Sri Lanka’s capital city of Colombo seamlessly combines the incredible culture and history of the island with modern tourist attractions and amenities. The city’s unique colonial history (Portuguese, Dutch, and British) adds additional layers to the mix. As the country’s capital city, it’s also filled with museums and places to visit that illustrate Sri Lanka’s rich history. Too many visitors merely land in Colombo and head directly to one of the country’s resort areas. Spend a day or two in the capital, and you’ll be rewarded with a deeper understanding of the island’s culture.
The main central business district area is known as Fort, and that’s where you’ll find a lot of government buildings, museums, luxury shopping, and large hotels. The area is named for the original Portuguese fort, which guarded the harbor area. Directly in front of Fort is the Galle Face Green, a large oceanfront park.
Plan your sightseeing in Sri Lanka’s capital with our list of the best places to visit in Colombo.
- Lotus Tower
One of the coolest (and highest) places to visit in Colombo is also one of the city’s newest things to do. The Colombo Lotus Tower is South Asia’s tallest freestanding structure (368 meters/1,168 feet), and a trip to the top rewards visitors with unobstructed views across Colombo and the surrounding cityscape and sea.
The tower, which houses a lot of telecommunications equipment, has a telecom museum, a shopping mall (at the base), a revolving fine dining restaurant, and indoor and outdoor observation areas. The tower is also a sight to see from the outside – it’s covered in LED lighting and presents seasonal-themed lighting displays each night.
The Lotus Tower, designed to replicate a lotus bulb and flower, simultaneously represents the historic culture of the country and its focus on the future.
- National Museum of Colombo
The National Museum of Colombo, also called the Sri Lanka National Museum, is the official museum of Sri Lanka and takes you on a journey over the thousands of years of Sri Lankan culture. It’s one of those museums that have multiple types of media, from artwork to artifacts, as well as clothing, jewelry, coins, arms, and craftwork. The displays show both the cultural and natural heritage of the country, presented chronologically, starting with pre-history and leading to the present day.
Give yourself a few hours to fully explore the collections. The museum is housed in a grand Victorian colonial building in central Colombo near Viharamahadevi Park.
- Sri Lanka Planetarium
Sri Lanka’s first (and only) planetarium can be a fascinating way to escape the hot sun. The planetarium is located at the University of Colombo. There’s a public entrance across from Independence Square. The large auditorium has 570 seats with a domed ceiling, and the night sky and its constellations are projected onto it.
Aside from the exhibits and programming, the structure itself is architecturally striking and a must-do for Instagram. The lotus flower design shares elements with iconic modernist cathedrals in Liverpool, England, and Brazil.
The Sri Lanka Planetarium is open from 8 am to 4 pm every day except Mondays. Shows are presented at 10 am and 2 pm and tickets are less than $1.
- Viharamahadevi Park
This giant green space is Colombo’s Central Park (and one of its only large open-space areas) and provides areas to relax and enjoy (or escape from) the sunshine. The are many fountains in the park, as well as a small zoo. Kids will enjoy the playground. You can visit the Cenotaph (war memorial statue), as well as the national library, both of which are located in the park.
The park is also home to a large, 15-foot-tall Buddha statue, the largest cast brass Buddha statue in the country. Now named for one of the country’s ancient queens, the park was formerly called Victoria Park. Viharamahadevi Park sits between the National Museum of Colombo and City Hall.
- National Zoological Gardens of Sri Lanka
The city’s large Colombo Zoo is located in the Dehiwala area. More than just animals in cages, the zoo focuses on education, as well as animal conservation and welfare. One of the oldest zoos in Asia, it’s home to almost 3,000 different animals of all shapes and sizes. The zoo has daily demonstrations with keepers of various animals.
The zoo is open seven days a week, from 8:30 am to 6 pm. In addition to the urban zoo in Dehiwala, about two hours outside of Colombo, in Pinnawala, there is a larger wildlife park and an elephant sanctuary, both operated by the Department of Zoological Gardens.
- Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksa Theatre
This large, modern performing arts complex hosts a wide range of music, dance, and cultural performances. It was recently renamed for the country’s former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa. Like many other things in Sri Lanka, the design is intentionally reminiscent of a lotus flower.
Programing includes symphony performances and opera (Chinese, Sri Lankan, and Western). They also do modern pop concerts. Performances are given in the main auditorium or the open-air amphitheater. The theater is in central Colombo, across from Viharamahadevi Park.
The theater’s schedule can be viewed online, and tickets can be purchased online as well. It’s a cool place to visit in Colombo because regardless of what you go to see, you’ll find yourself surrounded by locals.
- Mount Lavinia Beach
Sri Lanka’s main beach resort town, Mount Lavinia is a suburb of Colombo. There are many hotels here, and it can be a good alternative to staying in the city. It’s an easy 30-minute drive from downtown Colombo (or a 15-minute train ride) and a fun way to spend an afternoon or a few days. The main stretch of beach is known as the Golden Mile, and it’s filled with tourist-focused businesses, as well as an active nightlife scene. Mount Lavinia has also become popular as an LGBTIQA+-friendly area, hosting an annual Pride-themed Rainbow Kite Festival.
The beach is not a protected bay, so the water can be very rough during certain times of the year. Use caution when swimming. There are some very nice restaurants along the beachfront promenade, and the beach itself is filled with vendors selling everything from food to bathing suits. If you stay at the beach past 6 pm, you’ll be rewarded with an incredible sunset view.
- National Museum of Natural History
Located right near the Colombo National Museum, across from Viharamahadevi Park in central Colombo, the National Museum of Natural History showcases the country’s incredible natural history.
Plants, insects, fish, amphibians, and animals are displayed, exclusively those that are endemic to the country. Many rare animals shown are threatened with extinction. Aside from plants, there are many displays of rocks and minerals, also those that are native to the island.
In addition to the animals and plants, there are skeletons and fossils of ancient and extinct creatures including dinosaurs. The museum is a great tourist experience for families and kids.
- Gangaramaya Temple
This Buddhist temple complex was constructed in the late 19th century. The temple is a place of worship but also looks to educate people about Buddhism. It’s also like a museum, as it showcases a lot of physical items, from jewelry to coins and even a vintage Rolls-Royce.
You can also view the temple’s most sacred religious relic, a lock of the Buddha’s hair, as well as a sacred tree around which the temple was built. Visit during the February full moon (called “Poya”) to see the Gangaramaya Temple’s annual colorful religious ceremony, which includes a procession led by the temple’s elephant.
The temple complex is in central Colombo not far from Bere Lake.
- Excel World Entertainment Park
If you have kids and you’re visiting Colombo, this tiny amusement center needs to be on your itinerary. It’s a fun local experience with a shopping mall, a few rides, a bowling alley, an arcade, and a food court. There’s also a movie theater (showing Western and Bollywood films). The bowling alley is especially popular, as it’s the only one in Colombo.
Things to do at the park include laser tag, a carousel, bumper cars, and a bounce house. If you visit during December, the mall is known for bringing in snow to create an indoor winter wonderland called Snow World. It’s the only place in Sri Lanka to celebrate a White Christmas, complete with Santa Claus.
Excel World is right next to Beira Lake.
- Galle Face Green
This large, oceanfront park area is where many Sri Lankans go to play on the beach. The park is between Galle Road and the Indian Ocean, right in the heart of Colombo next to the Fort area.
It’s the largest open space in the city and has 500 meters of beach, along with a beachfront promenade filled with vendors. Colombo’s hot sunshine means this is also a popular area for night fun – Saturday and Sunday nights are the best times to visit.
You can wade in the water, picnic on the beach, or fly a kite in the ever-present wind. It’s a fun place for families, and it’s also good for running.
- Colombo Dutch Museum
Colombo’s colonial history (it’s been a British, Dutch, and Portuguese colony at different times) contributes so much to its current culture. You can learn all about the Dutch influence and history of the island at the Colombo Dutch Museum. The collection includes artifacts, artwork, and furniture, as well as arms and militaria. There is information in English.
The museum building was built in the late 17th century as the official residence of the Dutch governor. The collection highlights the almost 200-year history of Dutch control of the island’s coastal areas, from 1640 to 1796. The island, then known as Ceylon, served as a key stop in Holland’s world trade, as it sat on one of the important east-west shipping routes of the country’s Dutch East India Company.
- Pettah Floating Market
Starting around the year 2000, this formerly industrial area of Colombo was redeveloped into a thriving floating market with almost 100 vendors. Pettah is in central Colombo, about a five-minute drive from Fort.
The floating market is along a canal, lined with sidewalks and wooden boardwalks. They both line and cross the canal, making it a fun area for shopping, strolling, and people-watching. There is great street food here as well. It’s also a fruit and vegetable market. You can buy clothes, crafts, jewelry, and even electronics like phones.
Pettah Floating Market is open from 8 am to 8 pm; sunset is a great time to visit and for photos (about 5 pm).
- Red Mosque
While you’re in the Pettah area, visit the city’s incredible Red Mosque, known formally as the Jami Ul-Alfar Masjid. It was built in the early part of the 20th century and makes quite a statement with its red and white stone minarets, topped with onion- and pomegranate-shaped domes. They tower over the area, and the domes give the building an almost Russian feel to it, architecturally. The style is called “Indo-Saracenic.”
The mosque is near the port, and its contrasting red and white colors made it a visual landmark for arriving ships. It’s especially interesting, as the red and white bricks are arranged in different patterns. Some swirl, some spiral, and other areas have alternating colors with a near optical illusional effect.
Visitors, both men, and women are welcome to visit the mosque.
- Kanatte General Cemetery
Cemeteries can be interesting places to visit, as they permanently document the local culture. Kanatte is the city’s main cemetery and was opened in the mid-19th century. It has a fascinating mix of memorials, representing all religions and beliefs. Each has its section, and each has its style of physical memorial.
The cemetery is also a popular place to visit for science fiction fans, as it’s the final resting place of iconic sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey). Clarke was born in Sri Lanka when it was a British colony and later retired here.
The cemetery is in the Borella area, just south and east of central Colombo.
- Bere Lake
Another one of Colombo’s most popular places to picnic, relax, and go boating or running is Bere Lake. This man-made lake (not to be confused with its larger neighbor, Beira Lake) is surrounded by a lot of green space, yet it’s right in the middle of the city.
The area is also filled with jogging paths, and it’s a great place for running and biking. There are swan boats you can rent and paddle your way around the lake. There are some snack shops and a floating, fine dining restaurant. The restaurant is on a boat and floats around during a dinner cruise.
Bere Lake has its island (connected by a suspension footbridge). The island is a popular spot for couples to take romantic walks. Elsewhere in the lake, there’s a small Buddhist temple (Gangarama Seema Malaka) set into the water on several piers. The lake is a great location to take photos, especially at night. You have a beautiful, outdoor environment with the skyline of Colombo as the backdrop.
- National Railway Museum
Train buffs and trainspotters will want to visit this open-air museum in Central Colombo, near the city’s main Maradana Railway Station. While there is a larger railway museum in Kadugannawa, near Kandy, the one in Colombo has a respectable collection of carriages, rolling stock, and locomotives, including many steam engines.