As the commercial capital of Sri Lanka, Colombo is the busiest Sri Lanka can get. Many choose it for their first night stay in Sri Lanka due to its proximity to the Colombo airport. However, we often recommend Negombo (which is just 30 minutes away from the airport) over Colombo for the first night stays in Sri Lanka, as it is a more relaxing place from which to begin a Sri Lanka trip.
This does not mean that Colombo has nothing to offer. As a modern, ever-reviving city, it is home to time capsules from different historical eras of the island. It mixes Sri Lanka’s past with modernity, with its colonial buildings and artifacts, museums, religious sites, modern shopping malls and skyscrapers. It reflects the island’s vibrance, colour and diversity, and is home to people from all walks of life. If you prefer city life, Colombo may be the ideal place for you.
In this week's Travellers Isle article, you can learn about things to do in Colombo and places to visit in Colombo. The article details several historical monuments, shopping centers, souvenir boutiques, restaurants and open-air spaces you can visit and enjoy during your stay in Colombo.
Things to do in Colombo
In my opinion, the below mentioned experiences and attractions are the highlights of Colombo. If you can spend two days in Colombo, you can easily cover all these experiences and attractions during your stay in the capital.
1. Pettah Market
If you are yearning for an experience of Colombo’s bustling city life, there is no better place to start than the Pettah market. This hectic market sells everything from fruits, vegetables, bags, sarees, short eats, electronic items, and curtains to stationery at low prices. The market streets are colourful, loud and teeming with life, with rows of people snaking up and down on either side as tuk-tuks and other vehicles slowly try to get by.
Located close to the Colombo Fort train station, the market is home to old Dutch buildings, a Dutch museum, the Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque and the Sammangodu Sri Kathirvelayutha Swamy Hindu Temple. The market holds within itself the liveliness and diversity that characterizes Sri Lanka.
2. Independence Memorial Hall
If you are travelling as a family, and need to relax in the evening in Colombo, the Independence Memorial Hall would be just the right place.
Declared open in 1957, the Independence Memorial Hall is a majestic open-air monument which commemorates Sri Lanka gaining independence from the British on 4th February, 1948. A statue of the first prime minister of Sri Lanka, Hon. D. S. Senanayake, is located near the Hall.
The Memorial Hall is located within the Independence Square amid lush lawns, paved recreational tracks, ponds, and stone-carved patterns and shapes that draw from ancient Sri Lankan architecture.
The Hall derives structural and architectural inspiration from the Magul Maduwa (or the Audience Hall of the Kandyan monarchs) and the Embekke Temple in Kandy. Many of the wood carved patterns found in these two Kandyan historic sites are literally etched in stone in the Memorial Hall in Colombo.
In the basement of the Hall is the Independence Museum which memorializes some aspects of Sri Lankan pre-colonial history, and Sri Lanka’s struggle for independence.
Given its spaciousness, the Square is a space for recreation, relaxation and exercise. Apart from this, in the recent past, the Square was also a choice of location for Sri Lankans to peacefully voice themselves against injustice.
3. Gangaramaya Temple
For a spiritually relaxing ambience, you can visit the Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple. Established in the late 19th century, the Gangaramaya Temple is well-known for its architecture which is a mix of features from Indian, Chinese, Thai and Sri Lankan architecture.
The Temple is home to a photo gallery that contains photographs of Buddhist paintings. The pieces of art in the gallery are arranged chronologically to align with the historical periods such as the Classical, Kandyan and Modern Periods.
Apart from the photo gallery, it also has a museum and a library. There is also a stuffed tusker in the premises of the Temple.
If you are visiting Colombo in February, you may also watch the Gangaramaya Navam Perahera, which is organized by the Temple in celebration of the Navam Full Moon Poya Day. The Perahera is a procession that includes elephants, fire dancers, stilt walkers, flutists, sword dancers, drummers, and whip crackers. It also showcases a variety of Sri Lankan dancing traditions. Differing from other such processions in the country, the Navam perahera includes a procession of Buddhist monks as well. The Perahera dates back to 1979.
Another religious festival organized by the Temple is the annual Vesak festival ‘Buddha Rashmi Pooja,’ commemorating Lord Buddha’s Birth, Enlightenment and Passing Away. This event is organized in May.
The Gangaramaya Temple is located near the Beira lake, while the Seema Malaka Shrine, which belongs to the temple, is located in the middle of the lake. The Seema Malakaya is a place for meditation and prayer. It is also a place that reflects Sri Lankan religious and ethnic diversity and unity; it is a Buddhist temple with shrines of Hindu deities in its four corners. The construction of the Seema Malakaya was funded by a Sri Lankan Muslim businessman.
The Temple is also an internationally renowned institute offering vocational training and social services.
4. Galle Face Green
For a leisurely stroll under the Colombo sky with the soothing sea breeze, the Galle Face Green is your go-to spot. Located between the Galle Road and the deep blue Indian Ocean, it is an open-air urban park, lined with a promenade which dates back to 1859.
On ordinary days, Galle Face is full of families seeking a respite from their busy lives. Children flying colourful kites or playing on the grass is a common sight at Galle Face. The location is also famous among locals for its street food, the most famous of which is isso wade.
The buildings facing the Galle Face Green are the famous Taj Samudra, Galle Face and Shangri-la hotels and the One Galle Face Shopping Mall. Opposite the Galle Face Beach is the Presidential Secretariat, a stately architectural leftover from the colonial past.
At present, in a timely attempt to change the course of the island's future, Sri Lankans have taken to the streets carrying out peaceful protests. The Galle Face Green is one of the many sites that displayed Sri Lankans’ unity and has therefore gained another layer of historical significance.
5. Colombo National Museum
Dating back to 1877, the Colombo National Museum is Sri Lanka’s largest museum. It is housed in yet another majestic colonial building in a spacious compound fringed with greenery.
Ancient items on display include the tallest bronze hollow cast Buddha statue from the period 9th – 11th centuries AD and the stone carved Hindu deity Goddess Durga from the 9th and 10th centuries AD. Clothes and items used by the last king of Sri Lanka still survive; King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe’s golden watch with Sinhalese numerals, his royal seat of ebony and clothes worn by the final Sri Lankan royal couple are on display in the Colombo National Museum.
6. Captain’s Garden Kovil
Sri Kailasanathar Swami Kovil, also known as Captain’s Garden Kovil, is considered Colombo’s oldest Hindu temple. It is also among the most popular. Located in a calming environment, the Kovil is dedicated to the Hindu god Lord Shiva although there are shrines of other deities as well. Its ornate, monumental tower at the entrance is lined with intricate figurines and it invites you into the Kovil’s colourful interior, replete with the melodious chants and musical accompaniments.
7. The Taste of Colombo
We at Travellers Isle believe food is an integral part of a Sri Lanka holiday. There are many good restaurants in Colombo, but according to the feedback of our guests below are the best restaurants in Colombo to enjoy some great food.
Note - These restaurants have many customers daily, therefore a reservation will help you secure a table.
Ministry of Crab
If you are a lover of sea food, visiting Ministry of Crab is a must. Located within the Old Dutch Hospital, a colonial building which dates back to 1677, the Ministry of Crab is a celebration of Sri Lankan sea food. It has been among Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant since 2015.
Reservations are required.
Upali’s by Nawaloka
Apart from the sea food experience, to eat Sri Lankan means to definitely taste rice with a variety of spicy curries. Upali’s by Nawaloka is a family restaurant that promises you an authentic Sri Lankan food experience. On its menus are rice and curry options for lunch and dinner, with milk rice reserved for breakfast. The restaurant also offers vegan and vegetarian options.
Upali’s also has a coffee shop that serves locally brewed coffee, and snacks and pastries favorites among the locals.
Enjoy an Indian culinary experience in Sri Lanka at Shanmugas, a vegetarian restaurant specializing in Indian food. Shanmugas lists a variety of Indian savoury snacks, bread, rice, noodles, soups and salads on its menus.
8. The Colombo Shopping Experience
Kandy is the most popular town in Sri Lanka for woodcarvings, gems and batiks. However, you may also do some shopping in Colombo. Below are the best places in Colombo for buying souvenirs and other items.
Laksala and Lakpahana
In Colombo, locally produced handicrafts can be purchased at boutiques such as Laksala and Lakpahana.
Laksala is the only Sri Lankan state-owned organization that markets locally produced handicrafts.
Lakpahana is the marketing arm of the Sri Lanka Craftsmen and Artisans’ Association.
Both organizations provide an encouraging hand to local craftspeople to express their creative talents and play a key role in preserving dying artistic traditions in the country.
Green Path: Nelum Pokuna Art Street and Kala Pola Art Market
Brightening up the pavements of Green Path in Colombo are the Nelum Pokuna Art Street and the annual event named Kala Pola (Art Market).
The Nelum Pokuna Art Street is open daily. On display for purchase are reasonably priced paintings, sketches and portraits, all creations of talented Sri Lankan artists. The Art Street commenced about 20 years ago, with the participation of local artists including university students. Today, many of the artists who you encounter at the Art Street are art teachers and lecturers at local education institutes. If you are looking for paintings to brighten up your living room or you are an artist looking for source of aesthetic inspiration, take a stroll along the Green Path.
This same roadway is where the Kala Pola, a Sri Lankan open-air art market, is held. The market is usually held before the Sinhala and Tamil New Year in April, and Christmas. The Kala Pola brings together about 350 Sri Lankan artists annually and was commenced in 1993. Over its history, amateur and experienced artists have displayed and sold their creations which range from different genre of paintings and metal artwork. The market is also adorned by music and dance festivals, and a painting corner for children.
ODEL Department Store
Colombo has many shopping malls, and the most popular is the ODEL Department Store. ODEL is a household name in the fashion market of Sri Lanka, and the store is a go-to shopping destination. Located in yet another magnificent colonial building along Alexandra Place, the store offers a vast array of clothing, from basic to designer wear. Among the brands on the Store’s shelves is the homegrown brand Luv SL. Apart from adult and children’s clothing, the store also has exquisite jewellery and a bookstore. You can top off your shopping experience with a visit to the food court.
9. Colombo quick stops
Detailed below are a few landmarks in Colombo that require only a small amount of time to visit. Some of these sites (Colombo Clock Tower, Town Hall of Colombo, BMICH) can be glimpsed at from the tour vehicle itself, while others would need a walk.
The Colombo Clock Tower
Another colonial architectural remnant in Colombo is the Clock Tower. Built in 1857 during the reign of Queen Victoria, this Tower is special for the fact that its mechanism was constructed by the famous English clockmakers, Dent, who are known for manufacturing the clock mechanism of the Big Ben in London. The Tower is also known as the Old Colombo Lighthouse, as, in the past, it functioned as a lighthouse with revolving double lights that were visible from 18 km away.
The Colombo Lighthouse
Following the deactivation of the Old Colombo Lighthouse, another 95-foot structure was constructed in 1952 at Galbokka Point. It is a beautifully maintained landmark visited by both locals and foreigners for its relaxing environment. This cylindrical structure is painted in black and white in a checkered pattern on the seaward side.
The Town Hall of Colombo
Declared open in 1928, the Colombo Town Hall is yet another architectural leftover from the colonial times. Though often dubbed as the White House of Colombo, the design of the building derives from the architectural style of the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. Today this ancient building consists of the offices of the Colombo Municipal Council and the office of the Colombo mayor. Surrounded by a well-maintained lush lawns, the building is a famous landmark of the city.
Another iconic Colombo landmark is the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall, simply the BMICH. It was opened in 1973 and was constructed in memory of one of Sri Lanka’s prime ministers, Hons. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike. The 40-acre compound in which the Conference Hall is situated also accommodates the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Memorial Exhibition Hall, which was constructed in memory of the world’s first woman prime minister, Hon. Sirimavo Bandaranaike.
The Lotus Tower is the latest addition to the Colombo skyline. Standing at a height of 350 m, it is the tallest tower in South Asia (as at 2019). It houses a telecommunications museum and a revolving restaurant, auditorium, observation deck, conference center and a shopping mall.
Also known as the Red Mosque, the Jami-Ul-Alfar mosque is one of the oldest mosques in Colombo. Constructed between 1908-1909, its architectural features are a mix of Islamic and colonial English characteristics. Its white-and-red striped exterior has made the Mosque a memorable landmark and sets it apart from its neighbouring buildings in the Pettah surrounding.
Constructed in the mid-16th century by the Dutch colonizers, the Wolvendaal church is one of the oldest functioning Protestant churches in Sri Lanka. It takes the shape of a symmetrical cross and boasts of several historical artifacts such as a 150-year-old pipe organ.
If you want to experience Sri Lanka with all its hustle and bustle, and encounter Sri Lankan people from diverse backgrounds, the Colombo city is a good place to start. With its architecturally and historically significant buildings and religious sites, shopping complexes that mix the traditional and modern, and restaurants that offer local and regional taste experiences, Colombo promises much to the lovers of busy city life.
I hope you find this article helpful when planning your stay in Colombo. Feel free to drop us a message, if you have any questions or if you would like to get our assistance to organize your Sri Lanka trip.