We started in Colombo our 2 weeks journey through Sri Lanka. We stayed here a bit more than most visitors do, as we also needed to sort our some administrative stuff to rent a car and get the Sri Lankan temporary drivers permit for tourists. But as soon as this was done, we were ready to move on to explore this beautiful island.
There is not much to do here and I would not advise for more than 2 days, especially if you visit Colombo with kids . It is quite crowded, noisy and polluted. But it would be a huge mistake to consider all Sri Lanka is like this!
We chose to stay in the city center, close to Beira Lake. This is a very convenient and safe location. You can walk around to the main touristic places and a tuk-tuk ride to Gale Face or Fort area is very cheap too.
Our recommendations, after visiting Colombo with a toddler, are:
- Gangaramaya Temple – This is first buddhist temple we ever visited, so we were impressed by it. Now, after we’ve seen much more, I don’t think it would still have such a strong impact, but I still recommend a stop here while you are in the area. Beware they have a strict dress code for women, but they will give you something to cover up, free of charge, in case you do not comply.
- Viharamahadevi Park – A large green area is very welcome after strolling the noisy, polluted streets. It also features a large playground for kids, quite well arranged. Eric loved it the first time we went, but during evening time on weekends and holidays it can be extremely crowded. We were wondering where all the Sri Lankan kids were hidden the rest of the time, as there were probably hundred of them here on a Saturday evening!
- Colombo Fort – We just took a brief walk around the area one morning. It offers a mix of old historical buildings, from the Portuguese and Dutch times, but also new modern landmarks, like the World Trade Center. Interesting to see, but don’t plan too much time here.
- Galle Face Green Promenade – The largest open area in Colombo, kids will love having space to run and play here. This is a popular spot for locals and tourists alike, with lots of street vendors selling food and fruits.
Where to eat in Colombo
We were a bit afraid about eating options in Colombo, after what we’ve read. Especially since we were visiting Sri Lanka with a toddler, as kids tend to be picky eaters and prefer to have familiar food. But we found some awesome options to eat in Colombo:
- Upali’s – Our favourite restaurant in Sri Lanka, we actually ate twice here. While Eric loved the vegetables soup, something like comfort food for him, we had amazing Sir Lankan dishes. Don’t miss the shrimps with coconut milk or the spicy sizzling ones! Also, the traditional coconut cake is to die for!
- Kaema Sutra – Located in Shangri-La hotel, this is more on the luxurious end, but we wanted to pamper a bit on our first evening in Sri Lanka. The prices are much lower that in other countries, anyway! Service here was awesome and so was the food. A must try is the hopper with strawberries!
- Life Food – This is a great option for breakfast or a quick lunch, one of the few places with child-friendly food in Sri Lanka. They have delicious sandwiches, salad bowls and awesome smoothies
- Cafe Nuga – Another good choice for a light meal, in a cosy setup. It is not as healthy as advertised, if judged by European standards, but a great option considering the location. Since we visited a few days before Christmas, we enjoyed a lot the ambiance, with international Christmas songs and organised a whole photo-shooting on the spot, with Eric playing under the Christmas tree.
We left Colombo heading south, towards Mirissa. We chose this location as we were no looking for beach time, but for a trip to see the whales, which is the main highlight of the area. Very bad decision! Mirissa was the only place we did not like in our whole journey across Sri Lanka.
First, I thought we were just unlucky. But then we spoke with a few more people visiting the area and taking whale watching tours. They all had the same experience. Not a singe person encountered on the see more than dolphins or some small dolphin-like whales (false-killer whales). Everybody heard similar stories from the organisers: “we just saw one blue whale yesterday”/“for the last few days there are migratory whales in the area and larger ones moved further than their usual locations”/“our friends told us on the radio that larger whales were spotted further away but it will take a few hours to get there” and so on.
I am not absurd; whales are wild creatures and the area where they live is very large. I don’t expect the tour organisers to know the blue whales exact location all the time. But the way Mirissa whale tours are advertised creates a false expectation that it is extremely likely to see blue whales, which I doubt it is true.
Maybe a longer, private tour would be interesting and more successful in spotting the large creatures. But I found the popular tours to be a waste of time and money. We were on the boat before 7 in the morning and got back around 11, just to stay on very uncomfortable seats and see a few dolphins for 15 minutes!
Apart from the boat tours, Mirissa has some decent beach options, even though the Indian Ocean was quite rough in this area. Actually, Sri Lankan coast is a well known destination for surfers! If you are looking for some lazy sunny days, I would recommend Weligama, that seemed quite nice as we were passing by. I also heard great things about Unawatuna or Bentota beaches.
Nandana Tea Factory
Sri Lanka is well known for its tea production. You wonder that Ceylon, its former name from the Imperial times, it is also one of the most well known tea brands all around the world! The large tea plantations are located in the hill country, in Sri Lanka’s central region. But we were told the traditions are much better kept in the south!
One of our guesthouse hosts advised us to visit Nandana Tea factory on our way north from the coast. We got there around noon and joined a tour hold by the owners, a very friendly old couple. We learned a lot not just about tea, but also about spices, herbs and tropical fruits which are typical for Sri Lanka. I loved to see how pepper grows, to smell cinnamon leaves or to find out how cloves really look like. It was a great lesson for the whole family! Then we entered the tea processing unit, where we were explained the differences between different types of tea. All ended with a tasting, where we tried 7-8 different types of green and black tea. I can honestly say it was the best tea I’ve ever had, much more pure and flavoured than anything I’ve had before! Too bad our luggage was too full, so we could buy just a small pack of our favourite mix.
You can’t visit Sri Lanka without taking a safari in a national park. There’s plenty of options to choose from, as the island hosts 26 national parks, which represent more than 8% of its total surface.
One of the highlights of our trip was seeing the Sri Lankan elephants in Udawalawe National Park. Actually, Eric kept singing a well-known Romanian song “One elephant…two elephants…” for a few days and still mentions the safari with great enthusiasm. Can’t wait to go together in a African safari to see the migration in a few years!
I chose a safari to Udawalawe as its location was very convenient for our route, but also because of its large elephant population. It is almost “guaranteed” to see the large mammals in their own habitat. We’ve encountered more than 20 of them, young males walking around, small herds of females and babies eating or adults bathing in the Udawalawe reservoir. We’ve even seen babies as young as 3-4 months old!
Most of the accommodations in the area are either organising safari rides or work with safari companies, so you can book your tour on the spot when getting there. A safari with kids is better to be done early morning, but there is also the option to go in the afternoon.
This was the first part of our adventure around Sri Lanka. Stay close for the next one, where we were road tripping through tea plantations in Sri Lanka’s hill country.