Colombo, the vibrant capital city of Sri Lanka, is a must-visit destination for travelers seeking a unique cultural experience. This backpackers guide to Colombo will provide you with all the essential information you need to navigate this bustling city. When you arrive, make sure to explore the historic Fort district, where you can marvel at the colonial architecture and visit iconic landmarks such as the Dutch Hospital and the Old Parliament Building.
For a taste of the local cuisine, head to the bustling streets of Pettah, where you will find an array of street food stalls serving delicious Sri Lankan delicacies. Don't miss the opportunity to visit the beautiful Gangaramaya Temple, a Buddhist temple that showcases a fusion of architectural styles. To escape the hustle and bustle, take a stroll along Galle Face Green, a popular promenade overlooking the Indian Ocean. With its rich history, vibrant culture, and warm hospitality, Colombo is a city that will leave you captivated. Start planning your visit today!
Colombo Sri Lanka – e-Visas are now available for foreign travellers to Sri Lanka, check the website https://eta.gov.lk/etaslvisa/etaNavServ. To check eligibility dependent upon your passport nationality. The e-Visa online form was quick to complete and does not require the uploading of a passport photograph.
The cost was $35USD and this was payable upon application. In my experience, I received confirmation within a couple of hours via email. There is no need to print out said confirmation, as this is an e-Visa and is recorded electronically with your personal details.
The visa allows for tourist travel in Sri Lanka for up to 30 days. If you do not have a credit or visa debit card, then visas are also available on arrival, however, prepare $35USD.
There are ATMs just outside the door from the baggage carousels. These are to the far left-hand side of the waiting arrivals area.
Getting to Colombo
Once you exit the front of the airport, turn left and walk to the end of the airport building. You will see a large car park, and towards the road see either an empty bus bay or a large coach-style bus waiting while passengers board. If you are u sure where to wait, just ask bystanders for bus 187.
Many bystanders may offer you a private car, but just tell them you wish to take the bus. It is not hard to find, and the bus waits within 30 metres of the airport building, so you will see it pull in if not already there. I missed the first bus and waited about 10 minutes for the next bus, meanwhile many tourists and locals arrived and joined the wait. The bus to the city centre costs 110LKR (approx $AUD 1).
Bus Station, Train Station
Colombo main bus station and train station are located within the same region, from there, you can easily walk or take a rickshaw to your accommodation. My accommodation was about 5 kilometres away, I would normally walk through the city and enjoy it if the distance was short, however, this is not walkable in the heat so I took a tuk-tuk (look for a metered tuk-tuk, which works just like a taxi).
Getting Around the City
Walk the Streets
If you are staying nearby the Colombo Fort Railway Station or the Central Bus Station then you are able to walk to and around the Pettah Floating Market, the Pettah Fruit and Vegetable Market, the bazaar streets around the Central Bus Station, as well as the CBD (a few old colonial-style buildings now used as offices). these are all within walking distance of one another.
Metered Tuk Tuks
Metered tuk-tuks are the best way to get around the city, look for the tuk-tuks with a “metered taxi” sign on the roof. These drivers will not approach you, so if you arrive at a bus or train station and are approached by multiple tuk-tuk drivers – you can guess that these are unmetered and will overcharge you drastically.
The rate for a metered tuk-tuk in Colombo is approximately 40 rupees per kilometre (that is around 40 cents AUD).
A Tuk Tuk Tour
While I was walking around the city, and along Galle Face (for foreshore area with small market stalls, pier and path along the shore) I was approached by many drivers asking if I wished to do a tour in their tuk-tuk. In fact, Various drivers over the days I was in Colombo had approached me, all offering temple visits, to take me to multiple sights as well as act as a guide.
So if you are in Colombo, short on time and wish to have a local guide give you some insight into what it is you are actually visiting then haggle for a reasonable price. Try to avoid any conversations about gemstones if you do not wish to be sold any of these, as selling gems is a popular thing in Sri Lanka.
I said yes to one of these drivers, after saying no many times to him. The driver took me to the Gangaramaya Temple (also known as the temple of the hair). He came into the temple with me and explained about the blessings, jewels and how famous the temple was. The driver seemed to have gems on his mind as he told me about these throughout the temple visit.
However, after exiting the temple, I paid him and he refused at first. And tried his best to linger me back into the tuk-tuk to look at another attraction, some gems. So just be aware if you are not in the market for purchasing some gems.
Gangaramaya Temple – Temple of The Hair
Located in Colombo, this temple holds the distinction of being the largest and most renowned in the city. Visitors are treated to an awe-inspiring display of Buddha statues crafted from precious gemstones, adorned with diamonds and crystals. Additionally, the temple proudly showcases a display of Buddha's hair, carefully preserved in a glass case. For those interested in smaller yet equally impressive pieces, the temple also features solid gold Buddha statues.
Visiting this temple offers a unique chance to witness the local community engaging in their daily prayers. Additionally, if you happen to be present in the temple at the same time as a local monk, there is a possibility of receiving a blessing for good luck. I was fortunate enough to experience this firsthand.
A monk invited a few foreigners to a display room, where valuable gems were protected by security guards carrying rifles. The monk placed a statue adorned with Buddha ornaments on our heads and then tied thin white strings around our wrists, all while reciting a blessing for good luck.
The foreshore area is an ideal spot for a leisurely stroll. With its windy conditions, it offers a refreshing escape from the hot and bustling city. Don't forget to pack some snacks and drinks to enjoy while sitting on the available seating facing the shore. Additionally, you can find various small vendors selling packaged and pre-fried snack foods from their glass display wagons.
Galle Face is a well-known location where you can rent kites and enjoy flying them. In the evenings, it becomes a popular spot for local couples and friends to socialize and spend time together. While it is possible to walk to Galle Face from the CBD, it is advisable to hail a metered tuk-tuk, especially in the hot weather.
National Museum of Colombo
The National Museum of Colombo, located in Sri Lanka, is an iconic institution that showcases the rich cultural heritage of the country. With its vast collection of artefacts, the museum offers a fascinating glimpse into Sri Lanka's history, art, and archaeology. Visitors can explore various galleries that house a diverse range of exhibits, including ancient sculptures, intricate carvings, precious gemstones, and exquisite paintings.
The museum also features interactive displays and multimedia presentations, providing an engaging learning experience for both adults and children. Additionally, the National Museum of Colombo offers guided tours and educational programs, allowing visitors to delve deeper into the significance of each exhibit.
Spanning over 50 acres, this park boasts lush greenery, vibrant flowers, and a serene lake, making it a picturesque oasis. The park offers a range of activities for visitors of all ages, including walking and jogging trails, playgrounds for children, and picnic spots for families to enjoy quality time together. Additionally, there are several historical landmarks within the park, such as the statue of Queen Viharamahadevi, after whom the park is named.
Dutch Hospital Colombo
The Dutch Hospital Colombo is a historic building located in the heart of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Constructed during the Dutch colonial period in the 17th century, it has been beautifully restored and transformed into a vibrant shopping and dining destination. The building's unique architectural features, such as its thick walls and arched windows, provide a glimpse into its rich history.
Visitors can explore a variety of boutique shops, offering everything from local handicrafts to high-end fashion. The Dutch Hospital Colombo is also home to several restaurants and cafes, serving both local and international cuisine.
Pettah Floating Market
The floating market is a newly built structure situated next to a man-made lake, accessible by a pier. Once inside, you'll discover a diverse selection of clothing and accessories, akin to the offerings found at nearby local markets.
In this area, the market is designed to cater specifically to tourists. This means that you can expect to find well-maintained pathways, exceptionally clean stores, and vendors who are not overly pushy or aggressive in soliciting your business. It is definitely worth taking the time to appreciate the stunning green waters that surround Colombo. However, it is important to keep in mind that prices in this market are generally higher than average. On the bright side, there are conveniently located public toilets nearby for your convenience.
Pettah Fruit and Vegetable Market
In close proximity to the Central Bus Station, the Colombo Railway Station, and the floating market, this area is known for its convenience and lively ambiance. It's the perfect place to take a leisurely walk alongside the locals as they browse through a diverse range of products, such as fresh fruits and tasty honey dates. This spot is especially ideal for grabbing some snacks to enjoy during your upcoming bus or train trip. Moreover, you'll find an abundance of clothing and accessories stores nearby, offering trendy fisherman-style printed pants and distinctive souvenirs.
Fort and Clock Tower
The Fort and clock tower are highly recommended attractions often featured in online guides. It's worth noting that this area is primarily an official zone, with guards stationed at various posts and a road running through its centre, rather than a particularly exciting destination.
If you're planning a trip to the airport, getting there is simple. Just head to the Central Bus Station and keep an eye out for the red government buses that operate in that area. To find a bus that will take you directly to the airport, you can ask the station staff or look for bus number 187. The cost for this service is 110 rupees. The journey usually takes around 45 minutes and the buses are equipped with air-conditioning, so you can enjoy a comfortable ride.
When visiting Kandy or Galle, there are two transportation options to consider: bus or train. To start your journey, simply head to either the Colombo Railway Station or the Bus station and inform the staff of your desired destination.
When exploring Sri Lanka, I found that travelling by rail was the most convenient and enjoyable way to get around. Not only did I get to soak in the breathtaking scenery and capture incredible photos and videos from the train window, but I also appreciated the comfort and spaciousness of the train, as well as the refreshing breeze that accompanied the journey. The ticketing area at the Colombo Railway Station was well-organized, with clear displays showcasing the different routes, destinations, and prices, making it easy to plan my travels.
For a comfortable train journey, consider opting for Second Class. This class offers a seating area with convenient luggage racks, ensuring a hassle-free travel experience. Moreover, you'll have access to onboard vendors who sell a variety of refreshments such as bottled water, juices, and even unique fried snacks. Among the snacks available, I encountered a spicy fish ball batter topped with a small prawn, adding a delightful twist to the culinary offerings.
The train journey from Colombo to Kandy takes approximately 3 hours and 20 minutes, with a departure time of 12:50. While the first hour of the trip may be slightly rough, the remainder of the journey is generally comfortable. Conversely, taking the earlier train at 10:30 for the return trip from Kandy to Colombo offers a more enjoyable experience as the cooler temperatures provide added comfort.
The train ride from Colombo to Galle is usually a 3-hour journey and the cost is 180 LKR.
To have a pleasant trip, it's a good idea to arrive at the station early. The train usually arrives before the scheduled departure time, giving passengers the chance to find a seat. It's also recommended to bring enough water and hydrating snacks for the journey. However, it's important not to drink too much water as it may result in frequent trips to the restroom.
If you're looking to avoid crowded market streets, Galle Road is a great alternative. This area is known for its selection of spacious hotels, many of which offer breathtaking views of the sea. For my stay, I opted for Clock Inn, a hotel that provides a variety of accommodation options including hotel-style rooms and dormitories.
This establishment provides a B&B-style experience with a variety of room options, including both private and dorm-style accommodations. The rooms are furnished with new furniture, fittings, and high-quality linen. Guests can start their day with a complimentary breakfast and stay connected with free WiFi throughout their stay.
Located in a business and hotel district, the establishment offers a peaceful and modern environment, away from the hustle and bustle of the inner city area of Colombo. Guests can also enjoy free tea and coffee throughout the day. Additionally, there are various dining options, hotels, office buildings, and a medium-sized shopping centre nearby. For those looking to explore the city, a tuk-tuk ride to the central train station is available for approximately 400 rupees.
If you are planning a trip to Sri Lanka, you might be wondering whether it's better to visit Colombo or go directly to popular destinations like Galle, Unawatuna, or Kandy. As a solo female traveller, I want to assure you that I felt completely safe during my stay in Sri Lanka, and my belongings were secure. However, it is important to note that while most tuk-tuk drivers were friendly, there were a few who were persistent and made me uncomfortable with their behaviour.