Anuradhapura divides into two distinct areas: Anuradhapura New Town, which is home to almost all the town’s accommodation and practical services, and the Sacred Precinct to the west, site of the ancient city. The town is hemmed in by three great artificial lakes, or tanks: Nuwara Wewa to the east, and Tissa Wewa and Basawakkulama Tank to the west. The New Town is bisected by Main Street, where you’ll find the post office, banks and other services. Most of Anuradhapura’s accommodation is just east of here on or near Harischandra Mawatha.
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The Sacred Precinct
Anuradhapura’s scatter of monuments and remains is vast and potentially confusing. The easiest way to get a mental handle on the Sacred Precinct is to think of it in terms of its three great monasteries: the Mahavihara, Jetavana and Abhayagiri – about two-thirds of the main sites belong to one of these complexes.
The most obvious place to start is the Mahavihara, at the physical and historical centre of the ancient city, beginning at the Ruvanvalisaya dagoba and walking south to Sri Maha Bodhi, before doubling back towards the Thuparama. From here you can either head east to the Jetavana Monastery or north to the Abhayagiri complex.
There are further important clusters of sights at the Citadel, between the Mahavihara and Abhayagiri monasteries; and south of the Mahavihara, between the Mirisavetiya dagoba and Isurumuniya Temple. The major dagobas provide useful landmarks if you get disoriented, though beware confusing the Ruvanvalisaya and Mirisavetiya dagobas, which can look very similar when seen from a distance.