Anyone who visits Sri Lanka will not go too far in the urban areas but will rush to reach the island’s soul. Wildlife, with its endemic flora and fauna, attracts visitors in particular. With a few exceptions – Kandy, the last capital of the Sinhalese Kingdom and Galle, with its ancient Dutch Fort – the cities are often avoided or hurriedly visited by tourists. Colombo, the country’s capital and the largest city, has the same fate.
If you compare it with the thick jungle, the tea plantations and pristine beaches, many still untouched by tourists, certainly Colombo would not be placed at the top of preferences. However, the city, which became the capital in 1815 after the British conquest, is an exciting mixture between old and new, between chaos and tranquillity. Old buildings with an official or religious function can be seen from place to place among skyscrapers and daily bustle.
Colombo can be divided into two worlds, a world where the local hustle with merchants anxious to sell is exasperating, and a quieter world where nature gives you a bit of respite. Though distinct, these worlds often intertwine. Colombo Fort is the commercial and financial centre of the city, but at the same time, it is the place where much of the British colonial buildings are to be found. Viharamahadevi Park and Beira Lake – also housing historic and religious buildings – represent an oasis of silence in this otherwise chaotic city.
The park, developed during the British colonial era, offers a serene and refreshing atmosphere. Only the rich could build their homes in the park’s vicinity, so that, behind the high walls, you will be able to see stately villas. The headquarters of embassies and state institutions are also in this area. As a tourist, it is nice to stay at one of the hotels near the park, away from the Fort’s stir, especially since you can travel easily and cheap with Uber.
Many emblematic buildings have been erected in or adjoining the park. The National Museum, built on the park grounds, houses several items belonging to the Sinhalese monarchs and exhibits that speak about the country’s history. Founded in 1877 by the Governor of Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka), in an Italian architectural style, the museum is a really hard-to-miss building due to its beautiful white facade.
Close to the National Museum stands the Nelum Pokuna Theater. Although it is a modern, futuristic structure, its design was actually inspired by the 12th-century lotus pond of King Parakramabahu, located in Polonnaruwa, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka.
The Town Hall of Colombo is another elegant white building at the end of Viharamahadevi Park, opposite the imposing statue of the Buddha. Constructed in the 1920s, the Town Hall resembles the Capitol Building in Washington. The columns at the entrance and the dome above the Municipal Council chamber present the same details of the neoclassical style that are found in the architectural plan of the United States Congress.
Besides ponds and tall trees, the park hosts several species of birds and a lot of striped squirrels. Sometimes, you can even see pony-sized horses grazing, often disturbed by the groups of children coming out of school classes. When you enter the park, you have a sense of freedom, but the city’s tumult can get here as well. Being the main green area, the park is often crowded, especially on weekends.
Walking a short distance, about 15 minutes from Viharamahadevi Park, you reach the southwestern part of Beira Lake. Although it has a smaller water stretch than its eastern side, in Colombo Fort, it is the most beautiful part of the lake.
In the middle of the lake is the Seema Malaka Temple, which was rebuilt in the 1970s, after the original 19th-century building sank. Seema Malaka is, in fact, part of the Gangamaraya Temple, which is just a few hundred meters away and has a cultural and learning centre apart from its religious functions.
Constructed by the Portuguese in the 16th century, the lake was designed to separate the Colombo Fort from the mainland to protect it from the attacks of the Sinhalese forces who wanted to regain lost territory. The Portuguese started to dig a moat around the Fort, which was then connected with the ocean through two main canals, thus creating a lake.
From Viharamahadevi Park and Beira Lake (South-West) are 3-4 km to Fort Colombo, so we preferred to take an Uber. We arrived in Pettah, the main street trade area, and therefore the busiest neighbourhood in Colombo. The agglomeration of cars, pedestrians and tuk-tuks offers a picturesque yet stressing atmosphere. Dubbed by the stifling heat, a walk through the Fort is not the easiest thing.
After we walked around for an hour trying to find the way to the main attractions and places of interest, we decided to take a tuk-tuk. As a matter of fact, as a tourist, you stand out from the crowd, so tuk-tuk drivers will notice you right away and follow you honking until you give up and take a city tour in their rickshaw. Most likely, they will try to trick you into getting more money, so try to find as much information as possible about the price before taking the deal. And, very important, pay at the end; otherwise, the tour might end quicker than expected.
If you still prefer to walk, a bold but not impossible decision, especially if you have enough time to spend, I tried to present a convenient itinerary that includes the main historical buildings and tourist attractions of Fort Colombo, according to their location on the map.
The first on the list is the Jami Ul-Afar Mosque, also known as the Red Mosque, due to its colour. Built in 1909 by the Indian Muslim community of Sri Lanka, the mosque seems hidden between the devious and crowded streets of Pettah. The only thing you can see from a distance is the minarets, painted in white-red stripes. The building has an interesting architecture that makes you think of Disney’s movies rather than a religious place. Outside of praying hours, the mosque is open for visitation.
Not far from the mosque is the Khan Clock Tower, which rises monumentally in the middle of a roundabout. The tower marks the entrance to Pettah Market, and it was built in the early 20th century by the Khan family, immigrants from Mumbai, who owned several businesses in the area.
Once you pass the canal, on the side of Colombo Harbour, you reach Church Street where, not surprisingly, St. Peter’s Church is located. It was built on the site of an old Portuguese monastery and converted into the Governor’s residence during the Dutch era. After the arrival of the British, in 1821, the building was consecrated, and repairs were made, changing the aspect of the church in a typical English architectural style.
A modern edifice is the Sambodhi Chaithya Temple, designed in Colombo Harbour to be seen from the ocean by the incoming ships. Raised on a high concrete structure, more than 30 m tall, you have to climb a lot of stairs to get to the temple – in fact, a Buddhist stupa built in 1956 to commemorate 2,500 years since the emergence of Buddhism – after you leave your shoes at the foot of the building. But once you get to the top, you will be rewarded with the view of the ocean, of the skyscrapers and the construction sites in the port.
Following Chaithya Road, you will reach the Colombo Lighthouse, built on a concrete base and guarded by the statues of four lions. A relatively new structure, it was erected in 1952 after the old lighthouse was deactivated and moved closer to the interior of the Fort, on Chatham Street. Although you cannot tell at first glance, the surrounding area is a security zone, so if you point your camera at the street and not the lighthouse, you will be warned by a soldier stationed on the concrete stairs.
The nearby Presidential Palace is a beautiful white-facade building, initially built by the Dutch and sold in 1804 to the British. Upon purchase, the house became the Governor’s residence and continued to be occupied by British Governors until Sri Lanka gained its independence. After the country became a republic, in 1972 the building was renamed the President’s House and is now the seat of the President. Sometimes it opens to the public for visitation.
Colombo Fort Clock Tower, the Old Lighthouse of the city, is located at the junction of Chatham Street and Janadhipathi Mawatha. Put in place by the British in 1857, it functioned for a while as a lighthouse until the nearby buildings concealed its navigation lights. It was deactivated in 1952, and a new lighthouse was built in Colombo Harbour. The English watchmaker, Edward John Dent, who manufactured the famous Big Ben for Westminster Palace in London, designed the first clock of the tower. However, it had to be replaced in 1913 with a more modern clock mechanism.
Just a few steps from the Clock Tower, on Hospital Street, you will find the oldest building in Fort Colombo, The Dutch Hospital. The hospital was built in the 17th century, during the Dutch colonial era, for the treatment of staff working at the Dutch East India Company – a multinational corporation reuniting several trading companies under the Dutch government directives. The building preserved its architectural character of the past, with minimal changes over time. Although today it operates as a shopping centre, with shops and restaurants, it remained known as the Dutch Hospital. The inner courtyards offer a shady space, protected from the damp-heat of the streets.
Next to the old Dutch Hospital seats the tallest building in Colombo, known as the World Trade Center. The twin towers are 152 m tall and host the Colombo Stock Exchange, founded in 1985. During the civil war in Sri Lanka, the towers suffered two attacks carried out by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a militant organization in the northeast of the country, who wanted an independent Tamil state. Due to its robust structure, the building resisted the attacks.
Returning to the main street, at the junction of Galle Face Road and Lotus Road, you reach the Old Parliament Building. Today, the Presidential Secretariat is operating here. Built in 1930 by the British, in a neo-Baroque style, the Old Parliament continues to host numerous state events and ceremonies.
About ten minutes’ walk from the Parliament Building to the south on Galle Face Road is the Galle Face Green Promenade. The construction was commissioned by the British Governor and completed in 1859. Today, the promenade stretches across several hectares, between Galle Road and the Indian Ocean, over a distance of 500 m along the coast, although it was originally laid out on a much larger area.
After the agglomeration of the city, a stop on the shores of the ocean was as rewarding as the discovery of an oasis in the desert. The wind blowing from the sea, the waves that crush on the stone walls, the children flying the kites, the merchants who offer you seafood, may bring you back to the initial state of serenity and make you forget, for a moment, the clutter of cars, people and tuk-tuks. And, above all, it is nice to end the trip in Colombo looking at the infinite ocean, whose whirling waves go beyond our needs for chaos or tranquillity.