Colombo – The sprawling commercial capital of Sri Lanka is an ancient port city thriving with beautiful flora and fauna. Despite having a successively long history of a trading post, the heritage of Colombo is widely visible through its colonial architecture and cosmopolitan lifestyle. In between the high-rises and the shopping malls, stretches out a trail of Dutch, Portuguese, and British achievements. The beach legacies, however, make an excellent start to Sri Lankan adventures in its own right. So does the imposing Buddhas in various shapes and sizes.
Lined with coconut palm-fringed beaches, along the Lakshadweep Sea, Colombo is the 8th-century port that took its name after Kolam or the Coconut palm. The oldest districts of this economic capital are the harbour and the Pettah. While the newest addition to this China-built metropolis is Greater Colombo district with rather a central cluster of high rises. With a little empirical exploring, you’ll find mirthful shops, cafes and celebrated local food tucked between the booming skylines of the city. To get the local taste of Colombo, explore the city in a Tuk Tuk – the famous local transport. There is an extensive list of landmarks you can explore in Colombo; however, here’s a rundown of 10 best places we reckon you see. Especially if it’s your first trip to Sri Lanka.
Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple, a Beaconing Lighthouse
In the late 19th-century, Sri Lankan Monk Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Nayaka Thera set up, what is the today, the most important Buddhist temple of Colombo. Also, one of the oldest! So to speak, not only, is Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple an eclectic mix of Sri Lankan, Indian, Thai, and Chinese architecture, but also, a powerful design that inspires quiet reflection and peace. After the revered Sri Sumangala, his disciple Devundera Sri Jinaratana Nayake Thera undertook the responsibilities of the temple. He is the one who took the initiative to turn the temple into an international success. Followed by Devundara Keerthi Sri Sumangala Jinaratana Vacissara Thera, in succession. Together, both the disciples worked towards making Gangaramaya, what it is today. Therefore, Gangaramaya is not just a temple, it’s a holy centre of learning and a perfect blend of cultural essence and modern architecture. AND it houses thousands of different types of Buddhas!
Colombo Lotus Tower – South Asia’s Tallest
Remarkably, Colombo Lotus Tower is one of the prime attractions of the city as this 356-metre-tall self-supported structure is the tallest in South Asia. Apart from its unbinding height, that makes it visible from most parts of the city; the Colombo Lotus Tower also symbolizes the recognizable natural feature of Sri Lanka’s environment. Lotus is symbolic of purity in Buddhism and this blossoming flower is found all across Sri Lanka. Which, is why to have a tower dedicated to this ceremonial flower is a brilliant way of showcasing Sri Lanka’s culture to its visitors. In addition to this environmental value, this $100 million tower houses a 17-storey range of restaurants, commercial shops, a hotel, a telecommunications museum, and an observation deck that has the city’s best views on display.
The Old Dutch Hospital
Tucked in the Colombo Fort, on the hospital street, is one of the oldest cobbled courtyards that instantly draw you away from the hustle-bustle of the city. It’s the 16th-century Old Dutch Hospital. In the present time, the purlieu of Old Dutch Hospital is a venue laid with concrete benches persuaded by a breezy atmosphere. However, back in the Dutch colonial era, this heritage building was a multi-purpose hospital. The oldest records of this hospital date back to 1681, when it was established to look after the officers of the Dutch East India Company. In the early 1980s, this building served as the Colombo Fort Police Station. Although, later in 1996, it suffered heavy damage during the LTTE attack, followed by the Central Bank bombing. None of that matters when you look at the charming colonnades, wooden doors, windows and low slung tiled roofs that encapsulate the historic charm of a bygone era. In present times, this is one of the best places in Colombo to immerse in the casual ambience or unwind with soothing tunes in the backdrop.
Colombo Town Hall
Opposite the Viharamahadevi Park, stands the office of the Mayor, the official Town Hall of Colombo. Built during the British era, this stately, whitewashed colonial building is the present time headquarters of the Colombo Municipal Council. This administrative building styled with neo-gothic structure features arches, tall sophisticated columns and an imposing central dome, that is hard to miss. The excellently drawn details illustrate an artistic and effective design.
Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall
Yet another fascinating landmark in Colombo worth exploring is the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall. Built-in the late nineteenth century, this convention centre was gifted to Colombo in memory of Prime Minister Solomon Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike, by the Republic of China. What’s interesting is that this building was built jointly by the Chinese and the Sri Lankan workforce. Word has it that a large amount of construction material was imported from China. In modern times, BMIC sprawls across 16,000 sq ft floor space in the Cinnamon Gardens and contains an academic wing, as well as, an up-to-date library. This Hall hosts high-profile events throughout the year.
The Independence Commemoration Hall
After scouting two eminent, landmarks, it was time to visit Colombo’s most prominent. About five minutes from BMICH is Sri Lanka’s most famous national monument – The Independence Commemoration Hall. Positioned in Independence Square, this single-storey building casts off the impression of a Japanese Pagoda from a distance. On February 4, 1948, this hall was constituted to celebrate independence from British rule and celebrate the Ceylon elected legislature. Every inch of this building expresses pride, for its here that Lankans caroused the first formal ceremony of independence. In front of the Independence Commemoration Hall, is the statue of Don Stephen Senanayake, the first Prime Minister of independent Sri Lanka. Don Stephen Senanayake, is the father of the nation.
This hall hosts most of Sri Lanka’s Independence Day celebrations. As about the interiors of the Independence Commemoration Hall, the designs take their inspiration after Kandy, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka. The Main Hall features intricate carvings. From where the Senate of Ceylon worked before, the parliament was moved, to a new complex. It’s really, impressive! As of recent times, this Hall hosts independence celebrations, plus other important religious events. It’s a great place to honour the values of sovereignty.
Pettah, a Bustling Bazaar
The open-air Manning or Pettah Market in Colombo is a blazing trail of multi-ethnic shops in one of Sri Lanka’s busiest commercial areas. Pettah is an Anglo-Indian word meaning a suburb outside a fort. Exactly, what describes this market, the entrance to which is marked by the tall Khan Clock Tower, built by Framjee Bhickajee Khan, an eminent Parsi family from Bombay who owned the Colombo Oil Mills. Besides, there is nothing better than shopping while travelling to a new destination. Especially, from a local market that holds the secrets of the culture.
Jami UI Alfar, A Candy Striped Red Mosque
Crowned with candy-striped pattern and pomegranate shaped domes, is the most noticeable building of the Pettah market – the Red Mosque. Commonly known as the Jami UI Alfar Mosque, this distinctive place of worship was built in the early nineteenth century with a contrasting design of red and white bricks. This historic Mosque is located on the 2nd-cross street and is one of the oldest in Colombo. Although, what’s fascinating about this Mosque is that its hybrid design was commissioned by an unqualified architect. However, he still managed to develop a design that drew Neo-classical and Gothic elements from native Indian and Indo-Islamic architecture. In present times, this Moorish edifice keeps the capacity for 10,000 worshippers. Well worth the trip, this delightful Muslim architecture with complementary colours stands out in the analogous market of Pettah.
The Old Town Hall Building
The historic monument of the Old Town Hall is perched inside Pettah, one of the busiest markets of Colombo. Built-in 1873, this gothic-styled Old Town Hall was initially established by the British as a courthouse and the chambers of the Municipal Council. Today, tourists visit this landmark to admire its historic architecture, stretching across the cast-iron tracery to the wedge-shaped blocks. Visiting this landmark will also allow you to gain an insight into the administrative roots of Sri Lanka. The Old Town Hall was renovated in 1984, while the abutting building has been converted into a museum. Wherein, the neighbourhood prospers with street hawkers and shopping street lined with a plethora of wholesale and retail stores.
The Colombo Fort Clock Tower
Built-in 1857, the Colombo Fort Clock Tower was the tallest structure of its time with a height of 29 metres. It was designed by Emily Elizabeth Ward, who was the wife of then-governor, Sir Henry George Ward. Back in time, this Clock Tower also served as a lighthouse. Today, its touted by a changing set of skyscrapers, however, as much as, a whole city may have developed around it, the clock tower continues to stand its grounds while captivating tourists with its timeless beauty. It was fascinating to find out that the renowned manufacturers of London’s Big Ben contrived the design of the clock of this tower. This old clock has a 6-foot dial overlaid with an opal glass that promisingly keeps time, as the world around it sees a steady evolution.
As Colombo keeps on sprouting into a fast-paced tourist destination, it also holds a piece of its ancient traditions and culture close to its heart. With everything taken into account, this city is a contrast of hues, aromas, art streets, open-air markets, street food Meccas and dual-tone places of worship. The more profoundly you delve, the more it will open up. Exploring Colombo’s blend of notable port and present-day harbour not just gives an insight on the nation but uncovers its distinctive character that you won’t discover anyplace else. This certainly is a city you won’t be in a rush to leave. During my Colombo trip, I stayed at The Kingsbury Hotel, one of the finest in the city.
P.S. I visited Colombo as a guest of Sri Lanka Tourism Board, however, the views are my own.