The main reason we went to Sri Lanka (28 Nov – 5 Dec) was to visit Alex’s cousin Matt and his family. It was great to see Matt again and wonderful to meet his wife and absolutely adorable son. Then as luck would have it we also got to meet their brand new daughter who arrived three weeks early! We spent most of our time in the country relaxing and hanging out at Matt’s place in Colombo but we also did some sightseeing around town and spent a few days down south to see more of the country.
Things to do in Colombo
- Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple. Entry is 125 rupees, shoes off, and your knees and shoulders needs to be covered to enter but it’s a fascinating place to visit. It’s a fully functioning temple with people at prayer but the sprawling complex feels more like a museum, chock full of random items that have been donated including statues, ivory, old cars, piles of coins and rusted locks, old bank notes, old radios, old printing presses… even a live baby elephant.
- Simamalaka shrine. Also part of the Gangaramaya complex but situated nearby on an island in Beira Lake. It’s particularly picturesque lit up at night.
- Viharamahadevi Park. We didn’t get a chance to visit this park but Matt recommended it and it’s near the temple and shrine mentioned above.
- The park is also just north of the National Museum, National Museum of Natural History and National Art Gallery. We didn’t make it to these either but the National Museum is supposed to be very good and I believe the National Art Gallery is free.
- Barefoot. A big, lovely shop full of great gift ideas including tea, clothes, books, beauty products, homewares and handmade linen toys. They also have a nice cafe out the back.
- Gallery Cafe. A beautiful restaurant housed in the former offices of the late Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa. You walk through a small gallery to reach the main restaurant area and a nice gift shop is attached as well.
- Geoffrey Bawa’s Colombo residence itself is also open to the public and available for tours. I’m afraid this is another lovely thing that we didn’t get around to doing in Colombo but you shouldn’t miss out if you’re there!
- Go for a walk along Galle Face Green. It’s lined with old cannons, food stalls and locals taking a stroll along this seaside promenade.
- Galle Face Hotel. Even if you’re not staying at this illustrious establishment at the southern end of Galle Face Green you can visit the very pleasant outdoor bar out the back by the water for a drink. It’s an oasis of calm and has received praise from endless famous international visitors… but at the same time it’s a little bit unreal. You won’t find any locals here.
On Matt’s suggestion we took a couple of days off to visit Hikkaduwa in the south. We stayed at Hikkaduwa Nature Resort which is tucked away in a mangrove swamp on the edge of a lake and very peaceful. It’s a great place just to sit and do nothing but read, drink from king coconuts and watch monitor lizards swim by.
We stayed in one of the three water bungalows. The staff went out of their way to make sure we had a good time but there were a couple of aspects about the room pricing that were not quite right. When we booked the options were for BB, HB or FB (bed & breakfast, half or full board) and my advice would be just to book BB. It’s significantly more expensive to book additional board and you end up choosing the included meals from a menu that plainly shows it would have been cheaper just to buy them. Also, they recently added air conditioning to the biggest bungalow but it’s noisy, you can’t control the temperature and you can’t really use it at night because it shorts out the site’s power supply, so it’s not worth paying extra for (request one of the two smaller bungalows).
There’s a beach a short tuktuk ride away that looked like it would have been a wonderful place to snorkel, but it’s a bit difficult to relax with a stream of people coming up to you trying to sell clothes or an overpriced boat trip or invite you to a nightclub.
Hikkaduwa is couple of hours by train from Colombo (the ride being a fun experience in itself!) and if you have the time while you’re down there you could also visit Galle which is nearby.
A few pieces of advice
It’s a familiar story: the tuktuks have fare meters but not all drivers like to use them. Before you get in, point to the meter and ask “meter?” If the driver is going to use it they’ll just switch it on straight away without a word and you can hop right in. If they start saying anything else you’re not going to be able to convince them to use it – you’ll either have to negotiate a fare or find another tuktuk (of which there are plenty).
To get to and from the airport it’s much better to book a private taxi transfer through an official company. The prices are set depending on what part of Colombo you’re travelling to but vary between different companies.
Exchange your rupees before leaving the country as few currency exchanges will touch them outside of Sri Lanka. Your last chance to do this is at the airport before you proceed to the check-in area (there are several options). If you think you may want to buy anything at the shops and eateries after this point, exchange your rupees for US dollars which are accepted by the airport shops and easily exchanged anywhere in the world. (The only place we’ve come across that will exchange SL rupees outside of SL so far is the Low Cost Carrier Terminal in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.)