Colombo is a dizzying hub of streets on streets on streets. Sometimes it can be just as difficult trying to find your way around Colombo as it is finding where to stay in Colombo. But just as there are some great and convenient options for stays in Colombo, such as the centrally located Colombo City Hotel, there’s also a method to the madness in the city. Once you read this quick primer, you’ll realize that navigating around is quite easy.
To begin with, the Colombo metropolitan area is divided into 15 different areas or neighborhoods and numbered accordingly, from Colombo 1 thru Colombo 15. Of them the four below tend to be the main tourist attractions:
Colombo 7, also known as Cinnamon Gardens, is Colombo’s most high-end neighborhood filled with a plethora of boutique hotels and fashionable eateries. It’s also where Colombo’s Independence Arcade and Square are found.
Colombo 2, encompassing Park Street and Slave Island is home to an increasingly popular nightlife scene with new after-hours bars and clubs opening up shop constantly. It’s also where the famous Park Street Mews is located.
Colombo 5, enveloping Thimbirgasyaya and Havelock, has recently burgeoned into a well-developed residential and commercial district with a solid variety of cafes, shops and long-term stay hotels where many expats choose to settle down in.
Finally is Colombo 4, also known as Bambalapitiya, spanning much of Galle Road and Marine Drive and home to the famed Barefoot Cafe. It also is home to quite a number of bars and pubs dotted as they are along the Galle Road and thus is quite the popular district.
For a completely different yet no less vital side of Colombo, Pettah, or Colombo 11, is a must-visit. Pettah is Colombo’s bustling, crowded street bazaar with quite a number of cross streets and named streets dedicated to very specific goods. Even if you’re not aiming to buy anything from the local vendors here, a visit alone is necessary to get a wonderful look at the bustling heart of the city.
Let’s go down with a quick breakdown of the different streets in Pettah market and what you’ll find on there:
1st Cross Street: an eclectic mix of bags, electronics and electronic spare parts with the odd shoe vendor in the mix.
2nd Cross Street: Clothes and Cloth, from material for your own sari to a classic Sri Lankan cheeththa cloth. Also present are various cosmetics hawkers.
3rd Cross Street: More textiles on this, the shortest cross street in Pettah.
4th and 5th Cross Streets: a variety of wholesale merchants dealing in very inexpensive yet good quality produce with odd fruit and fruit juice vendors.
The named streets that cut across the above cross streets also have their specialties:
Maliban Street is famed for being wedding card central, along with all kinds of craft paper and craft supplies. China Street is filled with home decor, ornaments and decorative glassware while Bankshall street is home to a smorgasbord of artificial flowers and chemicals. Main street is where the bigger clothing showrooms are at along with accessory shops as well as shops selling sequins and the like.
Pettah is as noisy a market as you can imagine but surrounded as it is by centuries old building and a faithful community of tradesmen, vendors and buyers, it is a space and community unlike any other in Colombo or even the whole of Sri Lanka and thus, absolutely deserving of a walkabout, if only to absorb the colors, the noise and the frenzy of the locals going about their day. There’s no better place in Colombo to experience the local flavour.
Colombo often got the short end of the stick as a tourist destination in Sri Lanka. It used to be a crowded, congested city of industry and business but as of recently, with new revitalization efforts, a world-class shopping experience, and a renewed focus on history, culture and art within the city, Colombo is an absolute must on your Sri Lankan itinerary.
It’s a city teeming with life and activity so book a city hotel in Colombo to cut down on travel time from the various places you’re going to visit and take a tour through Colombo’s finest.
We’ll start with the most obvious reason you should visit Colombo: it’s a world-class shopping destination with shockingly affordable prices.
Each year, there’s quite a healthy influx of visitors, tourists and travellers, from the Middle-East and beyond, that make the trip to Colombo’s many shopping options to stock up on the best international brands, at a price that fits them.
Start with Crescat Boulevard, the iconic shopping mall near the Galle Face green. It’s got an eclectic collection of luxury Sri Lankan clothing and accessories brands, along with some fabulous boutiques for gifts and souvenirs.
Odel, the next shopping destination, has been a mainstay on Colombo’s high-end shopping mall lists since the early 2000s and with good reason. There’s a classy collection of upscale clothing boutiques and stores nestled in this mall, along with many smaller stores with premium quality gifts and accessories that you won’t find in many other places.
Finally, the newest addition to Colombo’s shopping landscape is the huge mall at One Galle Face, attached to its own luxury apartment complex and living community. Here you’ll find a large variety of international fashion houses rubbing shoulders with Sri Lankan brands of similar make and price. Expect to spend a few hours in this dizzying complex and leave armed with new wardrobes, home goods, gifts, accessories and even get some quality pampering at a few of the spas inside. The perfect shopping experience to sate your palate.
Nowhere else in Sri Lanka will you find as cosmopolitan and eclectic a mix of premier cuisine as in Colombo. Gastronomic delights abound in Colombo for there’s no shortage of delectable restaurants, serving you both the finest of Sri Lankan food and the best of world-class international cuisine.
Ministry of Crab is an obvious choice for any lover of high-quality seafood fused with Sri Lankan flavors. Crab comes in all sizes there, even a massive 2 kilogram one if you’re up for it, and their commitment to only using the freshest of the daily catch and best of ingredients will impress you.
Likewise, Nihonbashi is a beautiful culinary dream. Named the 38th best restaurant in Asia by San Pellegrino, and run by the same chef behind Ministry of Crab, Nihonbashi gets everything right about the simple yet immensely elegant Japanese cuisine, from sushi and sashimi to more hearty offerings of hotpots and charcoal grilled savourings.
If Italian food is more your fare then Giovanni’s is your best bet. Smack in the middle of Colombo 5, Giovanni’s a delightfully quaint restaurant serving nothing but the most authentic, woodfired pizza and indulgent pasta dishes. It’s your own slice of Italy right here in the heart of Colombo with an unbeatable atmosphere and the freshest of ingredients and food.
Increasingly, as of late, Colombo has been at the center of a dizzying spotlight on history and culture, with sites and things to do popping up around the city. There’s a wide variety of interesting experiences, from old standards of history to new explosions of art.
A visit to the National Museum is essential. It’s colonial architecture is one of the best preserved throughout the country and its historical collections date back to Sri Lanka’s ancient royal families and heirlooms. A better introduction to Sri Lanka’s history you cannot ask for.
There’s more colonial architecture at the Old Dutch Hospital in Colombo 01. Formerly, as its name suggests, a hospital for Dutch Military built in the 17th century, it now houses a charming collection of cafes and small boutiques that form quite the popular hang-out spot for tourists and locals alike.
Similarly, the Arcade Independence Square is a new shopping complex housed in a collection of 19th Century British-built buildings, faithfully preserved and renovated. The area around the complex is a popular promenade for Colombo residents and visitors alike and attracts quite an eclectic crowd everyday.
Situated right in the heart of Colombo’s classy Cinnamon Gardens neighborhood, the Saskia Fernando Gallery is a cool and modern art gallery filled routinely with exhibitions from Sri Lanka’s newest and most contemporary artists. There are new artists highlighted almost every month of the year and the gallery frequently holds international collaborations with similar institutions from Dubai, Singapore, London and Los Angeles. Drop by for a peek into Sri Lanka’s every-maturing contemporary and multidisciplinary art scene and take your fill of an oft-overlooked experience.
Then, make your way over to Colombo 04 where the new Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art is located. Opened just this past year in 2019, the MMCA houses unique exhibitions of 20th and 21st Century Sri Lankan art and holds many curatorial discussions and education programmes that help reveal the social, cultural and sometimes political contexts that the art pieces were created in.
The MMCA is also family-friendly with many programs for kids on their calendar.
Designed to be freely accessible to the public, it’s truly a modern Museum and art space that’s sure to both entertain and illuminate, and perhaps even make you ask questions you never thought you’d ask on a holiday to Sri Lanka.
For a more intimate, yet no less rich, experience the Barefoot Gallery is an exquisite art space and gallery with an attached gift boutique, café and handcrafts shop that’s sure to take your fancy. Here too are displays and exhibits by a diverse group of ever-changing artists and creators.
As a tropical Island right on the equator, Sri Lanka is known as a genuine year-round destination.
But that doesn’t really mean you should travel to Sri Lanka on a whim too. Because Sri Lanka also has its fair share of upsetting weather and seasonal attractions so if you’re looking for a helpful primer on when best to visit Sri Lanka and what things to do in Sri Lanka based on the season, you’ve come to the right place.
Sri Lanka is a dual weather Island meaning that pretty much all of Sri Lanka’s weather patterns are dependent on two big monsoons that sweep through Sri Lanka each year.
But don’t worry, because the two monsoons blow past in opposite directions, and never overlap, you can be sure of fair weather on either side of the Island at any given time.
Once you understand the two big monsoons, you’re pretty much done with figuring out Sri Lanka’s tropical weather.
The Southwest monsoon brings rain to the west and southwest coast and the central Hill country from April or May to September, but is generally wettest from April to June. Thus, in the west and southwest coasts, the dry season runs from December to March.
The other monsoon, the Northeast monsoon brings wind and rain to the eastern and northeastern coastal regions, with rain showers also in the central Hill country, from November to March, with the wettest months being November and December. The dry season, thus, in this region is from May to September.
There is also an inter-monsoonal period, right before the Northeast monsoon hits, where rain and thunderstorms can hit anywhere across the island but it usually clears up in the second half of November.
It’s a trick question, really, because the answer depends on where you want to go, where you’re staying and what things you want to do in Sri Lanka.
Because the monsoon seasons alternate, with half the Island in a wet season and the other half enjoying a dry season at any given time of the year, when you should visit Sri Lanka really truly depends on your itinerary.
So how do you decide?
Here’s a quick guide:
Visiting Sri Lanka for the European Winter (December – February)
December to February is smack dab in the middle of the Northeast monsoon so if you’re planning a trip to Sri Lanka around these months for your winter, you should make a beeline for the western and southwest coastal regions.
Colombo is a great place to serve as the hub for your trip and once you decide on where to stay in Colombo, destination beaches in the western coast such as Bentota, Kalpitiya and Hikkaduwa are a short train journey away.
In the south western coasts, fair weather is pretty much the order of the day too and beaches such as Mirissa, Tangalle and Weligama are all pretty popular at this time. Make sure to hit Galle, in the south, for a historical escape and you can even make it to Yala National Park, one of Sri Lanka’s largest nature reserves teeming with leopards and elephants for your viewing pleasure.
Visiting Sri Lanka for the European Summer (June – August)
Since the Southwest monsoon is in full swing by the time your summer rolls around, this is the perfect time to hit the north, north eastern and eastern regions of Sri Lanka.
The Jaffna peninsula and Jaffna city is an excellent outdoor location during these times, with its bustling and colorful atmosphere. So are the east coast beaches, namely, Passikudah, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Nilaveli and Arugam Bay, the latter being famous for its world class surfing waves.
This is also a great time to visit Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle, home to five of Sri Lanka’s seven UNESCO world heritage sites. Because this region is in the ‘dry zone’ only December and November bring rain here and it is quite arid and dry the remainder of the year. This is also quite close to Minneriya National Park where you can watch the annual elephant migration.
Since both monsoons influence the weather in the Central region, there’s not a dedicated dry season here but the high altitude and the surrounding hills mean that the climate in the Hill country is quite balmy and mild most days.
Kandy, the Hill country’s cultural capital, enjoys lower rainfall than elsewhere and the December-May period also marks the pilgrimage season for Adam’s Peak, a must-do for any trekker and hiker.
Colombo is Sri Lanka’s commercial hub; a hustling and bustling city that thrives at all hours of the day. Though there’s much to do and see in Colombo, if you have just an afternoon to spend in the city, or a few hours to spare on your way to another part of the island, here are a few things you can do to make those spare hours perfect…!
If you’re in Colombo for a mere few hours, and don’t want to spend it shopping or sight seeing, but relaxing and breathing in the Colombo air, then there’s no better place to be than at Galle face green! Without a doubt, it’s still a pretty popular place with the locals, so it can get a little crowded on holidays; especially around sunset. But if you avoid those times, and take with you a blanket to spread on the sand, you’ve got yourself a lovely afternoon plan. Be sure to snack on the famed “isso wade” the area is popular for. If you prefer a sturdier lunch/dinner than what the street vendors and hawkers can provide, you’ll be happy to know that there are plenty of malls with food courts in the surrounding area for you to try out.
The Independence memorial hall was built in 1948, to commemorate Sri Lanka’s independence. Ideal for a quick spot, the independence square is most enjoyed by the locals for evening walks and jogging, while it’s also known to be one of the best spots in Colombo for relaxing. The sprawling lawn invites you to a lazy conversation, while the arcade next door gives you the opportunity for a quick spot of shopping. The memorial hall itself is quite cool and breezy, even in hot afternoons; making it the perfect place to get away from the heat if you’re in the area.
Aged around 150 years, the Gangaramaya Temple is one of Colombo’s most famous temples. This fame is largely due to the serenity the temple emanates, even while at the heart of the commercial city. The temple is also the perfect spot to see the impact of modern architecture on a holy place, as its architecture is comparatively new from the other famed temples of the island. As it’s built in close proximity to the Beira Lake, you could also use this trip as an opportunity to spend a few relaxing moments by the lake after your visit the temple. The temple also hosts a museum of its own, so allocate a little extra time to get lost among the artifacts! If you’re staying at the City hotel in Colombo, visiting the Gangaramaya temple is super easy, as it’s located only 0.6km from the temple.
Standing 95ft tall, and located at the Galbokka point of the Port of Colombo, this lighthouse was built in 1952. As the lighthouse is maintained and operated by the Sri Lanka navel authority, access to the inner parts of the lighthouse has been restricted in the past few decades due to security reasons. However, you can still visit the premises. The seaward side of the lighthouse is painted a checkered black and whit pattern, while the land-facing side is a pleasant brick color¾giving it a majestic look. The four lions at the base of the tower adds to the glory of the lighthouse, while the naval gun battery also present is used by the Sri Lankan Navy for its traditional gun salutes.
Formerly known as the Victoria park, and located right across the colonial-era town hall of Colombo city, this park is much loved by the locals. Though built by the British colonial administration, the park has been renovated several times, and is currently the largest park in the island. The park hosts many special events, and is known for the occasional food festivals. The old, towering trees that provide shade for the park are well maintained, as are the other greenery. As this is a popular spot for local families, it’s the ideal place to visit if you like “people watching”.
Whether it’s for walking or the weekly good market, Diyatha Uyana is another much loved spot by the locals. The tranquil area, and the safe walking path attracts many health fans in the evenings, while the small circle aquarium (run by different private fish stores) draws the young ones. Open 24 hours, Diyatha Uyana also boasts of a small food court; ideal for grabbing a quick bite after a brisk walk. The weekly market has everything from flowers to books and home grown vegetables, and makes a lovely morning activity. Once again, this is a great spot to “people watch” or mingle with the locals.
One of the most underrated spots in Colombo, Baddegana Wetland Park is a short distance away from the heart of Rajagiriya and is an absolute must visit if you are a fan of nature. It’s especially great for lovers of birds, as there are hundreds of different varieties that you can catch a glimpse of. Tickets are priced at rs1000 for foreigners, and it’s quite worth it as the park features a few different trails and will last a couple of hours if you take your time to appreciate what you’re seeing. The first trail is the Butterfly walk, which admittedly does not feature a host of butterflies at first glance, however there are butterflies that you can spot throughout the whole park and the signs on this walk will give you a guide as to which species you are seeing. The next trail is the Duck Pond, and this is the highlight of the park. One route takes you down a plank walkway that sits right on top of the water and winds its way through vines that reach up on both sides from the water. Among the lily pads you will see ducks as well as a variety of other birds. There is a gazebo to rest in, and you can gaze across the water, taking in the peaceful sight. Onwards is a trail to see Diyawanna Oya from two sides: one trail makes its way right beside the lake whereas the other is a denser and cool walk that will take you to a floating deck. Coming back from these trails is another wooden walkway that will take you across the duck pond, leading to a three storey wooden hut that gives you a panoramic view of the park. Overall, the park is very beautiful and quiet, a perfect haven of nature and rest in the heart of the busy city.
Built on the shores of Diyawanna Oya, Diyatha Uyana is a great park to travel to if you’re staying in Colombo at The Steuart by Citrus. The park has an aquarium in the middle of it, and features plant sales and other sales on various days of the week. It’s great for parents and kids, and you can even take a boat ride of the lake nearby. There are a number of great places for lunch nearby, such as the Water’s Edge bakery which has stellar short eats and sweets. The spot has become a beloved park ever since it was built. There are walking paths which make for refreshing evening strolls, and are great trails to jog on. A food court set inside the park features eats ranging from fast food to healthy Sri Lankan food. There are also fruit juices and other beverages. Come here during one of the sales to pick up some great Sri Lankan goods, from baskets to fresh fruits to clothes and accessories.
Close to Diyatha Uyana is the famous Jagro, the best place in Colombo to get delectable, fresh strawberries from. The café serves strawberries in a variety of ways. If you are a purist you can choose to get a simple bowl of strawberries, and top it with sugar or nougat. You can also opt for a side of ice-cream, and the options get more elaborate from then on. They offer strawberry tarts, strawberries on waffles with whipped cream and chocolate sauce, and strawberries on cheesecake. The atmosphere is cosy, and the smell of fresh waffles being cooked wafts throughout the café. This is a must place visit is you’re a fan of strawberries, and you can even get your hands on some jam for later!
Rocco’s is a famous Italian restaurant that is beloved by those who live in Rajagiriya. Famous for their pizza, the restaurant does a variety of dishes ranging from appetisers, sides, salads, pastas, risottos and of course desserts. The unique décor of the place is one of the draws besides the delicious food, as the place is decked out to look like an authentic Italian restaurant, with an underground vibe. Posters of classic movies line the walls, and the low lit atmosphere makes for a cosy seating experience. The wood fire pizzas are the main draw, however, and they have amazing options of both meat and vegetarian. Drop by for dinner with a large group for a fun time, or with a small group or even by yourself to truly enjoy the ambience of the place.