You can only allot one day to Colombo? Follow this itinerary to get the most out of your day.
Start the morning amid the time-warped streets of Fort district, at the heart of old Colombo. Begin at the quaint clocktower-lighthouse right in the heart of the district – an appropriate enough place to kick off any island tour, given that all Sri Lankan road distances are measured from here. The clocktower itself was built in 1857 at the request of the then-governor’s wife Emily Elizabeth Ward in an attempt to introduce European standards of time-keeping to the growing city, while the lighthouse beacon was built on top some ten years later. The lighthouse was for many years a valuable aid to shipping entering the nearby port. Whether Mrs Ward’s clocktower had a similarly positive effect on local standards of time-keeping is not recorded.
East of the clocktower, the buildings lining Chatham Street are some of the most impressive in Fort, while north of the clocktower is the stately President’s House and the immaculately restored neoclassical general post office.
Have a look at these, and then head south down Janadhipathi Mawatha and left into Bank of Ceylon Mawatha. Stop for a moment at the junction of the two roads and have a look in the car park of the Fort Police Station, where you’ll find a diminutive building once used as a tiny prison cell by the British. Former inmates are said to have included the last king of Kandy, who was kept here briefly before being sent into exile in India.
Just past here on Bank of Ceylon Mawatha you’ll find the Dutch Hospital, an attractive cluster of restaurants and shops housed in the city’s oldest hospital, dating back to the seventeenth century. Directly opposite rise some of the city’s tallest buildings, including the landmarks towers of the World Trade Centre.
Continue north into York Street, past the time-warped old Cargills department store to reach the venerable Grand Oriental Hotel and the great tangle of cranes and gantries overlooking the city port. Just past the hotel (but totally hidden from view) is the old St Peter’s Church, its interior a slightly spooky haven of Victorian calm in the middle of the busy city.
Head a few steps south back down York Street then turn left (east) into Jayatilaka Mawatha, crossing an arm of the Beira Canal. You’re now entering the Pettah, Colombo’s high-octane bazaar district, and quite unlike anywhere else in the country, with an endless crush and confusion of porters, hawkers, shopkeepers, shoppers, tourists and touts all fighting for elbow room amidst the crowded streets.
Continuing straight on brings you onto Main Street, the principal road through the district, with merchandise covering every available piece of pavement and a motley riot of colourful signs above. You might want to check out the Dutch Period Museum, just south of Main Street on Prince Street, with a few rather dusty exhibits in a lovely old mansion – although perhaps the main attraction is the chance to take a break from the crowds.
Halfway along Main Street you’ll pass the impossible-to-miss Jami ul-Aftar, a positive wedding cake of a mosque (assuming wedding cakes can be bright red) before reaching the old town hall, a pretty building in Moorish style dating from 1873. A large pavilion next door provides an unlikely home for a marooned collection of old municipal machines including the former city steamroller and library van.
North of here, tiny Gabo’s Lane is where you’ll find the Pettah’s ayurveda shops, selling mysterious bundles of healing herbs, health-giving roots and other bits and pieces of medicinal flora. Just past here, Sea Street is home to dozens of gaudy jewellers shops and some of the city’s most colourful signs as well as the Old and New Kathiresan Kovils, two small Hindu temples with technicolour-facades bursting with statues of gods, demons and animals.
If you really want to get off the beaten track, finish the morning by heading west, away from the Pettah and along Andival and Wolfendahl Streets to reach the lovely Dutch-era Wolfendahl (or Wolvendaal) Church of 1749 (the name means “Wolf’s dale”, although the only hungry beasts you’re likely to encounter nowadays are a few stray dogs). The exterior is classically simple. The interior (if you’re lucky enough to find it open) is one of Sri Lanka’s best preserved colonial period pieces, complete with old wooden pews and pulpit, plus stained glass and original tiled floor.
Catch a tuktuk to Slave Island and have lunch at the airy Park Street Mews Restaurant on up-and-coming Park Street, dishing up a good menu ranging from salads, sandwiches and soups through to more substantial meat and fish mains.
From Park Street Mews Restaurant it’s just a few minutes walk to the Gangaramaya temple, the city’s most interesting Buddhist shrine. The heart of the temple follows the traditional layout of all Sri Lankan temples, with venerable old bo tree and an image house full of huge, chintzy statues set around a pretty courtyard, with an old library opposite. The temple’s resident elephant can also be seen here from time to time. There’s also a weird and wonderful museum attached stuffed full of wacky curios and bric a bric – if you’ve ever wondered what a stuffed elephant might look like, now’s your chance.
Next, head to the Seema Malaka temple, just a few metres from the Gangaramaya, but utterly different. Designed by renowned Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, this beautiful little structure comprises a pair of slightly Japanese-looking pavilions set amidst the waters of breezy Beira Lake – one of the island’s most unusual but endearing shrines.
From here, it’s a pleasant stroll around Beira Lake down Nawan Mawatha, after which you can nip down Rotunda Gardens to reach the northern end of Galle Road, the modern city’s major artery. A few minutes’ walk north along the road brings you to Galle Face Green, always busy towards sunset with crowds of locals gossiping, strolling, snacking and flying kites. The historic Galle Face Hotel on the southern side of the green is a good place to end the day – preferably over a long cool drink at the hotel’s verandah bar, a lovely slice of old-world Ceylon overlooking the crashing ocean waves.
Explore Sri Lanka’s Galle Fort … historic stronghold on the southwest coast
Romantic Sri Lanka … share the love on one of Asia’s most romantic islands
Sri Lanka Family Holidays … something for all ages and interests
Sri Lanka Grand Tour … see the very best in two weeks
Sri Lanka Hill Walk Around Ella … hike through hills and tea plantations
Sri Lanka Journey through History … explore three thousand years of Sinhalese Buddhist art and architecture
Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle … the heart of the island’s most ancient kingdom
Sri Lanka’s Historic Anuradhapura … mapping your way through the myriad ruins and monuments
Sri Lanka’s Kandy in a Day … explore the temples, museums and music of the cultural capital
Sri Lanka’s Polonnaruwa … touring the stunning ruins and shrines of a great medieval capital
Sri Lanka’s Ten Best Beaches … sand and sea, plus plenty of great places to stay
Wild Sri Lanka … take a walk on the wild side through Sri Lanka’s spectacular landscapes and national parks