Little known and until now, rarely 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.
For historical things to see and do in Colombo, there is much on offer. 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 is complete without experiencing the peacefulness of a Buddhist temple such as the Kelaniya Temple, nestled along the River Kelani.
After gazing at the awe-inspiring ancient paintings of the temple, try something a little more contemporary at the Lionel Wendt Art Centre and finish off with a bit of la-di-da tea-sampling at Tea Breeze.
If you’re wanting to try something a bit different and totally acceptable (I promise), head to the Mount Lavinia Hotel for afternoon tea on a Saturday afternoon and marvel at the traditional costumes of newly married couples as they head in for their receptions. They are more than happy to pose with tourists (I couldn’t resist!).
There are plenty of delicious things to see and do in Colombo. 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 more your style of bling, head for the shiny showroom of Stone ‘N’ String.
There’s no shortage of relaxing things to see and do in Colombo.
Jump in a tuk tuk and head over to Galle Face Green where you can stroll along the promenade on the Indian Ocean waterfront. Want to blend in? Grab a bat, ball and some wickets and take advantage of the lush green lawn to partake in Sri Lanka’s favourite sport.
To soak up some sun, head for the Mount Lavinia beach. Walk along the sand where you’re sure to cross paths with pineapple and coconut vendors. Or pop into one of the beach shacks for snacks and drinks.
Beach huts are also up for hire. Settle in to watch the amazing sunset over the 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 us a comment.
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 embarked on nerd-travel – travel for research to Japan, Bloomington, Chicago and Boston in the U.S. Her main aim is to get to the Italian Aeolian Islands one day with her whole family to check out the other half of her kids’ heritage (and her own). Marianne’s favourite travel love is exploring history-laden country towns, and the unique and intriguing landscapes of Australia. She believes there really is no place like home.