If you’re planning a trip to Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, you probably want to know about the best things to do in Colombo as well as the most famous attractions. Here’s an updated guide with activities and attractions in Colombo to include on your itinerary.
Colombo is an ancient city of Sri Lanka that has been known to traders for at least 2000 years. It is full of history and was made the capital when Sri Lanka was ceded to the British Empire. After the island nation gained its independence, Colombo remained as the capital. Nowadays it serves as the commercial capital whereas Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte serves as the administrative capital.
If you want to explore a vibrant city where you can experience Sri Lankan culture and a melting pot of traditions and people, Colombo is one of the best places to visit in Sri Lanka. It has served as the main entrance for centuries due to its natural harbor and strategic location.
In this article, I’m sharing some of the best things to do in Colombo and some recommendations on where to stay.
Wander the streets of Pettah
Colombo’s biggest market place is the perfect spot to get a taste of life in the Sri Lankan commercial capital. There are hundreds upon hundreds of small businesses in the area, each with unique offerings.
The streets here have their own specialties. On Second Cross Street you’ll find a selection of perfume, jewelry, and fabric sellers, while Fourth & Fifth Street brag a plethora of fresh fruits, vegetables, and dried goods. Or perhaps you’d prefer to shop for gold on Sea Street. There’s so much to explore at Pettah; your options are endless!
Gangaramaya Temple is one of the oldest in Colombo and dates back to the late 19th century. Started by the monk Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Nayaka Thera, the temple is a fantastic display of Buddhism and stunning architecture in a serene environment.
Discover an impressive array of Buddha statues, incredible views across the surrounding water to the city beyond, and learn about the extensive history of this fascinating temple. The temple may be a functioning place of worship, but it also offers an insight into religion and Sri Lankan culture.
Walk into the National Museum, and you’re instantly greeted by a huge Buddha statue with a welcoming smile. With artifacts that date back to 1877, the museum is one of the best places to discover Sri Lanka’s ancient culture.
You’ll encounter a vast array of art, statues, and colonial-era paraphernalia, as well as multiple displays of Sri Lankan classical history and agriculture. You can even check out the incredible royal throne of King Wimaladharmasuriya II, built in 1693.
Discover colonial architecture in the Fort Area
Colombo’s Fort district is filled with architecture that depicts a bygone era. In beautiful contrast to the modern city skyline, colonial buildings stand gloriously nearby a three-mile-long rampart that separates the Fort district and Pettah.
You’ll be able to discover an array of old-brick buildings with impressive high archways: the old Parliament House (officially named the Presidential Secretariat), the Galle Face and Grand Oriental hotels, and the Fort Police Station, a former Dutch hospital. The Fort district is the perfect place to reminisce on the past next to the modern cityscape.
In the center of Colombo lies Beira Lake, one of the city’s most famous landmarks. The tranquil waters of the lake offer respite from the hustle and bustle of city life, but it’s also a place steeped in history.
In the 1500s, the Portuguese added crocodiles to the waters to protect themselves from hostile locals, and some years later political prisoners were kept there too.
You’ll be glad to know that, today, the lake is free of crocodiles and instead is a popular beauty spot and a great place to try boating or rowing.
Temple of Sri Kailawasanathan Swami Devasthanam Kovil
Colombo’s oldest Hindu Temple, Sri Kailawasanathan Swami Devasthanan, or Kapikaawatha Shivan Temple as it is known to its followers, is impressive in both its architectural and decorative beauty.
Devotees come to see the temple in the tens of thousands, catching a glimpse of detailed sculptures, the exquisite main door with lotus flower detailing, and several shrines dedicated to the Hindu Gods and Goddesses. It is one of the most beautiful temples in Sri Lanka and offers a fantastic opportunity to revel in centuries-old design and religion.
Go for a stroll along Galle Face Green
Spanning an expansive 5 hectares, Galle Face Green is a popular attraction in Colombo for tourists and locals alike. As the largest outdoor space in the city, it attracts a plethora of picnickers, kite flyers, walkers and day-trippers who all come to escape the hubbub of city life.
Grab something to eat from a local food vendor and stroll the promenade, taking in the coastline and cityscape beyond. Stay for sunset, and you’ll be rewarded with stunning views and excellent food at the Galle Face Night Market.
Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque
Nestled among the streets of Pettah, the Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque is easy to spot due to it’s distinctive red and white lattice brickwork. Legend has it that the mosque was once used by sailors to identify the port of Colombo in the early 20th century.
The architecture of the building is a vibrant mix of British colonialism and Islamic culture, forming a beautiful yet spiritual place for hundreds of Muslim locals and tourists alike to pray every day.
Note that as a functioning place of worship, women are not allowed to enter the building in line with Islamic religious views.
Viharamahadevi Park is a beautiful place to spend a day, strolling the grounds and picnicking on the grassy banks. The stunning park once named Victoria Park, after Queen Victoria, though was renamed in honor of the King’s mother in the 1950s.
The main attraction is the stunning colonial-style Town Hall, with a sprawling tree-lined fountain and giant gold Buddha statue in front of it. Amongst expanses of greenery, you’ll find charming walkways, playgrounds, a wooden walkway bridge, and possibly even a snake charmer or two.
The Independence Memorial Hall
Built to commemorate Sri Lanka’s independence from the British, Independence Memorial Hall is a lovely place to relax in an environment steeped in history. The memorial hall itself is popular among joggers, local students and families, and is commonly known as one of the most beautiful spots for relaxation in Colombo.
Independence Square, where the memorial hall resides, also boasts sprawling lawns, a museum, and numerous shopping malls all within close reach. You can even rent a bicycle for the day to explore the park and its gardens.
Ride in a tuk-tuk
For an authentic immersion into the local culture and lifestyle, a tuk-tuk tour of the city is a must. It’s definitely one of the best things to do in Colombo as a tourist.
On your journey, you’ll get off the beaten track and experience life in the Sri Lankan commercial capital as the locals do. Your knowledgeable driver takes you through the bustling shopping areas and busy streets, telling you tales of the city and stopping off at traditional street food vendors along the way.
Combining private sightseeing with the tasty treats of Colombo, you’re sure to love the chance to see the city’s landmarks from a new perspective.
Mount Lavinia Beach
Mount Lavinia Beach offers a chance to bask in the sunshine on glorious, sprawling sands. Just a short distance by train from Colombo, the beach is a great day trip for those looking to relax away from the city.
While your day in a peaceful setting, where local vendors sell local delicacies of sour mango and manioca chips. For something unique, head to one of the upscale restaurants nearby. The waves here depend on whether the sea is swimmable, so be sure to look out for the signs that indicate where it is safe to bathe.
Visit Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara
The beautiful ancient temple of Kelaniya is a place of religious significance and still functions as a place of worship for Buddhist followers today. The temple is home to a beautiful array of Kandyan era paintings, all amazingly maintained and in almost original condition.
You’ll also discover a multitude of sculptures, vast statues of religious gods, and intricately painted walls. Look up to the ceiling, and you’ll see magnificent murals depicting planetary gods, astrology, and zodiacal signs.
Indulge yourself in an ayurvedic spa session
Ayurvedic medicinal practices originate from India, though Sri Lanka’s spas boast a plethora of Ayurvedic treatments, all intending to promote good health.
Treat yourself to a massage, aromatherapy treatment, hot stone massage, or body exfoliation at one of Colombo’s many spas, and you’re sure to leave feeling rejuvenated.
Many spas use natural ingredients, while others even offer on-site yoga sessions to enhance your connection to the mind, body, and spirit. The holistic healing of an Ayurvedic treatment will leave you feeling peaceful, balanced, and ready to explore the rest of Colombo.
Ceylon Tea at Dilmah T-lounge
There’s no better place to drink Ceylon tea than in the elegant atmosphere of the Dilmah T-lounge. This family-owned business strives to make its visitors as passionate about tea as they are, and are renowned as one of the best tea houses in Colombo.
There are several innovative teas and tea-based drinks to try, all complemented by cakes, pastries, and other tasty treats, some of which incorporate tea as an ingredient. Besides fine tea, you can sip tea-based mocktails or shop for gourmet tea to take home with you – a perfect souvenir for yourself or a loved one!
Where to stay in Colombo
Deciding where to stay is always something that should be done according to your needs and plans. However, some areas are more popular and convenient than others.
One area that I can recommend is the neighborhood called Kollupitiya, which has become one of the major commercial areas in the city. There are various hotels available as well as shops and street vendors.
The Fort area is also great for tourists since it’s well-connected with the main railway stations and other parts of the city. Here, you’ll also find plenty of options for accommodations with various standards and price per night.
Recommended hotels in Colombo
- Galle Face Hotel
- Mandarina Colombo
- Villa Raha
- Tintagel Colombo
- Drift BnB
Famous Landmarks in Colombo
As the largest city of Sri Lanka, Colombo has a wide range of historical and famous landmarks to discover. Below is a broad list of some of the most popular attractions in Colombo.
- Gangaramaya Buddhist temple
- Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya
- Colombo National Museum
- Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque
- St Anthony’s Shrine
- Temple of Sri Kailawasanathan Swami Devasthanam Kovil
- Asokaramaya Buddhist temple
- Sri Ponnambalam Vanesar Kovil
- Seema Malakaya Temple
- Independence Memorial Hall
- House of Fashion
- St Lucia’s Cathedral
- Old Parliament Building
- Old Kathiresan Temple
- The Lighthouse
- Wolvendaal Church
- Khan Clock tower
- Sri Sambodhi Viharaya
- Sambodhi Chaithya
Museums in Colombo
There are plenty of museums in Colombo, where you can learn more about the city’s history as well as immerse yourself in Sri Lankan history.
- Colombo National Museum
- Number 11
- Museum of Modern and Contemporary art
- Central Bank Currency Museum
- Sri Lanka Cricket Museum
- Traditional Puppet Art Museum
- Dutch Museum
- Independence Museum
- National Railway Museum
- Sri Lanka Air Force Museum
What to do in Colombo as a first-time visitor?
If it’s your first time visiting Colombo, it might be a good idea to have somewhat a plan and list of attractions that you want to see during your stay. It’s a big city and thus it can take some time to get between different areas of the city.
Personally, I suggest that first-time visitors spend some time wandering the streets of Pettah. There’s a lot to explore in this area, and it’s a great place to discover what Colombo has to offer. Moreover, Gangaramaya Temple and the Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque are two of the most impressive attractions, if you ask me. These should definitely be included on a first-time visitors Colombo itinerary.
Riding a tuk-tuk is another recommendation. It’s a great way to discover the city and makes it fun to get around as well. Many tuk-tuk drivers are knowledgeable of Colombo, and they can take you to local restaurants, serving delicious Sri Lankan food, or simply tell you a bit more about the places you want to explore.
One of the best things to do in Colombo is to immerse yourself in the local everyday life. And to experience the multi-cultural society where various faiths live side by side. Also, thanks to its multi-culturalism, there is an abundance of various cuisines to indulge yourself with.
More reading from Sri Lanka
Want more recommendations on things to do in Colombo, Sri Lanka? Leave comment!