Anuradhapura & Mihintale
Anuradhapura is the spiritual centre for all Sinhalese Buddhists and one of the most archeologically important ancient cities anywhere in the world. The extent of its decay make Anuradhapura harder to comprehend than the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, but its vast size makes it easier to get away from the crowds and you can sometimes find that you have the ruins of a 2000 year old palace or monastery all to yourself. The stupendously huge Dagoba's of Ruvanvalisaya, Abhayagiri, Jetavanarama and Mirisavatiya alone make Anuradhapura well worth a visit. There is also the Sri Maha Bodhi, the Sacred Bo Tree, at the heart of Anuradhapura, which is rumoured to have grown from a cutting from the original bo tree in India, under which Buddha obtained enlightenment. The tree attracts pilgrims from all over the Buddhist world. Occupying a huge area at the centre of Anuradhapura is the ruins of the ancient Citadel (the Royal Palace area), which was the secular heart of the city and housed within its walls, among other important buildings, is the original Temple of the Tooth, built to house the Buddha's tooth relic which is now in Kandy, when it first arrived on the Island. Nowadays most Anuradhapura residents live in the new town, a couple of kilometres from the ancient city spread along the shores of the large Nuwara Wewa tank and there are a few basic hotels and shops here, although many people do prefer to stay out of town.
Just 13km east of Anuradhapura is Mihintale, the place where Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka in 247 BC. The story goes that Mahinda, a Buddhist missionary from India (and the son of the great Buddhist Emperor, Ahsoka), had a chance meeting with the Sinhalese King, Devanampiya Tissa, who was out hunting in the hills and promptly converted the king and all of his entourage. The site is therefore of enormous significance to Sinhalese Buddhists. It is nestled on a rocky hill and if you want to see everything there are 1850 steps to climb (although it is now possible to drive up half way). On the way up you pass a ruined hospital and the ruins of the monks' refectory but the most interesting sights are at the top, including a Buddha statue and the Mahaseya Dagoba which can be seen for miles around.