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.
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 this amazing country, and I have to admit that the stereotype had probably affected my opinion of the Sri Lankan capital before I even arrived.
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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This article was written in partnership with the Sri Lankan Tourism Board. The views and opinions expressed are entirely the authors own based on personal experiences when travelling and are honest and factual without any bias.