Colombo might not be on anyone’s list of expensive cities to travel to, but the Sri Lankan commercial capital ranked as the most expensive South Asian city in 2017. Many budget travelers flock to the city’s backpacker hostels, and use Colombo as a pit spot before they head to other parts of the island. It’s difficult to travel Colombo cheaply when you only follow the guidebook suggestions. However, there are many inexpensive and fun things to do in the island’s bustling coastal city.
1. Watch the world go by.
In mornings, walk to Pettah market. A plethora of porters, wagons, and tuk-tuks maneuver past you as you try to survive on a two-inch pavement. Men and women of all ages commute to work, half-hanging out the open public bus door. You can walk to Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque, popularly known as The Red Mosque in guidebooks. There’s a big vegetable market on Fifth Cross Street where aunties bargain for fresh Nuwara Eliya carrots. It’s vibrant, happening, and raw.
In contrast with Pettah, the atmosphere in Fort is quieter and every lane has something new for you: moss-laden buildings, colonial architecture with a Dutch influence, churches, the harbor, President’s House, mosques, and a statue of Ceylon’s last king… you can easily spend a few hours here. Every evening, people flock to Galle Face Green. It’s Colombo’s most popular public park with no entrance fee. You can see little kids flying kites, couples hiding in their opened umbrellas, and bearded hipsters in their funky LOVI sarongs.
2. Taste authentic Ceylonese food.
It’s almost impossible to find real foreign cuisine in Sri Lanka for affordable prices. The last thing you obviously want to do is spend your money on meh-tasting food. Many guidebooks suggest “X” and “Y” restaurant for Sri Lankan food in Colombo — I’d say, ditch them all, and go to Hela Bojun Hala in Battaramulla. Everyone who works at the stall is a middle-aged auntie. They are a lovely, always-smiling bunch. You can have authentic Sri Lankan food such as String Hoppers with Kiri Hodi, Lavariya, Plain Hoppers, and Pol Roti. A full meal costs less than $1.
Within a five-minute walk from Hela Bojuan Hala, there’s Diyatha Uyana Park with a few food stalls. This is a good place to taste authentic Wandu Appa and have Ginger Plain Tea. For the best Kottu in town, head to Hotel De Plaza in Kollupitiya. Galle Face Green has island’s best Isso Vadai, and an uncle who sells Bombai Mutai. It’s Sri Lanka’s version of candy floss. It’s a lot more sugary than candy floss, and it melts in your mouth in an instant.
3. Don’t be intimidated by crowded buses.
The buses in Colombo, or elsewhere in Sri Lanka, are not the most comfortable option. Frankly, they can be a little scary for a first-timer. But they get the job done. Unless you travel during the morning (7-9 AM) and evening (5-8 PM) commutes, you can easily find a seat. The buses are also the cheapest way to get around the city. A six-kilometer drive costs as low as 20 cents while a metered tuk-tuk will charge you $2 or more. Just as in many Asian cities, the buses do not follow a schedule. They run frequently on many routes throughout the day. Many sights such as Gangaramaya Temple, Pettah Market, and Dutch Hospital Complex are also accessible via these local buses. You can pay by cash to the conductor in every bus. There’s a super helpful Colombo Bus Route app, and it is a life-saver.
YAMU is your friend in the city. YAMU.LK has all the information on restaurants, cafes, coffee shops, and pizzerias in Colombo. They even write about bookshops, supermarkets, groceries, salons, and clothing stores. YAMU regularly updates their event section. Keep an eye on their site while you are in Colombo. If you are lucky, you can attend free weekly events such as Colombo Good Market, Eat Street Colombo, and Street Food Festival Colombo.
5. Use PickMe
PickMe is similar to Uber but functions better in Sri Lanka. Unlike Uber, PickMe has the trishaw (tuk-tuk) option. The app works fine, many drivers now follow Google Maps, and it feels a little safer, especially if you are a solo woman traveler. PickMe is also cheaper compared to the normal, metered tuk. If you can’t find a PickMe, make sure you choose a metered tuk. Never get into a tuk-tuk without a meter as they can charge higher “tourist” rates, and boy, they sure will.