48 hours in Colombo: your foolproof itinerary to exploring Sri Lanka’s capital

Most adventures in Sri Lanka start in Colombo but don’t make the mistake of treating it as nothing more than a gateway city — our 48-hour guide to Colombo will give you a proper orientation of the commercial capital’s offerings.

Galle Face Green, Colombo
  • Delle Chan
  • February 2020

From elegant colonial buildings to skyscrapers, chaotic markets to relaxing parks, Colombo is a city of dramatic contrasts. This is reflected in its diverse neighbourhoods (which are named Colombo 01 to 15) that each have its own distinct identity.

There’s so much to see and do in Sri Lanka’s commercial capital that it can be overwhelming. So take inspiration from our two-day itinerary that highlights some of the best that Colombo has to offer.

Day one: Discover Colombo’s charming blend of history and modernity

All of the products sold at Barefoot are made by hand by local artists and craftsmen.

Start your exploration in Colombo 03 (or Kollupitiya), a thriving commercial neighbourhood. Along this seafront strip, you’ll find Barefoot, a popular boutique that stocks an array of colourful products — from bags to bedlinen — handmade by local artisans.

Next, walk over to Colombo 04 (or Bambalapitiya) and visit the new Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Sri Lanka. Opened in December 2019, the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Sri Lanka is dedicated to local artworks from the 20th and 21st centuries and is the first institution of its kind in the country.

Nana’s King Toyna
Nana’s King Toyna is one of the oldest fast food stalls in Galle Face Green.

In the mid-afternoon, hop on a tuk-tuk to Galle Face Green, the beating heart of the city. Locals gather at this park to fly kites, play by the water’s edge or simply soak up the views of the Indian Ocean. The promenade is lined with several food stalls such as Nana’s King Toyna, where you can get snacks such as chicken kottu roti (chopped flatbread served with chicken and a spicy gravy).

Come evening, walk over to Colombo 01, otherwise known as Fort. Home to the Colombo Stock Exchange and the World Trade Center of Colombo, it’s the city’s central business district. But it’s not all shiny skyscrapers. You’ll also find the Old Colombo Dutch Hospital, a 17th-century heritage building that has been converted into an upscale shopping and dining precinct.

Ministry of Crab
Ministry of Crab is a mainstay on the annual Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list.

The most popular restaurant in the complex is undoubtedly Ministry of Crab. As its name suggests, it serves up various renditions of Sri Lankan crab: cooked with butter, tossed in garlic and chilli, or served in a piquant curry, to name a few. Other dishes are available too, such as freshly-shucked oysters, king prawn bisque and seer fish teriyaki.

Curry Leaf on Lotus Road is another option worth considering. On offer are rock lobsters, jumbo prawns, cuttlefish and more, all sold by weight. Do also try string hoppers — a beloved local favourite of steamed rice noodles woven into lacy discs.

READ MORE: The best food spots in Colombo

Day two: Get acquainted with Colombo’s rich and diverse history

Pettah Market, Colombo
With an array of colourful produce on display, an assortment of aromas wafting through the air, and crowds of locals haggling at the top of their voices, Pettah Market is a feast for the senses.

Deep dive into the city’s hustle and bustle at Colombo 11 (or Pettah). It’s known for Pettah Market, a labyrinthine bazaar filled with vendors hawking everything from meats and vegetables to jewellery and electronics.

Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque, Colombo
Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque is one of the oldest mosques in Colombo, having served the local Indian Muslim community since 1909.

While in Pettah, it’s nigh impossible to miss the iconic Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque opens in new window (or Red Mosque) with its distinctive candy-striped façade and pomegranate-shaped domes. Tourists are allowed to enter, but do note that women will need to cover their hair, arms and legs before doing so.

Stop for a hearty lunch at Sri Suryas opens in new window, widely regarded as one of the best places for vegetarian food in Colombo. The homely, family-style restaurant specialises in South Indian fare, with dishes like samosas (fried or baked pastries with a savoury filling), vadais (fritters) and dosas (crispy pancakes) on the menu.

Viharamahadevi Park is the largest park in Colombo at nearly 25 hectares.

Next, grab a taxi or a tuk-tuk to Colombo 07 (Cinnamon Gardens), an affluent suburb southeast of the city centre. One of the most popular spots here is Viharamahadevi Park — take a stroll and you’ll find an enormous Buddha statue, a mini zoo and an artificial lake that is home to Muscovy ducks.

Across the road from the park, you’ll find Nelum Pokuna Art Street, where local artists sell their paintings on weekends.

Thereafter, walk over to Colombo 02 (Slave Island), which was where the Dutch kept their slaves during the colonial era. Today, it’s an up-and-coming neighbourhood with shiny new developments and a flourishing nightlife.

Gangaramaya Temple also has an on-site museum filled with assorted curios ranging from ivory carvings to antique watches.

However, there are still pockets of tradition such as Gangaramaya Temple. It’s one of the most important temples in Colombo and houses numerous Buddha statues sourced from all over the globe. And since you’re already in the area, take a leisurely stroll along the beautiful Beira Lake.

READ MORE: The history buff’s guide to Colombo

Try one of the many inspired cocktails at Punch Island Bar. Pumpkin spice negroni, anyone?

Round off your Colombo adventure at Punch Island Bar. Grab a table at the balcony terrace, order yourself an ice-cold beer and watch the sunset over the city skyline.

READ MORE: Your 6D5N itinerary to the ultimate family holiday in Sri Lanka

The round-up

For nature:

Galle Face Green
Address: 56 Colombo, Galle Main Rd

Viharamahadevi Park
Address: Colombo 07
Tel: +94112426900

Beira Lake
Address: Colombo 02

For art and culture:

Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Sri Lanka
Address: 17th Floor, 58 Lauries Rd, Colombo 04

For shopping:

Address: 704 Galle Rd, Colombo 03
Tel: +94112589305

Pettah Market
Address: Keyzer St, Colombo 11

Old Colombo Dutch Hospital
Address: Hospital St, Colombo 01
Tel: +94112441275

For history:

Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque
Address: Second Cross St, Colombo 11

Gangaramaya Temple
Address: 61 Sri Jinarathana Rd, Colombo 02
Tel: +94112435169

Where to eat and drink

Ministry of Crab
Address: Old Dutch Hospital Complex, 4 Hospital St, Colombo 01
Tel: +94112342722

Curry Leaf
Address: Sir Chittampalam Gardiner Mawatha, 2 Lotus Rd, Colombo 01
Tel: +9411 492492

Nana’s King Toyna
Address: Galle Face Green, Colombo 02
Tel: +94775444844

Sri Suryas
Address: 255 Sea St, Colombo 11
Tel: +94112424789

Punch Island Bar
Address: Colombo City Centre, 137 Sir James Pieris Mawatha
Tel: +94777592865