Colombo Sri Lanka: a practical mini-guide

Colombo, the largest city of Sri Lanka. A beginning of your adventure on the island. How to start it perfectly? The answers can be found in the following post!

Colombo is not the capital of Sri Lanka, as it is believed. The capital is Sri Jayaverdenepura Kotte, which de facto is a part of the same agglomeration. But Colombo is the largest city on the island with a population of over half a million inhabitants.

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Kolombo Sri Lanka: praktyczny mini-przewodnik – czytaj po polsku!

I always suggest to everyone who’s going to Sri Lanka to start exploring this country from Colombo. Stay here only one or two days maximum and get out of here to see the island.

Why? Because there is a good chance that you will not like Colombo. It’s chaotic, crowded, dirty. I liked it only when I came to Ceylon for the second time. And I assume that most people, who read this post, will come to Sri Lanka for a week or two once in their life. (Although it may happen that one day you will return here.) Anyway, do not waste your time on this city because it is the exact opposite of the island, which personally I love.

Read my other posts from Sri Lanka:
1. White woman solo in Sri Lanka
2. Sri Lanka – practical info, costs, prices
3. Beaches of Sri Lanka – which one should you choose?

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My fave pic of the city, even if it’s blurred. ;)

Short history of Colombo and Sri Lanka

Colombo is a port city, which is already showed in its name – first used by the Portuguese in the 16th century, it was probably changed from Kola-amba-thota, which in Sinhalese means ‘a harbor with leafy mango trees’. Anyway, after their arrival the island started to develop, although it has been an important point for maritime trade routes for almost 2000 years already (known to the Romans, Greeks and Arabs, but also Persians and Chinese who brought cinnamon from here).

Portuguese arrived accidentally at the island in 1505 and quickly made friendship with the ruler of the state Kotte (today Colombo). In exchange for defense they recieved exclusive rights to trade with cinnamon. Over decades, the influence of the Portuguese on the island grew and until the mid-sixteenth century they managed nearly half of Ceylon.

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Old Town Hall from the British Period in Pettah district

100 years after Portuguese sailors to the island arrived another Europeans – Dutch, who tried to take control of Ceylon and finally succeeded in 1658. The island became a part of the Dutch East-India Company (VOC). After Dutch colonists got rid of their predecessors, they destroyed almost everything of Portuguese architecture and built their own instead.

After conquering the Netherlands by Napoleon Bonaparte, the Dutch gave Ceylon to British, who’ve been on the island for some time already. They quickly conquered the independent remains of lands and the entire Ceylon became a part of the British Empire (1815-1948).

The modern history of Sri Lanka is the restoration of independence in 1948. (The name of the country was adopted in 1972). From 1983 to 2009 there was a civil war with the Tamil Tigers, a nationalist movement, which wanted to create their own Tamil country in the north of the island. In December 2004 the tsunami struck the island – more than 40 thousand people were killed, the infrastructure on the coast was destroyed and tourism on the island firmly declined.

Today, the country is growing and recovering after many years of fighting and devastation.

Colombo – what to see and do?

A city with such a rich and multicultural history boasts with many monuments and temples. However, you will not find here, as I mentioned already, buildings from the Portuguese period.

From the period of Dutch comes only few monuments, too. Best known – the Old Dutch Hospital, which used to be a hospital for sailors, is located in a former fort. Dutch Hospital was damaged in 1996 in a terrorist attack.

Despite some controversy, Sri Lanka commemorates the VOC today. In Colombo you can find the Dutch Period Museum, which is located in a typical Dutch aristocratic house. It shows furniture and everyday objects from the 18th century.

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the Old Dutch Hospital

Another interesting monument is the Wolvendaal Church, which literally means ‘the Valley of the Wolves’ (settlers mistook jackals prowling around with wolves) from 1749. Built on a hill overgrown with jungle it was clearly visible from the sea as a signpost and was an observation point of the fort. This Protestant church is modest and austere, but it is worth to take a look of the floor covered with tombstones of the colonizers who died in Colombo (in those days they were buried in churches). The oldest person was 50-something, most of them did not turned 35. Most Europeans were irresistant to malaria and other tropical diseases…

Most buildings and squares in the city dates back to the British period, for example Viharamahadevi Park (formerly Victoria Park) and the buildings of the city in the district of Pettah.

Districts worth visiting are: Fort, which is not a proper fort anymore – today it is the business district with the Presidential Palace (for security reasons it’s not allowed to take pictures nearby), Cinnamon Gardens (a residential area – the name comes from cinammon trees plantation from 1789) and the Slave Island (the name comes from slaves from Africa who were held here). All three districts are fairly tidy, neat and so… European.

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Therefore, most of all, I would recommend to visit Pettah district located east of Fort. It’s crowded and chaotic, just like Asia. 😉 Colonial buildings are hidden under a thick layer of signs, although you can see a few gems (e.g. the Old Town Hall and train station). Besides, here is located one of the biggest fruit and vegetables markets in this part of Colombo.

In Pettah you will find the Hindu temple Katiresan Kovil and a mosque Jami-Ul-Afar. If you want to see a Buddhist temple in Colombo, then I suggest Gangaramaya Temple near Slave Island.

It’s enough to spend only one day in Colombo.

The airport in Negombo; how to get from the airport to Colombo?

The main airport in Sri Lanka, Bandaranaike International Airport (CMB), is located in Negombo, more precisely – in Katunayake, 35 km north of Colombo.

It’s worth to exchange the currency at the airport (the exchange rate is not bad), and also buy a SIM card (with internet, local and international calls), if we have such a need.

There are two options of transport from the airport to the city:
– when we booked accommodation in Colombo, we can ask the hotel to organize us a taxi. This should not cost more than Rs 3,000;
– if you come to Sri Lanka during the day it is not worth to overpay for taxi and better use the local transport – the easiest way is to take bus no. 100 to the bus station in Pettah. The ride costs Rs 110 per person.

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chaos in Pettah district

Colombo – where to sleep?

Cheaper accommodation in the city includes the hostel Backpack Lanka (tuck-tuck ride from the train station in Pettah should not cost more than Rs 350-400) located south of the fort, next to the Liberty Plaza shopping center.

I recommend it a lot more than the CityRest hostel located in Fort. The owners call it a hostel (and I totally agree by looking at the standard), but a night in a dorm is quite expensive as for the hostels’ rates. I do not recommend it.

If, however, we intend to spend our last (or first) night in Sri Lanka in Colombo with some class, then I suggest you to stay in the Cinnamon Red hotel – a luxury hotel in a skyscraper (located by the Viharamahadevi Park) with an outdoor swimming pool on the rooftop. However, I can’t say that the views of the city at night are spectacular…

Here you can find more options, rates and availability of accommodation in Colombo.

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the view of harbour and business district the Fort from the boulevard

Colombo – how to move around the city?

Colombo for the first time may seem a little scary, especially when it comes to tuck-tucks. And I must admit that the tuck-tuck drivers in Colombo are my nightmare and probably I will never like them.

Caution for you: always, always grab a tuck-tuck with a meter (metered taxi), and if the driver claims that the meter does not work and you do not know what would be a fair price for the ride – do not get in but catch another tuck-tuck with meter (bear in mind that sometimes they ensure that the meter works, and while driving, it turns out that it doesn’t – then get out without paying). And do not let anyone tell you that a ride will cost $30. Such prices on the streets of Colombo simply do not exist.

The second thing: make sure the driver knows exactly where you want to go. Can you see in his eyes a moment of hesitation? You do not get in. Otherwise he will ride with you in the circle, and the meter counts more and more…

And never EVER believe that someone will give you a ride around Colombo for free or for a postcard from your country or something. Sometimes drivers make such proposals, and at the end of the tour they want 10,000 rupees. No, no, NO!!! When it happens just give them Rs 1000 (let’s say it’s a fair price, though, it’s still too high) and run away. A furious Sri Lankan is a dangerous Sri Lankan. But if you read this paragraph, I’m sure you will never be cheated this way. 🙂

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Colombo – where to eat?

In any local eatery because it is cheap! Even if the price for rice&curry for tourists will be higher than for locals, it still will be around 300 Rs. In touristy posh restaurants prices will be 4 or 5 times higher.

However, if you want to celebrate your arrival to Sri Lanka with a good dinner, then I recommend restaurants in the Dutch Hospital (book a table before as it can be a problem with the place) or something south of Fort (TripAdvisor is full proposals, as usual). And I recommend a welcome drink in Galle Face Hotel – on the tarrace overlooking the sea.

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snacks sellers on the boulevard

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Colombo, though crowded and chaotic, can be a pretty good start of our adventure in Sri Lanka, if you do not let yourself be carried away by the chaos and look at the city from a distance. Remember that the rest of the island is completely different from Colombo, a lot more friendly and green. And Colombo… well, maybe not perfect, but it certainly has its charm. You have only to discover it!

Have you been already to Colombo? Did you like it or the opposite? Or maybe you are just going and have any specific questions? Feel free to comment in the box below!

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One comment

  1. Hi Hanna!
    What a helpful post!Colombo is very crowded and noisy but still worth a visit as there are so many hidden gems around the city

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