Although travelers are often in a hurry to get farther afield, there are plenty of fun things to do in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s busy capital. Dutch and British colonial architecture, urban parks, ancient temples, and great food are among the many reasons to give Colombo a chance.
Colombo’s urban sprawl goes on in every direction; however, the city is carved into distinct neighborhoods—each with a name and number. International visitors end up spending most of their time in the action-packed neighborhoods of Fort (Colombo 1), Pettah (Colombo 11), and Cinnamon Gardens (Colombo 7).
Indoor attractions in Colombo may close for the many Buddhist holidays (usually on the full moon of each month) and other public holidays. Fortunately, many of the best things to do in Colombo are free and outdoors. Be patient: Parks, temples, and the beach become extra crowded on weekends and holidays.
Get Overwhelmed in Pettah
Strolling around aimlessly on a sunny day is the best way to get to know Colombo, and the best place to begin is Pettah.
Just east across the moat from the Fort neighborhood, Pettah is the busiest part of Colombo. Wandering around Pettah is an essential experience—although, expect to have senses completely overwhelmed. The busy streets and sidewalks stay jammed with pedestrians and tuk-tuks.
Pettah is home to a scattering of markets (including a floating market), the Old City Hall, a Dutch church dating to 1749, the Dutch Period Museum, and the Red Mosque.
While shuffling around Pettah, make time to stop by the Red Masjid (Red Mosque)—an iconic mosque constructed in 1909. You’ll know you’ve found it by the red-and-white, candy-cane pattern implemented in the design. Allegedly, sailors arriving by sea could recognize the landmark before any other, and know they were coming into Colombo.
The Red Masjid is squeezed onto busy 2nd Cross Street near the sea end.
Opened in 1877, the National Museum in Colombo houses royal regalia, crowns, and many artifacts pertaining to the history of ancient Sri Lanka. The white building itself is a beautiful example of colonial, Italian-style architecture.
The National Museum of Natural History is adjacent to the National Museum; you’ll spend more time inside the latter, but the Museum of Natural History is too convenient to skip.
Both museums are just across the street from Viharamahadevi Park; they are open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. A combo ticket for entrance to both is around $6.30.
Located on Beira Lake, Gangaramaya Temple houses scores of Buddha statues and rare relics. Although not well curated or organized, the temple also serves as a museum with a surprising array of items, including gold coins and unusual antiques. A small art gallery on site is a bonus.
The temple is very much still in use as a place of worship and learning. Dress appropriately and follow good temple etiquette when visiting.
Reflect by Beira Lake
Nearby Beira Lake is the perfect setting to contemplate all you saw inside Gangaramaya Temple. Seema Malaka, a peaceful place of meditation, is situated directly on the water. Local master architect Geoffrey Bawa redesigned the temple in 1976 after the first one sank.
The bodhi tree at Seema Malaka was grown from a branch of the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura, considered to be the oldest, human-planted tree (known planting date is 288 BC). It was started with a branch from the bodhi tree in Bihar, India, under which Gautama Buddha is said to have gained enlightenment.
Enjoy Sri Lankan Street Food
String hoppers, samosas, kottu roti, and curry are arguably the four most popular street-food snacks you’ll find in Colombo; but that’s just the tip of a delicious iceberg. All markets will have more than enough local specialties to try! You’ll find the most variety in one place around Pettah (especially near the train station) and along Galle Road. For seafood, wander the strip parallel to Mount Lavinia Beach and Galle Face Green.
Geoffrey Bawa was a celebrated Sri Lankan architect whose work influenced well-known architects throughout the world. Elements of his designs are especially prominent in Asia, where balancing modern and traditional values is considered important.
Geoffrey Bawa’s impressive house in the southern part of Colombo can be enjoyed on a 45-minute guided tour Monday through Friday at 10 a.m., 2 p.m., and 3:30 p.m.; Saturdays at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.; Sundays at 11 a.m.
Enjoy the Landscaping in Viharamahadevi Park
You’ll probably want a break after the busyness of Pettah, and Viharamahadevi Park is the answer. The urban park has a jogging/cycling trail, amphitheater, golden Buddha statue, and pleasant landscaping. Don't be alarmed by the giant fruit bats sleeping in the trees overhead: They are harmless!
Viharamahadevi Park is in Cinnamon Gardens, a 15-minute walk southeast from Beira Lake. The park is anchored by the Colombo Public Library on the southwest side and Colombo Town Hall on the northeast side.
Find Some Peace at Independence Memorial Hall
Independence Memorial Hall is an expansive, open-air structure that was finished in 1953 to commemorate Sri Lanka’s independence from British rule. You can stroll around the area or rent a bicycle and ride the length of Independence Walk. Aside from a few touts who approach tourists, the area is a peaceful, tree-lined respite in Colombo.
Independence Memorial Hall can be found just southeast of the National Museum and Viharamahadevi Park.
Go to Mount Lavinia Beach
Sri Lanka’s best beaches are located in the southern part of the island. But if time is short or you want to enjoy some seafood within sight of the water, Mount Lavinia Beach is a good option. It's only 30 minutes south of the city, and the Mount Lavinia Hotel allows non-guests to use the pool area for a small fee.
Any of the southbound buses plying the main A2 highway will drop you at Mount Lavinia Beach, or you can take the train to Mount Lavinia Station.
Admire and Shop for Local Art
If you’d like something creative from Sri Lanka to take home, you can find it at the Nelum Pokuna art “street,” a sidewalk art market near the well-designed Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksa performing arts theater. Local artists show off and peddle their work; some is original while many paintings are replicas.
See the art on display at the southern edge of Viharamahadevi Park, just opposite the National Museum of Natural History.
Watch a Sunset at Galle Face Green
If the weather is nice—as it often is outside of monsoon season—Galle Face Green is an ideal place for fresh air, sunsets, and street food. The seafront promenade stays busy with couples and local families who are often happy to chat. A long, spacious lawn is perfect for letting kids run or just lounging to watch locals fly kites.
Get to Galle Face Green on the coast directly south of the Fort neighborhood.
Shop in an Old Dutch Hospital
The Old Colombo Dutch Hospital is thought to have been around since 1681, making it one of the oldest buildings in town. The restored heritage building was converted into a shopping-and-eating district in 2011. Prices and products target tourists; however, the setting and history merit a walk through.
Find the hospital in the center of the Fort neighborhood.
Water World Lanka, located a 40-minute drive east of the Fort, is an indoor aquarium with more than 500 varieties of fish. Underwater tunnels, educational shows, and an outdoor bird park entertain guests seven days a week from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Although snorkeling or diving to see marine life without the glass would be even better, Water World Lanka is a great option for experiencing some of Sri Lanka’s rich biodiversity.
If the birds are the most exciting part for you, consider adding a trip to the Beddegana Wetland Park to enjoy many of Sri Lanka’s 500-plus bird species. Elevated boardwalks twisting through mangroves allow visitors to get up close for photos.
Marvel at an Ancient Temple
Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara (often shortened to Kelaniya Temple) is an ancient temple that dates back before 500 BC, and was destroyed but rebuilt in the early 1900s. The original stupa there allegedly contains a jewel-encrusted throne used by Buddha, who is also said to have visited the temple. Many walls and ceilings are intricately carved or painted with scenes from the life of Buddha.
Kelaniya Temple is located a 30-minute drive west of the Fort neighborhood.
Explore the Fort Neighborhood
The Fort neighborhood is home to Colombo’s financial district (including the Colombo Stock Exchange) and is the epicenter of Sri Lanka’s colonial past. Historic buildings from British and Dutch rule are squeezed into it, while the president’s house and various government buildings can be seen situated between the manicured gardens.
Fort is on the coast just south of Colombo Harbour.