One day in Colombo itinerary – Top things to do in Colombo, Sri Lanka

Colombo is a city on the rise. Newly cosmopolitan; chic restaurants and hotels are springing up all over the place next to sleek luxury apartment towers. Things have really changed – in 2009, after the more-than-25 year war between the LTTE (Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam) and the Sri Lankan government had ended, Colombo wasn’t an attractive city. Armed soldiers and security checks made the city feel intimidating and only a thin trickle of tourists passed through. Today, these times are becoming a distant memory, and with tourist numbers up nearly 40% in two years, Colombo has a newly found energy and confidence.

One day in Colombo Itinerary

Guest post by Sarah Crake
Blog: Peacock Eye Images

What’s the best time to visit Colombo?

Any month: the tropical climate means it’s always hot and humid. Average temperatures are 31 °C (87.8 °F). Monsoon seasons are May to August and October to January, but these are never exact and there is year-round rainfall. The best months to visit can be February and March.

Sri Lankan Patterns
Author: Sarah Crake

One day in Colombo itinerary

Follow this guide and make the most of your trip even if you’re short on time. These are the top sights and things to do during your one day in Colombo.

Street life

Despite its new contemporary veneer, authentic street life is still easy to find. A good place to start a city tour and really absorb Sri Lankan culture is at Pettah Market. Pettah is a neighbourhood in the north of the city, organised like a traditional bazaar. Each street is dedicated to a different good, from tantalising exotic fruits to glittering gold and textiles, to household items and electronics. With the crush of people and searing heat, Pettah can be an overwhelming experience, but underneath all the chaos, you’ll find a relaxed vibe and welcoming locals.

Colombo streets
Pettah Market, Author: Sarah Crake

The most fascinating thing about Pettah is the seamless cultural mix. Hindu temples (kovils) line up on Sea Street encrusted in cartoon-like Hindu deities. Venture inside the dark and cavernous interior of Colombo’s oldest Hindu kovil Sri Ponnambalam and watch Brahim priests conduct elaborate pujas; (offerings) to the myriad of gods and goddesses.

Sri Ponnambalam Vanesar Kovil
Sri Ponnambalam Vanesar Kovil, Author: Sarah Crake

Another interesting stop is the famous Catholic Shrine of St Antony; it’s well-known for miracles and draws crowds of devotees. Just round the corner is the unique Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque with its tiers of candy-striped arches.

Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque
Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque, Author: Sarah Crake

Lunch stop

With all that sensory overload, a late lunch will definitely be high on the agenda, so head back down south to Barefoot Café. An enduring haunt of both tourists and expats, Barefoot is known for its homely menu, vibrant hand-loomed textiles and art exhibitions. It’s still one of the best spots to chill out during a hot afternoon or socialise in the evening. Park Street Mews is also worth a mention as another excellent place for lunch. After lunch, take a tuk-tuk, (or from Park Street you can walk) to leafy Victoria Park for a leisurely stroll in the gardens, perhaps followed by a spot of souvenir-shopping at the well-known (and air-conditioned!) Odel’s department store.

Viharamahadevi Park
Viharamahadevi Park (formerly Victoria Park), Author: Sarah Crake

Buddhist beauties

Alternatively, you could tour some Buddhist temples.

Gangaramaya Temple
Inside Gangaramaya Temple, Author: Sarah Crake

Gangaramaya is the most famous in Colombo and Seema Malaka Temple on Beira Lake (feature image) with its iconic Buddha-studded pavilion, is a must-see tourist pit-stop, especially at sunset.

If you’ve got any energy left, or if you’re heading back down the Galle Road again, take a look inside the beautiful Ashokaramaya Temple to marvel at the Sistine Chapel-like ceiling depicting the life of the Buddha.

Asokaramaya Buddhist Temple
Asokaramaya Buddhist Temple, Author: Sarah Crake

An evening on Galle Face Green

As dusk falls, Galle Face Green gets packed with local families and groups of boys playing cricket and flying kites, it’s a great place to mingle with friendly locals. Opposite, the old colonial stalwart The Galle Face Hotel is strikingly illuminated at night and dominates the Green. Famous for sophisticated elegance, the iconic hotel is still undisputedly the best place in Colombo for an evening G&T, while gazing at the tequila hues of an Indian Ocean sunset.

Dinner date

For dinner try the stunning Dutch Hospital, a legacy of the Dutch colonists, recently converted into an arcade of stylish boutiques and restaurants. Here you’ll find the renowned restaurant Ministry of Crab, the brainchild of two former Sri Lankan cricket captains (booking essential). Independence Arcade, another piece of historic heritage transformed, has shops and contemporary bars such as Asylum which dishes up great tapas and live jazz. Another good choice for dinner is Gallery Café. Housed in the former offices of stellar Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, it serves fabulous fusion food and delicious cocktails (try the chilli and tamarind martini for a local twist).

Cool down at a roof-top bar

If you fancy cooling down with an ice-cold Lion beer, try out one of the city’s new rooftop bars. The large space at Colombo Courtyard above the rooftops of Duplication Road offers a welcome breeze. Cloud Red on the 26th floor of the boutique Cinnamon Red Hotel also boasts a gorgeous infinity pool. Sleek Ozo Hotel’s stunning roof top bar is bang on the seafront at Bambalapitiya, another great place to relax and cool down after a hectic day zipping around the city.

With its compelling history, tropical modernism, great hotels and laid back island atmosphere, Colombo is now starting to make a name for itself as a cosmopolitan destination in its own right.

The island temple of Seema Malaka 2
The island temple of Seema Malaka, Author: Sarah Crake

Where to stay in Colombo?

Save up to 30% on your hotel reservations!

Black Cat B&B offers stylish rooms on the first floor of a newly renovated 1920’s colonial house above their Black Cat Cafe. It boasts a great city centre location, just walking distance from cafes and galleries plus it’s over the road from the famous Odell’s department store.

Book here
Black Cat B&B
Black Cat B&B

Another new budget place which has good facilities for travellers, including a dining area, kitchen and spacious rooms with new fixtures and fittings is the Villa Key 2 Ceylon. The location, east of Colombo 5 / Thimbirigasaya, perhaps suits travelers who’ve been to the city before. However bear in mind it’s just off one of the main throughfares, Baseline Road and near to Narahenpita train station so with those landmarks, it’s not that hard to find. With Apps Pick Me and Uber it’s also much easier than it used to be to get around Colombo.

Book here
Villa Key 2 Ceylon
Villa Key 2 Ceylon

If you want something more swish, options are plentiful in Colombo. Old favourite the Galle Face Hotel has been refurbished and its atmospheric sunset-facing location continues to draw in guests.

Book here
Galle Face Hotel
Galle Face Hotel

At the opposite end of Galle Face Green, the Shangri-La Hotel Colombo has just opened its doors.

Book here
Shangri-La Hotel Colombo
Shangri-La Hotel Colombo
Shangri-La Hotel Colombo
Shangri-La Hotel Colombo

For guaranteed comfort and luxury book the Mövenpick Hotel Colombo, which comes highly recommended by business travellers and also features a gorgeous a rooftop bar, infinity pool and enticing ocean view gym.

Book here
Mövenpick Hotel Colombo
Mövenpick Hotel Colombo
Mövenpick Hotel Colombo
Mövenpick Hotel Colombo

Extra tips for visiting Colombo

Local buses are complicated and conductors tend not to speak English, so stick to metered tuk-tuks or 3 wheelers as they are known locally – a cheap and convenient way to get around the city and its convoluted one-way systems. Avoid getting pressured into a fixed price: unscrupulous drivers hang around expensive places such as Crescat Mall and the big hotels. Ensure the driver re-sets the ‘per km’ on the meter to a fair price of around 40 rupees.

New App Pick Me enables users to pre-book a tuk-tuk, mini, car or van from any location in the capital.

Call Kangaroo Cabs for local taxis, they also offer reasonable fixed prices to Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport.

Beat the heat

At only 7° north of the equator, Colombo is HOT! Stay hydrated – always carry water.
Despite the heat, women should try to dress modestly, especially in the traditional district of Pettah, hot pants and vest tops are a bit too revealing, although perfectly fine at a modern rooftop bar.

What number?

Colombo is divided to numbered districts – Colombo 1 to Colombo 15. Tourists mainly visit 1-4 and maybe 7 (Cinnamon Gardens) and 11 (Pettah). It’s useful to have a rough idea which number you’re staying in.

Short eats or long eats?

Hole-in-the-wall traditional Sri Lanka eateries offer 100 rupee (50p) take-away rice and curry lunch packets and dishes like the famous kottu, which literally means chop – an appetising combo of roti bread, eggs, vegetables and spicy gravy all thrown together and noisily sliced up on an enormous steel board. Kottu is an evening dish and not available in the day. Also available at night (and early morning) are egg hoppers – a delicious rice pancake made with coconut milk with an egg at the bottom; without doubt one of the best street foods in Asia. Street snacks are known as “short eats” such as isso wade (deep-fried shrimp cakes) an egg roll or a cone of spicy chick peas. No trip to Sri Lanka is complete without trying the most classic snack of all, the much-loved vegetable roti – a triangle wrap filled spicy veg, available 24 hours, it’s the perfect late-night bite!

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Here are some of the top travel items you must bring to your next trip. These items will make your trip a lot more relaxing and you’ll surely get rid of some extra hassle.

Make sure to travel light, safe and stylish following our travel item guide for 2019.

Sarah Crake
Sarah Crake
Travel Photographer at

Sarah Crake is based in the UK and has worked in publishing, PR, and higher education. She is an experienced solo traveller and passionate about all things Asian and Middle Eastern. Sarah has spent extended periods in Asia, including two years in Sri Lanka. She loves travelling with a camera and is particularly inspired by vivid colours in photography, as well as art, culture and eastern religions.
For more photo libraries please visit Shutterstock, Alamy and 500px


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