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Colombo City Guide

Highlighted as the commercial capital of Sri Lanka, the city of Colombo is one that brings together a blend of the island nation’s rich history and modern excitement. With each glance into the city’s rapidly shifting skyline, you can be rest assured that you will be filled with a great sense of excitement and exuberance for what the city’s future holds.

Colombo, with its name derived from the old Sinhala word Kolamba, meaning harbour or port, is home to over 5.6 million people. This western coastal city is the seat of many of the country’s longstanding political institutions and commercial establishments, which makes Colombo the one place in the country that can you can be sure to find any item or activity you are looking for. From various cuisines (local and international), to fashion outlets, pubs and clubs, and much more, everything you need can be found within these 37km2! This diversity of establishments and activities in the city is bolstered by the various cultures and ethnic groups that reside within the city – the city is home to a diverse group of ethnicitiesand religions that consists of a Sinhala-Buddhist, Tamil, Burgher, and Muslim population.The city is also home to one of the country’s largest and busiest ports, given its strategic position along the East-West sea trade routes, thereby making a night-time view of the city’s horizon a breath-taking one – with all the arriving and departing ships lit up in the distance.

Despite the metropolitan area’s fame, like most cities around the world, Colombo’s reach extends beyond a single municipal authority and into the authority of multiple urban and municipal regions and councils. These councils include the Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte Municipal Council, Dehiwala/Mount Lavinia Municipal Council, Kolonnawa Urban Council, Kaduwela Municipal Council, and the Kotikawatte/MulleriyawaPradeshiya Sabha. Unlike most parts of the country that are highly agrarian or large fishing communities with relatively low contributions to the country’s national economy, Colombo’s metropolitan area alone contributes over 40% to the national GDP. The city’s economic success is drawn from its strong commercial and business presence – bolstered by a mix of the country’s own entrepreneurial excellence, longstanding small and medium enterprises, and growing multinational investment.

Following the conclusion of the country’s three-decade long civil war, the city has seen rapid levels of development, highlighted by the recent uptick in high-rise luxury apartments and hotels. In a few years, world-renowned hospitality venues like the Grand Hyatt, Shangri-La, and architectural wonders by famed architect Moshe Safdie will grace the city’s landscape. This rapid growth will undeniably contribute to making Colombo one of the most prominent destinations in Asia and around the world, if it is not already, given the vast number of tourists that visit the country from many parts of the world. The true beauty about Colombo is that in just a matter of seconds/minutes, you could be taken from a highly urban area comprised of skyscrapers, to a region full of lush greenery and a sense of calm that you would typically expect in the country-side.

Unlike most metropolitan areas around the world, Colombo is known for its diversity in culture, cuisine, architecture, activities, and landscape. You are probably looking to visit Sri Lanka to check out the gorgeous sandy beaches or breath-taking hilltop views, but one day in Colombo will take your breath away in ways that you never thought possible.Check out the other sections below for more interesting and region-specific information on the city!

If you were to walk down the street and ask anyone in Sri Lanka about the importance of Colomboand its value to the island, each person you talk to will speak highly of the city’s significant role. From a deep-rooted history, to a rapidly growing economy, and the city’s role as the political centre, Colombo’s importance and significance will only continue to grow even more over time. In this section, we highlight four fundamental indicators and benchmarks of the city’s overall relevance, both nationally and within the region.

Economic significance

Economics is at the core of any city or country’s focus, so let’s start there. With a GDP of $48 billion, accounting for over 40% of the national economy, Colombo’s economic success and sustenance is critical to the entire nation. The city’s success is a tremendous driver and enabler of overall growth within the other regions and cities on the island.The Colombo metropolitan area is the most important industrial, commercial, and administrative centre of Sri Lanka, with a majority of the country’s export-oriented manufacturing taking place in the Colombo and Greater Colombo area – making it the engine behind Sri Lanka’s overall economic growth. As a coastal city, Colombo is also a hub of the Indian ocean, given its strategic position with the East-West sea trade route.

Political significance

While Sri Lanka consists of 9 provinces and 25 districts, with many political establishments and bodies in place, Colombo is by far the largest district on the island and remains the central seat of power. The city is home to all the country’s major political establishments such as the Old Parliament Building, the new Parliament, the President’s House, the Presidential Secretariat, the Prime Minister’s House, Temple Trees (the Prime Minister’s office), the Supreme Court, and the Central Bank. With all this power and institutions centralized in a single city, Colombo’s importance spans across the country, the region, and the world. It is important to highlight that on almost every occasion, Colombo is the first visit any foreign dignitary or leader makes upon arrival in the country. As a member of the South Asian Association for Regional Corporation, Colombo has been a venue for several of the Association’s Summits. 

Demographic significance

Colombo is by far Sri Lanka’s most multi-ethnic and multi-cultural city, given its diverse composition of different ethnic and religious groups. This mix of ethnic groups comprises mostly ofa majority Sinhalese population, accounting for around 40% of the total population. Sri Lankan Tamils and Sri Lankan Muslims are the next two largest ethnic groups, which make up around 29% and 24% of the overall city population.The city is also home to many other small communities, which includes individuals of Chinese, Portuguese Burgher, Dutch Burgher, Malay, and Indian descent– largely due to the country’s colonial past and current position as a central hub within the Indian ocean. The city is also home to many foreign individuals residing in Sri Lanka predominantly for occupational or business-related reasons.

Historical significance

Colombo has a deep colonial history, given that it was colonized by the Portugese, Dutch, and finally the British in a period spanning from 1505 to 1948. As a coastal city, many of these colonial powers saw strategic interests within the island and along its coasts – particularly when it came to exerting influence and protecting their interests in neighbouring India. To this day, if you walk around the city, you will be able to witness remnants of the city’s colonial past – the architecture of this time has managed to camouflage itself into the city’s transforming landscape.

 

For more information on Colombo and some of its sights, check out the sections below!

The city of Colombo has a rich and illustrious history – comprised of precolonial, colonial, and post-colonial sights. From the coast, all the way inland, there are plenty of attractions for you to witness and take in, giving you the ability to experience what Colombo was like during various times in its past. In this section, we will run through four of the city’s most notable historical sights – the Colombo Fort, Independence Square, the National Museum of Sri Lanka, and the Cargills& Miller Building.

The Colombo Fort

Initially built and fortified by the Portuguese in the early 1500s, the location of the Colombo Fort goes even further back to when it, along with the city’s harbour, were utilized by Greek, Egyptian, and Arabian merchants. Upon capturing the Colombo Harbour, the Portuguese then built the Fort around it to strengthen their defences against potential invaders and attackers. Around 150 years later, these defences failed when the Dutch captured the Fort in 1658 and developed the Fort and its surrounding areas – particularly the Beira Lake. The British took over the Fort almost another 150 years later in 1796, which they used as a stepping stone to colonize the entire country – they ultimately did 1815.

Independence Square

One of the most important and iconic sights that highlights the island nation’s post-independence era, Independence Commemoration Hall at the Independence Square is a national monument in Sri Lanka. Built long after independence was gained from the British, the structure is made of concrete and hasthe signature Sri Lankan bear sculpted into the structure’s columns – identical to the iconic structures found in ancient Sri Lankan architecture and monuments. The rows of stone lions that surround the monument serve as the site’s guardians.A visit of the venue during the early part of the day, or at sunset, will give you the opportunity to witness a gorgeous and picturesque view unlike anything you have ever seen.

The National Museum of Sri Lanka

First built and opened in January 1877, the museum initially only held 800 items for display, however, that number has now grown to 100,000 items today. The venue holds numerous collections of artefacts that are of great value and importance to Sri Lanka, including the crown and throne of the ancient Kandyan Kingdom – the island’s last kingdom to fall to Colonialism. The Museum also maintains a library filled with a rare collection of historical books and chronicles – if you are a history buff, this would be perfect for you!If you have some time, we also recommend that you check out some of the lectures and seminars that are listed at the venue – often based around local prehistoric ethnology, anthropology, culture, and the crafts.

Cargills& Miller Building

Perhaps one of the oldest department stores in Sri Lanka, the Cargills& Millers building was builtand opened in 1844 by William Miller and David Sime, during the British colonial period. The architectural style and sculpting mirrors many of the contemporary department stores in England at the time. This stunning building serves as one of the most recognizable sights in Colombo, based in region the Fort once stood – your tour guide will almost always use this as a point of reference when taking you across the city!

For more information about the sights mentioned above, and any others in Colombo, get in touch with us! Keep reading the sections below for more to look out for in the city.

Colombo is known for its fusion of history, culture, and modernity. This characteristic is embodied best in the city’s many religious architectural marvels. Hidden within Colombo’s transforming landscape, the city’s multicultural and multi-ethnic characteristics can be found within a collection of kovils, temples, mosques, and churches. While there are many such sights that grace the city, in this piece we have captured four of the city’s most prevalent religious venues.

The KathiresanKovil

Dedicated to the War God Skanda or Murugan, the Kathiresankovil’s vertical and colourful structure is impossible to miss when you are travelling around and within Bambalapitiya – the heart of Colombo. Slated to be around 300 years old, the kovil consists of old and new sections, covered in bright colours and gold paint – depending on which part of the temple you are observing at the time. The inside of the kovil is very spacious and has varying shrines for several of the Hindu Gods and Goddesses. If you happen to be visiting Sri Lanka during the summer (July/August), the Tamil month of Aadi takes place and you would be able to experience the Vel Festival, where a chariot is carried from the New Kathiresankovil to the Kathiresankovil in Bambalapitiya.

The Gangaramaya Temple

Located in the heart of Colombo, the Gangaramaya temple is considered one of the most important temples in the city. With its traditional Buddhist architecture contrasted against the rapidly developing city skyline, the Gangaramaya Temple’s timeless aura is a truly remarkable sight to behold. Drawing its architectural roots from a fusion of Sri Lankan, Thai, Indian, and Chinese styles, this stunning temple is ideally located near the calm waters of the Beira lake. This temple boasts an illustrious and beautifully vibrant history that dates back to the 19th century, where it is said that the temple was built by a trader and ship-owner, named Don Bastion, who had played a leading role in reviving Buddhism within the city -during the peak of colonialism on the island.

The Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque

Adding a burst of colour and excitement to the city, the Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque is in the centre of one of Colombo’s most congested streets, the Second Cross Street, in the famous Pettah area. Consisting of a beautiful red and white exterior, the architecture of the mosque is unlike any other building you will see in the vicinity. Built in accordance with the vision of architect H. L. SaiboLebbe, the construction that commenced in 1908 took almost a year to complete. This mosque appears to mirror yet another famous mosque in Asia – the Masjid Jamek, which is in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia.

The WolvendaalChurch

One of the oldest sights mentioned in this section, the Wolvendaal church is an architectural masterpiece constructed during the Dutch era in 1749. The interior décor of the church consists of original Dutch furniture, with wooden carved pews, chairs, pulpit, and lecterns. The site is home to the resting place of the oldest Dutch tombstone in Sri Lanka, in addition to four other tombstones of Dutch governors who once oversaw the colonized region. The tombstones were originally located in a church within the original Dutch Fort, but were later moved in 1813 to the Wolvendaal Church. A must-see attraction within the premises is the original church organ, which is still in perfect working condition!

There are many more religious sights you could check out in Colombo and across Sri Lanka. If you would like to know more, please get in touch with us! In the meantime, check out the sections below to learn more about what you could do in Colombo.

Whether you are looking for religious, cultural, leisure, and modern sights – the city of Colombo has it all! In previous sections, we introduce you to a few of the historical and religious sights of Colombo. In this section, we give insights into four must-see locations in Colombo. We introduce you to the famous Galle Face Green, the Old City hall, Old Dutch Hospital, and the Viharamahadevi Park.

Galle Face Green

Located in a very convenient and accessible location, the Galle Face Green acts as separator between the busy Galle Road and the Indian Ocean. Established in 1859, the space stretches for 500m with an overall area spanning five hectares, and was initially used for horse racing, golf, cricket, polo, football, tennis, and rugby. The initial beneficiaries of the venue were colonial elites at the time, like the Governor Sir Henry George Ward, however in recent times, the space has evolved into an energetic and joyful urban park for everyone! On any given day, at any given time, you can expect to see a plethora of food vendors, surrounded by children, young people, and families having a great time together!

Old City Hall

Constructed nearly two centuries ago, in 1865, the Old City Hall is an old municipal building from the British colonial era. With the exception of a few old vehicles and equipment, the space is largely empty. However, a quick tour of the building will give you the opportunity to witness and go up the old mahogany stairs towards the building’s waxworks in the old council chambers – where you will find wax replicas of the town’s first councillors, who were in office initially in 1906.

The Old Dutch Hospital

The oldest building of what is left of the Colombo Fort, the Old Dutch Hospital was built in 1681 and served as a medical assistance provider for individuals working for the Dutch East India Company. The venue has now significantly transformed into a high-end destination for shoppers and diners. The area is now home to one of the island’s most famous sea food spots, among many other restaurants, and is a great place to kick back in the evening to some live music and drinks. Despite the transformative renovations, the venue has managed to maintain its classical and historical charm. Its placement right next to the city’s twin-tower World Trade Centre buildings, provides a picturesque contrast that you will most definitely appreciate.

Viharamahadevi Park

One of Colombo’s few public parks, most definitely its most famous and most visited, the Viharamahadevi Park is named after Queen Viharamahadevi, a heroine queen who legend proclaims averted a flood in her kingdom by casting herself away into the sea. Today, the Park is home to a plethora of vibrant activities that includes an aquarium, a mini-zoon, play area, war memorial, and a space for live performances on select days. The Park is also complemented by an abundance of street vendors who sell local food favourites like candy floss, corn, and ice cream. If you ever find yourself in need of a silent stroll through Colombo, to get away from the noise, this is, without doubt, a location you would enjoy!

 

There are many more sites for you to check out – if you would like to know more, feel free to get in touch… or keep reading the following sections!

Travelling long distances to get to Colombo can be an arduous process, especially if you are coming from the other side of the world. However, knowing that you will be able to fall right into place and be spoiled by luxury upon arrival is something that will most definitely take the pain away. With Colombo seeing significant growth in recent years, the city’s tourist numbers are soaring and the number of luxury hotels coming up everywhere are a sight to behold. However, choosing which option to go for can often be a challenging one, which is why we are here! In this section, we will run through five of Colombo’s best 5-star hotels. We hope this helps!

The Kingsbury

Refurbished only a few years ago, The Kingsbury was formerly the Intercontinental Hotel and is located overlooking the Indian Ocean – within close proximity of one of the city’s most exciting new projects, the Colombo Port City. If luxury and relaxation is something you are looking for, the hotel’s rooms and suites will spoil you and your loved ones in ways you have never experienced. With a plethora of restaurants and bars located within the hotel, in addition to the other establishments within the Old Dutch Hospital, you are as conveniently located as you can be in Colombo. Be sure to head up to Sky Lounge, the hotel’s signature rooftop bar and enjoy a gorgeous evening, overlooking the Indian Ocean.

Movenpick Hotel

One of the most recent hotels to open in the city, the Movenpick is a high-rise establishment located near the ever-busy Duplication Road (officially known as R.A. De Mel Mawatha). The hotel’s 24 stories cut into the Colombo skyline, making it a landmark that is impossible to miss. One of the signature venues you should check out is their 4th floor restaurant – AYU – where you can expect a lovely meal, complemented by a gorgeous view. Movenpick is still a relatively young hotel, which means that there is much to look forward to. If you are looking for a venue with international brand value, this may be the option for you.

Cinnamon Grand

Cinnamon Grand is probably the city’s most well-known hotel, given its popularity among locals. With highly recommended restaurants, bars, and event venues, you can be rest assured that CG is one of the busiest hotels in the country. A quick walk around the hotel’s premises will introduce you to a plethora of wedding and conference attendees, and tons of friendly people, to meet and speak with. Check out the hotel’ssignature bars, the Breeze Bar and Cheers, for Friday evening happy hour cocktails and a cricket or football match. If you have a desire for seafood, check out the hotel’s resident seafood restaurant, Lagoon, for an excellent spread, or Noodles Restaurant for Asian dining – if that is your taste.

The Hilton Colombo

A signature name known all around the world, the Hilton Colombo is one of the city’s oldest and longstanding hotels. Despite its age and years of operation, The Hilton Colombo is bolstered by its outstanding buffet dining at the Graze Lounge, gorgeous interior architecture, and luxurious rooms and suites. With one of the largest banquet halls among the country’s 5-star hotels, The Hilton Colombo is a popular destination for conferences and weddings. Its convenient location,in close proximityto the Galle Face Green, makes it the perfect choice for a hotel that gives you luxury, delicious food, and the opportunity to access the best parts of the city!

 

Colombo is home to many more hotels – if you would like to know more, please get in touch with us!

Colombo has a wide spread of restaurants and eateries that you can walk into at any given time, whenever you are craving a bite. From international cuisine to local cuisine, local and international chefs have graced the city with some of the best food you will ever get to taste. However, when it comes to Sri Lankan food, choosing the right place can often be difficult, given the large number of local food spots available (both large and small) across the city. Luckily for you, we have listed down four Sri Lankan food spots you should definitely check out.

Upali’s

Upali’s is as authentic as it gets when it comes to finding a spot that is a dine-in restaurant with authentic Sri Lankan food. From the traditional Sri Lankan coconut sambol, rottis, and curries, in addition to a wide array of options specifically catered to vegetarians, this restaurant gives you expansive access to a wide range of local food. You do not just have to stick to the traditional rice and curry – Upali’s gives you the choice of trying out the famous “roast paan” (bread) with mutton curry (highly recommended) and other options like rotti and paratta. The restaurant is perfect for all – individuals, couples, and families – so if you find yourself craving some traditional Sri Lankan food, this is the place to go!

Kaema Sutra

Located in the city’s recently refurbished Independence Arcade, Kaema Sutra is a bold venture initiated by one of the island’s best chef – Dharshan Munidasa. Kaema’s cuisine adds a little twist to what you might expect from traditional Sri Lankan food, which can be a unique experience. Kaema mimicsfeatures from traditional Japanese restaurants by appropriating bento boxes – think Sri Lankan food instead of sushi. This contributes to the restaurant’s overall reputation of providing Sri Lankan cuisine with a twist. Kaema is a great spot if you are looking to try out some of the country’s traditional hoppers – for something really different, try out their honey hoppers for dessert.

VOC Café

Located within the premises of the Dutch Burgher Union in the centre of Colombo, the VOC Café is known for its famous lamprais (pronounced “lump rice” by locals, if that makes it easy). Wrapped in a banana leaf, this portion of mixed spicy rice comes with an aroma and taste that is bolstered by the leaf when hot food is added onto it – we can guarantee that this something that will take you by surprise, in a good way! Despite being in the heart of Colombo, surrounded by busy roads and businesses, this enclosed location is rich in greenery and space, giving you the ability to take a break from the city and enjoy a relaxing meal with your friend, spouse, and/or family. While you are there, we also recommend that you try out their burger spread!

Ministry of Crab

This restaurant is one of Colombo’s most exclusive and exquisite spots. Located within the Old Dutch Hospital complex, Ministry of Crab is considered one of, if not the, best restaurant in Colombo. You should not expect anything less from an establishment that is the brainchild of two of the best cricketers in Sri Lankan history – Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jaywardena – and the country’s best chef, Dharshan Munidasa (sound familiar?). Known for bringing its patrons the very best of the local crabs, the restaurant’s menu will shock you with its variety of options to choose from. Ministry of Crab is the one restaurant that you can say, without doubt,offers you and your taste buds an experience that you will not find anywhere. Be sure to check it out!

If you would like more information on other restaurants to visit when in Colombo, reach out to us and we will help you out. In the meantime, check out the other sections for more insights into Colombo!

Sightseeing and taking in the vibrant architecture of Colombo is an amazing experience, no doubt. However, after a full day of travelling, vary legs and parched throats could use a little hydration. Fortunately, Colombo is a hot zone when it comes to bars and pubs, given its wide selection of unique watering holeswhere you can enjoy some live music, interact with locals, and have an overall great time. Given the vast number of drinking establishments available in the city, deciding on the best places to visit can be tough. Not to worry, though! In this section we list out four of the best bars and pubs in Colombo for you to check out. You could either try out one, or go to them all – the choice is entirely yours!

The Bavarian

Strange, isn’t it, that the first venue on our list is German-themed? However, a few minutes in this establishment and you will immediately know why we have them right up there. Located in close proximity to the Galle Face Green, this restaurant and bar is known for its large food portions, vast selection of beer, and a wine collection that will surprise you for a German bar. If you happen to be walking around the heart of Colombo and need some dinner and drinks, make sure you have The Bavarian marked right at the top of your list. If you like beer, food, a good time, and a little bit of Germany – this is the place for you!

Sky Lounge

Located on the rooftop of one of Colombo’s more exquisite and luxurious hotels, The Kingsbury, Sky Lounge is one of the best open-air rooftop bars on the island. Very few locations come close to beating the venue’s panoramic view of the evolving city of Colombo, where on one side you have the busy port, right in front of you is the Indian Ocean, and on the other end is the city’s transforming skyline. At night-time, this is as good a site as there is in the whole city. If you are not looking for a heavy dining experience, then Sky Lounge’s menu consisting predominantly of finger food, continental and American cuisine should work well for you. If you are there for a good drink and a great time – we recommend you check the venue out between 5:30pm and 6:30pm, where you would enjoy both phenomenal happy hour deals and a breath-taking view of the sunset on the Indian Ocean.

&Co Pub and Kitchen- The Steuart

Located carefully between the city’s historic Old Dutch Hospital and the Colombo Clock Tower, &Co Pub is a watering hole that is perfect for a quick beer and bite. With bursts of shamrock green and gold, complemented by the pub’s wooden furniture that gives the establishment the look and feel of a classic tavern, you would be at the best place to enjoy drinks and a cuisine that consists a fusion of British and Sri Lankan food. Another great aspect about the pub is that it’s not just ideal for night-time visits – if you are walking around Colombo during the day, checking out the history of the region, make sure you drop in for some lunch. Their spread is phenomenal!

Cheers Pub

One of Colombo’s most famous and popular British-themed restaurants and pubs, Cheers is located in Cinnamon Grand – one of the city’s premier five-star hotels. The establishment has been one of Colombo’s oldest active in the pub scene, and for good reason – the spread of food is as good as the wide array of beverage options, which makes this location one that is both appealing to casual diners and people looking for a drink. Another great attribute about the venue is that if you have a big game on that you need to catch, chances are it is being screened at Cheers – so all you need to do is head over there, grab some food and drinks, and enjoy the game! On its good days, Cheers is one of the best sports bars on the island.

If you would like more interesting insights into some of the fun things you should try out when you are in the city – reach out to us. Until then, browse the other sections for any other information regarding the incredible city of Colombo!