Don’t let anyone tell you that Colombo is not worth a visit

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Galle Face Geen, Colombo

I enjoyed Colombo much more than I thought I would. I’d read many reviews that describe Sri Lanka’s capital city as not worth a visit, and plagued by traffic congestion, noise and pollution. Sure it has some of these issues, but not worth a visit—no way. We spent a couple of days there at the start of our trip and it turned out to be a fascinating introduction to the country. What I like most about Colombo is its vibrant and diverse public spaces. The city buzzes with energy, and nowhere is this better displayed than in Pettah’s market streets and at Galle Face Green—my two favourite experiences in Colombo (and among my top memories of our entire trip).

Pettah Market

Just 24-hours into our Sri Lanka trip I had come dangerously close to being squashed by a cart loaded sky high with garlic, pinned to a wall by a psychedelically-painted produce truck and run over by Formula One-inspired tuk tuk drivers. I was having the time of my life in Pettah’s narrow shopping streets and can thank Mike for yanking me to safety on more than one occasion. I get very excited in bustling (most would say chaotic) markets. Pettah Market is the antithesis of anything we have in Vancouver and that’s probably why I like it so much.

Pettah covers several blocks adjacent to the Fort area. There’s no real entrance (that we found) but it’s easy to know that you have “arrived”. The little streets are lined with shops and stalls; a dizzying assortment of promotional signs hang above the street-level craziness, and throngs of vendors, shoppers, vehicles and carts clog the constrained spaces. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. One resident we spoke to calls it organized chaos.  

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It’s risky business taking photos in the busy Pettah Market streets

 

There are no official opening hours and commerce appears to run from early morning well into the evening. After a brief visit in the late afternoon (a very busy time) I managed to convince Mike to return again the next morning when the crowds were just slightly more tolerable. He did pretty well for someone who doesn’t quite share my passion for markets.

I had read that different streets have their own shopping specialties—jewellery, hardware, fake flowers, Ayurvedic medicines, produce…The plan had been to search out specific streets, but in the frenzy our plan was revised to aimless (and in my case, careless) sauntering. We especially enjoyed the huge produce market with many fruits and veggies that were new to us.

 

I was really surprised that in such a fast-paced, busy environment we were greeted with plenty of smiles, questions and selfie requests. It was our first taste of the famous Sri Lankan friendliness.  

Another great surprise is the profusion of religious buildings scattered through the Pettah district that represent Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian faiths. This area is apparently the most ethnically mixed place in the country. Not to be missed is the stunning Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque, which is a real eye popper with its red and white stripes. 

 

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Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque

Galle Face Green

We arrived at Galle Face Green, Colombo’s oceanside promenade, at high noon. Our guide book waxed on about this vibrant gathering place but there wasn’t a soul in sight. Crazy Canadians out in the midday sun (a perfectly normal thing to do in sun-starved Vancouver). We were set straight by a waiter at a nearby restaurant who told us to return just before sunset.

What a transformation just a few hours later! The promenade was busy with strolling families, school children and their teachers were splashing in the waves, young boys were flying kites on the sun-scorched “green” and snack vendors were doing a booming business.

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Galle Face Green and iconic Galle Face Hotel

It’s a joyous place in late afternoon when the heat has subsided (a bit) and residents come out to play and socialize. Like at Pettah, we were struck by the diversity of people. Women in hijabs, saris and skinny jeans stood side by side keeping watchful eyes on their children. 

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Cooling off at Galle Face Green

 

People-watching and photography at Galle Face Green are fun activities. We spent a long time on the pier that provides sweeping views of the promenade and beach goings-on. It’s also a great place to be somewhat unobtrusive when taking photos. 

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People-watching on the pier at Galle Face Green

We couldn’t resist a touristy end to a marvellous day with sunset cocktails at the Galle Face Hotel, an iconic heritage hotel originally built by British entrepreneurs in 1864.

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Sunset cocktails at Galle Face Hotel

Where we stayed in Colombo

While we usually like to stay in small, independent guesthouses we thought that a large, modern hotel with amenities might serve us well in a big, hot city after our long journey from Canada. The Cinnamon Red, part of the Sri Lankan-based Cinnamon Hotel Group, was just what we needed—a lovely, ultra-quiet room with good air con and a comfy King-size bed. The roof-top pool was a huge bonus and might have been the reason I managed to get Mike to Pettah Market a second time! The Cinnamon Red is  centrally located and in easy walking distance to beautiful Gangaramaya Temple (another must-see) and the picturesque Seema Malakaya Meditation Centre on South Beira Lake. 

 

 

Next posts: The beach walking paradise of Tangalla and charming UNESCO site, Galle

Categories: Sri Lanka | Tags: , , , , , | 29 Comments

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29 thoughts on “Don’t let anyone tell you that Colombo is not worth a visit

  1. Such gorgeous photos of the market! All those people do look overwhelming for those of us who don’t relish crowds but what an experience!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Happy days in Sri Lanka: Highlights of a 3 1/2 week trip | Writes of Passage

  3. Caroline, this is such a lovely post of two of our all time favorite places to go to in Colombo. We used to buy our nuts and dates at the Pettah market ~ a small store that someone recommended which always entailed a long walk through all the various open warehouses of fruits and vegetables. Galle Face green is such a lovely spot especially on weekends and at sundown. Your photographs are wonderful! Interestingly enough both Pettah market and Galle Face Green are typically populated by many Muslim families. We are not in Sri Lanka right now as you know, so we can’t help but wonder if life goes on in these areas or if there is a lull in activities. We suspect the latter, sadly.

    Peta

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    • Thank you Peta. These two places in Colombo were so captivating for both Mike and me. I can imagine how much fun it would be to poke around at Pettah on a more regular basis and find those hidden gems like your nuts and dates place. We too have been wondering what it must be like there now. I agree with you that there’s probably a lull given what we’ve been reading about the backlash against Muslims. Sad to think about this!

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  4. I have no experience in Colombo and want to visit.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Practically crying as I retrace my own steps through your words and images. You’ve done a marvelous job of showcasing the heart of the place. I adore your pictures of the Pettah market and that picture of the school children on the beach is seriously heartwarming.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Lisa. I’m glad you share my passion for these places. The photo of the school kids is one of my favourites too. There were tons of school groups on the beach that late afternoon (a Thursday I think). I don’t know if this an everyday occurrence or whether there was something special going on (I should have asked). Anyway, it was really lovely to watch them.

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  6. I think it occurs quite often. Places that were labelled as “nothing to do/see there” turn out to be very interesting, while the so-called attractions are nothing more than check-in spots. The Monalisa in the Louvre is a typical example 🙂

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    • I agree Len. There’s so much hype around many of the “must-see” places and attractions that they can sometimes fall below our expectations, especially with the crowds. We’ve had many rewarding experiences in places that get overlooked. I’m just thinking about my wonderful experience in Vientiane, Laos. Many people bypass it in their rush to see Luang Prabang. It may not have the wow factor but it was such a pleasant place to hang out for a few days.

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  7. Glad you decided to spend a few days in Colombo. It’s funny though, I remember also reading abut how congested and noisy it is, but having arrived from India, we found it quiet and peaceful with organized traffic! Funny how your perceptions can change so quickly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So true! I guess I need to get myself psyched up for the traffic in India if you thought Colombo has organized traffic. Come to think of it though, I remember traffic in Cairo, Bangkok and Phnom Penh being much worse. We had a few really crazy tuk tuk drivers in Colombo, which definitely affects my perceptions.

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  8. Your photos are amazing and with those and the narrative I felt like I was visiting right with you. What are your thoughts on travel safety following the attacks in Sri Lanka?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Sue! That’s a tough question. I read lately that the UK has updated its travel advisory and now no longer advise against all non-essential travel to Sri Lanka. It mentions that the situation remains tenuous and there is a likelihood of further incidents but that security has been stepped up. For some less risk averse travellers it may be a good time to visit—no crowds and I’m sure a very warm welcome from a country dependent on the tourism industry. I’m no expert on travel security in Sri Lanka and I think travellers need to do their homework (check with their own governments) and think carefully about the risks/rewards and how comfortable they are with this.

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      • Sounds like wise advice. I see Canada is giving the same travel suggestion. All about how much risk is tolerable for each person.

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        • Ya, it’s tricky and very individual. We had a spectacular time visiting Egypt in 2011 just a few months after the revolution but many of our friends and relatives thought we were crazy. Luckily we didn’t experience any incidents and it turned out to be such a rewarding time to be in the country.

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  9. I so enjoyed this post. Your photos are fabulous, really capturing the places you visited. And I can certainly see why you loved the Cinnamon Red. And why you loved Colombo! It’s just the kind of place I love to visit.
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Alison. I hope you get to visit Sri Lanka at some point. It has so much to offer and I’m sure you’d enjoy it. If you go, it would also be interesting to get your perspectives of travel there versus India (weren’t you just there?).

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I can see why you liked the Pettah market so much. It looks fantastic. Crowded, colorful, full of life.

    Neil Scheinin

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Neil! Pettah is definitely once of the biggest, liveliest market areas I’ve ever visited. For anyone into bustling, crazy markets I highly recommend this one.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Brian Foster

    Your pictures really capture the environment. The hustle and bustle of the streets and surrounds. I can smell the market, the sea, the streets and of course the people. Agree that a modern hotel is just what the Doctor ordered, especially at our age and a trip half way around the world. Great post. Felt as if I were there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As usual, thanks for your kind words Brian. I’m glad Mike steered us toward a modern hotel in this case. As much as I like exploring bustling cities, I find myself needing a quiet retreat at the end of the day (and a bit of luxury doesn’t hurt). Now…as for the term “at our age” , I’ve heard this once too often this week🤣😉!

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  12. On my first visit, I didn’t enjoy Colombo that much (I stayed in Mount Lavinia in the southern outskirts of the city) because in some ways the city reminded me so much of Jakarta — hot, humid, and chaotic. But three years later — and probably as my love for Jakarta grew — I found Colombo very exciting and increasingly cosmopolitan and sophisticated. The Fort area was surprisingly open to the public, the parks were nice, and at some corners of the city I sensed palpable optimism, especially among the young generation. I would love to go back in a heartbeat!

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    • You raise an interesting point Bama. I think our enjoyment of a place we visit can be very much influenced by where we live (and for many different reasons). In my case, I often enjoy the opposite of what I have here in Vancouver. While I love Vancouver, cities like Colombo, Jakarta, Bangkok are filled with such bustle (chaos) that totally energizes me (as a traveler). Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed Colombo more the second time. I’m afraid that we didn’t do the Fort area justice. There are some beautiful buildings there but I was so tired from jet-lag that afternoon I wasn’t taking much in. I’d definitely go back to Colombo if the opportunity comes along.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I agree with you 100%. Galle Face Green is one of my all-time favorite parks, and Pettah Market is great. We watched the new Star Wars movie to get a break from the midday heat at a fun, older cinema. It is well worth a couple of days to get over jet lag and get an introduction to the country before taking off.

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    • I’m glad to hear that even with you living in very vibrant Bangkok, and having visited many places, you liked Galle Face Green so much. It really is a special park. Seeing a movie in the midday heat is a great idea. I remember doing this on my first visit to Bangkok but the air con was cranked up so high I was actually freezing.

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