If you are a regular reader of my blog, you would never have heard me being critical of any city. I’m easy to please – I am not fussy about the kind of places I like (although I do have my preferences). However, my recent visit to Colombo left me hugely disappointed! I had hardly a day to spend in the capital of Sri Lanka and I regretted having spared even that much time, it could have been better spent exploring another city instead. There really isn’t much this city can offer and most of the places I read about or saw pictures of on the internet were nothing like you’d expect! The city was dirty, ill-maintained, lacked any sort of vibe and has a dearth of things to keep one entertained. Here’s my guide on 10 things to do in Colombo, should you have some time to spend in the city. Given a choice, you may skip it altogether and better utilize your time exploring nearby areas.
1. Visit Seema Malaka Temple
This place tops the list of things to do in Colombo because It is probably the only place I liked in the city to visit during the daytime. This temple is in the middle of a lake, set against the backdrop of modern buildings (although most of the area around is still under construction). The place is quite small and doesn’t require more than 30 min to explore but you can get some interesting photos of the golden Buddha statues surrounding the main prayer hall. As with any other temple in Sri Lanka, make sure to cover your shoulders and knees before you enter the temple. The surrounding lake is not very clean, nor is the road outside the temple. But it is a peaceful place to spend some time. If you’re interested in Buddhism, you might want to also visit Gangarama Buddhist Temple, not as scenic in terms of location and architecture as Seema Malaka but has ancient relics stored and displayed. The entrance to both the temples (hardly 1km apart from each other) costs a mere Rs 300.
2. Buy a souvenir at Laksala
If you’re looking for Sri Lankan souvenirs, Laksala is the best place to visit. It is a government-owned shop and hence reasonably priced. It has branches in several cities of Sri Lanka but the one in Colombo is probably the largest and has the best collection of souvenirs you’ll find in Sri Lanka. Some popular things you’ll find here – keepsakes of elephants, the popular masks which they use in the cultural shows, assorted Ceylon tea, fragrances of cinnamon, jasmine and aloe vera, and clothes made of silk.
3. Learn about Sri Lanka’s history at Independence Square & National Museum
If you’re in the capital of Sri Lanka, you might want to learn a bit more about their history. The Independence Memorial Hall commemorates Sri Lanka’s independence from the British Rule in 1948. All the national events are celebrated at this place now and the architecture of this building incorporates symbols of the country’s rich history. I wasn’t very impressed with the building and since I am not much into museums either, I decided to skip the National Museum. However, if you’re a history enthusiast, you might want to drop in.
4. Pettah’s street market and floating market
I was looking forward to visiting this place after seeing the pictures but the moment I entered, I was heavily put off by the dirty river and the floating markets didn’t seem attractive at all! However, if you haven’t experienced one in other South-east Asian countries, you might want to give this one a shot. The floating markets serve local foods and fruits while you sail in a little boat, stopping to buy/ eat wherever you like. It’s an interesting experience overall, but the one in Colombo certainly isn’t one of the nicer ones I’ve been to. Alternatively, you may also explore the colourful street market in Pettah, one of the livelier areas of the city. I was not happy about buying any clothes from the market (although they were very colourful most of them had serious quality issues) but a walk here is certainly an interesting experience.
5. Walk in the Virahamahadevi Park
There isn’t much in this park except the Buddha statue at one end. It’s a peaceful place nevertheless so if you want to spend some quiet time away from the city, you might want to sit here and reminisce. There is a dirty little pond with some ducks swimming and a peddle boat in case you’re interested but not an attractive thing to do. In one corner, there are horses in an enclosed area, and some food stalls serving local street food. I wouldn’t recommend trying something here unless you’re very confident of your stomach being able to handle it. Don’t be surprised to see a lot of couples hiding between the branches or in corners, being intimate.
6. Relax in an infinity pool overlooking the Indian Ocean
Now, this is one of the best things to do in Colombo. Three of my favourite rooftop bars with infinity pools are – Cinnamon Red Colombo & Ozo Colombo. Unfortunately, the pools are restricted for use only by in-house guests, so you’d probably have to stay in one of the hotels to be able to enjoy a nice swim. Else, you can just visit the rooftop bars next to Ozo to enjoy great views, of both the pool and the sea. If you’re really looking for a swim in an infinity pool, you can walk in and pay Rs. 1000 for access to Jetwings Seven Hotel which offers views of the city, although it’s a bit far off from the ocean.
7. Watch the sun go down at Galle Face Green
Probably the only place that comes close to a beach in Colombo, the view here has also been spoiled by an upcoming Port City project for which the construction has begun. You have a view of the coast here but no way of swimming in the waters (not that the waters are inviting). The coast is lined with several hotels offering lounges and bars with outdoor seating and the public area has food stalls with local street food and other shopping items such as toys. I would recommend avoiding the public area and grab front seats to the sunset at the Sky Lounge (a rooftop outdoor lounge located in Kingsbury Hotel, at one of Galle Face. The construction right in front was a definite spoiler but the lounge does offer good views of the coast and Colombo skyline. The prices, however, are very steep (as most of the five-star hotel bars in the city).
8. Visit a rooftop lounge/ bar
Colombo is one of the very few cities in Sri Lanka where there is some semblance of nightlife and lounging culture. However, keep your expectations low as there really isn’t much of liveliness or vibe in the city. One of the nicer rooftop bars to go to is ON14, located in OZO Hotel, slightly far off from the city centre but a good place to enjoy some cocktails and snacks. If you’re short on time, this is the one experience I’d urge you to add to your list of things to do in Colombo, over and above everything else.
Note: Every full moon day is considered religious in Sri Lanka and is a public holiday. Also called ‘Poya Day’, many bars and lounges are shut on this day and those which are open (mostly the ones located in hotels) do not serve alcohol.
9. Relish authentic Sri Lankan cuisine
Sri Lanka is the land of spices and curries and you’ll find a lot of cinnamon and coconut flavoured foods. Although you will find a lot of street food on stalls, I wouldn’t recommend trying it, for the sake of your stomach’s health. Walk into one of the popular restaurants such as Ministry of Crab (located in the famous 400-year old Dutch hospital). Don’t be surprised to see a lot of newly married couples getting a photoshoot at the Dutch Hospital, it is one of the oldest buildings in the city and stands out in its fascinating architecture. If seafood is not your thing, you might walk to another one of the many restaurants located in the vicinity, offering a variety of cuisine such as Japanese, International, Italian, etc. For those looking to try the authentic Sri Lankan food, Palmyrah has a chic setting and great food – do not miss out on the Hoppers (a popular local dish) which can be found in different versions such as milk hopper, string hopper and egg hopper. Another one for local cuisine is Upali’s, located near the Virahamahadevi Park. Trying to local cuisine is my recommendation for one of the top things to do in Colombo.
10. Try your luck at a casino
Surprisingly, Colombo has a casino culture! This was not something I expected from the city (not that I’m much into gambling) but it was a pleasant surprise in a city that didn’t seem to have much of a happening vibe. Although not too many, the popular casinos such as Bally’s Casino and Casino Marina will change your perception of the crowd and vibe of Colombo. These casinos usually also provide free pick and drop from major hotels in the city so if you do want to visit one, don’t forget to ask them to get you a chauffeur driven car. Just like many bars and lounges, the casinos are also shut on Poya Day.
Once again, I wouldn’t recommend anyone to spend more than 24 hours in the city and the above list of things to do in Colombo can be checked within that time. Sri Lanka has so much more to see and do outside Colombo that given a choice, I’d recommend you skip the capital city altogether and explore areas like Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage (hardly 45-min drive from Colombo) or Kandy, Nuwara Eliya and Sigiriya.