Little known and until recently, the road less travelled, the small island nation of Sri Lanka is beginning to make an impact as a holiday destination — and the vibrant capital Colombo is the first port of call for most visitors.
With a big focus on tourism now that the country is finally at peace, Sri Lanka has ventured out from India’s shadow and has put itself on the map. Colombo offers an engaging mix of cultural and historic attractions, along with fabulous cuisine.
Enjoy this Colombo travel guide.
Note: Security has increased across Sri Lanka following the April 2019 terrorist attacks. Please check the latest travel advice from Smart Traveller.
Colombo for history lovers
As a sea port for over 2,000 years on the East-West trade routes, Colombo was prime real estate and many wars were fought for control of the island.
The district of Fort, where the Fort of Colombo was built by the Portuguese, conquered by the Dutch, and eventually ruled and destroyed by the British, is a web of majestic colonial buildings best explored on foot.
Immerse yourself in the rich European history of Colombo by wandering through the largest display of artefacts at the Colombo National Museum, a remarkable stark-white colonial building built in 1877 by the British Governor. Be warned though, Sri Lanka’s museums aren’t modern and air conditioning is lacking, but this one is definitely worth braving the heat.
If history dating back to the fourteenth century isn’t enough, perhaps the fifth century would suffice! Although a five-hour drive from Colombo, a visit to the ancient royal citadel of Sigiriya is an absolute must-do during your stay in Sri Lanka. The top of the looming granite rock that stands 200 metres high was once the site of a palace built by King Kasyapa during his reign from 477 AD.
The ruins are still up there, but before accepting the challenge to walk up the 1250 steps, check out a sample of archaeology at its finest. The symmetrical royal gardens below are split in two. The right side has been excavated to reveal ancient moats and fountains while the left side has been left untouched, ancient treasures still hidden below.
Top cultural experiences in Colombo
The majority of Sri Lankans practise Theravada Buddhism and no visit to Colombo would be complete without experiencing the peaceful stillness of a Buddhist temple.
Kelaniya Temple, nestled by the Kelani River, is a must-see. The temple is located about 12 kilometres from the city centre. It’s one of the country’s most sacred sites and has a history stretching back around 2,500 years.
After gazing in awe at the ancient paintings and carvings housed in the city’s temples, you might enjoy taking in some contemporary culture. Visit the Lionel Wendt Art Centre, which stages theatrical presentations and art exhibitions. Check the Facebook page to see what’s on during your stay.
Sri Lanka is one of the world’s largest producers of tea, and tea drinking is an important part of daily life across the country. Enjoy a bit of la-di-da tea sampling at Tea Breeze. There are two locations in Colombo to choose from.
For a slightly different and totally acceptable (I promise!) cultural experience, head to the Mount Lavinia Hotel for afternoon tea on a Saturday and marvel at the traditional costumes of newly married couples as they head into their receptions. They are more than happy to pose for photos with tourists.
Great places to eat in Colombo
Sample a wide range of authentic Sri Lankan curries at Upali’s by Nawaloka.
The menu at this buzzing restaurant opposite Viharamahadevi Park is extensive. Try the Maalu Olu fish head curry (a snapper head cooked in a coconut-based sauce).
Alternatively, you can feast on string hoppers, egg hoppers, or the famous crab curry at Palmyrah Restaurant.
For a superb buffet of Sri Lankan fare, book a table at The Terrace at the Mount Lavinia Hotel. The restaurant also serves a solid spread of international favourites for those who are not quite game to dig into a local dish!
Where to shop in Colombo
If there’s one retail experience that stands out in Colombo, it would have to be jewellery shopping.
Check out Khiards Jewellers, where you can select original handmade pieces at a fraction of what you’d pay in Australia. If you can’t find a piece that takes your fancy, you can design your own. Be aware that 9 carat gold is not ‘a thing’ in Sri Lanka; it’s always 18 carat or more.
If jade, sapphires, tiger eye or topaz are your bling of choice, drop by the shiny showroom of Stone ‘N’ String.
Ways to relax in Colombo
Take a tuk tuk to Galle Face Green, where you can enjoy a stroll along the oceanfront promenade.
There’s usually a game of cricket taking place on the lawn. This is Sri Lanka’s favourite sport. Smile and join in!
To soak up some sun, spend an afternoon at Mount Lavinia beach. Relaxing on the sand can be thirsty work, but don’t worry — you’re sure to cross paths with plenty of pineapple and coconut vendors. Alternatively, pop into one of the beach shacks along the foreshore and purchase drinks and snacks.
If that day tour to Sigiriya has left you wanting to see more of this fascinating island nation, a day tour from Colombo to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed city of Kandy is another great option. Set on a mountainous plateau in central Sri Lanka, the one-time capital is packed with historic highlights, including Kandy Lake and the sacred Temple of Tooth Relic (Sri Dalada Maligawa). It’s a three-hour drive each way, so prepare yourself for another big day!
Do you have any tips to add to our Colombo travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Marianne Diaz is a research scientist by day and a freelance travel writer by night! She has travelled to Sri Lanka to explore her children’s part-heritage, and enjoyed research trips to Japan, and Bloomington, Chicago and Boston in the USA. Marianne’s main travel goal is to get to the Italian Aeolian Islands to check out the other half of her children’s background. She also loves exploring history-laden Australian country towns.