At just 37.31 square kilometres, Colombo is a small city by world standards. But in so many ways, it packs a big punch!
Due to its position along ancient trading routes, the port of Colombo was well-known to the great seafarers – the Arabs, Persians, Greeks, Romans and Chinese – for thousands of years. Indeed, Sri Lanka has a documented history that spans over 3 000 years. Its geographic location and deep, safe, harbours made it of great strategic importance from the time of the ancient Silk Road through to World War II. More recently, Colombo (and the rest of Sri Lanka) was subject to three periods of European colonialism – first by the Portuguese in the early 1500s; then by the Dutch; and then finally by the British – before the country as a whole assumed the status of an independent republic in 1972. Of course, South Indian influences are very visible in many aspects of Colombo and Sri Lankan life. Sri Lanka is also home to many religions, ethnicities and languages. It has an especially rich Buddhist heritage – some of the first known Buddhist writings were composed on the island.
All of the above influences from all corners of the world have moulded Sri Lanka into an extremely rich mixing pot of culture and diversity. And Colombo represents a microcosm of this. There is no real starting point or pre-determined route from which to explore Sri Lanka’s capital city of Colombo. Instead, due to its small area, the traveller would be happier experiencing bits and pieces of the city in a spontaneous, unplanned way. If you did have somewhere in mind to explore, the traditional Colombo way to get there would be in the back of a Tuk Tuk taxi! These motorised, three-wheeled chariots are the backbone of Sri Lanka’s transport system and a very effective – if rather quirky – way to get around the city.
Shop Till You Drop
Going shopping is a good way to explore any city. The Pettah Market is the place to shop for anything from fruits to clothes to electronics, all at wholesale prices. But be warned – this is true market-style shopping, where bargaining is serious business. It is not for the faint of heart! Pettah Market has been described as an ‘exhilarating slice of Asian life.’ It is a wonderful place to experience the bustling energy of Colombo. Lakpahana, in Cinnamon Gardens, serves as a base for the Sri Lanka Craftsmen and Artisans Association. Here you can buy high quality wood carvings, silverware, masks, gem stone jewellery, textile products, and much more. According to most shopping reviews, prices are generally very good.
Visitors keen to ‘escape the city’ for a moment will find they are never far from a park or recreation space in Colombo. The Galle Face Green is the most popular of these. Its mile-long walkway is situated right next to the shoreline, and is lined with palm trees and patches of greenery. The place is always a beehive of activity – with people and families and their children having picnics, playing games, flying kites, watching the sun go down – generally just having a ball. Street vendors serve up traditional-style snacks and beverages all along the promenade. Beira Lake lies in the heart of a built up and busy part of Colombo, but the immediate surroundings of the lake are a sanctuary of calm and quiet – the gigantic trees offering protection from the mid-day sun. The Viharamahadevi Park (formerly Victoria Park) is a public park located next to the National Museum. It is the oldest and largest park in the city (built during the British rule of Sri Lanka), and it also happens to have a huge Buddha statue and a series of water fountains within its grounds. All of the above attractions and many more can be observed from the upper deck of a bus on one of the Colombo City Bus Tours.
Things to See
The Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque, in Pettah, is now over 100 years old. Every surface of the mosque’s minarets and domes has been painted in a striking red and white colour scheme. It is spectacular to look at. The National Zoological Gardens of Sri Lanka, in Colombo’s Dehiwala region, are also the location of the Colombo Zoo – home to a bunch of animal species (including elephants), as well as an aquarium, aviary, reptile house, and butterfly garden. At the National Museum in Cinnamon Gardens, you’ll encounter a fascinating range of art, carvings, statues, and other interesting items from Sri Lanka’s past – as well as weaponry and other paraphernalia from the colonial period. A short way away from Beira Lake is the Buddhist temple of Gangarama Vihara, which is one of the most revered temples in the country. It is decorated with brass work, stone carvings, and other Buddhist art. There is also a museum on the premises.
Sri Lankans are absolutely passionate about their cricket – watching a match is possibly one of the most culturally appropriate and thrilling things you can do in Colombo. The Ranasinghe Premadasa Stadium in Maligawatta has hosted over 100 one day internationals, and is where the Sri Lankan national side often play. If they happen to be playing while you’re in town then don’t miss out on the action!
Most Colombo-style cooking involves a rice dish served with a curry of fish, chicken, or mutton, combined with other curries made from vegetables, lentils and even fruit. Side-dishes include pickles, chutneys and sambals. Coconut milk features strongly too – adding a distinct flavour to many dishes. Don’t leave Colombo without sampling a Kothu Rotti – a quintessential Sri Lankan snack of sliced-up bits of rotti, blended with combinations of chicken, beef, egg, onions, tomatoes and green chillies. Being in such close proximity to the ocean, sea food is obviously a big part of Colombo cooking. A sea food dish bought from a street vendor or eaten at a restaurant on a beach is a defining Colombo experience. After a few of these, you’ll want to stay forever!