Colombo travel guide
Sri Lanka's capital is a vibrant and interesting collage of cultural and historical influences with some very pretty neighbourhoods. This bustling city is built along the coast and is close to many of the country's greatest holiday destinations, including Galle on the southern coast, and Kandy in the central highlands. Colombo is not generally considered a destination in its own right, but it is the starting point for most holidays in Sri Lanka and has some worthy attractions.
Frenetic traffic fills the main Galle Road that runs through the city from the district of Fort, parallel with the coast, and connects all the suburban enclaves down to the town of Galle in the south. Fort is the historic centre of the city and has become the main business district, filled with shops, office blocks and government buildings. It is here that most of the gracious old buildings from the Dutch, Portuguese and British colonial eras can be seen. East of Fort is the exciting Pettah bazaar district, where the streets are crammed with shops and stalls selling all manner of goods from vegetables to gemstones.
Further south the city's seafront is known as Galle Face Green, where locals enjoy games of cricket, fly kites or take evening strolls watching the sunset. Beyond this lies Colombo's upmarket Cinammon Gardens neighbourhood, boasting elegant mansions, tree-lined streets and the lovely Viharamaha Devi Park. The closest beach resort to Colombo is Mount Lavinia, about six miles (10km) from the city.
Colombo National Museum
The dual museums are a good introduction for visitors interested in discovering the culture and history of the island. Photographs are allowed in the National Museum, but only if you pay a small extra fee for a photography permit. There is a cafe and a craft shop in the museum grounds as well.
Address: Sir Marcus Fernando Mawatha, Colombo
Note: Beware of pickpockets!
Colombo Zoological Gardens
Nevertheless, families travelling with children should enjoy the zoo if they have a few hours to kill in Colombo. The zoo is extremely popular with locals and it is a good idea to get there early in the morning to avoid the crowds and to see the zoo at its cleanest and best.
Most who holiday in Colombo do so for a short time on their way to or from one of the beautiful Sri Lankan beach resorts, because the capital city with its frenetic traffic and general chaos is a little too much for most to handle. Colombo is, however, worth a look, offering colour and some interesting attractions, like the national museum, the Pettah bazaar and some lovely temples. People who travel to Colombo also enjoy the Galle seafront and delicious local cuisine.
Colombo is home to some fascinating places of worship - Buddhist, Christian and Hindu. The Seema Malaka Temple, in the middle of the lovely Beira Lake, is a tranquil place where visitors feel as though they are far removed from the rowdiness of the city. The Isipathanaramaya Temple is another Buddhist gem in Colombo, feeling part museum and part temple. St Anthony's Church is a firm favourite with Christian locals, who believe that the saint answers all prayers made in the church. The old Dutch Wolvendaal Church, though in need of some external maintenance, is full of history, with some interesting Dutch grave stones.
No matter what time of year you choose to travel to Colombo the weather will be hot and humid. It is probably wisest to avoid the monsoon rains, however: these happen between May and August, and October and January.
Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage
The admission costs go entirely towards maintenance of the sanctuary and feeding the animals and most reports conclude that the elephants are well cared for - they certainly seem happy as they cavort in the river!
Address: Rambukkana Road, Kegalla
Whether you believe the footprint to be holy or not the climb to view it, protected in an enclosure at the pinnacle of the peak, is well worth it for the panoramic views of tropical forest afforded from the top. The stairway up the mountainside is believed to be the longest in the world and climbers are entitled to ring the bell situated at the top once they have made the journey. It is particularly special to climb the peak for sunrise, which requires beginning the climb at about 1am (depending on the month and time of sunrise). Soon after dawn, the rising sun casts a perfect triangular shadow of the mountain across the surrounding landscape. Many smaller peaks rise out of the dense jungle far below and watching the beautiful landscape reveal itself is a profound experience.
Among the sights to visit is Fort Frederick, built by the Portuguese, and Wellington House, once home to the Duke of Wellington. The Koneswaram Temple (or Thirukonamalai Konesar Temple), at Swami Rock, is an important medieval Hindu temple complex in Trincomalee.
Horton Plains National Park and Worlds End
The most popular tourist attraction in Horton Plains National Park is World's End, a sheer precipice with a 2,850-foot (870m) drop at the southern boundary of the park. From the top of the cliff, visitors have a spectacular view of the surrounding hills which extends as far as the Indian Ocean, dozens of miles away, on clear days. The hike to World's End is 6.2 miles (10km) and takes roughly three hours. Visitors should note that from 9am to 10am there is usually a thick blanket of mist over the valleys that totally obscures the view from the cliff, and the best time to see World's End is early in the morning. The path can be crowded on weekends, when large groups of tourists tend to scare away any wildlife in the area.
Navam Perahera National Day
Dancers and drummers from around the country join together to take part in a magnificent procession of more than a hundred beautifully and elaborately decorated elephants, beginning at the Gangaramaya Vihara Temple, which organises the event, and proceeding around Viharamahadevi Park and the lovely South Beira Lake in Colombo. The festival, which takes place at night, under the full moon, attracts more than a million spectators every year and is popular with locals and tourists. Although not quite the kind of event that people plan international trips for, those travellers in Sri Lanka in February would do well to work this fun and colourful traditional celebration into their itinerary.
Venue: Gangaramaya Vihara Temple, Colombo; Date:February/March 2017 TBC;
Bandaranaike International Airport
Location: The airport is situated 20 miles (32km) from the city of Colombo.
Time: GMT +5.30
Contacts: Tel: +940 (0)11 225 2861.
Getting to the city: Most hotels and tour operators offer transport from the airport; if possible confirm in advance. Buses and taxis are available, and there is a train station close to the airport, but visitors are advised to arrange their own transportation.
Car rental: Cars can be hired with a driver through most tour operators, otherwise there are several car rental agencies such as Abans and Nambo available.
Facilities: Facilities at the airport include a bank, post office, business lounge, restaurants, snack bars, a bar and a duty-free shop.
Parking: There are two main parking lots at Colombo Bandaranaike Airport: the terminal lot is more expensive, while the remote lot, located 300 metres from the terminal, charges substantially less. There are additional charges for vans, double cabs and jeeps.
Departure tax: None.
Colombo enjoys a tropical monsoon climate, with weather that stays evenly hot and humid throughout the year, and no distinct seasons according to temperature. There are, however, two rainy seasons, with heavy monsoon rains occurring between May and August, and again between October and December. During the rainy seasons humidity is higher, making it seem hotter. Rain is possible in Colombo all year, but outside of the monsoon seasons it is not disruptive. The wettest months are May, October and November.
The average temperatures year round in Colombo range between 75°F (24°C) and 87°F (31°C), but the temperatures can rise as high as 97°F (36°C) and this heat is compounded by humidity. Luckily, the city has plenty of water to help cool down visitors, including the ocean, the Kelani River, which borders the city to the north and northeast, numerous canals, and the huge Beira Lake in the heart of the city.
The best time to visit Colombo is any time outside of the rainy seasons: in September, or between January and April. Go prepared for the heat with light cotton clothing, hats, and plenty of sunscreen.
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