Colombo: Learning to Love an Unlovable City

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Colombo at Dusk

Sri Lanka might be full of fascinating places to visit, but Colombo isn’t often listed as one of them.

It’s not a city like Phnom Penh and Delhi that gets a lot of flack but redeems itself with its cultural and historical sites. Colombo is the kind of city that people urge you to skip, saying that there’s nothing there. Even if you’re flying into the country for a short stopover, it’s faster and easier to stay in the beach town of Negombo rather than Colombo itself.

Colombo doesn’t offer a lot in terms of sights. It’s crowded and congested, yet it doesn’t have the walkability or vibrant street life that you find in other Asian cities. Tourism infrastructure is mostly in the form of resorts; you won’t find a lot of activities geared toward tourists here. You could compare it to the less attractive outskirts of Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, minus the street life, temples, architecture, shopping, nightlife, and 7-11s. But, oddly, with nicer tuk-tuks.

Still, I have affection for cities like these — places that demand that you dig deeper in order to mine the gold. Thankfully, I had a bunch of Colombo-living friends ready to take me out.

DSC_0699

Galle Face Green

Hanging out, eating street food and enjoying the evening air — that’s what I love. In Colombo, the place to enjoy this is at Galle Face Green, a stretch of grass by the sea that is home to lots of street vendors.

Sri Lankan food is defined by rice and curry. No matter where you go, you’ll likely be feasting on rice and curry in some way, shape or form — but Galle Face Green was more of a snacking kind of place.

Colombo Street FoodKate and a Seller in ColomboColombo Street FoodStreet Food in Colombo

Spicy shrimp patties, meat on a stick, spicy fruits and vegetables — you bet my friends and I dove into the food. I had no expectations for those meat kebabs — but that was probably the best beef I’ve had since Kobe beef in Japan. I was shocked.

Colombo from the Pier

The Pier

Just off Galle Face Green is a pier jutting into the ocean. It’s a great spot to take photos of the city at night (and practice some long exposure shots).

“What’s this place called?” I asked my friend Mevan.

“…the pier,” he replied. “Just the pier.”

I liked the pier.

Colombo Pier

A group of men played the drums and danced. People from all walks of life strolled around.

Chicken Kottu

Pilawoos

The hottest see-and-be-seen place of Colombo…is a fast food restaurant. Seriously. It’s a 24-hour restaurant in a very early-to-bed-early-to-rise country, which means that when the bars and clubs close down, this is where everyone goes.

We weren’t there at the witching hour, but we still had the full Pilawoos experience!

Chicken Kottu

Roti is popular throughout Asia, but Sri Lanka puts its own spin on it with kottu — chopped up roti cooked with chicken, vegetables, and/or cheese.

At Pilawoos, everyone eats chicken kottu with cheese. It sounds a bit weird, but trust me — this is good stuff.

Cinnamon Red

Cinnamon Red

Cinnamon Hotels has three properties in Colombo. During my time in Colombo, I stayed at Cinnamon Lakeside, the quality business hotel where we had the TBCAsia conference. Also in town is the Cinnamon Grand, a ritzy, party-happy monolith that reminded me of a Vegas casino.

But next time I want to stay at Cinnamon Red — such a sexy boutique hotel! They are so committed to the color red that all the facilities have the word “red” in the name.

Cinnamon Red Cinnamon Red Cinnamon Red  Cinnamon RedSmartphone Challenge

This place is just the kind of hotel that I love — small, stylish, and extraordinarily faithful to a theme.

It also has the best infinity pool overlooking the city.

Cinnamon Red Infinity Pool ColomboDSC_0953

I actually didn’t see many sunsets in Sri Lanka — in November it tended to be overcast most early evenings. But in Colombo, we witnessed a hell of a sunset, pictured above. That photo is barely retouched.

Thalangame

Thalangame

First of all, if you’re going to Sri Lanka to see wildlife, you should prioritize visiting Yala National Park (one of the best wildlife spots in all of Asia and home to many leopards) or Kaudalla National Park (where I went on my elephant safari).

That said, it takes several hours of travel to get to either destination from Colombo (unless you fly). If you’re going to be based in Colombo, there’s a nearby local worth visiting: Thalangame, a wetlands area just outside the city.

I went on a birdwatching, butterfly-spotting trip with naturalist Vimukthi Weeratunga of Cinnamon Nature Trails.

ThalangameDSC_0819ThalangameDani in ThalangameKate in Thalangame

I had been birding once before — in Portugal in 2012 — and what I love about it is that it forces you to recalibrate your senses. Soon you start hearing differently, seeing differently, looking for clues in different places. It’s a phenomenal workout for your mind.

It was really nice to spend a day in the countryside and breathe in the fresh air and spot the animals, from exotic birds to monitor lizards (creepy!). And having someone as passionate about nature as Vimukthi made it really special. (He also went to grad school at Oregon State and loves the west coast, so we ribbed each other over our coastal rivalry all day!)

Colombo Sunset

The Takeaway

I’ll be honest — while I had a great time in Colombo, I doubt I doubt it will ever have a spot on my list of favorite cities. But that’s okay. The important part is that you enjoy each place you visit to the fullest. I certainly feel like I did that in Sri Lanka’s capital.

Essential Info: Rates at Cinnamon Red start at $80 USD.

Cinnamon Nature Trails offers custom guided tours to Thalangame. Prices available upon request.

Be sure to buy travel insurance before your trip. I use and recommend World Nomads.

I visited Sri Lanka for TBCAsia, hosted by Cinnamon Hotels. Thanks also to Sri Lankan Airlines for flying me there from London, CVisit Sri Lanka for carting me around, and Mobitel for furnishing me with a SIM card. All opinions, as always, are my own.

Have you ever enjoyed a city you thought you wouldn’t like?

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48 thoughts on “Colombo: Learning to Love an Unlovable City”

  1. I really like the look of the hotel. I wouldnt expect something so nice and chic (OMG THE POOL! the rooftop lounge!) to be so cheap, though to be fair I am still applying my European pricing standards here.

  2. Maybe it’s because I’ve been in India too long, but I hear great things about Clombo and was so excited to visit. I loved the short time I got to spend there. Bombay is similar in that there’s not much to “see” per se, so I see Colombo as a cleaner more organized Bombay and being that with Ben and I doing our work in Bombay often – we even talked about living in Colombo! Both Goa (where we are now) and Colombo are just a short flight to Bom. Or maybe me finding Colombo so refreshing, modern, and clean means I need to get out of Southern Asia for a bit!

  3. I’ve been to quite a few cities that I didn’t expect to like but fell in love with (some that come to mind: Venice and Warsaw). It’s always a great feeling when that happens!

  4. I love that even though there wasn’t a ton there you still tried to find things worth doing. I feel like a lot of people talk about San Jose this way – it’s a place to switch buses but otherwise, there’s nothing there.

  5. Wait, does Sri Lanka really have lots of 7-11’s? I guess it’s no different than McDonalds being all around the world, but it seems so steretypical…Also, my buddy is a huge bird-er, he talks about that same stuff all the time…or like geocaching, it gets you to go and explore new areas and actually spend time there seeing and learning about it. It’s a great way to “dig-deeper” into places like you were talking about in Colombo!

  6. Jennifer Miller

    Reminds me of what people say about San Jose, Costa Rica. Would be interested to see if you do a similar post there. We found a few charming museums, sites and restaurants but not enough to recommend it over all the other adventurous, serene, and enriching sites of Costa Rica.

  7. That roti looks delicious! If I ever visit Colombo I want to stay at that hotel with the infinity pool!

    Is that the camera you usually use for your photos? The lens is massive!

  8. Love, love, love this post! I think a lot of the time when we travel we base our experiences off of previous expectations or what other people say. Sometimes I don’t fall in love with a city that everyone else raves about. Sometimes I thoroughly enjoy cities no one else has. Why not? Travel is personal in that way.

  9. The infinity pool looks amazing Kate, and those lenses look huge. I can hardly see you!

    I guess, most people find capital cities slightly “off” due to the crowds, the speed, and the prices e.g in London, Rome, Paris, Bangkok, etc. Columbo in Sri Lanka is no different.
    I didn’t like Delhi when I went to India, but I have a feeling that I would like Mumbai more even though lots of people absolutely see it as a hell-hole. The trick? Get a local to show you a around, breathe in, eyes wide open, and then go for it!

  10. 10 years ago, I went on my first trip by myself. I spinned the small globe I had back home, closed my eyes, and decided to go to whatever country my finger stopped at. It pointed right at Sri Lanka.

    A few days in Negombo was enough for me, as I’m not a beach person. But traveling into Colombo for the first time was overwhelming. I spent the days walking around the city, exploring much like you. There were no tourists, and I stumbled upon friendly locals, hidden restaurants, big gardens and so much more. I stayed in some local home to save money (Colombo accommodation were so expensive at that time! – Or maybe I was cheap). Needless to say, I had a really good time in the city.

    Although I did go on to explore Galle, Kandy and Ella later on, and they were more inviting cities for me, I’m not put back from visiting Colombo again. I can’t wait to get back to Sri Lanka in just 11 days – to spend at least 3 months exploring this beautiful country! Thanks for the inspiring articles Kate!

  11. That camera…that’s probably keeping you very fit! It’s like you’re having an arm workout every time you use that!

    Colombo – we visited in summer of 2014 as a family. We loved that we could walk around and still felt safe, and we got on the buses too. It’s was tough with the heat and the traffic but nevertheless a great experience, especially for the kids. Being so close to Dubai (only a short 4 hour flight), I know we will go back again!

  12. I only spent a day and a half in Colombo, but I really liked it. It’s definitely not where you wanna spend a much of time in Sri Lanka, but I didn’t think it was as bad as everyone says it is. It was great going to the Galle Face Green and watching the kids play with the kites everywhere.

  13. Seriously? There is a bird park in Thalangame? I’m a Sri Lankan living five minutes away from Thalangame and I had no idea… but come to think about, it now makes sense why my car is covered in bird poop most days.

  14. Thanks for some great info about Colombo! I tend to love such underrated cities while traveling. They somehow give you more interesting opportunities to meet regular people and see how they go about their lives.

  15. I actually grew up in the poorest area of the poorest state in the U.S., the Mississippi Delta. My little city, Clarksdale, is an infamous wasteland in the center of it all. It’s painful to live there, and I did so for a very long time. But European and Asian tourists flock to the place. They love the bare-boned, sorrowful qualities of the region, and the openness of the locals. Some even buy summer homes, or I should say summer shacks, there. When I try to see it through tourists eyes, I can understand that it’s special to them because it’s different. The land is flat and infinite, people don’t put on airs there, and it’s REAL. It isn’t the suburbs or a middle class American sitcom. The struggle is real. And everything means so much more when you have to fight for it. People are drawn to the area because it feels so real and substantial. There’s something magical in that.

    1. That’s really interesting, Mary. I’ve always been intrigued by the Delta but I’ve never been there — if I do another southern road trip, I’d love to check it out for sure. Sounds like it’s a place that can use the tourism dollars as well.

  16. I really love what you’ve done here. I’m one of those travelers who doesn’t like just going where everyone else wants to go. I want to see how people really live in those “every day” places. I don’t believe that there’s nothing to see in any location at all, and that beauty is just under the noses of those who abide there, but they’re accustomed to it. Thank you for shining much needed light onto why we should crawl every inch of the globe as much as possible before we can’t do it anymore. You’ve done great justice to Colombo.

  17. The title of your post caught my eye. I left Sri Lanka absolutely despising Colombo and became that person telling everyone to skip it! Now I wish I would have dug deeper like you did, and found something positive to take away from my experience there. Going forward, when I’m in a place I don’t really love, I will think back to this post and remind myself to always look for some positives. Thanks for sharing.

  18. I just really loved Sri Lanka, traveled there for a month! Ye Colombia is maybe not the most fascinating city. It was so good to have some days there, and have some refill of international food, a proper haircut and these things before we travelled further one in Asia. We had super much fun there. We ended up in a nightclub and become friends with Sri Lankan girls partying in there sahri and learning to drive tuk tuk in the streets of Colombo 🙂

  19. Hahah, were you playing the game where everybody stacks their phones up and the first person to answer has to buy everybody dinner? So funny.

  20. Thank you Kate for this post on my city which has been an eye opener for many who had thought of skipping the place. There is a lot to Colombo ‘beneath the surface’, so to speak. Colombo is steeped in history too, having been a theatre of action during Portuguese, Dutch and British invasion and occupation spanning from 1505 to 1948. It is only today that I read online that construction workers at a new hotel site at Galle Face had unearthed an ancient artillery gun. Last week they spotted a salt water crocodile off the beach in the Colpetty area; unfortunately it was found dead a day later and the newspaper said they were a rare species of which only two had been reported at the time to live in Sri Lankan waters. Imagine my surprise yesterday to read of another one of them being spotted in the sea off Galle Face ! So there ! Sri Lana was called by Serendib by Arab travelers in the past – meaning a place with a tendency for pleasant discoveries. I see you’ve had that experience in Colombo.

  21. Great post. I really wasn’t a fan of Colombo at first, but I have come round to it. With every city though it has its positives and negatives. One of the real positives for me, as with the rest of Sri Lanka is how nice, friendly and welcoming the locals are. Cinnamon Red looks amazing, makes me wish I wasn’t on such a tight budget and I could afford to stay there!

  22. What a great article! You really hit the nail on the head about Colombo. Like you, I enjoyed my time there and I am SO glad I got the chance to explore the city… But it does lack a lot. They don’t expect tourism so they don’t cater for it. At all. We tried to buy postcards – impossible. Until the airport anyway!

    I hope you don’t mind if I leave a link to my post here about my favourite temples in Colombo. These places are a happy escape! 😛
    http://wanderswillnevercease.com/temples-in-colombo-sri-lanka/

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