Colombo. Sri Lanka’s buzzy commercial capital with a marmite like appeal- a tendency to be either loved or hated. While it’s not the most scenic part of the country, a visit can be far more than just a little bit enjoyable. As with all Cities, research makes a huge difference. The good news is I’ve done it for you- it took a while!
Rustic streets peppered with local street food, a vibrant mix of churches, temples, kovils and mosques and a fascinating contrast between the old and the new. Trees laden with fruit grow on the pave side while tuk tuks, motorbikes, cars and lorries keep everyone on their toes with the most frequent sound in Colombo, the ubiquitous beep of the horn.
Having lived in Colombo for several years, I love spending time in the City. Aside from frequenting the multitude of rooftop bars & restaurants, there’s everything from a tour around the 1960’s retro home of Sri Lanka’s most celebrated architect Geoffrey Bawa, Ayurvedic spas to indulge in a massage post flight, delicious British high tea in Colombo’s historic Colonial hotels or a hands on authentic Sri Lankan cooking class. And that’s just the start.
So download the Pick Me and Uber app to reliably chauffeur you from place to place- it’s time to hit the City!
As always, I would love to hear from you in the comments below- if you agree with my list or have any additional questions. Good luck on your adventures and enjoy!
Visit Geoffrey Bawa’s Residence ‘Number 11’
📍 No. 11, 33rd Lane, Bagatelle Road, Colombo 3
⏱ 1 1/2 hours
Sri Lanka’s leading architect of the Tropical Modernist movement, a visit to Geoffrey Bawa’s Colombo home is a visual feast for the culture vulture traveller. Having designed many a hotel across the country, there’s a chance you may have booked a night or two at one of his creations.
Guided tours are conducted in intervals throughout the day- the times can be found on the Trust’s website. Call in advance to make sure they’re running to schedule and reserve your spot.
Visit an art gallery
📍 Hempel Galleries, Saskia Fernando Gallery
⏱ 1-2 hours
Art in Sri Lanka is on the rise, innovative art with more than a pinch of island soul. Head down to the Saskia Fernando Gallery on Horton Place.
The daughter of one of Sri Lanka’s most renowned and stylistically flawless brands of hotels, restaurants and shops called Paradise Road, Saskia’s sister Annika hosts a high end fashion boutique called PR downstairs too.
Expect a thought provoking curation of the creme de la creme in the local art scene; from canvas and photography to sculpture. A must for the avid art lover.
Street art on on Green Path
📍 Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha (Green Path), Colombo 7
⏱ 30 minutes
Paintings by local artists have been displayed along Nelum Pokuna for many years. Here you will find vibrant depictions of exotic landscapes, elephants, stilt fishermen, Buddha and other primarily traditional Sri Lankan visuals- completely different from Colombo’s modern art galleries which tend to be more of an abstract aesthetic.
Haggling is a must, especially if you’re not local as they will likely increase the price. Artwork is sold in all sizes, from suitcase friendly to “how on earth are we going to ship that”, and small hand painted cards for more modest keepsake.
I recently bought my parents a large three piece canvas for Rs.30,000 (£150) which we padded and bubbled wrapped following a trip to Arpico (a supermarket that sells all kinds of homewear and a modest selection of hardware items too) just hours before our flight home.
Book a Cooking Class
⏱ 3 hours
Fresh on the scene is Aunty’s Sri Lankan Cooking classes, nestled in a local residential area in the heart of the city. The professionalism, flawless preparation of ingredients before arriving and Damien’s authentic passion for Sri Lankan food made the experience all the more memorable.
Learn how to break open coconuts, grate by hand and cook several authentic curries from parippu (dhal) to beetroot. The recipes cooked at the class are printed and given at the end which is a great encouragement to try them at home- the ultimate souvenir of a Sri Lankan curry evening to share with friends and family.
They also sell a few bits and pieces locally sourced and made from sustainable bamboo straws, handwoven place mats, decorative masks and spices.
The Old Town Hall
📍 Sri Bodhiraja Mawatha, Pettah
⏱ 45 minutes
While the Old Town Hall may be in need of a spring clean, the neoclassical exterior and rustic high-ceilinged interior never fails to impress.
As with many museums in Sri Lanka, perhaps a little less so these days, the unrefined quirkiness is part of the charm for those with an open mind and sense of laid back adventure.
The guided tour concludes at the adjoining motor museum, showcasing a handful of well preserved vehicles with surprisingly interesting background stories.
Colombo National Museum
📍 Sir Marcus Fernando Mawatha, Colombo 7
⏱ 1 1/2 hours
A huge, recently renovated museum which took me approximately 1 hour to explore. From Kandian masks to ancient artifacts, visit if you’re interested in Sri Lankan culture & history but haven’t made plans to venture towards the cultural triangle (in the Northern Central Province) itself.
From Kandian masks to ancient artifacts, I recommend visiting if interested in Sri Lankan culture & history but haven’t made plans to venture towards the cultural triangle in the Northern Central Province itself.
Independence Square & Independence Arcade
📍 Independence Square, Colombo 7
⏱ 1- 1/2 hours
Erected as a symbolic monument for Sri Lanka’s independence from British rule in 1948, the remarkable structure attracts local and international visitors alike.
There’s a shopping complex called Independence Arcade opposite the square where you will find several places to eat, drink and shop in addition to a luxury cinema.
Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple
📍 61 Sri Jinarathana Rd, Colombo 2
⏱ 45 minutes
Browse the eclectic collection of Buddhist artifacts from all over the world at Gangaramaya, Colombo’s most emblematic temple. An annual parade known as the Perahera is hosted in the month of February- details and dates can be found on the website.
The most spectacular Perehera however is held in Kandy during July/August. I don’t take photos of these festivals as they encorporate elephants in captivity but appreciate the traditional Buddhist festivities may be the highlight for some.
Seema Malaka Meditation Centre
📍 Sir James Pieris Mawatha, Colombo 2
⏱ 20-30 minutes
Take a moment of peace and calm at the Seema Malaka Meditation Centre designed by Geoffry Bawa in the 1970’s.
Floating on Beira Lake in the heart of the city, its particularly stunning at sunset.
📍 Wolfendhal Lane, Colombo 13
⏱ 30-45 minutes
One of the oldest churches in Colombo, the Wolvendaal was built in 1757 when Pettah was the central hub of the City.
I’ve visited twice. Short guided tours are often available. It’s worth going ahead (or listening in on another group if the Guide is busy) as the history is truly fascinating.
Captain’s Garden Kovil
📍 Kovil Street, Colombo 10
⏱ 30-45 minutes
A charming Hindu Kovil tucked behind Fort Railway Station, this is one of the only Hindu places of worship in the country which allows photography inside (outside is never an issue) for a small fee.
The kaleidoscopic religious art amongst the incense smoked ambience is a surreal experience. Worshippers offer prayers to various shrines representing different gods.
📍 2nd Cross Street, Pettah
⏱ 5-10 minutes (from outside)
A breathtaking building with vibrant red and white brickwork, Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque has become the most iconic structure of Pettah. Although I haven’t been inside, I’ve heard it’s possible depending on the time to have a quick look upon request.
It’s worth noting that women are generally not allowed inside the central hall of Islamic places of worship. To photograph the exterior, the side road to the left of the entrance is also a good vantage point.
Brunch at Cafe Kumbuk
📍 Cafe Kumbuk @ Prana Lounge, 60 Horton Place, Colombo 7
⏱ 1-1/2 hours
Craving a lie in? Why not head out for brunch instead of breakfast? Brunch has become incredibly popular across Colombo, especially at weekends. Cafe Kumbuk is my go to spot for avocado on toast and a smoothie.
Afternoon Tea at Galle Face Hotel
📍2 Galle Rd, Colombo
⏱ 1-1/2 hours
It may seem a little unusual experiencing a traditionally British high tea a stone’s throw from the Indian Ocean but as a once colonised country, there are still many characteristics of years gone by embraced in Sri Lankan culture today.
Head to one of Colombo’s oldest (and recently renovated) establishments, Galle Face Hotel. Choose from a wide selection of teas and cover your freshly baked scones (fluffy in the middle, crispy on the outside!) with a generous layer of homemade jam and cream.
There are a handful of high tea buffet options at larger hotels (the most popular of which The Kingsbury) most frequented by local clientele. For an authentic/traditional experience I prefer table service afternoon tea, plus I don’t have a buffet sized appetite!
The Dutch Hospital Precinct
Once a hospital during the Dutch occupation of Sri Lanka, it’s now home to an array of vibrant eateries and shops. For swanky seafood, the famous Ministry of Crab needs no introduction (reservations essential), for local pub food (hot butter cuttlefish and a local lion beer anyone?) try Taphouse by RNR or around the back of the hospital attached to Fairway Hotel is the new restaurant/bar Botanik, with dishes crafted by Sri Lankan Michelin starred chef, Rishi Naleendra.
Spa Ceylon, Sri Lanka’s leading spa inspired by Ayurveda, also have a branch here. Their indulgent spa products make excellent gifts or personal treats.
Sunset & Short Eats along Galle Face Green
📍Galle Face Green
⏱ 45 minutes-1 hour
At the very top of my to do list (probably #1) of things to do in Colombo I urge you to visit Galle Face Green at sunset. Home to a plethora of street vendors tempting passers by to indulge in some the freshest short eats in the city, this is one local foodie spot not to miss.
Whilst munching away on your crispy isso wade, admire the historic Galle Face Hotel at the end of the green and watch kids flying kites in the balmy breeze.
There are vast numbers of restaurants across Sri Lanka, herefore I’m unable to pinpoint a specific place to suit all tastes. Despite Sri Lankan cuisine being available across the country, I find that Colombo is the place to try something a little more multicultural.
My favourite restaurant in the city is August by Mama Aida’s, a completely unique Middle Eastern affair set in an intimate outside (sheltered) setting alongside a florist. Check the opening hours before visiting and reserve in advance, especially at weekends.
Hot Butter Cuttlefish & Lion Beer
It’s no secret that hot butter cuttledish is one of Colombo’s best loved local dishes. A fusion of Sri Lankan and Chinese, this spicy seafood treat goes hand in hand with a mug of Lion beer, especially overlooking the sea at sunset.
Colombo has various ‘dodgy bars’ peppered across the city. Randoli Sports Club is the only one I’ve been to
Evening Drinks on a Rooftop Bar
Park Street Mews tends to be one of the best places for evening drinks- I choose the bar with the most vibrant atmosphere which varies from day to day.
For rooftop bars try The Sky Lounge at The Kingsbury, Ward 7 at Jetwing Colombo 7, On14 at the OZO or Cloud Red at Cinnamon Red. To enjoy the sunset, go before dinner.
Sunday Jazz at Barefoot Cafe
Attended almost religiously by many a Colombo resident, a chilled Sunday afternoon listening to live jazz music (and a browse around Barefoot’s shop itself) is a perfect way to spend the day.
The seating is in the cosy outside courtyard and is relatively limited. Arrive early or try to pre book beforehand.
As well as stocking various handicrafts and handlooms, Barefoot’s highlight is the bookshop downstairs. With the widest range of Sri Lankan literature in an easily accessible organised display, a visit to Barefoot is always a pleasure.
The Good Market (Saturdays)
If there’s one thing to do on a Saturday its The Good Market in the grounds of The Racecourse.
The best place to buy non touristy souvenirs/gifts for family and friends including handicrafts, organic foodie treats, health & beauty products and more. Most of the vendors are regulars whilst others vary from week to week.
For even more variety, head to their permanent shop open throughout the week on the other side of the main road from The Racecourse promenade. It’s in the same vicinity as handicraft shop Lakpahana.
Shopping at Paradise Road
📍 Paradise Road, 213 Srimath Anagarika Dharmapala Mawatha, Colombo 7
⏱ 30 minutes
My #1 shop of choice for tasteful homewear and gifts for family and friends. Most of the products sold here are locally crafted and exclusive to Paradise Road. Some are simple and practical whilst others have a quirky Sri Lankan touch.
📍 Crescat Boulevard, 89 Galle Rd, Colombo 3
⏱ 45 minutes-1 hour
There are various shops in Crescat Boulevard as well as affordable to mid range places to grab a quick bite to eat in the downstairs food court and Sugar Bistro on the ground floor.
Head to Vijitha Yapa Bookshop for Sri Lankan fiction to read on your travels (perhaps The Beginner’s Guide to Sri Lankan Literature will inspire you), Dilmah Tea Shop and Keehls Super for a local supermarket fix.
Watch a movie
📍 Liberty Cinema, Majestic City or Arcade Independence Square
⏱ 1 1/2 – 2 1/2 hours
Slightly less cultural than the above, if you find yourself at a loose end with a little free time on your hands why not head to the cinema?
For the full Asian experience there’s usually a bollywood flick on at Majestic City which is the most rustic (i.e least luxurious!) of all the cinemas. There’s a luxury screen at Liberty by Scope Cinemas and the Empire Cinema close to Independence Square.
Watch a cricket match
📍 R. Premadasa International Stadium, Khettarama Temple Rd, Colombo 10
Despite Sri Lanka’s national sport being volleyball (yes, really!), the most popular is cricket. Even the smallest spots of vacant land are scouted as a cricket ‘field’ for young boys both playing and watching the sport a real Sri Lankan-ism.
Find out the timetable for upcoming matches at R. Premadasa International Stadium or simply watch the local kids.
Visit a Casino
📍 Ballys, Bellagio, Casino Marina Colombo
I must confess I’ve never been to a casino in Sri Lanka but as it’s a popular activity with both local and international casino goers, I thought it best to include in the list.
Having asked my friends who frequent Casinos, Bally’s (close to Colombo Fort Railway Station) seems to be amongst the best.
Play a round of Golf
📍 Royal Colombo Golf Club
⏱ 2-3 hours
Again not something I have personally experienced, yet for the eager golfer there’s an 18 hole course surprisingly close to the centre of Colombo.
It may not have the same level of grandeur as the Hill Club in Nuwara Eliya but seems to be well established.
Book a massage
📍 Spa Ceylon, Zen Island
⏱ 30 minutes- 1 1/2 hours
Feeling a little jet lagged after a long flight? One of the first things I try to do to rebalance my mind and body is a massage. Spa Ceylon have branches across the city, book an appointment by phone or online.
There’s a small spa called Foot Rub in Crescat Boulevard (next to the Cinnamon Grand Hotel) which I’ve been frequenting since the 00’s offering express foot and back massages. Zen Island in Nugegoda is also very good.
Attend a yoga or meditation class
📍 Om Shambhala, Prana Lounge
⏱ 45 minutes- 1 1/2 hours
Prana Lounge also has a shop selling yoga mats, books, health supplements/food, clothes and other useful bits and pieces for the mind, body and soul. It’s attached to Cafe Kumbuk which I previously mentioned.
Walk around Viharamahadevi Park
📍 Colombo 7
⏱ 20 minutes- 1 hour
One thing I love about Colombo is how large and central Viharamahadevi is. If you need some fresh air or light exercise (the other option is an early morning walk/run along Galle Face Green) this is the place to go, with intervals of shade diffusing the sunlight along the path.
There’s a large golden Buddha statue opposite the Town Hall at the North Eastern edge of the park.
Take a local commuter train to Mount Lavinia
📍 Colombo Fort Railway Station
⏱ 45 minutes
Approximately 40 minutes from Colombo Fort Railway Station is Mount Lavinia, the most convinient sandy beach from the centre of Colombo.
Head here for a swim, plate of hot butter cuttlefish (one of the island’s signature Lankan/Chinese dishes), a local Lion Beer and to watch the sunset.
Day trip to Negombo
A little further in distance than Mount Lavinia (in the opposite direction), Negombo takes around an hour from Colombo on the highway, also just 20 minutes from the international airport Bandaranaike.
Negombo is a fishing town so the seafood is amongst the best. The coastal strip is more scenic than Mount Lavinia- many beach lovers tend to stay here instead of the city itself. Jetwing Blue is my hotel of choice. On a clear day, Negombo has the most magical sunsets.
So there you have it! I hope this article leaves you feeling inspired and confident in exploring Colombo.
If you plan to use this guide for an upcoming trip, why not print it out and bring with you on your travels?
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