I have to admit that Colombo did not win us over on our first visit to the city back in 2014. But we have been to the city several times since then, and now we actually like the city quite a lot.
With a population of 5,6 million people, Colombo is a big cosmopolitan city that has changed a lot in the last couple of years. It is experiencing quite a building boom of high skyscrapers, new roads, several posh hotels, a gigantic TV tower that will also house a hotel and a big shopping mall, as well as a new harbor port.
Colombo is a busy and vibrant city divided into 13 districts, with Colombo 1 or Fort Area being the center of the city. It is also the most ethnically mixed place in Sri Lanka with both Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and Buddhists.
It is a city with a great mixture of modern life and architecture, and old colonial buildings and ruins from the time when it was the capital of the British Ceylon (from 1815 until Sri Lanka got its independence in 1948). Colombo actually served as a seaport town as far back as the 5th century, as it has the perfect location for trade between Asia and Europe. It has since had Arab, Portuguese, and Dutch settlers so it has been quite international for many decades.
Although Colombo lacks famous signature must-see sights like the other capital cities of Asia have, Colombos charm lies in its different neighborhoods like the Fort (Colombo 1) and Pettah (Colombo 11).
Put on some good walking shoes or sandals, and simply walk through these two old neighborhoods (Fort and Pettah) that are packed with history and beautiful colonial buildings and markets. Take a tuk-tuk to the rest of the sights, and wind off your sightseeing of Colombo with watching the sunset at Galle Face Green while enjoying some delicious Sri Lankan rice and curry.
Here we give you the top must-see list of what to do in Colombo (in our opinion):
Top 10 Things To Do In Colombo
1. National Museum
The beautiful building that houses the National Museum, was built in 1876 and founded by the British governor of Sri Lanka at the time. It is the largest museum in Sri Lanka. Surrounding this amazing building is a lovely and peaceful green park.
Inside the museum are statues and exhibits telling the story of ancient Sri Lanka. The museum also displays items own by the former royal family of Sri Lanka, like the King’s golden throne and crown.
You will find a lot of art, carvings, swords, guns, masks, and statues from Sri Lanka’s ancient past as well as the colonial period. It is a really nice museum!
Below you see two of the artifacts in the National Museum of Colombo, like the typical outfit worn by the Nilame, the Kandyan aristocracy. It is a long cloth wrapped around the legs almost like trousers:
- Address: Sir Marcus Fernando Mawatha, Colombo 7
- How to get there: Take a tuk-tuk/ taxi
- Opening hours: 09:00 – 18:00 (last entrance at 17:00)
- Ticket price: Rs 250 for an adult, Rs 150 for a child
2. Beautiful Colonial Buildings In The Fort Area
All around downtown Colombo 1, in the Fort Area, there are stunning monumental buildings dating back to the Dutch and British era of Sri Lanka. Back then (Colombo was declared the capital of Ceylon in 1815 by the British) this area was a real fort as it was surrounded by the sea on two sides and had a moat on the landward sides.
Today the Fort area of Colombo is packed with stunning old colonial-era architecture masterpieces that have been restored with a mix of modern structures. The Old Dutch Hospital is a good example of this (no. 6 in this guide) and well worth a visit. Also, this area houses the President´s House and various ministry and governmental buildings.
This is a rather compact and small area, perfect for a stroll. Start or end your walk at the beautiful Old Galle Buck Lighthouse and enjoy the nice view of the Colombo shore and harbor.
Other highlights in the Fort area that you should not miss are:
- Old Galle Buck Lighthouse – The perfect place to start your Fort walk. Built in 1954, the lighthouse is surrounded by old cannons and has a beautiful view of the ocean and Colombo port. (located on Marine Drive)
- Sambodhi Chaitiya dagoba/ stupa – A bright white dagoba/ stupa just north of the Old Galle Buck Lighthouse. The dagoba is on 20 m tall legs so that sailors at the sea could see it. (located at Marine Drive)
- The Clock Tower – Originally a lighthouse built in 1857 (located in the junction of Chatham Street and Janadhipathi Mawatha Street)
- Central Point – Built in 1914, this used to be the old colonnaded Central Bank and is now the grandest renovated building in this area. The interior is marvelous, especially the impressive chandelier which is the tallest in the whole of Asia. The building also houses a museum of local money. (located at Chatham Street, Colombo 1, Free entrance)
- Lloyd´s Buildings – A stunning newly renovated building constructed in 1908, which is now owned by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. (located on Sir Baron Jayatilleke Mawatha, Colombo 1)
- St Peter´s Church – The oldest church in Colombo that is still in use, from 1821. (located on Church Street, just north of the Grand Oriental Hotel)
- Cargills Main Store – Dating back to 1906, this beautiful bright red building is a masterpiece. Unfortunately, the stunning building is quite empty, but there is a small Cargills convenience store inside where you can sit down and have something cool to drink.
3. Gangaramaya Temple
The Buddhist temple Gangaramaya (Vihara) consists of several buildings and is a bustling temple complex filled with an enormous amount of things. Some of which are frankly pretty strange and a little scary. It includes, for instance, a library, a museum and a display hall of gifts received from devotees and well-wishers over the years.
The temple apparently has the relics of Buddha’s hair. The temple also has a LOT of Buddhas, in stone, white plastic and gold. I don`t think I have ever seen that many Buddhas in one place! 🙂
All the gifts from devotees are on display all around the temple, and it is a huge amount of stuff.
In one corner there is even a sad-looking elephant, he is actually a stuffed real elephant! Not as nice as the real ones out in the wild! Very weird and a bit scary!
Visiting this temple is a truly unique experience, and well worth a visit.
We visited this temple just a few days before the annual and big ceremony the Navam Perahera on the February Poya (full moon). During this celebration, the Gangaramaya Temple is the main focus and it is the most extravagant celebration in Colombo.
- Address: 61 Sri Jinarathana Rd, Colombo 2
- How to get there: Take a tuk-tuk
- Opening hours: 05:30 – 22:00
- Ticket price (donation): Rs100
4. Beira Lake
Close to the Gangaramaya Temple, in the heart of Colombo, is a huge lake – Beira Lake. The lake has crazy green colored water due to its pollution. In the middle of the lake is a small island containing the Simamalaka Shrine, which was built from donations made of a Muslim sponsor. The lake connects with other lakes through narrow canals and ends up in the Indian sea.
In the colonial era, the lake and its canals were used for transporting goods within the city, and it still has its Portuguese name “Beira” which means border in English.
The lake is a nice and peaceful place to sit down and have a sightseeing break. We were tempted to go with one of the duck paddle boats shaped as swans that were for rent, but we backed out. 🙂
You can see animals like storks, pelicans, monitor lizards, and there are various species of fish in the lake.
5. Independence Memorial Hall
Sri Lanka got its independence from Britain February 4th in 1948, and this huge stone building surrounded by a peaceful, green, and lush garden is a monument to that. In front of it is a statue of Sri Lanka’s first president, “The Father of the Nation” Rt. Hon. Don Stephen Senanayake.
The architecture of the Independence Memorial Hall is inspired by the Royal Audience Hall in Kandy. It was in the Royal Audience Hall in Kandy that the Kandyan Convention was signed on 5th of March 1815 ending the Kingdom of Kandy and making Sri Lanka British. I think it´s a really nice gesture and a nice way of linking these two big and defining historic moments together.
Today this hall is used for religious events and the annual national day celebration. It also houses the Independence Memorial Museum. For us, the place was a nice escape from the noise and crowds of Colombos streets, as there was hardly anyone there.
- Address: Independence Square, Cinnamon Gardens, Colombo 7
- How to get there: Take a tuk-tuk/ taxi
- Opening hours: 24/7
- Ticket price: Free
6. Old Dutch Hospital
After all this sightseeing and wandering the busy and crowded streets of Colombo, the Old Dutch Hospital is the perfect place to have lunch or dinner.
The Old Dutch Hospital is considered one of the oldest buildings in the Colombo Fort area, dating back to the Dutch colonial era (early 1600).
It is beautifully restored and houses some really nice restaurants and cafes, and cool shops. I love the shop Odel and Barefoot, they have a lot of nice local quality clothes and souvenirs. We had the lunch special – Chicken Biryani with Watalappan for dessert, delicious!
- Address: Bank of Ceylon Mawatha, Fort Area, Colombo 1
- How to get there: Tuktuk or taxi
- Opening hours: 10:00 – 22:00
7. Wandering The Streets Of Pettah
Pettah, Colombo 11, is one of the oldest districts of Colombo and walking around in this area is a real adventure full of sound, smells, and people watching. Plunge into the madness of shops, stalls, and markets. In between, you also see some religious buildings like mosques and churches.
It can eventually become a bit overwhelming, so my advice is to plan for breaks in between to get your head straight from all the chaos. Just go with the flow.
Some of the highlights of Pettah (Colombo 11) that you should see are:
- Pettah Markets – The Federation of Self Employees Market (off Olcott Mawatha Street, Colombo 11, opening hours: 07:00 – 16:00) along 5th Cross Street is packed with household stuff and food. You will find all kinds of colorful and delicious fruits and vegetables here. Manning Market (Olcott Mawatha, Colombo 11, opening hours: 07:00 – 15:00) is located just east of Fort Train Station and is Colombos wholesale market of fruits and vegetables. Central Market (Market Street, Colombo 11, opening hours: 07:00 – 15:00) is more modern than the other two.
- Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque – A beautiful red and white brick building dating back to 1909 that looks like candy. We were heartily welcomed and were given a lecture about Islam and the mosque by one of the imams. (cnr 2nd Cross and Bankshall Street, Colombo 11)
- Wolvendaal Church – Built in 1749 this church is the most important Dutch building in Sri Lanka. It got its name because the Dutch mistook the jackals roaming this area at the time for wolves. So they named this area Wolf´s Dale (Wolvendaal). The church has some elegant and beautiful furniture like ebony chairs, wooden pulpit, wooden baptismal font, and lectern. (Wolvendaal Lane, Colombo 11, opening hours: 09:00 – 16:00)
- Dutch Period Museum – This building started out as the residence of the Dutch governor when it was built in the 17th-century, but has since housed a Catholic seminary, a military hospital, a police station, as well as a post office. The museum has a nice garden courtyard and lots of Dutch colonial furniture and artefacts on display. It was here that the King of the Kingdom of Kandy in 1638 signed the papers that opened Ceylon to the Dutch. (95 Prince Street, Colombo 11, opening hours: 09:00 – 17:00, closed on Sundays and Mondays).
- Old City Hall – Built in 1865 and used to be the City Hall in the British era. (Main street, Colombo 11, opening hours: 08:00 – 17:00, closed on Sundays)
8. Temple of Sri Kailawasanathan Swami Devasthanam Kovil
Also called Captain’s Garden Kovil, this is Colombo´s oldest Hindu Temple. The South-Indian inspired architecture of this temple, as well as the beautiful and bright paintings, and detailed artwork, especially in the ceiling, is impressive. They were building some new structures when we visited, so the temple is still expanding.
The temple has a lot of statues of many different Hindu gods, but the main god of this temple is Easwaran (Shiva) and Ganesh.
There was a small orchestra consisting of a man playing some sort of flute and a man playing the drum. It made the whole experience quite atmospheric. The temple is quite popular and there were constantly people coming and going to pray at the temple. They were all very friendly and welcoming towards us even though we were obviously not there to pray.
- Address: 11/15, Captain’s Garden Kovil Street, Colombo 10
- How to get there: It is easiest to take a tuk-tuk
- Opening hours: 06:00 – 10:30 and 16:30 – approximately 18:00/19:00
- Ticket price: Free (you have to pay a little fee if you want to take photos)
- What to wear: Dress modestly (trousers or long skirt) and be respectful
9. Tuk-Tuk Ride
It is pretty tiring walking around Colombo in the heat, and the tuk-tuks are EVERYWHERE and really easy to find! They are the main transportation for both locals and tourists in Colombo, and they are also a lot of fun.
Wherever you walk in Colombo, tuk-tuks will stop by you and the driver will ask you if you want a lift, not one time but like ALL the time! And if you don`t answer (yeah, it is possible to get a bit fed up with this), they will ask you again just louder.
We ended up taking a tuk-tuk to most places we went in Colombo. Riding a tuk-tuk is great fun, especially after dark!
10. Galle Face Green
Galle Face Green, just south of the Fort Area, is a long stretch of green lawn next to the narrow beach and sea promenade in Colombo. Originally it was cleared by the Dutch to give the canons clear sight, but today it is a nice and peaceful place perfect for walking, running, playing football, kite flying, and cricket.
The promenade is packed with couples and families taking a stroll in the afternoons, especially on Sundays. Galle Face Green is the perfect place to watch the sunset.
Along the promenade there are also a lot of food vendors, selling great street food at a cheap price. Some of the places even have tables on the pavement. We had Indian food at one of those places, it was delicious!
Although Colombo does not have many famous must-see sights, the city has plenty of charm, lovely and welcoming people, delicious food, plenty of fascinating history and old beautiful colonial buildings, interesting religious buildings, nice parks and gardens, and a great front porch along the shore of Sri Lanka in Galle Face Green.
Colombo is well worth a visit for a day or two if you are heading to Sri Lanka, although I must admit that it is not the highlight of Sri Lanka in our opinion.
⇒ Check out our recommended Sri Lanka itinerary for tips on what else you should see in this beautiful country.
Where To Stay In Colombo
The hotel we had booked on our first trip to Colombo turned out to be absolutely terrible! So determined not to make the same mistake twice, we asked other travelers we met around Sri Lanka for their hotel recommendations, and we did a lot of research before coming back to Colombo.
Paradise Road Tintagel Colombo
A unique ten suite boutique hotel housed in a beautiful heritage mansion from 1930. The Paradise Road Tintagel hotel sits on a quiet lane in an up-market area of town. The cities attractions and plenty of food choices are within walking distance or alternatively a short 5 min taxi ride away. The suites are beautifully decorated and come with all modern amenities. The hotel has a pool, a small gym and a restaurant that serves an opulent breakfast. Among their former distinguished guest are the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall.
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We stayed at this newly opened mid-range hotel in February 2017 and loved it! First of all the location is absolutely perfect, it’s right next to the old Dutch Hospital with its many great restaurants and shops. It’s a great place from which to start exploring Colombo.
The rooms are new, clean, and modern with very comfortable beds, flat-screen tv, safe and air-con. The staff was very helpful both when we arrived in the middle of the night and in helping us arrange transportation to our next destination.
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Cinnamon Red Colombo
The Cinnamon Red hotel offers excellent value for the money. This modern hotel is centrally located close to Galle Face Green. The hotel’s standout feature is its large rooftop pool and bar. Perfect for relaxing after a day sightseeing around Colombo. Rooms are large, comfortable and come with free wifi. Breakfast is good. Be aware that there is no room service.
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We used the Lonely Planet`s Sri Lanka travel guide on our trip. You can get that and other great books by clicking on the pictures below which will take you to Amazon.com (affiliate links):
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Would you like to see the capital Colombo, or would you skip it and head right to the beach? Which of these 10 things would you like to see? We´d love to hear from you in the comment area below! If you like this blog post and find it useful, please share and like it on social media! Thank you so much! 🙂