Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital is a busy and bustling city with a history reflecting its colonial past and the modern-day cultural heritage of this beautiful country
For most people visiting Sri Lanka the country’s capital, Colombo is not high on their list of places to visit. That said it is worth a day to hit the few tourist attractions that the city has to offer and simply wander the streets of some of its more historic districts.
Cosmopolitan Colombo, gateway to the wonder of Sri Lanka, boasts a rich colonial heritage, featuring a melting pot of races, religions and cultures. A city of contrasts, it is both an eclectic mix of shiny hotels and swanky office blocks, neighbouring beautiful red-tiled colonial-era buildings. Sprawling bustling street markets brim with fragrant spices, colourful silks, cotton and fresh fruit and vegetables.
1. Independence Square – Historical Landmark Of Colombo
We started our mini-tour of Colombo at the splendid Independence Memorial Hall which has been designed in the style of a government building from the time of Kings, a fitting symbol to escaping generations of Dutch and British colonial rule.
The Hall is located in the heart of the beautiful Cinnamon Gardens. We visited later in the day, which meant there were not many tourists around – so we largely had the place to ourselves, which was very nice. There was a small group of visiting Buddhist monks who were enjoying being tourists themselves – which in itself made a good photo opportunity for us!
Location: 7, Independence Avenue, Colombo
Hours: Monday to Sunday – Open 24 Hours; Preferred Timings – 11 am to 7 pm
2. Seema Malaka – A Peaceful Getaway
In the two weeks, we had spent in Sri Lanka we had visited many Buddhist Temples, to the point where we were a bit “templed” out. That said our visit to the Seema Malaka reinvigorated our enthusiasm of temples.
Colombo’s sprawling Gangarama Buddhist Temple was built during the late 19th century and included several outer structures, one of which is the Seema Malaka. Someone had the idea of building this out on Beira Lake, with its shifting, marshy floor as the foundation. This didn’t work out too well and by 1970 the Seema Malaka had sunk below the waters of the lake.
In 1976 Sir Geoffrey Bawa was selected to build a new Seema Malaka. He went about the project by designing a new temple based on three floating platforms interlinked by pontoon walkways and anchored to the base of the lake by way of stone pillars. This seems to be working well as it was still here when we visited in 2019!
It is a beautiful and calming place to visit amidst the chaos of the surrounding city. We thoroughly enjoyed spending time wandering around this peaceful paradise. Visiting the Seema Malaka is especially beautiful as the sunsets across the lake.
Location: Sir James Pieris Mawatha, Colombo, Sri Lanka. Google Map
3. Pettah Market
Pettah market is a mix of market vendors selling anything from fresh vegetables, meats and seafood to jewellery, clothing and electronic goods. The numerous streets are dedicated to different trades, with one of the most notable being sea street at the end of the open market, specialized in the trading of gold and jewels and mostly administered by migrant Tamil people.
Whether you are looking for a bargain or not, Pettah Market is well worth a trip, albeit its crowded streets, foreign smells and noisy vendors can be a bit overwhelming.
4. Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque
Constructed in 1908, the Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque (or Red) Mosque is a historical treasure and is one of the oldest mosques in Colombo. It is a magnificent building and its tall spiralling minarets are visible from all around the Pettah district so it is easy to find!
Rumour has it that the Red Mosque has been a landmark for sailors approaching the port of Colombo ever since it was built. The mosque’s distinct red-and-white pattern, whether swirling or spiralling or alternating, is quite mesmerizing. The domes are built in the shape of a pomegranate, not the traditional onion shape.
The Red Mosque, also known as Rathu Palliya in Sinhala, and Samman Kottu Palli in Tamil, was built in what is called Indo-Saracenic style and is reminiscent of the Jamek Mosque in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Women can enter and look around as tourists, just please note that you will need to cover your hair and arms and legs.
Location: 2nd Cross Street, Colombo, Sri Lanka. Google Map
5. Wolvendaal Church
The Wolvendaal Church is one of Sri Lanka’s best-preserved buildings from the Dutch colonial era, as well as being the oldest Protestant church in existence. Completed in 1757, it continues to serve its original purpose and services in both Tamil and English are held every Sunday. Its name, meaning ‘Dale of Wolves, derived from the jackals which roamed the untouched marshlands when the church was first constructed, which colonists mistook for wolves. Wolvendaal represents the Doric style of previous times, set up in the shape of a Greek cross and decorated with mural tablets on the outer walls. The tombstones of numerous important personalities can be found in its graveyard including that of the last Governor, Joha Gerard van Angelbeek. In 2005, under the leadership of the Dutch Reformed Church, the Wolvendaal Foundation was established in order to foster friendly ties in the multi-ethnic and multi-religious population of Sri Lanka.
Location: Wolfendhal Ln, Colombo 01300, Sri Lanka. Google Map
6. The Dutch Period Museum
The Dutch Period Museum pays tribute to the times of colonial domination by Dutch rulers. The 17th-century building was originally constructed as the official residence of Thomas Van Rhee, The Dutch Governor of Sri Lanka from 1692- 1697. It was later used for different functions, serving as an army hospital, a police training centre and a post office. In 1977 it was finally reopened as the Dutch Museum by the government of the Netherlands. Visitors can access the courtyard and take a closer look at antique Dutch furniture and artefacts including coins, weaponry and household items. The museum remains a symbol of Sri Lanka’s colonial history and reflects the lives of the former occupiers.
Location: Prince Street, Colombo 01100, Sri Lanka. Google Map
Website: Dutch Period Museum
7. Old and New Kathiresan Kovils Hindu Temples
There are many Hindu temples in Colombo. Some of the best can be seen in the Pettah district. The New Kathiresan Temple (Kovil) is dedicated to the God of war and victory, Scanda or Murugan.
8. The Lotus Tower
So far, everything we have talked about has had a historical theme to it (with the exception of Pettah Market which is a living testament to Colombo). This is not true of the Lotus Tower, one of the newest and certainly the most distinctive addition to the city’s skyline. Funded by the Chinese and officially opened in September 2019 the Lotus Tower at 356 m (1,168 ft) is currently the tallest self-supported structure in South Asia. It is also the second tallest structure in South Asia after the guy-wire-supported INS Kattabomman in India. The tower is also the 11th tallest completed tower in Asia and it is also the 19th tallest tower in the world.
The primary function of the tower is to act as a communications hub, but it also houses a museum (to telecommunication), a luxury hotel, a shopping mall and restaurants. There is an open-air observation deck at 250m (not near the top sorry).
Where to stay?
We stayed at the Steuart By Citrus during our brief visit to Colombo. This 4-star hotel is located in one of the swankier areas of town with access to plenty of bar, restaurants and retail stores.
It was around New Year when we visited so it was very busy with tourists and locals alike. The hotel makes a focus of Scottish heritage (the name is a giveaway) so don’t expect any local Sri Lankan touches.
The rooms were comfortable.
For more information check the listing on Booking.com
Located in Colombo, within less than 0.6 mi of Galle Face Beach and 1.4 mi of U.S. Embassy, City Hotel Colombo 02 features accommodations with a shared lounge and free WiFi as well as free private parking for guests who drive. Boasting family rooms, this property also provides guests with a terrace.
All rooms are fitted with air conditioning, a flat-screen TV with satellite channels, a fridge, a kettle, a bidet, free toiletries and a desk.
Popular points of interest near the accommodations include Colombo City Center Shopping Mall, Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple and Colombo Town Hall
For more information check the listing on Booking.com
The Clock Inn Colombo hostel is located in Galle Road Colombo 03 (Colpetty); its a mere stroll a way from the Indian Ocean.
Beds & Dorms- consists of 4 to 6 Beds per Dorm Room, Shared Bathrooms with hot showers, Air Condition, Private Lockers, Free WiFi.
Private Rooms- consists of a King Size Double Bed, Private Bathroom with hot shower, Air Condition, Cable TV, Free WiFi.
Lobby & Lounge- Work Station with Free internet, Free Pantry access, Free Breakfast/Tea/Coffee, Free Cable TV and other Entertainment facilities available, Free WiFi.
On Request- Airport Pick & Drop, Transportation to other locations can also be arranged, Breakfast & Other Meals, Laundry
For more information check the listing on hostelworld.com
Colombo is 12m above sea level. The climate here is tropical. The rainfall in Colombo is significant, with precipitation even during the driest month. The average annual temperature is 26.5 °C | 79.7 °F in Colombo. The annual rainfall is 2387 mm | 94.0 inches.
In summary …
- Never try and drive in Colombo unless you are crazy. Walk or get a taxi
- Colombo is definitely worth visiting – a day or two should be enough
- Tryout the markets and bazaars there are some good deals to be had
- If you like cricket try and catch a game at one of the grounds in Colombo