Like many travellers Colombo had never really been on my radar as a must see destination, but a short visit here changed my mind and opened my eyes to what an amazing city Colombo really is, and why more backpackers should make it a part of their gap year itinerary.
This is a paid article written in partnership with the Sri Lankan Tourism Board with products or services supplied by them. Full editorial integrity is maintained at all times. The views and opinions expressed are entirely the authors own based on personal experiences when travelling and are honest and factual without any bias.
Colombo has not had the greatest of reputations for a long while now, and many travellers have simply ignored it or used it as a convenient stop to get through as quickly as possible on their way to exploring the rest of Sri Lanka, and I have to admit that the stereotype had probably affected my opinion of the Sri Lankan capital before I even arrived. Like most backpackers I didn’t think there would be much to see and do, I was too excited to get out and explore Sri Lanka’s many attractions and I just thought Colombo would be a convenient hub to fly into.
How wrong I was.
On first impression I’ll admit that on paper at least there isn’t an awful lot to like about Colombo. Like many Asian cities it is crowded and congested, and in many parts still quite run down. There are so many building sites and development work being done you would even be forgiven for thinking that large parts of the city are being sponsored by Nippon Concrete. It does not have the urgency of Delhi, the charm of Kuala Lumpur or the vibrancy of Bangkok, and it isn’t filled with ancient temples, UNESCO world heritage sites or layers upon layers of cultural idiosyncrasies to the same extent that other cities in the region have.
Yet that seemingly dull facade belies a great city that is simply bursting to get out of the starting gate and compete with it’s more famous and cosmopolitan neighbours.
Colombo is a city that is changing fast. You can see the change happening right in front of you with the sheer amount of building sites and construction work that is on the surface such a blight on the city, but it is this blight which is breathing a whole new life into the city by supplying it with high rise hotel chains, skyscrapers and even a dramatic land reclamation project on the waterfront that will house a grand prix circuit, tourist attractions and luxury high rise residential and entertainment developments in an ambitious effort to try and compete with Singapore or even Dubai to become a tourist destination hotspot.
Whatever the sustainable arguments for and against that land reclamation decision are, there is no doubt that Colombo’s future is exciting.
But it isn’t just the future that Colombo is embracing with gusto, it is also a city that celebrates its colonial past and showcases some of the best kept British, Dutch and Portuguese architecture in the region, with stunning colonial buildings sitting comfortably amongst the tree lined boulevards and glossy high rises and shopping malls.
Viharamahadevi park is one such celebration, a surprising Victorian oasis in the middle of the city with vast manicured grounds, stunning water features and even a child friendly play area. The fact that it is surrounded by other remnants of British colonialism such as the national library, the National Museum of Colombo and even a Cenotaph war memorial is testament to how much colonialism – and two world wars – had an affect on this part of the world.
I love colonial architecture, and when it is as well maintained as it is in Colombo it gives you a picturesque and endlessly fascinating way to take an easy morning stroll and explore the history of a city.
Independence Memorial Hall and the Independence square gardens are further reminders of Colombo’s colonial past, albeit ones that remind you of its end, but are again perfect places to take a stroll, enjoy your surroundings and just take a little bit of time to contemplate on where you are. A good thing for any traveller to do instead of simply seeing everything through the screen of a camera.
This almost Buddhist like contemplation feels natural here, in a city that feels more laid back and open than its Indian neighbours, you are reminded in very subtle – and some not so subtle – ways that Buddhism is the dominant religion in Sri Lanka.
For as much as exploring the city’s colonial past is endlessly fascinating to me, exploring its much more ancient culture is even more so and there are so many opportunities to do this too, with the grand Gangaramaya Buddhist temple, just a short walk from the quintessential evening hang out spot Galle Face Green, being perhaps the most spectacular.
There is far too much to see and do in Colombo for it to simply be passed off as a simple transit stop.
I know I only scratched the surface of this rejuvenated and regenerated city in my short time here and I have no doubt that I missed so much of what Colombo has to offer. I look forward to returning one day soon and delving much deeper into the secrets I just know it is still holding back.
So if you plan on coming to Sri Lanka anytime soon, don’t just run straight off to the wonders that the rest of the country has to offer. Take just a little bit of time and explore this fast changing city a little bit too. It is well worth just a few days of your time and you won’t regret it.
Colombo is never likely to topple Singapore of the mantle of my favourite city in the world, but it was a city I wanted to explore a lot more of and was genuinely sad to leave. Despite my short time here Colombo just kept pulling me back with that famous loaded suffix, ‘just one more thing…’
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Dropping Out And Living The Yoga Life In Sri Lanka.
Great. Another city I have to add to my ever expanding bucket list!
Haha, that list never ends Stephanie, trust me!
Wow, I’d never even heard of Colombo, never mind thought about visiting it! It looks like a beatiful place, I love the photo of the woman in the yellow dress and the Bhudda statue. I think I may have to look into going here.
Thanks Louise, it’s a beautiful place to explore and I hope you get to go soon. 🙂
I went to Sri Lanka last year and have to admit I did just stay one night in Colombo because I wanted to head south and see the rest of the country. There was loads of building and construction then too. It never even crosse my mind that there would be much to see here.
You aren’t the first Gemma, so many people do. I’m hoping more people will read this and start to stay a bit longer.
Hahaha, love the title! I wonder how many will get the reference?
Thanks Steve, I doubt many will now, I think I’m getting too old! 🙂
Colombo is a great city!
It definitely is. 🙂
I suppose a lot of big cities in Asia suffer from the bad reputations of being noisy, crowded, polluted etc, and they often are, but like Bangkok or Delhi or any other Colombo is definitely worth taking the time to get to know. Fantastic post, keep up the good work.
Exactly Nick, and thank you.:)
I’ve been dying to go to Sri Lanka for such a long time, specifically to see the wildlife and go on an elephant safari, and this post has just really inspired me to crack on and get saving hard.
That’s amazing Sarah, I’m really glad! Get saving, I’m sure you’ll have enough in no time.
Thank you for this, Colombo is my city and it is nice to see positive writing about it. You are welcome anytime.
Thank you! 🙂
I just wanted to say I love your photos! Colombo looks such a pretty place.
Thankyou very much, large parts of it really is! I love the public gardens and the colonial architecture.
I love this post, its nice to read something positive and refreshing about Colombo!
Thank you. 🙂
Haha, love the title! ;D
Thanks! ;D At least a couple of people have got it! Haha
Sri Lanka is pretty much part of India though right? Is it as hard to travel through? I’ve had a lot of friends do Inia and they all say how hard it can be with the hassle and the stares and the crowds. I’d love to do Sri Lanka but I’m worried it won’t be safe, especially in the capital city like this and especially as a woman.
And what is it exactly that makes you think Sri Lanka and Colombo will be specifically unsafe? Especially as a woman? No, there are a few similarities of course with the two countries being so Geographically close, but Sri Lanka is an entirely different country and culture than India, and it is perfectly safe to travel through, woman or not. For Colombo, just use the same safety precautions as you would do in any big city and you will generally be very safe.
I disgagree. Colombo was a sericeable base to travel around Sri Lanka from but I wouldn’t want to spend any time there. There was nothing to see or do.
Really? I found lots to see and do, as my article shows. I think you just have to look below the surface.
That park with the golden budda looks amazing, and you make the city sound so interesting. I’m currently planning a trip to India but I may have to add some more time on for Sri Lanka too.
You should, it’s an amazing country! Just make sure you give it enough time to see it properly. 🙂
I was planning to come here as part of my trip to Sri Lanka, but I never thought about giving it much time (I’m still so excited about seeing other places like Kandy and doing the elephant safaris)! I will definitely check it out more now.
I’m happy to have inspired you! Enjoy Sri Lanka, it is an amazing place!
You should come to Sri Lanka.
You are very right when you say Colombo is changing and up and coming, there is a huge nightlife scene here now with huge clubs, international DJs and it is a great city to come and party, it just feels alive at night.
Thanks for the tip Niranka, I have to say I didn’t really see much of the nightlife in Colombo, clubs and DJs aren’t really my thing, but I do know the food and restaurant scene is amazing there and there are plenty of world class restaurants to fill you up at night.
One solid reason to visit Sri Lanka is “ Sri Lanka, is a Miracle ”’. It is a bundle of contradictions. Sri Lanka is an amazing place.
It definitely is!
I am so jealous of the places you get to see! It must have been amazing there.
It was, and there’s nothing stopping you from doing the same. ;D
Never would have considered Colombo as a place to explore, I’ve always heard from other travellers that it is a place to transit through as quickly as possible.
I heard that too but honestly I’m glad I didn’t listen!