Despite relinquishing its capital status to Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte in 1978, Colombo has retained its importance on the world stage as Sri Lanka’s financial powerhouse and largest city.
Situated on the west coast of this island nation, Colombo’s large harbour and strategic position along East-West sea trade routes brought it to global prominence two thousand years ago. It was awarded capital status when Sri Lanka (at the time called Ceylon) was ceded to the British Empire in 1815, a position it kept when the nation achieved independence in 1948. Thirty years later the country’s administrative functions were moved to nearby Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte and Colombo was designated Sri Lanka’s commercial capital.
As a result of Sri Lanka’s Portuguese, Dutch and British heritage, the present-day city of Colombo has a distinct colonial aura. A busy, vibrant city, it features a curious blend of modern and colonial era buildings set alongside Victorian parks and ancient ruins.
Colombo is not one of Sri Lanka’s prime tourist destinations, and many visitors arrive for business reasons or en route to other places throughout this tiny country. But with a metropolitan population of more than five million people, or 25% of the country’s entire population, Colombo has plenty to offer visitors and offers a fascinating welcome to Sri Lanka, the Pearl of the Indian Ocean.
Many of Sri Lanka’s half a million annual visitors arrive in Colombo and immediately leave for the hilly tea plantations of the country’s interior or palm-fringed beaches of its south coast. However, Colombo offers plenty of attractions in its own right, and business and leisure travellers would do well to allow a couple of days for sightseeing in this bustling city.
Investigate Sri Lanka’s past at the National Museum in Cinnamon Gardens. The largest museum in Colombo, its grand colonial building counts half a million books and the regalia of 17th century Kandyan Kings amongst its exhibits. Nearby is the National History Museum which offers a delightful insight into the country’s flora, fauna and gem fields.
Experience the great outdoors at the Galle Face Green Promenade. Lining 1.5km of the Indian Ocean, this promenade attracts day trippers, picnickers and kite flyers, and is the location of a spectacular sunset. Don’t miss Fort, the city’s central business district and home to many of its architectural legacies such as the President’s House, the Treasury and the neo-Baroque Old Parliament Building.
Colombo is well-known for its shopping, and the city offers everything from textiles to precious stones. The city’s leading bazaar district is Pettah, adjacent to Fort. Its narrow criss-cross of cobbled streets are lined with shops and street stalls that offer fantastic bargains and a spectacular and varied range of goods.
Visitors looking for curios should look out the government run Laksala store, featuring an assortment of handmade crafts. Colombo also has many small gem shops which sell jewellery made from the semi-precious stones mined in Sri Lanka – usually sapphires, topazes, amethysts and opals. Textile stores feature beautiful Batik patterns and colourful saris, while another favourite purchase is Sri Lanka's number one export, tea.
Sri Lanka’s trading heritage has left an indelible mark on its cuisine, and many of its regional foods are therefore influenced by the Portuguese, Dutch, Malay, Arabs, and the South Indians. As a rule, the staple diet of the country is based around the two central tenets of rice and curry, dishes which can (and are) served for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Sri Lankan curries are usually hot, sprinkled with lot of spices and served with accompaniments such as parripu (red lentil dhal), mullung (ripped green leaves with spices), and sambol (grated coconut, chilli and spice).
The tiny island nature of Sri Lanka makes it remarkably easy to tour in just a few days: just hire a driver and away you go. Around 115km from Colombo is the ancient capital of Kandy. This picturesque hill town and UNESCO World Heritage Site is the home of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha, and its meandering back lanes make for a pleasant diversion.