10 Oct A Walk Around Colombo Fort in Two Hours
Colombo is a great city to explore on foot. Boasting wide pavements and old-school portico-style arcades to shield you from the sun, Fort — the historic heart of the city — makes for a particularly scenic and comfortable walk.
If you only have a couple of hours to spend in Fort, you won’t be able to see everything, but it’s just enough time to catch Colombo Fort’s best parts. We put together a walking itinerary that guides you to eight highlights in Colombo’s no.1 heritage hotspot in two hours. Download our app (it’s free!) for easier navigation. Let’s start walking!
1. Galle Face Hotel
Kick-off your from Sri Lanka’s oldest and most prestigious hotel, the Galle Face Hotel, which was built even before the Suez Canal. In keeping with its colonial past, high tea is still served in the afternoons. Greet the sunset from the hotel’s lovely terrace or enjoy a barrel-infused negroni at Galle Face’s iconic Traveller’s Bar.
Facing the hotel is the Galle Face Green. This beautiful public promenade is usually crowded during the evenings on the weekday, and even more so on weekends. It’s a great place to people watch, breathe in fresh air wafting in from the Indian Ocean, and devour some authentic Sri Lankan street food, which is freshly prepared as you watch. With the ocean waves crashing just meters in front of you, the splendour of Green, the Galle Face Hotel and Colombo’s curious emerging skyline confronting you on all sides, the Nana’s at the promenade probably have the best ambience a restaurant in Colombo can offer. When Mark Twain arrived at the Green during his late 19th century travels, he famously quoted:
“WHAT A DREAM IT WAS OF TROPICAL SPLENDOUR OF BLOOM AND BLOSSOM AND ORIENTAL CONFLAGRATIONS OF COSTUME”
Galle Face Hotel was Sri Lanka’s most prestigious hotel even before the Suez Canal was built and still is today. Left image: British Archives
2. Old Parliament
Amble North along the promenade until you spot a magnificent brown edifice built in the Neo-Baroque style (you might have to speed up here and taking a tuk-tuk if you really need to stick to the two-hour deadline!). This is the Old Parliament and current Presidential Secretariat of Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, you aren’t allowed to just walk in, but you can walk around it to savour the Greek-inspired, colonial architecture, be it from a distance. Look out for the statues of the long-dead statesmen decorating its lawn!
3. Dutch Hospital
Keep going North and turn right to walk to the Dutch Hospital. A building originally constructed to treat seafarers who plied the ocean for the Dutch East India Company, the hospital has recently been into a smart shopping complex after decades of unuse. Where the hospital beds used to be, you’ll now find Colombo’s most fashionable cafes, restaurants, and shops. Dutch Hospital caters to the Fort office crowd and wandering tourists, but it’s also a popular hangout spot (with free Wi-Fi!) for anyone looking for a bit of shade in the heat of the day. Before you enter Dutch Hospital, however, we suggest you venture into the parking lot of the Ceylon Building to your left to catch a glimpse of the prison cell of Sri Wikrama Rajasinghe, the last king of Sri Lanka.
4. Pagoda Tea Room at Chatham Street
Moving on, cross over to Chatham St. to catch a glimpse of the clock-tower, as it’s the only lighthouse in the world that also tells the time! Chatham Street is also home to numerous old establishments with years of history embedded within their walls. Stop by at Pagoda Tea Rooms for a cuppa, and while you’re there, try to re-imagine the exoticism that characterised the place as depicted in Duran Duran’s iconic 1982 music video for the song Hungry Like the Wolf.
5. General Post Office
This is a Colombo classic you can’t skip! With its eclectic façade decorated by columns in every possible style — Doric (basement), Ionic (ground floor), and Corinthian (upper part) — it’s a contender for being one of the most impressive post office buildings in the world. The GPO’s most majestic feature is its balustrade staircase, which leads through lofty arches to the public hall. Also noteworthy is its floor, which is laid with coloured Intaglio tiles. In short: truly a place where you could send your telegraph in style!
Unfortunately, the building is currently not accessible. The post office has been closed for a long time and is patiently waiting for a new lease of life. Here’s to hoping it returns to its former glory and vibrancy soon…
6. Cargills Building
Walk on down past old and prestigious jewellery shops to arrive at the Cargills Building. Back in the day, this was where the who’s who of Colombo shopped for groceries. Exotic items from far off lands, such as the finest champagne, caviar, and cheese to Chinese fireworks, Indian dried fish, and Japanese toys, were stocked here. Pick up a souvenir or two from Laksala as you continue your walk, passing other historic edifices such as the Plantation House. You’ll find yourself slowly entering a lively part of the city that only gets more intense as you venture closer and closer to Pettah.
7. Bank of India & China
Home to Colombo’s financial powerhouses, Prince Street used to be the city’s most prominent boulevard. In an unprecedented configuration, this monumental bank building was constructed jointly by the Imperial Bank of India and the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC). Up until today, it’s still occupied by the same two banks that first built it in 1923!
The HSBC side of the building was completely refurbished in 2015, but walking into the State Bank of India (successor to the Imperial Bank) side of the building is like stepping back in time. Note its magnificent vaulted high ceiling, tiled floor, original fittings, and lots of other “Imperial” adornments.
8. Grand Oriental Hotel
The glorious Grand Oriental Hotel on York Street is your final destination of this short walk. Once as prestigious as the Galle Face Hotel, the GOH has seen better days. In the days before air travel, this hotel used to be the first port of call for all travellers coming into Sri Lanka, as it is situated right outside the entrance to the harbour. We suggest you head to the Harbour Room on the fifth floor. What better way to end your walk than with some tea, snacks, and an unparalleled sunset view of the harbour?
Stop the Clock, this was your two-hour speed-date with Fort!
Like what you saw? There’s plenty more to see in Colombo Fort. Get your hands on the iDiscover Colombo City Guide to discover it all! Our guide boasts four handcrafted itineraries that bring you to honest and authentic places in the city’s most historic neighbourhoods: Pettah, Fort, Cinnamon Gardens, and Slave Island. Our guide comes with a free navigational app so that you can get lost without getting lost. Feel like having more of a guided tour? Mark Forbes at Colombo City Walks is your man.
Explore more of Colombo Fort’s hidden gems with the iDiscover Map and App
Our guides are created by locals, designed by locals and powered by locals …with a little help from iDiscover. Hear their stories, share their passion and learn what they love! iDiscover’s Colombo Fort Neighbourhood Map is curated by Colombo Heritage Collective, illustrated by local artist Mika Tennekoon, and powered by Cantaloupe & Co, PWA Architects and Shared Cultural Heritage Fund of DutchCuture.
Words by Halik Hazeez
Halik is a visual artist and writer who uses everyday life in Sri Lanka as his inspiration. He likes to spend as much time as possible walking the streets and encountering the unexpected. Find him on Instagram.
Photography by Kesara Ratnavibhushana
Kesara has been documenting cities for close to 20 years. His photographic practice is based in Colombo but also works internationally. His hometown is changing, rapidly, sometimes faster than even Kesara – a quick adaptor – can keep track of. He spends hours walking the streets recording its history and urban reality. Check out his work here.