Places to Visit in Colombo
I didn’t really know what places to visit in Colombo when I arrived. I’d done no research at all. Plus I was going to be there less than 24 hours as I arrived at about 3am and planned to leave for Hikkadua that afternoon if I could get a train ticket so its not like I had a lot of time for exploring either.
I walked most of the city to explore it, starting from the train station. It’s a long walk in the heat, and I was covered up head to toe since I’d just arrived from India and didn’t know if it was appropriate/ok for me to show my shoulders or knees and when in doubt I always err on the side of caution (Ladies – the answer is yes, I think it would be ok however you would draw a lot of attention to yourself doing so therefore best to stay at least a little bit covered up).
If you don’t fancy the walk it would be cheap and easy to get an auto-rickshaw (tuk tuk) between each of the locations below too.
Places to Visit in Colombo
Markets | Clock Tower | President’s House | Old Dutch Hospital | Galle Face Green | Temples | National Museum| Where to Stay | Moving On
History of Colombo
Colombo is a colonial city that was first colonised by the Portuguese who built a fort there, then the Dutch and, of course, then the British who really did get aroud when it came to Asia. The city nowadays is a mish mash of these colonial origins and modern character. It’s busy and messy and looks a bit daunting on first arrival.
Unfortunately you won’t be able to see any of the old fort ruins as these were all dismanteld by the British (once again, well done Britain 🙄) but in the Old Fort district you can still see the beautiful old colonial buildings and there a number of landmarks. The Old Fort district, which is also the central business district with their World Travde Center, is just above Galle Face Beach so we’ll get to what to see there in a minute, after the markets.
Colombo markets – Pettah Shopping Bazaar
Just before the Old Fort district is the Pettah market area. Ths is the first place I visited in Colombo as it’s near the the train station and I went there first thing to buy my train ticket for later in the day in case it got booked up. If you’ve already been traveling around India or Thailand before this stop on your travels the market stalls won’t be that exciting and you’ll find much nicer stuff in the markets once you leave the city, especially in Hikkaduwa so you might want to give this one a miss.
The Pettah market is large though; with streets dedicated to different types of good from clothes to spices to flowers. There’s even a Pettah Floating Market on the lake. The Kahn Clock Tower marks the entrace to the market area, and in amoungst the sprawling mass of the market are a collection of different historical monuments reflecting the varied historical, cultural and religious background of the area with The Dutch Museum, Jami-ul-Alfar Mosque, Wolvendaal Kerk church and the New and Old Kathiresan Kovils Hidu teamples all in close proximity to ecah other.
If you only have time to visit one of the above I’d suggest going to Jami-ul-Alfar Mosque (also known as Red Mosque) since it’s one of the most unique looking mosques in the region.
Lighthouse Clock Tower
Just on from the market you’ll enter the fort district and see the Lighthouse Clock Tower (also known as the Colombo Fort Clock Tower). I love the reason for the instillation of the Lightouse Clock Tower ; to instil punctuality on the perpetually late people at the time! It did also serve as a lighthouse until the 1950s. It’s a clock tower though so while it’s fun to have a look I wouldn’t allow too much time for viewing it.
If you have an urge to go up a lighthouse you can head the Old Galle Buck Lighthouse just by it which was built to replace the original lighthouse when tall surrounding buildings mede the original no longer useable.
The president’s House is near the clock tower too but as you’d expect it is heavily guarded and blocked off. You might be able to catch a glimpse of the 18th Centruy Dutch mansion thorugh the wires however.
The Old Dutch Hospital
The oldest building in the fort district, the Old Dutch Hospital is an impressive colonial building which now houses a shopping precinct. You’ll find restaurants, bars and shops there too. Perfect if you want to get away for the hustle and bustle of the city for a bit and fancy a break from local/street food.
Galle Face Green and Beach
From the fort disctirct you can walk along the coast to Galle Face Beach and Galle Face Green. Whilst just by a main road and not exactly beautiful, the costal path is still enjoyable to walk along (and it provided a much needed breeze).
As you can see in the photo below, just behind the pathway is a grassy area known as Gall Face Green. Galle Face Green is a long stretch of outside space, what I’d call a park but no one refers to it as such for some reason, that locals go to sit on at sunset, making use of the cool sea-breeze coming in.
Pro Tip: Head to Galle Face Hotel for the best sunset view in town. You don’t have to be staying there to visit. You can just buy a drink and watch sunset from their seaside outdoor area.
A lot of strangers stopped to talk to me as I walked (all men) but not in a threatening way, they just seemed kind of curious and intrigued by me. A number of my new found friends mentioned a Buddhist temple near by which is called Gangaramaya temple so I headed there after Galle Face Beach, not without a few detours on the way however.
Swami Devasthanam Kovil
If you’re feeling particaurly adventerous on the way to Gangaramaya Temple you can take a detour to Swami Devasthanam Kovil. Whilst the most impressive element of the Gangaramaya Temple is the interior, it’s the outside of Swami Devasthanam Kovil that’s it’s most impressive feature. I’ve only seen other temples like this in Singapore before.
The walk to the Gangaramaya temple will also take you past a the beautiful Beira lake (although my photo doesn’t really do it justice) which is home to the Gangarama Seema Malaka temple. It’s smaller than the Gangaramaya Temple and on your way there so easy to stop off to visit on the way.
The Gangaramaya temple is one of the coolest temples I have ever seen in my life. It’s not that big but it’s got so much crammed into some of the rooms, it’s like the Santa’s grotto of temples.
This section of the temple where the photos above and below were taken was the smallest part and a room I almost missed as it was to the left of the entrance and we went right. Make sure you find it if you go in.
I was dressed appropriately anyway for the temple due to my paranoia from India but if you’re wearing shorts you can rent a sarong there to put around you.
Hands down the best thing I saw in Colombo.
National Museum Colombo
I also went to the Colombo National Museum, in the grounds of the Viharamahadevi Park, which is set in a beautiful building and has a lot of art as well as artifacts. I don’t usually like museums that much as I find looking at old tools kind of boring but since there is art too it’s enjoyable even for a non-museum lover.
If you’re looking for a beach while in Colombo, the nearest one is in Mount Lavinia about 10 km south of the fort district in the center of colombo.
Where to Stay in Colombo
The Clock Inn Colombo is nice clean hostel in a good location. I can’t comment on how sociable it is as I arrived so late at night and was out most of the time but I would happily stay there again.
I should mention though that I booked an airport pick up through them for my arrival as I was getting in at 3am arriving from India where you have to be really careful about taxis as a solo female so I didn’t want to risk getting in a car with a random stranger at that time in the morning. It was going to cost me more but seemed worth the couple of extra dollars for the peace of mind. The taxi didn’t arrive however. It resulted in me having to buy a Sri Lankan SIM card in the airport to be able to call the hostel and waiting for 45 minutes (even though my flight was late) before giving up and getting another taxi. To the hostel‘s credit, they offered me a free night’s accommodation when I came back through Colombo to make up for the inconvenience so it’s likely an isolated incident. It actually made me like them more as it showed they recognised that it’s not cool to just not show up, especially at that time in the morning. A lot of other hostels would just have shrugged and done nothing.
How Long to Spend in Colombo
A day is enough time to explore Colombo.
Moving On: How to get from Colombo to Hikkaduwa
Approx 2 hours by train. If you want to book online to make sure you have a ticket in the train class you’d like you can book online at 12Go here.
Important Information about Trains in Sri Lanka
Be sure to ask others on the train platform which train is yours so you get on the right one. And get on quickly. Seats fill up fast on the trains, even if you’ve booked 1st class. And all the fans are located by the seats so it makes for a VERY sweaty ride if you have to sit on the floor. I travelled in the third class carriage at times and felt perfectly safe, even though I’m a solo female traveler, so I wouldn’t worry too much about which section you get your ticket for, although obviously the lower the class of ticket you buy the more people that are in that section. The train from Colombo to Hikkaduwa is the same one that will then take you onto Galle Fort after so if you’re wanting to take train straight from Colombo to Galle you can.
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