Viharamahadevi Park
Asia,  Blog,  Sri Lanka,  Travelogue

Colombo highlights in six hours

What’s it about some cities around the world. You land at its airport, and immediately connect to another flight, train or bus and head to other parts of the country. Getting a fleeting glance of the city, as it quickly disappears behind you, only to see it again, when you are heading back to the airport to leave. Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital and primary point of entry into the country immediately comes to mind.
The train from Colombo to Kandy
The train from Colombo to Kandy

On my previous two visits to the country, that’s exactly what I did. It was merely a transit point before I headed to the sunny beaches down south in Hikkaduwa and Galle. So, when I went back again towards the end of 2019, I wanted it to be different. I wanted to stay a bit longer in Colombo and see what it had to offer. It may not have the cool vibes of Galle, nor will it immerse you in its cultural past like Kandy. But history it has.

Views of the Indian Ocean from Flag Rock Bastion
Views of the Indian Ocean from Flag Rock Bastion at Galle Fort
A bit of history

The history of Colombo dates to more than 2,000 years, known to the early Greek, Roman, Arab, Indian and Chinese traders.

Colombo gets its name from the Portuguese, who first set shores in 1505. While one version claims that it got its name from the Sinhalese ‘Kolon thota’ – port on the river Kelani, there is another version that believes it comes from Kola amba-thota – harbour with green mango trees.

View of Colombo everg-growing skyline
View of Colombo everg-growing skyline (Photo credit: Neel Mitra)

Then, from 1505 onward, when the Portuguese first set foot on the island, it has been exchanged over the centuries. The Dutch took control of Colombo from the Portuguese, followed by the British. It’s no surprise, their influences are strongly felt in the city even today.

Old Parliament Building
Old Parliament Building (Photo credit: Neel Mitra)

Interestingly, while Colombo ceased to be the official capital of Sri Lanka in the 1980s, with the adjacent Sri Jayawardanapura Kotte taking over that mantle, most countries still have their diplomatic missions here.

Today, it is a thriving commercial capital of Sri Lanka, home to over 5 million people. With its heady mix of religions and cultures, the influence of the early Arab settlers, the Portuguese, Dutch and later the English shows in the cuisine, architecture and fashion style of the Sinhalese of Colombo.

Marine Drive with Colombo Port in the background
Marine Drive with Colombo Port in the background (Photo credit: Neel Mitra)
Moving around the city

Chances are, the moment you will have hopped into your taxi from the airport, or checked into your hotel, the driver who dropped you off, or another travel agent at the hotel will politely ask if you would like to avail of the services of a private taxi to show you around the city.

Tuk-tuks parked outside Colombo station
Tuk-tuks parked outside Colombo station

My travel buddy who had landed a day before, opted to avail the services of a persistent taxi operator at the hotel. He bargained and worked out a deal for LKR 3,000 for a four-hour tour of the city. The advantage of hiring a car is that you get the comforts of air-conditioning, something that can come in handy when you consider that the weather can get hot and sticky in Colombo.

My travel buddy who had landed a day before, opted to avail the services of a persistent taxi operator at the hotel. He bargained and worked out a deal for LKR 3,000 for a four-hour tour of the city. The advantage of hiring a car is that you get the comforts of air-conditioning, something that can come in handy when you consider that the weather can get hot and sticky in Colombo.

Don't miss the quote on this tuk-tuk
Don't miss the quote on this tuk-tuk

However, when we were back in the city on the last leg of our travels, we opted to rent a tuk-tuk. We had previously hired him to drop us at the railway station on our way to Kandy. Along the way, we exchanged mobile numbers and promised to get in touch with each other once we were back. With the expectation of more business from us, he promised to pick us up from the railway station on our return leg, never mind that the train would reach early in the morning at about 5am.

True to his word, he was waiting for us inside the station. That is when I mentally decided that tuk-tuk was going to be our mode of transport. Not just to see all that Colombo had to show us, but also on the hour and a half ride from our hotel to the airport. Sometimes, it pays to go the extra mile.

Cruising on the road leading to the airport
Cruising on the road leading to the airport

For a tour of the city, we negotiated LKR 2,000 for a four-hour tour. However, we ended up spending a little over six hours with him. Eager that he was, he also took the trouble to act as a guide at each of the sights he took us too, especially at Gangaramayana Temple and Seema Malaka. As a way of appreciation, we gave him an extra LKR 500 over and above the agreed sum. Besides, there was the long ride to the airport to the next day.

Tuk-tuks waiting for passengers
Tuk-tuks waiting for passengers (Photo credit: Neel Mitra)

If you opt for a short tour of the city, most of the sights can be done in a couple of hours, unless you wish to take your own time at each of the sights. However, Gangaramayana Temple and Seema Malaka will take a good two hours of your time.

The way they take you around the various sights also seems to be like a well-coordinated roadmap. In our case, it started from Sri Kailasanathar Swamy Devasthanam, which also happened to be the closest to where we were staying. From there, it was like going around in one giant circular loop, finally ending at Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque, again very close to our hotel.

Lost in thought
Lost in thought
The vibrant colours of Sri Kailasanathar Swamy Devasthanam

Sri Kailasanathar Swamy Devasthanam is Colombo’s oldest Hindu temple, having stood on these very grounds for more than two centuries. It’s also one of the most beautiful and colourful temples you will see. Standing in front of the temple, you can’t help but admire the details of the colourful sculptures on the main tower, or the attention to detail on the intricately carved entrance door.

The vibrant colours of Sri Kailasanathar Swamy Devasthanam
Colours of Sri Kailasanathar Swamy Devasthanam (Photo credit: Neel Mitra)

Sri Kailasanathar Swamy Devasthanam is sometimes also called Captain Gardens Temple. While the main deities are Shiva and Ganesh, there are other smaller shrines dedicated to other gods and goddesses. Over the decades, owing to its religious significance, it has become the main venue for Thai Pongal – the annual harvest festival.

You can read more about the temple here.

Priests at the temple taking a break
Priests at the temple taking a break (Photo credit: Neel Mitra)

Treasures of Gangaramaya Temple

It is one of the oldest temples and among the most important Buddhist temples in Colombo, Sri Lanka. With a blend of architectural styles from across Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, China and even Indonesia, Gangaramaya Temple brings in plenty of local worshippers while attracting eager tourists every day.

Rows of Buddha statues modelled on Borobudur
Rows of Buddha statues modelled on Borobudur

While the main part of the temple dates to the 1880s, today, it is a series of interconnected buildings that include a Vihara (temple), Cetiya (pagoda), a protected Bodhi tree, museum, residential, alms and educational halls and finally, a short walk away, the Seema Malaka (assembly hall for monks) on the Beira lake.

You can read more about temple and all there is to discover here.

A statue of the Buddha in a meditative pose
A statue of the Buddha in a meditative pose
Reflect at Seema Malaka

You can ignore the quality of the water. What you can’t ignore is the serenity that surrounds you, however brief your stay may be. On the calm waters of Beira Lake is an oasis that offers you some respite from the hustle and bustle of the city. A quiet place to retreat, rest and reflect – Seema Malaka.

View of the northern platform
View of the northern platform

The temple was initially constructed in the late 19th century. Sadly, in no part thanks to the marshy ground underneath the lake, it was always doomed to go down under, eventually sinking completely by the 1970s. Then, in 1976, it was left to the expertise of Sri Lanka’s best-known architect to come to the rescue, who proceeded to build the temple on three floating platforms, with each platform connected to one other and the mainland by pontoon bridges.

Discover more about this oasis here.

View of Beira Lake from Seema Malaka
View of Beira Lake from Seema Malaka
The National Museum of Colombo

It is also known as the Sri Lanka National Museum and is one of two museums in Colombo and the largest in Sri Lanka. It was founded by the British governor of what was then known as Ceylon, Sir William Henry Gregory, on the 1st of January 1877.

Spread across two floors and with many viewing galleries, It’s the perfect place to soak in some knowledge on the history of the country. It’s also home to several valuable artefacts and other treasures with historical importance, like the Kandyan king’s golden throne and crown, back in the days when Kandy was the seat of power.

The building itself is a stunning piece of architecture. Painted in white, it makes for an imposing sight, especially when viewed from the well-manicured green lawn in front.

As a foreigner, expect to pay LKR 1,200 per person for adults while kids only pay LKR 600. Sri Lankans only pay LKR 100 and 50 each.

The National Museum of Colombo
The National Museum of Colombo
Independence Memorial Hall

When Sri Lanka finally gained independence on the 4th of February 1948, power was officially transferred from the British to the newly elected Sri Lanka government on this very site. Independence Memorial Hall is a monument that commemorates that special occasion.

Leading up to the monument is an imposing statue of Don Stephen Senanayake, the first prime minister of independent Sri Lanka, also known as ‘The Father of the Nation’.

Independence Memorial Hall
Independence Memorial Hall

Leading up to the monument is an imposing statue of Don Stephen Senanayake, the first prime minister of independent Sri Lanka, also known as ‘The Father of the Nation’.

For its architecture of the main hall, the designers didn’t have to look far for inspiration – it is based on the Magul Maduwa – the royal court of the king of Kandy – the last kingdom of the island. Interestingly, it was at the Magul Maduwa that the Kandyan king relinquished his throne and handed over sovereignty of the island to the British empire.

'The Father of the Nation'
'The Father of the Nation'

Today, the hall is mostly used for religious events and the annual national day celebration. It also makes for an interesting gateway from the hustle and bustle of the city traffic, offering you a respite from the heat, even if it is for a short while.

For fans of reality-based television competition shows, it’s worth noting that this venue has featured in two shows – season four of The Amazing Race Asia and season one of The Amazing Race Australia.

The main hall
The main hall
Appreciate Town Hall

It’s literally two sites for the price of one. Well, nearly. Town Hall, in the centre of Colombo city, is opposite another tourist attraction, the Viharamahadevi Park.

Town Hall is the headquarters of the Colombo Municipal Council. It is also the office of the Mayor of Colombo. This whitewashed building, with its tall columns and central dome is where the city’s elected municipal council meet to keep the city running. It’s also among the few colonial era buildings built when the British ruled over the island that still functions in its original role.

Town Hall
Town Hall (Photo credit: Neel Mitra)

The foundation stone for the building were first laid on the 24th of May 1924 by Thomas Reid, the Mayor of Colombo. The design was decided through a competition, with the winning design submitted by the British architect, S J Edwards. Look carefully at the dome and you will realise that his design has been influenced by the Capitol Building in Washington DC.

Town Hall with its Capital Building inspired dome
Town Hall with its Capital Building inspired dome
Relax at Viharamahadevi Park

It’s commonly known as the ‘garden city of the east’ and is the oldest park in Colombo. It was initially known as Victoria Park, after the queen of the British Empire. However, in the 1950s, it was renamed as Viharamahadevi Park, after the mother of King Dutugemunu.

Viharamahadevi Park
The Buddha's statue at Viharamahadevi Park (Photo credit: Neel Mitra)

While it is a well-maintained park today, it wasn’t always the case then. Over time, it had fallen into disrepair, with barely any funds allocated for its maintenance. Thankfully, all that changed when the 23rd Commonwealth Heads of Government Meet was held in the city.

Taking centre stage in the park and towering over everything else is a statue of the Buddha, which replaced the statue of Queen Victoria which stood there previously. While a fractured foot didn’t allow me to explore the park, it’s a perfect spot to do so, away from the bustle of the city.

View of the park with the Buddha's statue taking centre stage
View of the park with the Buddha's statue taking centre stage
Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall

As your tuk-tuk weaves through Colombo’s busy traffic, keep an eye out for The Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall. This convention centre was a gift from the Chinese government and built in memory of S R D Bandaranaike, prime minister of Sri Lanka from 1956 to 1959.

Work on the convention centre started in 1970 until its inauguration in 1973. Finally, in 1998, to enhance and further its use, work started on a new addition – the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Memorial Exhibition Centre, in honour of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the first stateswoman in the world. This was finally completed in 2003.

Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall
Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall
Race with the train on Marine Drive

A railway track that acts as a natural frontier dividing the land from the ocean. This is Colombo’s very own Marine Drive. It’s among the most beautiful scenes you will see and feels like you have left the hectic pace of the city behind you.

Marine Drive beach
Marine Drive beach (Photo credit: Neel Mitra)

As the tuk-tuk attempts to race ahead of a train that has just pulled out of the station, let your eyes wander and gaze, in turn, at the ocean and the train.

Stop for a while and walk up to one of the open corniches just before the port and that’s when you get to appreciate the beauty of the Indian ocean.

The Hikkaduwa-Colombo rail track along Marine Drive
The Hikkaduwa-Colombo rail track along Marine Drive
Admire Old Parliament Building

Driving along Marine Drive, it’s next to impossible to miss out on the old Parliament building. Built on reclaimed land, it is done in Neo-Baroque style. It currently houses the office of the Presidential Secretariat.

It was opened on the 29th of January 1930 and was home to the island’s legislature for 53 years, until moving to a more secure complex at Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte in 1983 during the civil war.

A naval officer walks past the old Parliament Building
A naval officer walks past the old Parliament Building
The views from Old Galle Buck Lighthouse

It’s a landmark on Marine Drive. As you walk up Old Galle Buck Lighthouse, if offers you fabulous views of the Indian ocean and Colombo port that is currently seeing an expansion.

It was built in 1952 after the Old Colombo Lighthouse was decommissioned, thanks to the many building around that obscured its light.

At its base is a naval gun battery, used by the navy for its traditional gun salute on the 4th of February each year – Sri Lanka’s National Day.

A word of caution though. As it is located across the street from the naval headquarters, make sure you don’t take photographs of that building – a high security zone. A navy soldier who stands guard walked up to me and confirmed I wasn’t taking any.

Old Galle Buck Lighthouse
Old Galle Buck Lighthouse (Photo credit: Neel Mitra)
Rediscover Colombo Fort Clock Tower

As your tuk-tuk starts to navigate the traffic on the streets of Pettah, bang in the middle of the towers the Colombo Fort Clock Tower, previously known as the Old Colombo Lighthouse.

Originally built as a lighthouse in 1857, it was designed by the wife of the Governor of Colombo, Emily Elizabeth Ward. The mechanism for the clock was built by clockmakers, Dent, the very same who manufactured Big Ben. Unfortunately, it had to be replaced with the current one in 1913.

The lighthouse was finally decommissioned in 1952. However, the clock tower remains and still keeps time.

Colombo Fort Clock Tower
Colombo Fort Clock Tower (Photo credit: Neel Mitra)
Pay homage at St Anthony’s Shrine

Heading into Pettah, our tuk-tuk driver pointed out St Anthony’s Shrine. While it came into the news on Easter Sunday in 2019, it has thankfully, moved on since, in large part thanks to the efforts of the Sri lankan navy who had it renovated.

St Anthony’s Shrine lit up for the festivities
St Anthony’s Shrine lit up for the festivities (Photo credit: Neel Mitra)

When the Dutch ruled these parts, Catholicism was banned. However, Catholic priests continued to carry out sermons, mostly away from the prying eyes of the Dutch. One of these priests was Father Antonio, who disguised himself as a local merchant and stayed with the local fishing community at Mutwal. Legend has it that on one occasion, the community asked for his help to stop their village being swallowed by the ocean. If miracles do come true, then the community believed so, and so did the Dutch, who promptly gave him some land to officially carry out his sermons.

Today, the shrine, dedicated to Saint Anthony of Padua, is a designated national shrine.

St Anthony’s Shrine
St Anthony’s Shrine
Explore Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque

It is Colombo’s oldest mosque, and one of many sites on your tour of the city. The mosque, stuck between buildings on either side, stands out in no large part thanks to its bright red and white bricks that remind you of candy.

It was built in 1908 for the number of Indian Muslim community, who needed a place of worship. At one point, many decades ago, ships coming into port would know they were close the moment they spotted the mosque.

Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque
Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque
Walk the streets of Pettah

If there is one place that showcases Sri Lanka’s multiculturism, then that place must be Pettah market.

It’s filled with lots of shops, stalls and markets, selling everything from clothing and electronics to fruits and vegetables. Should you feel the pangs of hunger, then it is the best place to stop and eat to your heart’s content.

Vegetable seller at Pettah
Vegetable seller at Pettah
Khan Clock Tower and its Parsi connection

It marks the start of Pettah market and is another popular landmark. Khan Clock Tower was built in the early part of the 20th century by the family of a Parsi merchant in memory of Framjee Bhikhajee Khan, who hailed from then Bombay city in India.

Khan Clock Tower
Khan Clock Tower
Check out the Lotus Tower

While it is not a popular tourist attraction, at least just yet, you can’t help but not spot it every time your tuk-tuk weaves through the traffic, from one location to another.

The Lotus Tower, inspired by its namesake flower, towers over the city landscape, at 350m. It is a transmission hub that is the second tallest structure in South Asia.

The Lotus Tower
The Lotus Tower (Photo credit: Neel Mitra)
The best half-day you can spend in a city

If Sri Lanka is on your travel itinerary, then spare a day or two, or even half a day, to explore its many sights. Most of the sights are concentrated around Colombo 1 or the Fort Area and Colombo 11 or Pettah, with a few a little bit further. While they may seem distant numerically, you will be surprised at how close these two districts are to each other. I would have loved to walk around and explore some of these parts. Sadly, a fractured foot put paid to those ideas.

Walking in Pettah
Walking in Pettah (Photo credit: Neel Mitra)

A word of caution though. There were two things that irritated me about this tour. While I won’t call it a scam, it left a bit of a sour note. The first is that our tuk-tuk driver insisted on taking us to a gem shop. While he wasn’t pushy, he kept reminding us through our trip, until we finally said yes on condition that we were not going to buy anything. He agreed, so long as we spent at least 5-10 minutes inside the shop. Apparently, for each tourist that he gets to the shop, he’s issued with a coupon that allows him a litre of gasoline.

Inside the vihara at Gangaramaya temple
Inside the vihara at Gangaramaya temple

The second was trying to figure out where to eat in the afternoon. We were insistent on eating in a local Sri Lankan restaurant, or hotel as they are known as. Our fellow driver insisted on taking us to what he claimed was an authentic restaurant. However, the moment we got into the car park and looked at the hoarding, we knew this was another of those tourist traps with exorbitant prices. His bad luck, he had to unfortunately shell down the entrance fee to the car park, which would have ordinarily been free for him if we had dined at the restaurant.

Shiva with Nandi on one of the rooftops
Shiva with Nandi on one of the rooftops

Aside from these two minor irritants, riding around town in a tuk-tuk with a driver who was more of a travel guide was a richly rewarding experience. Hopefully, some of the highlights that I was able to see will help you plan your own tour of the city for your own unique take on this city.

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