Top 15 Best Things to Do in Colombo, Sri Lanka
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Being located in the Indian Ocean just nearby historic European trading ports such as India, the South Asian nation Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, had a very colonial past. Before its independence in 1972, Sri Lanka was occupied by Portuguese, Dutch, and British settlers. And because the country retained much of these foreign cultural influences, Sri Lanka as we know it today is characterized by an incredibly colorful culture, flavorful cuisine, and a tourism industry that is yet to reveal its splendor to the world. Here are some of the best things to do in Colombo that you can try out.
About Colombo, Sri Lanka
The Sinhalese capital is Colombo, the country’s largest city and most active economic center, with more than 5 million residents and contributing about 40% to Sri Lanka’s entire GDP. Home to historical sites, European buildings, and Buddhist temples, Colombo is also one of the most visited cities in Sri Lanka.
How to get there
Bandaranaike International Airport or Colombo International Airport (CMB) is the major port for international flights. Airlines that offer flights from Manila International Airport to CMB include Philippine Airlines, Jetstar, Malaysia Airlines, and Singapore Airlines. Flight duration lasts from 10 to 13 hours. From the airport, you may ride a bus or a tuk-tuk to your accommodation.
Things to do
Learn more about the local history
Sri Lanka had a dynamic past, with at least three major European settlers, great kingdoms, and the early introduction to Buddhism. There is nowhere better to understand these complex stories than at the capital’s numerous museums. The National Museum of Colombo, Colombo Dutch Museum, and the Independence Memorial Museum are a few good museums to start at.
Go on a pilgrimage
Although a huge percent of the population have Islamic and Buddhist faith, there is also a considerable bulk of Hindus and Christians. There are several places of faith in Colombo alone—major churches include The Grand Masjid (Islam), Gangaramaya Temple (Buddhism), Sri Kaileswaram (Hinduism), and St. Lucia’s Cathedral (Roman Catholic). Regardless of your religion, exploring the different churches, temples, and mosques is a rewarding trip for anyone.
Visit the Lotus Tower
The Lotus Tower is an under construction broadcasting antenna that, when completed, will be crowned the tallest self-supporting structure in South Asia. The structure was inspired from the lotus flower, which, in Sinhalese culture, connotes progress and purity. The maroon petals of the tower is clearly visible in the blue Sri Lankan sky.
Shop at Pettah Floating Market
Sri Lanka has a floating market, too, like Thailand, although the floating market in Pettah is not on small boats. Rather, the market is built on a body of water (Beira Lake), supported and connected by concrete boardwalks. Here, you will be greeted by a plethora of eateries and small cafés, clothes and shoe stores, accessories, and yes, even electronics shops.
While you are at the Pettah Floating Market or any restaurant in Colombo, for the matter, go order a plate of Kiribath, Sri Lanka’s version of rice pudding. If you live in the Philippines, you can compare Kiribath to our classic puto, though this South Asian dish is square instead of circle. In Sri Lanka, Kiribath is a traditional dish that is served on holidays, but it is also eaten during milestones and personal celebrations.
Take some photos at Viharamahadevi Park
Viharamahadevi Park is like a plaza of sorts located near Town Hall of Colombo and the National Museum of Colombo. The park used to be called Victoria Park, but was eventually renamed and restored after the British and Australian armies occupied the park as their base.
Take a tour around colonial European buildings
Just a short stroll from Viharamahadevi Park is Town Hall of Colombo, a neoclassical building that dates back to 1924, and was completed just a short four years later. The white building and its dome-shaped tower is the office of the Mayor of Colombo—and is impossible to miss, because of its very, very, white façade.
Bask in the sun at Galle Face Green
This popular urban park by the ocean actually has an interesting back story. In the 19th century, it served as a fortress for the Dutch to hold off the Portuguese. In the middle of the century, a British governor ordered the construction of a 1 mile-long promenade for the public. Eventually, the site became a huge recreational place for horse racing, golf, rugby, and cricket.
The Galle Face Hotel, which continues to operate until today, was originally a Dutch Villa built in the early 1860s. It is currently one of the oldest hotels in the region.
Shop for Souvenirs
Being the economic hub of the country, Colombo has dozens of malls jammed in its 37-square-kilometer area. Shopping malls here include:
- House of Fashions. Just as the name suggests, this is the largest shopping mall of clothes, shoes, accessories, and every fashion item you can think of.
- Arcade Independence Square. Despite only having 24 shops, this mall is widely popular for its colonial architecture, its picturesque promenades, and benches, not to mention its glowing colored fountains at night.
- Besides its boutiques and assorted shops, Odel is known for its numerous bars, sushi bars, cafés, and restaurants.
#Photobomb your photo of Khan Clock Tower
If you see this clock tower, you can be sure that you are near Pettah’s public market and floating market. However, besides being a local landmark, Khan Clock Tower is historically significant. The clockwork inside the tower used to power a connected fountain, which, unfortunately, does not work anymore. The base of Khan Clock Tower has a silver plate that details the story of the structure:
“This clock tower and fountain was erected to the memory of Framjee Bhikhajee Khan by his sons Bhikhajee and Munchershaw Framjee Khan as a token of affectionate gratitude and dedicated through the Municipal Council to the citizens of Colombo on the fourth day of January 1923, the 45th anniversary of his death”.
Walk the streets of Slave Island
Don’t be appalled by the name—Slave Island in Colombo is a largely commercial area that is an incredibly hot tourist destination. It got its name way back during the Dutch occupation, where slaves were kept captive. Today, the area is a bustling commercial district with many shops and restaurants, public offices, cinemas, and hotels.
Have a cup of Ceylon tea
Sri Lanka is one of the world’s largest producers of tea. The climate of the country makes it perfect for this agricultural activity, and Ceylon Tea is revered for its flavor and health benefits. The local tea is a proud beverage that is included in almost every café in Colombo, and you can choose from either Ceylon black, green, or the exorbitant white tea.
Visit in time for Vesak festival
The Vesak, also known as Buddha Day, is a celebration held at different times of the year throughout the world. Sri Lanka, a predominantly Buddhist country, has the celebration of Vesak a quintessential part of Sinhalese culture. Vesak is characterized by bright, colorful, and intricate lanterns and pandols, which are displayed in public areas throughout the celebration. While the schedule yearly varies, Vesak in Sri Lanka is usually held in May.
Shop again—at Kala Pola Art Market
Support the local artists by purchasing a piece of art at the Kala Pola Art Market, a roadside pop-up market that is manned by several artists. This is located at a sidewalk just across Viharamahadevi Park. Meanwhile, you can also choose to shop at Good Market, which primarily sells organic produce, healthy food, and interesting goodies that you cannot find in the public market or at the Pettah Floating Market.
End your day at Beira Lake
Beira Lake is a lake that is located at the center of Colombo. The lake was believed to be named by the Portuguese, who were the earliest European colonizers in the country. Beira Lake has long been a symbol of Colombo, and at night, when the lake’s surrounding, towering commercial establishments light up, its surface becomes almost like a bed of stars.
Colombo Travel tips
- The main mode of public transportation in Colombo are trains and buses, but if you are a tourist and it’s your first time, you may find the tuk tuk easier to navigate around with. The tuk tuk is just like a Philippine tricycle!
- Foodie tip: a unique thing about Sri Lankan cuisine, besides its wonderful mix of spices and cultural influences, is that it is mostly time-bound. If you are going on a food adventure, note that some dishes are served only at specific times of the day, like hoppers (breakfast), curry (lunch), and koku rotty (dinner). Restaurants might serve these at any time, but if you prefer small eateries, you will have to race against the clock.
- Try to visit Galle Face Green on the afternoon to catch the sun setting, and to watch families and children flying their kites. Priceless!
- Sri Lanka has a tropical monsoon type of climate, so consider the weather before planning your trip, except if you do not mind having some rain during your trip. Colombo typically experiences rain during March to December, but the months May and September to November are the rainiest.
- Although Sri Lanka is culturally diverse, dressing appropriately is almost always better compared to choosing otherwise.
Do you have other recommended fun and interesting things to do in Colombo? Please feel free to share by posting a comment below.
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