Sri Lanka’s coastal capital of Colombo has blossomed into a cosmopolitan city of mouthwatering restaurants, lauded museums, stylish nightlife, and futuristic architecture in recent years. Once seen as merely a gateway to the country’s tea plantations, sun-kissed Indian Ocean beaches, and the famed elephant migration, Colombo has become a destination in its own right.
While the nation gained independence in 1948, you will still find an array of grand architecture from the British and Dutch periods of colonization. However, this forward-thinking city has plenty of its own heritage to share, from monarchical exhibits in museums to impressive modern architecture.
Whether you wish to tour tranquil Buddhist temples, devour delicious local flavors such as hoppers (a tasty, bowl-shaped pancake), or lounge on a nearby golden sand beach, here are the best things to do in Colombo.
Stroll Through the Colombo Fort Neighborhood
Take yourself on an immersive introduction to the capital city as you stroll the streets of Colombo Fort.
Constructed around the city’s harbor, this neighborhood was once a fortified town during the years of Portuguese rule. However, while the city walls are long gone, the Fort name remains for what now serves as the central business district.
You will still encounter ample architecture from other era of Sri Lanka’s colonization, by the British and the Dutch, further highlighting the country’s turbulent history. One of the oldest and grandest neighborhoods, this is home to some of the best sights and things to do in Colombo.
Landmarks you shouldn’t miss include the Clocktower Lighthouse, fascinating due to the still-functioning timepiece, the palatial President’s House, and the 17th-century Dutch Hospital, now transformed into a shopping complex.
Other notable sites include Central Point, the elegant old central bank, and St. Peter’s Church, dating back more than 200 years.
Find Peace at Gangaramaya Temple
Temple hopping in Sri Lanka is one of the country’s greatest joys, and the city of Colombo itself offers up more than a handful to discover.
If you don’t have the time to visit them all, then the magical and serene Gangaramaya Temple makes for the most tempting taster of the nation’s major religion.
This is the oldest and most visited Buddhist temple in Colombo, and you’ll be captivated by the eclectic range of architectural styles. Countless Buddhas in all shapes, sizes, and colors garnish the complex.
A small museum houses a fascinating collection of historical and religious artifacts and treasures, ranging from ancient scripts and statues to coins and ornaments.
Don’t miss the Gangarama Seema Malakaya, a secondary sacred site a few moments from the main temple. This spectacular location, seemingly floating upon the lake, is mainly used for meditation, providing a tranquil setting and countless photo opportunities.
Sunbathe on the Sand at Mount Lavinia Beach
For a lazy day soaking up the rays, bathing in the sometimes slightly wild waters, head south of the city to Mount Lavinia Beach, one of the best beaches in Sri Lanka.
Over the years, this suburb of the capital has developed a reputation as one of Sri Lanka’s prominent beach resorts, mainly thanks to the long swathe of golden sun-kissed sands.
Not only will you find plenty of space to lay out your towel and top up your tan, but also a plethora of restaurants and street vendors along the promenade, providing the perfect setting for sampling some of the local delicacies.
Of course, being a coastal city, fresh seafood is in abundance. However, national dishes such as the fragrant Dhal curry (cooked with red lentils) and Kottu Roti (a shredded flatbread usually with curried chicken) taste even more delicious when sampled with views over the Indian Ocean.
Delve Into History at Colombo National Museum
A visit to the National Museum, Sri Lanka’s most important, is one of best cultural things to do in Colombo. Exhibits and displays are spread across two floors, with a focus on sharing the nation’s heritage, culture, art, and history.
From artifacts and archeological discoveries to royal thrones and impeccable artworks, the curated collections span various periods. You’ll also gain valuable insights into the effects of the Portuguese, Dutch and British occupations of the country.
Although the building was constructed during the British colonial period, the design was influenced by Italian architecture, providing a different facade to many of the historical buildings around Fort.
Relax at Galle Face Green
When you’re ready to escape the sometimes chaotic charm of Colombo’s streets, do as the locals do and head to this beloved ocean-facing grassy strip.
Street vendors ply the promenade dishing out local snacks, families gather to enjoy a picnic to the soundtrack of crashing waves, and, in the right season, kids run gleefully, flying colorful kites.
A visit to Galle Face Green isn’t just an opportunity to relax and admire a mesmerizing sunset but a chance to witness the true day-to-day life of Colombo’s communities.
Marvel at the Jami Ul-Alfar Masjid
Decorated in a range of red and white stripes, swirls, and patterns, you’ll quickly realize why this remarkable architectural feat is often referred to as the “Red Mosque”.
With a bewitching mix of architectural styles and the aforementioned colorful design, it’s undoubtedly one of the most unique Muslim houses of worship.
The impressive minarets and pomegranate-shaped domes will catch your attention first, but once you come a little closer, your eyes will be working overtime to take it all in.
Visit the Vast Viharamahadevi Park
Adorned with historic trees, a gold-coated Buddha statue, and decorative lily ponds, Colombo’s largest and oldest park is a delightful place to pause and relax.
Originally named after Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, this public park was later dedicated to Queen Viharamahadevi, a celebrated heroine from the long-gone days of kingdoms and monarchy rule in Sri Lanka.
What the park lacks in a variety of botanical species is more than offset by the joy of finding such a well-manicured green space right in the heart of the city.
Watch a Show at Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksa Theater
Located in the wealthy Cinnamon Gardens neighborhood, this landmark national performing arts venue is quite the sight to behold—even if you don’t catch a show.
The theater was opened to much fanfare in 2011, its futuristic design depicting an eight-petalled lotus flower, which took inspiration from a 12th-century lotus pond in the ancient royal city of Polonnaruwa in the country’s interior. The sky-reaching metallic design is especially impressive when illuminated at night.
If you’re able to secure tickets to an indoor concert or drama performance during your visit (there is also an open-air theater), you’ll have the chance to witness the plush and high-tech interior of the auditorium, most notable for the moving stage and orchestra pit.
Enjoy a Bird’s-Eye View From the Lotus Tower
For sweeping vistas of Sri Lanka’s coastline and across the port city, make a beeline to the lofty heights of the Colombo Lotus Tower, South Asia’s tallest tower at 1,168 feet.
One of the newest things to do in Colombo, this futuristic-looking telecommunications structure still manages to pay homage to the country’s heritage, thanks to the design representing the sacred Lotus Flower.
Skip the shopping mall at the tower’s base, and board a lift up through the stem of the “flower” to the higher floors. Whether you opt to admire the panoramic vistas from the observation deck or while enjoying a fine-dining dinner in the revolving restaurant, you won’t find a better view anywhere else in the city.
Take a Boat Trip on Beira Lake
Nestled in the city center under the watchful eye of the Lotus Tower, Beira Lake is a beloved setting in which to enjoy a peaceful walk away from the city’s busy streets.
The lake is a popular spot with locals thanks to the eye-catching Swan Boats, a white pedal boat styled like a swan, complete with wings and a roof. Indulge your inner child and enjoy a 30-minute rental of these playful vessels, allowing you to take in the city’s skyline from the water.
If you wish to rest your feet or avoid the traffic, you can easily travel between Beira Lake and Colombo Fort by passenger ferry, another wonderful way to experience the lake, with the onboard air-conditioning especially welcome on warmer days.
Appreciate Independence Memorial Hall and Museum
To delve deeper into the colonial history of Sri Lanka, a visit to the Independence Memorial Hall is a must. The small museum here is one of the best things to do in Colombo to learn about the nation gaining independence from the British in 1947.
Commissioned as a national monument to commemorate the country’s long fight for freedom, the museum celebrates national heroes who were vital in restoring Sri Lanka’s autonomy.
Be sure to take a close look at the columns inside the memorial hall, where impressive carvings inspired by the Kingdom of Kandy (a historic independent Sri Lankan monarchy) decorate the pillars.
Leave the City for Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya
This highly sacred site will instantly make you feel as though the metropolis is a million miles away, yet it’s only six miles inland.
Dating back some 2,500 years, Kelaniya Temple, sitting alongside its namesake river, has had a turbulent life, to say the least, having been destroyed many times by various invaders.
The resolve of this sacred Buddhist site has ensured the temple has always been reconstructed, with the current complex completed in 1946.
Regardless of the actual age of the present temple, the traditions and experiences are age-old, as is the story that Lord Buddha himself visits the site.
Breathe in the scent of aromatic oils as you marvel at murals from the Kandyan Era, witness sacred rituals as you wander the flower garnished shrines, or simply pause in front of the impressive Stupa and relish the sacred setting.
Just twenty miles north of Colombo, the slightly more laid-back beach town of Negombo serves as something of a sleepy sister to the country’s capital.
If you wish to experience a slice of Sri Lanka on a smaller scale than the thronging streets of Colombo, then Negombo, with its centuries-old fishing-focused traditions, makes for an ideal half day-trip from Colombo.
If you’re lucky, your visit will coincide with the oruvas (traditional wooden boats with grand sails) returning from the lagoon, famed for its crabs and lobsters.
While the main town can still be a hubbub of daily life, palm-fringed Negombo beach makes for a great alternative to Mount Lavinia Beach.
Settle in for a catch of the day lunch overlooking the Indian ocean (Ambul Thiyal, a sour-fish curry, is a local staple), or spend the afternoon lounging on the golden sands before admiring a spectacular sunset.
Taste Tea at Ingiriya Tea Plantation
Given the country’s former name of Ceylon until 1972, it’s unsurprising that Sri Lanka is renowned as one of the world’s finest tea producers. To best experience the nation’s national drink, a visit to a tea plantation is a must.
While the famed cloud-shrouded and awe-inspiring tea hill towns of perfectly manicured plantations are further from Colombo, you can still sample your favorite infusion in the serene setting of Ingiriya.
Less than a 90-minute drive from Colombo, the Tea Plantations of Ingiriya will ignite your senses with the fragrance of tea leaves and verdant views of seemingly never-ending hedgerows of tea.
During a tour of the plantation, you’ll witness the whole cultivation process, from plucking and packing to processing and grading, allowing for a fascinating insight into the highly skilled and laborious work that goes into producing your morning brew.
The chance to sip on a delicate infusion overlooking the fields it was harvested from is truly special.
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