Our Trip to Sri Lanka: 24 Hours in Colombo
Sri Lanka is expected to re-open to international tourism in August 2020. For more information about the COVID-19 protocols, click here.
Sri Lanka, a “tear drop” shaped island nation in the Indian Ocean has started to find its way into the mainstream tourist map for the last few years. Since the civil war ended in 2009, the country has been recovering, healing, and modernizing. Dubbed an “India-Light” and free of malaria since 2016, Sri Lanka is becoming a really popular destination for tourists due to its diverse landscapes, historic and cultural sites, and opportunities to view wildlife. We decided to visit Sri Lanka for 6 nights and 7 days last fall during our vacation to Asia partly due out of interest and opportunity. We love to watch travel documentaries and both Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and Rick Stein’s Far Eastern Odyssey piqued our interest in Sri Lanka. In this post, we’ll assume you’ve decided to visit Sri Lanka and give you some tips on how to plan your trip with a focus on your arrival into Colombo.
Best Time to Visit Sri Lanka:
Due to the numerous monsoon seasons, it can be difficult to choose the best time to visit Sri Lanka. Like many island nations, the weather can vary greatly, depending where you are. We visited in early November when one of the monsoon seasons was forecasted to end and divided up our time between Colombo and Galle. Since Sri Lanka is close to the equator, the weather is pretty consistent; hot and humid. More information about Sri Lanka’s monsoon season can be found here: https://www.selectiveasia.com/sri-lanka-holidays/weather.
Getting to Sri Lanka:
There are no non-stop flights from North America so you’ll have to connect somewhere along the way. On this trip, we flew from Penang Malaysia to KUL – Kuala Lumpur and onward to CMB – Colombo Bandaranayake Airport. We redeemed British Airways Avios points for 1 business class ticket and paid for the other business class ticket (in a lot of cases, there is only 1 seat in business class per flight using Avios). To get back home, we flew on Cathay Pacific to HKG – Hong Kong and then onwards to YVR – Vancouver.
As Canadians, we needed an Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) which we obtained online prior to our arrival. For more information about the entry requirements, please visit: https://www.eta.gov.lk/slvisa/visainfo/fees.jsp?locale=en_US.
Since we were already visiting Vietnam and Malaysia on this trip, we got our Hep A/B booster and a Dukoral booster, in addition to the cholera vaccine. We felt this was sufficient for the Sri Lanka portion of the trip and recommend you speak to your doctor about the required immunizations.
Arriving into Colombo:
We arrived in Sri Lanka around 23:00 and proceeded to immigration. The airport gets very busy at this due to all the international arrivals and since they didn’t hand out the forms during the flight, we had to go to the back of the line and fill them out before speaking to an agent which was very time-consuming.
Once we had cleared immigration, we started making our way out to the public area to exchange some money for local currency and to find the taxi stand. We entered the public area where there were touts in all directions from currency booths. The money changers work on commissions so they will fight to get your attention and business and those situated closer to the door have an advantage, After checking a few booths, we figured out they all have the same rates and chose Thomas Cook. After exchanging Canadian Dollars into Sri Lankan Rupees, we tackled the next task, finding a taxi.
Since we weren’t getting a SIM card and the airport doesn’t have Wi-Fi, we couldn’t use Uber so we had to go to a taxi stand because we found our hotel’s transportation service too expensive, which was perhaps a mistake in hindsight. In our experience, going to a taxi stand saves hassle from haggling and also guarantees some minimum norms as far as the vehicle and the driver but in this case, we question the business practices by the taxi stand and suspect they just find random people and offer them very little money to operate taxis while keeping the rest of the fare paid for themselves. We chose and paid for a taxi with air conditioning and walked out to find our driver. We really didn’t know what to expect and understand that norms vary in other countries but this went into slow motion and didn’t feel right; the vehicle was a really old van of sorts, it had no seatbelts, the air conditioning didn’t work, the windows were so tinted you couldn’t see outside or even open them and while the driver didn’t smell like alcohol or look drunk, there was a half empty bottle of vodka in the front seat. We felt we didn’t have a choice so we stayed in the van, and this taxi ride has topped our top 5 scariest moments abroad. When the driver asked us if we wanted to take the freeway which was faster but required additional money we declined without hesitation not to save the money but to keep him for driving too fast and erratically. CMB airport is far from Colombo so about 1 hour later, we arrived to the Galle Face Hotel, one of the only luxury hotels in Colombo at the time. As we exited the van, we handed the driver a tip and he seemed perplexed that we’d skip the freeway to give him extra money. He handed us the receipt made out to Cheesum aka as Jason and that was the end of a taxi ride.
Where We Stayed:
Founded in 1864, the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo is one of the oldest hotels in the world and a good place to start your visit to Sri Lanka due to its location, fame, and history. During our stay, we had fun learning about this hotel’s history and having similar experiences as other guests (yup, those crows that Anthony Bourdain talks about in No Reservations are everywhere!!). If you like history, you’ll want to sign up for one of the tours of the hotel to learn all about it and if you need a break, they have a great salt water pool and loungers that overlook the sea. The hotel’s location is great for watching sunsets and enjoying the Galle Face Green when it gets dark (a park by the sea with street vendors) or walking to the old city and Dutch Hospital in about 20-30 minutes. While the hotel has been renovated, the rooms are slightly dated (and possibly haunted!), including the ocean view terrace room we paid extra for. We would consider staying here again for the setting, location and service.
Where We Ate in Sri Lanka:
We decided to splurge and have lunch at the Ministry of Crab to sample the renowned Sri Lankan crab and this is something you should do once if you are spending time in Colombo. The Ministry of Crab is very popular so you need to make a reservation to eat here and you can do so online prior to your arrival. We enjoyed the crab and the seasoning but it was really messy as expected. One thing we really loved was the pol sambol, a spicy Sri Lankan condiment prepared with grated coconut, red chilies, lime and with or without fish.
The meal we were looking forward to the most was the Sri Lankan dinner buffet at Nuga Gama at the Cinnamon Grand hotel where the food is cooked by women from the village in their style and served in Sri Lankan clay pots. We’re not usually fans of buffets but this was a memorable one and we still tell each other “I wish I could have eaten more!!” because everything we tried was delicious: dhal, roti, hoppers, jack fruit curry, crab curry, treacle, etc. If you want to try a wide variety of Sri Lankan food in one place, Nuga Gama is the place to be. If you don’t want to splurge on The Ministry of Crab, the crab at Nuga Gama is very good and we enjoyed it just as much if not more. Like most places in Sri Lanka, Nuga Gama is vegetarian and vegan friendly.
Named as “Ceylon” by the British, Sri Lanka is renowned around the world for its tea and so as coffee lovers, it was a little more difficult for us to find good coffee in Colombo. Thankfully, we found Whight Coffee Co and we walked here from the Galle Face Hotel. Whight Coffee roasts the coffee beans from their coffee plantation in Sri Lanka and serves regular or espresso coffees and light meals. The best part of having coffee here is that you have a great view of the ocean and trains as they pass by.
We really wanted to eat at Monsoon, a South East Asian cuisine restaurant by the hotel brand we stayed at in Galle but it was not open yet. This will be on our to-do list next trip for sure.
What to see and do in Colombo:
We would recommend spending 2 days maximum in Colombo: we spent 2 nights and 1 full day. There’s so much to see and do in Sri Lanka and sure you could spend lots of time in Colombo relaxing at the Galle Face Hotel or the newly opened Shangri-La but you’ll miss out on the diverse landscape, beaches, and other attractions in Sri Lanka.
We were very surprised by how green Colombo is, it has nice parks and lots of greenery and good infrastructure for pedestrians and in some ways, it reminded us of Singapore. Despite the scorching sun and heat, we walked over 30,000 steps during our day. By this point of the trip, we’d eaten a lot of the snacks we had packed so we headed to Good Market, a natural market and had a mango lassi and picked up some snacks for the train. I really recommend Good Market if you’re craving those juice bars/cafes like the ones we have in North America.
Next, we set out on a mission to find a book written by a local author that was featured in my friend Melinda’s IG story. Coincidentally, my friend Melinda was travelling in India and posted an IG story of a book written by a Sri Lankan author she met. Nadeesha’s book, “Water in my Grave”, is a collection of Sri Lankan horror stories written by her and her mom and we found it after visiting 5 bookstores in Colombo. If you are looking for a good bookstore in Colombo, visit the Crescat Shopping Mall.
If there is one thing you need to do in Sri Lanka when facing west, it’s to watch the sunset so make sure to go for dinner after the sunset. After dinner, we needed to walk and checked out the Galle Face Green, an urban park with food and merchandise vendors.
Safety and Laws:
We felt very safe in Colombo overall but we did exercise caution, especially when random people approached us trying to offer help. People are generally friendly but don’t be surprised if they approach you, make small talk, and start to direct you to gem shops. We were walking to the Ministry of Crab when someone approached us and tried to tell us the restaurant was closed due to a university strike and proceeded to tell us we could take a tuk tuk to visit a gem shop to buy souvenirs. After we declined, the man just left us alone and didn’t pursue us any further.
When we were researching things to be aware of, we found a few TripAdvisor posts about people being detained for taking photos of certain buildings. We were not able to find a full list of which buildings where photography was not permitted so make sure to look for signs and when in doubt, ask. When we tried to take a photo of a government building in Colombo, we were told by a local person that it wasn’t allowed.
Since Colombo is the point of entry for any trip to Sri Lanka, it’s worth spending a bit of time visiting here. Based on how large Sri Lanka is and how long it can take to get places, it may not be the best option to stay in Colombo as a home base with the idea to book day excursions. If you do use Colombo as your home base, Galle Fort is a popular day trip by train but for other attractions, be prepared for long 12+ hours days. We recommend the dinner buffet at Nuga Gama as a must-do to try a wide range of Sri Lankan cuisine in a clean and comfortable setting. And lastly, you may want to arrange private transportation when you arrive in Colombo as opposed to using the taxi stand.
- COVID-19 Protocols for Tourists: 3 Extreme Examples
- Beach Guide: Sri Lanka South Coast
- Our Trip to Sri Lanka: 24 Hours in Colombo
- How to Travel by Train in Sri Lanka – Colombo to Galle
- Books to Read Before Going to Sri Lanka
- Galle Sri Lanka in 4 Days – Where to Stay, Where to Eat, and Things to do
- Sri Lanka Travel Guide – Colombo, Galle, and the South Coast
Have you been to Colombo? Do you have any other tips to add?