Colombo: A Quick Stop in the Capital City of Sri Lanka

 

We landed in Colombo in the early morning hours at a time when the light of day was still struggling to pierce through the density of dawn. But it was fine by me. Despite the dark circles under my eyes and my blemished complexion after long sleepless flights from Montreal via Abu Dhabi, I couldn’t help but smile. I was excited to have landed in an island country which, just a few years ago, wasn’t easily accessible due to the internal conflicts between the Tamil and the Sinhalese resulting in a full-blown civil war which lasted almost three decades.

I was looking forward to our 10 days exploring the Wonder of Asia and I couldn’t wait to get started! From the airport, we took a local bus (for just a few rupees) to Colombo. The bus ride took about 35 minutes (but traffic is always a factor) dropping us off at the main bus station adjacent to a vibrant market.

And so our journey began.

 

p1010073-copy-2

 

Colombo isn’t the most desirable city in Sri Lanka. Most travelers stay overnight and then move on to the next destination. And that’s exactly what we did (mostly due to lack of time). We hadn’t booked any accommodation ahead of time but we had looked into which areas were more favorable. We wanted to be away from the frenzy and slightly seedy area of the Central Bus Station so we settled on Colpetty (Kollupitiya). We hired a trishaw to take us around the area to look for a place to stay.

Colpetty was one of the best areas in Colombo but there weren’t many options for accommodation. We asked our trishaw driver to let us off on a random street leading to the water’s edge where there were a few hotels facing the shoreline. Some were downright nasty while others were downright too expensive for our budget. After asking around, a few people told us there was an apartment for rent around the corner from where we were.

We waited patiently for the owner who spoke perfect English (like many Sri Lankans). He took us up the winding stairs to the small studio apartment. The furnishings were undeniably old-fashioned (think heavily laced curtains & bedding) but the room was well-appointed, acceptably clean and the price was reasonable (about $30USD/night) – it was perfect for our overnight stay.

 

p1010098
Our room was on the second floor of 9A 1/1

 

After finding a suitable place to stay, we headed out to find a place to eat. (Where to sleep & where to eat are always a dilemma when traveling independently – sigh). There were only a few Western fast food restaurants in proximity to where we were so, once again, we hired a trishaw driver and asked him to take us to a popular local restaurant. I didn’t know what to expect – we don’t all share the same culinary tastes and I knew nothing about Sri Lankan cuisine.

The place basically looked like a cafeteria painted bright red with outdated brass bistro chairs, 80’s-style glass-top tables and unforgiving neon lighting. The shop next door was blasting all of Shania Twain’s hits non-stop (I’m not at all a fan but I did find it quite amusing). Looking around at the establishment, doubt slowly but surely started creeping in. I started to imagine myself spending a very unpleasant night crouched over/on/around the toilet. But we moved forward nonetheless.

The (very clean) counter was filled with a variety of freshly-made dishes – fried and grilled fish, all sorts of vegetables, purées and samosas all conveniently presented and kept hot in stainless steel containers. The women behind the counter didn’t speak English but I simply used the universally-known gesture of pointing a finger to what I wanted. I ordered a plateful of different things (because, you know, variety is the spice of life) and took my first bite of Sri Lankan food. I know my plate doesn’t look very appetizing but I assure you it was delicious! I was relieved at how good everything tasted; I was starving and savored every bite!

(By the way, I didn’t get sick – yay!)

 

p1010077
Sri Lankans eat with their hands but I wasn’t ready for that…..yet!

 

Content with our meal and feeling re-energized, we headed out to explore Colombo to where we had arrived by bus that morning to the Manning Market. The market was lively with neatly stacked colorful fruits and vegetables some of which were smartly marked by price. The air was filled with Sinhalese chatter and the vibrancy of locals going about their day. The ground was muddy from the rainfall of the previous night. The rickety buses were frantically honking at us to get out of the way. This was my first impression of Sri Lanka and it instantly piqued my curiosity!

 

 

p1010088

 

p1010094

 

p1010096

 

p1010091

 

 

p1010090

 

Upon our arrival in Colombo, I noticed many billboards announcing hotels and I was astonished at how many there were – shoulder to shoulder – but in Sri Lanka these ‘hotels’ referred to convenience stores. Of course, actual hotels also bear the same name so it can be very deceiving (and confusing) if your weary head is looking for a place to rest. You can’t help but laugh at the enthusiasm (confetti included) portrayed in the ads to get you excited about buying a cream soda!

 

p1010085

 

 

Galle Face Green is a long stretch of urban park lining the Indian Ocean. Once the sun sets and the heat settles, many locals enjoy spending their nights leisurely strolling along the waterfront or to simply hang out with friends and family. Unfortunately, our short stay in Colombo meant we didn’t have enough time (or enough energy) to take in this local pastime.

 

p1010099

 

 

After a few hours’ sleep in our frilly bed, we woke up the next day excited and eager to start exploring and discovering the rest of the Wonder of Asia. And so we were off to the Fort Railway Station to hop on a train to our next destination: the sacred city of Anuradhapura!

 

p1010104

 

 

 

Read all about my travels in Sri Lanka

 

 

 

Enjoyed this post? Please pin it!

 

 

Have you been to Colombo? Any suggestions on what to see and do?

 

NEWSLETTER SIGN-UP
Travel & design inspirations straight to your inbox. Subscribe to my newsletter & never miss a post!
No spamming. Your email address will not be sold or shared.
  • megan_claire

    Looking forward to hearing more from your travels throughout Asia and the sacred city of Anuradhapura!

  • Chrysoula Manika

    Never been to Sri Lanka but Colombo looks like an interesting city to visit. I really liked the food market!

  • Annie Wicker

    Oh you are a girl after my own heart! I would totally ignore all the western food and ask to be taken to a local spot, even on the risk of it being bad!! Traveling alone can lead to some amazingly interesting experiences like this, glad you didn’t get sick 🙂

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Haha…..I don’t eat fast food at home so I definitely steer away from it when I’m traveling!

  • 2travellingsisters

    Colombo is a perfect stopover city before heading off to explore the beautiful Sri Lankan locales. The market looks like a typical Asian market, colourful and filled with fresh produce. And hahah what a great way to attract customers to convenience stores, bright billboards referring as hotels :).

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    I don’t remember what I ate but I think there was something made with chickpeas (which I really like), some spinach and eggplant (another one of my faves). I was surprised at how good the food was everywhere we ate!

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    Markets are always so entertaining – they’re one of my favorite things to visit while traveling! We were very lucky to find that apartment because accommodation in Sri Lanka can be either expensive or downright nasty.

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    You can always go back! 😉

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    I hope you make it to Sri Lanka – I tell everyone they should go! Actually we found Sri Lanka to be quite different from India – it’s much less chaotic….lol!

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    We went to Southern India after Sri Lanka and we did find some similarities. We usually find the best places when we haven’t booked in advance as we get to see (and inspect) it first hand though it can be tiring and stressful at times.

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    Sri Lanka has so much to offer – I think you should go! 😉

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    I’m glad we stayed that short time in Colombo and we don’t usually book ahead of time as we like to see the room and location first. If we arrive somewhere really late at night then we’ll play it safe and book a room beforehand.

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    We don’t usually book ahead of time as we prefer to see the place and location first. We have a system in place though – I wait somewhere safe with our backpacks while my boyfriend goes to look for accommodation. We both have the same criteria so it works out really well! 🙂

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    We always make it a point to go to the local markets and usually do end up spending hours there – they’re just so much fun and there’s always something to see!

  • I’ve never been to Colombo. All the fruit stalls make the city look so colorful. That’s so interesting that convenience stores are referred to as hotels. That would have completely thrown me off, lol.
    Thanks for sharing your time in Colombo!

  • Okay, you (and others who commented too) are making me curious about Sri Lankan food now. I love Indian food so I guess I should try Sri Lankan too. Time to search for their restaurant, if any, in Kuala Lumpur. By the way, I probably would have felt at home at the cafe with Shania Twain’s hits playing non-stop, haha!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      So you’re a fan of Shania Twain…funny! Sri Lankan food isn’t as spicy as Indian food but it was always so good and fresh wherever we ate! Let me know if you find a place in KL. 🙂

  • I love exploring cities like Colombo. The ones that aren’t especially touristy, more gritty and raw. I always have a heightened awareness and that helps me see beauty in the city where most wouldn’t. It sounds like you discovered some of the best things about Colombo!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      I also love visiting raw and gritty places that totally take me out of my comfort zone – Colombo managed to do just that! 🙂

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    Salut Aryane! Born and raised in Montreal and still living here….for now! That’s great that you’re going to Sri Lanka. We didn’t have time to go to Negombo so I can’t say anything about it. Sri Lanka is a wonderful country with wonderful people and it’s really easy to get around. I’m sure you’re going to enjoy your trip and I’m a bit envious that you’ll be there for that long (we’d love to go back)! Enjoy!

    • Cool! Je m’ennuie tellement du Québec, on n’y va pas assez souvent. Mais j’y passerai 5 semaines en septembre-octobre pour le mariage de nos meilleurs amis! 😀
      J’ai encore du mal à croire qu’on s’en va réellement en Asie, et au Sri Lanka en plus! Merci pour les bons conseils! 🙂

  • Colby

    I’ve come to find that some of the most sketchy looking places, sometimes serves the best food! That has happened to me quite a few times, and I just knew I would be holding a meeting the porcelain throne for quite a while. But, in each instance it never happened, thank goodness! So glad you had a great experience as well.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      I agree! Often times the least attractive places are the best!

  • Mmm. Sounds like an interesting decor. I love how some of the strangest looking places have great food. Always a good idea to get local tips

  • Sandy & Vyjay

    We had a brief stop over in Colombo and spent a few hours taking in the sights of the city. But we know that there is much more to Sri Lanka and would like to head back some day.

  • KyennaPepper

    Wow! The imagery in this post really made me feel like I was there. Even staying as short as you did, it seems like you got to experience a lot. This has definitely piqued my interest in Colombo.

  • I would love to visit Sri Lanka! I think the food on your plate looks really tasty and I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed it and did not get sick. Sri Lankan food is very popular here in NYC on Staten Island. It’s also interesting to know that many people in Sri Lanka speak English.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      And it’s interesting to know that Sri Lankan food is popular in NYC – who would’ve thought?! I was surprised at how well people spoke English in Sri Lanka and they’re just so friendly!

  • Paige Brown

    This doesn’t look like the picture-perfect tourist town, but that means you’re seeing the real Sri Lanka. I’m going to be visiting Sri Lanka on my next trip to Asia (starting this year) and I’ve just been so enthralled with everything I’ve seen so far. I visited a Sri Lankan temple here in the states (I studied Easter Religion in college) and I went with my professor and his wife, she’s from Sri Lanka, and I wasn’t sure what to expect from the food, but I really enjoyed it! Thanks for sharing a beautiful, honest look at the capital! Such inspiration for my future trip! Xx

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Hi Paige – I’m so glad you enjoyed my post! Traveling isn’t always about site-seeing and checking monuments off the bucket list. Sometimes the best experiences are simply to embrace the simple authenticity that is offered. That’s so great that you’ll be going to Sri Lanka especially since you studied Eastern Religion. I’m sure you’re going to love it – it’s hard not to! 🙂

  • melbtravel

    I have been wanting to go to Sri Lanka and to be honest I had not heard of Colombo. You are correct it does not look great visually but it sounds like sounds an interesting place to visit. It is nice change to read about somewhere that was not overly visually nice to look at but still a great place to go.

  • You are right, Colombo doesn’t look like the most appealing capital in the world for tourists, but hey, that’s actually the beauty of it. I had the same feelings about New Delhi and in the end had a great time there. Your visit to the market was a nice choice, I can’t believe the size of those pineapples!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Exactly, sometimes a place is great to visit if only to take in everyday life and that’s basically what we did in Colombo. We actually stayed 8 days in New Delhi and would’ve gladly stayed longer. But it was the last leg of our almost 2 months in India and we were exhausted so staying put in New Delhi was just what we needed.

  • Sonia Sahni

    I love Sri Lanka. Honestly, I feel its so similar to South India that I feel so much at home in Lanka. Did you enjoy the local food…the shopping is really good in Colombo as well!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      We started our travels in India in the South and did find some similarities but I still found Sri Lanka to be its own entity. Every time I ate in Sri Lanka I was amazed at how good it was for such simple foods! I had heard about shopping in Colombo but we were short on time. Where would you recommend shopping?

  • Aubrie Engman

    Wow Colombo looks chaotic, but fun. I will have to read your other posts about Sri Lanka because I’d love to know your opinion!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Hi Aubrie! We only spent 10 days in Sri Lanka as we were heading to India for almost 2 months but it turned out to be one of my favorite countries ever. It’s so diverse and as cliché as it sounds, the people are really friendly.

  • I thought the plateful looked pretty appetizing. Colorful for sure! Nice the driver took you somewhere that panned out. Definitely better than the fast food around. Why travel to a place and then eat American fast food. While not the most popular place to stay for awhile, at least your short time was well spent. ^^

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      I steer away from fast food even at home so the only time I go when I travel is to use the toilet because they’re usually clean and have toilet paper. 😉

  • TalesOfABackpacker

    I love markets, they give such a fabulous of local life! And you find such colourful fruits, vegetables and interesting food to taste. Its always a good idea to ask locals for recommendations too – they know best!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Locals do know best and what’s great about Sri Lanka (at least when we went 2 years ago) is that the people haven’t fallen into the whole scamming thing. The tuk-tuk drivers weren’t looking to make a buck – they just genuinely wanted to help.

  • I’ll take some of that fresh fruit myself! Looks like a great place to have a little stopover. Also, I love your “dream big” shirt, I need one of those myself 🙂

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      That ‘Dream Big’ shirt turned out to be evil….lol! For some reason, it always left a powdery substance on my arms even after washing it several times. I threw it away when I came back home but the statement still remains inspiring. 🙂

  • Clare

    I haven’t made it to Sri Lanka yet but am thinking of going next winter. I am not sure if Colombo will be on my list of places to visit as I am not a big city fan!! I guess I will probably do what you did, stay overnight before moving on 🙂

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      That’s great that you’re going to Sri Lanka – it’s such a wonderful country! I think it’s inevitable for you to go to Colombo as you’ll probably be landing there but it’s a good place to get some rest after your flights if only for a day/night before starting your journey.

  • Kristine AARSHEIM

    Haha, that cream soda ad is hilarious. Good to know that the “hotel” is in fact a supermarket. Lol. I’m sure the food was delicious. I would have eaten with my hands as it’s something I don’t really get to do that often 😀

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      I did eat with my hands after that! 🙂

  • Very helpful! I shall be following your adventures in Sri Lanka with interest as its definitely somewhere I want to visit in the future!

  • Christina Pfeiffer

    When I visited a few years ago, I was surprised at how big and busy Colombo was. I didn’t get a chance to visit the market and will have to put that on my list for next time.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      I also didn’t expect Colombo to be so hectic especially since the rest of the country is mostly laidback but it was an interesting surprise!

  • Jennifer Morrow

    The local market has such a great variety of fresh fruity and veggies! Good to know about the hotel aka convenience store, that is confusing.

  • megan_claire

    A quick stop from the sounds of it, but these can sometimes be interesting as a first glimpse into the culture of the country you’re about to experience 🙂 Haha so strange how the word hotel actually referrs to convenience stores … can definitely see how that would throw off the unwitting tourist looking for a place to stay!!

  • Such a fun read. I especially loved your photos of the market. I don’t know why, but I love photos of street markets and food. And how interesting that hotels referred to convenience stores 🙂

  • We have been wanting to travel to Sri Lanka for awhile now and just haven’t been able to make it work! Hopefully next year! It’s inevitable that we will probably be going to Colombo so this is getting me excited, especially for that food!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      You have to go to Sri Lanka! 😉

  • I’m so happy that guys drop by to this beautiful City where you have enjoyed a lot. I like the market for they have so much fruits and vegetables. The eggplant seem to be really interesting, I haven’t seen an eggplant like that. I would like to grab some of the pineapples.

  • I loved reading this!! I’ve been to Colombo twice now – once last March and once in September – but both times didn’t really take many pictures, so yours really made me smile. Based on the description and picture I think I know the exact place you were staying at! Also, isn’t Sri Lankan food the best? I went to a small eatery once and asked for what the menu stated as ‘veg curry and rice’ for the equivalent of £1.20. Bargain, I thought. The lady asked if it was for 1 and then looked concerned when I said yes. She brought it out and I totally understood why! Three different curries, a mountain of rice, samosa, these little fried aubergine things and chillies. It was like an Indian thali but three times as big. Absolutely delicious.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Glad my pics brought back some memories! The food all over Sri Lanka was delicious – I was never disappointed!

  • LC

    One of my best friends growing up was Sri Lankan and I loved going round to her house and eating curry with my hands! Utensils are overrated. Colombo looks cool – would love to make it there someday.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      I got the hang of eating with my hands after Colombo. It really does taste better than eating with utensils. 😉

  • Natalie Tanner

    What an adventure for the family! I love outdoor markets like that – piles of fruits and veggies are so pretty and the kids are always amazed at this type of ‘grocery store’! GREAT tip to know about ‘hotels’ being more like stores. I never in a million years would have guessed!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      So cool that your kids enjoy local markets! Of course actual hotels also bear the same name but it was amusing seeing all the other ‘hotel’ signs. When we first arrived in Colombo, I was astonished at all the hotels but then I realized they were convenience stores.

  • Brittany

    Your photos of Sri Lanka are so cool, they really show what Sri Lanka looks like 🙂 your blog is very informative! Keep up the great content!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Thanks Brittany – I appreciate your comment! 🙂