Lying on the west coast of Sri Lanka, Colombo (the former capital of the island) is a chaotic and colorful place that pulsates with energy and life. Ruled over by the Portuguese and then the Dutch and British, the city has lots of different sides to it and boasts a vibrant, multicultural population.
As the largest city – and commercial and financial capital of the country – Colombo always has loads going on. Brilliant restaurants and shops are found alongside interesting museums and impressive historical sights. While rapid growth and development means that it is no longer quite ‘the garden city of the East,’ as it was once known, pockets of greenery still exist among its tall skyscrapers and modern malls.
Although many people simply stop by on their way to Sri Lanka’s stunning beaches, Colombo certainly has a few hidden gems for you to discover, whether you’re into dining and shopping or history, culture, and nightlife.
12. Independence Memorial Hall
Built between 1949 and 1953, Independence Memorial Hall was erected to commemorate the country’s independence from Britain in 1948. Surrounded by lush, landscaped gardens, the large stone edifice’s design is fittingly based on that of the royal Celebration Hall in Kandy – the last native kingdom in Sri Lanka.
Besides boasting some wonderful Kandyan architecture, the national monument also houses the Independence Memorial Museum, which is well worth visiting if you have the time. In front of it, you will also find a fantastic statue of Don Stephen Senanayake, the first prime minister of Sri Lanka and the ‘Father of the Nation.’
11. Seema Malakaya Temple
Scenically set in the middle of Beira Lake, the pretty and picturesque Seema Malakaya Temple is one of the city’s most photographed sights, and justifiably so. With the water sparkling all around it, the beautiful bronze Buddha statues that surround the main hall of the temple look all the more impressive. Across the lake, you can see skyscrapers poking above the treetops.
Rebuilt in 1976 after the original sank into the lake, the temple is primarily used as a center for rest and meditation rather than as a site of worship. Included as part of the Gangaramaya Temple, which lies just a stone’s throw away on solid ground, Seema Malakaya looks particularly delightful when illuminated beneath the night’s sky.
10. St Anthony’s Church
Also known as St Anthony’s Shrine, this Roman Catholic church is often crammed with locals who come to pray or leave offerings to its holy relic – a piece of the revered saint’s tongue. People of many different faiths worship at the site; this is because St Anthony is believed to be a ‘miracle worker’ by the local community.
While the exterior of the building is pleasant, with its fine Neoclassical features that date to the early 1800s, it is the reverent atmosphere inside that makes it a special place to visit. In April 2019, St Anthony’s Church was tragically bombed as part of a series of coordinated attacks across Sri Lanka, with over 90 people losing their lives. As it is an important symbol of unity, hope, and tolerance in the country, it was renovated and reopened shortly afterward and has welcomed worshippers ever since.
9. Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque
One of the oldest mosques in the city, Jami Ul-Alfar dates back to 1909 and features some gorgeous architecture that draws on lots of different styles. While the harmonious blend of Indo-Islamic, Gothic, and Neoclassical elements is breathtaking, the mosque’s unique and unusual color scheme is what attracts visitors.
The red and white striped building looks reminiscent of a candy cane, and this really makes it stand out against its surroundings. Located just a short distance from Colombo’s busy port, this beautiful mosque is not to be missed out on. Outside of prayer times, you can often visit its splendid interior.
8. Independence Square
Lined by lovely old colonial-era buildings with leafy boulevards leading onto it, the spacious Independence Square is where many of the city’s main cultural events and important festivals take place. As it still sports pretty ponds, statues, and a fountain, with lots of lush gardens found nearby, it is easy to see why Colombo was once nicknamed ‘the garden city of the East.’
Besides boasting the fabulous Independence Memorial Hall, which lines one side of it, the square is also home to the Arcade, a modern shopping mall where you can find lots of trendy outlets and eateries.
7. Viharamahadevi Park
The largest and oldest park in the city, Viharamahadevi is a great place to head to if you want to immerse yourself in nature and escape Colombo’s busy streets for a while. Built by the British back in colonial times, the park was once named after Queen Victoria before it was renamed following Sri Lanka’s independence.
A very pleasant place to stroll around, its leafy avenues and landscaped lawns are now home to fountains, a lake, a children’s playground, and zoo, with a wonderful statue of the Buddha also on show.
6. Dutch Hospital
Reputed to be the oldest surviving building in the Colombo Fort area, the Dutch Hospital dates all the way back to the late 1600s and exhibits some of the best colonial-era architecture in the city. The Dutch established the hospital to look after the officers and other staff serving under the Dutch East India Company. Over the centuries, the building has also been used as a police station and is now a shopping and dining complex.
Popular with both locals and tourists, the Dutch Hospital is a great place to grab a bite to eat. While sitting in one of its outside courtyards, you can enjoy the history and heritage all around you.
5. Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara
One of the most important Buddhist temples in not only Sri Lanka but the whole of Asia, Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara’s long history dates back some 2500 years, to when Lord Buddha visited the island. Set in a scenic spot overlooking the river Kelani on the outskirts of Colombo, the temple’s fortunes have often mirrored that of Sri Lanka itself.
While the site features some delightful architecture, the main highlights are its marvelous reclining Buddha and the accompanying scenes and images of his life. Well worth visiting if you have the chance, Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara still attracts hordes of worshippers to this day.
4. Colombo National Museum
If you’re interested in learning more about Sri Lanka’s rich history and culture, then the Colombo National Museum is the place to go. Opened in 1877, the museum is located in a dazzlingly bright white building that exhibits some incredible Italian style architecture.
Home to a massive collection of artifacts and artworks, the museum is fascinating to explore, with the crowns and thrones of Kandyan kings of old on show alongside carvings, statues, and weapons. With lots of interesting exhibits for you to peruse, the Colombo National Museum makes for a great day out.
3. Galle Face Green
Lying alongside the ocean in between the financial district and the narrow beach of the same name, the Galle Face Green is one of the most popular places in the city to relax and unwind. Once used by the British for cricket, polo, and horse racing, the large green now makes for a lovely spot to enjoy a picnic or go for a stroll.
As lots of street vendors sell all types of delicious local snacks and delicacies, the Galle Face Green is a great place to grab a bite to eat while watching people fly kites in the invigorating breeze that blows in from the Indian Ocean.
2. Mount Lavinia Beach
Home to gorgeous golden sands, Mount Lavinia Beach is conveniently located just a short bus journey away from the center of the city. Unlike the majority of beaches in the south of the island, Mount Lavinia’s boasts lots of great facilities. Loads of bars, restaurants, and hotels line its inviting sands.
As it stretches for kilometers along the coast, some parts of the beach are tranquil and secluded, while others teem with people. Besides wallowing in its warm waters or reclining on its sands and taking in the picture-perfect scenery, Mount Lavinia Beach is also home to some great nightlife, with a number of brilliant bars and nightclubs on offer.
1. Gangaramaya Temple
Exhibiting a wide range of architectural styles that encompass Indian, Thai, Chinese, and Sri Lankan features, Gangaramaya Temple certainly makes for an impressive sight. Consisting of several different halls and shrines, as well as a library, museum, and relic chamber, the temple is marvelous to explore, with Simamalaka Shrine particularly delightful.
Scattered around the complex are exquisite statues, sculptures, carvings and the Bodhi tree, which make for some fantastic photos. One of the most important temples in the city, it is here that the most vibrant and extravagant Vesak, or full moon celebrations, take place each year.
Only completed in the late 19th century, Gangaramaya Temple is located just a short distance away from Beira Lake and Seema Malakaya Temple and is the highlight of many people’s visit to Colombo.