The 11 best things to do in Colombo, Sri Lanka

It’s not all national parks and wildlife wonders. The capital city of Sri Lanka has much to offer travellers, too. Author and Sri Lankan native Ruby Lovell deep dives into Colombo’s best bits…

Insider Secrets
11 October 2021

1. Eat like a local in Colombo’s best restaraunts

A typical spread of delicious curry and rice dishes in Colombo, Sri Lanka (Shutterstock)

Sri Lanka is well known for its wonderful aromatic spices and delicious cuisine. Walk around Colombo and you’ll be struck by the aromas of coriander, cumin, cardamom and fennel seeds roasting and frying through small cafés and restaurants.

Kahabath do the best lunchbox traditional rice and curry meals made by a family in their home-style kitchen, while Yaal is a street food restaurant that does incredible crab curry in generous portions. Taste of Asia, on Bambalapitiya-Colombo 5, does outstanding rice and curry, too.

Upali’s is best known for its signature dishes. Try the Mutton Varuwal, Jaffna style fresh mutton cut into small pieces and sautéed in spices and served on a sizzling hot plate.

Chain Fab can be found all around Colombo, and has everything under one roof, from traditional rice and curry, cakes, pastries, tea, coffee, and other sweet treats.

2. Explore Colombo’s historic parks

Colombo’s Independence Park, Sri Lanka (Dreamstime)

Despite the hustle and bustle of this thriving and busy city, Colombo also has some superb green places to sit and relax. Vihara Maha Devi Park in particular has spectacular views across the city.

Independence Square Park is full of history. It houses Independence Memorial Hall, a grand concrete structure that was built to commemorate Sri Lanka’s independence from the Britain in 1948. The column and pillars are decorated with traditional Sri Lankan designs, with statues of lions placed around the building.

A statue of the first prime minister of Sri Lanka is located in front of the monument. Unbeknown to most visitors there is small museum of Sri Lankan heroes located in the monument’s basement (with small fee for entrance).

3. Find peace in Gangaramaya Temple

The Buddhist temple Gangaramaya in Colombo, Sri Lanka (Dreamstime)

Historically, Colombo has embraced colonial architecture in most of its grand buildings, including its prolific temples where local Buddhists and Hindus go to worship.

The temples mentioned here are the most famous in Colombo and worth a visit, open to all tourists and locals alike. Note that Buddhist temples require shoulders to be covered and legs to be covered.

Gangaramaya Temple, a Buddhist place of worship, is striking and is situated next to the Lake Beira, giving it a calm and serene ambience. The temple and shrine also have a library and a museum, which detail the temple’s history, and are worth exploring to learn about the capital’s history and Buddhism.

4. Try Colombo’s famous coconuts

A stunning shot of Galle Road, Colombo, where you can buy coconuts to make sambal (Dreamstime)

You can buy these coconuts all along the main road in Colombo, where market stalls are set up. Look out for them on the main Dehiwala Road and Galle Road.

A famous Sri Lankan recipe made with coconut is Coconut Sambal, a dish that can be eaten with roti or rice.

5. Discover Beira Lake and Kelani River

Beira Lake (Shutterstock)

Colombo is a mix of both land and water, and there are several beautiful water landmarks throughout the city. The Kelani River and the Beira Lake, Colombo’s most famous water landmarks, are wonderful to take an early evening stroll along, to feel the night breeze.

Beira Lake is often used for local entertainment, celebrations, fireworks displays and popular regattas. The Colombo Rowing Club (known to locals as the CRC) also has its clubhouse and boat house lakeside. In October of every year, the CRC host the famous inter-university boat race at Beira Lake.

6. Visit Pettah Floating Market

Pettah Floating Market on Beira Lake, Colombo, Sri Lanka (Dreamstime)

Colombo also has an explosion of beautiful vibrant colours, around markets and streets. One market to note in particular is Pettah Floating Market, also on Beira Lake.

There are up to 92 stalls here, selling a range of handmade crafts, local produce, and a range of gorgeous, sparkling fabrics for designers. Sri Lanka, after all, is known for its impressive tailoring.

7. Admire the ornate Sri Kaliawasanathar Swami Devasthanam Temple

Sri Kaliawasanathar Swami Devasthanam Temple in Colombo (Dreamstime)

One of the oldest and most ornate Hindu temples in the city, you’ll be awed by its tiered towers adorned with colourful miniature statues of Hindu Gods.

As each of the millions of Gods worshipped by Hindus is called upon by the worshipper for a specific reason, locals bring beautiful, fresh flower garlands to place on the God of their choice, as part of their individual prayer.

As such, it is customary to bring flowers with you when you visit, and to remove your slippers before you enter the temple.

8. Get arty in one of Colombo’s 10 galleries

Souvenir art painted on elephants, available in Sri Lanka (Shutterstock)

Art and creativity are embraced in Colombo and can be seen all around the city. Colombo boasts over 10 art galleries, including the unique and student-friendly JDA Perera Gallery and the Street Art Gallery, filled with hand-painted art depicting local scenes.

The National Art Gallery is free to enter and a joy to mill around, especially if you need to escape the heat and noise of the street for a moment. Here, you can find old classical paintings of Sri Lankan culture, such as the famous Kandyan dancers and drummers, as well as contemporary paintings by locals.

One of my favourite galleries in Colombo is Saskia Fernando Gallery. I was blown away by the Hindu Deity, Ganesha, made of rusted old car parts and standing as a prominent structure in the gallery. You can also see breathtaking Monet-esque flower paintings.

9. Take high tea by the sea

One of Sri Lanka’s famous tea plantations (Dreamstime)

Try high tea with lovely sea views at Mount Lavinia Hotel or Barefoot Garden Café, a calming oasis in the middle of a busy shopping district.

As a nation of big tea drinkers, you can find tea houses and cafes all over Colombo. Most hotels serve high tea at 4pm complete with sweet treats and mouth-watering savoury accompaniments.

Sri Lanka is one of the world’s biggest producers of tea. Ceylon tea (named for Sri Lanka’s former name, before it became a republic in 1972) is one of the main sources of foreign trade and income for the island. Tea plantations and tea estates are abundant in the centre of the island, especially in the city of Nuwara Eliya. Known as the ‘hill country’, you’ll see beautiful green carpet-like hills covered in tea and natural waterfalls.

10. Marvel at Koneswaram Temple’s architecture

A Hindu figure at the brightly-coloured Koneswaram Temple in Colombo, Sri Lanka (Dreamstime)

Known for its multicoloured structure, this is one of the most famous temples in Colombo.

Perched on a rock and is surrounded by the sea on either side, it was damaged and partially destroyed in the 17th century, but still stands in its glorious colours for all to see and explore.

11. Relax in a Sri Lankan spa

An example of a hot oil-based ayurvedic treatment (Shutterstock)

Sri Lanka grows and produces many spices and natural plants that are also used for ayurvedic and medicinal purposes, promoting good health.

Visit an ayurvedic centre for a detoxing herbal tea and an indulgent massage with your chosen oils to relax your body and mind and relieve the pains and aches. Numerous treatments and plant extracts can be tailor made to suit your needs.

Try Mangalapathy Ayurvedic clinic, Ayurveda Medical Centre or Siddhalepa Ayurvedic Spa for your wellness fix.

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