Four Neighbourhood Walking Trails in Colombo for Cultural Travelers

Colombo is a gem of a city. Sri Lanka’s capital is leafy, green and surprisingly good to walk. Particularly in the historic neighbourhoods where the pavements are wide and there’re old-school portico-style arcades and giant banyan trees to shield you from the sun. It’s easy to get lost in the busy streets and little laneways, but that’s also where you stumble upon the most surprising sites and find unexpected encounters that make for unforgettable experiences. The Colombo Heritage Collective, a passionate group of heritage enthousiasts created a series of new walking maps for the city’s four most iconic neighbourhoods: Fort the historic heart of the city, the ever-bustling street market quarter of Pettah, the leafy suburb Cinnamon Gardens and the multicultural district of Slave Island.

In each neighbourhood, they roamed the streets collecting stories of places and people. They curated a charming selection of undisputed city highlights and little-known local insights, must-see places and hidden gems and handcrafted these into four walking itineraries of about one hour. They teamed up with four talented artists to put the most captivating places on the map and the result is a series of four neighbourhood walking maps, each an artistic ode to the spirit of the city. We meet the four artists to find out about their creative inspiration, what makes the city tick? And of course, their favourite places to eat, drink, shop, pray and play in Colombo’s historic hotspot.

Only have a couple of hours to spend in Colombo? Then one of these four walking itineraries will help you catch some of the best parts of the city, through the lens of locals. #getlostwithoutgettinglost

Colombo 01 . Fort . by Mika Tennekoon

Mikka Tennekoon at the red-white striped Cargill's building in Fort

Why did you choose pastel colours for the Fort map?

Most of my work is bright and colourful, but I felt that a lighter pastel palette better fitted the long history and the grand architecture of the place. Before I started drawing, I spent an evening driving around Fort to feel the atmosphere and see how much had changed over the years. The streets were quiet and it was a good opportunity to reconnect with the place and look at the buildings in all their splendour. So handsome and sturdy, but ignored and neglected for so many years.

Tell us how your drawings capture the spirit of place?

I remember coming here as a child. My dad brought us to the Bank of Ceylon, which was then the highest building in town. We went all the way up to the top floor with the elevator, one of those old ones with the steel shutters, and it made a huge impression. Fort Station also is a memorable place for me, from there we’d take the train up-country. Each individual illustration is a hand-drawn memory of place. For example, on the way to the station, there was this newspaper guy, I so vividly remember his face, he’s now on the map. I don’t think my generation fully realises what a happening place this must have been in the old days. Since working on this project so many people shared their own Fort memories, stories about fun picnics in Gordon Gardens, live bands playing in the Grand Oriental Bar and long nights out in Chatham Street.

What is Fort for you?

I was away from Sri Lanka for a few years, I was in the UK, Vietnam, India. Since coming back, I see this face-lift of Fort. All these crumbling buildings now being renovated, they look so fancy now, amazing. It’s like Colombo people start appreciating the history in the midst of all these new skyscrapers. I hope the beauty and the character of Fort can be conserved and we will not see more high rises going up in this part of town.

Finally, share with us some of your favourite places

I used to come here a lot in the days that Fort was more of an off-limits place. The little terrace bar at the Grand Oriental was one of these hidden places, few people knew about it, but it had cheap beer and the best view in town. But perhaps my all-time favourite place is the Galle Face Green. I love going there for Isso Vade and enjoying the breeze and the relaxed atmosphere. I must have photographed the view a thousand times. While working on this map I’ve added a new place to that list. I knew of the Sambodhi Chaithya, but I’d never been inside. The curved walls with Buddhist murals are absolutely stunning, a must-see!

Colombo people start appreciating the history in the midst of all these new skyscrapers. I hope the beauty and the character of Fort can be conserved.
— Mika Tennekoon

About Mika

Mika Tennekoon is a carefree and creative spirit inspired by the deep cultural traditions of her country. She’s most happy wherever there’s sun & surf. Follow her work here ->

Colombo 11 . Pettah . by Ruwangi Amarasinghe

Orange is a happy, energetic colour, it reflects the pace of Pettah's street life

Why did you choose the orange colour?

Orange is a happy energetic colour. In Pettah everything happens at the daytime when the sun is out; the place is hot, bold and loud, and people are sweating and shouting. I wanted to capture that energy, the hustle and bustle of the street life.

You’ve often drawn streets and buildings of Pettah, why this fascination with the neighbourhood?

I connect to the place. I can relate to the chaos, it’s messy but in a good way, a kind of chaos, like the one in an artist’s mind... I’ve been coming to Pettah since I was a child, but only really started registering the place when I was at art school. At the Academy of Design, we’d come here all the time to get paper, paint and other art supplies. It was then that I rediscovered the place and fell in love with it. I learned to navigate the streets and found so many interesting places. I love observing people and in Pettah there’s always something going on, the beauty is in the small things, and there are so many stories to tell.

Ruwangi connects to the place, to the smells, sounds, chaos and to the people of Pettah

Your map is very detailed, how did you do that?

I used google maps street view to see what each building looks like at street level, it takes a lot of time to zoom in and out, but it was fun drawing the street scenes. I had done illustrations of one street before, but never the whole neighbourhood.

Finally, share with us some of your favourite places

I always go to Bombay Sweets when I’m here, the original one at 1st Cross Street. Their samosas are the best. And as an artist I love browsing the stationary, paper and art supplies shops, I never leave empty-handed. I love how Pettah stays the same, but at the same time, there’s always something new. A new shop has opened in a little alleyway or there are new gadgets on offer. I hope for Pettah to stay the way it is. In so many other parts of Colombo, you see skyscrapers replacing the old buildings. Look at what’s happening in Fort and Slave Island, the places are losing their soul. I hope Pettah can stay the same, it’s perfect the way it is.

I love observing people and in Pettah there’s always something going on, the beauty is in the small things, there are so many stories to tell.
— Ruwangi Amarasinghe

The making of..the new map of Pettah

See Ruwangi at work, this 30-sec video shows her showing her amazing skills and remarkable attention to detail.

About Ruwangi

Ruwangi Amarasinghe aka Roo is a wanderer and wonderer. Her vibrant and colourful style brilliantly captures Pettah’s buzzing energy. Follow her @roobixcube.

Colombo 02 . Slave Island . by Firi Rahman

Firi showing the new Slave Island community map in front of an old barber shop in Church Street

What inspired you for the style of the map?

I wanted to draw Slave Island by dusk when the spirit of the place comes alive. That’s when people go out to eat, pray and play. I’ve also put in a flock of pigeons. There are many pigeon keepers here in Slave Island. When they release the birds, it’s like they have a little party in the sky and then they find their way back home. Every fall when the winds come people are up on the roofs flying their kites, it’s an amazing colourful spectacle. The temples at the Beira Lake - the famous Seema Malaka and Gangaramaya Temple - I’ve drawn at the time of the Vesak lantern festival in May when there are dancers, food sellers, and beautiful light decorations.

Tell us a bit about the process of mapping this neighbourhood.

We were a great team, writer Nadeesha Paulis and Chathura, the photographer. Some people were a bit reluctant to share their stories at first, but when they started talking, they couldn’t stop, we learned so many interesting things about family histories and past generations.

A mural from Firi’s #WeAreFromHere project featuring Slave Island locals in the little laneways
The #WeAreFromHere mural project is like a treasure hunt. I want to tell people’s stories through street art.
— Firi Rahman

You live in Slave Island yourself, what your favourite places?

Of course, many of my favourite eateries are here, like Boolan, Kabeer & Sons and Fazly’s. What was important for me was that the old Castle Hotel was on the map - not the new one - because it was such an important place for the local community. We also wanted to document places that are disappearing from the streetscape, like the Java Lane mosque, which is still there but no longer accessible. This Malay mosque is now blocked by the scaffolding of the building sites. And there are many places, where we don’t know whether they’ll still be here in a few years’ time, like the famous Rio Cinema, or the iconic row of De Soysa shophouses. The street already changed beyond recognition with the big skyscrapers, it’s distressing to see what’s happening, you can no longer see the sunset because of these new skyscrapers.

Why is it important to map these places now?

It’s not that the people are hopeless but it’s a time of rapid change for us and we’re all adjusting. I want to give people the feeling that this place, its heritage and its culture has value. With all these new buildings they may feel that their land and their properties can be bought just like that. I tell the stories of the community, to make people feel proud of their place. That’s why with some friends I started the interactive mural project #WeAreFromHere. We want to show a different side of Colombo’s Slave Island community, the people who make this a fascinating, unique and diverse place and together form a multifaceted, resilient community. We paint murals of locals on walls all around Slave Island, sportspeople, street vendors, mechanics, musicians, actors and artists. It’s like a treasure hunt, but with people! You get a card of a person, and you have to find the respective wall mural. The idea is not just to get to know a person, but also to find out how they matter to the community.

The iconic row of shophouses in Slave Island that is under threat of demolition

About Firi

Firi Rahman is an artist who lives and works in Slave Island. He captures the uniqueness of place in his conceptual cartography and ink pen drawings. Firi loves to wander, photograph abandoned places, and learn the stories of forgotten corners. Among his many passions is Firi’s love of parrots: “I live in my own urban jungle”. Follow him at @ifiri

Colombo 07 . Cinnamon Gardens . by Neesha Fernando

What makes Cinnamon Gardens special?

It’s a neighbourhood with an artistic soul. For as long as it has existed, Cinnamon Gardens or Colombo 07, has been the city’s most sought-after address home to the city’s rich, famous and cultural crowd. Along the wide boulevards, you find the major monuments, museums and universities but also the city’s leading art galleries, bookshops and theatres. Sri Lanka has always been a cultured society and Cinnamon Gardens was the country’s prime creative hub. It was in many splendid villas and charming alleyways of Colombo 07 that the poets, painters, artists and architects met for long literary evenings, astounding exhibitions and amazing plays and concerts.

Cinnamon Gardens sounds very poetic..

It once was a cinnamon plantation, so the neighbourhood still is gloriously leafy. What I love are the big open spaces. People come here to relax, exercise, picnic and do yoga in the park. My favourite time is early morning when the different generations all have their own fitness regimes, running, walking, yoga, cricket, boxing, anything goes.

Explore on foot or by bike?

This is a great neighbourhood to explore by bike or by tuk, places are quite far and the roads are wide and shaded. I’d go early morning or late afternoon.

What are your favourite places?

Recently Colombo 07 has seen a bunch of new eco-friendly concept stores and organic cafés like Urban Island, Good Market, Seed Café and Kumbuk Café. Artisanal products, yummy healthy food and totally guilt-free shopping.

About Neesha

Neesha Fernando loved drawing cartoons as a child but never dreamt this would be a career. She is now one of Colombo’s most sought-after graphic designers. Follow her @justferyou.

The four Colombo neighbourhood maps come with a lovely little storybook and are available from selected retailers, like Urban Island and Prana Lounge. Or simply download a copy here ->

Mapping Dutch Fort Cities in Sri Lanka

This mapping and storytelling project in Colombo was funded by the Dutch Culture Shared International Heritage Matching Fund and is part of a bigger endeavour to unveil different historical layers in Sri Lankan coastal cities that have a shared history with the Netherlands and reinterpret stories of the past through the lens of locals.


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Colombo Heritage Collective

Colombo Heritage Collective is an NGO that cares for Colombo’s heritage and looks for ways to preserve the city’s unique identity in a time of rapid urbanisation.
Dutch Culture

The Shared Cultural Heritage Fund of Dutch Culture supports projects that contribute to the visibility of the shared history that connects the Netherlands with Sri Lanka.
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