Had we stepped into a parallel universe? Colombo seemed so familiar; the architecture, the climate, the people, the colours. It could be our home in Bangalore, except the traffic flows, there are no mounds of rubbish, it’s cleaner, the pavements are walkable, tuk-tuk drivers use the meter and there is barely any honking. Life here is certainly calmer than its neighbour, India.
In fact, compared to pretty much all Asian capital cities we have visited over our years of travel, Colombo seemed to be the most chilled. However, do not mistake the relaxed city vibe as backward. Colombo’s economy is booming and modernisation is prevalent as shiny new skyscrapers transform the city’s skyline, towering above villages where you’ll still find the essence of the bygone Dutch colony.
Colombo was our first insight into Sri Lanka and we loved it. Many people head straight to the beach resorts of Negombo on arrival, for a lighter introduction. However, we wanted to immerse ourselves as soon as possible into Sri Lankan life and we’re very pleased we did. Here are our 5 top things to do with kids in Colombo.
1. Viharamahadevi Park (Victoria Park)
Amongst all the green open space, at the north-eastern edge of Viharamahadevi Park you’ll find a superb play area for children! Plan to spend a full morning or afternoon here. There is a big playground, toy train ride, horse rides, a small aquarium and a wobbly bridge over a small lake where you can hire boats. And if it’s a hot day, let them run through the water fountains to cool off.
2. Galle Face Green
Head to Galle Face Green, right on the sea front, just before sunset. Watch the colourful kites soaring high and perhaps buy one and join in, before grabbing some dinner from one of the food stalls to watch the sun set. You may even see a snake charmer. Once night falls, treat the kids to some cheap fluorescent-light toys. It will keep them entertained whilst you stroll the length of the seafront, soaking up the atmosphere.
3. Wandering around Slave Island
We didn’t see another tourist as we wondered around the narrow alleyways of Slave Island (the name has stuck since Dutch colonial times, when slaves were housed in this area which was surrounded by water). The boys loved high-fiving people in the doorways and chatting to other kids as we walked past their homes. One family even offered our boys a selection of battered plastic toys to take home (we politely declined). Such a warm and friendly village atmosphere. We certainly felt like we were seeing a different side to the shiny new skyscrapers popping up around the city. Take a tuk-tuk to the Fort area afterwards as it’s a ‘must do’, although we didn’t find the area too engaging for young kids.
4. Gangaramaya Temple
Sections of Gangaramaya feel more like a museum than a temple, with an eclectic array of artefacts gifted over the years; shiny buddha statues, a life-sized stuffed elephant, bold artwork, Dutch antique collectables, vintage cars and a large Bodhi tree. There is no logical flow to the building, with pathways and steps leading you to different corners and rooms, all contrasting in nature; a wonderful place for the kids to explore! This is not your standard Sri Lankan temple. Ticket entry is LRK200 per adult, but this also includes entry to Seema Malaka, a beautiful temple/meditation centre sitting out on South Beira Lake, just a short walk around the corner.
5. Waters Edge
This tip comes from expat friends living in Colombo, who are regulars to Waters Edge with their two young boys. This is a lovely oasis from city life with manicured lawns set around a lake, providing ample space for kids to run free. There is also a playground and an aquarium, which along with the grounds is all free entry. Make a day of it and try out one of the many restaurants, or bring your own food to enjoy in the designated picnic area. If you visit for Sunday Brunch you can also use the pool for free. The swimming area has a separate kids’ pool and kids’ jacuzzi. Entry is normally LKR1000 per adult (LKR500 for children under 13).
Where we stayed
Colombo accommodation is pricey compared to the rest of Sri Lanka. However, this is the capital city. We stayed at the delightful Anugaa In The City in Borella (GBP40 per night on booking.com for a spacious en-suite family room). It’s a little out of the city, but with tuk-tuks being so cheap and plentiful, the 10 minute journey is really not a problem. Plus, if possible, they allow an early check-in free of charge. We arrived bleary-eyed from our night-flight at 4am and were warmly welcomed to our room, carrying our two sleeping boys straight from the taxi into the comfy beds.
The staff are wonderfully friendly and accommodating. It can be a bit tricky to find them at times if you need something, but you’re provided with a mobile phone to contact the owner if needed. This is also very handy if you need someone to explain to a tuk-tuk driver how to get you back.
We particularly enjoyed the lovely breakfast spread provided each morning in the quirky dining area (included in room rate); a fantastic array of fruit, traditional Sri Lanka food of hoppers, noodles and curry, as well as omelettes for the boys.
Tuk-tuks use the meter. Coming from India, this was extremely refreshing. Drivers may initially try to quote a higher fare, but if you then ask them to use the meter, they will generally oblige. However, unless you are heading to a major landmark, it’s unlikely they will know the way. Ensure you have offline Google Maps of Colombo downloaded to your phone, with a star locating your accommodation, so you can direct drivers when necessary.
Getting to/from Colombo
Bandaranaike International Airport, a 45 minute drive North of Colombo city centre, is the main airport for Sri Lanka, servicing flights from around the world. Do keep in mind that during the working-week rush hours, getting to and from the airport can take much longer. The easiest way to get to your hotel on arrival is to order a taxi from the desk on the right once you’re through baggage and customs. Our taxi was LKR2100, which is paid directly to the driver. Ask them to use the Expressway (much quicker, even in the middle of the night) and pay the extra LKR300 for the toll.
From Colombo you may wish to head east to Kandy, or south to Galle. Both are on the train network and this is the best way to travel (you certainly want to avoid all those hairpins bends in a car to Kandy!) Book your train ticket as soon as you arrive in Colombo, if you haven’t yet booked them online. As you can see from our Sri Lanka Itinerary with young kids, we headed south to Galle. The train journey is just 2.5 hours (LKR400 per adult, children under 3 are free) and much of the track hugs the coastline, affording lovely sea views as the train carves through palm trees and villages.