Colombo is a coastal city, located on the West coast of Sri Lanka. Whilst most travelers fly into Colombo, they tend to move on fairly quickly, but Colombo is a wonderful place with lots of hidden gems. Head to Beach Lavinia to watch the sunset over some drinks, eat incredibly delicious Sri Lankan food, shop until you drop in Pettah or Barefoot and meet the friendly locals. I was lucky enough to live in Colombo for 6 months, so I really got under the skin of this authentic city. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
You can catch and book trains from Colombo Fort Railway Station to pretty much anywhere in the country. As Sri Lanka is yet to implement any kind of online booking systems for trains, the lines for ticket counters can be massive and unorganised, so it’s a good idea to go to the station and book train tickets in advance. Certain trains get booked out days in advance, especially in high season (e.g. Kandy to Ella), so if you’re in Colombo and know when/where you want to travel, you should book all of your train tickets in advance.
Trains are split by class and most have a choice of either 1st, 2nd or 3rd. It does seem to differ depending on the train but in general: 1st class gives you a guaranteed designated seat and space, 2nd class gives you a designated seat (however, this is not always guaranteed if the train gets full) and 3rd class gives you no designated seat and no space. Obviously, 3rd class is cheaper than 1st class. For example, from Colombo to Anuradhapura it costs about 160 Rs (€0.80 / $1) for 3rd class and 520 Rs (€2.60 / $3.10) for 1st class. It is up to you whether you want to brave 3rd class and I don’t want to give you advice either way, as I have had some really great 3rd class train experiences, but unfortunately I have also heard some stories of not so nice interactions with locals on trains due to very close proximity.
Go Travel and Talk Top Tip: Whether you get a 1st, 2nd or 3rd class train ticket, make sure you spend all the time that you can in the doorway of the train. They leave these open on Sri Lankan trains and for that reason, every Sri Lankan train journey I have ever taken, has been in my top train journeys of my life. Picture wind in your hair, beautiful scenery flying by, and some exhilarating moments pulling yourself back inside the door as you hurtle towards a tunnel.
Buses are very cheap in Sri Lanka and often long-distance buses are faster than trains, however if you utilise the doorway tip on the trains, I find they are a nicer experience. Local buses in Sri Lanka have become a little bit notorious for local men having inappropriate interactions with western women, however it is a really good way to get around and you are generally safe. There are other bus options, however. AC buses are really nice, especially the one that travels to the South and back to Colombo. You can take the bus from the Maharagama station (in the South East of Colombo, reasonably close to Mount Lavinia) which then goes down the highway towards Galle. Buses start at around 6am and leave every 20 minutes until 8pm. These buses cost between 400 and 600 Rs (€1-2 / $2-4) depending on where you get off. Once you’re on the south coast it is easy to get on a bus from/to anywhere, as there is only one road which travels through all the beach towns.
Go Travel and Talk Top Tip: Although it seems counter-intuitive, sometimes the buses are the faster option, which is a good thing to keep in mind if you’re trying to get somewhere quickly. For example, a train from Galle to Colombo (120km) can take about 3-4 hours, whereas a bus only takes 2.
Popular destinations from Colombo:
- Galle/Bentota/Hikkaduwa/Unawatuna/Mirissa/Weligama/Arugam Bay
Uber is now in full swing in Colombo and is a reasonably cheap way to get around if you prefer riding in cars. A budget Uber is approximately 40 Rs (€0.20 / $0.25) per km and is a pretty cost/time effective way to get to and from the airport as it should cost you about 1,500 Rs (€7.60 / $8.90) to get from the airport to central Colombo. Alternatively, if you’re more of a tuk tuk tuk kinda gal like me, you can use Sri Lanka’s ‘PickMe’.
PickMe is effectively the same as Uber, but with tuk tuks, and ensures you get a good price for your journey. Download the app and if you’re going SIM-less, order a tuk tuk while you’re on wifi and pay in Cash.
Metered tuk tuk:
Fortunately, Colombo is one of the only places in Sri Lanka that has metered tuk tuks, so if ordering a PickMe seems like too much effort, you can go out on any street and flag down a tuk tuk, just make sure the metre is working and that the driver turns it on when you start your journey, to avoid any awkward money conversations at the end. Additionally, if you don’t have any small change, its always good to check that the driver has change before you ride with them, as if there’s a chance to not give you change, often tuk tuk drivers will take it.
Figuring out buses within the city is quite a complicated undertaking and I’ve never managed to utilise them much. The easiest buses to figure out cross the city (from North to South) via Galle road, which is the main road in Colombo that connect many byroads. The buses that travel down Galle road are numbered 100 and 101, so you can often hop on one of those buses to take yourself closer to your destination. The cost is minimal, about 20 Rs (€0.10 / $0.15).
I haven’t done this myself, but there is a walking tour of the Fort and Pettah areas that lasts about 2.5 - 3 hours, starting at the Dutch Hospital. Pettah is an old shopping district and is a great place to take in the hustle and bustle of Colombo. Locals flock there to buy cheap produce, clothes, electronics and various other wares, so it is very crowded and may be a little overwhelming to venture there by yourself. Sometimes the best way to keep it chilled when surrendering to the sounds and smells of Pettah, is to go with a guide. You can booking this from your hostel or I suggest doing it through Mindful Travels, they give you such incredible insights into this beautiful city.
Photo credit to Damith Karunarathne. Instagram: @Damithk27
If you’re out and about in the area (maybe before a drink at Dutch Hospital) Galle Face Green can be worth a look. At sunset locals can be found flying kites, eating street food, taking a walk or having a chat, so it’s a great place for a nice sunset and a good people-watch. You get loads of small vendors who sell good street food here. If you like prawns, try Isso Wade, a popular Sri Lankan street food. On the weekends Galle Face gets quite crowded with local families and is very popular for picnics among the locals.
Photo credit to Damith Karunarathne. Instagram: @Damithk27
There are two key places to hit the shops.
- Pettah offers a really authentic local shopping experience.
- If you’re looking for souvenirs and gifts to take back home, I would recommend Barefoot. Barefoot is well-known for it’s bright and colorful fabrics, all hand-loomed in the shop, and has lots to offer in terms of gifts to take home with you. It also offers a café out the back of the shop, which is lovely, and Sri Lankan in feel. If you’re in Colombo on a Wednesday, Barefoot café does a good pub quiz which draws a mix of ex-pats and well-off locals.
Photo credit to Damith Karunarathne. Instagram: @Damithk27
Mount Lavinia is my favourite spot in Colombo. The beach is not a place to have a beach day (save that for Trincomalee, Arugam Bay or any of the beaches on the south coast), but it is a great place to eat and drink and catch a brilliant sunset. There are a bunch of great places for a night out on the beach, such as BuBa and Shore By O. Otherwise, if you’re feeling a bit fancy, head over to Mount Lavinia Hotel Restaurant and sit on the Terrace for the best sunset experience. At Happy Hour (around 4 – 7 pm) you can enjoy 2 for 1 cocktails (I would recommend the Limoncello Mojito) or try the Sri Lankan buffet which costs about 3000 Rs (€15 / $18), but is definitely worth a try if you’re a bit of a baller/if you have some money to throw around.
TOP TIP: Mount Lavinia Hotel also comes with a romantic story. In the early 1800s there was a Governor who fell in love with a local woman named Lovina. Legend tells that the Governor built a secret tunnel from the wine cellar to her house, so that the lovers could meet in secret. Over the years, the woman become known as Lady Lavinia, and a statue of her can be found in the centre of the water fountain at the entrance to the hotel. If you’re feeling adventurous/like playing detective, see if you can find the tunnel.
Check out Mindful Travels, a dear friend who shares our love for travelling. They have a huge range of amazing tours and activities leaving from Colombo. They have everything from white water rafting, to hot air balloon rides to whale watching and so much more. The founder. Amar, has amazing knowledge of not only Colombo but Sri Lanka as well. Check them out on Instagram:@mindful.travel
Please also see below our 'positive impact' section. As Amar says, 'we exist to help you discover experiences and people you can learn from, while contributing to those in need; individually becoming mindful and collectively making a difference.'
Island Hostels: Mount Lavinia: This is one of the best hostels I have ever stayed in. Run by the lovely Sheron, this ‘poshtel’ was designed with travelers in mind and has all the hallmarks of a very well thought out hostel. It has sleeping pods with personal lamps and lockers with plug sockets inside so you can keep your electronics locked away while they charge. It is super clean with fresh sheets and towels and very nice rooms. The roof terrace has a pool and an incredible view of Mount Lavinia beach, the ocean and Colombo itself. Breakfast is included, as is a pretty brilliant pub crawl on Fridays and a club crawl on Saturdays if you’re looking for a night out.
Island Hostels has recently opened a branch in Central Colombo and will be opening up other branches around the country, so keep an eye out for where they pop up next. Price: from 1860 Rs (€9.40 / $11) for a 6 bed dorm to 6760 Rs (€34 / $40) for a private twin room with an ensuite. Check them out on Instagram: @islandhostels
- You absolutely cannot leave Sri Lanka without eating Kotthu at least once and Colombo has the best restaurant for Kotthu in all of Sri Lanka (big call I know, but this opinion is shared by many other people). Kotthu in its most basic form is chopped up roti bread fried with vegetables. You can choose to add egg, cheese and/or a meat of your choice. Pilawoos is the best place to eat Kotthu. There are a few of these around so for the best experience, check out Pilawoos in Bambalapitiya. Wash it down with an Iced Milo for the best eating experience of your life.
- Sri Lankan breakfast: Traditional Sri Lankan breakfast items are in my opinion (bar Kotthu) the best food Sri Lanka has to offer. Try hoppers (especially egg hoppers), string hoppers with daal curry, potato curry and pol sambal, and lavaria. Lavaria is either served in a pancake or in string hoppers and is filled with a mixture of coconut and honey and is absolutely delightful.
- Cuttle fish: If you’re a seafood lover, cuttle fish is a good one to try in Sri Lanka. I’m a vegetarian so I’m not an expert, but I have been told that you can find good cuttle fish and other seafood at Barracuda, a beach restaurant on Colombo Plan Road.
Go Travel and Talk Top Tip: To save money and have a proper local meal, you can basically go to any restaurant (look for any eatery with the word ‘hotel’ on the end) and get a very cheap and very delicious. Think daal curry for 50 Rs (€0.25 / $0.30).
Island Hostels has also teamed up with Mindful Travels, a website dedicated to providing travelers with opportunities to fully connect with the local people and cultures, whilst contributing and giving back. Mindful Travels believe that when we travel we are more mindful, and when we are more mindful we learn so much more about the ways of life in different communities and their experiences reflect this belief. When you’re in Sri Lanka, I would recommend checking them out and booking some experiences through their website or check out their Instagram: @mindful.travels
Set up in 2007 by the inspiring and brilliant Otara Gunewardene, Embark is an incredible charity based in Colombo. They are dedicated to improving the lives and wellbeing of street dogs in Sri Lanka, by giving them some much needed love and attention. Through rescuing and re-homing initiatives, whilst managing the population through sterilisation and vaccination programs, Embark, have helped 1000's of dogs find new homes and enjoy a better quality of live. You can get involved in multiple ways: donating, fundraising, sourcing sponsors, fostering or volunteering with them in Sri Lanka. Check out their website for more details and follow them on Instagram: @embark_niko