Colombo is the capital city of Sri Lanka, and the country’s largest city in terms of population. Located on the west coast, it is a beautiful city surrounded by white sand beaches and an impressive harbourfront. Colombo is characterised by a series of canals, with the picturesque 160-acre Beira Lake at its centre. It’s the perfect destination for students to experience plenty in the way of culture, history and recreation as they work towards their degree.
Colombo’s history goes back more than 2,000 years, with Arab traders settling in the city as early as the 8th century AD. With its large natural harbour and crops of tropical plants and spices, the city has always been an attractive post for traders. Portuguese explorers first landed in 1505, and soon took control of much of the coastline – the area known as Fort still houses the palace and majority of five-star hotels today.
In 1638, the Sri Lankan royal family signed a deal with the Dutch to help them drive the Portuguese out in exchange for the island’s wealth of trade goods, and they were ultimately successful. The Dutch East India Company held a monopoly of the richest lands (including Colombo) up until the British captured the city at the end of the 18th century. It was under British rule that much of the city, including buildings and tram lines, was constructed and developed.
British colonialism ended peacefully in 1948, bringing with it drastic changes in laws, religions – even clothing styles. Today, Arabic, Portuguese, Dutch and British influences are evident all through Colombo, in buildings, in language, in food. The fascinating mix of architecture throughout the city is a nod to its turbulent history, where colonial buildings can be found next to high-rises and shopping malls. The result is a diverse culture that combines elements of European, Indian and Asian.
Colombo is classified as a tropical monsoon climate, experiencing two yearly monsoon seasons but otherwise remaining quite temperate. Monsoon season starts in April, with the wettest months falling in June and September.
You can expect the average high temperature to sit around 30-31 degrees for most of the year, with average low temperatures only dropping to around 22 degrees even in the winter months.
Food / Cuisine
Local food is delicious and inexpensive, so it’s much more budget friendly to stick to curries and street foods and save meals out at high-end restaurants for special occasions. Curries and rice are the country’s staple and can be found everywhere from street corners to five-star restaurants. Fish and seafood options are also a fixture on local menus, and most dishes are served with roti flatbread.
Hoppers (locally known as Aappa) are bowl-shaped crepes made with fermented rice flour and coconut milk, filled with curries, egg or chilli paste. Breakfast typically consists of string hoppers, balls of steamed rice noodles.
Other popular street food options are Isso-Wadey, a lentil patty topped with shrimp, and kottu, shredded flatbread served with a variety of meat and spices. You’ll also find the classic fried vegetable samosas, but be warned – these tend to be very spicy!
Cutlery is widely available, but if you want to eat like the locals do, eat with your right hand (not your left, as it is considered unclean).
As a culturally diverse city, you’ll find much more than delicious local cuisine in Colombo. Enjoy everything from Italian pizza to authentic Chinese and Korean barbeque!
As the national drink and key export of Sri Lanka, tea is everywhere. You can tour many of the plantations or opt for a high tea experience, the British tradition of sitting down with tea, cakes and other plated treats.
You’ll find plenty of fresh coconut water, which is often consumed straight from the shell, and Lion is the country’s national lager, but it’s important to note the legal drinking age is 21.
Make sure you always have bottled water on hand, as the tap water is not good to drink.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends getting the Hepatitis A and Typhoid vaccinations before you go to protect against potentially contaminated water or food.
It’s important to note that you’ll need a valid license from your home country as well as an International Driving Permit with Sri Lanka listed on it to drive a car. Driving conditions in Colombo can be quite hectic, so you may want to let someone else drive when you first arrive. Private chauffeurs are common, with friendly local drivers often happy to act as a tour guide and show you around the city. Within Colombo, you can use apps like UberIntercity, PickMe or Taxiyak to get around, which conveniently show you the cost upfront and let you pay through the app.
Trains in Sri Lanka are inexpensive and a great way to get around. Reservations can be made up to 30 days in advance of travel for 1st and 2nd class seats, whereas 3rd class tickets can only be bought on the day – and you may end up standing. Trains are ideal for longer trips, where you can enjoy some of the most scenic railway routes in the world as you pass through mountains, tea plantations and tropical beaches.
Buses and tuk tuks
Buses are cheap, but not always comfortable, as they will often be crammed full of passengers both seated and standing. It’s best to avoid them if you are carrying luggage.
Colourful three-wheeled tuk tuks can be found everywhere, which is why they are so popular for short distances, but it’s advised to settle on a price before you ride, or you risk being overcharged for the trip.
Money and Shopping
The currency in Sri Lanka is the rupee, and notes come in denominations of 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000, 2000 and 5000. One Australian dollar is approx. 115 rupees (Rs115).
ATMs and Credit Cards
ATMs can be found all around the city, and often dispense Rs5000 notes; it’s a good idea to try and break these early, as not everywhere will accept large bills. Credit cards are accepted at the majority of mid to high-range restaurants, shops and hotels.
While a service charge is usually added on to bills at restaurants and hotels, this often goes to the owner. It’s recommended to tip an additional 10% to servers and drivers.
Shopping in Colombo is diverse, offering everything from bustling marketplaces to modern shopping complexes. Most of the major shopping malls in Colombo are wi-fi enabled. It’s important to bargain if you are shopping somewhere without fixed prices, especially the markets. A good tip is to come down to half of the asking price, and you’ll generally land much closer to a reasonable price.
Some of the most popular items you’ll find are:
- Tea! Traditional Ceylon tea is black, but you’ll find a variety of flavours depending on the altitude of the plantation it comes from
- Saris and sarongs, in silk or batik, often crafted on handlooms
- Jewellery and gems, especially sapphires or moonstones
- Buddha and elephant figurines and wooden carvings
- Spices, which play a key role in local cuisine – often as many as 8 going into a single dish. Ceylon cinnamon is renowned for being the best in the world.
Things to See and Do
- Stroll through the Galle Face Green, an immense grassy urban park located alongside the coast that boasts a rich sporting history, from horse racing to golf and cricket. Bordering the green, the heritage-listed Galle Face Hotel houses a museum and art gallery along with several restaurants and bars.
- Hit the beach! Take a boat trip at Kalpitiya to catch a glimpse of whales and dolphins in crystal clear waters. Soak up the sun at popular beach resort Bentota just over an hour away, or visit Hikkaduwa – ideal for snorkelling – where you can spot baby sea turtles and shipwrecks; it’s also famous for its wild beach parties.
- Spend a day at the beautiful and serene Gangaramaya Temple, a 19th century Buddhist temple located on the Beira Lake, filled with intricate carvings and statues.
- Shop at the Old Dutch Hospital, one of the oldest buildings in the city that has been converted into a shopping complex full of charm, or wander the Pettah Floating Market, where more than 90 trade stalls with bright red roofs sell everything from local produce to handcrafted goods, jewellery and clothing.
- Enjoy a Friday evening at Park Street Mews, a bustling cobblestone entertainment street where a series of warehouses have been converted into trendy bars and restaurants perfect for the student crowd.