Colombo, the island's largest city, is noisy, frenetic - and just a little crazy. 'No problem' might be the national motto; it's certainly the one phrase everyone knows and can say. While the city holds less obvious interest than many other parts of the island, it's still a colourful enough place and worth a visit to see what makes Sri Lanka tick.
Colombo is a relatively easy city to find your way around. To the north is the Fort district, the country's business centre, which has department stores, book shops, airline offices and is the site of the Central Bank, The World Trade Centre twin towers. There are also ample sights such as the clock tower, a former lighthouse, the president's residence (known by incorrigible traditionalists as Queen's House), and a cluster of colonial buildings which lend the district an aura of bygone Empire.
Immediately south of here is Galle Face Green, a seafront expanse of occasional green graced by cricket games, kite flyers and trysting lovers. Cinammon Gardens, further south, is Colombo's most fashionable neighbourhood, with elegant mansions, tree-lined streets and the city's largest park. East of the fort is the pungent Pettah bazaar district. Walk through and marvel at the riot of goods - fruit, vegetables, meat, gems, gold, silver, brass and tin junk.
Culture buffs shouldn't miss the National Museum, which has a good collection of historical works, the Art Gallery, which focuses on portraiture and temporary exhibits by local artists, and the city's many mosques and Buddhist and Hindu temples. After familiarising yourself with Sri Lankan culture, check out the island's fauna at the Dehiwala Zoo. The highlight here is an afternoon elephant show. The closest real beach is at Mt Lavinia, a faded resort 10km south of the city.
Budget accommodation, cheap food and the best shopping can be found in the Fort and Pettah districts. Nightlife is moribund, though a visit to the cinema in the Fort district is an experience.