• Mario Ng

Colombo Attractions - What to see and do in Colombo

​Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, is a beautiful city to visit. It also has much to offer. Many visitors to Sri Lanka actually use Colombo as a base, before travelling to other cities around the country. However, due to the short time spent in the capital, most visitors tend to miss out on the cultural and historical sites Colombo has to offer!


Walk along the streets of Colombo and you get to see the beauty of the city. Pettah Market is the place to go to see the real nature of the country. Take a look as locals do their marketing here, and watch numerous visitors snap photos of architectural elegance around the market.


The Galle Face Green Promenade is also the place to be in the city, especially for couples and families who enjoy a nice relaxing stroll around the city. Galle Face Hotel is a historic site in itself, where many famous individuals used to stay here. Think Roger Moore, Yuri Gagarin, Richard Nixon, and Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh, and you get an idea of how much history it holds. Remember to head to the in-house museum the hotel offers. It is free of charge! Simply ask the hotel staff where it is and take your time to admire the artefacts! Look out for Prince Phillip’s first car, located right in the hotel!


For those thinking about heading to Colombo for a proper visit, it is definitely recommended and you should surely look to spend at least 3 to 4 days if you want to embrace the local culture of Colombo. Remember to check out the Google Map all the way below for our full list of attractions and food places you should head to while in Colombo!

For your convenience, refer to this list of attractions you should head to while in Colombo!

1. Colombo Lighthouse

​2. Galle Face Green Promenade

3. Independence Memorial Hall and Museum

4. National Museum of Colombo

5. National Museum of Natural History

6. Pettah Market

1. Colombo Lighthouse

Colombo Lighthouse is located at Galbokka Point, a short walk away from the waterfront, nearby to the Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct. It was built in 1952 and opened by D.S. Senanayake, the first Prime Minister of Sri Lanka.


This lighthouse was built due to the existing lighthouse then used becoming impractical due to its light getting obscured by newer and taller buildings. Located just five minutes away, the older lighthouse is now known as the Light House Clock Tower. While both lighthouses are beautiful in their own right, Colombo Lighthouse stands out for the (former) panoramic views it offers.

The unique colour scheme of Colombo Lighthouse
The unique colour scheme of Colombo Lighthouse

Where it used to be located by the harbour, it offered amazing views of the Indian ocean and became a city landmark. At its base is also a naval gun battery that is used by the Sri Lankan navy for traditional gun salutes. Nonetheless, due to the massive land reclamation project currently in place, the lighthouse is no longer by the harbour but is in fact facing huge amounts of sand and construction, a sign of the booming economy.

View of ongoing construction from Colombo Lighthouse
View of ongoing construction from Colombo Lighthouse

During the civil war, there was also restricted access due to its proximity to the Naval Headquarters. However, since then, it has become a nice place for photography enthusiasts to snap pictures. Its unique painting scheme of a half-unpainted side with the other half having a black/white checkered pattern is enough reason for visitors to head here. During evenings when the sun is setting, it also offers a special view, where the colour of the sky changes to a beautiful hue, and the lighthouse offers an alluring contrast against those sky colours.

Colombo Lighthouse at dusk
Colombo Lighthouse at dusk

While it may be a long walk from the Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct, the views are so beautiful it is surely worth it. For photography and lighthouse enthusiasts, be sure to head over for an enjoyable time!

2. Galle Face Green Promenade

Galle Face Green Promenade is a huge park that faces the Indian Ocean. With a size of 12 acres, the ocean-side green space is located right at the heart of the city, with the famous Galle Face Hotel surrounding it, and the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Defence not too far away.


The entire space was initially used for horse racing and as a golf course but has since become used as an open space for the public to enjoy. Nowadays, one can see the public having fun at this park, playing games such as cricket and football, while families also enjoy picnics as sunset nears.

Street food vendors at Galle Face Green Promenade
Street food vendors at Galle Face Green Promenade

For those wanting a relaxing time in the city, this is really the perfect place to be. During evenings, food vendors set up their stalls by the ocean-side and sell freshly cooked local delights, including local crab cakes and shrimp cakes. Children can also be seen having fun in the sands and sea, while adults are content with soaking their feet in the sea. For those wanting a slightly more interesting experience, have your child sit on a horse as it walks across the promenade, and enjoy the sunset in the process.

Locals enjoying the sea and sand at Galle Face Green Promenade
Locals enjoying the sea and sand at Galle Face Green Promenade

Once the clock hits 6 pm, it is really time to stop what you are doing, and just look out towards the ocean. It is at this time when the sun is really setting, and the location of the promenade is just the best place to be in Colombo to enjoy the sunset. It is really heartwarming and romantic at the same time, and it is not uncommon to see couples cuddle and embrace. It is a wonderful end to the day and signals a good start to the night.

A moment to enjoy as the sun sets over Galle Face Green Promenade
A moment to enjoy as the sun sets over Galle Face Green Promenade

For sure, as night begins, you can either enjoy your dinner at one of the food vendors or if you are feeling fancy, head down to the historic Galle Face Hotel for a nice dinner!

3. Independence Memorial Hall and Museum

The Independence Memorial Hall is a hall that was built to commemorate its independence gained from the British, on 4th February 1948. Interestingly, the plaque states its name as Ceylon rather than Sri Lanka, as it is now known. This was because the country used to be called Ceylon until 1972 when it changed its name to Sri Lanka.


Located at Independence Square in Cinnamon Gardens in Colombo, the Hall is situated at a historic place as well, as it was at this place where Prince Henry opened the country’s first Parliament in 1948, officially ending colonial rule after almost five centuries.

Independence Memorial Hall
Independence Memorial Hall

At the front of the Hall, one can see a statue. That is in fact the statue of D.S. Senanayake, the first Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. Widely known to be the “Father of the Nation”, he was key to helping Sri Lanka achieve independence from the British.


The Hall itself does not require any entrance fee, and anyone and everyone can enter the Hall. Most of the time, you can see students and tourists together, either relaxing in the sheltered Hall or snapping photos away from different vantage points. The interiors of the Hall is also a sight to behold, as there are different sculptures representing different symbolisms located around. It is also totally fine to take a seat and just enjoy the cool breeze and take a break.

View of the statue of Don Stephen Senanayake from the Independence Memorial Hall
View of the statue of Don Stephen Senanayake from the Independence Memorial Hall

During most mornings, it is also normal to see avid joggers around the Hall, as they jog around the garden surrounding the Hall, before continuing their jog elsewhere. The garden is also a nice place to snap some photos, including that of the grand Hall.


Most of the visitors would normally complete their visit to the Hall here. However, there is also a small museum in the basement, called the Independence Memorial Museum. It is quite a small place, where it focuses on showcasing the different political and religious leaders of Sri Lanka. The museum has a section that showcases the names of all its soldiers who died fighting for the country. Dating back decades to the time it fought against domestic terrorism, the names are all written on traditional palm-leaf manuscripts. This is perhaps quite sobering to visitors, where they generally see a peaceful city in Colombo, but may not be aware of the fighting that had been taking place for such a long time elsewhere in the country.

Inside the Independence Memorial Hall
Inside the Independence Memorial Hall

There are different types of artefacts shown, where many of them are gifts given to political leaders. There are also daily objects on display that were once used by the leaders, including a telephone, letter rack, and a calendar.


While it is really a small place that is not really a full-fledged museum, unlike the National Museum of Colombo, it offers an interesting take on how the country’s leaders are honoured.

Inside the Independence Memorial Museum
Inside the Independence Memorial Museum

Museum opening hours: 9 am to 5 pm daily (except Sundays, Mondays, and public holidays)

Website:

http://www.museum.gov.lk/web/index.php?option=com_regionalm&task=regionalmuseum&id=10&Itemid=75&lang=en

4. National Museum of Colombo

The National Museum of Colombo is definitely worth going to, as it is the largest museum in the country. This museum was first created in 1877, and since then added several wings to expand it. Also only one of two museums in Colombo, this museum is simply a must-go to learn more about this beautiful country.

National Museum of Colombo
National Museum of Colombo

As you first step into the museum, there is a hall that is catered for special exhibitions. At the time of our visit, there was an ongoing exhibition about the history of sea routes between China and Sri Lanka. It showed quite a few artefacts, including Chinese coins and vases. It was certainly interesting, as one understood the beauty of travelling, and how it brought new insights to people who travel around the world.


The museum itself shows many exhibits that are rich in Sri Lankan history. One of the more amazing artefacts is the Royal Seat, which was used by at least 6 kings in Sri Lanka. It was last used by the last king of Sri Lanka, the late King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe. When the British came to Sri Lanka and the king was captured as a result, his possessions, including the Royal Seat, was taken back to England. It was only in 1934 when then King George V decided to return these possessions to Sri Lanka.

Throne of the King of Kandy at the National Museum of Colombo
Throne of the King of Kandy at the National Museum of Colombo

There are also many types of stone antiquities for you to feast your eyes on. True to its past, and the influence foreign countries had on this country, there were different types of sculptures. Depending on the period the stone was carved, it could have Portuguese, Dutch, or even Arabic inscriptions.


​There is also china on display, where they came from all over the world. They have dining plates that came from the Netherlands, with its famous VOC sign, as well as plates from the United States, with displays showing the homes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

Stone sculptures on display at the National Museum of Colombo
Stone sculptures on display at the National Museum of Colombo

​Coins are on display, and it is truly an amazing exhibit to look at all the different coins. They come from different eras, where some of the coins date back to the 2nd B.C. From the usual Portuguese, Dutch, and British coins, there are also Chinese coins that date back to the 10th A.D., a testament to the Chinese-Sri Lanka special exhibition celebrating sea travel between the two nations.

Chinese artefacts on display at the National Museum of Colombo
Chinese artefacts on display at the National Museum of Colombo

​Certainly, this is a huge museum and one which can take hours to go through in detail. The warm weather also did not help matters. However, for those keen and passionate about history, this museum certainly offers the best the country has got to offer. There are so many gems, many of which date back centuries, if not millenniums, that this must really be a huge treasure cove for history enthusiasts. Be sure to spend at least 3 hours here to fully embrace yourself with the local culture!


Opening hours: 9 am to 5 pm daily (except public holidays)

Website:

http://www.museum.gov.lk/web/index.php?option=com_regionalm&task=regionalmuseum&id=6&Itemid=73&lang=en

5. National Museum of Natural History

​Located beside the National Museum of Colombo, within the same complex, this museum is dedicated to the natural history and heritage of Sri Lanka. It showcases uncommon exhibits unique to Sri Lanka, including plant and animal specimens.

Introduction to the National Museum of Natural History
Introduction to the National Museum of Natural History

As one walks through the different sections of the museum, one can see the different types of specimens, from birds and insects to fishes and mammals. There are also fossilised skulls of animals, including one of a hippopotamus. It provides a good educational tour for families, especially those with children who must be keen to understand more about nature and the environment.


​As you walk across the different rooms, keep your eyes out for the exhibit of the upper jaw of a sperm whale. Kept intact, it shows how huge the mammal must be when just the upper jaw is already so big!

Front view of the majestic blue whale at the National Museum of Natural History
Front view of the majestic blue whale at the National Museum of Natural History

​Certainly, the main highlight of this museum is located in the last section. In the main exhibition hall, it has the complete set of bones from a massive blue whale. It was discovered way back in 1894 and was initially situated at Colombo National Museum. It has now found a permanent home in the National Museum of Natural History. It is one majestic beast, and an amazing sight to behold, to say the least. The entire set of bones is hung from the ceiling, and it gives a realistic view of what it must have been like for the blue whale to swim in the oceans. Truly, most of your time will probably be spent in the hall admiring this beast.


​​​Other animals are shown in this hall. Another complete set of bones can be found, this time of an Asian elephant. After it passed away, the bones of this beast were kindly donated to the museum by the National Zoological Gardens. It is also now housed permanently in this museum.

An Asian elephant at the National Museum of Natural History
An Asian elephant at the National Museum of Natural History

​This museum, while not the most modern nor the most comfortable place to be, is definitely a good place to learn more about the country’s natural history. It offers an insight into what this country was like, many years ago. It also shows how diversified this country is, in terms of its natural heritage. Large animals and all types of plants can be found in Sri Lanka, and this museum shows perfectly the different types of species that can be found on a tropical island!


Opening hours: 9 am to 5 pm daily (except public holidays)

Website:

http://www.museum.gov.lk/web/index.php?option=com_regionalm&task=regionalmuseum&id=11&Itemid=74&lang=en

6. Pettah Market

Pettah Market in Colombo is really a place where you get to see all types of ordinary people in Sri Lanka, simply getting about with their lives, buying different products for their own use.

Crowd at Pettah Market
Crowd at Pettah Market

Also known as Manning Market, it sells many types of merchandise, and the large variety of food available is already in fact quite amazing. The market is also quite a huge place that consists of many small streets and alleys. From roadside stalls selling spicy snacks to carts selling fresh coconuts, you are quite tempted to try them all. Freshly deep-fried for your consumption, their local snacks do look rather tempting! There are also many stalls selling different things. From your shoes to jeans, from the water bottles to jewellery, they’ve got it.


Right by the entrance of the market is the Khan Clock Tower. A popular landmark that marks the start of the market, it was declared operational on 04th January 1923. While it looks beautiful, it is interesting to note that it was in fact a gift by the family of Framjee Bhikhajee Khan. A businessman when he was alive, this clock tower was meant as a gift to the people of Colombo.

Khan Clock Tower guarding the entrance to Pettah Market
Khan Clock Tower guarding the entrance to Pettah Market

Also within the market is the historic Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque. It was opened in 1909, just one year after construction began. The mosque has a distinctive red and white striped painting, and it was claimed that before other buildings were built, sailors looked to this mosque to recognise they were arriving at Colombo!

Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque
Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque

Be warned though, that as it is a regular market very much used by the locals, there are tons of people moving about. What you can do is to pace yourself with the locals, and try your best not to disrupt their marketing!


​For first-timers to Pettah Market, a trick can be to hire a tuk-tuk and bring you around the market, and you can take your time to snap some photos and just enjoy the atmosphere of being in a really busy market!

Google Maps: List of attractions and food places in Colombo!

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