Colombo or Negombo? That’s a question a lot of travelers ask before heading to Sri Lanka. Most travelers would like to spend a day or two in a nearby city before exploring the rest of the country, especially after a long ass flight. Colombo and Negombo are the most popular options due to their proximity to the airport. The Bandaranaike International Airport, which is better known as the Colombo Airport, isn’t actually close to Colombo. In fact, it’s way closer to Negombo. The truth is, I wasn’t too fond of either place, especially after seeing what the rest of the country had to offer. I’d only recommend a day or two to recharge after a long flight. Now the question is, where would you choose to stay and rest for a bit? The answer to that question depends on your preferences. Both places have pros and cons.
The first thing to consider would be the distance. If you’re really tired and you want to get to your hostel/ hotel ASAP, then Negombo would be the obvious choice. From the airport, you can reach Negombo in less than 30 minutes if you take a taxi. It takes at least an hour to get to Colombo from the airport depending on the traffic. During rush hour it can take as long as 2 hours via taxi.
The next thing to consider would be the ease of getting to either place, as well as the cost of transportation. Whether you’re going to Colombo or Negombo, taking a taxi is obviously the easiest way since there are lots of cabs available at the airport. Of course, it’s gonna be cheaper to take a cab to Negombo. You only have to pay 1000-1500 Rupees (more or less 8 USD), depending on your haggling skills. To get to Colombo, you need to shell out around 2500-3000 Rupees (about 20 USD). I found it easier to just book an airport taxi, there are lots of kiosks in the arrivals area and the fixed rate that they charge are cheaper or at least on par with the rates taxi drivers charge outside. You also wouldn’t have to worry about haggling or getting scammed.
If you opt for public transport, it seems to be easier to head to Colombo. Just walk straight from the exit at the arrivals hall and you’ll reach the airport bus stop. Express buses to Colombo would stop every 30 minutes or so, and a single journey ticket only costs 130 Rupees (about 80 US cents!). It would take about 60 minutes to reach Colombo. For an even cheaper option you can take a regular bus at the Katunayake Bus Station which is a little more than a mile away from the airport. But considering how cheap it is to get a bus just outside the airport, I’d save myself from the hassle of walking a mile just to save a couple of Rupees. The Colombo bus station is near the Colombo Fort area. From here to anywhere within the city, tuk tuks would cost 200 -500 Rupees depending on distance.
Getting to Negombo via public transport is a bit trickier. You have to find your way to the Katunayake Bus Station, the same station where you’ll find those cheaper buses to Colombo. It’s a little more than a mile away. From the arrivals area at the airport, just walk straight until you reach the main road (Veyangoda Road). Once you reach it, turn right (heading south). You’re gonna encounter a lot of tuk tuks, just politely say no if want to save money. Continue walking straight and then turn left on Avariwatta Road. A bus ticket to Negombo Beach costs 25 Rupees (only 16 US cents!). From there, either walk or take a tuk tuk to your hotel/ hostel. The standard rate for tuk tuks seems to be 300 Rupees within Negombo— that’s the price for tourists, I’m guessing. Taking a tuk tuk from the airport to Negombo or Colombo would cost as much as taking a taxi so forget that option.
Keep in mind that there are fewer buses late at night, and it could be risky walking to the Katunayake Bus Station at night. The area seemed safe, but the locals at the airport were all saying I should take a tuk tuk or taxi if I wanted to go to the bus station. If you’re arriving late and you’re not too tight on cash, then I’d just recommend taking a cab straight to Negombo or Colombo. Everything is incredibly cheap in Sri Lanka, you still won’t be spending much money on your entire trip even if you take a cab to and from the airport.
You should also consider where you plan on heading next. In general, there are more bus routes from Colombo. There are also better train connections from Colombo. In many instances, if you’re coming from Negombo you might need to stop by Colombo first to make a transfer before heading to your desired destination. It’s not a big deal cause both cities are close to each other, but it can be troublesome if you don’t like making a number of transfers. If you’re heading to the beaches down south, it’s best to stay in Colombo. If you’re heading somewhere north, it’s a toss up. It’s easy to get to the so called cultural triangle from either city, though the travel time would be shorter coming from Negombo.
The next thing to consider is what you like to see and do. If you want a bit of sightseeing, there are more things to see in Colombo. Lots of temples, a number of museums— it’s the better choice if you want an early taste of Sri Lankan culture. Though it can be argued that if it’s Sri Lankan culture you’re looking for, you might as well head elsewhere and skip Colombo. You get to experience more of the local scene though since it’s the capital. You get to witness first hand how the locals are in their daily lives. The promenade area is interesting too, it’s bustling with activity during certain times of the day. It’s a good place to sit back and observe locals in the city. In contrast, there’s practically nothing of note to see in Negombo. There’s the remains of this Old Dutch Fort– there’s only one tower remaining so it’s easy to miss. When you see pictures of the place you’d think it’s massive. Maybe it used to be, but most of the area is now used as a prison. Another so called attraction is the Angurukaramulla Temple. Honestly, i was underwhelmed by this temple, I didn’t even bother taking pictures. There’s also the famous canal that looks way better in pictures— so yeah, that’s pretty much all you see in Negombo. The rest of the place looks like your typical transit town. There’s not much local color either since you get more of a touristy vibe.
If you just want to stay by the beach and go swimming, then it’s a no brainer. Stay in Negombo. I wouldn’t swim in the beach in Colombo, and by the looks of it even the locals wouldn’t. The city isn’t particularly clean, I doubt if the water on the ocean is clean either.
The next thing to consider would be the total cost of staying in the place you choose. If you want to cut costs, I’d stay in Colombo. I found it more expensive in Negombo in general– maybe because it’s kind of a transit city. Costs of accommodations are about the same in terms of hostels, but the price of basic commodities are a little more expensive. You can find cheap eats, but those places are harder to find. In Colombo there are cheap places to eat practically anywhere. Alcohol is also cheaper in Colombo. Most bars in Negombo are clustered by the beach, and those are understandably quite expensive since the pricier accommodations are also within that area.
The last thing to consider would be the atmosphere. If you simply want to relax after a long flight, then stay in Negombo. This is the main reason why i chose to stay in Negombo on my first two days in the country. The atmosphere is mostly laid back, it’s a great place to unwind. Colombo is a typical Asian city— huge, overpopulated, chaotic, noisy, dirty… not exactly an ideal place to relax. I’m not really fond of cities in general, especially overpopulated ones, so yeah I may be a little biased. I’ve met travelers who liked Colombo. As for me, i didn’t like Colombo at all— that would explain the lack of pictures haha. In fact, on hindsight, I should have just stayed where i was at on my last two days in the country since there’s an express bus to Colombo from there. From Colombo I can easily head to the airport, there was no need to spend a single night in the city. But it all boils down to personal preference. I have laid out the pros and cons of staying in either Colombo or Negombo. If you think you need to stay someplace near the airport for a day or two before exploring the better parts of the country, it’s up to you to the decide where to stay.