With endless emerald jungle stretching from coast to coast until it meets golden sand and warm blue waves, Sri Lanka is a paradise destination. This teardrop shaped island is what travel dreams are made of and your adventure is most likely going to start in the capital: Colombo.
There are plenty of things to do in Colombo but many people see it just as their point of arrival and departure, which is a shame. Colombo isn’t just a bustling capital city. It has a rich colonial heritage, some of the country’s best food spots, and some fabulous architecture to boot, if you know where to look.
How to get to Colombo
You can fly straight into Colombo's international airport from destinations all over the world. Emirates, one of the top airlines in the world, offers flights to Colombo.
15 things to do in Colombo, Sri Lanka
1. Take a Stroll Through Viharamahadevi Park
Just because you’re in a city doesn’t mean you won’t find outstanding nature here. The Viharamahadevi Park, formerly known as Victoria Park, is a beautiful green space right in the heart of the city. Take a stroll around its verdant lawns, enjoy the variety of plant life, and soak up the never-ending Sri Lanka sunshine.
2. Grab Some Fresh Produce at Pettah Market
I love markets and I know I am not alone in this opinion. I love the chaos and the explosion of colors and smells that affronts your senses. I love spirited haggling and laughing with vendors when I inevitably give in to their prices. Pettah Market is everything I love and sells just about anything you could want. I particularly like the fresh fruit section, if only because of the rainbow of colors. But, you can also buy clothes, trinkets, and other fresh produce here.
3. Watch a Cricket Match at the R Premadasa Stadium
Cricket to Sri Lanka is what baseball is to the USA. You have a bat and a ball, it looks like there are more players than necessary, and most first time viewers won’t have a clue what’s going on. Whether you understand the rules or not, you should definitely try and catch a match while you’re there. I’m sure a friendly Sri Lankan will bring you up to speed on how cricket works and in the meantime you can enjoy the atmosphere.
4. Hit the Beach
Colombo is home to several beaches. A popular beach spot is the suburb of Mount Lavinia. The beaches here sport powder soft sand and the sea is warm and refreshing. When you’re stretched out on a sarong, soaking up the golden sunshine, the madness of the city center seems a million miles away. It’s not hard to spend an entire day lazing on the sand and sipping cold coconuts.
5. Get Your Culture Fix at the National Museum of Colombo
The first thing you will notice about the National Museum of Colombo is the magnificent white mansion in which it is housed. But, it only gets better from there. Once inside, you can make your way around the two floors, exploring the exhibitions as you go. The museum boasts hundreds of artefacts that depict the transition of the country through time, from the beginning of Sri Lankan civilisation’s recorded existence up to the modern day.
6. Explore the Cinnamon Gardens Neighborhood
Widely considered the prettiest neighborhood in Colombo, Cinnamon Gardens is well worth taking the time to explore. Originally, this area contained a cinnamon plantation during the colonial period. Nowadays, it is home to embassies, luxury homes, and a couple of galleries and museums. Start at Independence Square and meander in any direction until you get hungry. Then hunker down at one of the upmarket eateries for a gourmet Sri Lankan banquet.
7. Gorge on Street Food at Galle Face Green
If you’ve never tried kottu, your life is about to get a whole lot better. Kottu is Sri Lanka’s premier street food, consisting of stir fried strips of roti, egg, veggies, meat, and spices, and it can be found in abundance at the street stalls at Galle Face Green. You’ll also find here freshly cooked samosas, a plethora of different curries, fresh juices, coconuts and a whole host of other Sri Lanka specialties. Best of all, you can fill yourself to the brim with mouth-watering food for under $5.
8. Take a Photo of the Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque
The Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque is the most distinctive building in the whole of Colombo – not only that but it is wedged between a bunch of very average looking shops, making it stand out even more! The mosque is white with reddy brown stripes (or reddy brown with white stripes, I suppose) and topped with onion-shaped domes. Once you’re done ogling its exterior, pop inside and have a wander through its interior.
9. Learn about Buddhism at the Gangaramaya Temple
Once you’ve got your Islam hit from the Jami-Ul-Afar Mosque, head to the Gangaramaya Temple to immerse yourself in Sri Lanka’s other prominent religion: Buddhism. This temple is the most famous of its kind in Colombo and dazzles visitors with its intricate architecture, glittering with gold leaf. Inside there is a library as well as a museum where you can get clued up on this mystical religion and its fascinating origins.
Side note: while the temple is beautiful and worth visiting, it has caused controversy among travelers due to the fact that there is a small, lonely elephant chained up in the courtyard. If this sight might distress you, consider giving the temple a miss.
10. Drink a Cool, Refreshing Wood Apple Juice
Think you know apple juice? Think again. Wood apple juice is unlike anything you will have ever encountered before. This thick brown juice has a surprising number of health benefits, including the ability to fight off infections, and it is a big hit with the locals of Colombo.
Let me preface this by saying wood apples look and smell gross. The outside looks like a moldy coconut and the inside looks like brown, rotting mush (appetizing, I know). Despite its appearances, though, wood apple juice is actually pretty good. Have a taste for yourself and see what you think.
11. Make a Splash at Leisure World
If you are still a big kid at heart and love the thrill of racing down a waterslide, devote at least one day of your vacation to Leisure World. Just an hour east of the city center, the park is easily accessible by bus or car. It has everything you expect from a bit waterpark, including plenty of slides, a wave pool, kiddies pools, and a lazy river. It might not be the most authentic Sri Lankan experience you will have on your holiday, but it will be one of the most fun.
12. Marvel at a Snake Charmer
That’s right, snake charmers actually exist and you will find them throughout the streets of Sri Lanka’s capital. It’s a little shocking at first to see an enormous cobra rise out of a small woven basket to the sound of a young man’s flute, but it quickly becomes hypnotic. If you watch the show and take photos, be prepared to offer a tip. My general policy is to hand over 200 LKR, which is just over $1 (they are usually happy with this).
13. Check out the Colonial Buildings in the Colombo Fort Area
The Colombo Fort neighborhood is an intriguing blend of old and new. It is brimming with colonial history and architecture, but also boasts some of the city’s most modern buildings. If you were looking for some snazzy snaps for the ‘gram, you’ll find them here. The Old Dutch Hospital and the Old Parliament Buildings are worth checking out as is St. Peter’s Church, which is the oldest church in Colombo that is still in use.
14. Relax Next to Beira Lake
Near the Gangaramaya Temple is the vast Beira Lake. Although the lake is a slightly unhealthy green color, it is a peaceful place to chill for an hour or two. In the middle of the lake sits a small island on which you will find the Simamalaka Shrine. If you’re the active type and want to explore the lake rather than just sit next to it, hop in a paddle boat and float along its shimmering surface.
15. Admire the Independence Memorial Hall
The majestic Independence Memorial Hall is like an oasis away from Colombo’s busy city center. Have a wander through the building and then spend some time exploring the lush gardens that surround it. The has is generally quite quiet as it is predominantly used for national events and ceremonies. Bonus: the Independence Memorial Hall is free to visit, making it a perfect activity for budget travelers.
Don't forget travel insurance
No matter how well you plan your trip to Colombo, there's always something that can happen that's beyond your control. A reservation can get canceled, you can get sick or your flight home gets delayed. In all of these cases, good travel insurance has you covered.
I've had ongoing travel insurance ever since I started traveling to make sure I'm covered for every trip I go on but if you travel just a few times a year, you can get insured for each trip separately too.
Don't have travel insurance yet? Check out World Nomads. They cover a wide range of activities for people from 140 countries.
And that's it! I hope this has given you an idea of what to do in Colombo, Sri Lanka.