Colombo is the capital city of Sri Lanka. By far the largest and most culturally diverse, this city’s unique landscape consists of sky rises, heritage buildings with colonial architecture. The Indian ocean, tropical gardens in the city centre and a centrally located lake add to the beauty of Colombo which buzzes all the nuances of a modern city.
The capital city of Sri Lanka, Colombo has a long history of a port that linked the east and the west on its trading route. Today, it is the largest city in the country, with a population of around 600,000 living in the city and its suburbs - plus a considerable number that commute daily into the city for employment. It also attracts a large number of foreign visitors. Situated on the western coast of the island, 34.2 kms from the international airport, Colombo’s city centre can be reached comfortably with a 40-minute drive on the southern expressway. A mix of land and water, the city has 65 hectares of Beira Lake in its centre alongside other small canals that link to it. On the north and north eastern borders is Kelani River, one of Sri Lanka’s largest, whilst the western border expands towards the Indian Ocean. Colombo receives rainfall during the country’s two monsoon seasons, making the city green, lush and tropical.
It is hot throughout the year with high levels of humidity; the temperature remains in the low to mid 30°Cs throughout with March to May being the warmest months and November to January being the coolest. However, the heat does not get in the way of exploring this vibrant city as midday, when the temperature soars can be spent relaxing indoors, whist the cooler mornings and late afternoons are perfect for outdoor exploration and activity. Colombo’s population is almost equally divided between the country’s three dominant ethnic groups - Sinhalese, Sri Lankan Tamils and Moors - the descendant of the Arabian traders. Smaller communities include Malays, Chinese and ‘Dutch Burgers’ - with obvious roots to the Dutch colonisers – and, although not obvious to travellers, many people who have internally migrated for work. The city resonates with this complexity, making it a vibrant hub of diversity that is reflected in its culture, customs, clothing and cuisine.
Despite its population and newly constructed buildings, Colombo is still lush and green. The sprawling Viharamahadevi Park adorns the city, whilst most areas, especially the residential parts remain green with large trees and tropical gardens. The colourfulness of Colombo can be attributed to its interestingly diverse mix of high rise and colonial buildings and residences standing next to each other, yet maintaining their own characters, as well as rustic farmers’ markets, pavement hawkers, high end restaurants, shopping malls and upmarket hotels. Such contrasts make the city unique; European attire and lifestyles coupled with local customs and traditions add to this uniqueness. The current mix of the population and centuries of colonial rule by the Portuguese, Dutch and later the British has imbued Colombo with its quirky character.
A rare mix of colonial / heritage buildings, Buddhist temples, Hindu temples and centuries old churches are seamlessly incorporated with modern contemporary architecture in a way that is described as very ‘Colomboish’. Each part of the city has its own charm that reflects the culture predominant to that area. Pettah, the older part of the city, is busy and packed with crowds, street hawkers with fresh fruit and vegetable stalls and people endlessly commuting. While this area can be chaotic to some visitors, it is the place to see and experience daily life in action. Beautiful Jami Ul Alfar Mosque and the Pettah floating market are just two of the highlights of this part of the city. The centre of the city - ‘Fort’ - is the financial hub, where a number of headquarters of banks, five-star accommodation, upmarket restaurants and shopping arcades make it quite busy throughout the day and late into the night.
The highlights in this area include Galle Face Green, the historic Galle Face Hotel and the old Parliament building. There are number of new and older shopping complexes in this area including the Dutch Hospital shopping precinct and One Galle Face. The middle of the city is the most picturesque with its sprawling park and the emerald waters of Beira Lake. This is a favourite place for visitors to stroll and get those travel photos. While the financial hub extends to this part of the city, it also comprises of quirky cafes, boutique shops and small upmarket accommodation options. Highlights in this area include the Gangharama Temple and Beira Lake with a scenic island in its centre. Paradise Road boutique and Barefoot Gallery are two great places to shop if you are looking for unique Sri Lankan gifts with contemporary designs that are sizeably handy to carry.
The more residential and excusive part of the city, Colombo 7, is another fabulous place for a stroll. Independence Square, built to commemorate independence from the British is one of the most distinguished highlights here. The surrounding arcade houses boutiques that sell products of both local designers and global brands and a few small restaurants, including an exclusive Ceylon Tea cafe. Viharamahadevi Park, Nelum Pokuna - a large modern theatre - and the National Museum are interesting places to visit. This is also the arty side of the city with a street where local artists display their art throughout the week. The popular Odel shopping mall is a good place to shop for both clothing and gift items. Further down to the west on the coastline is the south of the city with quiet small beaches including Mount Lavinia beach that’s packed with restaurants. This area is predominately residential with busy small-town centres.
The south east of the city is where the administration capital is, another beautiful area with unique buildings and an urban wildlife sanctuary. Over the last couple of years Colombo has acquired a reputation for the culinary experiences it has to offer. This is no surprise as the island was a spice trade hub for many centuries. The ancient traditional cuisine, which was predominately vegetarian and fish based, evolved into a more complex cuisine with the influences of colonisers. The Dutch brought their own cuisine which later married into local rice and curry making totally unique dishes such as ‘lampraise’, a rice with accompaniments baked in banana leaves. Today, this evolved Sri Lankan cuisine has modern twists, giving it further sophistication. The city abounds in both high end and modest restaurants, whilst Sri Lankan street food and snacks (referred to by locals as short-eats) are a must on the visitor’s list to explore and taste.
A number of varied accommodation options for travellers can be found here. They range from five-star resorts with global renowned names to local chains, mid-range hotels and upmarket boutique properties. All these options are conveniently located with easy access to shopping, restaurants and places of interest. Colombo is well worth a visit. It is the place to see Sri Lanka in a nutshell, where natural beauty, vibrant multi ethnic communities and stunning colonial heritage architecture merge seamlessly alongside ancient tradition and new sophistication. The city’s numerous highlights offer something for everyone. Once visited, Colombo casts its magical spell, encouraging travellers to return to experience more. One to two nights here - at the beginning of an itinerary or at the end - is recommended.
Here are sample itineraries featuring Colombo, Sri Lanka’s Capital city. Click below to read more about Colombo city tours, walking tours in Colombo and accommodation in Colombo or get in touch to receive a detailed, tailor-made itinerary for your Sri Lanka holiday.
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Amazing trip! We absolutely loved it. Sri Lanka is now a country we would definitely like to go back to and explore further.Thank you so much for all the work you did in putting the trip together for us. It was a great mix of places for us to get a good feel of the country. We will be encouraging all our friends to go to Sri Lanka.