If you’re visiting Colombo for the first time, or even if you’re just suddenly in the mood for some exploring – here’s a bunch of things you can try out in Sri Lanka’s big city, in 24 hours.
If you can wake up early, it’s a good time to explore the city before it’s A) crowded and B) hot.
Sri Ponnambalam Vanesar Kovil (Kotahena)
This Shiva temple in Kotahena is austere, simple and beautiful. Unlike most temples, which are a riot of color and statues, this is made of big, monumental slabs of granite with simple statues tucked into alcoves.
Pettah gets crazy fast, but in the mornings this commercial neighborhood is not so crowded and you can still get some cool photos and watch the city come alive.
Sri Lankan breakfasts are a treat, but people usually have it at home.
Sugar does good western style breakfast and usually some Sri Lankan options also. It’s a happening, centrally located place with pro service.
In terms of shopping there isn’t too much you need to wake up early for, indeed, a lot of shops don’t open till after 10.
Note that if you are going out around noon, try to be settle in by 1 PM (on weekdays). That’s when kids get out of school and Colombo traffic becomes a soup until about 2:30 PM.
This temple is a bit of a hoarders paradise, full of donated statues, watches, antique cars, printing presses, even computers. It’s walking distance from the floating Seema Malaka.
Upali’s is actually good for any meal, but if you want a good Sri Lankan lunch in a family restaurant style setting, this is it. They do the whole range of Sri Lankan food well and are also a good bet for breakfast or dinner.
This buzzing cafe serves excellent food al fresco and is connected to an interesting art gallery and shop.
Kaema Sutra is a project of Sri Lanka’s best chef Dharshan Munidasa to modernize Sri Lankan cuisine. It’s not cheap for dishes you can get on the street, but they do turn quality and creativity up a notch.
Achcharu Kade is a small shop that does excellent rice and curry, achcharu (pickled fruit) and other creative takes on Sri Lankan classics.
Saraswathie Lodge is a no fuss vegetarian diner. You order your starch (dosai, idli) and get basically unlimited curries and sambar. Quite cheap.
Shops are open during the day, but try not to be on the road during schooltime, as mentioned above.
Paradise Road does excellent design, centered on a black and white geometric theme. It does home furnishings and interesting objects.
Barefoot is another classic shopping stop, centered around color-based design. They also do interior stuff, plus their signature fabrics, a great bookstore, stuffed toys, the works.
ODEL is Colombo’s main department store. Bit pricey sometimes, but there’s a whole range of stuff here, from clothes to gifts to food and tea.
A younger incarnation of Paradise Road, PR has unique fashion, jewelry and cool locally and internationally designed items.
For local and organic foodstuffs, the Good Market Shop can’t be beat. They also have big open markets at Racecourse (across the street) on Saturday and in Battaramulla on Thursdays.
If you’re in Colombo for just 24 hours, you need to catch the sunset, preferably over the ocean. Beyond that, there’s plenty to do around the city at night.
People of all walks of life hang out here. You can fly kites, eat fried prawn or octopus and generally walk around and have a nice time. Killer sunset.
Actually a hotel restaurant, the Harbour Room has an amazing view of the Port. You can watch ships loading and unloading. It’s beautiful day or night.
Running till about 9 (11 if it’s busy), the Good Market in Battaramulla is a great chance to see Sri Lankan creativity in food, crafts and more. On Thursdays only.
Possibly Sri Lanka’s best restaurant, Dharshan Munidasa’s Ministry Of Crab, specializes in big, fresh crab but also does good prawn and even chicken curry. Bit expensive, and messy, but a unique experience.
This popular boutique hotel has a really good restaurant – creative, fun to hang out in and affordable. A hidden gem.
Min Han is a cheap, really tasty, really bare-bones Chinese restaurant. The ambience is beyond basic but the food is great and the waiter Wijayapala will helpfully order for you.
Also good for breakfast, this literal hole in the wall in Wellawatte does excellent, spicy Jaffna cuisine served on banana leaf. Totally working class ambience, but the food is authentic and good. Bring a handkerchief.
The old office of brilliant Asian architect Geoffrey Bawa, this packed spot does good if expensive food in an amazing ambience. Their desserts are excellent.
This creative restaurant near Town Hall does great steak and creative Japanese and fusion dishes. Amazing service and, although not cheap, we think it’s good value. The adjoining Clique Lounge is also a happening drinks and dancing scene, though it doesn’t interfere with dinner.
For beachside dinner/drinks The Station or next door Barracuda are great. Station does a hearty Sri Lankan take on Chinese food and is a lovely place to have some drinks and a chat.
If you’re out really late, Pilawoos is where locals go for late-night kottu (chopped up flatbread and veggies and meat). There are numerous Pilawoos along the Galle Road (we’ve tasted and graphed them here) but the one in Colpetty (linked above) is probably the most central.
We won’t get into nightclubs (try Clique or Amuseum or Kama if you’re into that). These are places to chill and get a drink, hopefully with a view. Note that most of the posher places require men to wear long pants and shoes to enter.
The highest bar in Colombo, this place is amazing around sunset. Throughout the night, it’s a good place to chill with a view.
Another rooftop bar, this spot on Marine Drive does good cocktails and is a nice place to watch everyone else stuck in traffic pass by below.
Not for the faint of heart, this working class bar has a beautiful crumbling location and cheap drinks. Ask for Solomon if you go, and note that this place will be bull-dozed in about a year.
If you want to see pretty people and potentially party all night, 41 Sugar is a good bet. They have a nice sunset, good drinks and an interesting crowd. It’s also in a building with bars/nightclubs on every floor.
This bar attached to the Cinnamon Lakeside is literally lake-side and usually has a happening crowd.