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 finally put itself on the map. Colombo offers an engaging mix of cultural and historic attractions, along with fabulous cuisine.
Here’s a city guide to the top things to see and do in Colombo.
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 AD would suffice! Although a five-hour drive from Colombo, a visit to the ancient royal citadel of Sigiriya is absolutely essential. 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.
Most Sri Lankans practice Theravada Buddhism and no visit to Colombo would be complete without experiencing the peaceful stillness of a Buddhist temple. Kelaniya Temple, nestled by the River Kelani, is one possible option.
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.
Not sure which Sri Lankan dish to try? Try them all! For a superb buffet of Sri Lankan favourites, book a table overlooking the beach at The Terrace at the Mount Lavinia Hotel. The restaurant also serves a solid spread of international favourites for those not quite game enough for the traditional curries.
If sampling as many authentic curries as possible is your aim, then definitely dine at Upali’s by Nawaloka. Alternatively, you can choose to feast on string hoppers, egg hoppers or the famous crab curry at Palmyrah Restaurant.
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, the shiny showroom of Stone ‘N’ String is a must-visit.
There’s no shortage of ways to relax in Colombo. Take a tuk tuk to Galle Face Green, where you can stroll along the oceanfront promenade. If you really want to blend in, there’s usually a game of cricket taking place on the lawn. Smile and join in! This is Sri Lanka’s favourite sport.
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 you need some extra shade, there are beach huts available for hire. Settle in to watch the sun set over the shimmering Indian Ocean.
Do you have any tips for top things to see and do in Colombo? 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’s 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. Her 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.