Colombo is the commercial capital of Sri Lanka. The administrative capital was moved to Sri Jayawardenepura, a suburb of Colombo, in the 1980’s. The move was kind of half-hearted and today many government institutions remain in Colombo. The main airport in Sri Lanka, Bandaranaike International Airport, is located 35km north of Colombo. Most travellers will only spend a night or two in Colombo before departing south or east. However Colombo still has a lot to offer the budget traveller and shouldn’t be completely ignored.
An alternative to heading straight to Colombo after your flight is to instead stay in Negombo, closer to the airport. However if you plan to catch a train or bus to another part of the country, it is easier to just stay in Colombo, since this is where the main bus and train stations are located.
Located about halfway between downtown Colombo and Mt Lavinia. The dorms are very comfortable and the hostel provides both air conditioning and hot showers, both rare commodities in Sri Lanka. The hostel is located very close to Galle Rd, the main north-south thoroughfare in Colombo. As such it is very easy to catch cheap buses or trains from here to just about anywhere.
Located close to Galle Face and a walkable distance from the Pettah Market and the Colombo Fort Railway Station. When trying to direct a tuk-tuk or taxi driver to the hostel, tell them to take you to the Liberty Cinema, which is close to Liberty Plaza shopping centre, and walk from there. The dorms are simple, but the social area upstairs is really nice and the breakfast is very good considering it’s free.
This should be your hostel of choice if you want to head straight from the airport to a nearby hostel. It is located less than 10min from the arrival gate. The dorms are very comfortable and the hostel provides both air conditioning and hot showers, both rare commodities in Sri Lanka. Also a great option to stay for a night at the end of your trip before departing Sri Lanka.
Sights and Highlights
The Galle Face is a five hectare ocean-side urban park, which stretches for a half kilometre along the coast in the heart of Colombo and is now the largest open space in Colombo. Galle Face is a popular destination for families, couples and kite flyers to indulge in their favourite pastimes next to the sea under the open sky. On Saturday and Sunday evenings, the land is busy with day trippers, picnickers and food vendors. Visit during the day to get away from the bustle of Colombo. Visit in the evenings to see the locals at play.
The Pettah Market is an open market in central Colombo. The entrance to the Pettah Market is marked formally by a tall monument in the centre of a roundabout, known as the Khan Clock Tower. Walking the streets of the Pettah Market is a great way to see the people of Sri Lanka going about their business. Walk idly along the streets, watch the people and take photos of the colourful street scenes. The most recognisable building in the Pettah Market is the candy-striped Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque (also known as The Red Mosque) which was built in 1909.
Mount Lavinia is a great place to be. The beach and the friendly people make it a very pleasant place to stay, even if just as a day-trip. Mt.Lavinia is only about 20 minutes away from the city and entertains a good deal of nightlife. Along the beach-front are a variety of restaurants that serve liquor and food to suit every budget. The variety of the beach-bars make for an interesting day with nice little coves for a quiet chat and drink to well-lit, busy places with dance floors, music courtesy of a live DJ and well stocked bars.
Colombo doesn’t boast the beautiful landscapes of the mountainous interior, or the beaches of the east and south coasts. What it does offer is the best food in Sri Lanka at the cheapest prices. Cheap and tasty Sri Lankan food is extremely easy to come by in Colombo. If you spend a few days in Colombo after flying in, make sure you visit a few local restaurants (called hotels by the locals). For more information on the food in Sri Lanka, check my post Sri Lankan food for the Budget Traveller.
There are a range of bars in the Fort area of Colombo. A brief but decent guide to a few of these can be found at the Best Bars in Fort, Colombo.
The cheapest way to have a some fun at night in Colombo is to head to the nearest wine store and buy either some arrack or beer and bring it back to your hostel. Sri Lankan arrack is made from coconuts and has a taste halfway between rum and whiskey. It is popular to drink arrack with ginger beer. Lion and Anchor are the two beer brands that seem to be the most popular. My two favourites were Lion Lager and Anchor smooth. If you want to try some stronger beer, Lion Strong and Anchor Strong are also popular. Both are just under 9% alcohol, so take it easy if your planning on drinking for a while. They don’t call them ‘strong’ for nothing.
Uber is quite new to Sri Lanka and only works in Colombo. The cost of an uber in Colombo is only slightly more than taking a tuk-tuk and cheaper than a lot of taxis. Plus, the payment is handled by Uber so you do not need to negotiate the fare or use cash to pay.
Tuk-tuks are everywhere in Sri Lanka. It will quickly become your default method for getting to most places in Colombo. About half the tuk-tuks have metered fares and it is suggested that at least initially you stick to these. After a while you start to learn what kind of fare is appropriate and can negotiate fares on non-metered tuk-tuks with some confidence. Note that outside of Colombo, tuk-tuks do not have meters.
Getting In and Out
The rail network in Sri Lanka is centred around Colombo. From Colombo it is very easy to catch a train down the coast to Galle and Matara, or east to Kandy. There is also a line that heads north along the coast if you want to head that direction. In order to book a ticket on these trains it is advisable to head to Fort Railway Station the day before departure and purchase a 2nd class ticket with seat reservation. If you do not reserve a seat it is likely that you will be standing for most of the journey.
The train to Kandy does not terminate there but continues on through Nuwara Eliya and Ella. This section of the journey is truly breathtaking. The best way to soak up the scenery is by sitting in the doorway with your legs dangling out the train. It is safe to do so as the train travels slowly. Just remember to lift your legs up as you go through tunnels and into the stations.
Head to seat61.com/SriLanka for detailed information on catching trains out of Colombo.
There are two bus depots on either side of the road near Fort Train Station. On google maps, they are called Colombo Central Bus Stand and Bastian Mawatha Bus Station. By far the easiest way to catch Sri Lankan buses is to go to the bus station (either of them) and ask anyone who looks like they are in any way official for directions to the bus you need. Bus conductors stand near the entrance to their busses and will be happy to point you in the right direction.
Express buses or highway buses are available to both Galle and Matara on the south coast. They are quicker than the train and are air-conditioned but cost a little more than trains. The highway buses are my recommended means of transport to access the south coast. If you are heading to Mirissa, catch the Matara bus.
The other locations that are accessible by bus and should be on the backpackers map are Dambulla and Kitulgala. Dambulla is located on the no. 49 Colombo-Trincomalee bus route. Kitulgala is on the no. 18 Colombo-Hatton route.