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.
- 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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Galle Face Green
Address: 56 Colombo, Galle Main Rd
Address: Colombo 02
For art and culture:
Address: Keyzer St, Colombo 11