Despite twice having flown into Colombo, we’d never explored any of Sri Lanka’s buzzing capital. At the end of our most recent trip, we decided to spend a little over 24 hours in the nation’s biggest city. We took a train from Kandy and were at Colombo Fort railway station by mid-afternoon.
For anyone deliberating whether or not to spend any time in the city, our advice would be: DO! The main highlights can be seen in one busy day and this is sufficient time to get a feel for the city.
Colombo is unlike anywhere else in the country, a vibrant bustling city on the west coast of the island, the Indian Ocean lapping at its shores. With old colonial architecture, colourful markets and a pulsating energy, it makes a great start or finish to your Sri Lankan journey.
Furthermore, whether you’re looking for cheap local eateries or stylish upmarket restaurants, Colombo delivers. Wander the tangle of streets to find cosmopolitan shops and galleries or traditional tea sellers and snack stalls; this is a metropolis that has it all.
Read on to find out how you can spend 24 hours in Colombo, seeing the best of what the city has to offer.
1. Start by Seeing Local Life in Pettah
Busy and gritty, Pettah offers the chance to see Colombo at its most local; it’s an area teeming with life, energy and colour. It’s also where you’ll find Colombo Fort train station and the city’s bus terminals. Pettah is compact and offers a lot to see within a relatively small area; it’s possible to see all the main sights within a couple of hours.
- Check out Manning Market and the Federation of Self-Employees Market, both of which offer impressive photo opportunities with their towering piles of artfully stacked fruit and veg and the sheer abundance of wares for sale. Manning is the city’s wholesale fruit and vegetable market and teems with everything grown in the country; it is located just to the east of Fort station.
- Nearby, Pettah Floating Market is a waterside district with simple cafes, food vendors and shops; it’s a small area set on wooden boardwalks but makes a great escape from the hubbub of Pettah. From here you can see the towering Lotus Tower, which, at 350m high, promises panoramic views over the city. It was cited to open sometime in 2018 and supposedly houses telecommunications equipment and an observation deck at the top – let us know if you make it up!
- The Old City Hall, in the heart of Pettah, makes a stunning photo opportunity; it dates to 1865 and today lies mostly empty. On the ground floor you can admire some old trucks and machinery from the British era, whilst on the upper floor lie a collection of wax figures that replicate the chamber’s first councilors.
- In the heart of Pettah, the 1909 Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque is eye-catching with its striking red-and-white brickwork.
- St Anthony’s Church may look like a typical Portuguese Catholic church on the outside; inside, however, you’ll find an entirely different atmosphere. Devotees offer puja to a dozen ornate statues that include a likeness of St Anthony, which is said to have miraculous qualities and is especially revered. The church attracts people from different faiths. Just a short walk away lie a trio of South Indian temples with elaborate gopurams; Sri Muthu Vinayagar Swamy Kovil is especially striking, painted in a bold shade of yellow.
- Wolvendaal Church is the most important Dutch building in the country. Built in 1749 in the form of a Greek cross, it has 1.5m thick walls and contains highly regarded Dutch furniture.
2. Continue on to Historical Fort
Fort is Colombo’s Central Business District, home to the city’s busy harbour, the Colombo Stock Exchange, the World Trade Centre of Colombo and the Bank of Ceylon Headquarters. It’s also where you’ll find many antiquated reminders of British colonial rule, some very upmarket hotels and government departments and offices.
Fort is an area best explored on foot; there is a huge array of architecture and landmarks to photograph and the area is compact and easy to navigate. From Fort railway station, head west, crossing the road-bridge over the canal; if you’ve been exploring Pettah it’s just a short rickshaw or bus ride away.
Read on to find out a few details about some of Fort’s most iconic structures and places of interest.
- Stop to photograph the now mostly empty Cargills Main Store, the retail giant that once had its main store on York Street. The huge red 1906 building hints at its bygone glory days and is still one of the area’s most elegant structures; wander through its long arcades to see old store signage such as ‘toilet requisites’.
- Located two streets back from the international ferry port, St Peter’s Church was converted from a Dutch governor’s banquet hall and first used as a church in 1821. Inside are a multitude of plaques that attest to its work with seamen throughout the years.
- Just a short walk away on Sir Baron Jayatilaka Mawatha you can see several imposing colonial-era buildings, including the superbly restored Lloyd’s Buildings and the neighbouring Whiteaways with its arched wooden windows.
- Turn left onto Janadhipathi Mawatha, go past the President’s House and you’ll see the Lighthouse Clock Tower in the middle of a small roundabout. As its name suggests it’s a clock tower with the head of a lighthouse; it was, in fact, originally a lighthouse that was built in 1857. If you turn left onto Chatham Street you’ll see a number of other renovated old buildings, including the 1914 Central Bank building known as Central Point. The interior contains a mix of Greco-Roman details and is home to the tallest chandelier in Asia!
- From Central Point, take a small lane down to the Dutch Hospital shopping precinct, a colonial-era complex that dates to the early 1600’s. It has been extensively restored and now contains many boutique shops and cafes, as well as some of the city’s finest restaurants. Even if you’re not planning to spend any money here, it’s still a beautiful compound with its thick arcade columns and open courtyards.
- Around the corner lies the World Trade Centre and Colombo Stock Exchange, hugely modern buildings that provide a stark contrast to their restored colonial-era counter-parts. This area also contains other architectural wonders such as the Hilton Hotel and the Presidential Secretariat; the roundabout at the western end of Lotus Road is known as Pelican’s Perch due to the large number of these birds that frequent this spot.
- From this roundabout, take Galle Buck Road onto Chaithya Road to visit Old Galle Buck Lighthouse, built in 1954 and set on a large raised terrace with ocean views. From this vantage point it’s also possible to gaze out onto the rapidly expanding Colombo Port City, a mega offshore development being financed by China. There are ceremonial canons which point over what was open water just a few years ago. With views out to the Indian Ocean already being blocked, the completion of this 269-hectare development could see Fort becoming a landlocked precinct.
- Just north of the lighthouse you’ll see Sambodhi Chaitiya, an ostentatious white dagoba perched above the ground on huge curved concrete legs; it looks rather gaudy and out-of-place. It was reportedly built in such a way so that sailors could see it from offshore.
- If you head south from Pelican’s Perch onto Galle Road, you’ll reach Galle Face Green backing onto the Indian Ocean. The pedestrianised promenade between the ocean and the grassy lawn makes a pleasant stroll and gives a different perspective onto modern-day Colombo with its towering buildings lining the coastal road. The green is a popular spot for families and local couples; many snack vendors set up shop along the promenade and offer all manner of deep-fried or sweet treats.
- Just south and set back from Galle Road, St Andrew’s Church makes a quiet refuge; it was built by colonial Scots in 1834.
3. Next Head Inland towards Cinnamon Gardens
From St Andrew’s Church head inland to explore the area around Wekanda and Cinnamon Gardens; again the sights in this area are fairly close together.
- Your first stop will likely be South Beira Lake, the surrounding tall buildings reflecting off the water’s surface. There’s a small green island, known as Gangaramaya Park, connected to the lake pathway by a suspension bridge; it offers a children’s play area and a shady place to rest under the trees. This smaller southern lake is connected to the main Beira Lake by a long canal that snakes its way through the city.
- On your way to the lake pass along Justice Akbar Mawatha to see a row of colonial-era storefronts, which, though tatty and forlorn, give an atmospheric reminder of their former days; they can be spotted by the trees that are growing out of their facades. It’s worth stopping in this area for a bite to eat at one of the many local joints.
- On the east side of South Beira Lake, shortly after the island housing Gangaramaya Park, stop by the Seema Malakaya Meditation Centre. This small centre, run by the Gangaramaya Temple, was designed by Geoffrey Bawa in 1985 and sits on an island jutting out into the water. One pavilion is filled with Thai bronze Buddha images, whilst another is centred on a Bodhi tree and four Brahmanist images.
- Just a short walk away on Sri Jinarathana Road is Gangaramaya Temple, a beautiful complex with a small white dagoba and many Buddha images. The compound also contains a library, a museum and a dazzling collection of bejeweled and gilded gifts presented by devotees over the years.
- Cut down to the large and well-kept Viharamahadevi Park, Colombo’s principal green space, for a welcome respite from the hubbub of the city. You could spend a good couple of hours here, strolling the landscaped paths and walkways, enjoying a picnic and, if you have children, amusing them in the playgrounds. If you’re in Colombo from March – May you’ll be able to enjoy the flowering trees in full bloom. At the main park entrance on F.R Senanayake Mawatha you’ll see a seated golden Buddha image, mounted on an elephant-embellished pedestal; opposite lies the white-washed and domed 1928 Old Town Hall.
- Head north to see a cluster of sights around De Soysa (Lipton) Circus, a bustling roundabout. Coming from the Old Town Hall you’ll first notice the gold-domed Dewata-Gaha Mosque, which dates to 1802 and hums with people during the Friday afternoon prayers. A few minutes-walk further north will take you to the Cinnamon Gardens Baptist Church facing onto the roundabout; it dates to 1877. Opposite lies the old red-and-yellow brick Victoria Memorial Building and, nearby, the Eye Hospital.
We managed to explore Pettah in the few hours we had left before dusk, having arrived that day from Kandy. We then covered Fort and the other sights mentioned above on foot the following day; in total we spent just over 24 hours in the capital before our late night flight to India.
From De Soysa Circus, we completed our route by looping back up to Pettah, heading north on Ven Baddegama Wimalawansa Mawatha then following the train lines east to Pettah Floating Market. It was a long walk back this way so we would definitely recommend taking a rickshaw if you are planning to follow our route!
To do our itinerary in one day, start early in Pettah, spend one or two hours seeing the markets and other highlights then, after a local breakfast, take transport to Fort. Spend the morning seeing this historical district with its colonial-era buildings and contrasting modern architecture then in the afternoon explore the city’s inland sights around South Beira Lake. If you’re not in a hurry, head back to Galle Face Green to watch the sun set over the Indian Ocean.
Accommodation in Colombo
Accommodation in Colombo is expensive and poor value compared with what you’ll find elsewhere on the island. Budget places are few and far between and even those that are considered as such are far more expensive than in other Asian cities.
We stayed in a very small hostel just five-minutes-walk from Fort train station; the location was perfect and the owner was very helpful. The rooms, however, were pretty dirty with many mosquitoes and the first room we stayed in, on our initial night in the country, didn’t even lock. We only stayed again at the end of our trip because of the great location; not only was it quick and easy to reach from the railway station but it was also within walking distance of the airport bus station.
Overall, we wouldn’t recommend the hostel so I won’t name it here. If you are planning to stay in Colombo, even if just for a night, our advice would be to stay close to the city centre; seeing the sights or getting to the bus or train station will be far more costly the further away you stay.
Getting around Colombo
To get around Colombo you have numerous options; you can walk, take a local bus, taxi or rickshaw or, to get to suburbs dotted along Galle Road, you can take a train.
Ask at your accommodation about bus routes; services are frequent and there is usually an English-language destination sign on the front of the bus. Fares vary from Rs 10 to Rs 50, depending on distance.
Whilst most taxis are metered, the driver will often choose not to use it; agree on a price before setting off. Uber and the local version, PickMe, are also active in the city and provide a safe and fairly priced way of getting around.
Rickshaws, or three-wheelers as they are also known, are cheaper than taxis and are a great way to travel within the city; drivers weave in and out of buses so the experience can be exciting or frightening, depending on your own perspective!
Some rickshaws have meters whilst others do not; if you take one without ensure you agree on a firm price before getting in. Furthermore, prices will normally be more if you approach a parked driver; hail one passing by instead.
Meanwhile, a local train can get you to places such as Mt Lavinia, following the coast; services are frequent and cost roughly the same as bus fares. Check that your train stops at all stations though, or you might end up in Galle!
Getting to/from the Airport
The international airport is 30km north of the city, closer to the popular beach destination of Negombo than to Colombo. Taxi’s into the capital are quite expensive, costing around Rs 3000 – Rs 4000, depending on where you are heading within the city.
A much better, cheaper alternative is to take an airport bus that uses the expressway; buses travel between the airport and city centre around the clock, take about 45 minutes and cost Rs 150. In Colombo they leave from the Central Bus Station in Pettah, whilst at the airport they leave from the far left end of the terminal as you exit from arrivals.
Avoid the even cheaper, more local airport buses that do not actually enter the terminal itself and take the old Colombo – Negombo road instead of the expressway; these services can take two hours or more!
Colombo has three main bus stations, all east of Fort train station in Pettah; long-distance buses leave from Bastian Mawatha and Saunders Place whilst suburban buses leave from the Central Bus Station. There are frequent buses going in all directions to places all over the country.
Travelling by train is, however, a far more pleasant way to move around. Colombo Fort station is very central and offers services all over the island; prices are generally lower than buses, depending on the class you book.
We especially recommend taking the train to long-distance and hill country destinations; the trains in Sri Lanka are much more comfortable than the cramped local buses and offer stunning views out to the beautiful scenery through which you are travelling.
If you’re in Sri Lanka DO make the effort to see at least a little of the island’s buzzing capital! For those of you heading to Kandy next, check out our post: Top Sights in Kandy: The Cultural Heart of Sri Lanka!