Newest Review: ... often feature on organised tours of Sri Lanka, the centre has lots of interesting sites to see. It's also very English-friendly as the va... more
Colombo: a city that's full of character
Colombo (Sri Lanka)
Member Name: Drifter_2000
Colombo (Sri Lanka)
Advantages: Some great architecture, very friendly city
Disadvantages: Chaotic, traffic congestion
Situated on Sri Lanka's west coast, Colombo is the largest city in Sri Lanka with a population of just over half a million people. Although it's not the capital city, it's often referred to as such, and the official capital of Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte is actually a satellite city of Colombo.
A brief note on security- as the civil war between government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels only ended in 2009, there is still a visible police and military presence around the city. However, I visited last year and the atmosphere of tension that existed while the war was going on has dissipated considerably. While there are no official restrictions on travel around Colombo, there are still a number of checkpoints that search vehicles at random. Because of this, it's vital to always carry your passport with you. The soldiers who man the checkpoints are generally very friendly and polite and simply asked me 'What is your name?' before letting me move on. Thankfully a page appears to have been turned in the country's history and Colombo is a safer and happier city as a result.
Although Colombo is a sprawling city that doesn't often feature on organised tours of Sri Lanka, the centre has lots of interesting sites to see. It's also very English-friendly as the vast majority of residents have some knowledge of English and almost all shops have their signs in English, along with Sinhala and Tamil.
The Colombo National Museum is a good place to start any visit to the city. There's a separate tariff for Sri Lankans and 'foreigners' but the entrance price of 500 rupees worked out as less than a fiver. It's a great introduction to Sri Lankan antiquities if you're planning a trip to the 'Cultural Triangle' in the north of the country, and a great way to get away from the heat! There's also a Dutch museum in the Pettah district, which has artefacts relating to Dutch colonial era in Sri Lanka. The museum is a little sparse in terms of exhibits but it's still worth a look.
Pettah is a vibrant area with a spectacular mosque with onion domes that reminded me of St Basil's Cathedral, as well as some interesting shopping. While the streets are a bit chaotic there are several air-conditioned arcades that offer a range of goods including low-priced clothing, luggage and sports equipment. For traditional souvenirs on the other hand, head to Lanka Hands in the Bambalapitiya district or Lakpahana at Cinnamon Gardens. Laksala in the Fort district has a more limited selection, but is more centrally located.
Beira Lake is also worth a visit- a spectacular lake in the heart of Colombo. There's a Buddhist temple on a jetty that you can visit in return for a small donation, and the lake is only a short walk from Crescat Boulevard- one of the best upscale shopping centres in the city and with a very good food court in the basement.
Viharamahadevi Park is another nice outdoor space that's great for a stroll and an ice cream (look for Elephant House- the local variety). It's overlooked by Colombo Town Hall, which might remind you of Capitol Hill in Washington DC. Just be careful if anyone offers to talk you through the flower garden as they'll be expecting a fee in return.
There's no denying that Colombo is a congested and polluted city. Areas like Pettah have lots of good bargains available but unfortunately the crowds and the heat made window-shopping difficult. If you simply want to 'go for a wander' it's probably better to go at night as it's cooler and all the shops will still be open anyway (until 9pm usually) Colombo isn't a city that was built with pedestrians in mind and in general the sites of interest are quite far apart. It's best to take 3-wheeler taxis to get from place to place but make sure that you negotiate a price before you get in!
I also wouldn't recommend staying in Colombo itself because hotels tend to be overpriced. That said, the luxurious Galle Face Hotel is right in the heart of the city and you're likely to rub shoulders with visiting celebrities and international cricket teams. Even if you're not staying there, it's a great place to go for a coffee. I always stay in nearby Mount Lavinia when I go- it's only a 20-minute drive from the city, but it's a lot quieter and there's a nice beach on your doorstep.
The Colombo region is the richest in Sri Lanka and it's also the most commercialised. It can feel quite artificial at times with its boutique stores, fast-food chains and skyscrapers and it's important to remember that Colombo is not the real Sri Lanka. After a while you might be pining for the beaches of the south coast or the tea plantations of the hill country. However, it's a city that I've grown quite attached to and I certainly think that you can spend a couple of very enjoyable days exploring.
Summary: Not a must-see but still a great city to visit