As Sri Lanka’s largest city, Colombo is the gateway to the beautiful island nation. With so many great places to visit in Sri Lanka, your first instinct might be to skip over Colombo, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find it definitely worth exploring. I had one day in Colombo and found that to be a really good length of time. With such a rich history and the number of times it has changed control, Sri Lanka has ended up becoming a melting pot of cultures.
As I found, you can be visiting an intricate Hindu shrine one minute, an historical government building the next, followed by a Muslim mosque.
There’s some incredible diversity in Sri Lanka. If you’re planning a trip to Sri Lanka, spend your first (or last) day discovering the best things to do Colombo. Stay somewhere central (within spitting distance of Fort and Beira Lake ideally), walk to the spots nearby, and get tuk-tuks everywhere else. My Colombo experience was on my last day in Sri Lanka and this is everything I saw. If you’re not sure what to do in Colombo, I hope this guide is helpful.
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 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.
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.
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!
Visiting this temple is a truly unique experience, and well worth a visit.
Independence Square was a real stop as this is a place I wanted to see. It’s a large open, concrete hall erected to celebrate independence from the British in 1948. Fronted by a statue and an admittedly ageing pond, the columns stand tall surrounded by beautiful, green park.
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.
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.
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!
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:
TEMPLE OF SRI KAILAWASANATHAN
The Sri Kailawasanathan Swami Devasthanam Temple is a Hindu temple in the backstreets of Colombo not far from the Cinnamon Lakeside, the hotel at which I was staying. Unfortunately, it was closed this day, so I had to suffice with a car park tour and just took a few photos of the entrance from the outside, all the while dodging tuk-tuks and motorbikes as it faces a reasonably busy backstreet. Just look at the intricate design of the entrance tower.
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.
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!
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.
Riding a tuk-tuk is great fun, especially after dark!
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.