The history buff’s guide to Colombo, Sri Lanka

Colonial history, check. Beautiful architecture, check. Incredible stories, check. Sri Lanka’s largest city is a veritable treasure trove for history fans.

Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque
  • Alison Goh
  • February 2020
  • Updated July 2024

Colombo is a bustling city but its many cultural and religious landmarks make getting in touch with its 2,000 years of history effortless.

Galle Fort

Galle Lighthouse
The 26m-high Galle Lighthouse was built in 1939.

What started as a basic mud fortification built by the Portuguese in the 16th century is today a UNESCO World Heritage site. While most tourists flock to Galle Lighthouse first, the charm of the walled city is best uncovered with a leisurely walk along the time-worn laneways. Marvel at the Dutch colonial-style buildings and churches, feel the sea breeze in your hair and make it in time to catch the sunset at the fort’s wall.

Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque (Red Mosque)

Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque
Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque is located in the bustling and multi-ethnic neighbourhood of Pettah.

It’s easy to see why Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque is one of the country’s most recognisable buildings. The towering showstopper combines Islamic, Indian, Gothic and Neoclassical styles, and was a landmark for sailors heading to Colombo port from as far back as 1909. The mosque is the largest in the city so it is best to avoid visiting it during prayer times.

Galle Face Hotel

Galle Face Hotel
The hotel got its name from the stretch of lawn it faces, known as the Galle Face Green.

From hosting the celebration of the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1887 to being a sanctuary for authors like Mark Twain and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the walls of Galle Face Hotel have been silent witnesses to bygone eras for over 150 years. A stay is the best way to experience its romantic past but if you want to delve deeper, sign up for the historian-led museum tours.

Independence Memorial Hall

Independence Memorial Hall
A statue of Sri Lanka’s first prime minister DS Senanayake, considered the “Father of the Nation”, stands at the head of the monument.

This breathtaking result of eight famous architects is befitting of the monument’s purpose — to commemorate the country’s independence from Britain in 1948. The design of every inch of the space is a glimpse into the past. For example, the columns showcase traditional Sri Lankan motifs while the assembly hall pays homage to the last native kingdom of the island.