Kolon thota, port on the river Kelani
Our 3rd long haul holidays so far this year: Sri Lanka; after Central America in January and Myanmar in Easter. Not the last of the year yet, since later in December it is still to be decided where to go. For now, Colombo would be our entry point and first city of a much larger tour through most of this fascinating country where we would spend the next 12 days heading south, central and northeast. We knew late September would still be hit by the second yearly Monsoon, and we prepared for this, however we were extremely lucky with 0 chance of rain every day we spent in the country, with every day sun except for the second day we toured in Colombo which happened to be quite cloudy that’s all.
Since the Portuguese named it Colombo back ion 1505, its name has never changed. Believed to be an adoption of the Sinhala language for Kolon thota or Kolamba, meaning port, harbour; it is widely accepted since the city indeed, has a natural large harbour which played a key role in its history for it to become a city of such importance and the capital of the different colonial rules that passed through. From the Portuguese settling a military post, then the Dutch taking over control, with the British as last the only ones who truly developed Colombo into a city, with civil constructions and not merely a military post.
Nowadays, although “mistakenly” confused as the capital of the country, title that goes to Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte which is in reality a city of the metropolitan area of Colombo; it is the largest in the island, the cultural and economic hub, and an incredible vibrant city full of history and heritage on every corner.
The capital has lots to see and do, and we did not expect that much originally, it was a great surprise to be honest and great joy for us. Thankfully our plan and schedule of days for the whole trip was well planned with enough time for everything. Although we landed on the 21st already late afternoon, we knew the rest of the day would be for resting after the long trip. So giving the following 2 full days and some further little time here and there in between our day trips to Galle and Kandy, that was perfect. Mistakenly, Colombo is the city most of tourists quickly depart on behalf anywhere else in the country without realising how much value it really has!
The old town, known as Galle Fort is at the northwest, by the ocean and it’s extremely charming! It is like being transported back to London, in the middle of Strand. Grand Victorian buildings everywhere, where the name of the streets still makes reference to the former colony. Sri Lanka is really making an enormous effort in restoring all its heritage, and nowadays you can see almost all the historic buildings in perfect state shiny again as back in the old days. A second heritage area is around the Cinnamon Gardens district, specially around the Viharamahadevi Park. Here you can find the enormous buildings of the university, the grand City Hall, the National Museum and Independence Arcade. Everywhere else in between these historic districts you can still find mansions and palaces, but majority are areas of no value to the tourist. However, a frenetic new construction era in on the go, with skyscrapers mushrooming everywhere.
Walking your way is easy. Galle Fort area is extremely compact and all can be done on foot, especially enjoying the Galle Face Promenade. The same is for the Cinnamon Gardens area. In between you can stop a rickshaw at any time to go wherever you wish to. Negotiate the price beforehand, but as an idea, the costs from the Cinnamon Red hotel or Galle Face Hotel to the Fort Railway station is LKR 300. Maybe they keep on asking for more, but that’s not the real cost. 300 is already double than what locals pay. Another great option, cheaper than a rickshaw and more comfortable is UBER! The entire city has a great availability of UBER cars, costing peanuts. So if you have data on your phone then you’re in great hands.
As for food, to be honest, everywhere we’ve been was absolutely great! They have such a strong Indian influence that is difficult to even know what is something traditionally local. There is however a little difference you will note in taste: the use of cinnamon and cardamon everywhere in every dish. I love both and this came to me like heaven. Now among all the restaurants we’ve been, there is one you cannot let it go. Please go! you will not regret. That’s The Mango Tree, North Indian cuisine at its best (and even better). Every rickshaw driver will know the place, at the south of the city around the corner of the Cinnamon Red Hotel. Try the prawn curry, and the garlic and cheese naan bread, it was the best I’ve ever tried.
For more information about Colombo check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Sri Lanka’s currency is the Rupee. Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Colombo
- Fort District At the westernmost area of the city surrounded with the other neighbourhoods, the beach and port, is the original settlement of the city during the Portuguese colonial times and kept as such until the British rule when it was expanded as a proper city in conjunction with the Galle Face area at the south. Majority of the impressive colonial buildings are in here.
-Harbour Stupa At the northwesternmost corner of the Fort area, was built by the port workers in 1956 to commemorate the 2500th year of Buddhism. You can get up for nice views of the entire area.
-Sri Lanka Ports Authority At the northern edge of the district, facing one of the industrial ports. Is the headquarters for all the ports in the country.
-York Street One of the nicest streets crossing through the entire Fort area and completely built up by grand colonial British buildings.
-Grand Oriental Hotel Right across the Ports Authority is this building, one of the top hotels since the British colonial times at the head of York Street.
-Mackinnons Building Home to the John Keells Holdings, occupies the opposite corner on York Street across the Grand Oriental Hotel.
-Bank of Ceylon Former headquarters of one of the top banks in the country, the next building after the Grand Oriental Hotel.
-Bristol Building Completes the entire apple at this side of York Street.
-Standard Chartered Bank Across the road from the Bank of Ceylon.
-York Academy Building Just behind the Mackinnons.
-Lankem Plantation House Side by side with the York Academy, built in typical British colonial with the usage of white and red bricks.
-Gaffoor Building This impressive triangular building marks the northeastern edge of the Fort District. Recently restored overlooks one of the original Dutch canals.
-YMBA Building Across the street from the Gaffoor, stands for Younger Men’s Buddhist Association. Not of special beauty, but when pictured in conjunction the Gaffoor, creates a great stamp.
-Cargills Building Another unique truly British colonial building with its characteristic red brick facade.
-HSBC and Lloyds Banks Behind the Cargills, corner of York Street with Sir Baron Jayathilaka Mawatha Street.
-Laksala Board The only state owned handicraft marketing organization in Sri Lanka deals with provision of training to craftsmen and marketing and export promotion of handicrafts.
-Krrish Square At the south end of York Street and opposite the World Trade Centre. Currently under frenetic redevelopment with the construction of the tallest skyscrapers in the country.
-Colombo Fort Police Station The central police station for the neighbourhood, housed in a beautiful large building with cupola.
-Central Telegraph Office Nowadays headquarters of the Sri Lanka Telecom, located right across the road from the Police Station.
-Former Dutch Hospital Nowadays the Colombo Dutch Museum, detailing the Dutch colonial history of the country. At the other side of the Krrish Square and literally in front of the World Trade Centre.
-World Trade Centre Marking the southern edge of the Fort area, is one of the icons and symbols of Colombo for its twin towers and the older round one, headquarters of the Bank of Ceylon. Some of the largest hotels in the city in number of rooms are here such as the Hilton, Galadari or Kingsbury.
-Former Parliament Building Nowadays the General Treasury and the Presidential Secretariat House. Is one of the largest and most recognisable landmarks from the British heritage, overlooking a Dutch built canal and the northern tip of the Galle Face.
-Janadhipathi Mawatha Street Parallel and west of York Street, near the seaside. It runs from the Former Parliament towards the port at the northern side.
-Clock Tower The former Colombo Light House is a truly unique symbol of the city. Built in 1857 as a clock tower, with the added navigational light facility in 1867.
-Galbokka Lighthouse In Galle Buck Road, west from the Clock Tower, is the lighthouse of Colombo since 1952 when the other was decommissioned.
-President’s House Formerly the Queen’s House, was originally the Dutch governor’s house, and successive British governors made it their office and residence.
-Old General Post Office Opposite the President’s House, a nice example of Edwardian architecture.
- Galle Face Considered part of the Fort Area and historic core, although south from this. It is the city’s largest and most elegant promenade. Lined with palm trees at one side and the coast at the other. A crazy boom in construction is currently taking place at the entire area between the Galle Face and the canal at the other side. Majority of the grand 5 star hotels are located around this area, through the Galle Main Road that crosses north to south.
-Ministry of Defence At the northern tip of the Galle Face, facing the Beira Lake and opposite the Former Parliament building at the other shore.
-Taj Samudra Hotel At southern side of the Galle Face, it is one of the top hotels in the country.
-Victoria Masonic Temple Behind the Taj hotel.
-Christ Church Also behind the Taj it completes this nice area by the canal and Lake Beira.
-Galle Face Court At the intersection of the Galle Face and Galle Face Road, opposite side of the famous Galle Face Hotel. It is one of the most beautiful colonial buildings, with a marvellous corner and cupola.
-Galle Face Hotel Known as Asia’s Emerald on the Green since 1864, is the top hotel in the city and country itself. Preferred choice since colonial times with the British Royal Family, royal guests and celebrities.
-Saint Andrews Scott’s Church Few meters south of Galle Face Hotel along Galle Face Road.
-Temple Trees Palace The official residence of the Prime Minister, former Sirimathipaya Mansion of Sir Ernest de Silva. Built in early 19th century, it is unfortunately hard to spot since it’s heavily guarded and forbidden to take pictures or get closer.
- Kollupitiya District Is the continuation of the Galle Main Road to the south. Bearing ministries, embassies and office buildings, the area has nothing worth to the tourist at exception of the Portuguese-British church, although because of it’s far distance to everything else, it can be scrapped from your list.
-Saint Paul’s Church One of the oldest churches in Sri Lanka, first built by the Portuguese and rebuilt by the British in 1848.
- Beira Lake Just east from the Galle Face. You can get here after reaching the Temple Trees, few streets farther south then along Saint Michael’s Road.
-Kollupitya Jummah Mosque Small colonial mosque in Saint Michael’s Road.
-Saint Michael’s Church Built in 1887 is the Anglican Church of the Diocese of Colombo.
-Gangaramaya Temple One of the most important and sacred temples in Colombo built in an eclectic mix of Sri Lankan, Thai, Indian, and Chinese architecture. It has 2 separate buildings, being the Seema Malaka at the idyllic location on an island within the Beira Lake. Entrance fee of LKR 300.
-Gallery Island Just few meters father up the lake, another nice island with a hanging bridge connecting it to the shore. It offers great views of the entire lake and area nearby.
- Cinnamon Gardens District Located farther south and towards the east from the Galle Face, southeast from the Beira Lake. Together with both the Fort and Galle Face, makes pretty much up all of the tourist sights the city has to offer, with only a few more around Pettah. Since colonial times, this is an upper-scale area where the rich and wealthy still live, with elegant tree-lined streets and avenues.
-Viharamahadevi Park Formerly named Victoria Park during British times. Is the oldest park in the city, and a landmark not to be misses when visiting Colombo for the incredible huge colonial buildings nearby. In order from west to east:
-War Memorial At the westernmost side of the park, in memory of both World Wars.
-National Art Gallery Small, not worth it, has some portraits and landscapes paintings.
-National Museum Built in 1877 by the then British Colonial Governor Sir William Henry Gregory, in neoclassical style. Among its collection are the crown jewels and throne of the last king of the kingdom of Kandy, Sri Vikrama Rajasinha. Impressive building from outside nevertheless.
-John de Silva and Mahinda Rajapaksa Theatres Both next to each other at the southeastern corner of the park.
-Buddha Statue On the east side of the park, opposite the Old Town Hall.
-Town Hall Built in 1927 presides the eastern side of the Viharamahadevi Park with its impressive facade and elegance. Is the Colombo Municipal Council and the office of the Mayor of Colombo.
-Independence Avenue Leading from the southeastern side of the Viharamahadevi Park by the Albert Crescent Road towards the Independence Square.
-Independence Square The farthest point south of the city you will ever need to reach on your sightseeing tour.
-Independence Memorial Hall In honour of the Independence of Ceylon on 4th February 1948. At its front is the statue of Stephen Senanayake, first Prime Minister of Sri Lanka.
-Independence Walk Short nice promenade departing from the western side of the Memorial Hall heading towards the University area.
-Arcade Independence Square This shopping centre is housed on renovated historical buildings such as the former Jawatta Lunatic Asylum and the former Western Provincial Council Building.
-University Area West from the Independence Memorial Hall, along the Independence Walk. Many beautiful British colonial buildings, noteworthy:
-Mathematics Department Formally the Royal College, is without doubt the key building on the site.
- Pettah District (Meaning outside Fort) Is the next neighbourhood right to the east side of the Fort and where you will find the remaining important sights of Colombo.
-Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque One of the oldest in Colombo, a nice work of British colonial architecture typical in Asia/Southeast Asia. It’s meters across the canal from the Fort District.
-Old Town Hall Small colonial house in neo-Gothic stile dating from 1873 opened by the then Governor of Ceylon Sir William Gregory. Meters east from the Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque on Main Street.
-Wolvendaal Church Established by the Dutch in 1749. Farther east from the Old Town Hall along the Mohamed Zain Mawatha road.
-St. Lucia’s Cathedral The seat of the Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Colombo. Beautiful colonial building, more in resemblance to a North American Capitol. Located northeast.
-Good Shepherd Convent Side by side with St. Lucia’s Cathedral, in neo-Gothic style.
Bandaranaike International is the largest airport in the country, and perhaps your only means of accessing the country since all flights from anywhere in the world will fly here. The airport is north of the city, in Katunayake by the coast, and it is often referred to simply as Katunayake.
Bus number 187-E3 operates between the airport and downtown Colombo’s central bus station for LKR 120 a single ticket. This is by all means the cheapest option to get to/from the city, taking approximately 1 hours. If you opt however for getting a taxi, fares are between LKR 2500/3000 and will take just few minutes less although they will drive to your final destination. The bus operates from 5.30am until 18.00pm, thereafter, the fare increases to LKR 165, yet the bus is still the same. An UBER ride will set you in around LKR 1800.
From the central bus station in Colombo, if you require any further transportation to your final destination get a rickshaw as the easiest option. The usual fare to Galle Face is around LKR 200 (although we managed them all the time for around 150 on same distances). Make sure you negotiate the fare beforehand in order not to be over charged.
The city is quite big, home to almost 6 million inhabitants, and the public transportation is not what you would like to expect for a city this size. While there is a very large fleet of public buses with many hundreds of lines, it is somewhat confusing trying to find a route map or destination, but your hotel can help you with this. They are inexpensive and very reliable to be honest. In the other hand, the fastest (and greatest to my taste) way of moving around is by getting a rickshaw. A good fact about them is that more and more they are implementing a meter, and are easy to spot if you read on their roof-top “metered taxi”. This way you are guaranteed not to be ripped-off, but take an eye that their meter is on and working. Otherwise, make sure you negotiate the fare beforehand. Calculate the minimum fare of LKR 50, and around LKR 250 for 5 kilometres.
Long distance buses are frequent and cover the entire island. Wherever is the destination you re planning to go, it is almost guaranteed there is a bus there. However, I would consider taking the trains instead as buses usually take forever and a half. Sri Lanka has a very good railway network, heritage from the British colonial times, on the same way they implemented in neighboring country India. Although not the “newest” rolling stock, it is very punctual, reliable and easy to use and understand. Perhaps, the main routes you are likely to consider are the coastal south line towards Galle, and the north and northeast routes towards Trincomalee, Jaffna and Trandikulam, with intermediate stops at Kandy, Sigiriya or Anuradhapura, all of which are the cultural heart of the country.
Colombo, not only is the largest city in the country, it is also a very important tourist place, entry door to almost 100% of the visitors to Sri Lanka. The amount of hotels is endless! Of every kind, every level of luxury and comfort, and range from low budget to some of the top hotels in the world. Getting a great deal is not too hard, but prices can vary greatly depending what you chose.
Historic and famous hotels such as the unique Galle Face can easily be out of anyone’s hands unless you are looking for a top luxury experience and have the money for it. Ever since its construction has been the number 1 hotel for the worldwide Royalties, presidents, politicians, artists and general high classes of the society. But this is not the only one that falls into such class. There are dozens, not only in the city but across the country.
A good point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms, Ebookers or TUI. For a great location, try to stay near the Fort Area which is the historical old town, or immediately out in the Pettah Area. Both are great as you will be walking distance to almost every sight of the city, and also near the bus and train stations. For a quieter location, then the south of the city where the new towers are rising.
Our experience is in this case spreads across three different hotels, the one we got for the first 5 nights in our trip; and by the end of our trip a night to experience the Galle Face Hotel and one last night nearer to the airport in order to cut travelling times and reach our flight back to London without any possible delays nor earlier waking up.
The Cinnamon Red Colombo was by all means great, and will definitely not consider any other hotel in the future, it would for sure be the same. Why? Because of its location, south of the city in easy reach to everywhere, near a shopping centre, around the corner of the Mango Tree restaurant (one of the best in town); and among its facilities, the highest infinity pool in Colombo (as of September 2016). The views from the 26th floor pool and lounge are impossible to beat. 360 degrees of the entire city. The room was larger than average, incredible views (from our room at floor 21), large bed and spotless clean. The staff were very professional and helpful at all the times, and the breakfast offering a huge choice of everything. We enjoyed our first 5 nights here, and considering how extremely tired we were after touring during the day and the day trips to Galle and Kandy, we could enjoy the pool in the mornings and at the evenings.
Our next hotel was the Galle Face. What to say about this masterpiece! It’s hard to find anything wrong, and I won’t. It was absolutely impressive, outside and inside. Like a living “museum piece” that transports you back to the bygone colonial era. Built by the British has always been since its opening the top of the class in Colombo for Royalties and the upper classes of society, politicians and important people. It is also of course, a hotel for anyone, no one is excluded, but the fares per night are of course on a different level than other high-class hotels. We love architecture and especially the heritage hotels of the world, so this was in our original plans since we booked the flight tickets to Colombo: staying at least a night and enjoy the superb facilities and beauty of the property. The staff is marvellous across the entire property, any department. We were offered a junior suite, awe-impressive decor, space and luxury. Big, everything, views to the ocean and a massive bed. The breakfast by the veranda overlooking the ocean is another unique experience. The very best products and quality, professional waiters and fantastic chefs. The same applies to the lunch buffet at the same location, we enjoyed very much the food and the nice chat with some of the chefs, and while seating, watching the sling-shooter person pointing to the crows coming to the palms and trees was something we’ve never seen before anywhere else in the world. High-five for that! as a result you get to enjoy the sound of the ocean rather than the impertinent cawing. The pool is beautiful, not too big but good enough to have a great time, also the sun hits the entire pool area most of the day! Another plus that in many hotels we stay around the world they fail with shadow covering quickly or partially. The ocean, literally on the edge of the pool. Nice gardens, bars and lounges in the communal outside areas with beautiful historic lounges inside, full of memorabilia in every corridor and stairwells. Once again, this hotel comes on top of our agenda on a future visit to Colombo, hopefully for a longer stay.
As last, a simpler hotel, rather disappointed for a short last night before heading to the airport to get our flight back to London. Bearing in mind Colombo’s airport is quite far north of the city, we wanted to be near and not stress ourselves with big luggage and timings. Negombo area seemed to be the right spot, and appears to be a touristy place for the beaches, however, forget about this. It was a horrible dirty beach, and not a nice place to be comparing to the incredible beauties we’ve seen over the past days through Sri Lanka. We stayed at the Hotel J, right by the beach along the main Lewis Place Street. True that right next door was the luxurious Heritance Hotel, but the costs per night were there nonsensically even higher than at the Galle Face! Hotel J was very cheap but we knew what we were getting, so almost no service, basic room with no facilities at all bearing a pool no one used. I can not really say something bad about this place since we knew beforehand what we were getting. It worked for us as our last night before the flight, and we needed nothing else than a room at a decent place, so if you fall in the same circumstances as ours, this will be the right choice. I would never ever consider staying here for more than a night.