After having experienced the beaches in the south of Cambodia and the incredible mountainous forests of Dambulla, I think I can safely say that you should get out of Colombo as quickly as possible. Everything there is to do there can be condensed into one convenient day of sightseeing, eating and drinking. Here is how to do Colombo in one day before you head off and see the rest of Sri Lanka.
Why you should only spend one day in Colombo
Unless you’re spending three weeks in Sri Lanka, you really don’t need to dedicate more than one day to its underwhelming capital. It’s a big city with absolutely nothing special about it. There are three or four nice places to visit before you start to consider whether you should visit the virtual reality center at the mall across the street. Considering the fact that the rest of the country is brimming with untouched natural beauty, wasting additional time in Colombo is really criminal unless you love half-constructed high rises and tons of traffic.
How to easily see everything in Colombo in one day
Colombo is very advanced with regards to transportation. You don’t have to worry about buses or haggling with tuk tuk drivers. Uber and Pick Me provide convenient app-requested tuk tuk and car rides all over the city sometimes for less than $1. If you have a good idea of where you want to go, you can knock everything out by requesting an Uber Tuk to your next destination. It saves you a lot of time walking around a hot big city competing with cars and buses for street space. It’s one of the most hassle-free cities in Southeast Asia for sightseeing I’ve ever visited.
Things to do in Colombo in one day
Gangaramaya Temple and Seema Malakaya
Gangaramaya Temple is the city’s most popular Buddhist temple. It’s a massive complex including a monastery, pagoda, museum, and the sacred Bodhi tree where monks chant. On the grounds you can see the vast collection of religious artifacts, statues, and relics. It’s nice during the day and also at night when everything is lit up.
Just a couple of blocks away on Beira Lake is Seema Malakaya, which is part of the Gangaramaya Temple, sitting on a floating platform. It’s a lot more peaceful and quiet than Gangaramaya and they’re both easy to access on foot. It also features numerous Buddhist statues as well as shrines to Hindu deities like Shiva and Vishnu.
Aside from the temple, Gangaramaya Park has some nice opportunities for a peaceful walk and even to ride the paddle boats on the lake.
Enjoy the waterfront at Galle Face Green
Though it’s a port city and the beaches are basically non-existent, there’s a nice boardwalk on the waterfront where you can catch the sea breeze and get some street food. Galle Face Green is basically a huge park which is close enough to city center to offer nice views of the skyline and right on the water so you hear the waves crashing. There are a lot of salespeople trying to sell kites, which adds a nice touch to the skyline, though most people aren’t really buying them.
Check out the shopping in Pettah
The busiest part of town is the Pettah area, where you’ll find tons of clothing and electronics shops on Main Street and sprawling street markets surrounding the main Pettah Market. You can buy anything from luggage to watches. Though it might feel a bit overwhelming, it’s interesting to at least walk around in for a bit. This area is also home to one of the city’s most striking attractions, the Red Masjid mosque (Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque). Women are allowed only in a special section of the mosque, and as I’m not interested in visiting anywhere I’m unwelcome, I didn’t attempt to go inside. But it’s very beautiful from the outside.
Relax at Viharamahadevi Park
This huge city park is a big hit with locals. Families can be seen walking with their kids, and couples duck under the shade of trees to escape the heat all over Viharamahadevi Park. We also saw people bring horses here, making it something of a dog park for bigger animals. The park has a huge Buddha statue which is right across from the Town Hall building, a large white domed structure which is visible well into the park.
Visit the National Museum
Just outside of Viharamahadevi Park is the National Museum, a two-floor museum dedicated to Sri Lankan culture and heritage. The museum is extremely organized and well-labeled so there is a lot of information for visitors in English about each of the different items featured in the collection. It has everything from traditional clothing to agricultural and industrial history, royal relics, weapons of war, and other cultural items like popular face masks.
Have a drink at Park Street Mews
Our Uber driver from the airport was the one to tell us about this modern row of bars and restaurants in the heart of the city. It’s a good place to go eat as well as to have drinks late into the night. With cutesy semi-upscale dining options and colorful street art adoring the walls, this street is a bustling hipster hideaway.
Do a little sightseeing
There are a couple of other notable places to see around town. One is Independence Square in front of Independence Memorial Hall. It’s a large monument with a fountain where you can also relax and take a breather. It’s sometimes used for the city’s celebrations, so you might catch a special event.
Another worthwhile place worth seeing is the Temple of Sri Kailawasanathan Swami Devsthanam Kovil (try saying THAT three times fast). This is the oldest Hindu temple in Colombo and though you’ll see others like it around town, it’s one of the largest.
Peeking out from behind this temple is Lotus Tower, a massive and beautiful communications tower, with a planned observation deck that is slated to be completed in 2020. Though you can’t visit it quite yet, you can’t miss it. It’s visible all over the city.
Enjoy some Sri Lankan cuisine
To experience the local culture in a big way, I recommend diving into a platter of Sri Lankan food. Try Upali’s, which is affordable and delicious, though it is outrageously spicy. For a milder local alternative to a plate of all-hot everything, get the egg hoppers, a fun hooped Sri Lankan egg crepe. We also had some incredible straight-out-of-the-oven dishes at The Sizzle, served up piping hot and, you guessed it, sizzling.
Get the fuck out of Colombo
The more time I spend in Sri Lanka, the more I realize what a colossal waste of time Colombo is. My suggestion is to do your own Uber-powered tour of the city in one day and go do something better with your vacation. Colombo is a dump.