Colombo, a sprawling urban area housing around three million people, is often overlooked by visitors to Sri Lanka who head for the beaches or the hills. However it is worth spending some time sightseeing here, visiting the temples and colonial buildings, and experiencing the bustling contrast to the rest of the island.
This is a multicultural city. It has been occupied by the Dutch, Portuguese and British, and each of these left their mark upon the city and its buildings. Many Muslim traders arrived during the time of the British and the Sri Lankans themselves are a mixture of Buddhists and Hindus, so that there is a profusion of places of worship from many religions.
Colombo is divided into areas, each with its own distinctive character. As you explore take time to note the contrasts: between rich and poor; different nationalities; barefoot traders and immaculately turned-out schoolchildren. Note the buildings too: imposing colonial structures in a variety of styles; temples and churches; and tiny shops and cafés nestling by grand houses. And on the road watch brightly coloured rickshaws weaving between decorated lorries and honking cars. You may also see the odd cow wandering into the road!
At the centre of the city, and near the port area, is the Fort District. Although the forts have now gone you can see the remnants of many old colonial buildings here, including the Lighthouse Clock Tower and the old Cargills department store, as well modern commercial buildings such as the World Trade Centre.
Behind the Fort Railway Station is Sri Kailasanathar Swami Devasthanam (sometimes known as the Captain’s Garden Temple). Dedicated to the gods Shiva and Ganesh, this is the oldest Hindu temple in Colombo and is visited for its elaborate carvings and vivid ceiling decorations. (Visitors are asked to remove their shoes before going inside the temple; thick socks are advisable as the floor can be very hot.)
To the east of Fort District is Pettah, also known as the bazaar district. This is a crowded and higgledy-piggledy area packed with shops and market stalls. The main landmark in Pettah is the distinctive red and white Jami-ul-Alfar Mosque.
South of Fort is Slave Island, where Portuguese and Dutch traders once kept their slaves. Today it is mainly of interest for the Buddhist and Hindu temples in the area.
The most famous of these is Gangaramaya, a Buddhist temple dating back to the 19th century. This is a traditional temple with a large courtyard surrounded by shrines and a huge modern Buddha. You may see (or rather hear) drummers by the altar, as well as worshippers lighting incense and the occasional orange-robed monk.
Less traditional is the attached museum which displays hundreds of gifts that have been presented to the temple over the years, including china and other ornaments, statues and even a number of vintage cars!
Note that shoes and hats must be removed before entering the courtyard.
The tranquil and orderly district known as Cinnamon Gardens makes a startling contrast to the rest of the city. As the name suggests, the area was once covered by cinnamon plantations, but today it is a smart residential area with colonial villas and large gardens.
The main tourist attraction is Independence Square, with its impressive Independence Hall built to a traditional Sri Lankan design and flanked by stone lions. There is a large park behind the Square.
Cinnamon Gardens is also home to the National Museum and the Natural History Museum.