Many visitors choose Negombo rather than Colombo as their gateway to Sri Lanka due to its proximity to the Bandaranaike International Airport. It was one of the first territories occupied by the Portuguese and their missionaries converted many citizens to Catholicism in the 16th century. Portuguese surnames are common and Easter is celebrated every year with the staging of the Passion Play in Duwa, a small island in the Negombo Lagoon.
The town has a smattering of roadside Catholic shrines and churches. Among them, St Mary’s Church, with its brightly painted ceiling and several alabaster statues of saints, occupies pride of place. There are also a few remnants of the Colonial period such as the Fort, built by the Dutch in 1672, which now serves as a prison. Additionally, there are some interesting temples, both Hindu and Buddhist to explore.
Negombo became a significant commercial centre during the Dutch occupation and its 15th-century waterways were expended to help transport spices – particularly cinnamon, which grew abundantly in the area – from inland towns to the coast. These waterways or canals formed a sizeable network. Extending south to Colombo and north to Puttalam, they covered a distance of 120 km (75 miles) and once teemed with flat-bottomed “padda” boats. Today it is possible to cycle or walk along the banks or take a boat trip to observe bucolic life while watching out for birds that frequent the area.
Negombo offers a lively insight into life in coastal Sri Lanka. The economy relies heavily on fishing and a visit to one of the fish markets can be fascinating experience; but consider wearing closed shoes to avoid the inevitable slush.
Located a couple of miles north of the town, Negombo’s beach is where most tourists decide to base themselves as a wide range of accommodation options, as well as a number of restaurants and shops, line the sandy shore. While less hectic than the beach in Colombo, there are still many activities to choose from here such as diving, kitesurfing and fishing. Swimming is not recommended since the sea can be rough but many hotels have pools that are open to non residents for a fee. Local boatmen also hang out on the beach, offering to take tourists out to sea or to the Negombo Lagoon in their “oruvas” (stylized canoes).
Visitors should note that Negombo Beach is not always very clean. Fishing boats and nets litter the sand at its southern end, and fish drying in the sun is a familiar sight. The northern part of the beach, however, is far more pleasant.