Colombo's a pretty small city, and can easily be covered within a day or two, at most if the traffic and heat doesn't get to you first. The best thing about the city (or the whole country, rather) is our thriving food scene, and happily for backpackers, the cream of the crop is streetfood. Keeping this in mind, here's a list of things to check out if you're on a budget 🙂
Given that you're a backpacker, you're probably off to an early start. Mind you, you can wake up even earlier, get the sunrise at Galle Face, and then continue with this suggestion. So. Mornings. Best thing would be to explore Pettah, before the crowds and heat really hits. That'd be closer to noon, so until then, you can watch Pettah unfold and get all manner of items from here. From 'branded' clothes, watches, electric appliances, vintage frames for your specs and whatnot, you can also pick up little knickknacks as souveniers.
There are plenty of petti-kadeys, little eateries where you can grab a quick bite and a faluda to quench your hunger and thirst, so don't worry too much about food.
For some architectural masterpieces, head over to the Red Mosque and the Old Town Hall Building. The Mosque is an ancient structure which has been refurbished and is now open to selected public (because they don't always allow women in. Who cares for gender equality or respect, right?), whereas the OT Building is still gloriously dilapidated with some life-sized dolls sitting around a table in one of its upper floors.
Lunch and Browse
Once you're done digging around, shopping for things you'd never imagined you'd need, and taking beautiful pictures of the city centre's hustle and bustle, hop over to the main road and find the buses heading towards Galle Road. Take yourself to Wellawatta (bus no.s 100 or 101) and prepare to cry your eyes out with some of the spiciest and bestest (yes that's a word) food you can find. Yarl Eat House is pretty much a hole-in-the-wall joint, and they've got some great crab and pittu. If you want authentic local cuisine, this is one of the places to hit up. It's great value for money as well. Plus, they serve everything on banana leaves. What did I tell you about authenticity?
It's going to be really hot now, plus there's school traffic. We can't help you with the heat, but try to avoid commuting around until traffic eases. Kill time by visiting the German Toy Museum, which houses a personal collection of toys from (you guessed it!) Germany, circa 1800-1900. A ticket is 100 bucks, and it's like walking into a place with a mashup of characters who lived during the period of the Brothers Grimm. Sort of.
If you're the literary type (you must be the literary type, please), check out this musty, wonderful, and eccentric place that is the Senanayake Bookshop. It's filled with a weird and wonderful collection of second hand and locally-published books.
Post-lunch Siesta Spots
Bussing all around Colombo is exhausting to say the least. We're a mass of congested roads, honking, short tempered vehicles, and jostling streets. Dust all of that off at the Viharamahadevi Park (if that's a mouthful to pronounce, say Victoria Park even), where you can seat yourself under a huge tree and either nap, or read. We wouldn't recommend napping honestly, there are rather vindictive crows in the hood and they're more than likely to snatch whatever's not pinned down and fly off cawing victoriously. It's a calm and soothing place, quite well maintained. It's a short and scenic walk from there to the Nelum Pokuna Art Street, where you can find raw talent and beautiful paintings just hanging up on display on the road.
Another similar place is a five minute ride away — or a brisk 20ish minute walk away. Independence Square, where you can people watch as the more health conscious jog their time away.
Fair warning that both these spaces will be occupied with hordes of couples semi-making out or gazing at each other's eyeballs. Brace yourself for PDA.
Twilight and Dinner
It's late evening now, so head over to Hulftsdorp for an early dinner. The street comes alive after 6.00, and you can get what we consider the best BBQd chicken in town for just Rs 300 or so. Don't question the standards of hygiene, this is one of the dodgiest and slap-dashiest places in Colombo (pretty much like one of the next places we'll recommend in a minute), but no one's complained of food poisoning so far, so all's good.
Another local favourite is Burger's King, one of Colombo's most reputed street food joints.
To aid your digestion and for some great views, we'd recommend a walk along the Gangarama Lake, which is pretty chill and calm at night.
Colombo's thankfully getting more backpacker-friendly, and we have a handful of hostels which caters to us. Hostelworld ranked Drift B&B in Colombo as the No. 01 hostel in SL this year, and the Colombo City Hostel is a place we really liked as well. Plus, their website's easy to navigate. Should you need more options, we've listed a bunch of budget hostels in good locations here.