Any visit to Sri Lanka will likely start in Colombo. It’s the countries largest city, and most flights operate from Colombo-Bandaranayake International Airport.
Even if you are planning to travel around other parts of Sri Lanka the city is well worth at least a few days of exploration as there are many things to do in Colombo.
Things to do in Colombo, Sri Lanka
Explore & shop at the Pettah Market
Anyone particularly interested in seeing markets on their travels will want to remember this one. Of all the things to do in Colombo, this market is definitely a highlight. Look for the Khan Clock Tower, which marks the entrance to the market. Lively, bursting with sounds and colors, and a wonderful place to really feel part of the hustle and bustle of day-to-day Colombo life, Pettah Market is a must-visit.
This open market is located in the suburb of Pettah, east of the city center. Consisting of street after street of stalls, this is where the locals of the city come for their grocery shopping—everything from bagged spices and salted fish to unique produce like bitter melon gourds and wood apples. But aside from interesting food merchants, if you’re seeking more of a keepsake, you’ll find a rich assortment of gold jewelry sellers on Sea Street—one of the largest gold markets around.
Visit the Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple
This Buddhist temple is notable – not only for its mix of Thai, Chinese, Indian, and Sri Lankan design but for its particularly eclectic design and vibrancy; many of its walls are painted in bright colors. Gangaramaya is one of those places to see in Colombo that is good for everyone.
The temple is located on a plot of land not far from Beira Lake and comprises many of the individual elements that are essential to forming a place of Buddhist worship. The temple’s stupa – a place of meditation – sits behind an intricately carved stone mount, inside which is a white jade Buddha.
Further along is the Bodhiya – or the Bo Tree – the sacred fig tree under which Buddha achieved enlightenment. There is even an entire mini replica of Borobudur in Central Java, Indonesia, the world’s largest Buddhist temple. Plus, don’t miss the relic chamber, where an impressive collection of artifacts is housed.
Whether you’re here to pray, pay your respects, or just explore another culture’s impressive landmarks, you’re in for a fascinating visit.
Visit the National Museum of Colombo
As the largest museum in Sri Lanka, it’s pretty much a given that some of the most important historical artifacts are stored here. The museum itself, established in 1877 by the British governor at the time, was built in the Italian architectural style, giving it a vaguely European Renaissance appearance.
The museum’s displays are arranged across two floors. The ground floor contains exhibits from specific periods of Sri Lanka’s history, from the pre and protohistoric periods to the Kandy period, which lasted from the 15th to the 19th centuries.
The museum’s most attractive feature, however, is undoubtedly the country’s regalia across its history – most notably, the crown and throne of Kandyan monarchs. If you’re interested in Sri Lanka’s diverse history, the National Museum deserves a spot at the top of your list if you’re passing through Colombo.
See the Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque
This corner of the world is particularly diverse when it comes to spirituality, and Sri Lanka is much the same. As such, visiting temples and places of worship are among some of the most popular things to do in Colombo. Visitors can find many temples and other significant places of worship important in Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and more.
The Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque is one of the oldest mosques in the city and a popular place with travelers. When Arabic people began settling in what is now Colombo, being that it was located along a popular trade route, the Muslim population grew. But there was no mosque large enough for the growing Islam presence until the construction of Jami Ul-Alfar in 1908.
Especially noted for its unique design and coloring, the outside of the mosque includes many towers and minarets, and the entire exterior of the mosque is painted in a candy-like pattern of red and white. It is located in the neighborhood of Pettah, meaning you can easily pencil this into a day of shopping at the Pettah market.
Spend some time at Beira Lake
City centers are usually chock full of shops, restaurants, theatres, and cafés, but not many cities boast a lake in the middle of their city’s core. At the heart of Colombo lies Beira Lake, surrounded by many large businesses. Offering a reprieve from the hustle and bustle of the city center makes Beira Lake a small oasis, and a good place to recharge your batteries during a busy day of exploring the city.
However, easily one of the most interesting attributes of the urban lake is what sits in its center. The above mentioned Gangaramaya Temple’s Seema Malaka rests calmly in the center of the lake. It is used primarily for meditative rest rather than prayer, making it an escape from the crowds.
Visit Wolvendaal Church
As a country once occupied by a strong Dutch presence, many vestiges of this influence remain – whether in cuisine, language, or architecture. Despite its architectural simplicity, Wolvendaal Church stands out among its surroundings, being constructed in a classic Doric style – a simple Ancient Greek style consisting of heavy columns with plain round tops.
As with many other popular spots worth seeing in Colombo, the church is located in the neighborhood of Pettah. It is one of the oldest Protestant churches in the country, dating as far back as 1757. Its ancient walls are lined with mural tablets and the floors with engraved tombstones plaques representing those buried within the church. The resting place of five Dutch Governors can also be found here.
Though the church is mainly a place of quiet reflection and prayer, it is a place of notable importance for Colombo’s history and a good way to press pause on a hectic day.
Fun fact: the church was thus named when European builders mistook the packs of jackals in the surrounding areas for wolves.
See the Temple of Sri Kailawasanathan Swami Devasthanam Kovil
The Temple of Sri Kailawasanathan Swami Devasthanam Kovil – often called Kapikaawatha Shivan Temple for short – is a Hindu temple located in the center of Colombo. It is the oldest Hindu temple in the city and worships the Hindu deities Ganesha and Shiva. As with many non-native practices still found in Sri Lanka today, the temple was built by Indian merchants who had settled in the region for trade purposes.
Due to its height, intricacy, and color, it is one of the most visually astounding structures in Colombo. The temple itself was constructed by architects and sculptors from India. Though the main sanctum remains dedicated to goddess Shiva, there are several smaller shrines that worship many other deities.
While this temple is open to the public, heads up: you’ll need to come prepared to wash your feet, remove your shoes, and stow your cameras away as no photographs are permitted inside the shrine.
Explore Galle Face Green
One of my all time favorite places to visit in Colombo is Galle Face Green. If you’ve been looking for something that still counts as sightseeing without needing to do too much moving around, we’ve got you covered. Galle Face Green is a long, 12-acre oceanside public park, forming a sort of promenade that follows the shoreline in the center of the city. Its size and location make it one of the more favored things to do in Colombo.
In its early days, it was used for a smorgasbord of outdoor spectator activities, like horse racing, cricket, golf, and rugby—all beginning in around 1820 once a British governor was appointed. Today, the area is popular for recreational activities; you can find other like-minded people keen to sit under the sun and enjoy the weather: vendors, kite-fliers, friends, families, picnickers, and more.
In particular, food vendors won’t disappoint; you will find all sorts of snacks from cooked shellfish to peppered mango. If you pass Nana’s, don’t keep walking; this beachside set up is considered some of the finest street food in the city.
Take a day trip to the Sigiriya rock formation
It would be a shame to visit Sri Lanka and not visit this formidable, prehistoric gem. The Sigiriya Rock Fortress is a must-see while in Sri Lanka. Though it’s a bit of a trek from Colombo (about a four-and-a-half hour drive, to be exact), it’s well worth a day trip to see this place, which is today a registered UNESCO Heritage Site.
Dating back from the first millennium, Sigiriya boasts an elaborate layout advanced for the time when it rose to prominence. It’s not just ruins – what remains are largely preserved pieces of what once was a place of worship and a fortress-like structure that even today is astounding. It was the site that an ancient king chose to become the new capital, and stands over 650 feet tall. Meaning “Lion Rock” in Sinhalese, it may come as no surprise that its gateway – built into the side of the enormous rock – was carved in the shape of a lion.
Along with its impressive size are ancient frescoes, a mirror wall once polished brightly enough to show the king’s reflection as he walked its length, and some of the oldest landscaped gardens in the world. You don’t need to be a history buff to enjoy what Sigiriya has to offer.
Visit Mount Lavinia Beach
Located just a short train ride down the coast from Colombo (about 20 minutes), Mount Lavinia Beach is a great spot to get out of the city and relax a little. The area is known as a beach retreat and is famous for its nightlife, but in the morning and afternoon becomes a relatively quiet spot to watch the sunrise and kick back with the locals.
The sunsets are worth seeing; before the sun has sunk beyond the horizon, be sure to snag a table at one of the restaurants that line the shore, as this makes for a wonderful vantage point for watching the stars come out at night.
If you’re looking for something a little more colorful, this is a highly liberal region and hosts the annual Gay Pride Parade as well as the Rainbow Kite Festival.
Spend the day at the Good Market
The Good Market is a weekly market that takes place Saturdays from 10 am to 8 pm and focuses on conscious offerings. Organizers believe in eco-friendly and socially responsible sellers, so this market appeals much more to the modern traveler, making it a top choice for unique things to do in Colombo.
Here, you can find everything from organic produce to artisans that sell fair trade handicrafts and eco-conscious healing and bodily products – along with everything in between. But it’s not just products that are offered in the market; live music, authentic cuisine, henna artists, and even portrait artists line the stalls to give this weekly market a vibe all its own.
For any vegan travelers struggling to find places in line with their beliefs (although vegan food can easily be found in Sri Lanka), this market has many options. There are multiple health food counters offer gluten-free and vegan options much like what you’d find in Western cruelty-free cafés.
Explore Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara
Located about seven miles outside of Colombo, Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara is a Buddhist temple built on the edge of the Kelaniya River. It is particularly sacred, and one of the most important Buddhist sites of worship in Sri Lanka, due to the spiritual belief that Buddha himself visited the location, resulting in the pacifying of an impending war.
The original temple was partly destroyed various times throughout history – whether from South Indian invaders or Portuguese forces during their occupancy – and the structure that stands today was erected in 1927 and still contains parts of the original building.
Full of rich carvings and impressions, beautiful architecture, and ancient and modern murals depicting life stories of the Buddha and the progression of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, this is a fascinating insight into Buddhist worship in the nation.
Public parks are an often underrated class of things to do when traveling, but there’s something to be said for a lush open space where you can take some time, sit, picnic, and have a little me time.
Viharamahadevi Park is one such park. Located next to the Colombo National Museum, this is something you can tack on to your museum visit for maximum. The park was built during British rule, during which time it was named Victoria Park. As such, it was the primary place for first-class cricket matches until 1995.
Though lacking in activities, there is an amphitheater, fountains, and a few impressive Buddha statues, so it is a good spot to recharge your batteries before heading back into the city center.
Independence Memorial Hall
Of the many things to do in Colombo, it makes sense that many of them are in some way tied to Dutch, Portuguese, or British rule. For those interested in the historical and political past of Sri Lanka, the Independence Memorial Hall is a must-see.
Representing Sri Lanka’s independence from British rule, the hall is a national monument made of stone sitting upon a large stone foundation. The many pillars give this an almost temple-like feel.
It also houses the Independence Memorial Museum, which, through artwork, beautifully retells the story of Sri Lanka gaining its independence in 1948.
Watch a cricket match
Though Britain’s rule in the country ended before 1950, many influences of British culture still remain. In particular, the game of cricket is still widely played; catching a match or two while you’re exploring the city is a great way to really feel like a local.
There is an official website where you can purchase tickets, but if you really want the full experience, you can watch the match from a bar or café. In particular, the Australian-owned Cricket Club Café is dedicated to providing the full experience; they even have an impressive collection of antique cricket equipment.
Most visitors to Sri Lanka will need a visa. Visas should be sorted before arrival and can be done online here. The Electronic Visa costs $35 which can be paid via credit card. It only took us about an hour to receive our visa via email once we applied.
Where to Stay in Colombo
Cinnamon Grand Colombo
By far the best hotels in all of Colombo. We stayed here three nights and absolutely LOVED our stay with Cinnamon. Rooms were spacious and comfortable and the staff are absolutely delightful. We especially enjoyed the full service cafe in the lobby and the sushi on the buffet. Cinnamon Hotels have properties all over Sri Lanka so if you are traveling the country they are a great and affordable option!
Plan Your Travels to Colombo
- Need Transportation? See the best ways to get around Asia here.
- Get to Sri Lanka: Sri Lankan Airlines operates out of Colombo and is connected all over the world. We flew them from Colombo to The Maldives and had a fantastic experience.
- Travel Insurance: We never travel without travel insurance with World Nomads. Natasha is a bit of a worry wart and would rather stay safe than sorry. World Nomads offers incredible flexible and great plans!
- Water: The water in Sri Lanka is not drinkable.
- Adapter: Make sure you find a good universal adapter like the one I have to keep you charged. Otherwise, you may struggle to find one once you land.
We were invited to Sri Lanka as part of #TBCAsia with Cinnamon Hotels. All thoughts and opinions remain our own. We can’t wait to return to Sri Lanka!