Colombo is a city on the rise – newly cosmopolitan, with chic restaurants and hotels springing up all over the place next to sleek luxury apartment towers. Things have really changed – in 2009, after more than 25 years of war between the LTTE (Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam) and the Sri Lankan government, Colombo wasn’t an attractive city. Armed soldiers and security checks made the place feel intimidating, and only a thin trickle of tourists passed through. Today, however, these times are becoming a distant memory, with tourist numbers up nearly 40% in two years. Indeed, one day in Colombo will show you the city’s newfound energy and confidence.
GUEST POST BY SARAH CRAKE
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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 from May to August and from October to January, although these are never exact and there is year-round rainfall. But overall, the best months to spend a day in Colombo could very well be February and March.
A few facts about Colombo
The city’s history goes back more than 2000 years, so you can be sure that there will be plenty of places to visit in Colombo, especially if you’re here for only one day. The city was known to numerous ancient civilizations, including the Greeks, the Chinese, the Romans and so many others.
Today, this is the commercial capital of Sri Lanka and that country’s largest city with more than 5.5 million people living in its metropolitan area. Actually, Colombo served as the country’s capital all the way to 1978. Over the centuries, this was also a colony that belonged to the Dutch, the British and the Portuguese, and the influence of those cultures is still felt in the city today.
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.
Enjoy the city’s street life
Despite its new contemporary veneer, authentic street life is still easy to find. A good place to put at the top of your Colombo itinerary, especially if you really want to absorb Sri Lankan culture, is Pettah Market. Pettah is a neighborhood in the northern part of the city, organized like a traditional bazaar. Each street is dedicated to a different kind of goods, from tantalizing 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 the Sea Street and are 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 make elaborate pujas (offerings) to the myriad of gods and goddesses. One of the coolest things to do in Colombo during your day.
Another interesting place to visit in Colombo 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.
Stop for a tasty lunch
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 socialize in the evening. Park Street Mews is also worth mentioning 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 department store.
Check out some Buddhist beauties
Alternatively, you could tour some of the Buddhist temples, and there are loads of those places to visit in Colombo.
Gangaramaya is the most famous one, and Seema Malaka Temple on Beira Lake (feature image), with its iconic Buddha-studded pavilion, is also one of the top places to visit in Colombo, even if you’re here for one day, and 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.
Spend 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.
Go on a 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 rooftop bar is bang on the seafront at Bambalapitiya, another great place to relax and cool down and the cherry on top of your Colombo itinerary.
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?
Villa Key 2 Ceylon
No 64,Muhandiram E. Dabare Road,Narahenpita
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.
Day trips from Colombo
Should you decide to stay here for a while, you really should consider organizing one or two day trips from Colombo. Sri Lanka is an absolutely fascinating country, so you will have plenty to explore. Here are a few great destinations both near and not so near the city.
Sigiriya and Dambulla
The fortress in the ancient city of Sigiriya dates back to the 5th century and is on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list. It is also sometimes referred to as the 8th wonder of the world, so it will be the highlight of your visit to this fascinating place. After that, head to the town of Dambulla to see its Golden Temple, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. This cave temple dates back to the first century B.C. and will surely leave you speechless.
Among all of the day trips from Colombo you can make, this one is probably the most beautiful one. Galle is on the south-west coast of Sri Lanka and has so much to offer. You can visit the local turtle hatchery, for example, and learn all about these endangered animals. Or you can see the local stilt fishermen in action. Or just visit the fort of Galle, another site on UNESCO’s esteemed list.
To wrap up this list of day trips from Colombo, we will say that you should definitely consider visiting Kandy, a sacred city for the Buddhists. The main thing to see here is The Temple of the Tooth Relic, which is said to contain a tooth of the Buddha himself! Additionally, you can learn a lot about Sri Lankan spices and tea here, which have a long tradition and are among the country’s main exports.
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 into 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 Lankan eateries offer 100 rupee (50p) take-away rice and curry lunch packets and dishes like the famous kottu, which literally means chop – an appetizing 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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Make sure you have everything you need
What to pack for your next trip?
Make your next trip as simple and as enjoyable as possible by packing smart. It’s amazing how much stress top travel items can save you, so choose carefully.
Things like lightweight travel backpacks, for example, are ideal for short trips and allow you to move around with ease, and a passport holder will make sure you keep your documents safe at all times.
Check our travel checklist guide for 2021 to make sure you haven’t missed anything, and travel to your next destination in style and with maximum comfort.
Sarah Crake is based in the UK and has worked in publishing, PR, and higher education. She is an experienced solo traveler and passionate about all things Asian and Middle Eastern. Sarah has spent extended periods in Asia, including two years in Sri Lanka. She loves traveling with a camera and is particularly inspired by vivid colors in photography, as well as art, culture and eastern religions.