Colombo, Sri Lanka’s buzzy commercial capital. Some parts raw and rustic, others significantly (and ever increasingly) more polished. While in years gone by luxury meant Colonial, a modern nuance has swept across the City in recent years.
Having lived in Colombo for the past two years; new hotels, foodie destinations and things to do have been eagerly emerging. Why? A mammoth construction effort is finally underway for the upcoming Port City, promising to increase business, tourism and many other industries in the country.
Despite more choice, I often struggle to find recommendations of what to do in the city, especially as so much content both online and in magazines is heavily sponsored. Cue writing a blog post I wish existed!
With endless beauty and diversity across the rest of the island, I understand why travellers tend to place Colombo on lower priority. I do however believe a quick trip to the capital is a must for the full Lankan experience.
My #1 tip for exploring the City? Arrive with a plan or at least several options to choose from on the day. It’s not easily accessible by foot which means cars or tuk tuks are the way to go- the latter with the added benefit of weaving in and out of traffic.
Use the Pickme or Uber app (PickMe is basically Uber for tuk tuks!) for a hassle free journey. Local sim cards are easy, with inexpensive data and reload (topup). An encounter with a dishonest tuk tuk driver hailed from the road can be incredibly stressful and is simply not worth the risk, especially for first time visitors.
For those with prior knowledge of Colombo, it may be worth mentioning that I excluded the Zoo because of my personal view that animals are best appreciated in the wild.
As always, I would love to hear from you in the comments below- if you agree with my list, have additional ideas or would like to ask questions. This Colombo guide is unsponsored- any specific places mentioned are at my personal discretion. Good luck on your adventures!
Visit Geoffrey Bawa’s House ‘Number 11’
Sri Lanka’s leading architect of the Tropical Modernist movement in the 1960s, A visit to Geoffrey Bawa’s Colombo home is a visual feast for the culture vulture traveller. Guided tours are conducted in intervals throughout the day- the times can be found on the Trust’s website. Call to check they are running to schedule and reserve your space before you go. I love 60’s architecture and tropical nature- both together is a dream!
Visit an art gallery
Art in Sri Lanka is on the rise, with talented homegrown artists (as well as the international circuit) in increasing demand. My favourite contemporary galleries are Hempel Galleries and Saskia Fernando Gallery. They host a tastefully curated range of visually dynamic, thought provoking pieces across a range of mediums. A must for the art lover.
Street art on Nelum Pokuna Road
Paintings by local artists have been displayed on the wide-set path of Nelum Pokuna Road for many years. Here you will find vibrant depictions of exotic landscapes, elephants, stilt fishermen, Lord Buddha and other traditional subjects which tend to appeal to foreign visitors.
Haggling is a must (especially if you’re not local as they will likely increase the price) should you wish to buy. Artwork is sold in all sizes; huge, large, suitcase/hand baggage friendly and even smaller handpainted cards.
The Old Town Hall
Although the Old Town Hall is in need of a serious need of a spring clean, the neoclassical exterior and rustic high-ceilinged interior of the building is impressive. As with the majority of museums in Sri Lanka (perhaps a little less so these days) the unrefined quirkiness is often part of the charm for those with a sense of adventure and an open mind. As well as the town hall itself, the guide concludes the tour at the adjoining motor museum.
It’s in prime position to explore the surrounding carts & shops by foot and Pettah’s lively fruit & vegetable market. Pettah is the least refined part of Colombo so be prepared for it’s vivacity!
Colombo National Museum
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.
Independence Square & Independence Arcade
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
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 feature photos of Pereheras as they encorporate elephants in captivity but appreciate the traditional Buddhist festivities may be the highlight for some.
Seema Malaka Meditation Centre
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.
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
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.
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.
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 (or Kumbuk Kitchen at The Racecourse) is my go to spot for avo on toast and a smoothie.
High/ Afternoon Tea
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!
Late Night Kotthu Roti
A popular pick me up after a night out in Colombo, kotthu roti is my favourite Sri Lankan comfort food, especially when piping hot. Made with roti bread, a handful of fresh vegetables, meat (for the carnivores) and a generous drizzle of spicy curried gravy.
Chopped to a rhythmic flow which can be heard far and wide post 6pm in Colombo, kotthu is oh so good. Head to the original Pilawoos along Galle Road- you may need to navigate via google maps as there are many with the same/similar name. Best accompanied with a glass of iced milo.
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 stroll along Galle Face Green
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.
As the city continues to grow, places to dine are become more diverse and international. In addition to hotel restaurants (Cinnamon Grand has an impressive selection of 14, my favourite of which is Noodles), there are pockets of Colombo coming into their own such as the centrally located Park Street Mews. In the Mews try their new restaurant Monsoon– currently BYOB. Head to House of Wines to pick up a bottle on route.
My latest stand alone find is Epicure along Gregory’s Road who recently hosted me for a press lunch to sample their dishes. I’m pescatarian so it was a meat free zone but I was incredibly impressed with all of which I sampled. Their presence in Colombo truly ups the culinary ante across the whole city.
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.
Visit a ‘dodgy’ bar
Colombo has become somewhat renowned for ‘dodgy’ bars. If you’re feeling a little uneasy exploring alone, simply search ‘dodgy bar tours’ on Google- I’ve heard great things about tours with Mark Forbes which he’s been running for a number of years. I haven’t been to so many myself but ‘Yamu’s guide to Colombo’s Dodgy Bars’ is comprehensive.
I’ve been to Randoli Sports Club which is an agreeable level of ‘dodgy’ for me- even when visiting alone. They serve a good hot butter cuttlefish (HBC) which is one of Colombo’s most loved local dishes on a casual outing.
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.
The Good Market (Saturdays)
If there’s one thing to do on a Saturday (double check on their Instagram page if it’s raining as they post updates when cancelled) is 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.
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.
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.
Their cafe is downstairs (where they hold the Jazz on a Sunday) is the perfect spot for a quick drink or lunch.
There aren’t many departments stores I can brave (Odel is a little too claustophobic for me these days – serious shopoholics can probably deal with it!) but I do enjoy a trip to Cotton Collection from time to time.
Compared to other Asian Cities, Sri Lanka isn’t generally a place renowned for shopping but if everyday clothes are what you need, Cotton Collection is consistent and reliable. In the same vicinity there’s a small cafe called Jagro specialising in strawberries which are grown in and around the hill country of Nuwara Eliya- treat yourself!
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 at Liberty, Majestic City or Arcade Independence Square
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
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
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.
Golf at Royal Colombo Golf Club
Again not something I have personally experienced but 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 very well run.
Book a massage
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
Seek a moment of calm at one of Colombo’s popular yoga centres. Om Shambala and Prana Lounge hold yoga and meditations sessions throughout the week, check their websites for the timetable. 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, run or cycle in Viharamahadevi Park
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 train to Mount Lavinia
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 to explore the city.
All images are copyrighted to Alice Luker, please do not use without prior approval.
If you wish to use this guide for personal use, why not print it at home and take with you on your travels?