Table of Contents
- 38 Extremely Cool Activities in Colombo
- Forty Colombo Activities for the Daring Traveller
- 1. Market in Pettah
- 2. Geoffrey Bawa’s House (Residence Number 11 in Colombo)
- 3. Galler yafe
- 4. Fort Columbo
- 5. The Railway Station at Colombo Fort
- 6. The Jimi Ul-Alfar Mosque, The Red Mosque
- 7. The Kathiresan Kovils, Old and New
- 8. Church of Wolvendaal
- 9. Temple of Gangaramaya
- 10. Beira Lake’s Seema Malaka Temple
- 11. The Arcade and Independence Square
- 12. The Colombo National Museum
- 13. The Chaithya Sambodhi
- 14. The Dutch Museum in Colombo
- 15. Old City Hall
- 16. Practise Yoga at Prana Lounge
- 17. A spa day
- 18. Nail Anatomy’s Mani-Pedi
- 19. Beach at Mount Lavinia
- 20. Swimming at a Luxurious Hotel
- 21. Park Viharamahadevi
- 22. Park Diyatha, Uyana
- 23. Ceylon Tea at the T-Lounge at Dilmah
- 24. Coffee from Ceylon
- 25. Colombo’s Dutch Hospital
- 26. A lunch at Dharshan Munidasa’s restaurant
- 27. Green Snacks with Galle Face
- 28. Drinks with bagpipe music playing
- 29. A Classy Hotel with High Tea
- 30. Kottu at the Hotel Pilawoos
- 31. Kollupitiya Market
- 32. Learning to Cook Sri Lankan Food with Aunty
- 33. The Outdoor Art Market at Green Path
- 34. The Art Galleries of the City
- 35. Market on Saturday
- 36. Shopping Centres
- 37. Shops in Neighbourhoods
- 38. Salsa Nights
38 Extremely Cool Activities in Colombo
Please allow me to share with you my first thoughts about Colombo before I list all the amazing and fun things to do in Colombo. Have I already recounted this tale? I think I’ve done so. So let’s get going. I found myself in Colombo due to the 7 days Sri Lanka trip that we booked at home. I decided to go halfway across the world to a developing country after doing a ten-minute Google search on Sri Lanka. More specifically, I glanced at pictures of sandy beaches and palm trees in the “images” section of my Google search for “Sri Lanka.” This seems enough; I go!
And so I landed in Colombo. How the hell did I end up here? Where are the magnificent beaches and the tropical paradise? The buildings were dark and decrepit, and the roads were rough and dotted with the occasional cow. My Sri Lankan friends who had assisted us to plan the trip told me that Sri Lanka was similar to a cleaner, more organised India. That idea gave me comfort right then and there. I had never been to India, so the problem was that I thought Colombo, which was meant to be more planned, was a little random.
It’s unlikely that you will fall in love with Colombo right away. It’s not the kind of city you’ll fall in love with, actually. Clearly. But you come to like it. If you are aware of the park where you may escape the heat and commotion, or the little side street that leads to a charming garden cafe with absolutely delicious coffee, or where to locate a stunning perspective of the city while enjoying a cocktail, for what reason? Are you unaware of the locations of all these items? I’m going to tell you all there is to do in Colombo, so don’t worry!
Forty Colombo Activities for the Daring Traveller
1. Market in Pettah
Pettah is the largest market in Colombo and, in my opinion, its pulsating heart. It’s not for everyone. Pettah is difficult to get around in, crowded, and can be unclean at a time. You’ll have to wriggle through a throng of people, cows, and tuk-tuks. That is, however, the appropriate location if you wish to witness authentic, everyday local life.
Be advised that this is not the place to shop, at least not for genuine Sri Lankan goods. I see a lot of people suggesting Pettah market shopping as an activity to undertake while in Colombo. Yes, exactly. All of Pettah’s possessions were mostly created in China. Visit Pettah to experience the local way of life, indulge in a deep-fried street snack, sip a faluda, and perhaps pick up some produce. Don’t romanticise it or come here to shop for souvenirs.
You’ll be sweaty and dusty after fifteen minutes of wandering about, so dress in comfortable shoes and clothing you don’t mind getting dirty.
2. Geoffrey Bawa’s House (Residence Number 11 in Colombo)
The mansion of Geoffrey Bawa is the one spot in Colombo that I would suggest visiting. However, I may be biassed because I have an obsession with the works of Bawa, the most well-known architect in Sri Lanka. In the past, he resided in Colombo at number 11. Nestled in the most upscale residential area of the city, the property is situated on a short alley that ends in a cul-de-sac.
Only by appointment and during specific hours of the day is it possible to visit. Visit their website to learn more. Taken inside, except in the hallway at the entrance, photography is not allowed. Therefore, the interior does not look as good as it does in these photos. I promise you, Bawa’s house is a work of art!
3. Galler yafe
Bawa’s House is next to Gallery Cafe, one of Colombo’s more elegant dining establishments. Why do I think architectural enthusiasts should check it out? since Geoffrey Bawa’s previous office is located there. Like I said, I’m obsessed. Take a respite from the chaos of Colombo at this peaceful garden cafe. Although it’s rather pricey, I wouldn’t necessarily have supper there, but I do enjoy stopping by for coffee, dessert, and people watching.
4. Fort Columbo
Colombo Fort, one of my favourite city neighbourhoods, is home to numerous architectural treasures that date back to the Dutch colonial era. To begin assigning you an orientation grade, go to Chatham Street. The De Mel Building, which features Pagoda Tea Rooms on its ground level, is among the most beautiful structures on the block. The Old Colombo Lighthouse and Fort Jumma Mosque are also close by.
The second-most beautiful store you’ve ever seen is on York Street (being a Russian, I have to mention that the most beautiful supermarket is this one in Moscow). Before being purchased by Cargills in 1896, the famous Cargills building was home to the first British Governor of Ceylon as well as a previous Dutch military leader. Within the Fort, the Old Parliament Building is also worth a visit. Don’t forget to visit the Old Dutch Hospital while you’re there—I’ll go into more detail about it below.
5. The Railway Station at Colombo Fort
You’ll need to take a tuk-tuk to get to the train station, even though its name suggests it should be near the buildings I mentioned earlier. The 1917 station, one of the city’s liveliest spots, has stunning interior and exterior design.
If you are taking a train from Colombo to the Sri Lanka hill country or beaches on the southern Sri Lanka, get at the station a little early so you have time to explore. If not, simply purchase the cheapest ticket (for no more than 20 rupees) in either direction to gain entry (a valid ticket is required for entry).
6. The Jimi Ul-Alfar Mosque, The Red Mosque
Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque, one of Colombo’s oldest mosques, was finished in 1909 and reminds me of the vibrant, fantasy-like churches of Russia. The best places to see it in Pettah Market are from Main Street or Second Cross Street, where it occupies nearly an entire block. One can debate whether or not a woman can enter it. Although I’ve heard from a few people that women are welcome inside this mosque, my attempts to enter have always been denied (please don’t tell me I only need to dress suitably; I do!). Try it out; who knows, you might get lucky. In any case, even if you just get to see the mosque from the exterior, it is still worth a visit.
7. The Kathiresan Kovils, Old and New
Tamil refers to Hindu temples as kovil. On Sea Street in Pettah, there are adjacent old and new Kathiresan kovils. Only in the early morning and late afternoon are they open. It is worthwhile to visit the newly constructed kovil even during off-peak hours due to its elaborate exterior decoration.
8. Church of Wolvendaal
Pettah is also home to Wolvendaal Church, one of the nation’s oldest Protestant churches. The presence of a protestant church, both old and new Kathiresan kovils, and a Muslim mosque (Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque) in the market demonstrates that we have covered all bases. Not too far from Pettah is a tiny Buddhist chapel as well (see the information below).
Wolvendaal Church is regarded as a significant structure from the Dutch colonial period. Considering you’ve seen the Red Mosque, its very plain architecture makes me reluctant to state that I’m a huge fan. However, it’s remarkable that it’s the only Dutch church in Sri Lanka that has been operational nonstop since 1757!9.
9. Temple of Gangaramaya
Gangarama is one of the most popular temples in Colombo. Probably the busiest and most tourist-oriented Buddhist temple in Colombo. Although I dislike temples that have been developed into tourist attractions and demand admission, Gangaramaya is a lovely and well-located temple. To enter, you must pay about 400 rupees. Take off your shoes. You’ll get a wraparound if your knees aren’t covered.
10. Beira Lake’s Seema Malaka Temple
Seema Malaka is situated on Beira Lake, a short distance from Ganagaramaya Temple. Rather than being a place of worship, monks use the temple for mediation. Geoffrey Bawa (I swear, this is the last time I talk about him) created the current structure in 1976.
11. The Arcade and Independence Square
One of the nicest things to do in Colombo in the afternoon, when the heat isn’t as intense, is to stroll around Independence Square. The Independence Memorial Museum, Independence Memorial Hall, and the Arcade shopping centre are located on the grounds and were constructed to honour Sri Lanka’s freedom from British domination. People gather here to relax on the monument’s stairs or for their evening jog.
The arcade is contained in a collection of exquisitely remodelled buildings that are encircled by lush gardens and have an aquarium with a glass floor. Among the structures that housed the Jawatta Lunatic Asylum Many of the area’s original architectural elements were preserved throughout renovations.
12. The Colombo National Museum
Constructed in 1876, the largest museum in the nation showcases a permanent collection of ancient Sri Lankan art and carvings alongside weapons and artefacts from the colonial era’s generations. The crown jewels and the throne of the last King of Kandy, which the British government gave to Sri Lanka, are the museum’s true treasures.
13. The Chaithya Sambodhi
Nestled in close proximity to Colombo Harbour and just a short stroll from luxurious hotels, this Buddhist stupa is one of the city’s best-kept secrets. Due to its construction on a platform held up by two interlocking arches, the stupa appears to float over Marine Drive. You can reach the summit and enter the shrine within via a staircase. You can view Colombo Port from the summit.
14. The Dutch Museum in Colombo
The Colombo Dutch Museum is one of the two things on this list that I haven’t visited personally. I have visited Pettah numerous times, and I don’t know how I overlooked this hidden gem on Prince Street. Thomas van Rhee, the former governor of Dutch Ceylon, lived in this building. It now houses a museum that chronicles the history of Sri Lanka’s Dutch colonial past.
15. Old City Hall
Situated in plain sight, the Old City Hall is another hidden gem of Pettah Market. Before entering, I myself drove past this run-down building at least a dozen times. And I was very taken aback and disturbed by it. Locate a man who is in charge of maintaining the building by going to the second floor. He will give you a quick tour of the interior halls in exchange for a tip of just 100 rupees per person. The most bizarre exhibit you’ll ever see is in the main room, where a number of wax figures depicting the first council meeting are arranged around the table (look for W. Shakespeare among the figures—he’s there, real story!).
16. Practise Yoga at Prana Lounge
Prana Lounge provides yoga courses for anyone who wishes to get away from the bustle of Colombo. The lounge is situated in the widely accessible and central Colombo-7 neighbourhood. The facility is stunning, with exquisite ceiling murals in each of the classes. Additionally, there’s a fantastic cafe called Kumbuk attached to the lounge where you can enjoy a nutritious meal made with ingredients that are often organic and locally sourced. In spite of your lack of interest in yoga, this place is stunning!
17. A spa day
Sri Lankan spa treatments are amazing! A spa treatment is a great option if you don’t feel like spending time outside in the sweltering sun. I’ve tried a 2 spas. Both of them offer excellent services. The most well-known local cosmetics brand is Spa Ceylon, which has numerous stores and spas spread out around the island. Smaller in size, Kemara has just one site in Colombo. In addition, they employ their own line of 100% natural, renewable-source cosmetics.
18. Nail Anatomy’s Mani-Pedi
Should you decide to have a spa treatment at Kemara, Nail Anatomy, a stunning, first-rate salon where you can get manicures and pedicures, is just a short stroll away. When I travel to Sri Lanka, I always go here. These folks are the best specialists I’ve found in the years I’ve looked.
There are two other adjacent stores that sell high-quality locally created souvenirs: Lakpahana and Good Market Shop. Good Market Shop sells largely organic and natural Sri Lankan products. Here, you may take care of your nails, purchase organic food and souvenirs, have a spa treatment, and kill four birds with one stone.
19. Beach at Mount Lavinia
Despite being a city by the sea, Colombo is not easily accessible. To avoid travelling to Unawatuna or Mirissa if I want to spend time at the beach, I take a tuk-tuk to Mount Lavinia, a suburb of Colombo. You’ll need thirty to forty minutes to get there. One of Colombo’s most exquisite historic hotels is the Mount Lavinia Hotel. Or stop by Sugar Beach, a well-known restaurant by the sea, for a cocktail.
20. Swimming at a Luxurious Hotel
Accessible are Colombo’s five-star hotels. You can still stop by for dinner, a drink at the bar, or some time by the pool if you don’t want to spend a lot of money on a night out. Usually, a little fee is required before you can use the facilities. A few hotels that welcome outside guests are Cinnamon Grand, Hilton Colombo Residence, Cinnamon Lakeside, and Mount Lavinia Hotel.
21. Park Viharamahadevi
The biggest park in Colombo features a playground for kids, multiple water fountains, and a golden Buddha statue. While there are plenty of amazing sights to view, stores, and restaurants in the vicinity, I wouldn’t come here just to stroll through the park. The stunning Dewatagaha Mosque and the modern Town Hall building are located a short distance from Viharamahadevi Park. Walking distance also extends to Odel, one of Colombo’s most well-known shopping centres. Come by in the afternoon when the temperature drops.
22. Park Diyatha, Uyana
On the other side, one of my favourite things to do in Colombo is to take a stroll around Diyatha Uyana. It was constructed just a few years ago and features a food court (which I wouldn’t eat at), tonnes of green space, and an outdoor market virtually every day of the week. The Water’s Edge Hotel is also conveniently located near the park, only a short stroll away. Their property is breathtaking, with strolling paths, lush grass, and multiple ponds filled with lilies.
23. Ceylon Tea at the T-Lounge at Dilmah
Is there one thing you must do in Ceylon, no matter what? Yes, give Ceylon tea a try. Along with the many opportunities you’ll have to sip it throughout the island, Colombo offers tea-inspired mocktails, drinks, and even desserts. There are two Dilmah T-lounge locations in Colombo: one at the Independence Square Arcade and the other in the lovely Fort. Whichever you select, be sure to sample their T-kitch, which is my personal favorite—strong black tea with condensed milk and spices.
24. Coffee from Ceylon
Prior to gaining international recognition for their tea, Brazil and Sri Lanka were two of the world’s largest exporters of coffee. Finding a decent cup of coffee these days is difficult in Sri Lanka, much less one that is made locally. However, I’ll share a small secret with you. Whight & Co. and Plus Nine Four are two Colombo coffee houses that serve delicious Ceylon coffee. Formerly a lovely garden café, it collaborates closely with Soul Coffee. The latter is a two-story cafe with views of the railroad and the ocean. Cold Ruby Harvest, their house brand of coffee, is served there.
25. Colombo’s Dutch Hospital
The Dutch built a hospital in the seventeenth century for the officials and workers of the Dutch East India Company. Since then, the building has served as both the Colombo Fort Police Station and the home of the Colombo Apothecaries. In 2012, the building underwent renovations to become a dining and shopping facility. Loaded with a plethora of businesses, including shops, spas, and some of the most talked-about restaurants in the city, Colombo Dutch Hospital is a popular spot for locals and tourists to go out at night.
26. A lunch at Dharshan Munidasa’s restaurant
With three restaurants in Colombo, Dharshan—possibly the most famous chef in Sri Lanka—offers a unique eating experience at each location. The first is the Ministry of Crab. They advertised that “reservations are essential.” This is where you may try the famous two-kilogram Sri Lankan crab. Kaema Sutra, which serves contemporary Sri Lankan cuisine, comes next. Not to mention, Nihonbashi serves authentic Japanese cuisine prepared with seafood that is fished nearby in Sri Lanka. Dharshan’s Sri Lankan and Japanese ancestry are clearly visible in his artwork.
27. Green Snacks with Galle Face
Galle Face Green, the city’s only promenade, is a great place for afternoon strolls and snacks. It stretches from the Galle Face Hotel to the Fort and is dotted with countless street vendors who, for no apparent reason, are selling the same thing: deep-fried lentil patties, shrimp wade, and crab wade.
I love wading, but I’d rather not do it here. The patties are deep-fried twice to ensure they are served hot after being left outside for several hours. But if you see some carts with manioc chips or fresh pineapple chunks combined with chilli, definitely grab those! See kids flying kites and the sun setting into the sea by going to Galle Face Green after four o’clock in the afternoon.
28. Drinks with bagpipe music playing
When the sun sets on your journey through Galle Face Green, stop by the Galle Face Hotel to get a drink and enjoy the view from their checkerboard patio. It is definitely one of my favourite things to do in Colombo. The flag is ceremoniously lowered each evening at 5:30 p.m. to the sound of bagpipes. Come a little early to secure a table.
29. A Classy Hotel with High Tea
Speaking of luxurious hotels, afternoon tea is still another wonderful Colombo experience. This old colonial tradition is still very much alive and well in Sri Lanka, where any good hotel would serve Ceylon tea with a platter of small pastries and finger sandwiches. For afternoon tea, there’s an all-you-can-eat buffet table or a cake stand with a pre-selected choice of candies and desserts. Afternoon teas are best at the Galle Face Hotel, Shangri-La, and Hilton Colombo. Every one of them offers baked goods and desserts with a Sri Lankan flair.
30. Kottu at the Hotel Pilawoos
Kottu is the most popular late-night street food in Sri Lanka, and Hotel de Pilawoos—which isn’t even a hotel—is the best place to buy it in Colombo. Kottu is made on an open grill by combining roti (flat bread) with meats, vegetables, and sauce. The cook chops all the ingredients into tiny bits with two blades while blending them. Kottu is the finest food to consume after a wild night because of its high fat and carbohydrate content.
31. Kollupitiya Market
Try Kollupitiya market if you’re hoping to explore a local market but find Pettah a bit too hectic. It’s conveniently located near all the major hotels and only requires a short tuk-tuk trip from Colombo-4. Despite the building’s relatively dilapidated facade, you’ll find some of the freshest vegetables around here inside. The first floor has fruits and vegetables; the first floor has meat and fish (and occasionally hosts a lot of cats at night); and the second floor has two stores that specialise in foreign goods, including cheese, almonds, and candies.
32. Learning to Cook Sri Lankan Food with Aunty
When I return to Sri Lanka, my top pick for things to do in Colombo is Aunty’s cooking class. Despite not having attended the course yet, I feel confident in recommending it because a lot of my friends have given it positive reviews, and it has generated a lot of buzz on social media. You’ll learn how to make rice and curries, crack open and scrape a coconut, and then eat it all. Why not let love blossom?
33. The Outdoor Art Market at Green Path
The Green Path is a street that runs beside Viharamahadevi Park. It’s much easier to say than Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha. Every day of the week, young painters set up shop by the side of the road to display their artwork, transforming the Boulevard into a vivid and colourful place. Check out the local art displays and think about bringing home a painting. It is appropriate to haggle.
34. The Art Galleries of the City
Although there aren’t many significant government-sponsored art museums in Colombo, the city is full of independent art galleries, sometimes found in the most unexpected places. Saskia Fernando Gallery is one of the most popular venues, showcasing the works of both established and up-and-coming Sri Lankan artists.
Barefoot offers a wonderful gift shop, a garden cafe, and an art gallery. In addition, Gallery Cafe has a thoughtfully curated collection of local artwork on display in the entry hall and patio.
35. Market on Saturday
Quite perhaps my favourite city market! I may be biassed, though, as I was a seller here once. The Good Market Colombo, a wonderful local initiative that promotes locally owned enterprises and sustainably produced goods, was founded more than five years ago. Sellers on the market are subject to very stringent requirements. One needs to show that his business supports the community, is ecologically concerned, and only creates natural or organic products. Spices, coffee, tea, and local textiles are just a few of the many souvenirs you can buy.
Just in case you can’t make it to Saturday market, the Good Market Shop is open daily.
36. Shopping Centres
Even if it’s not my style, if you want to spend a few hours in one place shopping for whatever you could possibly want, I recommend going to one of the malls. The biggest and newest mall in the city is called Colombo City Centre. It features a “food studio” with several dozen eateries and five levels of domestic and foreign retail space. A popular tourist site, Odel is a well-known mall that was among the earliest in Sri Lanka. The one mall that, in my opinion, is not worth your time is House of Fashion. It has an abundance of really poor quality products made in China.
37. Shops in Neighbourhoods
Instead of wasting time at the malls, which are basically much like the malls back home, visit one of the many distinctive boutique stores. As I mentioned before, Barefoot is a well-known souvenir shop that sells hand-loomed fabrics, garments made locally, books authored by Sri Lankan authors, and interior decorations. Paradise Road is another amazing boutique where you can get everything and everything to include a touch of Sri Lanka into your interior design. Design Collective has some amazing clothing designed by Sri Lankan designers.
38. Salsa Nights
If you know your salsa from your bachata, don’t miss Salsa Nights every Thursday at Disques, a club inside the Colombo Race Course. Sri Lanka doesn’t have a large salsa community, although Thursday night parties are well attended.