Colombo is best described as a ‘gateway city’ given that few people actually choose it as their final destination. In fact, many of those visiting Sri Lanka’s diverse cultural sights, wildlife reserves and tropical beaches choose to bypass Colombo altogether and opt for the more ‘touristic’ town of Negombo as their first base; particularly as it’s located closer to the international airport. Sure, Colombo isn’t on par with South-East Asia’s powerhouse tourist cities such as Bangkok, Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur. But to skip it altogether is a travesty. This Indian Ocean-fringed cosmopolitan city is brimming with an eclectic array of soaring skyscrapers sandwiched up against colonial-era hotels and buildings; interconnected by bustling market streets lined with temples and clogged by tuk-tuks ferrying locals and tourists alike. With a vibrant multi-ethnic street food and night-life scene Colombo offers a first taste of Sri Lanka that shouldn’t be missed.
Katunayake airport is Sri Lanka’s primary international airport and is located about 35km outside of the city center. The journey into the city can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 1.5 hours depending on the method of transport and how snarled up the traffic is (an unfortunately common feature of Colombo). You’ve essentially got 3 viable options: public bus, private bus and taxi (a tuk tuk isn’t really worth considering as it’s less comfortable, slower than and just as expensive as an air-conditioned taxi). The cheapest of the bunch (and relatively speedy at 1 hour on the expressway) is the public Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB) bus which runs about every 30 minutes until about 8pm and drops you off at the Colombo Central Bus Station near the Colombo Fort Train Station. If this is the option for you then come out of the arrivals terminal and walk straight ahead. The bus stop is right in front of you within the airport grounds and tickets can be purchased from the driver. Just make sure to load your own bags on to the bus rather than letting others who might claim to work for the bus company do it (a common scam where you’ll be asked for money after the fact). If you’re looking to get to Colombo after 8pm (or you don’t see an SLTB bus) then your second option is the privately run no. 187 bus which also drops you off at Colombo Fort Train Station but takes a slightly longer, and therefore more time consuming, route to get there (about 1.5 hours when traffic isn’t pandemonium). The final ‘luxury’ option is a taxi or privately booked car. Running at about USD 35 (at the time of writing) I’m personally of the opinion that it’s worth every penny. After all, do you really want to suffer in the heat of a public bus after a long flight? You best bet is to book in advance with your hotel. Alternatively Lotus cabs come highly recommended.
Despite its vast appearance on maps I actually found Colombo a fairly comfortable city to walk in (other than the fact that I was extremely sweaty by the time I returned to my hotel). Having said that I appreciate that many people might not have any desire to walk around in temperatures akin to a kiln and so I thought it might be worthwhile outlining some of your options when it comes to exploring the city. Unlike other major Asian cities Colombo doesn’t currently have a traditional hop-on-hop-off tourist bus. Instead it has its own bright red Routemaster London Bus tour operated by Sri Lanka Tourism that allows only minimal ‘hopping’. Basically it looks and smells like a hop-on-hop-off bus tour but actually operates more like a standard tour bus with a very limited operating schedule (3 departures daily from the Kingsbury Hotel over in the Colombo Fort area). So, if you’re in the mood for a mere glimpse of the sights as you whizz on by then this might be a good option for you and I’ve included the website link in the additional resources section below.
If you want a little more flexibility and personality then I’m going to propose two alternative options for you. The first is a guided tuk tuk ‘safari’. It’s pretty much what it sounds like – you’ll hop aboard a tuk tuk at your hotel front door and be driven around Colombo visiting the tourist hotspots. What’s good about this tour is that you’ll get to experience whizzing around Colombo in a tuk tuk (a tourist ‘must’ in and of itself) without the potential hassle of having to negotiate prices with a normal tuk tuk taxi driver (although, I personally enjoy the bartering myself). The second option is back to using your own legs on a walking tour with Colombo Walks. Despite what I said above about the heat what I liked about Colombo walks is that they offer an early departure at 6.45am which means that you can experience the madness of morning rush hour without sweating up a storm; and then finish things up with a nice local breakfast.
If none of the above ‘floats your boat’ and you wish to explore the city on your own then your options (other than on foot) are public and private buses, taxis and tuk tuks. The cheapest option is to use the bus network which, in my opinion, involves you being very patient, flexible, willing to be crammed into a sardine can in intolerable heat, and not being adverse to risking life and limb driving at high speed in heaving traffic. If this sounds like an unmissable experience then the best resources I found for navigating the bus network (which is not an easy task) can be found here and here. The easiest, cheapest and most exciting option is tuk tuk. Thankfully there also the most prevalent transport option in the city. Some are metered which can obviously provide an added layer of assurance that you aren’t getting ripped off. But if you hail one that doesn’t have a meter then make sure you know the going rate and barter hard. Finally, and if you feeling unusually adventurous, consider hiring a tuk tuk and taking a self-drive tour around the city. If this is appealing then make sure to check out ‘Tuk Tuk Rental’s’ website. From experience, I can tell you that getting used to driving a manual transmission tuk tuk can be challenging; so make sure you take the opportunity to fully engage in the ‘driving lesson’ portion of the company’s service.
When you look at a map of Colombo or hear the address of your accommodation you might realise that Colombo is divided in to zones. At first it can be a little confusing, but ultimately it’s a really simple way of dividing up the city (and makes it substantially easier when trying to navigate in a tuk tuk when you don’t speak the same language as the driver). If you’re at the accommodation booking stage of proceedings then my advice would be to look at hotels in Cinnamon Gardens (Colombo 7), Pettah (Colombo 11) and Fort (Colombo 1) as each of these particular zones put you in the heart of things from a tourist perspective. I personally stayed in Colombo 7 and found Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple, Seema Malakaya Temple, the National Museum, Viharamadevi Park, Colombo Town Hall and Independence Square all within relatively easy walking distance. If you want to find out more about what to do by zone then check out this handy guide on the Visit Colombo website.
Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple: This rather eccentric and eclectic temple was at the top of nearly every recommendation list I found and so, for the sake of consistency, I’ve opted to put it at the top of mine as well. The temple complex has a mix of architectural styles (Sri Lankan, Chinese, Thai, Burmese) as well as a mix of uses (tourist attraction, museum, place of worship and educational center) and houses possibly the most Buddha statues I’ve witnessed in a single location (including the smallest Buddha statute in Sri Lanka – a rather weird ‘centerpiece’ that has to be viewed with a magnifying glass inside a glass case). In case I haven’t yet truly won you over on how weird this place is then hopefully the vintage car collection, fake elephant and sunglasses-wearing Buddha statue will tip the scale? Eccentricity aside, the sprawling temple complex does have some more traditional features include a stunning stupa and an ornately decorated sanctuary. A small entry fee applies to tourists that covers both Gangaramaya and the nearby Seema Malakaya Temple (see below). Be aware that you’ll need to take your shoes off to enter and that the stone floors get incredibly hot (seriously, I burned the bottom of my feet).
Fort: Let’s get one thing out of the way first. Fort is in fact not a fort; It’s a zone of Colombo near the port (I too, was confused). Fort is often touted as one of Colombo’s top tourist areas but, in my humble opinion, the city has far better things on offer. Despite that opinion it would be wrong to exclude it altogether if for no other reason than I think you should visit the Old Dutch Hospital. No longer the health center for the Dutch East India Company, Colombo’s oldest building is now an entertainment and recreation venue housing a multitude of shops, restaurants and bars and is a great place to spend an evening. Other than the hospital I’d recommend quick stops at the Old Colombo Lighthouse (which, sadly, you can’t climb), the Sambodhi Chaithya Stupa (which, thankfully, you can climb…and for free!) and The Last King’s Jail Cell (which, looking like a public toilet, is a quirky little landmark in a carpark that was formally the jail cell of the last king of Kandy!)
Lotus Tower: Costing over USD 100m to build, the tower is currently the second tallest in South East Asia at 350m and houses a viewing platform and revolving restaurant at the top. So, if like me, you enjoy a panoramic vista then this will probably be your best bet! You too could get sunset photos over Colombo including the silhouette of the tower in the background (taken from the rooftop bar at the Jetwing Colombo 7 in case you wanted to recreate it).
Seema Malakaya Temple: Located moments away from Gangaramaya Temple, on the smaller (bright green) part of Lake Beira, Seema Malakaya is the serene, picturesque and relaxing portion of the Gangaramaya complex (and is included in the same entrance fee). Where Gangaramaya appears overstated and gaudy, Seema Malakaya is understated. The temple is spread across a number of wooden decks on the waters of Lake Beira with each deck festooned with Buddha sculptures. Designed to be a place of meditation the temple is the perfect place to come and seek haven from the bustling city surrounding it.
Hindu Temples: An abundance of Hindu temples (Kovils) dot Colombo and I’d happily suggest the following four: The Temple of Sri Kailawasanathan Swami Devasthanam Kovil (located in Maradana), The Old and New Kathiresan Temple (Northeast of Pettah), Sri Ponnambalam Vanesar Kovil (Northeast of Pettah) and Shri Ponnambalawaneswaram Kovil (Northeast of Pettah). Kathiresan Kovil is a shrine for the God of War, Skanda and also serves as the focal point for the yearly vel festival chariot race (which typically takes place somewhere in the July/August timeframe). So if you happen to be in town for the festival then you should definitely research festival activities.
Galle Face Green and Mount Lavinia: At a half kilometer in length, Galle Face Green promenade is Colombo’s largest open space with unimpeded ocean views and a sandy stretch of beach. During the day, it is near unbearable in the heat but come early evening there’s no better place to be with street food vendors selling snacks, drinks and kites as you watch the sun go down over the Indian Ocean. Having soaked up a delightful sunset whilst flying your newly purchased kite (that will, once back home, be stuffed in a cupboard never to see the light of day again) head on over to the Galle Face Hotel for a spot of dinner or drinks on the open-air terrace. It’s the perfect way to end a long day sightseeing in Colombo. If you’re more of a sun-worshipper and fancy a day at the beach then the closest to the city is Mount Lavinia about 30 minutes south. It’s nowhere near as good as other beaches around the country, but it’s home to some decent seafood restaurants and I guess you have to do what you must to scratch that beach itch!
Museums: Colombo has a few museums that you might wish to consider visiting. The most famous of these is the Colombo National Museum which sits in a rather attractive colonial-era building. Right next door is the Natural history Museum and the National Art Gallery (outside of which there are a few artists selling their work on the roadside). Other notable museums include the open-air Ape Game Cultural Village. Located over by the Parliament Complex Ape Game is a recreation of a traditional Sri Lankan Village accompanied by somewhat chilling mannequins supposedly depicting local life. Your final two main options are the Dutch Period Museum and the Independence Memorial Museum. The latter, which celebrates Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948, sits in the basement of the Independence Memorial Hall National Monument (In Colombo 7); itself well worth visiting as it marks the sight where the independent from the British was formally celebrated.
Pettah: Pettah is possibly my favourite area of the city and is best described as the beating heart of Colombo. Frenzied, overpowering and crowded are all apt descriptions when it comes to defining this market district. Come here predominantly to do a little shopping for relatives, but make sure you also drop by the Wolvendaal Church, Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque and Khan Clock Tower.
Wildlife and Birding: If you’re keen to take a break from the bustle of the city and fancy trying to spot some wildlife in a more relaxing setting, then you might want to consider heading out to one of the wetlands over by Colombo’s Parliament Complex. One option is Talangama which is best visited between November and April when vast droves of migratory birds make the wetlands their home (in fact, more than 100 species call Talangama home throughout the year). If birds aren’t your things (they aren’t mine either) then Talangama is also worth visiting for a chance to spot fishing cats, small civets, common palm civets, Indian hare, crested porcupine, purple-faced leaf monkey and the brown mongoose. Alternatively you could visit the Beddagana Wetland Park which has wildlife viewing towers over the marshes and a number of developed footpaths and boardwalks. Beddagana is home to100 species of plants, 80 species of birds, 20 species of fish, 10 species of mammals and 5 species of amphibian. Whichever option you choose the wetlands are enjoyable way to unwind from the frenetic pace of Colombo.
Colombo Public Bus Routemaster Website: http://routemaster.lk/
Tul Tuk Rental Website: https://tuktukrental.com/
Colombo City Tours Bus Website: http://www.colombocitytours.com/colombo.php
Tuk Tuk Safaris Website: https://www.tuktuksafarisrilanka.com/safari-tours/
Colombo Walks Website: http://www.colombowalks.com/
Visit Colombo Website: http://visitcolombo.com