Colombo is more than just a gateway to the resorts and surf breaks of Sri Lanka’s south coast. Despite the noise and crowds, this is a city of vibrant colours and rich culture, offering fascinating insights into the national psyche of Sri Lanka.

Many people rush through Colombo and make straight for the beaches, but linger and you'll find a city full of history, where stately British colonial buildings jostle for space with Sri Lankan dagobas (stupas), palm-shaded parks and Dutch colonial churches. Here are 10 great ways to explore this constantly evolving city for free.

Serene surroundings in Colombo's Viharamahadevi Park © Kevin Clogstoun / Getty Images

Snake charmers charm at Viharamahadevi Park

Colombo is spoilt for choice when it comes to places to chill out, but beautifully maintained Viharamahadevi Park is a city favourite. The parades of palms and fig trees are spectacular, the lawns are dotted with statues and fountains, there are views of Colombo’s colonial-era Town Hall, and there’s always the chance of catching the odd snake charmer in action. Find a shady spot and you can people-watch for hours.

Taking in the sea air at Galle Face Green © Natalie Blow / Lonely Planet

Join the locals on Colombo’s favourite promenade

Whilst it might not be quite as green as it once was, Galle Face Green is still frequented by locals in search of some relaxing downtime. There’s a tacky but loveable charm to this seafront park, which is animated by bubble-blowers, bouncing beach balls and vibrant kites swooping across the sky. It's also a great spot for a snack – street food traders congregate on the waterfront at sunset, serving delicious Sri Lankan treats, including crispy egg hoppers and the island’s signature kottu, a griddle fry-up of chopped noodles, eggs and spices.

Sri Lankan colours on sale at Nelum Pokuna Art Street © Natalie Blow / Lonely Planet

Dive into an open-air gallery at Kala Pola Art Market

On any non-rainy day of the week, you can catch a cohort of talented local artists as they transform the streets of Nelum Pokuna into an open-air gallery with their latest creations. The Kala Pola Art Market is the oldest art market in town, and traders have been holding court here for over a century. Some of the work on display is touristy and generic, but there are some gems to be unearthed here if you look beyond the clichéd depictions of elephants and tigers. If you feel like investing, paintings are usually on canvas and can be rolled up to carry away.

Engage with Sri Lankan contemporary art at Paradise Road Gallery

The Paradise Road Gallery (paradiseroad.lk) is a piece of art in itself. This upscale gallery is a beautiful space that exhibits contemporary Sri Lankan artists of high renown and is considered one of the most important art spaces in the country. The general ambience, decadent aesthetic and renowned Gallery Café add to its charm. With monthly rotating exhibitions, it’s definitely worth popping back again for a second visit before leaving the island.

The gleaming white dagoba at Bellanwala © Natalie Blow / Lonely Planet

Zen out and meditate at Bellanwila Temple

It’s a pretty tough job finding a temple in Colombo that doesn’t charge tourists nowadays, but for anyone venturing down south to Mount Lavinia, the Bellanwila Temple is a top detour. This is a real locals' temple, where visitors can experience the authenticity of the Buddhist tradition without having to share it with camera-toting crowds. Unsurprisingly, it’s a great spot for meditation. The temple is famed for its bright and bold Buddhist statues and its revered bodhi-tree - one of thirty-two saplings taken from the sacred bodhi in Anuradhapura.

The ramshackle charm of Mount Lavinia Beach © Natalie Blow / Lonely Planet

Love the sunset on Mount Lavinia Beach

Just a forty-minute bus ride from the centre, Mount Lavinia beach is the perfect refuge for travellers wanting to escape the city hustle. Whilst the main drag of Mount Lavinia beach is often dotted with litter, there are plenty of tucked away spots that remain unspoiled and the sunsets here are simply spectacular. As you make your way onto the golden sands, watch for locals taking the back route, walking fearlessly along the coastal railway tracks.

An impossible waterfall at Diyatha Uyana © Natalie Blow / Lonely Planet

Graffiti in 3D at Diyatha Uyana

Colombo’s most happening public park, Diyatha Uyana, has become an outdoor hub of cultural activity. Created by unknown local artists, trompe l’oeil graffiti artworks that seem to burst into 3D are the latest addition to the park’s artistic legacy, creating dizzying optical illusions in front of the beautiful view over Lake Batturumullam. Make a day of it and explore the serene grounds, scan the vegetation for tropical birds or check out the Good Market held on Thursdays, selling healthy snacks and Sri Lankan crafts.

Rich pickings at Barefoot Books © Natalie Blow / Lonely Planet

Books, exhibitions and more at Barefoot Bookshop

More than just a bookshop, Barefoot is a great find. As well as the carefully curated range of titles by Sri Lankan authors, exquisite coffee table books and insightful travel guides in the bookstore, there are free exhibitions, displays of cultural textiles and live Dumbara weaving, all taking place under one roof. Even if you don’t buy, browsing the bookshelves is a great way to learn about the vitality of Sri Lankan culture.

Have a run in with history at Independence Square

Finding time to exercise on a trip to Sri Lanka can be tricky when there’s so much to see and do, but taking a run on the tracks at Independence Square is a great way to kill two birds with one stone. As you work up a sweat, you can admire the Independence Arcade, whose white-washed colonial buildings once housed the Jawatta Lunatic Asylum and the offices of the former Western Provincial Council. Scattered fountains and green spaces en route make this a seriously pleasant place to work out.

Wolvendaal Church is one of the oldest Dutch colonial buildings in Sri Lanka © A Photo By Bhagiraj Sivagnanasundaram / Getty Images

Delve into Dutch history at Wolvendaal Church

A short distance from the chaos of Pettah Market, this impressive piece of Dutch architecture was put together in 1757. The jackals that used to roam this area were mistaken for wolves by early Dutch settlers, giving the church its curious name - Wolvendaal, or 'Valley of Wolves'. Although the church isn’t well maintained, its five-foot thick stonewalls are laden with history. You could spend hours staring at the life stories of forgotten settlers, carved into the ornate tombstones that pave the floor. Catch a church service on Sundays at 9.30am.

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