Discover the hidden gems and must-see attractions in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, from visiting iconic temples like Gangaramaya and Sri Kailawasanathan Swami Devasthanam to exploring the historic Fort area and indulging in local street food.
Although often overlooked, there are actually more things to do in Colombo than you’d imagine and if you are visiting Sri Lanka, you should consider spending a day or two exploring its largest city.
Usually referred to as Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo actually is just its judicial and executive center – the capital is indeed Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte, of which most foreigners (including myself, I must admit) never even heard about. Most people would tell you that you should skip Colombo during your trip to Sri Lanka: there’s lots of traffic and – supposedly – not much to see.
I dissent! I spent a day in Colombo during my last trip to Sri Lanka and I was actually positively surprised by all that it has to offer, and although I did find it intense (traffic, pollution and lots of construction work going on), I think it is very interesting and that it deserves a visit.
In this post, I highlight some of the things to do in Colombo that you should not miss, and share a few useful tips that will help you plan your visit.
13 Things To Do In Colombo That You Shouldn’t Miss
One of the unmissable things to do in Colombo is visiting the many temples. Gangaramaya is simply a must.
Located on 61 Sri Jinarathana Rd, this is Colombo’s most important Buddhist temple. It’s actually a pretty large temple, with several buildings which include a pagoda, a library, a small museum with a pretty random exhibit, a display of donations and gifts from devotees, and – apparently – even a relic of Buddha’s hair. There even is a stuffed elephant on display – a bit out of place to be honest, and you kind of feel sad for the poor animal being there on display!
PRACTICAL INFORMATION: You can get in for just 300 Rupees, which is about $3 USD. The temple is open from 5:30 am to 10:00 pm.
Admire the colors of the Temple of Sri Kailawasanathan Swami Devasthanam
Located on 11/15, Captain’s Garden Kovil Street, this is honestly the most impressive temple you will see in Colombo. It’s a Hindu temple, with very detailed and incredibly colorful artwork, both inside and outside.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION: You can get inside this temple for free, but beware of the opening hours, which are from 6:00 to 10:30 am and from 4:30 to 6:00 or 7:00 pm.
Walk around the Fort
The Fort area is overall one of the most interesting places to visit in Colombo. Most of the old buildings in the area belong to the Dutch and British colonial times – when this part of town really was a fort. Next to them, you’ll find some very modern buildings – so the overall feeling you get is that of a very eclectic place.
Places of interest inside the Fort include Old Galle Buck Lighthouse, which was built in 1954 and from where you can enjoy nice views of the ocean and the harbor; the Clock Tower, which actually used to be a lighthouse and was built in 1857; Central Point, which dates back to 1914, is the biggest building in the area and has been beautifully renovated; and Lloyd’s Building, which dates back to 1908.
Enjoy some downtime at the Old Dutch Hospital
Among the nicest things to do in Colombo, there’s visiting the Old Dutch Hospital. Inside the Fort area, you will also find the Old Dutch Hospital.
It dates back to the early 17th century and it is thought to be the oldest building in the area. It has been beautifully restored and now is a lovely place to sit for a drink or to shop – needless to say, it is not a hospital anymore!
Walk around Beira Lake
One of the most local things to do in Colombo is going for a walk around Beira Lake. Close to Gangaramaya Temple, this large lake is of a bright green color – I assume it is because it is very polluted. In the middle of the lake, there is a small island with the Simamalaka Shrine. It’s a nice place to chill for a bit. You can rent one of the pedal boats to go around a bit.
Climb up Lotus Tower
This is one of the most famous landmarks in Colombo – the kind of thing you can see from a distance. I didn’t have the chance to go up when I visited, but the views from there must be impressive.
Hang out at Independence Memorial Hall
This is probably one of my favorite things to do in Colombo. It’s a nice place, airy, spacious, where locals hang out and from where the views are beautiful. It is perfect for photos thanks to the beautiful light and its architecture.
The building commemorates Sri Lanka’s independence from Great Britain, which occurred on 4 February 1948. It is surrounded by a nice garden and there is a statue of Sri Lanka’s first president, Stephen Senanayake, right in front of it.
Go to Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque
This is by far one of the best places to visit in Colombo. It’s a gorgeous building that dates back to 1909, and it looks like candy.
TIP: Beware of touts hanging outside the mosque. You’re likely to find people demanding money to take photos of the mosque, but they are by no means staff members!
Shop at Pettah Markets
One of the nicest things to do in Colombo is exploring Pettah Markets. There actually are several – including a floating one.
The fruit and vegetable markets are likely to be your favorite. It’s packed with color, and with the smell of delicious fresh fruit – if you have a chance, definitely try the pineapples (they taste nothing like they do in Europe or the US!) and mangoes. There are several kinds of mangos – this is one thing I learned in Sri Lanka, actually. The best one is Alphonso, with Karutha Colomban a close second.
Visit Colombo National Museum
Among the unmissable things to do in Colombo, there’s visiting the National Museum. This is the largest museum in the country and dates back to 1876 when Sri Lanka was still under British rule. It has an interesting exhibit of art and crafts that will help you get a better understanding of Sri Lanka’s history and culture.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION: The museum is located in Sir Marcus Fernando Mawatha. The entrance fee is 350 Rupees (around $2 USD) and the museum is open from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm.
Explore Viharamahadevi Park
Formerly known as Victoria Park, it is located near the National Museum and it’s a nice place to go for a walk. There is a giant golden Buddha Statue and some nice water fountains. Exploring this part of town is one of the things to do in Colombo.
Chill at Galle Face Green
Hanging out at this waterfront really is one of the nicest things to do in Colombo. This is where the locals go for a walk, swim in the ocean at the end of a hot day at work, and enjoy local snacks and street food. It’s a really pleasant place to walk around, and you’ll have plenty of excellent photo opportunities.
Now – don’t picture a wide beach and clear turquoise waters. You can see from my photo that the beach is very narrow: you have to go down the stairs to get there. And the water is anything but clear. It’s the ocean after all. But it is still a nice place to spend an hour or so.
For the nicest coastal spots in the country, check our guide to the best beaches in Sri Lanka.
Mirissa is one of them. Known for surfing and whale watching, you can easily get there from the airport with a private transfer.
Enjoy local street food
Among the tastiest things to do in Colombo, there is trying the local street food. When you are in Galle Face Green, you will be tempted to try some of the local specialties. I say, go for it! You’ll see many small stalls, some selling popcorn, potato or manioc chips, and other international goodies. Opt for the more local ones and make sure to try parippu wade – it’s a sort of deep-fried lentils topped with fried shrimp. It’s not exactly light, but it is oh-so-tasty.
Practical Information To Organize Your Trip To Colombo
Guided tours of Colombo
If you want to make the most of Colombo without having to worry about getting around, you may want to do a guided city tour. Here is a good option:
And if you have more time to spend there, check out this day trip:
Where to stay in Colombo
There are a few excellent hotels in Colombo, and as it usually happens in Sri Lanka, all of them have good on-site restaurants.
This is a selection of good accommodation options in Colombo:
- Cinnamon Lakeside has nice, spacious rooms, a fabulous pool, and beautiful views of the lake and the Lotus Tower. There are a couple of on-site restaurants (one serving Thai food; one buffet style), a sports bar, and a cocktail bar.
- Marino Beach Colombo has incredible rooms and even suites facing the ocean, a rooftop pool, restaurants, a bar, and even a fitness center.
- Star Anise Boutique Capsules is an excellent budget–friendly option and it’s located in the heart of the city.
How to get to Colombo
In Sri Lanka, Colombo is the best-connected city and you can easily reach it from pretty much anywhere via the excellent public transportation system.
Colombo is about a 30 to 45-minute drive from the airport (which is actually closer to Negombo), depending on traffic. The best way to get there is a private transfer.
How to move around Colombo
Traffic in Sri Lanka can be hectic, and it is actually insane in Colombo. You have several options to move around town.
The good news is that public transportation works well in Sri Lanka, even within the city. Buses are very budget-friendly, and you’ll have plenty of buses to move around. The bad news is that buses are usually very crowded, and in terrible traffic, they move really slowly.
While traffic in Colombo can be hectic, one way to avoid it and enjoy a scenic journey is by taking the train. The train network in Sri Lanka is well-connected and offers a unique experience. You can reach different parts of the city comfortably and escape the chaos on the roads.
By tuk tuk
Tuk-tuks are everywhere in Sri Lanka; they are an efficient way to go around Colombo and chances are that if you walk around they will spot you from a distance and ask if you need a ride. All you have to do is hail a tuk-tuk, check if it has a meter, and – if it doesn’t – haggle the price. There even are some apps that allow you to book tuk-tuk rides!
Also read: Sri Lanka on a budget
By taxi or Uber
The main advantage of going around by taxi or Uber in Colombo is that you are likely to find an air-conditioned car – which comes in handy in a city that suffers from terrible heat. Taxis and Ubers are generally inexpensive. You use Uber as you’d do anywhere else; you can hail taxis in the street.
When to visit Colombo, Sri Lanka
All in all, it is always a good time to go to Colombo. Keep in mind that Sri Lanka has two monsoon seasons that hit different parts of the country at different times, and even though you may do your best to avoid them, you may still get some rain when visiting.
However, it is said that December to March is a good time, with drier days. I went at the end of October and found dry weather – but it was definitely overcast and ready to rain.
How long to stay in Colombo
Despite being the largest city in Sri Lanka, Colombo can be visited in just a day. There are probably enough things to keep you busy if you wish to stay longer, but I honestly recommend heading out to explore the rest of the country, which is actually way prettier.
See my recommendations below for further readings on places to visit in Sri Lanka.
Safety in Colombo
Despite many media channels and governments warnings against travel to Sri Lanka, both times I visited I found the country to be incredibly welcoming and safe.
Safety measures in Sri Lanka have been heavily increased since the Easter bombings of April 2019, with regular checks in hotels and places of interest. In general, I find Sri Lanka one of the most welcoming countries I have visited, with lovely, friendly people.
My advice is to use your good judgment when it comes to these warnings but keep in mind that terrorist attacks can occur anywhere, anytime, and that tourism is a much-needed source of revenue for the country.
Also, if you are a solo traveler – especially a solo female traveler – you should have a look at this safety guide for solo female travelers in Sri Lanka.
Other useful information
Make sure to check out whether you need a visa to get into Sri Lanka. Nationals of many countries – including the United States, Canada, and all EU countries – can now benefit from a visa waiver and can get into the country for free. You will still have to apply for the visa because you will be asked for confirmation at customs.
I also recommend getting good travel insurance.
In conclusion, Colombo, often overlooked by travelers, offers a wealth of fascinating experiences and attractions that should not be missed during your visit to Sri Lanka. From exploring the beautiful temples like Gangaramaya and Sri Kailawasanathan Swami Devasthanam to immersing yourself in the colonial history of the Fort area, and savoring the flavors of local street food, this vibrant city has something for everyone.
So, make sure to add Colombo to your itinerary and discover the captivating wonders it has to offer.
Legal Disclaimer: The writer was a guest of the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau during her trip to Sri Lanka, and she wishes to thank them for the incredible trip and all the useful insights.