Ah, Colombo, the garden city of the East. With flights to Colombo coming down in price, this is many traveller's first stops on their journey to the island state of Sri-Lanka.
The city is more than just a hustle and bustle. It's not just a stop off for those wishing to explore the rest of the country. Set by the ocean the city has a lot to offer in terms of both beaches and culture.
Use our backpacker's guide to find out everything that the city has to offer.
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Getting into Colombo is pretty easy these days. The international airport now provides a whole host of low cost options from major European cities. Prices have in-fact came down in the last year or so. Meaning you can expect to get into the Capital for very reasonable prices.
Where to stay 🏨
The main city center
We wouldn't recommend staying here. But it's really up to you. The city is more expensive and you'll most likely be in either a hotel or a low-quality guest house. I've read many suggesting the YMCA - we even checked this place out, but the room they showed us only had three walls. It was also quite expensive.
There's some incredible hotels as they would be in any large city. Typical hotel will be around 5000-6500 LKR but expect to go well above this for most places in close to the Fort area.
Colombo city hostel | 💵 1742 LKR dorm bed, 5000 LKR private room (3 beds) | 📍177 RA de Mel Mawatha
This area (south along Galle road) offers slightly more value for money. There's some middle of the road guesthouses and some nicer hotels at a fraction of the price you'd pay for in the city. Again this area is a little better due to it's proximity to the Fort area. But in our opinion, you'd be better suited heading a little further down the Galle road. Especially if you're a backpacker who doesn't mind taking a bus journey to see the sights.
Cosy Lanka Restaurant and Hotel | 💵 2000 LKR dorm | 📍 25 Wellawatte Station Road
This is absolutely the district to stay if you're on a backpacker budget. Even if it's a little way from the big city.
The main draws in this Colombo district are the huge number of cute guesthouses, good vibes and it's close proximity to the beach.
There are lovely locals that have their own unique guesthouses. Many of them include dinner - and a traditional family cooked one at that.
For the average backpacker this absolutely perfect. The city is a short bus ride away and you have access to a nice and laid back environment right next to the beach. There's even location cafes and bars that host music nights, quizzes and all-around good vibes!
Hitchhike Backpackers | 💵 1500 lKR for a dorm room | 📍 50/3A Templers Road (Colonne Place) Mount Lavinia
If Colombo is the first stop on your Sri-Lankan journey then you're in for a treat. One of the best things about the country is not just the huge flavour and taste involved in the cuisine, but the fact that it's common to pay for a multi-course meal in most places.
The smaller guest houses love to do this - it's called a thali. You usually get a few different dishes for the table, rice, sambal, popadoms and some hoppers.
What is sambal?
Boy if you've never tried sambal then you've been missing out. Made with fresh coconut and chili it takes incredible when the coconut is fresh (as it is all across Sri-Lanka). It's as fresh at it comes with a nice kick of chili that makes the perfect accompaniment to any curry.
There will be changes across the country for this sort of food. So it might make sense for you to head into the city for some high gastro Sri-Lankan cuisine.
Here are some places we recommend for travelers.
Colombo food corner | 📍 28, De Saram Road, Mount Lavinia, Colombo mount Lavinia
Wonderfully cute and cheap restaurant where the owner will help you plan your trip and cook you up one of the greatest thalis going.
Ministry of crab | 📍No 04, Old Dutch Hospital,
Upmarket crab restaurant that's apparently been voted one of the top 50 in Asia.
Buba Beach | 📍42/11 Vihara Rd, Dehiwala-Mount Lavinia, Sri Lanka
Near mount Lavinia and in amongst the beach and the backpackers.
Tuk-tuks are probably the best way to travel around the City although prices can quickly ramp up if you are staying outside of the city centre.
Busses are a great option to get around. They run regularly, cost little and let you get a great feel of the city.
If you are staying in the Mount Lavinia area then there's a bus that you can get all the way to the heart of the city center and the Fort area. It's a nice ride and you'll get to see a lot of city life on your way in.
Busses 100 and 101 take you all the way up and they run quite late as well.
The railway that runs along the beach from Dehiwala is quicker but more expensive and more crowded.
The recommended museum to visit in Colombo - and for good reason. The museum is set in a beautiful old colonial building. But within lies its greatest treasures. Taking you through the history of the county, both before and after the British colonization, it's a great place for any new visitors to understand the rich cultural heritage of Sri-Lanka.
📍854 Sir Marcus Fernando Mawatha, Colombo | 500LKR entry fee
Dutch period museum
This site is one of the few remaining buildings remaining in this style. Its courtyard is beautiful and it's quite a transporting sensation to leave the hustle and bustle of the city streets to the peaceful 17th-century residence. There's also dutch colonial artifacts on display.
📍Prince Street, Colombo 01100, Sri Lanka
Galle Face Green
Be sure to check out this lovely coastal front if you have the chance. Full of local families at the weekend - Galle Face Green is a coastal park that stretches along the coast and it's quite perfect to go to in the early evening, just as the sun goes down.
That's because it faces west with an unobstructed view of the Indian ocean whilst the sun plops down behind it. Aside from the views, you can really take in life Colombo by sitting and observing the locals. From lovers to families and everything else in between, life goes by in Galle Face Green as the waves crash against the shores of the nation's capital.
📍56 Colombo - Galle Main Rd, Colombo, Sri Lanka | Free
Formerly known as Victoria Park, Viharamahedevi Park is the largest park in the city. There's a giant golden Buddha and it's lovely to walk amongst the structures that are well maintained. There's often a snake charmer in the park for some light entertainment.
📍Viharamahadevi Park, Colombo, Sri Lanka | Free
Seema Malaka Temple
Situated in the middle of Beira Lake this modern temple is a one for the architects. The temple is symmetrical and a work of beauty - the floating sections are connected by bridges and the sculptures that surround the temples give a heightened sense of purpose.
📍Sir James Pieris Mawatha, Colombo, Sri Lanka | Free
Other things to do
Of course, next to Mount Latvian there's a whole bunch of activities to do. Spend an evening on the beach - the train tracks run right beside it and the local children play happily until the train comes and the run out of the way.
Once the sun goes down there are some fun beach bars offering all manner of vices. Head off the beach and into the surrounding neighborhood for some more civilized bars and restaurants.
Colombo is a hub to pretty much anywhere in the county. But make sure you think about your entire trip before choosing your next destination.
Via the bus station
The bus station is situated right next to the Fort railway station and it offers many different routes around the island. Many are on uncomfortable buses that usually have music blaring. If you can get past that then it's a great, cheap way to get to your next destination.
The train network in Sri-Lanka is actually pretty good. The view that you get thrown in is fantastic in some places and it's one of the best ways to see the rural landscape. SOme routes can, in fact, be slower than the bus so be sure to check first. Otherwise, trains leave from the fort station.
A recommendation is the beautiful railway route to Kandi which boasts some of the best views out of a train window that I have experienced.