The commercial capital of Sri Lanka and the true hub of all activity in the island, Colombo is a buzzing hotpot of cosmopolitan life.
In this throbbing city, a heady mix of cultures thrives. Here, contrasting landmarks - ancient sites, colonial masterpieces and ultra - modern skyscrapers sit side by side. Quaint old shops and wayside stalls lie under the shadows of glittering stores and sprawling shopping malls. Similarly, lifestyles and traditions old and new continue, making Colombo a unique and exciting city. Its history dates far back: the port of Colombo was influential as early as the 5th century when ships from Rome, Arabia, and China traded with Sinhalese kings for food supplies, spices and jewels. The subsequent colonial powers also left their individual legacies – and the Portuguese, Dutch and English influence remains very much to date. Many of the grand colonial buildings are lovingly restored – as beautiful arcades or grand hotels, and many old period style homes as cafes, shops and guest houses. The colourful fabric of today’s society comprise Sinhalese, Moors, Tamils, Burghers (Portuguese, Dutch and British descendants), Chinese, and Malay populations. Several historical sites including ancient Buddhist temples, Hindu Kovils, churches, and mosques are found in the heart of the city as well. The attractions of Colombo are countless with many museums, art galleries, golf courses, gyms, spas and salons, bars, restaurants, night clubs, cafes and coffee shops to keep you busy.
Fort gets its name from the ramparts which was constructed by the Portuguese, captured by the Dutch in 1656, and finally became the centre of administration during British rule. In 1870, however the walls of the ramparts were demolished by the British rulers as they were thought to be hindering the development of the area. This area is still known as Fort to this very day, and is now the central business district of the island.
Fort is renowned for its interesting mix of architecture with buildings that represent the many eras through which this city has played a key role in. The President’s official residence, “Janadhipathi mandiraya” is located in Fort and traces its ancestry to the Dutch period when it was established as the residence for the Dutch Governor. Following the capture of the island by the British, it then became the residence of the British Governor and was thus known as the Queen’s House until 1972. The Neo - baroque styled Old Parliament Building houses the Presidential Secretariat, while the Central Bank of Sri Lanka and the old General Post office are located on Janadhipathi Mawatha. Other notable buildings of architectural interest include the Old Dutch Hospital complex which has undergone renovation and is now a trendy area with an assortment of dining and shopping options, the old Cargills & Millers building and the Colombo lighthouse and harbour which is currently undergoing redevelopment.
Galle face Green
Established in 1859 by Governor Sir Henry Ward, the Galle Face Green promenade covers an area of five hectare which stretches out along half a kilometre of beautiful coastline. Originally much larger in area, today Galle Face Green is the perfect place to enjoy an evening stroll and watch some of the most spectacular sunsets. Galle Face Green is a popular location for locals, both young and not so young and you are likely to see people engaging in a myriad of activity including picnics, playing cricket flying kites and even exercising. As it is the largest open public space in Colombo it does get very busy during weekends and public holidays. There are street food vendors from whom you can sample some typical local snacks such as a crunchy prawn or “Isso” wadey while enjoying the cool breeze drifting in from the Indian Ocean. There are quite a few hotels in the vicinity including the Galle Face Hotel which was established in 1864 and has hosted Royalty and celebrities over the years.
Pettah or Pita kotuwa as it is known in Sinhalese, essentially means outside of Fort. The area is a melting pot of religions and ethnicities which appear to blend together to create an atmosphere unlike no other. The area is famous for the Pettah Market which is a series of open air bazaars and stores which sell almost anything and everything. It is possibly the busiest commercial area in the country with a lot of traders dealing with the purchase of items in bulk at whole sale prices. Although at first glance Pettah may appear chaotic, with a little patience and the willingness to walk around, shoppers are able to leave with any number of amazing things at great value for money. Amidst all the hustle and bustle of Pettah there are quite a few important landmarks that are worthy of a second glance. These include the Wolvendaal Church which was established by the Dutch, the Jami Ul - Alfar Mosque, Kayman's Gate, the old Colombo Town Hall and the Khan Clock Tower which was built by the Khan family of Mumbai, India.
Old Dutch Hospital (Shopping & Dining)
Dating back to the time of Dutch colonial rule, the Old Dutch Hospital recently underwent complete renovation and is now a trendy venue for shopping and dining. Considered to be one of the oldest buildings in the Colombo Fort area, the classic 17th century styled colonial architecture has been preserved and the building itself has been declared a heritage site. Built as a hospital by the Dutch, it is believed to have existed since 1681 and has been used for various purposes over the years. The Dutch Hospital as it has come to be known today is home to some of the very best brands in fashion, jewellery, personal care, handicrafts, restaurants and cafes. The famous restaurant, The Ministry of Crab which is owned by world acclaimed cricketers Mahela Jayawardena and Kumar Sangakkara is located at this venue. The Dutch Hospital is a hub for weekend activity, especially on a Friday when locals from the country’s financial capital flock to enjoy a chilled brew whilst unwinding after a busy week or a leisurely dinner while enjoying an assortment of musical entertainment. Alternately it is an ideal location to sit outside with a cup of Ceylon tea and enjoy the cool breeze that blows in from the Indian Ocean nearby.
Gangaramaya Temple is not only a place of worship for Buddhists, but it is also a place of learning. Displaying an eclectic combination of Sri Lankan, Thai, Indian and Chinese architectural styles, Gangaramaya is one of the most revered temples in Colombo. Located in close proximity to the Beira Lake, in the heart of Colombo, the temple is built on a plot of land which was acquired by a famous 19th century shipping merchant who was looking for suitable land to build a temple for the Matara Sri Dharmarama thero. The temple premises consist of several imposing buildings including the Simamalaka Shrine, which was designed by Sri Lanka’s most acclaimed architect Geoffrey Bawa and built with donations from a Muslim sponsor. Also on view is a Sandakada pahana' which is modelled on those found in Anuradhapura. The Bo tree which is seen at Gangaramaya Temple is from a sapling of the Sri Maha Bodhiya in Anuradhapura, which was itself a sapling from the tree under which Lord Buddha is said to have gained enlightenment. The temple museum has a vast variety of gifts presented to the temple by devotees and well wishers through the years.
The temple is involved in Buddhist welfare work including old peoples' homes, a vocational school and an orphanage. The temple is uniquely attractive and tolerant to congregation members of many different religions and has also been instrumental in the establishment of temples in USA and Tanzania. The Nawam Perahera which is held during the month of February and concludes during the Poya day (full moon day) of the same month is centred around the Gangaramaya Temple and is quite a spectacular feature observed by Buddhists and well wishers alike.
The Wolvendaal Church is one of the oldest protestant churches in the country. Located in Pettah, the church is a testament to Dutch Colonial architecture. The church is named Wolvendaal which translates to Wolf’s Dale. The Dutch mistook a pack of roaming jackals in the area for wolves and thus the area became known accordingly. The site itself is located on a hill thus offering a commanding view of the town and harbour. The foundation for the church was laid in 1749 and the church was constructed in the Doric style, which is one of the three main styles of Greek architecture and is in the form of a Greek cross which entails the legs all being of equal length. The church can accommodate up to 1000 people. There are five Dutch Governors buried at the church, including the last Governor, Johan Gerard van Angelbeek, who died in Colombo in 1799, three years after the British secured control over the port city. Furthermore, a history spanning 300 years has resulted in Dutch, Burgher, Singhalese, Tamil and English names found amongst the gravestones within and outside the church.
Nelum Pokuna Theatre
Opened on 15 December 2011, the Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksha Theatre Sri Lanka’s premier most performing arts centre. Situated in the heart of Colombo, the Nelum Pokuna as it is more commonly known is in close proximity to several commercial establishments and hotels, thus making it the perfect location for large international gatherings and performances. The architecture of the Nelum Pokuna, which translates to Lotus Pond, was inspired by the 12th century Nelum Pokuna which is a Lotus shaped pond found in Polonnaruwa. This pond which is shaped as an eight petal lotus flower, was built during the reign of one of Sri Lanka’s greatest kings, King Parakaramabahu I. Built with the aid of the Chinese Government, the Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksha Theatre is equipped with modern facilities and technology and can accommodate 1288 guests. Furthermore, the theatre also houses a library and training facility. The building features two permanent theatres which are the main auditorium and an open air theatre. The main auditorium includes a 690m² moving stage which enables the orchestra pit to be raised and lowered from stage level. Extensive parking is also available.
Independence Square is situated in the suburb of Cinnamon Gardens (also known as Colombo 7) in Colombo and was the location of the formal ceremony held to mark Sri Lanka’s (then Ceylon’s) independence from British rule in 1948. At the heart of Independence Square is the Independence Commemoration Hall which has great historical significance. The hall, which was loosely designed on the Magul Maduwa or Celebration Hall where the Kandyan Convention took place in 1815, is an impressive monument situated behind the statue of Rt. Hon. Don Stephen Senanayake or Hon D.S. Senanayake, the first Prime Minister of Ceylon who is popularly known as "The Father of the Nation". Apart from being a national monument, the Independence Commemoration Hall served as the ceremonial assembly hall for the Senate of Ceylon and the House of Representatives of Ceylon until the establishment of the Parliament Complex at Galle Face. Currently it is the venue for religious events and annual national day celebrations. Interestingly the Independence Commemoration Hall was featured as a ‘pit stop on’ both The Amazing Race Asia, and The Amazing Race Australia.
In recent years the gardens surrounding Independence Square have been developed in to a public space which boasts scenic walkways and cycling tracks as well as beautifully manicured lawns. It is a meeting point for many morning power walkers as well as a great outdoor space for parents to bring their young children in their strollers or to simply play a game of catch. There is ample parking in the vicinity and is an ideal place to just relax with a book, although it can get quite busy at times.
The Arcade is the latest addition to a host of trendy leisure venues which are popping up around the city of Colombo. This beautiful space was created with the renovation of a series of colonial buildings which included the Auditor General’s building. Historically, this complex was said to be built as an asylum during British Rule. However, thanks to its recent refurbishment, it has now turned into one of the nicest and most popular places to hang out. The surrounding area is well maintained with lovely manicured gardens, paved floors, an impressive sculpture of a pride of lions symbolising national pride, and a fish tank which is covered in glass and can be walked upon. The Arcade itself is home to a variety of trendy stores and restaurants, as well as a food court and Burger King fast food outlet. There is plenty of outdoor seating making it an ideal place to catch up with friends and grab a bite whilst enjoying some fresh air. There is plenty of parking available.
The National Museum of Colombo is the largest museum in Sri Lanka and is situated in the heart of suburban Colombo. It was opened in 1877 by the then British Governor of Ceylon, Sir William Henry Gregory. The museum is home to an impressive collection of ancient artefacts including a variety of art, statues and carvings from ancient times. The main exhibits are displayed according to the various time periods and kingdoms of the country, thus bringing to life the country’s magnificent history. At the very entrance to the museum you will find an ancient Samadhi Buddha statue which has been carved entirely from a block of granite. It was discovered in 1900 at the ruins of the Toluvila Monastery and is thought to date back to the 4th or 5th century. One of the most popular exhibits is the throne and crown jewels of the last King of Sri Lanka, King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe who was captured by the British in 1815. These valuable relics were returned to Sri Lanka by the British Government and were thus added to the museum collection for public viewing. The museum also consists of an impressive Natural History section which is housed in a separate building.
Royal Colombo Golf Club
Situated in the heart of Colombo, the Royal Colombo Golf Club is set in 96 acres of what used to be a model farm. The club is easily accessible to golf enthusiasts as it is surrounded by many business establishments and residences. In contrast to its bustling surroundings however, the Golf Club offers a peaceful and tranquil setting which is ideal for a round or two of golf. Founded over 130 years ago, the Royal Colombo Golf Course has the honour of being the second oldest Royal Golf Club outside of the United Kingdom. There is an extensive display of golf memorabilia on view within the quaint club house, which is also famous for its cheese toast and scrumptious breakfasts. The well maintained landscape also offers for sightings of many birds, both local and migratory, as well as plenty of other species of flora and fauna.
Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya
The Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya is a very important place of worship to Buddhists across the country. Located in the town of Kelaniya, which is approximately 7 miles from Colombo, the site on which the temple stands is said to have been the visited by Lord Buddha himself during his third and final visit to the island. This visit took place 8 years after his enlightenment which thus places this event at approximately 500BC. The ancient chronicles of the Mahawansa state that the original stupa at Kelaniya enshrined a bejewelled throne on which Lord Buddha is said to have sat and preached.
The temple flourished over the years, especially during the Kotte era, but then saw major decline during the period of Portuguese occupation as most of the land was confiscated. However, it rose once again under the patronage of King Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe who was responsible for the rebuilding of the temple during the Dutch period.
The Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya is the venue for the annual Durutha Maha Perehara which is a very colourful religious procession held in the month of January around the time of Poya day (Full moon day). The Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya is also renowned for its images of the reclining Buddha as well as a myriad of paintings depicting important events of the life of Lord Buddha, the history of Buddhism on the island and also a variety of images from the Jataka tales.
The National Zoological Gardens of Sri Lanka, commonly known as the Dehiwela Zoo, is located in the suburb of Dehiwela which is just outside the Colombo City limits. Originally established in 1936, the Dehiwela Zoo is one of the oldest Zoological gardens in Asia. The Zoo is home to a substantial number of species of mammals, amphibians, reptiles, birds and fish. There are plenty of endemic species as well as species from the rest of the world. Visitors can explore the aquarium, aviary, reptile house, butterfly garden and many cages and enclosures. Truth be told, the Dehiwela Zoo is in dire need of development in order to make its enclosures more environmentally friendly for its occupants. While the authorities are in the process of developing the infrastructure of the zoo, some of the animals are in very cramped cages which can be a very depressing sight. The Zoo is open all year round and can be accessed via public transport.
Diyawanna Water Park
Created around the Diyawanna Oya, the Diyawanna Water Park is a great addition to this beautiful city. Providing the general public with newly landscaped spaces, spectacular walkways and leisure areas adjacent to Diyawanna Oya, the Diyawanna Water Park has become a captivating sight not only to daily commuters, but also to surrounding residents who are now able to exercise and unwind on the banks of the historical and environmentally rich Diyawanna Oya. The lush greenery combined with the peaceful waters of the Diyawanna Oya offer the perfect location for parents to bring their children to ride their bikes, or simply take in the scenery whilst engaging in a casual stroll. The area is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and is well lit during the darker hours of the day. It is not unusual to see many water birds, especially during the early mornings or evenings. Boat rides are also available and operated by the Sri Lanka Navy.
The Town Hall of Colombo is an impressive white building which faces Colombo’s picturesque Viharamahadevi Park. This building houses the offices of the Mayor of Colombo and is the administrative centre for the Colombo Municipal Council. The foundation stone for the Town Hall of Colombo was laid by the then Mayor of Colombo T. Reid in 1924 and was designed by S.J Edwards. The building was completed in 1927. Initially meant to house the office of the Mayor and council chambers, as well as a large ballroom for official functions, the building today is a meeting place for elected municipal council members and its administrative staff. The garden is used for many events and functions.