Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, is a massive city that stretches along Sri Lanka’s southeastern coast. Its population is in the millions and is Sri Lanka’s largest. Although the cultural capital belongs to Kandy, Colombo is the economic and political center of the island.
Since the end of Sri Lanka’s Civil War, the country’s economy has been rapidly improving. Nowhere is that more apparent than the nation’s capital. The Sri Lankan Port is undergoing a massive expansion project with crews performing infrastructure improvements across a sizable piece of land that extends beyond the Port’s traditional boundaries. New construction projects, whether the buildings be residential or commercial, are springing up across the city. This has created considerable job growth, from white to blue collar, that outpaces the rest of the country.
Although this has presented the local population with greater opportunities, there is not much to offer the foreign tourist beyond a transportation hub to other parts of the island nation.
Are there sights worth seeing if you have a day to spare? Absolutely. Should you go out of your way to see any of them if that means you have one less day somewhere else? No. That may seem like a strong, or even harsh, statement, but you have to put it in the context of your entire trip.
You may not have a lot of time to spare and Sri Lanka has a lot to offer travelers. If you need a place that’s close to the airport, but still has a lot to do, then I recommend Galle.
However, you may not have the luxury of choice or you’re motivated solely by the desire to prove me wrong. I say go for it. You can check out a full list of activities and sights on TripAdvisor. I don’t recommend consulting the Lonely Planet or Rough Guides books on Colombo. I feel they oversell the place and it’s a rather flattering portrait of a city without too much to offer the average tourist if you’re not there for Nevam Perahera (more on that in my video).
How did Ashley and I spend our day in the city? We grabbed a tuktuk from our hotel, the Drift BNB, and visited the colonial heart of the city near the Port. We were slightly let down as the descriptions in the guidebook make this place out to be quite hip and happening. Instead it resembled a ghost town. This was mainly due to the fact that we arrived on a national holiday and a lot of shops and attractions were closed. However, based on their exteriors, we’re not sure if we missed that much anyway.
We walked down Marine Drive and stopped at the lighthouse to take in the massive port construction project. I’ve never seen a project this large and I couldn’t wrap my head around what the finished project would look like. Although it was a holiday, there were still a lot of workers present. I bet it looks more like a beehive when all workers are present.
A little further down the road, we stopped at the Sambodhi Chaithya. It’s a concrete pagoda built straddling the road. Its original intent was to say to incoming travelers and traders that Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country. I’m sure this didn’t go over too well with members of other faiths that are represented on the island. It’s not particularly fascinating, but if you need a good climb, there are over 200 stairs to the top. You combine that with the extreme heat and you got yourself a workout.
However, the highlight of Colombo was easily the parade for Navam Perahera. It is an annual celebration that is both a Buddhist full moon festival and a representation of the various folk cultures that make up Sri Lanka’s diverse population. The first thing you notice is how much fun everyone is having. The police are in good spirits, the kids are having a great time, and the performers take incredible pride in their roles.
We showed up early to make sure we got great seats. Folks that showed up later had to stand in a crowd at certain points and had to stay put in the same place for hours. It was great getting a seat close to the action and we have the photos to prove it.
The costumes were incredible. They clearly took great skill to make, were extravagant, and probably quite expensive. The only comparison I can think of is Carnivale in Brazil. Dancers of all kinds and they all had their own unique costumes and style of dance based on their cultural background. The same went for musicians and drummers. Let’s not forget the acrobats. I hope everyone was able to get a water break as it was hot outside and it couldn’t be easy performing those routines for hours straight.
Overall, the parade made our day in Colombo worthwhile and we walked away with great optimism about our trip.