Welcome to Colombo, melting point of different cultures of South Asia. Visiting Colombo is an experience, you will find beautiful places, beaches, authentic cultural buildings, friendly people and a huge variety of things to buy. Among the religions Colombo boasts to have the old Churches, Huge Buddhist temples, Hindu temples and magnificent mosques.
Colombo, a colonial capital
In 1517 the recently arrived Portuguese built a fort here, which was to subsequently form the nucleus of the modern city. The Dutch expanded the fortifications and gave the fledgling city new suburbs and an extensive system of canals, though it was not until the arrival of the British that Colombo really began to take off, by now an important staging post on the Indian Ocean’s maritime routes.
In 1815, Colombo was declared the capital of Ceylon. Today's modern city, which a population of around 3 million calls home, has grown exponentially since Independence and now spreads its tentacular suburbs along the coast for the best part of 60km (37 miles).
The Town Hall of Colombo. Photo: Shutterstock
Take time to know Colombo
Much of this ever-expanding metropolis is now a disorienting morass of mildewed
concrete and gridlocked traffic; but though initial impressions may be
unwelcoming, Colombo’s handful of low-key sights, its fascinating contrasts of
colonial and modern, and its sheer hustle and bustle reward all those who take
the time to absorb something of its unique character.
The cosmopolitan mix
Colombo’s relatively modern origins and colonial character – not to mention its sheer size – have given it a distinctly different atmosphere from the rest of Sri Lanka. There’s relatively little visible evidence of Buddhism or traditional Sinhalese values here. Instead, the city’s population comprises a cosmopolitan spread of cultures, with important Tamil and Muslim communities, as well as Burghers and a considerable number of expats. Mosques, churches and Hindu temples remain as visible as Buddhas and stupas, while conversations in the city’s smarter suburbs are as likely to be in English as in Sinhala or Tamil.
And compared to the more conservative towns elsewhere in Sri Lanka, Colombo remains resolutely forward-thinking. This is a vibrant crucible of contemporary Sri Lankan life, its eyes fixed firmly on the outside world.
What to do in Colombo
Shop in the Pettah
Colombo’s most absorbing area is the Pettah, a tumultuous bazaar district that
is still the scene of much of the city’s vibrant commercial life, its grid of
narrow streets stuffed full of every conceivable type of merchandise. Many of
the district’s streets are given over to specific items, with one street devoted
to selling leather goods, another to household wares, and so on. Concealed among
the shops and teeming streetlife are also some of the oldest and most
interesting buildings in Colombo: on Second Cross Street is the Pettah’s most
striking building, the Jami-ul-Alfar Mosque, built in 1909 and striped in red
and white like a stupendous raspberry layer-cake, with candy minarets and arches
shaped like bitemarks.
Stroll on Galle Face Green
An elongated expanse of scrubby grass called Galle Face Green provides the city
with important breathing space and attracts locals in their hundreds towards
dusk – crowds of cheerful idlers come to meet friends, fly kites or sample the
snacks sold from mobile food-carts along the oceanfront esplanade. A handful of
newish hotels lies close to the green; none, however, can match the colonial
aura of the venerable Galle Face Hotel. Even if you’re not staying here, this is
still the best place in Colombo to watch the sun go down, maybe while sipping a
mango cocktail next to the outsize chessboard on the seafront lawn.
See cultural treasures at the National Museum
The southern end of Viharamahadevi Park is home to the National Museum, an elegant white colonial structure of 1877 containing the regalia of the last king of Kandy and other treasures. The collection provides an excellent overview of Sri Lankan arts and crafts, beginning with a limestone Buddha from Anuradhapura, which sits meditating in the foyer as if undisturbed by the passage of 16 centuries; Sri Lanka’s finest collection of masks – quite unlike the stereotypical junk which is flogged at most of the island’s shops; and the highlight of the museum, the glittering crown, throne and footstool of the last Kandyan kings.
The palace of Presidential Secretariat Office located opposite the scenic Lion
fountain on Galle Main Road, stretching along the coast, Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Get aquainted with Sri Lanka's animals at Dehiwala Zoo
In Colombo’s southern suburb of Dehiwala, the extensive Dehiwala Zoo is home to a wide range of Sri Lankan and international wildlife and birdlife. Compared to the dismal zoos found in other parts of Asia, the inmates here enjoy tolerably humane conditions (apart from some of the unfortunate big cats, which remain shut up in horribly small cages pending further promised improvements). The zoo’s representative selection of Sri Lankan wildlife makes it a good place to visit before heading off to the national parks. Look out for all three types of local monkey, sambhur and spotted deer, sloth bears and leopards, as well as a wide selection of birdlife.
Visit Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara
On the northeastern edge of Colombo, the suburb of Kelaniya is home to one of the island’s most revered Buddhist temples, said to occupy the place where the Buddha paid the last of his three mythical visits to the island – a stupa marks the exact spot. The original temple was destroyed by the Indians, then rebuilt, and then demolished by the Portuguese. The current structure is an attractive colonial-era building dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, decorated with an eye-catching sequence of modern murals by Soliya Mendis, depicting the Buddha’s legendary visits to the island as described in the Mahavamsa.
Where to go from Colombo...
• Visit Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage and get up close to pachyderms
• Head to the beach - check out our Sri Lanka editor's pick of the top five in the country
• Explore Sri Lanka's west coast