Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital and largest city, is a bustling metropolis of around 4.6 million people. Located on the west coast, it borders Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte, which is the official capital of Sri Lanka. Colombo is a lively multi-ethnic and multi-religious city, and has an intriguing mix of old colonial charm and modern free-market zeal.
Colombo was made the capital when Sri Lanka was ceded to the British in 1815, and that status was retained when the country gained independence in 1948. In 1978, when administrative functions were moved to Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte, Colombo was made the commercial capital of Sri Lanka.
The name ‘Colombo’ was first introduced by the Portuguese in 1505 and is believed to have derived from the Sinhala name kolon thota, which means ‘port on the Kelani river’. Another theory is that the name was derived from the Sinhala name kola-amba-thota which means ‘harbour with leafy mango trees’.
Things to do in Colombo, Sri Lanka
The Old Parliament | Gangaramaya Temple | Galle Face Green | Old Town Hall Building | Colombo Lighthouse | The National Museum | Independence Square | Viharamahadevi Park | The Art Gallery | Dehiwala Zoo | Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara | Spiritual enclaves | Catch a show | Watch or play cricket | Golf | Walk on the beach | Nightlife
Old Parliament building of Colombo is now known as the Presidential Secretariat. The building was declared opened on January 29, 1930 by Governor Sir Herbert Stanley and it was the house of legislature for little over 50 years.
Visitors are not allowed inside, but pictures can be taken in front of the building.
Located in the heart of the city, this opulent temple borders Colombo’s Beira lake and boasts elaborate murals and a collection of books and artifacts. On full moon poya days, which are holy to Buddhists, devotees flock to the temple in their thousands, so such days may not be the best to experience its aesthetic beauty and venerated history. A part of Gangaramaya expands into the centre of the lake, and can be accessed by a small bridge, from which visitors can get an excellent view of Colombo’s skyline and seek temporary refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Though the grass does not remain very green any more due to the large crowds that patronize this almost 2 km long stretch of lawn every day, this is undoubtedly a place to take your routine walk amidst vendors and roadside lamp-lit food stalls accompanied by the sound of the waves. The colonial Galle Face hotel and the Indian Ocean in the background form a perfect setting to breathe in a bit of the city. Joggers, lovers, kite-flyers and families seeking a breath of fresh air gather on the green at dusk. If you enjoy street food, this is one of the best places to go.
Located in the main-street, Pettah is the Old Town Hall building. Designed by J. G. Smither and opened in 1873, this building had functioned as the office and meeting room of the Colombo Municipal Council and as a Courthouse in Colombo. This had been one of the most prominent landmarks of Colombo in the past. It now functions as a museum. It is definitely worth a visit if you are interested in history and old buildings. If you pay a visit, don’t miss the iconic life size wooden dolls which are a replica of a council meeting.
Colombo Lighthouse was constructed in 1952 as an initiative of the Colombo Harbor Expansion Project replacing the old lighthouse in Colombo which is now turned into a Clock Tower. This is built on a concrete platform with statues of four lions at the base and is more than100 feet in height. This is the best place in Colombo to catch the panoramic view of the Indian Ocean and Colombo Harbor.
From the origins of this nation over 2500 years ago, to the ruins of Anuradhapura and the last kingdom of Kandy, the national museum has a lot to see. Professionally maintained and rarely visited by locals except children on school excursions, you can get to know how the art, traditions and beliefs of today owe so much to the past.
Amid well tended lawns is this beautifully kept monument that was built to commemorate independence from British rule. A stroll around the structure can be done within a matter of minutes. If you are looking for a work-out after stuffing yourself with too much food, this is the place to join the many locals who come here for their morning or evening jogs.
Surprisingly, Colombo’s main public park is rarely frequented by tourists, and yet it offers a leafy refuge for a picnic and maybe even a post-lunch nap until the heat of the day subsides.
The public Art Gallery which is down a road popularly known as Greenpath though now officially called Nelum Pokuna Mawatha, frequently displays art by local artists. What is perhaps more interesting is that opposite the gallery on the roadside adjoining the Viharamahadevi park is a perpetual collection of art for sale by aspiring artists, as stunning as any in Colombo’s galleries.
The Dehiwala Zoo may not match up to counterparts in more developed countries, but it gives travelers a chance to see animals from all parts of the world – including Sri Lanka’s endangered fauna – without the need to travel to a far away wildlife sanctuary.
Kelaniya is not actually in Colombo, but it is close enough (about one hour drive, except during rush hour). This ancient temple was razed to the ground by the Portuguese, but was later rebuilt. It is perhaps the most venerated temple in the Western Province. According to historical chronicles, it is one of the places in Sri Lanka sanctified by the visit of the Buddha.
While the big temples and shrines attract tourists, there are innumerable shrines and meditation centres that cater to all faiths around Colombo. Secluded yet welcoming places such as the Sambodhi Viharaya in Gregory’s Road (Colombo 07) offer opportunities to pursue spirituality sans the encumbrances of commercialism.
For a very reasonable price you can catch a stage play at Colombo’s Lionel Wendt Theatre every weekend where different theatre groups put on various plays, ranging from rib-tingling comedies to sardonic satire and flamboyant musicals.
If you’re from a cricket-playing country this should be easy, but even if you’re not, all you need is to be ready to lose to kids on the street by joining or organizing a street match in this cricket mad country. The locals teach you the rules or make them up as they go along. Colombo’s roads are full of impromptu street cricket games. Alternatively, you may watch a cricket match in one of the two main international cricket stadiums in Colombo. Cricket matches in Sri Lanka tend to be very lively, and regardless of the status of the match on the pitch, you are assured of a carnival atmosphere in the stands.
Tucked away behind the busy metropolis is the 18-hole Royal Colombo Golf Club that dates back to 1896. Apart from the scenic landscape, diverse fauna and flora, the colonial style veranda of the Club House is one of the best preserved features of this property. You have to call to reserve a tea time.
Colombo is a coastal city, however most beach areas near the city are unsuitable for swimming. If you like to enjoy the beach while in Colombo, the Mt. Lavinia beach is probably the best.
As the sunshine of a typical Colombo day takes a rest, a surprisingly vivacious night life beckons the traveler and the local alike from within swanky pubs and nightclubs.
Opening hours of restaurants and pubs vary greatly, though nearly all start at around 10.30 am for lunch and remain open till around 3.00 p.m. For dinner nearly all open around 7.00 p.m and remain open till around 12.00 p.m. Most of the pubs and nightclubs stop serving alcohol at around 11.00 p.m.
Most of the nightclubs close at 3.00 a.m. The gentlemen pay an entrance fee while the ladies are permitted free entry. Dress code – casual but elegant, and gents have to wear shoes.
Colombo was a port city known to ancient Greek, Roman, Persian, Arab and Chinese traders, and later became of strategic and commercial importance to the Portuguese, Dutch and British colonizers. The city’s street names reflect this colonial history, with streets in the plush Cinnamon Gardens neighborhood being named after British Governors, while Dutch and Portuguese names can be seen in the city’s financial centre Fort, and the main bazaar Pettah.
Hints of the city’s colonial past can even be seen in its food. For instance ‘lamprais’, an indulgent treat of oily rice wrapped in a banana leaf, is a contribution of the Dutch, and the traditional Sinhalese sweetmeat ‘kavum’ (oil cakes), eaten during the local New Year, is a contribution of the Portuguese.
Travel Tips and Planning Information
The weather is unwaveringly tropical – hot and humid all year round. The most suitable attire is loose fitting cotton clothing. We have two monsoons – the Southwest Monsoon from May to August and the Northeast Monsoon from November to February. They are characterized by lengthy downpours, sometimes extending days, and severe thunderstorms (particularly in May). The temperature hardly ever falls below 27°C. Characteristics of the rain are the sudden and short bursts and people scurry between showers from one bus-stop to another. You should also expect humidity levels in Colombo to be high. Average humidity in the day approximates 75% and while nighttime humidity is about 85%.
- Try and avoid traveling during rush hours (7:30 a.m. – 9:30 a.m., 12:00 p.m. – 2:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. – 6:30 p.m.)
- If you are using tuk tuks, it is best to use meter tuks/taxis.
- Exercise caution when crossing the road.
- Places of worship have their own explicitly stated guidelines for modest dress which exclude, short sleeved blouses, exposed or bare legs and foot wear.
- Taking pictures in what are known as ‘high security zones’ in Colombo is sometimes not permitted, therefore ask if photography is permitted before snapping.