Located on the west coast of Sri Lanka, Colombo (the former capital of the island) is a chaotic and colorful place that vibrates with energy and life. Ruled by the Portuguese and later by the Dutch and the British, the city is multi-faceted and boasts a vibrant and multicultural population.
Being the largest city – and the commercial and financial capital of the country – there is always plenty to do in Colombo. There are excellent restaurants and shops alongside interesting museums and impressive historic tourist attractions. Although its rapid growth and development no longer makes it “the garden city of the East” as it was previously called, pockets of greenery still exist among its tall skyscrapers and modern shopping centers.
While many people stop just to get to Sri Lanka’s stunning beaches, the truth is Colombo has hidden gems, whether you love food shopping, culture, and nightlife.
1. Gangaramaya temple
The Gangaramaya Temple, with a wide range of architectural styles spanning Indian, Thai, Chinese, and Sri Lankan characteristics, is certainly an awe-inspiring sight. The temple consists of several halls and shrines, as well as a library, museum, and chamber of relics, and is wonderful to explore, with the Simamalaka Shrine being particularly charming.
Exquisite statues, carvings, carvings and the Bodhi tree are found throughout the complex, allowing for fantastic photos. It is one of the most important temples in the city and the most vibrant and extravagant celebrations of the Vesak, or full moon, take place every year.
Completed in the late 19th century, Gangaramaya Temple is located a short distance from Beira Lake and Seema Malakaya Temple and is the highlight of many people’s visit to Colombo.
2. Galle Face Green
Located by the ocean, between the Financial District and the narrow beach of the same name, Galle Face Green is one of the city’s most popular places to relax. It was once used by the British for cricket, polo, and horse racing, but now it’s a lovely place to have a picnic or take a stroll.
As many street vendors sell all kinds of delicious snacks and local specialties, Galle Face Green is a great place to grab a bite to eat while watching people fly kites in the invigorating breeze blowing off the Indian Ocean.
3. Monte Lavinia beach
Mount Lavinia Beach, with its beautiful golden sands, is located a short bus ride from the town center. Unlike most beaches in the south of the island, Mount Lavinia has a large number of facilities. Numerous bars, restaurants and hotels line its attractive arenas.
As it stretches for miles along the coast, some parts of the beach are quiet and secluded, while others are teeming with people. As well as wallowing in its warm waters or lying on its sands and enjoying the perfect scenery, Mount Lavinia Beach is also home to a vibrant nightlife, with a wide range of bars and clubs.
4. Viharamahadevi Park
The city’s largest and oldest park, Viharamahadevi, is a great place to immerse yourself in nature and get away from the busy streets of Colombo for a while. Built by the British in colonial times, the park was named after Queen Victoria before being renamed after Sri Lanka’s independence.
Very pleasant place to walk, its green alleys and landscaped lawns now house fountains, a lake, a playground and a zoo, with a magnificent statue of Buddha.
5. Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque
One of the oldest mosques in the city, Jami Ul-Alfar, dates from 1909 and features magnificent architecture inspired by many different styles. While the harmonious mix of Indo-Islamic, Gothic, and Neoclassical elements is impressive, what draws visitors in is the mosque’s unique and unusual color scheme.
The red and white striped building is reminiscent of a sugar cane, which sets it apart from its surroundings. Located a short distance from the bustling port of Colombo, this beautiful mosque is not to be missed. Outside of prayer times, its magnificent interior can be visited often.
6. Church of San Antonio
Also known as the San Antonio Sanctuary, this Roman Catholic church is usually filled with locals who come to pray or leave offerings to its sacred relic, a piece of the tongue of the revered saint. In this place people of different religions meet, because the local community considers San Antonio to be a “miracle worker”.
While the exterior of the building is pleasant, with its beautiful neoclassical features dating back to the early 1800s, it is the respectful atmosphere of the interior that makes it a special place to visit. In April 2019, St. Anthony’s Church was tragically bombed in a series of coordinated attacks across Sri Lanka in which more than 90 people lost their lives.
An important symbol of unity, hope and tolerance in the country, it was renovated and reopened shortly after and has been welcoming the faithful ever since.
7. Temple of Seema Malakaya
Located in the middle of Lake Beira, the pretty and picturesque Seema Malakaya Temple is one of the most photographed places in the city, and for good reason. With the water sparkling around them, the beautiful bronze Buddha statues that surround the main hall of the temple are even more impressive. Across the lake, skyscrapers can be seen above the treetops.
Rebuilt in 1976 after the original sank into the lake, the temple is primarily used as a center for rest and meditation rather than a place of worship. Inscribed in the Gangaramaya temple, a stone’s throw from the mainland, Seema Malakaya is particularly charming when illuminated under the night sky.
8. Independence Square
Lined with charming colonial-era buildings with leafy boulevards leading to it, the spacious Plaza de la Independencia is the site of many of the city’s major cultural events and festivals. As there are still beautiful ponds, statues and a fountain, and with many lush gardens in the immediate vicinity, it’s easy to see why Colombo was once nicknamed “the Garden City of the East”.
As well as having the fabulous Independence Memorial, which occupies one of its sides, the square is also home to the Arcade, a modern shopping center where you will find a multitude of trendy shops and restaurants.
9. Colombo National Museum
If you want to learn more about Sri Lanka’s rich history and culture, the Colombo National Museum is the place to go. Opened in 1877, the museum is housed in a dazzling white building that features incredible Italian-style architecture.
The museum, which houses a huge collection of artifacts and artwork, is fascinating to explore, with the crowns and thrones of ancient Kandyan kings on display alongside sculptures, statues, and weapons. The Colombo National Museum, with its many interesting exhibits, is a great excursion.
10. Independence Memorial
Built between 1949 and 1953, the Independence Memorial Hall was erected to commemorate the country’s independence from Great Britain in 1948. Surrounded by lush gardens, the design of the large stone building is based on that of the Royal Kandy Celebration Hall, the last indigenous kingdom of Sri Lanka.
As well as having magnificent Kandyan architecture, the national monument is also home to the Independence Memorial Museum, which is worth a visit if you have time. In front of him there is also a fantastic statue of Don Stephen Senanayake, the first Prime Minister of Sri Lanka and the “Father of the Nation”.
11. Dutch hospital
With a reputation as the oldest surviving building in the Colombo Fort area, the Dutch Hospital dates back to the late 17th century and features some of the city’s finest colonial-era architecture.
The Dutch established the hospital to treat officers and other staff of the Dutch East India Company. Over the centuries the building has also been used as a police station and is now a shopping and catering complex.
Popular with locals and tourists alike, the Dutch Hospital is a great place to eat. Sitting in one of its outdoor patios, you can enjoy the history and heritage that surrounds you.
12. Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara
The long history of Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara, one of the most important Buddhist temples not only in Sri Lanka but throughout Asia, dates back some 2,500 years, when Lord Buddha visited the island. Situated in a picturesque location overlooking the Kelani River on the outskirts of Colombo, the fate of the temple has often mirrored that of Sri Lanka itself.
Although the place features charming architecture, the highlight is its wonderful reclining Buddha and the scenes and images from his life that accompany it. It is worth a visit if the opportunity arises, as Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara continues to attract hordes of devotees.