Colombo's cluttered skyline of modern towers juxtaposed with timeless temples and ramshackle housing can be a bit unappealing at first glance. But before plunging into Sri Lanka's natural attractions, it's essential to get to know the capital. Colombo's colonial architecture and museums are amongst the finest in the country, while it remains the cultural engine of Sri Lanka.
The challenge of getting around Colombo is one of the main reasons that a stay in the city can seem unpalatable. Cheap radio taxis are available throughout the city, however, as are three-wheelers (tuk tuks) and autorickshaws, though all are slow going due to congestion. Buses are regular and cover pretty much every metre of the city, but they tend to be very crowded.
Home to some 3 million people, Colombo is a vast urban sprawl stretching down the western coast of Sri Lanka. Tricky to make sense of and pretty ugly to look at by most standards, it's no wonder that visitors tend to move on as soon as possible. But beneath the surface is a fascinating South Asian capital. For one thing, there are a number of colonial churches, colourful Hindu towers and Buddhist temples to see, demonstrating the lively cultural mix here. Also, be sure to hit the bazaars of Pettah.
In the heart of Colombo is one of the city's most striking shrines, the Gangaramaya Temple, which is located next to Beira Lake. It was founded in the late 19th century and is packed with huge Buddhas in different styles, including Thai and Burmese. There is also an elephant in the temple, though this tends to disgust more than impress Western visitors.
The biggest museum in the country can be found in Colombo, the Sri Lanka National Museum, a grand white building that dates back to British rule and is one of the finest examples of colonial architecture in the country. Inside, there are exhibitions telling the fascinating history of ancient Sri Lanka. Many like its old-world vibe, as little has changed since it opened in the 19th century.
When the frenzy of the city inevitably gets too much, head south to the beach enclave of Dehiwala-Mount Lavinia, which is essentially a suburb about 15km from central Colombo centre. It can't quite match up to the unspoilt beaches elsewhere in the country, but the golden, palm-lined coast is nevertheless beautiful to behold, and you don't have to leave the world behind.
A relatively short taxi ride east of Colombo is the Talamgama wetlands, which surround an eponymous lake. Lovely for walking and birdwatching, there are at least 100 bird species here, as well as monkeys, dragonflies and many butterflies.
Colombo is probably the best place in Sri Lanka to try local food, which is joyously tasty. Street food stalls abound and while there isn't much of a culture in Sri Lanka for dining out, in Colombo there is a fledgling restaurant scene in the more built-up, developed parts of the city. Sri-Lankan style curries are the order of the day, and they tend to be both spicy and full of flavour. Alcohol is widely drunk here, with many bars serving the ubiquitous Lion lager, which dates back to the colonial era. For something stronger, knock back a shot of Arrak.