1 Day In Colombo in Style: The Best Of The Sri Lankan Capital in 24 Hours
Written by Jaillan Yehia
You may be thinking of spending 1 day in Colombo on your trip to Sri Lanka, but aren’t sure if the capital city has enough to offer to make it worth your precious holiday time (the answer is a resounding YES!).
Perhaps you’re a city break fan and have decided you want to experience the frenetic buzz of Colombo at the start or end of your Sri Lanka trip – after all this major Asian metropolis is home to the country’s international airport so it’s an opportunity to tick another city off your list, right?
What’s more, if you miss out on Colombo’s unique style and pace, you’ll only learn half the story when it comes to getting under the skin of modern day Sri Lanka.
While there are a few other guides to spending 24 hours in Colombo, they are mainly lists of the key historical, religious and political sites, which you can rush around and see during a 1 day stay in Colombo.
What makes this guide different is that it’s designed to give you everything you need for a short chic city break in Colombo, highlighting a handful of cool places.
If you want to enjoy a great day of local shopping, trendy eateries, rooftop pools and spa pampering, and leave Colombo feeling relaxed yet invigorated, this is the guide for you. If you want a checklist of boring museums, backpacker hangouts or $1 roti joints, you’re in the wrong place!
I know you can’t see all the sights of any capital city in 1 day, so I’ve concentrated on helping you replicate what I did on my own short break in Colombo (on my second visit, in October 2018) which means seeing and doing a lot but not feeling rushed.
If you want to treat Colombo like a hip city break and have some fun in an infectiously energetic urban setting, read on…
Why Add 1 Day in Colombo To Your Sri Lanka Itinerary?
Let’s face it, nobody books a holiday to Sri Lanka just to visit Colombo.
The South East Asian island’s main tourist draws are of the unspoiled, natural variety, and it can be hard for its sprawling, congested capital to compete with tropical beaches, exotic spice plantations, atmospheric temples and leopard-filled national parks.
There are a good few urban style spots around the island, most in touristy areas such as Weligama and Galle, but Colombo is the capital after all. So it would be a big mistake to write-off Colombo, especially now.
The colonial city is having a moment and is set to double in size thanks to a billion-dollar modernization project that will bring massive change.
If you love exploring unique and vibrant cities, and have a passion for shopping, restaurants and spas, make sure Colombo is on your list, even if just for 1 day. I can promise you it will be a memorable, fun and frenetic 24 hours.
What You Need To Know Before You Arrive in Colombo
Getting to Know Colombo’s Districts
Colombo is divided up into 15 numbered districts. A little like London, the smaller numbers roughly translate as being closer to the centre, and as a tourist in Colombo for 1 day you’ll probably see some of Colombo 1 (Fort) and 2 to 5, as well as the fashionable Colombo 7 (also known as Cinnamon Gardens) which is where I recommend you base yourself.
Using A Sri Lankan Sim Card in Colombo
If you’re tacking a day in Colombo onto the end of your Sri Lanka itinerary you will already (I hope) have a local sim card in your phone and be enjoying those ultra cheap data packages and hailing tuk-tuks via an app like a local. If you’re heading straight for Colombo, here’s what you need to know.
Go into any phone shop and get a local SIM card – the network you want is Dialog. Calls are cheap so you can top up with just a few rupees but be sure to add a dedicated data package – for a few pounds I got more than my usual data allowance in the UK, though the data is separated into peak and off-peak use (so a bit like Economy 7; they encourage you to use it during the night).
Prices at the time of my visit were 199 Rupees for 1GB, 649 Rupees for 4GB and 949 Rupees (about £4) for 7GB.
UK network Three includes Sri Lanka in its list of countries where you can roam like home, which is a bonus.
Transport in Colombo: How To Get Around During Your 1 Day in Colombo Layover
However you might be getting around Sri Lanka during the rest of your trip, you’ll definitely want to download the Pick Me app to make your 1 day in Colombo as convenient as possible.
Pick Me is the Sri Lankan version of Uber (Uber is also available here, but locals say it is a little more expensive).
The best thing about Pick Me for a single day in Colombo is that you can choose from various classes of car, including tuk-tuks.
This means you can book a larger vehicle to go to and from Bandaranaike International Airport with your luggage, but on short city hops you have less chance of waiting around, as you can utilise Colombo’s vast network of tuk-tuks.
There is an airport express bus, but there have been reports of it being unreliable, and with private transport available so cheaply, combined with a lot of traffic on the route, I’d give the stress of this option a hard pass when there’s a long haul flight at stake.
SavoirThere Tip: I loved using Pick Me during my time in Sri Lanka – it’s reliable and it’s good value, and the drivers are usually just a few minutes away. Once I decided to test out hailing a tuk-tuk without it and the driver quoted a price which was somewhat above the rate I saw on PickMe. I didn’t bypass the app again.
Stylish Things To Include On Your ‘1 Day In Colombo Shortlist’
There was a time when most tourists to Sri Lanka avoided Colombo, and frankly a few years ago the city did not measure up to the high standards set by other Asian hubs, but now there are plenty of hipster hangouts and interesting things to do, and certainly enough stylish and discerning options to keep you entertained for just 1 day.
I’ve covered shops, spas, restaurants and a couple of cafes, plus a few other ideas, and would suggest you jump in a tuk-tuk and get exploring.
1 Day in Colombo: Where To Shop
Colombo is hands-down the best place to buy a better class of Sri Lankan souvenirs. Plus there’s exciting discount shopping on big name European and UK high street fashion goods at The Factory Outlet, and a sustainable produce store reminiscent of Wholefoods, called the Good Market.
You can stock up on local specialties, from handicrafts to Ayurvedic lotions, and grab gorgeous goodies to take home. You might also want to buy ingredients to recreate the country’s signature cuisine, from coconut sambal and treacle to those yummy hoppers.
You can also try shopping in Arcade Independence Square, or Liberty Plaza and branches of Odel plus Pettah Market for a more local experience.
Barefoot at Galle Road & The Dutch Fort Hospital
Barefoot is probably Sri Lanka’s most well-known arty destination – encompassing a store, bookshop, gallery, cafe, and performance space. There are two branches to visit in Colombo; an outpost at the Dutch Fort Hospital as well as the flagship original store in Galle Road which is based in an atmospheric 1920’s townhouse and has the gallery and cafe.
There’s no shortage of high quality shopping inspiration here – the place is packed to the rafters with colourful, cool Sri Lankan inspired design, and the homewares are hard to turn down. Some of the items are pricey but there are lovely things to take home which won’t break the bank: I left with ladles costing less than £2 a piece.
If you prefer your purchases to be of an ethical and handmade variety then jump in a tuk-tuk and head to Lakpahana Handicrafts. The largest craft producer in Sri Lanka has been going for 40 years and at this Colombo outpost you’re bound to find something beautiful which you’ll genuinely love; there’s a selection of a whopping 15,000 products including jewellery, wood carving, batiks and masks, as well as embroidered items.
As part of the Sri Lanka Craftsmen and Artisans Association, Lakpahana employs over 500 artisans to help preserve Sri Lanka’s creative traditions and it has the World Crafts Council and the Unesco seal of approval.
SavoirThere Tip: I found the selection of hand woven reed items to be great value and also very lightweight, so no worries about baggage allowances with these gifts. I picked up a reed dinner tray for myself for about £2.60.
For an above average take on standard souvenirs Sri Lankan style, stop in at cute boutique LUV SL. There’s a great selection of all the classics like keyrings, mugs, T-shirts and Ceylon tea, all done in a young, colourful and casual style, created by the well-established Sri Lankan brand Odel.
SavoirThere Tip: There is a branch at the airport but the selection isn’t as good and prices are higher. Stock up in Colombo.
The Factory Outlet
You probably won’t be expecting to come home from Sri Lanka with a new wardrobe of items by well-known high street labels but after a visit to The Factory Outlet you may well be making space in your suitcase for bargain bits from the likes of Next, Geox, Levis and Gap.
This spotless and modern two-floor discount retail outlet has heavily discounted menswear, womenswear, childrenswear, shoes, accessories and toys, and is great place to pick up some new summer clothes, whether you’re headed back home or into Sri Lanka after your day in Colombo.
SavoirThere Tip: There are 5 branches of The Factory Outlet in Sri Lanka, but only one in Colombo, in district 5. I bagged some branded tops for about £5 a piece as well as a pair of billowy lightweight trousers which ticked the boxes for travelling.
Where To Eat If You Have Only 1 Day in Colombo
Trendy Lunch Spot: Calorie Counter
Walk into a branch of Calorie Counter and you could forgiven for thinking you’re in any health conscious city around the world – young professionals, some still wearing their gym gear, mingle with young couples and Macbook wielding single diners, who are eating their personalised choice of salads, smoothies and wraps, with all proteins cooked on the grill for extra health points.
If you’ve tired of Sri Lanka’s delicious cuisine and fancy something more westernised or if you’ve over-indulged in rich food, this relaxed millennial-focused menu is a real find.
Socially Responsible Coffee Stop: The Good Market
When you’re ready to stop for a coffee or a juice and want to take a break from the streets of Colombo you can head to a branch of The Coffee Bean or you can do your bit to support a community-driven cafe, The Good Market.
There’s friendly staff and a pleasant urban garden setting, and you can pick up baked goods, sandwiches and snacks and maybe even some packaged items to take home.
SavoirThere Tip: Both Kamara Spa and Lakpahana Handicrafts are a few moments walk from the Good market shop, and if your day in Colombo happens to be on a Saturday it will coincide with the weekly Saturday market.
Cracking Dinner Date: Ministry of Crab at the Dutch Hospital
Complete your Colombo odyssey with a lip-smacking seafood supper at what has been consistently voted one of the best restaurants in Asia, and indeed the world: Ministry of Crab.
The reputation of this crab restaurant on the local food scene cannot be overstated, and it’s well worth going for the theatre as well as the eats. That’s because while the food is fine dining friendly, the kitchen is open, the setting is lively and the finishing touches are firmly tongue-in-cheek.
Crustaceans are locally caught and ordered by weight (by the end of the night only larger ‘OMG’ size, or perhaps the ‘Crabzilla’ is likely to be left) and then served simply with chilli, pepper, garlic and butter leaving the meat to speak for itself.
Sides are all yummy, portions are plentiful and if all else fails you’ll have a good laugh at your dining companion wearing their ‘keep calm and crab on’ bib.
Where To Buy Groceries In Colombo
OK I have to ‘fess up here: I love a foreign supermarket. Browsing those aisles is endlessly interesting and I always try to get food ingredients to bring home with me.
I lucked out in Colombo because I could see a branch of Food City, my favourite of Sri Lanka’s supermarkets, from my hotel room window. In fact my room at Jetwing Colombo Seven was opposite the supermarket I wanted to hit up, and next door to the place I wanted to get a healthy lunch, so I couldn’t have been happier, as with just 1 day in Colombo I was on a strict time crunch!
You’ll no doubt find your own list of foods to fall in love wth in Sri Lanka, but I stocked up on kitchen ingredients like red rice (it helps you lose weight, sold!), sambal, spices, treacle, hopper mix and ceylon tea. I also found some some pharmacy beauty products which turned out to be terrific.
Spas to Unwind in on Your 1 Day in Colombo
The Frangipani Spa
Located inside the Colombo Seven Hotel (in the swankiest neighbourhood in Colombo) Frangipani Spa specialises in wellness and beauty and is the perfect place to squeeze in that last little bit of me time before you board your flight home. Or recover from your jetlag ready for your big trip.
Offering a range of face and body treatments, from massages and scrubs to facials and wraps, the spa also offers day packages and jet lag therapy. You can also get manicures and pedicures to leave you looking as well as feeling your best.
The Frangipani Spa has long opening hours to suit you if you’re trying to fit as much as possible into your day in Colombo (it’s open 9am-9pm) and staff are incredibly friendly and helpful, while the atmosphere is calming and welcoming.
SavoirThere Tip: After having an individual massage I was so impressed that I booked another massage for the next day and made it a couples massage. This was my partner’s first massage ever and he found it so relaxing that he fell asleep! It’s easy to feel nervous about getting massages in Asia but everything was handled so professionally and the facilities are modern, plush and luxurious.
Kemara Natural & Organic Spa
It doesn’t take long to notice that Sri Lanka has its own system of herbal medicine called Ayurveda, and a lot of the principles of this is used in cosmetics, soaps and creams which you’ll find on your travels here.
The Kemara Spa has an incredibly enticing selection of lotions and potions, all of which are made using natural and organic quality ingredients and which feel and smell divine. Prices are on par with what you would pay in Europe or North America for premium spa lines, but you’ll find special Sri Lankan ingredients which are proven to work wonders, like King Coconut and Gotukola which you’d struggle to track down back home.
As well as their signature range of hair, face and body products which have a great reputation, there’s a large spa in Colombo where you can check in for an exhaustive selection of hands on treatments, including a full range of men’s facials.
Other Key Colombo Sights
If you want to add some more iconic Sri Lankan stops into your Colombo itinerary, can take your pick from key Colombo sights, like the National Museum, Gangaramaya Temple or the Bawa designed Parliament Building.
Geoffrey Bawa was the country’s most famous and celebrated architect, and though he studied in England he moved back to Sri Lanka where he invented a an architectural style called tropical modernism. As well as Colombo’s Parliament, Bawa sites are all over Sri Lanka including the luxurious hotel The Anantara Kalutara and his countryside estate near Bentota: Lunuganga.
If you have 1 day in Colombo & Want To Sleep In Style
A fast-expanding luxury hotel scene is a sign of a city on the up and at Jetwing’s fairly new Colombo boutique hotel that can be taken quite literally: after your day exploring the capital you can ascend to the rooftop bar for a sophisticated sundowner overlooking the infinity pool.
If you only have 1 day in Colombo and are staying for a night (or two), this deluxe hotel makes the perfect base from which to experience the best of the Sri Lankan capital.
The hotel’s location is in the upmarket Colombo 7 district is ideal, the decor is understated yet fashionable, and the service is the right mix of Sri Lankan hospitality and city-paced efficiency.
The hotel does a great breakfast buffet to start your day off the right way, and is also next door to a healthy lunch spot and right opposite a supermarket for last minute souvenirs.
Jetwing also happens to be Sri Lanka’s leading luxury hotel group, with around 30 properties across the island, and the company’s respected environmental endeavours do far more than pay lip-service to sustainability – meaning you can enjoy all of the benefits of a 5 Star hotel while feeling confident that you’re doing your bit for the planet.
A brilliant blend of modern luxury and convenience, this hotel has everything you need to make your stay in Colombo the best part of your trip – and in a country like Sri Lanka that’s saying something.
SavoirThere Tip: Jetwing Colombo Seven has everything I’d look for in a city hotel, and you really feel like you’re living the highlife, yet the cost is very affordable – It costs around £88 to call this swanky pad in Colombo home for the night.
Loved Sri Lanka? Get A Permanent Reminder at Soul Ink Studio, Colombo 5
Not everyone will have the time or inclination to add this one to their ‘must do in Colombo’ list but if you’re considering a tattoo anyway, or want to add to your collection, then Colombo could be the place to get inked.
The combination of Sri Lanka’s homegrown talented artists, as well as the competitive currency, plus the excitement of getting a tattoo while on vacation in a place you love, makes this worth investigating. But this isn’t something that should be even considered without a lot of research.
I did a vast amount of research and found that of all the most respected tattoo artists in Sri Lanka, 90% are located in and around Colombo, especially Mount Lavinia and Ja-Ela. After a lot of consultation with various artists including one outside Colombo, I spent part of my 1 day in Colombo at Soul Ink Studio, in Colombo 5, getting two micro tattoos by Rowena, while my partner got a slightly larger piece.
So if you’re really looking for a way to make your day in Colombo count and you want the ultimate reminder of your time in Sri Lanka you could always consider doing the same.
Don’t spend your final night in Sri Lanka at the beach resort of Negombo like the less-adventurous tourists, choose Colombo to experience a total change of pace – and immerse yourself in the contradictions and complexities of modern day Sri Lanka.
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