Colombo is the capital of Sri Lanka, and this is where most travelers come to visit. It's a culture shock, everything moves quicky, it is loud, it is difficult to locate, the city is huge. The town is 30 kilometers from the airport, and there is a free bus to the central bus station. But then the natives see your face and they try to offer tourist buses, taxis, guide services, hotels , etc. The city has a nice colonial center, but with the new civil war, it was dubbed a "high security zone" and difficult to reach. Other than that, to have a quiet arrival, I recommend that you spend the 1st night on the beach of Negombo, 10 km from the airport. Colombo is used as a transit point for bus or train to the beaches of the South and Kandy. The city has nice neighborhoods that are to the east and are named cinnamon gardens.
I travelled from Colombo to Galle by train. It is good when the train leaves on time, because the journey by bus is not enjoyable. There is no first class option, but the second class is fine and there are fans, and long windows, and also comfortable leather armchairs. I do not remember how much the ticket cost, but I think it was something like 1.50 euros for four hours by train! There are 100 miles or so, but it takes less time than the bus does, the two modes of transport are equally slow. In Galle station there are many false guides ve try to take you in his tuk tuk to a hotel (where they charge commission). The train ride is very nice, because the tracks run alongside the sea. You can see the beaches of Lavinia, Kalutara, Ambalangoda, they are beautiful, between October and April. During summer, you should go to Mirissa to Matara, or Arugam Bay.
The photos are from low season, when tropical storms and a cloudy sky are what you see. But in high season, which is our winter, Mount Lavina is a fantastic village, near Colombo. It is south of the city, and it is where many visiors who work or volunteer in Colombo come to spend the weekend. While the big hotel that overlooks the beach is very posh, there are lots of small bungalows and pensions . The beach goes beyond the village, with coconut trees and golden sand. The city was the residence of the Governor of Ceylon, during the British colonial era. It's where they recorded some shots of the Bridge over the River Kwai. From Colombo, the train takes less than 1 hour, but it doesn´t come on time, it is best to take a bus or to travel with private transportation.
The Seema Malaka Temple is a beautiful Buddhist temple whose location on Beira Lake makes it a true oasis of peace and tranquility in hectic Colombo. The temple is apparently a recreation of a previous temple which had sunk into the lake, and was built by Geoffrey Bawa, one of Sri Lanka's leading architects and the founder of the Topical Modernism school of design.
The temple is located a few minutes' walk from the famous Gangaramaya Temple and you can get a single ticket for both temples at the entrance to either one. What's lovely about the Seema Malaka Temple is it's location on three floating platforms on the lake connected by wooden walkways. The views of the lake and the skyscrapers of downtown Colombo are unbeatable and the fact that it's more of a local attraction that an international draw means that remains quiet and uncrowded most of the time.
The temple itself features a central building with a nice but austere altar and two lateral platforms with bodhi trees, larger sitting Buddhas, and small shrines to Hindu deities which are also revered among Sri Lanka's Buddhist community. The standout, though, are the dozens of bronze Buddha statues which line the edges of the platforms. Overall, it's a pleasant and quick visit and a very welcome chance to escape the humidity and chaos of downtown Colombo for a few minutes.
The Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque is the most important mosque in Colombo as well as one of its most recognizable buildings. Built in 1909 by the neighborhood Muslim community, the Jami Ul-Alfar stands out for its unique candy-stripe exterior and geometric tile-work that seems more North African than Sri Lankan.
The mosque is definitely not a tourist mosque like those you might find in Istanbul or parts of India. Rather, it's the go-to place of worship for the large Muslim trading community based in Colombo's bustling Pettah neighborhood. That being said, it is still generally open to the public but you should avoid going during prayer hours (it'll be closed to non-Muslims) and remember to dress modestly.
Visiting the Jami Ul-Alfar mosque is not an activity you should plan your entire day around, but if you find yourself exploring the sari tailors and fruit vendors of Pettah, it's worth a visit for the architecture alone.
The Gangaramaya Temple is by far Colombo's most famous Buddhist temple, at least among tourists, and is worth a visit for its sheer eccentricity. The temple was founded over a century ago as a institute to train young monks but has been run for decades by some of Sri Lanka's most politically and socially-connected monks, a fact evident in the temple-museum's collection of classic cars (Rolls Royce and Mercedes)and extravagant gifts like jewelry, gold, and an endless array of relics, statues, and icons.
When you enter the temple complex, you'll pass through an initial hall featuring a large seated Buddha flanked by two massive elephant tusk and ornate frescoes. This area is reminiscent of many other traditional Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka, but as soon as you leave the chamber, all semblance with the traditional immediately evaporates. You make your way through a museum section with innumerable glass cases featuring every kind of temple offering imaginable (from vintage sunglasses to precious stones), a Chinese section featuring a near-endless line of small shrines, each filled with dozens of Buddha statues from around Asia, and finally a terraced outdoor area with bronze statues of sitting Buddhas and stupas reminiscent of those found in the famous Borobudur site in Indonesia.
The rest of the complex is kind of a mixed bag of conference centers, libraries, hidden shrines, and other areas that are sure to entertain the curious for hours. The temple also has an elephant (something of a controversy among visitors) but we didn't see it when we visited. Look...if you're looking for a deeply spiritual place, Gangaramaya is probably not it. There are tons of better monasteries and temples in Sri Lanka if you're looking for authentic, humble Sri Lankan Buddhism. However, if you think of it more as a museum than a temple, then it makes for one of the most interesting and eclectic places to visit in Colombo. A must-see!
Pettah is a neighborhood located east of Colombo Fort near the railway station that’s famous for the Pettah Market, a sprawling and animated bazaar that encompasses practically the entire neighborhood. Like most traditional bazaars, the Pettah Market is divided by trades, with some streets devoted entirely to fabric vendors, others to fruit and vegetables, and countless others dedicated to everything from toys to hardware equipment to shoes.
I’d suggest figuring out what you’re interested in buying first as arriving and then improvising can be a pretty confusing task (trust me on that), especially when many of the streets aren’t named and you’re constantly dodging trucks, motorcycles, and porters unloading goods. It’s a local market so if you’re looking for souvenir-style handicrafts, it’s not the best place. However, it is an excellent place if you’re looking to buy a nice Sri Lankan sari. Saris are kind of colorful dress-wrap hybrid popular among Sri Lankan women and they’re absolutely beautiful. Many of the tourist-oriented places sell cheaply made and over-priced saris with lackluster designs and poor craftsmanship. If you want a good one, here’s what you should do: head down to the fabric street in Pettah and see where the local women are going (if the women look wealthy, that’s a good sign). There, you’ll be able to find high-end and gorgeous sari fabrics at local prices. Afterwards, you can take the fabric to a tailor (get a recommendation at the store) who’ll make you a sari, skirt, and jacket for a good price. That’s what my wife and I did and it came out incredible.
Finally, Pettah is an interesting area as it’s one of the most diverse districts of Colombo, a true melting pot of Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Hindus as evidenced by the number of historic mosques, local temples, and colonial churches in the area. It has an especially large Muslim population so it’s a good chance to check out the cuisine of the Sri Lankan Muslim community.
While Sri Lanka is a predominately Buddhist country, it still has a very sizable Hindu community and a wealth of historic and otherworldly Hindu temples. One of the most important Hindu temples in Colombo is the Sri Ponnambalam Vanesar Kovil (alternatively called the Shri Ponnambalawaneswaram Kovil) located out the outskirts of Colombo's hectic market neighborhood of Pettah.
The temple is built of solid grey granite which gives an ancient feel to the exterior, like something you'd find lost in a thick jungle rather than in the heart of cosmopolitan Colombo. The exterior is rather non-descript, but the interior is one of the single most powerful and memorable things I saw during my time in Sri Lanka.
The interior of the Sri Ponnambalam Vensar Kovil is based around a central island (known as a Mandir) which contains the interior shrine. Around the island is a long hallway lined with shrines to various deities and icons. The atmosphere of the interior is what will really stick with you. Dim lighting, candles, incense, chanting, the hypnotic ringing of the "ghanta" prayer bell, the shirtless priest adorned with beads and red paint presiding over the Mandir. It sounds cliche, but it really does ooze a sense of spirituality that's difficult to describe in words.
Photography is prohibited in the interior of the temple, but I managed to snap a photo before the security guard politely told me that it wasn't allowed. I'd suggest setting aside an hour of your day to wander around the intricately-carved interior, admiring the ornate shrines and generally soaking in the atmosphere. It's a place of worship (and an important one at that) so remember to dress modestly and maintain a low profile while you're inside.
The Capitan's Garden Hindu Temple (officially known as Sri Kailashanadar) is the oldest Hindu temple in Colombo and one of the most popular. The name comes from it's location near the port and is where Hindu Tamil traders from southern India would come to worship after docking. These days, the temple is lost amid a maze of railroad tracks and rail yards so your best bet is to hire a tuk-tuk driver who knows the way.
The temple is only open from 6-10:00 in the morning and later from 5-9:00 in the evening so you should plan your visit accordingly. Unfortunately, we didn't and got there around 11:00 so were only able to admire the massive and colorful entrance which was actually worth the visit on its own. Above the entrance is a pyramid-shaped tower adorned with literally hundreds of brightly-colored figures and gods from Hindu theology, all intentionally positioned to convey messages from Hindu scripture. It's pretty overwhelming when you first see it.
From what I've heard, the inside is beautiful and welcoming to tourists (which is not a given at all Hindu temples in Sri Lanka). Tourists looking to snap photos need to, of course, be respectful and appropriately-dressed and must also pay a small fee if they want to take photos of the temple interior (the fee comes out to around a dollar or two). Really recommended, but make sure to get there when it's open!
Tuks-tuks are by the far the best way of getting around Colombo, and really any Sri Lankan city or town for that matter. They're fast, cheap, entertaining, and you'll definitely be thankful for the breeze in your face. Make sure to haggle a little bit, though, as tuk-tuk drivers tend to overcharge foreigners. Sometimes it's a forgivable 50 rupees but other times they charge you double or even triple the regular rate. Many of the newer tuk-tuks in Colombo have meters so you'll probably get a more or less fair rate (they'll still probably take the long route to tack on the extra rupees). Here's a good rule of thumb to calculate your fares:
- A 5 minute ride should cost around 100-150 rupees. From Barefoot Cafe to Galle Face Green, for instance, should cost around 120 rupees.
- A 10 minute ride should cost 200-250 rupees (from Barefoot Cafe to Colombo Fort Station, for example)
Going from the Galle Fort Green area or the train station to any of the major temples in the city should cost around 150-250 rupees. You'll probably never have to pay over 300 rupees in the city of Colombo so if the driver tries to high-ball you, see if you can't get him down to the 200-250 range, but don't stress it. After all, the difference only comes out to pocket change in terms of dollars and rupees. Have fun!
The New Kathiresan Temple is a recently-built Hindu temple on Sea Street, a well-known street in the port-side Hindu district of Colombo. It was built as something of an expansion to the Old Kathiresan Temple which is located a few doors down and is dedicated to the Hindu god Murugan.
Sea Street itself is kind of a bracing introduction to Hinduism in Sri Lanka, and the New Kathiresan Temple is not a bad place to start to get an idea of what day-to-day religious life is like for Hindu Tamils in Colombo. As you make your way down the rather dirty and chaotic street lined with tailors and shops selling Hindu religious icons (not a bad souvenir and, as it's a residential area, at a great price too), you'll get wafts of incense, hear otherworldly chants flowing out of open doorways, and be lured in to look by the constant ringing of the "ghanta" bells.
The first thing that strikes you about the temple is the elaborate carvings above the doorway featuring dozens of Hindu figures and deities in allegoric poses. The interior of the temple is nothing special, architecturally-speaking. There are a few scattered shrines and it's usually filled with local devotees engaging in rituals which are first almost shocking for those not used to it. When we went, for example, there was a man splayed out on the floor, slowing crawling his way up to a statue while murmuring something. As always, make sure to leave a donation for the temple and keep it respectful as far as gawking and photography goes. It's not a tourist temple, so you need to keep that in mind if you decide to peek in.
Are you organizing your trip to Sri Lanka and don't really know what to do in Colombo? Don't worry, there are so many things to do in Colombo that you won't even know where to start. Situated off southern India in the Indian Ocean, the center of the city is just a few kilometers from the Bay of Bengal and its suburbs stretch along the sandy coast.
Of all the stuff to do in Colombo, its historical, architectural and cultural heritage are really the highlights. Just like any island, the most interesting places to visit in Colombo are its amazing and beautiful beaches. The island has many kilometers of coastline. The beaches of Bentota, Unawata, or Negombo Hikkaduwa are just some of the most popular spots and rank high among the most beautiful attractions in Colombo. Visiting the Dutch Museum of Colombo, the National Museum, and Santa Lucia Cathedral Museum are just some of the many Colombo activities that you can't miss. There are many more interesting things to see in Colombo, including the national zoo and the many Hindu and Buddhist religious shrines. Plus, they're appropriate for all family members, so don't miss them!
There are many Colombo attractions waiting for you, so don't hesitate to visit this fantastic place. Visit minube to learn more about all the great stuff to do in Colombo.