Colombo is a city most visitors spend time when visiting Sri Lanka and that’s because there are plenty of things to do in Colombo. The swanky homes of Cinnamon Gardens and the Town Hall resembling the White House in Washington are hard to miss when careening around Colombo city in a tuk-tuk. Many of the city’s secrets and surprises are hidden behind walled courtyards and held by the locals themselves.
Breaking the ice is easy at the mere mention of the favourite national past-time of cricket and that’s why Colombo is one of the friendliest places to visit in Sri Lanka. The vibrant capital city of Sri Lanka is in the Western part of the country.
- How Colombo Got Its Name
- Getting Around Colombo
- 25 Things To Do In Colombo
- 1- Step back into history at the Fort Area
- 2- Go Cricket Crazy in Colombo City
- 3- Visit the Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple
- 4- Meditate at Seema Malaka
- 5- Explore A Kovil
- 6- Visit the Pettah District
- 7- Watch the sunset over the Indian Ocean
- 8- Relax at Galle Face Green
- 9- Discover Sri Lankan cuisine
- 10- Join A Cooking Class
- 11- Go on a shopping spree
- 12- Relax in Viharamahadevi Park
- 13- Explore the Bellanwila Attidiya Bird Sanctuary
- 14- Visit Colombo’s National Museum
- 15- Nelum Pokuna Theatre
- 16- Visit the Puppet Art Museum
- 17- Admire modern art at the Lionel Wendt Art Centre
- 18- Take a day trip to Mt Lavinia
- 19- Explore Independence Memorial Hall
- 20- Visit The National Art Gallery
- 21- Admire The Architecture of Geoffrey Bawa House
- 22- Go On A Tea Tasting Tour
- 23- Visit Dehiwala Zoo
- 25- Try A Ceylonese Spa Treatment
- More Sri Lanka Information
How Colombo Got Its Name
As the centre of international trade routes between Asia and Europe, Colombo was exposed to many different cultures.
Sri Lanka was part of several European colonies, including the British, Dutch and Portuguese.
You can see Sri Lanka’s unique multicultural history reflected in the architecture and cuisine in Colombo.
Many theories exist as to the origin of the name, including one that says it was named for its shape, as Colombo means green mango in Sinhalese.
Another theory is that it is a Portuguese name as you’ll also find other cities called Colombo in Brazil and Portugal.
Because Colombo was historically the capital city of the country, it is also more multicultural than other big cities in Sri Lanka like Kandy.
Today, Colombo is home to over five million people and several communities including, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Muslims.
Getting Around Colombo
Colombo is divided into 13 different zones, each with a purpose and numbered from Colombo 1 to Colombo 13.
Some zones are industrial and corporate while others are cultural and historical.
If you’re planning to visit Colombo, start by exploring Colombo 7 where most of the prominent historical and architectural landmarks are.
It’s a good spot for photography as well as being a tourist hotspot with plenty of cafes, bars, cricket stadiums and a shopping centre.
Here are some things to do in Colombo you’re sure to love but if you’re already sold on a Sri Lanka vacation, get straight to planning your trip with our Sri Lanka Itinerary (10 Days).
25 Things To Do In Colombo
1- Step back into history at the Fort Area
In downtown Colombo 1, take a walk around the Fort Area and discover the monuments and buildings that were a legacy of the Dutch and British colonists.
When Colombo became the capital of Ceylon in 1815, during the British rule, the area was a fort that served the purpose of defending the city.
These days, the Fort area of Colombo is home to government buildings and a list of impressive colonial architecture such as the Old Dutch Hospital, the 1908 Lloyd´s Buildings owned by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka and St Peter’s Church (1821).
Cargills Main Store is a famous red building that dates back to 1906.
2- Go Cricket Crazy in Colombo City
Don Bradman from Ricky Ponting fans will want to pop into the Cricket Club Café.
True enthusiasts will have already booked their tickets in advance to watch a cricket match at the R. Premadasa Stadium.
3- Visit the Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple
The Gangaramaya (Vihara) Buddhist Temple complex has a library, museum, amazing decorations and a resident elephant.
If you only have time for one temple, Gangaramaya is the one to visit.
One of the unique aspects of Gangarama is its architecture, which is a fusion of Sri Lankan, Chinese, Thai and Indian design.
4- Meditate at Seema Malaka
Another Buddhist temple to visit is Seema Malaka, which is a perfect place to meditate and a lovely place in Colombo to take photos.
Designed in the 1970s by architect Geoffrey Bawa and sunk into Beira Lake, is a serene retreat from the chaotic metropolis.
5- Explore A Kovil
Colombo has a significant Hindu Tamil population and you can see this reflected in the number of beautiful Hindu temples (kovils) in the city.
Head to Sea Street for Hindu temples New and Old Kathiresan Kovil dedicated to the war god and the starting point for the annual Hindu Vel festival held in July and August.
Shri Ponnambalawaneswaram Kovil is a lovely kovil with intricate carvings and shrines.
Sri Kailawasanathan Swami Devasthanam Kovil is a fascinating temple in Colombo dedicated to Shiva and Ganesh.
Located near the Pettah floating market, this kovil is one of the most prominent and oldest in Colombo.
As with any kovil, you will be greeted at the entrance of a very colourful tower of sculptures depicting deities.
6- Visit the Pettah District
While in the Pettah district visit the candy-striped red and white brickwork of the Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque built in 1909 and the restored Wolvendal Church which is paved with the tombstones of those buried beneath.
Market-goers may never return from the labyrinth of the Pettah Bazaar where each thoroughfare has its own speciality.
Shop for jewellery, Ayurvedic medicines, antiques or anything fantastical.
7- Watch the sunset over the Indian Ocean
As the sun slips into the Indian Ocean, sip gin and tonics at the Galle Face Hotel’s Verandah Bar.
Few resist the urge at becoming temporary wedding photographers for posing wedding parties in the grounds on any day of the week.
You might be lucky enough to have an encounter with K. Chattu Kuttan, who at over 90 years of age is the oldest employee in the world, and surely has many a story to tell from his 70 years of employment with the hotel.
8- Relax at Galle Face Green
Then head next door to the Galle Face Green which was originally laid out in 1859 for horse racing and now it heaves at sunset with picnics, gossip, kite flying, canoodling lovers and kids running amok.
Sample street food on the Galle Face Green and or try the street food specialty Kottu Roti (chopped up roti with vegetables, meat and sauce) at any time of the day or night at the Hotel De Pilawoose (422/3 Galle Rd btw 6th Lane & Alfred Pl, Western Province).
9- Discover Sri Lankan cuisine
Sri Lankan curries use a broader range of spices and are faster to cook than Indian curries.
The national dish of rice and curry is a tempting dish available at most restaurants.
Some suggestions are the Paradise Road Galleries, Gallery Café and the Green Cabin, for authentic local cuisine, while The Curry Leaf is a popular place to eat upscale Sri Lankan cuisine.
If you love your coffee as much as your curry there are plenty of excellent coffee shops in Colombo too.
10- Join A Cooking Class
If you want to learn how to make a few local dishes, Colombo is a great place to learn as it has a fusion of different cultures.
Aunty’s Sri Lankan Cooking Class is a great place to start to learn how to make traditional Sri Lankan rice and curry dishes and local condiments like coconut chutney.
Other local dishes to try making are hoppers, string hoppers and pappadams.
11- Go on a shopping spree
One of the most atmospheric shopping and eating areas is the Dutch colonial era former Dutch Hospital, which is now a vibrant precinct.
Barefoot has a maze of handcrafted homewares, a bohemian café and a bookshop crammed with international and local titles like author Ashok Ferrey’s exquisite Serendipity.
Paradise Road has stores and emporiums that sell chic decorations for the home and ODEL’s department store is the best general place to go shopping in Colombo.
Art lovers will enjoy hunting for beautiful items from around the world found at Gandhara Crafts and Artifacts.
Another place to go shopping is the National Gem and Jewellery Authority, for precious and semi-precious gems such as blue sapphires, red rubies and amethysts.
12- Relax in Viharamahadevi Park
One of the things to do in Colombo when you need some space is to visit Viharamahadevi Park.
The park is a pretty picture of flowering trees, water channels, fountains and the odd working elephant feasting on palm branches.
The public park is next to the National Museum and is a serene spot to escape from the traffic and crowds.
13- Explore the Bellanwila Attidiya Bird Sanctuary
The Bellanwila Attidiya Bird Sanctuary is a marshland abundant with birdlife like whistling ducks, green herons and raptors like the brahminy kite.
It’s not far from Colombo and can be visited as a day trip.
Besides migratory and endemic waterbirds, it’s also an excellent place near Colombo to watch butterflies.
Further afield about an hour south and sure to enchant is Kosgoda Sea Turtle Conservation Project.
14- Visit Colombo’s National Museum
Colombo’s National Museum is the custodian of Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage and home to 4000 archaic palm leaf manuscripts.
Look for swords wielded by Sri Lankan kings, demon masks and regalia of Kandyan Kings from the 17th century.
Built by the British in 1876, the museum is in a stately building among lovely gardens and parkland.
15- Nelum Pokuna Theatre
Not far from the National Museum, the Nelum Pokuna is a unique piece of architecture built in recent years.
This cultural and arts theatre in Colombo was built under the previous president Mahinda Rajapaksa and is designed to resemble an open lotus flower.
Its especially eye-catching at night, when bright colourful neon lights emphasize its lotus design.
16- Visit the Puppet Art Museum
Just a few kilometres from the city discover the lost art of mask making at the Puppet Art Museum.
In Colombo, Puppetry was once used to pass on folklore from generation to generation to drive away illnesses and scare off demons.
Shows are put on once a month at the museum by villagers and are fascinating to watch as well as a great way to learn more about Sri Lankan culture.
17- Admire modern art at the Lionel Wendt Art Centre
The Sapumal Foundation laid the groundwork for modern art in Sri Lanka and houses over 1000 items from the 1920s to the present.
Theatre and art buffs flock to the Lionel Wendt Art Centre for art and photography exhibits and live performances.
Born in Colombo, Lionel Wendt was a barrister, concert pianist and photographer who was highly respected for his contribution to the arts in Colombo.
18- Take a day trip to Mt Lavinia
12 km south of Colombo city, check into the Mt Lavinia hotel for the romance of a long-gone era.
Built in 1805, the hotel was the former residence of the governor and has a pool perched on jagged cliffs, which is a lovely spot to watch the sunset.
Dine at Seafood Cove on fresh fish, crabs and oysters caught by local fishermen, go on an elephant ride or a boat trip on Bolgoda Lake.
Sri Lanka’s South Coast is a two to four-hour drive from Colombo and a stunningly beautiful coastline to explore with smaller towns and quiet bays.
19- Explore Independence Memorial Hall
Independence Memorial Hall is one of the more prominent monuments in the Colombo 7 area.
It was first built to commemorate the independence of Sri Lanka from British rule on 4 February 1948 and most independence day celebrations are held there.
There is also an Independence Memorial Museum where you can learn more about Sri Lanka’s independence and how the monument’s construction.
In front of the Independence Memorial Hall is a statue of D.S Senanayake, known as the founding father of Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka’s first Prime Minister to take the reign after the end of the British rule.
20- Visit The National Art Gallery
Also in Colombo 7 is the country’s first national art gallery, which is a great place to admire local art.
Sri Lankan art is quite distinctive compared to other South Asian countries, with strong Buddhist influences and themes that revolve around contemporary life and the colonial era.
Red, orange and yellow are predominant colours used in Sri Lankan art.
The gallery has both a temporary and permanent collection featuring local artists.
21- Admire The Architecture of Geoffrey Bawa House
If you’re into architecture or interior design, Geoffrey Bawa House is a place you must see in Colombo.
Geoffrey Bawa is the most renowned architect in the country and has designed numerous landmarks in Sri Lanka such as Seema Malaka, Blue Water Hotel and the Sri Lankan Parliament Building.
Geoffrey Bawa house is the house he used to live in and you can take a tour inside to admire its unique architectural elements.
22- Go On A Tea Tasting Tour
Your trip to Sri Lanka isn’t complete without learning about Ceylon tea.
At The Colombo Tea & Herb tour, you’ll get an A to Z guided tour on tea manufacturing and packaging.
You’ll get to try the plethora of different tea flavours, participate in a blind tea tasting contest and have high tea with delicious cakes and confectionery.
Make your own little tea blend to take home as a souvenir.
23- Visit Dehiwala Zoo
Home to over 2500 animals and 350 species, Dehiwala Zoo is the largest zoo in the Colombo district.
Located near Mt Lavinia, it is also one of the oldest zoos in Asia (founded in 1920).
See Sri Lankan animals like Asian Elephants and jaguars (the zoo is home to a rare black jaguar called Leyar).
25- Try A Ceylonese Spa Treatment
Want to destress after a long day? Try some ayurvedic (Indian medicine) spa treatments, Royal Kandyan treatments, Ceylonese Foot treatments or a soothing facial.
Spa Ceylon is a popular spa which has a selection of ayurvedic spa products prepared with herbs.
More Sri Lanka Information
How to get to Sri Lanka?
Bandaranaike International Airport is 30km north of Colombo city with flights via India, Malaysia, Bangkok, Singapore, Qatar and Europe.
Where else to visit in Sri Lanka?
When to go to Sri Lanka?
It’s humid year round but more so during the monsoon seasons May to August in the southern half and October to January in the north. The weather is more pleasant outside of the monsoon season.
Where to stay in Colombo?
Colombo has a good choice of hotels and resorts to suit most budgets.
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Text by Christina Pfeiffer and Carmen Jenner.