Colombo is the biggest city in Sri Lanka. Although Sri Jayawardenapurra Kotta is the political and administrative capital of Sri Lanka, Colombo remains the commercial and cultural capital of the country with approximately 750,000 inhabitants in 2013 living in the Municipality of Colombo. The number is much higher when we include the immediate surrounding municipalities, approximately 2 million.
Colombo is a city in development and its charm lies in the vibrant atmosphere. The population mainly consists of the original multi ethnic domestic groups, the majority Buddhist Singhalese, Tamils and Muslims. There is no big flow of foreigners who have come to settle in Colombo and you will not see big crowds of foreign tourists visiting the city, which makes it more interesting to experience the city’s culture in its natural setting.
The city is divided in zones (from Colombo 1 to Colombo 15), connected to names of neighbourhoods, such as Colombo 7 for Cinnamon Gardens and Colombo 1 for Fort.
As a tourist destination Colombo is mostly forgotten and unfortunately some tourists who had visited the city were disappointed, especially if you compare Colombo with cities as Bangkok, Hong Kong and Singapore. However, Colombo is certainly worthwhile to be included in your tour, but it should rather be ‘experienced’ than visited.
Wander through the city and take up the smells and sounds of the trade in Pettah, discover the busy daily life in the streets of Colombo, have a tea in a small local café (hotel), enjoy a train ride along the sea from Fort Station to the beach resort Mount Lavinia and watch the life style in the small alleys in Slave Island. Stroll along the seaside at Galle Face Green in the evening and have a high tea at the colonial Galle Face Hotel. At night you can enjoy your beer or cocktail at the Sky lounge on top of the Kingsbury hotel or wine and dine at the Old Dutch Hospital complex in Fort. If that’s not enough: lounge in one the many lavish lounge cafes and boutique hotels in Colombo-7. These are examples of interesting things to do in Colombo.
Architecture from the colonial periods can still be found in Colombo, mainly in Fort and Slave Island, such as the Grand Oriental Hotel, the Cargills & Miller’s building, the Fort Station, the Galle Face Hotel and the Clock Tower. Fort, Pettah and Slave Island are considered to be the oldest parts of Colombo and the centre of the city.
For shopping, Bambalapitiya and Kolupatiya are suitable areas with many shops, such as the Liberty Plaza and Majestic City shopping malls. The latest and probably the most interesting place to be for shopping, entertainment, as well as for wine and dine is the new Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct, a historic building from the 17th Century, known as the Dutch Hospital. It has now been elegantly transformed into an attractive pedestrian shopping and entertainment area with several nice places where you can enjoy your meal or refreshments. It is located in Fort, near the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. Odel is the only department store in Colombo. Furthermore there is the famous Barefoot, which has also a nice café behind the shop on Galle Road and next to the Cinnamon Grand Hotel you will find the Crescat Plaza, a small high-end shopping mall. The main road for shopping with some exclusive shops is Duplication Road, running parallel with the Galle Road from Kolupitiya to Bambelapitiya. An increasing number of exclusive posh shops are now to be found scattered all over the city, mainly around Colombo 7 (Cinnamon Gardens).
Pettah is a must for the traveler to visit. The word ‘pettah’ means a village outside the fort. In this case the neighbouring Colombo Fort. It has become the main trading district for retailers in Sri Lanka, mainly run by Muslim businessmen. The narrow streets are full of life, bazaars and street stalls along the roadside and covered markets make this area not only interesting for shop owners to buy their supplies from wholesalers, but it’s also an interesting neighbourhood for shopping tourists going for interesting bargains. Pettah is situated right opposite the Fort Railway Station.
The National Museum and the Dutch museum are both worth a visit; many precious artifacts from the ancient kingdoms can be seen in the National Museum in Cinnamon Gardens and those from the Dutch colonial period in the Dutch Museum, which is housed in an old colonial mansion in the middle of Pettah.
Various religions in Sri Lanka have splendid places of worship with a beautiful architecture which should be visited, like the Jami Ul Alfar, the oldest mosque in Colombo (Pettah) and the Dawatagaha Mosque near Union Place, the Gagaramaya Buddhist Temple in Slave Island, the Hindu temple Sri Kailawasanathar Swami Devasthanam in Fort and the Wolfendahl Church in Hultsdorf.
Mount Lavinia is the closest beach to Colombo, some 15 km south of Colombo Fort, and a pleasant place to relax. Have a lunch at one of the restaurants on the beach or enjoy the facilities of the colonial Mount Lavinia Hotel. This beach resort is best reachable by train from the Fort Station or from all halts on the Coastal Line, almost every train stops here and the Mount Lavinia Hotel is within a short walking distance.
If your time is limited, what to select?
If your time is limited, the selection fully depends on what you find interesting. From the description given above you can already make a choice about what to choose. Whenever you prefer to have your Colombo tour organized for you, you can take a guided tour by an open-deck double decker bus by Colombo City Tour. It will show you the places of interest in Colombo. The tours are operated on Saturdays and Sundays from 08.30 to 12.30 hrs and from 05.30 to 07.00 hrs, starting from the Galle Face Hotel. Otherwise you can hire a three-wheeler and compose your tour for a day. Take a metered three-wheeler!