Balancing the nation’s own history along with colonialism, Colombo is your gateway to experiencing the magical country of Sri Lanka. Colombo, however, requires patience from travelers. Much of its beauty, history and culture may not become immediately clear, with its often dusty streets refusing to reveal her secrets.
But what you’ll find as you continue to roam is that Colombo is a place to discover on a whim. It’s a city that rewards those willing to get lost, who’ll then stumble upon something brilliant. As you explore the nation’s capital, you’ll peel back the curtain on the city’s rich history from age old markets to storied temples.
When you do, you’ll also get a great sense of Colombo’s colonial past with a range of beautiful architecture hailing from three different eras, Portuguese, Dutch and British.
Go to the Top of the Lotus Tower
Contrasting to the sprawling yet flat city of Colombo, the Lotus Tower is the place to go for startling views. It’s a new attraction, having been completed in 2019 after seven years of construction. In the two years previous there were two buildings that, upon opening, were the tallest in the county. The Lotus Tower eclipsed them both by over 350 feet (106m).
The tower is base of Colombo’s telecommunication and was designed to replicate a soon to be blooming lotus bulb. As you wander around the city, it strikes an imposing yet graceful presence. During the day, it’s a sight to behold. However, the tower is best seen at night. After dark, the Lotus Tower, which is laden with LED lights, provides residents and travelers with a beautiful light show.
The Lotus Tower is best admired from the outside, but to appreciate Colombo, head to the top of the tower for vast views of both the city and ocean. You’ll also cross paths with a mall and telecom museum, plus the tower is home to a revolving restaurant.
Get Lost (On Purpose)
Some say that Colombo is not a city you instantly fall in love with. It’s a place that grows on you. This makes Colombo the perfect type of city for curious travelers. After getting your bearings atop Lotus Tower, head to the streets and simply let your legs guide you. Exploring on a whim and without an agenda is the best way to discover the Colombo’s authentic vibe.
In typical South Asia fashion, you’ll have plenty of hawkers herding you towards their tuk tuks for what they say is a private tour. But trust that your sense of adventure and discovery will lead you to where you want to go. Start off at Malwatha Road and turn left and right as you go beyond the normal tourist path.
The hidden beauty of Colombo will soon make itself apparent, with several enticing alleyways leading to charming cafes brewing the best teas and coffees in the city. After the refreshing beverage continue on to uncover delicious street food, random markets and the city’s ancient architecture.
If getting lost doesn’t sound all that fun, see the best of Colombo on this private walking tour.
Catch a Show at the Theater
The impressive Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksa Theatre is an arresting sight. The circular red wall envelops half of the structure leading to a flower-shaped metal creation that’s another nod to the lotus flower. It appears like a mix of desert architecture and something befitting an international space station.
The theater was renamed after Sri Lanka’s former president and has continued its tradition of being at the forefront of arts and culture. The modern concert hall hosts a wide range of music, dance and authentic cultural performances. These include operas and the city’s symphony orchestra. Events are held in the local language along, western and Chinese performances.
In addition to the opera and orchestra, the theater has an interior auditorium and an outside amphitheater. This provides for a breadth of experiences that will give travelers plenty of choice. So check out the online schedule to see what is on when you’re in town.
The theater is easy to get to as it’s in the center of Colombo, next to Viharamahadevi Park.
Explore Colombo’s Central Park
Speaking of, Viharamahadevi Park is the largest in Colombo and is adorned with a captivating golden statue of Buddha. The sprawling green space was originally built under British rule and is packed with things to do. It’s a common meeting point for locals who can relax on the extensive and lush green lawns. Or they can wander the tree-lined paths that lead not only to the statue but to plenty of nearby attractions.
As you wander around the park, stop and admire the several ornate water fountains. The many open spaces are great for picnics, hanging with friends and family or simply recharging the batteries under the shady palms. For families, the park is home to a small zoo and you’ll also come across a fun playground.
There is a large narrow pool leading up to the golden Buddha statue with the white Town Hall just beyond. Take out the tropical trees and green grass and you could easily think you’re in Washington D.C. After visiting the park, check out the Town Hall and the National Museum.
Visit the National Museum of Colombo
Steps away from the Viharamahadevi Park is the National Museum of Colombo. Here, you can peel the curtain back on local culture, and discover the history of not just Colombo but all of Sri Lanka. It won’t surprise you then that the National Museum is the biggest of its kind in the country.
Before entering the museum, take a moment to admire the beautiful structure from 1877. The grandiose white building is ordained with number archways, elegant balconies, and spires. But the real treasures can be found inside the museum, where you’ll wander between almost a dozen galleries showcasing artifacts that go well beyond colonial rule.
You’ll venture back thousands of years into the depths of ancient history as you gaze upon the coins, clothes and weapons that were a part of Sri Lanka’s earliest societies. This is all displayed in chronological order, complemented by a range of beautiful artwork and will provide you will a wonderful understanding of Sri Lankan heritage.
See the Gangaramaya Temple
On the banks of the beautiful Beira Lake, the Gangaramaya Temple is one of the most important sites in Colombo. Its lakeside location blesses guests with a sense of calm, perfectly befitting of a Buddhist temple. The temple is also one of the oldest in the city, contrasting to the many colonial-era architecture scattered throughout.
The story of the Gangaramaya Temple goes back 2,000 years. However, what you see today was built in the 1800s by a man named Don Baston. A man believed to have helped revive Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
To first access the temple, you’ll need to cross a charming wooden bridge to where you’ll reach the temple and its leafy Bodhi tree. It’s been said that Lord Buddha preached under this very tree, making it both a beautiful and holy site. Wander the grounds and explore the image house and the relic chamber home to artifacts of Buddha and Arahat Seevali. One of the artifacts is believed to be the smallest Buddha statue on earth.
Experience the Pettah Market
The Gangaramaya Temple may be one of Colombo’s most popular and holy attractions, but our next spot is the modern day heart of the city. The Pettah Market is the biggest in Colombo and is a hub of action all day long. It’s within the greater district of Pettah, which is a labyrinth of narrow streets that can easily have you walking in circles.
It’s a rough but enthralling part of the city. One where you won’t get a moment’s rest as you venture from one crazy part to the next. The horns of tuk tuks sound out every other second as you try to navigate the maze of people. It’s madness, but lovely and a true local experience.
You’ll know you’ve arrived at the market proper when you can spot the Khan Clock Tower that marks the entrance. Stand alongside hordes of locals doing their daily shopping. It’s a great chance to indulge in some local eats, from salted fish to wood apples and bitter melon gourds. After, wash it down with a refreshing local beverage called faluda.
Go On a Street Food Tour
You would have gotten a taste at Pettah Market, but as you continue to explore Colombo, you’ll begin to see just how delicious that cuisine is. It’s a culinary adventure appropriate for a South Asian country. But to dive deeper into the culinary exploits of Colombo, you must embark on a street food tour.
You could spend your days trying anything and everything, but it helps to have a local expert that can take you directly to the best spots. Skip the restaurants and go where the locals go. Some of the authentic eats you should have your eyes set on include kottu, which is a mix of roti, meats, veggies fried on an open grill before being soaked in gravy. Other dishes you must try are string hoppers (small noodle pancakes), Sri Lankan dal curry and any of their delectable seafood creations.
On this street food tour, try the best of the local cuisine as you get around Colombo on a tuk tuk.
Stroll Along Galle Face Green
Featuring a large grass lawn, first cleared by the Dutch for the use of cannons, Galle Face Green is now a popular waterfront attraction. The cannons are now gone, with the park becoming a place to play cricket, football, and fly a kite.
Galle Face Green has a long promenade that splits the lawn with the harbor and narrow beach. This makes it a pleasant place to go for a stroll as you take in the views while choosing which of the food carts you’ll try next. Some of the specialties include wade (deep-fried lentil patties) and string hoppers.
What makes Galle Face Green one of the best things to see in Colombo is that it’s beloved by locals. It’s a popular congregation point, especially around 4pm where families gather in the park and the kids run amok. It’s a cheerful place, and a great way to enjoy local life without as much chaos as Pettah.
Travelers should stick around for sunset in the park. Another option is to head across to Galle Face Hotel, where you can enjoy golden hour on their spacious patio. Arrive early to get a spot, with the sunset marked by the sounds of bagpipes and the lowering of the flag.
Kick Back at Mount Lavinia Beach
South of downtown Colombo, Mount Lavinia is a coastal town and one of the best spots for a day at the beach. It takes around 30 minutes to drive to the so-called Golden Mile, although you can also take a fun 15-minute train ride. Such is the popularity of this local escape that you’ll find rows of gorgeous beachfront restaurants facing out to the Laccadive Sea.
As you take your first steps on the golden sand, you’ll admire the deep blues of the ocean and the aromas of Tamil food floating through the air. Lay your towel down on the beach and watch the sometimes burly surf crash onto the coast. You’ll be joined by wandering vendors slinging sour mango slices, snacks, souvenirs and even swimsuits.
Beyond the beach are some of the best hotels in the region. It’s common for those traveling to Colombo to base themselves in Mount Lavinia. As the sun falls, find a table and enjoy dinner and cocktails as the sun paints the sky. From there, discover why Mount Lavinia has such a boisterous nightlife.
Check out the Amazing Sri Kailawasanathan Temple
Sri Kailawasanathan Swami Devasthanam Kovil is the oldest Hindu temple of Colombo. Its long and complex name should give you a glimpse into what’s coming. The temple, otherwise known as Captain’s Garden Kovil, will stop you in your tracks. Inspired by other South-Indian temples, the incredible facade is laden with Hindu gods and goddesses from top to bottom. The main gods featured among the burst of color and opulent design are Shiva and Ganesh.
You’ll find the Captain’s Garden Kovil within the Colombo Fort area not far from the local train station. It’s an easy place to arrive at and alongside its storied past has made the temple is one of the most popular in Colombo, for residents and travelers alike.
Entry into the temple is free, but keep in mind that donations are appreciated if you wish to take photos. After wandering inside, you’ll discover that Sri Kailawasanathan is just as embellished within. Admire a series of captivating paintings and historic scriptures that lead to the temple’s ceiling, covered in ornate frescoes.
Visit Colombo Fort
No, visiting Colombo Fort won’t be quite what you expect. It’s not a singular fort where wars were won and lost. In fact, it’s a prominent district and could otherwise be known as Colombo’s Old Town. The area was first developed under Portuguese rule in the 16th century, creating a central hub of business and government from which the rest of the city grew.
From then until recently, Colombo Fort had been under the control of the Dutch and British, who both followed a similar path as the Portuguese. This has left us travelers with an exciting district to explore. Colombo Fort is teeming with old government and trade buildings that are now a base for modern day politics and diplomacy.
Within the area, you’ll discover the Battenburg Batteries, one of the original defense systems under the Dutch, along with remains of the old palace. Other attractions include the Dutch Hospital (oldest building in Colombo Fort), the Old Colombo Lighthouse and the glistening Beira Lake.
Explore Udawalawe National Park
Feel like embarking on an African-style safari while traveling through Colombo? You may not have brought your khakis with you, but you can do just that by exploring Udawalawe National Park. The park was originally founded in the 1970s to preserve the displaced wildlife after the construction of the Udawalawe Reservoir.
The long trip from Colombo will be immediately worthwhile as you gaze upon herds of elephants roaming freely among the beautiful landscapes. There is an established population of 250 elephants in the park, meaning you’re guaranteed to spot many. But the beautiful beasts aren’t the only highlight of the experience. As you explore the national park, keep your eye out for lingering crocodiles that hover just beneath the surface. You’ll also spot buffalo, deer, boar and a great number of native and migrating birds.
On this guided safari tour, you’ll depart Colombo from your hotel in the early hours. Upon reaching the park, you’ll venture onboard a jeep to discover the beautiful wilderness.
Relax at Beira Lake
Beira Lake was created by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Its original purpose was as a moat to help protect their newly established base in Colombo. Crocodiles were even added to the water to wade off any would-be attackers.
Today, the lake is a place of relaxation, socializing and exercise. The deep green-hued waters are enveloped in pathways which are popular among locals seeking a leisurely stroll or a heart-pumping run. The paths will guide you to a number of tranquil parks, great for picnics or simply kicking back.
As for the lake, it’s a base for many water sports, including Colombo’s renowned university rowing regatta. You’ll find several avenues to getting onto the water yourself, with small boats for hire that will take you to the lake’s Buddhist temple, Seema Malaka Viharaya.
Surrounded by water, the temple is one of the top spots for photography in Colombo. Capture the Buddha statues in front of the glistening lake, backed by the soaring skyscrapers.
Admire the Red Mosque
The spectacular Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque is arguably the most beautiful building in Colombo. Its dramatic red and white facade will quickly put you in a trance as you try to take it all in. It’s a unique mosque., whose candy-striped walls may remind you of some of the incredible churches in Moscow, such as St. Basil’s Cathedral.
From the outside, gaze upon the striped designs following it from the base up along the columns to the gilded set of three onion-domed towers. It’s almost like a maze, with each line guiding you to a different part of the embellished layout. Spot spires, stained windows, quaint balconies and inviting archways. All painted with different stripes, some that twist and turn, others that swirl and some that stay dead straight.
The mosque is alongside the Pettah Market, providing a great one-two punch for marketgoers.
Treat Yourself to a Spa Day
Sri Lanka is renowned for its spice and natural plant production, many of which are also used to enhance health. One of the most popular holistic treatments in Colombo is Ayurveda. The treatment has been used for over 3,000 years and remains a common way to balance the mind, body, and spirit.
After several days exploring the bustling Colombo streets, treat yourself in an invigorating spa experience that will have you ready to attack the rest of your travels. Unlike other spa days, this one begins with a visit to the on-site doctor who specializes in Ayurveda.
Once you’ve told the doctor about your aches and pains, big or small, you’ll have an Ayurveda experience tailored specifically for you. After your revitalizing massage using plant-based oils, you’ll feel brand new. Before leaving, pick up some Ayurveda balm to keep handy as you continue your adventure.
Take a Trip to Sigiriya
Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sigiriya is a spellbinding example of early urban planning. It’s home to the Sigiriya Rock Fortress and is one of Sri Lanka’s foremost historical attractions. It’s essentially a natural fort that rises out of the ground to a height of 600 feet (180) above the surrounding plains.
The natural landmark was chosen as the new capital under the reign of King Kasyapa, in the 5th century. Sigiriya would then go on to develop its own series of intricate hydraulics system, one of the world’s oldest landscaped gardens, a royal palace, and at one stage over 500 colorful frescoes. It was a well-designed yet complex city, atop an enormous rock.
Today, curious visitors can wander through the historic gateway and up the rock and explore what’s left of a unique and ancient civilization. Discover the ruins of the old palace, the 22 remaining frescoes, and the fascinating Sigiriya Museum. From wherever you are on the rock, you’ll also have 360-degree views of the world around you.
On this guided day trip, explore Sigiriya and the nearby city of Dambulla.
Explore Independence Memorial Hall
Constructed in the middle of the 20th century, the Independence Memorial Hall celebrates Sri Lanka’s separation from Britain. The wide-stone building is fitted with rows of columns and topped with a beautiful terra-cotta roof. It was inspired by Kandy’s Royal Celebration Hall, which marked the final Sri Lankan kingdom after the arrival of the Portuguese.
Around the revered hall are manicured gardens and walking paths that lead to spacious lawns. Visitors will also come across the Independence Memorial Museum, which dives into the events leading up to 1948. Steps away from the museum is a stature of Don Stephen Senayake, who became the country’s first prime minister and is known as the Father of the Nation.
Wander Around the Dutch Hospital
In the 1600s, the Dutch East India Company began constructing what is now the oldest building in the city. It played many roles over the years, from originally being a hospital for Dutch officers and staff to being the Colombo Fort Police Station and a base for the city’s apothecaries.
Upon renovation in 2012, the historic complex was transformed into a hot sport for shopping, eating and drinking. Among the storied walls, which still showcase some of Colombo’s most beguiling colonial architecture, you’ll find salons, shops, boutiques and revered restaurants.
The Dutch Hospital is as popular among locals as it is tourists, so you won’t feel like you’re missing out on Colombo culture. The spacious patios that decorate the front of the many restaurants are a great place to eat during the day. But the atmosphere kicks up a gear at night to create some of the city’s best nightlife.
Experience the Local Tea Scene
Sri Lankan tea is known around the world. The spread of Dilmah tea to the four corners of the earth means it’s likely you’ve tried “local” tea at some stage. Just like street food, sometimes the best way to experience authentic local tea is to simply stumble upon it. But to save yourself the search and effort, head to one of the two Dilmah T lounges in Colombo.
One lounge is within Colombo Fort and the other in the Independence Square Arcade. You’ll find a wide-range of offerings that showcases the nations love of tea, from cocktails to desserts. But for something simple and delightful, try the T-Kitch. This is strong black tea mixed with condensed milk and local spices.
Go SCUBA Diving
Surrounded by vibrant reefs, Sri Lanka is a wonderful destination for snorkelers and scuba divers. At the forefront of this is Colombo, which provides travelers with envious access to the colorful underwater worlds along the country’s west coast.
Not far from downtown, you’ll be able to discover dive sites home to thriving reefs, rich marine life, and historic shipwrecks. The latter, including the navy ships sunk in the First World War, and even older vessels like the Pecheur Breton now encased in growing coral reefs.
The best time to go scuba diving in Colombo is from November to the middle of April, with the end of the diving season provides the best conditions. The balmy sea makes it comfortable for divers who can then take their time exploring famous sites like Unawatuna, the British Sergeant and the Taprobane North Wreck.
For newbie divers, there are many sites close to the shore, including just off of Mount Lavinia Beach. Such is the popularity of the local sites, that you’ll have an abundance of companies to first get PADI certified.
Day Trip to Negombo
Known as the City of Tranquility, Negombo has a rich history of trade to complement its beautiful lagoon and white sand beaches. 45 minutes north of Colombo, it’s lathered with stately colonial architecture from its time under Dutch and Portuguese rule. It was during this time that Degombo was at the heart of Sri Lanka’s spice and fishing industries. So if you like food and gorgeous buildings, you’ll have an immediate fondness for Degombo.
Despite being just minutes from the Laccadive Sea, the city is on the inland side of a large lagoon. Degombo was named after the lagoon, which provides locals and travelers with tranquil waters and soft golden sand. It’s a popular departure point for local boat trips up and down Sri Lanka’s West Coast, alongside fun sailing trips along the smooth blue waters of the Degombo Lagoon. When you aren’t adventuring out on the water, you can head to Degombo Beach, indulge in the vibrant local shopping scene or explore local attractions. These include the Angurukaamulla Temple and the Old Dutch Fort.