When the Tourist Board of Colombo handed me a map of the city, they spontaneously highlighted:

  • The famous Colombo Fort
  • The National Museum
  • Three shopping malls.

Wait. Was that all there was to the Sri Lankan capital? Two tourist landmarks—and chain stores? Thankfully, that was untrue: by exploring a little, I actually gathered 12 cool things to do in Colombo—if you’ve got a few days planned there on your way to the inland and coastal marvels of Sri Lanka.

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1. Explore the colourful streets of Union Place

Green, blue, pink, purple: the narrow lanes surrounding Church and Malay St are lined with bright-painted houses and laundry hanging on improvised clotheslines. This is one of the most ancient areas in Colombo, and probably the one with the most character: a buzzing atmosphere, kids running around, friends hanging out, families porching it.

A lady invited me to sit down with her whole family, from the grandma to the little cousin, for a fresh pineapple drink and a talk about art and the future of the city. Apparently the whole neighbourhood will be destroyed within two years to leave way to modern buildings–for the sake of development. Rush there before it’s too late!

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2. Ride in a tuk-tuk

The mighty three-wheelers thread their way everywhere, drive recklessly, take illegal turns, get you there in no time. Keep an eye out for decorations: some cool cats have pimped their dashboard with pretty sick bling.

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3. Watch the sunset at Galle Face Green

Havana has its Malecón, Colombo has Galle Face Green: a green space stretching along the Indian Ocean, with views of the impressive red structures of the harbour, where families gather to enjoy an evening stroll and cheer the sun down. Kids are flying kites and laughing at tourists, sporty types are training in synch, and there are greasy snacks a-plenty. Fun time guaranteed!

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4. Eat with your hands

There are ‘hotels’ (aka small, inexpensive restaurants) on every corner in Colombo. Take a seat under a tired fan at one of the metal tables, order a roti (a fried crepe garnished with anything you could desire) or a spicy rice with curry, and dive right in. Yes, with your hands, just as Sri Lankans do. No fanciness, pure happiness.

5. Set sail on a swan pedal-boat

Lake South Beira is a nice place for an afternoon stroll, and its centre island is the number one destination for dates in Colombo–you’ll spot couples cuddling under umbrellas everywhere. For more intimacy, your loved one and yourself can hire a swan-shaped pedal-boat and float away on the green waters–they are so opaque that ducks entirely disappear when they dive in to fish! Don’t forget to check out the beautiful Seema Malakaya meditation centre, built on the water on the east side of the lake.

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6. Visit the fruit and vegetable market

Near the busy markets of Pettah, a far lesser-known destination is the Manning Markets. There aren’t many tourists that take the trip there, so be prepared to be called at a lot. The market is an explosion of colours: everything that grows in Sri Lanka seems available here.

Trucks filled with pumpkins, baskets full of spices, men carrying heavy loads of greens on their head, bunches of bananas as far as the eye can see… It is very different from such markets in Europe, a kind of organised mess: some stalls sell mountains of pineapples–literally–, some are almost empty, some are arranged in neat, geometric piles… and, right in the middle of all that, a few people are taking naps on the ground. Quite a sight.

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7. Find treasures at Barefoot

Instead of buying everyone back home the obvious small wooden elephant, try Barbara Sansoni’s shop (704 Galle Rd, Colombo 03) for more interesting gifts: beside her colourful hand-woven fabrics, Barefoot has a nice selection of small objects for the house, coffee-table books about Sri Lanka, and cute fabric-covered notebooks–all displayed in a beautiful ancient house.

Before leaving, take the time to sit down in the Garden Cafe at the back and order a fresh juice: painted in bright colours, shaded by tall trees and lined with wooden sculptures, its paved courtyard is one of the nicest places to sit back and cool down in Colombo. (Barefoot also has a smaller shop inside the Old Dutch Hospital).

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8. Soak in some contemporary art

Saskia Fernando Gallery (which is no longer in Kollupitiya, but at 41 Horton Place, Colombo 07) displays works–painting, sculpture, new media–by contemporary Sri Lankan artists on two immaculate (and nicely air-conditioned!) white floors. The gallery also has a small concept store attached. Highly recommended.

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9. Cool down at Viharamahadevi Park

Facing the blinding white Town Hall, Colombo’s biggest park offers a refreshing break from the city’s heat–grab a picnic from one of the nice cafés of Cinnamon Gardens and savour it in the shade. Viharamahadevi Park is home to bouncy striped squirrels, colourful parrots, and bunches of sleepy bats.

Of course the gardener who offers to take you on a tour will expect a tip at the end, but I thought it was worth it: he knew the botanical, English and French name of every single plant, had me smell the bark of the cinnamon tree, showed me how to spot ants nests among the leaves, introduced me to a 1.500-year-old-tree, and told me that the 50.000 bats who live in the park are strictly vegetarian (they only feed on mangoes and papayas).

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10. Indulge in delicious pastries

Pastries, cakes and all sweet delicacies in Sri Lanka are scrumptious–and this is coming from a Travelette who usually always picks cheese over dessert. Spiced up with delicate blends of cardamom, cinnamon and the like, they will hug your palate and make your taste buds dance! Try the butterscotch mousse at Green Cabin (453 Galle Rd; their pastries are also served at Pagoda Tea Room, 105 Chatham St, close to the Colombo Fort).

11. Take a spiritual break at Gangaramaya

The biggest Buddhist temple of the city is worth a visit. Although it is a real shambles of disparate objects (there’s even a stuffed elephant), its vast sea of Buddhas is impressive, and the beautiful Bodhi tree inside the courtyard grows on and around the buildings–even here, in the heart of the city, it is impossible to forget that the jungle is not far. Above all I liked the fact that, instead of objects, the faithful of Sri Lanka give fresh flowers as offerings.

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12. Stick fresh flowers in your hair

Colours of the vegetation here are simply shocking. Flashy fuchsia, bright red, warm orange… Flowers in Colombo are a visual feast! Pick up a delicate pink-tinted frangipani and stick it in your bun: natural, pretty-smelling beauty.

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Note: You might wonder why this list doesn’t include any bars/nighttime hangouts. The reason is I travelled solo to Colombo, and while the city is absolutely fine by day (or when you’re with a group), it’s not that safe for women to wander alone after dark—I thus mostly stuck to daytime activities.

Photo 1 via Bestbauch on Pixabay
All other photos by Marie Colinet

mariecolinettravelettesMarie Colinet was part of the Travelettes team from 2013 to 2015. Originally from Toulouse, France, two years lived in Australia left her speaking English with an awkward Fraussie accent. In September 2015, Marie is starting the epic 6-month-or-who-knows-how-long road-trip along the Panamerican Highway that she’s been dreaming of since her teenage years — all the way from the U.S. to the very tip of South-America. You can follow her on Instagram @mariecolinet!