Sri Lanka is no longer a less-explored destination off the beaten path. Today, Sri Lanka’s tourism is booming. Sunseekers frequent the island’s picturesque coastline with everyone, from luxury travelers to budget backpackers, flocking to scenic sights to decorate their Instagram pages. Colombo, however, remains a less-loved destination. Often used as a pitstop, travelers quickly leave the hustle and bustle of the island’s capital.
But there’s more to Colombo than yet another chaotic Asian capital. Its vivid charm lies in its cultural elegance. Although a tiny city, Colombo’s streets are lined with architectural masterpieces, a heritage of its multi-ethnic background. Fair warning, though: walking in Colombo is a messy affair, with scorching days. When you head to Colombo for a weekend getaway pack light clothes. Maxi dresses, jumpsuits, rompers, classic shorts, and cotton tees are most suitable for the hot, humid Sri Lankan weather.
Check-in: Movenpick Colombo
Fly in on a Saturday morning. The airport is 32 km north of the city, but you can easily reach your hotel with an Uber or PickMe—the second app service is more popular in Sri Lanka.
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Staying in central Colombo is best for moving around and Movenpick Colombo is a good upmarket option in Colombo 3. With its stunning ocean suites, flashy modern design, and close proximity to cultural highlights, there aren’t many better accommodations in town. If you’re too lazy to venture out for food, check out AYU, the hotel’s main restaurant, one of the newest additions to the buffet scene.
If you are on a budget, stay at Bunkyard Hostels. Bunkyard has chic dorm rooms, plenty of open space to mingle with fellow travelers, and is nestled in a serene neighborhood. Mahasen by Foozoo is an alternative, a small boutique hotel in Colombo 5. A quirky space filled with art and good vibes, Foozoo has a more homely feeling.
Saturday lunch: One of Asia’s fifty best restaurants
A visit to Colombo isn’t complete without dining at Ministry of Crab. This seafood restaurant lies in the very heart of the city. From locally-flavored pepper crab to garlic chilli crab, a dish that mixes of Sri Lankan, Mediterranean, and Japanese cuisines, dining in Ministry of Crab is a delightful experience. You can also choose the size of your crab. The smallest is half a kilo, while ‘Crabzila,’ the largest, is over two kilograms. They also do an amazing shrimp. The traditional clay pot prawn curry is a classic best enjoyed with kade paan (a local bread) and coconut sambal—served in a coconut and one of Sri Lanka’s popular condiments. The restaurant’s iced tea soda is a popular tonic against the midday heat.
City strolls for the cultural soul
Ministry of Crab is inside the Dutch Hospital Complex in Colombo. Once you finish your Sri Lankan flavored seafood lunch take time to casually wander around the complex. Built by the Dutch as a hospital, it dates back to the 1600s. Not only is it the oldest building in Colombo, but the open, airy space is full of nooks to discover. For souvenir shopping, check out the Barefoot and Luv SL by Odel outlets.
Slowly make your way down to Colombo Harbour. In the Grand Oriental Hotel stop by Harbour Room, a beautiful colonial restaurant with stunning views of the port of Colombo. With its location on the Indian Ocean trade routes, it is the busiest port in South Asia. It’s where ancient Sri Lanka’s historical elegance meets modern architecture. Other attractions to spot are the Old Colombo Lighthouse, Pagoda Tea Rooms, Chatham Street Clock Tower, and the Cargills Ceylon building on York Street.
Colombo Good Market: a sustainable approach
The best thing about being in Colombo on a Saturday is the Good Market, which is held next to the Colombo Racecourse. A sustainable, mindful way to support small local businesses, you can shop for ethical fashion (clothes, accessories, and shoes), souvenirs and personal care products at the Saturday Good Market. If you fancy, get some henna art done. There’s also live music, Sri Lankan food, snacks, and dessert to make you feel like you’re at a delicious tropical party.
Dinner: sample Colombo’s street food
As the sun descends, Galle Face Green, Colombo’s popular open park, comes alive. If people-watching is your thing, there’s no better place in Colombo to be. Walk atop the ramparts to witness a majestic tropical sunset. Enjoy the children (and their parents) flying kites while hawkers sell funky toy lobsters and bubble gum machines.
Treat yourself to an isso vadai or two. These deep-fried tiny fritters are made with dhal and small, fresh prawns to give crunchiness and taste. At Galle Face Green, isso vadai is served with a chutney—prepared with chopped onions, chili, sliced carrot, and a hint of lime. Nana’s at Galle Face Green serves koththu—chopped flatbread mashed with meat (popularly chicken), vegetables, and Sri Lankan spices.
Nightlife: old school style
Colombo’s nightlife isn’t huge, and as a solo female traveler, I’d advise against club-hopping—especially if it’s your first time in the city. Instead, choose one spot, like Ozo Colombo’s ON14 Rooftop Bar & Lounge. With a must-see view, mouthwatering bites, evening lights, and live jam sessions, this is on par with Asia’s best rooftop bars. Sip a cocktail or two before heading back to your hotel.
Pro tip: Use PickMe to get around Colombo. The platform is easy to use and safe.
Sunday morning: a quick photo-op!
For a quick breakfast, head to Café Kumbuk, a space inspired by the colonial design that dishes up healthy, fresh, Instagrammable meals. Before you bid adieu to Colombo, take a quick tuk-tuk ride to Pettah. On Sundays, Pettah turns into its quietest self. There, on 2nd Cross Street, lies Colombo’s most popular landmark in recent years—the Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque, known to many as The Red Mosque.
A few last photos and it’s time to say your good-byes to this lovely, tropical city, before heading back to the airport.
It’s hard to squeeze in everything Colombo has to offer in just a couple of days, but as a first timer with this itinerary you’ll glimpse the soul of Sri Lanka’s vibrant capital. You’ll only want to come back!
Written by Zinara Rathnayake. Zinara is a travel writer based in Sri Lanka. She’s also the co-founder of travel and food blog NatnZin, which focuses on community-based responsible travel and culinary experiences on the road.