24 Hours in Colombo: How to Explore Sri Lanka’s Underrated Capital in 1 Day
Colombo has the potential to be Asia’s next up-and-coming capital city. Read on for places to visit and things to do if you only have 1 day in Colombo!
Although Colombo is the transportation gateway to the rest of Sri Lanka, most people (myself included, at one point!) would tell you to skip it. Colombo often ends up being passed over in favor of places like Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa, tea country in Kandy and Ella, the UNESCO-listed Galle Fort as well as the national parks and pristine beaches along the south coast.
I had previously visited Colombo a handful of times, but always found myself underwhelmed and ready to move onto the next destination in Sri Lanka. The fact is, there aren’t a ton of things to do in Colombo, and the rest of the country is just so darn tantalizing.
Visiting Sri Lanka for the first time? Click here for 12 things you should know before you visit the Pearl of the Indian Ocean!
If you had asked me to years ago if I would recommend staying in Colombo, I would’ve told you not to be silly. But after this past trip, I’ve absolutely warmed up to Sri Lanka’s capital city and found myself wondering why we didn’t spend more time here. You’ll probably be able to visit the top Colombo tourist attractions in under a day, but as I discovered, it actually has a lot more to offer beyond a “top 10 list” of places to visit.
The city is more laid back than most capital cities in Asia (1000x less hectic than Delhi in India!), it has pockets of vibrant and eccentric neighborhoods to explore, there are many new and exciting restaurants opening up left, right and center, there are incredible hotels, and it’s a great place to start your Sri Lanka itinerary or unwind towards the end of your trip. Read on for things to do and see if you only have 1 day in Colombo!
Read more: Sri Lanka is one of my favorite places to visit and I go back every 2-3 months. Click here for all of my Sri Lanka travel tips and guides!
Where to stay in Colombo
In my opinion, you don’t need to spend much more than 2 nights in Colombo. Colombo is divided into 15 numbered districts, with a majority of the higher rated hotels in Colombo 1, 3, 4 and 5. If you are looking for a quiet and spacious boutique hotel to stay at in Colombo, look no further than Granbell Hotel in Colombo 3 or Radisson Colombo along the waterfront in Colombo 4.
Granbell Hotel is right on the waterfront Marine Drive, just a stone’s throw from the famous Gangaramaya Temple. This new hotel features a fusion of Japanese and Sri Lankan design and plenty of warm wood finishings. Click here to book your stay at Granbell Hotel or click here for other highly rated accommodation in Colombo!
We also often stay at Radisson Colombo (formerly OZO Colombo), a trendy hotel in the city that offers a great rooftop bar and pool facing the ocean. The rooms are extremely comfortable and we love sipping on cocktails while watching the sun go down in the late afternoon. Click here to book your stay at Radisson Colombo or click here for other highly rated accommodation in Colombo!
We also enjoyed our time at Colombo Hotel by Ceilao Villas which has just 6 rooms – a perfect place to retreat to after a long day of sightseeing. It offers 2 pools for you to cool off in (a smaller upper-tier plunge pool and a larger lower-tier pool) and breakfast on-demand anytime before noon. Click here to check current rates at Colombo Hotel or click here for other highly rated accommodation in Colombo!
Sri Lanka has incredible accommodation options to suit all budgets around the island. Click here for some of my favorite boutique and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka!
How to get around Colombo
Traveling around Sri Lanka can be a real nightmare, with reckless drivers, animals in the middle of the road and ridiculous traffic. But Colombo is extremely easy to get around, apart from the to-be-expected peak hour traffic during the week days.
During the off peak hours, you’ll find plenty of tuk tuk (3-wheelers) zooming around. Expect to pay anywhere between 250-350 Sri Lankan Rupees for a 10-15 minute ride (rates may have increased due to fuel scarcity and ballooning petrol/diesel prices), but whatever you do make sure you negotiate on an agreed-upon price before you hop in. Alternatively, Uber or Pickme (a local ridehailing app) is becoming increasingly popular and the rates are often cheaper than tuk tuks.
It’s important not to get into a tuk tuk unless you’ve agreed on a price, including their rates for waiting. Click here for other things you shouldn’t do when you travel to Sri Lanka!
What to see in Colombo in 24 hours
There are a handful of places you should add to your Colombo itinerary. You’ll find that you can easily visit the different sights within 1 day, or you could also spread them over 2 days in Colombo if you are not short on time.
1. Seema Malaka
Seema Malaka is a floating temple in the middle of Beira Lake. Once you cross over the small bridge, you reach the main platform which is surrounded by Buddha statues. Turn left and you’ll find a Bodhi tree grown from a branch of the famous Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura, and as the breeze comes across the lake red ribbons inscribed with wishes flutter in the wind.
Though it was only built in the late 18th century, it is worth a visit and one of the best places to visit in Colombo as it is much less crowded than its other, more famous, half down the road.
2. Gangaramaya Temple
The Gangaramaya Temple is one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Colombo. It features several chambers, statues, a vihara temple and assembly hall for monks. Don’t miss the towering holy Bodhi tree, though you will want to be mindful that you don’t block or stand in front of any Buddhists praying in front of the tree.
As you wander through the Gangaramaya you’ll see massive collections of Buddha statues (probably more than you’ve ever seen in a lifetime), intricate murals, and a whole lot of random trinkets.
You’ll need to dress appropriately to enter this temple – cover your shoulders and leave your shoes at the door.
It’s also worth noting that you should not take photos with your back facing any Buddha statues and paintings as it is considered extremely offensive, and you may even be asked to delete the photo from your phone or camera. More tips on what not to do in Sri Lanka here.
3. Galle Face Green
Calling Galle Face Green an “oceanfront urban park” might be giving it a tad too much credit. The grass is patchy at best, but it is a popular gathering spot for people to play cricket, fly kites, go on dates and grab some street food – people-watching is one of the best things to do in Colombo. It’s worth stopping by simply to catch a breath of fresh ocean air, and to snap some photos of the colourful kites soaring in the sky – kite-flying is one of the most popular pastimes in Sri Lanka and it’s refreshing to see children out and about, rather than glued to their phones!
4. Red Mosque (Jami Ul-Alfar Masjid)
The Red Mosque is one of the most unique looking mosques in Asia and lies in the heart of Pettah Market. Its facade is reminiscent of a candy cane, and is an important religious monument within Colombo.
Once you’ve visited the Red Mosque take some time wandering Pettah Market, a bustling open-air bazaar spanning several blocks.
Looking for amazing places to stay in Colombo? I recommend Radisson Colombo or Granbella Colombo. Click here to book your stay at Radisson Colombo, here to check current rates at Granbell Colombo or click here for other highly rated hotels in Colombo!
5. The Dutch Hospital
The Old Colombo Dutch Hospital is considered to be the oldest building in the Colombo Fort area and has been around since the late 17th century. The Dutch established the Colombo hospital to tend to the health of the Dutch East India Trading Company officers and staff. Like the Dutch Hospital in Galle Fort, it is now a heritage building occupied by shops and restaurants.
6. The Colombo Lotus Tower
New to the Colombo skyline is the Lotus Tower, the tallest self-supported structure in South Asia. Inspired by the iconic lotus flower which is often associated with Buddhism, there is an observation deck in the tower if you’re looking for views of the city from above.
7. Colombo Town Hall
This remnant of Sri Lanka’s colonial history is the city’s town hall as well as the major’s office. The “White House” of Sri Lanka has undergone several rounds of renovation, though its exterior façade has been unchanged. Architecture lovers will appreciate the Corinthian-style columns and domed roof that date back nearly a century.
Ready to book your trip to Sri Lanka? I recommend staying at Granbell Colombo or Radisson Colombo. Click here to book your stay at Radisson Colombo, here to check current rates at Granbell Hotel or click here for other highly rated hotels in Colombo!
Where to eat and drink in Colombo
The number of fantastic restaurants seems to be growing day by day. Here are some of my favorites:
The Gallery Cafe – If you are a fan of architecture, head to this restaurant-slash-gallery housed in the former offices of Geoffrey Bawa. The food, though pricey, is delicious and the service is above average, it’s a great option if you’re looking to celebrate a special occasion.
Monsoon – This new kid on the block has a massive menu consisting of Southeast Asian fan favorites including beef rendang, pho bo, pad thai and much much more. The deco is warm and the staff are extremely friendly.
Sugar Bistro – You can’t really go wrong with Sugar (they also have a restaurant in Galle Fort). Their food is consistent and the portions are extremely generous. Go with the pumpkin soup with garlic chips, and please do not skip the lamb spring rolls. You won’t regret it!
Vistas Skybar – Located on the rooftop of the new Movenpick hotel, the Vistas rooftop bar is a great place to go for a sunset cocktail (or two).
On14 – This rooftop bar and pool in Radisson Colombo offers sweeping views of the Indian Ocean and a pretty sweet happy hour deal.
Black Cat Cafe – Looking for something more low-key? Black Cat Cafe is a fantastic lunch spot not too far from Colombo Hotel by Ceilao Villas. Try their flat white coffee and fried chicken sandwich.
The Grind Coffeehouse – For the best looking (and tasting) avocado on toast and a killer latte, head to this small coffee shop near Union Place.
Where to go after Colombo
The world is your oyster! You can head east towards the “Cultural Triangle” encompassing Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, Anuradhapura and Dambulla, further towards the tea plantations of Kandy, Ella and Nuwara Eliya, along the west coast and down to southern Sri Lanka through Kalutara, Galle, Unawatuna, Mirissa and Weligama, or all the way down south to Yala and Udawalawe National Parks, Tangalle, Talalla and the surrounding beaches along the south coast.
Is it still safe to visit Colombo?
Hotels and churches in Colombo, Batticaloa and Negombo were attacked on Easter Sunday in 2019 and more than 300 people were killed by the devastating act of terror. The masterminds behind the attacks had links to ISIS and the country has been reeling from the aftermath ever since. As of June 2019, most countries relaxed their travel advisories related to the attacks and the authorities reported that all those directly involved in bombings are dead or have been arrested.
In 2022, Sri Lanka is going through a massive economic crisis and many protests were held in Colombo. While the vast majority of these demonstrations were peaceful, some ended in violence and injury. As a result, snap curfews have been implemented (and may be implemented again with no warning), and social media bans were once again put in place. During the aftermath of the protests there were roadblocks to and from the airport, and you are likely to be experience inconveniences such as fuel shortage, power cuts (both schedule and unscheduled) and extended travel times during a trip to Sri Lanka in 2022. You should bring any basic and required medication as supplies across the country are low, and ensure that you adjust your expectations ahead of your trip. As of September 2022, several countries have downgraded their travel advisories for Sri Lanka as the protests have largely subsided.
Ultimately, the decision to travel to and around Sri Lanka is yours. I do encourage you to check with your country’s foreign office on the latest travel advisory status; contact your travel insurance provider to enquire about coverage; and stay informed by keeping a close eye on the news – the BBC, Reuters and Associated Press tend to be reliable and timely news sources.
Looking for even more Sri Lanka travel tips and destination guides? I’ve got you covered!
- Get started with this primer on Sri Lanka and essential things to know before your trip
- Wondering what NOT to do in Sri Lanka? Here are some common Sri Lanka travel mistakes you’ll want to avoid
- Start your Sri Lanka travel planning here with a list of some of the top destinations in Sri Lanka
- And get inspired with this classic 2 weeks in Sri Lanka itinerary
- Or check out this express 1 week Sri Lanka itinerary if you are short on time
- I’ve loved experiencing boutique and luxury hotels around the island. Here are some of my favorite hotels in Sri Lanka
Have you visited Colombo? Tell me all about your trip below!
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My stay at Colombo Hotel by Ceilao Villas was sponsored; however, no compensation was received for this review, and as always, the opinions on Yogawinetravel.com are (and always will be) my own!
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