St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, a branch of the Church of Scotland, earlier known as St. Andrew's Scots Kirk located in Princess Street, Fort, is the only Presbyterian Church in Sri Lanka. It opened its doors to worshippers on 21st. October, 1842. In 1906, it was shifted to its present location between the DFCC Bank and The Cinnamon Grand, close to Galle Face, Colpetty. It was started by the large number of Scotsmen who came as tea planters to Ceylon. They left their imprint in the names of some of the plantations that exist even today, such as Edinburgh, Invergordon and Strathdon. The main service is on Sunday mornings at 9.30 am, is open to all, normally lasts an hour and tea or coffee is served afterwards at the Manse behind the Church.
The Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque, also called the Red Mosque, in the Pettah bazaar area of Colombo dazzles you with its candy-striped red and white brick work, just as it did aeons ago to sailors in the far seas as they approached the safety of Colombo harbour. Built in 1909 by the Pettah Muslim community, it is one of the oldest mosques around. H.L. Saibo was the architect of this building. The archways inside the mosque are equally ornamental. Originally meant for about 1,500 worshippers, the rise in their numbers prompted the mosque authorities to increase the worshipping area in 1975. There are indications that this mosque may have to give place to another high-rise mosque to accommodate the increasing number of devotees but that the exterior of the mosque would be preserved. According to the recent census, Muslims form 7.5 % of the population of Colombo and are represented by the green stripe in the country's flag.
The construction of the oldest Protestant Church still functioning in Sri Lanka, the Wolvendaal Church or the Dutch Reformed Church, now renamed the Christian Reformed Church, started in 1749 during the tenure of Governor Julius Valentijn Stein Van Gollenesse (1743-51). His initials J.V.S.V.G. still grace the Church building. It was finally completed in 1757.
The Church is situated on a hill and earlier, afforded a panoramic view of Colombo harbour and of the Fort area. The high roof of the Church, resembling a dome, rests on five foot thick sturdy walls. It is one of the finest examples of Dutch architecture in Colombo. The style of the building is Doric and the foundation takes the shape of a cross. The name of the church is derived from the place on which the Church stands, Wolvendaal, or Valley of Wolves. It appears that the Dutch mistook the pack of jackals which roamed about in the vicinity for wolves. There is a small cemetery with old tombstones all round the Church. Also, ancient tombstones, some as old as 1661, are placed against the bottom of the outside walls of the Church. The inside of the Church is filled with ornately-carved pews, ebony chairs, a spectacular lectern and an equally awe-inspiring pulpit.
Dutch furniture of the 17th and 18th centuries lie scattered within the Church. To the discerning eye, this is a veritable treasure trove. Five Dutch Governors lie buried here, after being dis-interred from an older church. A section of the floor of the Church is lined with tombstones of many famous names of Sri Lankan history, including the last Dutch Governor, Jan Gerard van Angelbeek, who died in 1799.
St. Lucy of Sicily is the patron saint of St. Lucia’s Cathedral in the Kotahena area of Colombo. She is regarded as the saviour of impaired vision. On December 13 each year, a feast is held in her honour. Legend has it that she extracted her eyes to repulse the attentions of an unwanted admirer who greatly admired her lovely eyes. Later, her eyes were restored, more beautiful than before, through a miracle.
Rising to a stately height of 150 ft and sprawling over 18,240 sq. ft., the Cathedral is the oldest and largest parish cathedral in Sri Lanka and the seat of the Archbishop of Colombo. It can accommodate 6000 worshippers during service. Built in 1760 as a small chapel during the Dutch regime, it was designed to be a replica of the St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican in 1873 by Bishop H.D. Sillani and Rev. Fr. S. Tabarrani. The centenary celebrations were held only in December 1987. The architecture is distinctively Gothic with a silver dome at the centre and seven statues adorning the top. A larger than life statue of St. Lucy, holding her eyes in the palm of her hands, adorns the main altar. A visit inside would be greatly rewarded, so priceless are some of the sculptures, paintings, stained glass panes and other church articles. At the top hangs a colossal bell with floral wreaths and sacred symbols engraved on it. It weighs 4300 lbs. The visit of Pope John Paul II for the beatification of Rev. Fr. Joseph Vaz in 1995 was the last great historical event.
The Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH), in central Colombo was a gift from the Chinese Government in the early 1970s. The two museums house a collection of personal effects of the Bandaranaike political family. After the assassination of the Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike, his wife, Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the world’s first woman Prime Minister in 1960.
Close by is the Independence Memorial Hall, a unique structure made entirely of concrete. It was erected to commemorate the Independence of Ceylon on February 4, 1948. The statue of Rt. Hon. Don Stephen Senanayake, the first Prime Minister of Independent Ceylon greets you first. Four stone lions adorn the four directions of this statue. There are two guard stones on either side of a short flight of stairs that lead to the base of the statue. The large tiled area all around is ample space for people to wander about and for kids to play around in. For a moment, you are reminded of the Hero’s Square in Prague. Next to it is the huge pavilion or hall where special ceremonies are held.
There are often questions in the forum from people who are visiting Colombo on business or as part of a stopover and have a limited amount of time on the Island. Colombo can be an interesting place but it’s a working city with lots of traffic and not somewhere tourists generally spend much time, particularly tourists with kids.
If you have a day to spare leaving the city for a while might be a good idea, the Elephant Orphanage at Pinnewela is often suggested (although I'm not a big fan) but there isn’t much else within easy reach of Colombo inland that wouldn’t involve you spending most of the day in a vehicle.
If you enjoy the coast, the Galle Road is in good condition these days and I would be tempted to hire a van and head south from Colombo along the west coast, perhaps to Kalutara, which has a splendid Temple. If you have the full day you could carry on to visit the beach at Bentota (one of the best on this side of the island) and maybe even on to Galle for a stroll round the ramparts of the magnificent Fort. There are plenty of places worth a stop along the way - you will also witness just how well this side of Sri Lanka has ‘bounced back’ since the tsunami.
Alternatively, a trip by train along the west coast line is an inexpensive way to see this stretch of coastline. Trains can get crowded and admittedly are not ideal unless you’re a train buff but if you head out mid-morning (after the morning rush) and head back mid-afternoon (before the evening one) Kalutara shouldn’t be too much of an ordeal – although Galle is around getting on for three hours each way.
Bambalapitiya, or Bamba as the locals call it, is what Tribeca and the East Village is to NYC. The cheapest greasy spoon restaurants, on the most expensive real estate in Sri Lanka. That is Bamba in a nut shell!
It is only in this neighborhood, the countries first and most bohemian, where you can still find the original inhabitants, directors, musicians, writers, peacefully cohabiting with the new arrivals, a sprinkling of rich jewelry merchants and real estate moguls. They all share the same zip code with dingy stores selling the best hand made Spanish rolling paper to the most comprehensive collection of pirated software. Why you need to go to bamba is because you can find $800 software for $2! Indie movies like Jarmusch’s “Down by Law,” or bootleg concert DVD’s of Pulp, all for $3. Audio CD’s running from Rage Against the Machine to Mahler, .60 cents each! The general vibe of the neighborhood between 9 and 5 is one of a typical big dirty city going about its business. It’s not a place where you might consider taking a leisurely stroll with the family looking for interesting architecture and quaint antique shops. No, that just might get you killed, just kidding. But really, it is an area in Colombo where most people seem extremely busy and generally ‘know’ what they need to be doing there at any given moment. Even if you do come across some odd people walking about looking dazed and stunned and oddly relaxed, don’t be fooled, they are native bambalapitiyans who somehow seem quite immune to all what’s going around them.
The place takes on an entirely different feel post 9pm. It’s Runyonesque. The casinos, the high priced call girls, the low end street whores, the pimps that will promise you J-Lo or Leonardo look alikes, to the pimped up 6 lt. rigs bombing down the marine drive, it all comes alive. So, if you are a creature of any big nasty downtown, you will know how to navigate Bamba, and know where to sniff out the goodies. If you are not, stay on the tour bus. Good luck.
Even if you've only got a few days in Sri Lanka Colombo makes an ideal base to get a taste of the rest of the country. Some of the best sights in Sri Lanka can be seen in just a day trip from the city. As well as the beach at Mount Lavinia, possible day trips include:
- The historic city of Kandy, capital of the hill country and home to the world famous Temple of the Tooth
- Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage, where you can see the largest gathering of elephants in the world and watch them bathe and feed
- See the ancient ruins, temples and cave paintings at Dambulla and the fabulous mountain-top site at Sigiriya
- Go to the golden sands and palm tree-lined beach resorts such as Negombo (to the north) and Kalutara (to the south)
- Tour round the hill country, seeing such stunning natural scenery as Horton Plains and the tea towns of Ella and Hatton.
All of these are easily do-able in a single day away from Colombo. So there's no excuse to just stay in the city and breathe in traffic fumes! You can find out more about all of these places on my separate pages for each of them...
The suburb of Wellawatta is often described as 'Little Jaffna,' a reference to the high number of Tamils living in the area. Tourists often drive through it on their way south but rarely stop, which is a shame as it's an interesting area with some splendid Hindu temples.
Like Colpetty and Bambalapitiya, it's based along the coast and the Galle Road and keeps the trend of becoming more run-down as you go further south. There are lots of street stalls packed from floor to ceiling with all kinds of goods, and narrow, rickety old shops badly in need of a coat of paint. It has a lot more character than Colombo 3 and 4 and is well worth a wander around. Oh and despite its poorer status it also has the best cinema in Colombo, the Savoy on Galle Road.
As arguably the city's main Hindu area it's a particularly great place to go at Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, when the streets and houses are filled with decorations and celebrations.
Even though it's in the heart of the city there's also a good beach that's very popular with locals, but sees few tourists. There are ruins of a ship just off the coast that's good to swim out to and dive off. To get there just take a side street off Galle Road, step over the train tracks and you're in a whole new world of sun, sand and sea.
The area of Bambalapitiya is Colpetty's less attractive sister. As you go further south down the Galle Road there is more of the same but the shops get a bit shabbier, the hotels cheaper. Yet in many ways this is Colombo's unofficial 'centre' and possibly the area of the city I visited most often.
Majestic City is the city's largest and busiest shopping mall - the best place for cheap DVDs and CDs, - House of Fashion is packed full of cheap designer clothes, and there are a number of good bars such as the Cricket Club, the Gallery, and Rythm and Blues.
There is no real tourist area in Colombo like Khao San Road in Bangkok or Thamel in Kathmandu, but Bambalapitiya is probably the closest, with tons of cheap cafes, internet shops and basic guesthouses.