to Get to Sigiriya

The easiest way to get to Sigiriya is to drive or hire a taxi, particularly if you’re staying somewhere nearby like Dambulla. For public transport, the nearest train station to Sigiriya is Habrana. This is roughly 17km away, so you’ll need to catch a taxi from the station to the rock itself. There are trains going from major transport areas like Colombo Fort and Kandy. Aside from trains, you can get public buses to Sigiriya and this is likely your cheapest option too. Most major transport areas have public buses going to Dambulla, and from there, you can catch a second bus. I was lazy and got a cab!

How High is Sigiriya?

Sigiriya is approximately 180m high and looks very impressive when you first arrive in the area!

How Long Does It Take to Climb Sigiriya?

With over 1,200 steps, Sigiriya usually takes 1.5 – 3 hours for the climb up and descent back down. This will largely depend on how busy the route is, your fitness levels and the time you spend at the top. It’s worth taking it at a gentle pace, and factoring in steep bits, so give yourself plenty of time! The views during the climb and at the top are also breathtaking, so it’d be a shame to rush past this.

What Else Is There To Do Besides Lion Rock?

Outside of climbing Sigiriya, you can take tours around the stunning landscaped gardens and fountain areas located at the base of the rock. There is also a museum that delves into the history of Sigiryia.

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