Colombo is a city on the up. Newly cosmopolitan; chic restaurants and hotels are springing up all over the city 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 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 lean times are becoming a distant memory and with tourist numbers up nearly 40% in two years, Colombo has a new found energy and confidence.
Guest post by Sarah Crake
What’s the best time to visit?
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.
One day in Colombo itinerary:
Top things to do in Colombo, Sri Lanka
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.
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.
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.
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.
Alternatively, you could tour some Buddhist temples.
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.
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.
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.
Where to stay in Colombo?
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.
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 travellers 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.
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.
At the opposite end of Galle Face Green, the Shangri-La Hotel Colombo has just opened its doors.
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.
Some 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.
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!
Guest post by Sarah Crake
In case you have more than just one day in Colombo, check out Tripadvisor for detailed list of all the top things to do in Colombo.
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