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, Colombo offers an engaging mix of cultural experiences, historic attractions, and fabulous cuisine. Ask anyone who has visited this city of around 600,000 people and you’re likely to get a rave review.
This Colombo travel guide is packed with ideas for things to see and do. Enjoy your stay.
Colombo for history lovers
As a sea port for over 2,000 years on the East-West trade route, Sri Lanka 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 destroyed by the British — is home to a network of streets lined with colonial buildings, and is best explored on foot.
Immerse yourself in the country’s pre-colonial backstory by perusing the many artefacts on display at the Colombo National Museum. It’s housed in a remarkable, stark-white edifice, purpose built in 1877 by the then British Governor. Be warned, Sri Lanka’s museums aren’t air conditioned, but this one is definitely worth braving the heat to see.
You can time travel to the fifth century on a visit to the ancient royal citadel of Sigiriya — 150 kilometres north-east of the city. Although a five-hour drive from Colombo, a day trip to the looming granite rock, 200 metres high, is worth the early start and late finish if that’s your only option to see this UNESCO World Heritage-listed site.
During his reign from 477 AD, King Kasyapa built a palace on the rock’s summit. The ruins are still up there, but you’ll need to conquer 1,250 steps to see them. The symmetrical royal gardens below are split in two. The right side has been excavated to reveal an ingenious network of moats and fountains, while the left side has been left untouched (and who knows what ancient infrastructure is still hidden there).
Top cultural activities in Colombo
The majority of Sri Lankans practise Theravada Buddhism, and no visit to Colombo would be complete without experiencing the peaceful stillness of a Buddhist temple.
Kelaniya Temple, nestled by the Kelani River, is a must-see. The temple is located about 12 kilometres from the city centre and is one of the country’s most sacred sites. It has a history stretching back some 2,500 years.
After gazing in awe at the ancient paintings and carvings that adorn the city’s temples, you might enjoy taking in some contemporary culture. The Lionel Wendt Art Centre stages theatrical presentations and art exhibitions. Visit their Facebook page to find out 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, set aside a Saturday afternoon for high tea at the Mount Lavinia Hotel. It’s a chance to see the traditional and richly coloured costumes of newly married couples as they head into their receptions. And they’re generally more than happy to pose for photos with tourists.
Great places to eat in Colombo
You must eat at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel’s Nuga Gama at least once during your stay in Colombo.
A buffet of traditional Sri Lankan dishes is served beneath the shady canopy of a 200-year-old banyan (nuga) tree. The food is prepared by cooks from various villages close to the city, and it feels like you’re dining in an actual Sri Lankan village. Listen out for the bell that chimes in the top of the tree; it’s rung by staff to scare off visiting crows!
Housed in the 1600s-era Old Dutch Hospital, Ministry of Crab serves up a succulent array of Sri Lankan seafood dishes. Pepper crab, garlic chilli crab, curry crab, and butter crab are all on the menu. The avocado crab salad is a lighter-style dish that will suit those watching their holiday kilojoules.
You can push your spice boundaries at Upali’s by Nawaloka, located on the eastern side of Viharamaha Devi Park. The menu of Sri Lankan curries at this buzzing restaurant is extensive. Try the maalu olu fish head curry (a snapper head cooked in a coconut-based sauce), or the Sri Lankan tasting plate for two if you want to sample a bit of everything.
Sahal Restaurant is another great option for traditional Sri Lankan cuisine, but what will stick in your mind are the desserts! Finish your meal with a serving of sago coconut honey pudding, or the Sri Lankan classic — watalappan (a coconut custard pudding).
Where to shop in Colombo
If there’s one retail experience that really stands out in Colombo, it’s jewellery shopping.
Drop by Khiards Jewellers, where you can purchase original handmade pieces at a fraction of what you’d pay in Australia. And if you can’t find a piece that takes your fancy, design your own! Be aware that 9-carat gold is not ‘a thing’ in Sri Lanka; it’s always 18-carats or more.
Looking for that meaningful holiday souvenir? Check out the Good Market, which is held every Saturday at Colombo Racecourse. Each stall is operated by a ‘Good Market global approved vendor’ offering ethically produced products. Shop for fashion, foodstuffs, cosmetics, and artisanal home decor items. You can also put yourself in the hands of henna tattoo artists and masseurs.
If you don’t find what you’re looking for at the Good Market, try Lakercade in the heart of the city. Browse the extensive range of Sri Lankan-made pewter ware, wood carvings, leather goods, batik paintings, and packaged teas and spices.
Sri Lanka is well known for the use of Ayurveda medicine and you can learn more about it at the Vishwa Tharu Spice and Ayurveda Herbal Shop. The oils and balms on offer will leave you feeling refreshed and revitalised.
Ways to relax in Colombo
Coastal Colombo is the spot to get in some R&R.
Take a tuk tuk to Galle Face Green and meander along the breezy oceanfront promenade. There’s usually a game of cricket — Sri Lanka’s favourite sport — taking place on the lawn. Put a smile on your dial and join in!
Those who want to pull up on a patch of sand should head for Mount Lavinia Beach. It can be thirsty work in Colombo’s year-round tropical climate, but don’t worry — you’re sure to cross paths with plenty of pineapple and coconut sellers.
And finally, if that visit to Sigiriya leaves you wanting to see more of this fascinating island nation, a day tour from Colombo to the World Heritage-listed city of Kandy is another great option. Set on a mountainous plateau in central Sri Lanka, the one-time capital is packed with historic highlights, including Kandy Lake and the sacred Temple of Tooth Relic (Sri Dalada Maligawa). It’s a three-hour drive each way, so prepare yourself for another big day!
Top Oz Tours offers a great range of Sri Lanka day tours, guided experiences, and attraction tickets and passes. There are no booking or credit card fees when you book through us, and you’ll have access to the widest choice of activities and most competitive prices.
Do you have any tips to add to our Colombo travel guide? 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 has 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. Marianne’s 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.