Sprawling, chocked with traffic and invariably chaotic, Colombo, like most large Asian cities, may not be to everyone’s taste. As Sri Lanka’s commercial capital and its only conurbation, the city centre was an obvious target for Tamil separatists and saw occasional curfews and a high military presence during trouble times. Today, however, firmly fixed on the future, investment is flowing in and this characterful and diverse city is buzzing with a new found energy. Although, Colombo’s origins pre-date the arrival of the Portuguese, culturally and architecturally it appears a modern city, with few established tourist sights. Close to the enormous harbor, to which Colombo owes its pre-eminence, the banking centre of Fort houses some impressive red brick and whitewashed buildings. This gives an impression of its colonial origins. To the east are the narrow lanes of bustling Pettah district with its atmospheric and colourful bazaars and some reminders of the Dutch period.
The main coastal road, Galle Road, which leads to Galle and beyond, is the spin of the city, and many of the areas of interest lie on it or within a few kilometers inland. Officially the city’s centre, and the area from which all suburbs radiate, is Fort, containing the harbor, the president’s house and banks, and to the south some of the most exclusive hotels. East is the busy bazaar of Pettah, which contains the main train and bus stations, and which turns into Kotahena. South of Fort is Galle Face Green, a popular place for a stroll, which soon becomes Kollupitiya, a wealthy shopping area with many excellent restaurants. Inland, and separated from Fort and the Pettah by Lake Beira, is Slave Island and the busy thoroughfare of Union Place. South of here is leafy Cinnamon Gardens, the most exclusive area of Colombo, with the city’s biggest park, main museums and some attractive resorts, so many visitors choose to stay here. Back on the coast Galle Road continues south to Bambalapitiya, another shopping area but progressively less exclusive, which is parallel to Havelock City. Further south is Wellawatta, a large Tamil area, then reach Mount Lavinia, a traditional bolt-hole from the city for both locals and tourists.
Lying immediately south of harbor, the compact fort area historically Colombo’s commercial centre, is a curious blend of old and new, modern tower blocks rubbing shoulders with reminders of its colonial past. It can be a quiet place outside office hours. Because it houses president’s residence and the principal banking area, it was a separatist target during the war and remains only road block area continued high security.
The Grand Oriental Hotel is a good place to start a tour. Formerly the first port of call for all travellers arriving by steamship, it was once the finest hotel in Colombo. It used to be said that if you waited long enough in its hall, you would meet everyone worth meeting in the world. You can get fascinating view of the harbor area from the hotel’s fourth floor restaurant.
Next door to the hotel, if you walk along the pavement is the simple but very peaceful St. Peter’s Church which was once part of the Dutch governor’s residence. York Street, Fort’s main shopping area, runs due south of the hotel, passing the brick-built colonial era department stores of Cargill’s and Miller’s. To the east of the Bristol Street is the central YMCA, next to the Moors Islamic Cultural Home. Across Duke Street is the Young Men’s Buddhist Association. The shrine houses a notes modern image of the Buddha.
Heading south along Janadhipathi Mawatha, a quite different, more vibrant Fort comes into view. The 1960s Ceylon Continental Hotel (the Kingsbury Hotel) has magnificent views along the coast to Mount Lavinia, while on Bank of Ceylon Mawatha is Fort’s modern day commercial hub, the twin steel and glass towers of the 39 floor World Trade Centre, Sri Lanka’s tallest building, along with some other high-rise offices. Over the road is the restored Old Dutch Hospital, a complex of cafes, restaurants and shops. To the south, opposite the Galadari Hotel, the colonial Old Parliament House is now used as the president’s secretariat. North down Chaithya Road will lead you pass the lighthouse and under the legs of the Samadhi Chaitya Temple. There are great views from the top of the temple and the road leads to the Maritime Museum, which was once a Dutch Prison, and inside are various sailing and trade related artefacts.
To the north and east of Fort station is a busy market area with stalls lining Olcott Mawatha and Bodhiraja Mawatha, making pedestrian movement slow and tedious at times. The central area of Pettah, with many wholesale outlets, bounded by these two roads as well as Main Street and Front Street, is frantic and noisy. Specialists streets house craftsmen and traders such as goldsmiths, fruit and vegetable dealers and Ayurvedic herbs and medicines. In the market area to the north, Arabs, Portuguese, Dutch and British once traded.
About 100m north of Fort Railway Station at the south western edge of the Pettah, the Dutch Period Museum, was originally the residence of the Dutch governor, Thomas Van Rae, it was sold to the VOC before becoming the Colombo seminary in 1696. Then in 1796 it was handed over to the British who turned it into a military hospital and later a post office. It has now been restored and offers an interesting insight to the Dutch period.
Heading south from Fort past the Kingsbury Hotel and Old Parliament, you reach the Galle Face Green, to the south of the mouth of the canal feeding Beira Lake. Originally laid out in 1859, the area has been redeveloped and, green once more, is a pleasant place to wander and very popular with locals. Cross Galle Road and then the canal, and head into Slave Island. On Kew Street, near the Nippon Hotel, city tours often visit the Sri Siva Subharamaniya Kovil, with its enormous colourful gopuram. Along Sir James Peiris Mawatha is an important commercial zone, with some restaurants and bars and the pavement leads around the lake. There are jetties to two tiny islands, one a park, the other the tranquil Seema Malakaya, designed for meditation by Geoffrey Bawa with various Buddha statues. It belongs to the Gangaramaya Temple to the east, which has an interesting selection of rare curios, including an impressive set of gold Buddhas and some intricate carved ivory on show. You might also see the temple elephant shackled up in the ground.
The National Museum, opened in 1877, it has a good collection of paintings, sculptures, furniture, porcelain and Kandyan regalia. The library houses a unique collection of over 4000 ola – an extremely rich archeological and artistic collection. Very well labeled and organized, a visit is an excellent introduction for a tour of Sri Lanka.
If you are going to spend any time here, it pays to become familiar with the city’s postcodes, by which area are often referred.
Colombo 1 => Fort
Colombo 2 => Slave Island
Colombo 3 => Kollupitiya
Colombo 4 => Bambalapitiya
Colombo 5 => Havelock Town
Colombo 6 => Wellawatta
Colombo 7 => Cinnamon Gardens
Colombo 8 => Borella
Colombo 9 => Dematagoda
Colombo 10 => Maradana
Colombo 11 => Pettah
Colombo 12 => Hultsdorf
Colombo 13 => Kotahena
Colombo 14 => Grandpass
Colombo 15 => Mutuwal
Sri Lanka Tourism Authority
Tel: +94 11 2437059
Tourist information counter at Bandaranaike International Airport Tel: +94 11 2452411
Railway Tourist Office - Fort
Tel: +94 11 2440048
Dutch Period Museum – Fort
Tel: +94 11 2448466
National Museum – Colombo 7
Tel: +94 11 694768
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