(Updated in 2018) My Favorite 26 Things to do Colombo, Sri Lanka
My Favorite 26 Things to do Colombo, Sri Lanka - Understand
Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, can't escape its comparisons with India. It constantly happens and you will do it, too - trust me. Colombo is the better India; everything is a little more organized, more friendly and more clean but it's also more expensive than the motherland. Colombo is also more modern and less conservative than most Indian cities but there are just so many similarities - and not just spicy food and tuk-tuk rickshaws.
Colombo is rather more expensive than India for tourists and expats alike. It sadly has a lot of air pollution and traffic is nightmare; combined with the extreme heat, this can make exploration and enjoyment of this city harder than it should be.
Take it easy in Colombo and take small steps to warm up to this 'India Light'; wait for those 'shining moments' that will undoubtedly happen to fully appreciate the city and island itself. Colombo is decidedly less hassle than, say, New Delhi.
My Favorite 26 Things to do Colombo, Sri Lanka - Get Around
Uber is in town and it is my favorite way to get around here. Airport rides are about $13 and most rides in town are under $2. Most of the cars used for uberGO are on the small side (think Italian cars) but the drivers are skilled and, given the traffic, a small car is a smart idea.
Tuk-tuks are aplenty in Colombo as well, if you can stand the noise, pollution and heat. Almost all have a meter running and switch it on without hesitation when you flag them down.
Keep in mind that the road infrastructure is patchy and often centuries behind. The airport freeway is brand new and smooth (and empty) but the 26-mile ride to town takes 25 minutes for the first 23 miles and then another 25 minutes for 3 miles on the old city roads.
Colombo has the BEST roads in the country but once you get out of town, you race on one-lane roads shared with everything possible under the sun. 15 miles per hour is FAST on these routes.
My Favorite 26 Things to do Colombo, Sri Lanka - Safety
Like many Indian cities, Colombo is generally safe, despite the widespread extreme poverty. Road safety is a big problem and drivers and mopeds squeeze in everywhere, including sidewalks; it is easier to be in a car yourself.
Sri Lanka does not have the sexual violence that many Indian cities have had to deal with but it is a good idea to err on the safe side. Use common sense (yes, it is a thing! We Americans tend to forget a lot) and avoid dark and lonely areas at night.
My Favorite 26 Things to do Colombo, Sri Lanka - Sights
Colombo has a number of places with colonial history that will easily keep you busy for a day or two. Combined with the decent food, you will have plenty to discover.
The old British racecourse is now a rugby field (there seems to be games every weekend) and there's AstroTurf for hockey players.
Racecourse Shopping Complex
The adjacent shopping mall is a good way to cool down and see some local and some not-so-local chains.
Independence Square and Arcade Independence Square
Just 5 minutes' walking distance from the racecourse, you can find Independence Square and the adjacent Arcades. Both are in great shape (considering they are in Sri Lanka) and there are never any crowds. The Arcades are really beautiful and feature a number of high-end restaurants and cafes.
University of Colombo
Just a few minutes away is the campus of the University of Colombo - the city's premier college. While some of the buildings are dilapidated, it is still a lovely green campus and it's a great way to learn about local life by wandering through it.
Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple
This expansive Buddhist temple can't decide if it is a museum or temple. Where else can you see a 1930s black Mercedes in a temple?!
It is still fun to go on a discovery tour and photograph all the different angles.
Galle Face Beach and Galle Face Green
This public beach by the Galle Face Green promenade gets a good amount of heavy breakers. The water is too polluted to go in (and the rocks can be an issue too) but it's a good way to stare at the sea and get some fresh air.
There is plenty of cheap local food and kites on sale here and it's a great place to people watch at sunset.
Mount Lavinia Beach
The nearest beach (if you are not going to Galle Face) is Mount Lavinia. There are a lot of street hawkers and you won't be left alone but it is still a place to get a tan and dive into the waters.
Mount Lavinia Hotel
The nearby Mount Lavinia Hotel is good for high tea with a view across the ocean.
My Favorite 26 Things to do Colombo, Sri Lanka - Explore the countryside
Sri Lanka is a wonderful place to travel cheaply and safely through a fascinating countryside.
There are a few stops that seem 'mandatory' but you can combine them in many different ways.
Travel by Train
Trains in Sri Lanka are usually old but in decent shape and the First Class cabins sometimes comes with huge windows to see the country side. Bring a zoom lens to make the most of the scenic journeys.
Train tickets are usually under $10 wherever you go!
Travel by Bus
In addition to trains Sri Lanka has a network of somewhat reliable and comfortable buses that get you around when no train service is available.
Colombo - Anuradhapura by Train
I'd start it off with a train ride from Colombo to Anuradhapura the ancient city and UNESCO World Heritage site.
Plan a few days in Anuradhapura to explore and take some of the charm or make some side trips to see more sights.
A wonderful (and easy to organize trip) is to Sigiriya from Anuradhapura.
Anuradhapura to Ella/ Badulla/ Haputale / Kandy by Train
Kandy is another World Heritage site on your way south. Ella/ Badulla and Haputale are well worth your time and you should plan 1-3 days per city - more if you want to be ready to do sidetrips.
You can hop from city to city using the scenic train route or buses and eve taxis since distances are short.
Bus to Matara
After all that highland experience take a bus down to Matara. From there you can organize an elephant safari - if that is your sortof thing.
The famously empty port and airport of Hambantota is not far away - something that would certainly make it on my list!
Matara to Galle by Train
If you are still in the mood for train rides - take the train from Matara to Galle. Galle has some fascinating beach life and there are several good surf spots around.
Go back to Colombo by train
Colombo is just a few hours by train from Galle and you can head straight for the airport or spend a few more days in Colombo.
My Favorite 26 Things to do Colombo, Sri Lanka - Eat & Drink
Upali's by Nawaloka
Upali's is a great mid-range option to try out Sri Lankan food. The vegetarian lunch options are super-cheap but the other curries are more expensive. The service here can be hit or miss, with a lot of confusing assignments.
Kopi Kade is Colombo's first third gen' coffee shop. The interior is decidedly minimalist and well cooled down. There is excellent coffee (incl. cortados) and snacks inspired by Sri Lankan street food interpretations.
Unfortunately there is no real fast WiFi :(
Giovannis is like a trip to Italy. There is a lovely courtyard that feels like a 'piazza' in Rome. While the pizza's aren't cheap they are huge and fantastically seasoned. Loved this place!
Barista (multiple locations)
Barista is a local coffee chain that brew good espresso and some addictively delicious waffles (I confess I had three times in three days).
Shanmugas does some delicious South Indian food in a location right across the beach. The Thali lunch is best and expect big crowds and noise abut the food is worth it.
Chutneys is part of the Cinnamon Grand hotel complex and does high-end Indian cuisine. It only opens for lunch from 12-2.30 PM and reopens at 7PM but serves really good food with fantastic service. It's surprisingly affordable if you stick to vegetable curries as well. I was surprised by how much I liked the daal.
t-Lounge by Dilmah (multiple locations)
t-Lounge tea rooms do exactly what you'd expect - deliver excellent tea creations. I tried the iced and hot variations and thought they were pretty cool. Ask for the ingredients to be delivered separately so you get control over how much sugar is being mixed into your drink.
My Favorite 26 Things to do Colombo, Sri Lanka - Where to Stay
Colombo has precious few US chain hotels; for some reason, there just isn't a lot of franchisees here. There are plenty of local chains and high-end hotels, though.
The Cinnamon Grand is like a mini city, with countless restaurants, several towers and a magnificent pool. Room rates hover around $200 but it is so good that I wouldn't wanna leave when in Colombo. Even the restaurants are good enough to just go there even if you don't stay at the hotel.
Just around the corner from the Cinnamon Grand is the Ramada Colombo, which is great value as a cash and points redemption and would be a solid choice if it were not for the smelly air conditioning.
I also tried the Fairway Colombo Hotel (Fort Area) and Global Towers. The Fairway hotel is the former Dutch hospital and the renovations have just finished. It's very modern and the hardware top notch. It's also rather crowded and the staff is visibly hostile to guests.
The Global Towers hotel has some of the best hotel staff I have encountered. The rooms are more like small apartments but they certainly show their age. The hotel is located right at the beach and comes with a little beach pub that is also a local favorite for a drink.
Sri Lnaka tri