An ancient fortress in the north (5th century A.D.).
On top of a rock plateau overlooking dense jungle and a vast plain is Sigiriya, the mysterious remains of the 5th-century fortress of King Kasyapa. When it was built, an impressive 5-acre/2-hectare fort sat astride the rock and a city nestled at its base, but now the city is gone and the fortress is in ruins. According to legend, King Kasyapa gained power after burying his father alive. He ruled for the next 18 years, until his half brother Mogallan defeated him in battle. As his soldiers retreated, Kasyapa remained on his elephant facing the opposing army. Then, with great theatre, he pulled out a dagger and slit his throat.
The ruins of Sigiriya are the most unique of the ancient sites in Sri Lanka. Be sure to brave the rickety-looking spiral staircase to see the 19 frescoes of women (Apsaras) painted beneath an overhang about 90 m up the rock. The frescoes are quite beautiful; their colours stunningly vibrant after 1,500 years. A wall covered with 1,000-year-old graffiti and poetry (left by visitors who recorded their impressions of the painted women) lies just above the frescoes. Near the top of the rock fortress is a pair of huge stone Lion's Paws (all that remains of a giant stone lion). We recommend seeing the ruins in the morning - it's much cooler, and smiling local people and domesticated elephants may be walking along the road. There's a small archaeological museum at the base of Sigiriya.
In nearby Dambulla you can visit a series of caves on a mountain ledge. They contain frescoes showing some of Buddha's epic struggles against evil. (Photographs are not allowed in Dambulla's caves).