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Negombo, Sri Lanka | 5 historical sites in Little Rome

by Steven
Published: Last Updated on

For centuries, Negombo was the gateway for the trade in one of the best kinds of cinnamon that exist in this world. The Moors wanted it, the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British. The Portuguese turned Negombo into Rome in miniature, the Dutch built canals and houses here. And you can still discover those influences in Negombo today.

Most tourists who get off the plane at Bandaranaike International Airport choose to stay the first night in either Colombo or Negombo. Colombo is the busy capital and Negombo a small historic town north of the capital and not far from the airport. Negombo is situated on a lagoon and if you know the history of the place a little you can easily spend an afternoon there. And after that night you can really explore Sri Lanka.

Negombo is especially nice to end or start your journey. There is not much to see and some tourists end their vacation here on the beach. But if you want to see something of this fishing village, read on.

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What would you like to know about Negombo in Sri Lanka?

Fishing Village of Negombo in Sri Lanka
The beach of Negombo. This picture was taken in October, basically this is the month with the most rain in this part of Sri Lanka

A historical introduction – Fishing and a flourishing trade in cinnamon

For centuries Negombo has been an important place where the trade in fish is the main source of income. As early as the 8th century AD, the Moors came here to trade in herbs and spices, especially cinnamon in the wild. The Portuguese were also charmed by this spice in the 16th century and decided to build a trading fort in Negombo. They tried to gain a monopoly position in the trade in herbs and spices and also had missionaries convert large groups of people to Christianity.

But around 1640 the Dutch smelled the cinnamon. In a few battles, they succeeded in driving the Portuguese out of Sri Lanka. They expanded the fort and laid canals and built colonial houses. While visiting Negombo, you cannot overlook this. Finally, around 1800, the British expelled the Dutch and determined the politics in the country for about 150 years. They built a few more churches in Negombo, but the name Little Rome was already established. Nowhere in Sri Lanka will you find as many churches as in Negombo.

Sights in Negombo – 5 historical sites

Below are some of the sights you can b1e visit in Negombo. Most of the places are located in the southern part of the fishing town. In total you will spend no more than 2 to 3 hours, but you can always have coffee, lunch and dinner in one of the many restaurants that Negombo is rich.

St Sebastian Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka
On April 26, 2019, a number of terrorists committed attacks in Sri Lanka. This happened, among others, at the St. Sebastian Church in Negombo. This photo is from 2018, so it was taken before the attack.

1. Go to the fish market

Negombo has been a place that lives from fishing for centuries. Therefore you should definitely take a look at one of the fish markets. From the start, it all looks a bit unhygienic and in principle it is. The hygienic standards as we know them are not really respected.

Tip: Take good shoes with you, because before you know it you stand with your slipper in the squid.

Fishing Market in Negombo, Sri Lanka
The fish market of Negombo is famous and should not be missed if you’re here anyway

2. See the remains of Dutch Fort

It took me some effort to find the old Dutch Fort. But there are definitely remains present that you can admire from the outside. The inside is also possible, but then you have to kill someone first because nowadays it is a prison. Did therefore give me an unpleasant feeling, as families of the prisoners stand on the outside of the gate to bring food. The fort was built by the Portuguese, expanded by the Dutch, and partially destroyed by the British. They needed it to build a prison.

The remains of Dutch Fortress, now a prison
Dutch fort is now a prison. These are the remains on the outside, if you walk into the gate to the left you will see family members of the prisoners standing by.

3. Discover the Dutch canals

One of the ways the Dutch tried to promote the spice trade in Sri Lanka was by building canals. One canal that Sri Lanka still uses a lot is the one that runs from the capital Colombo to Puttalam in the north. This is a total of more than 120 kilometers long. But also in Negombo, you will encounter a number of canals. Okay, it’s not Amsterdam, but still….

Tip: I don’t have any experience with it myself, but if you have time to spare, you can always take a boat trip through the canals or Negombo Lagoon at a number of places.

Dutch canals in Negombo
Here you see one of the canals that the Dutch had dug to strengthen their monopoly position on the island

4. St. Mary Church, one of the largest cathedrals in Sri Lanka

St. Mary’s Church is one of the largest cathedrals in the country. The British started construction in 1874 and finished and by 1922 the church was completed. It is built in neoclassical style and especially the interior of the church is beautifully finished. So, should you have time to spare, do not skip this beautiful church.

The St. Mary Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka
St. Mary church

5. Vist more churches and colonial buildings

As you know by now Negombo is also called the Rome in miniature. Only in Negombo, there are about 25 churches that justify this name. In addition, you will find here Hindu and Buddhist temples and a mosque. This shows that in Negombo the different ethnic groups can live well with each other. Let’s hope that the attack in the St. Sebastian Church on April 26, 2019, did not leave any lasting damage there.

Cows on the beach in Sri Lanka
Cows on the beach in Negombo

Accommodation – Where to stay in Negombo?

Are you convinced and want to start your trip in Negombo? Or maybe you want to end your trip in this fishing town? Depending on personal preference, one night in Negombo is enough to explore the town in the afternoon and to continue immediately the next day. If you want to explore the area or stay on the beach you can always adjust this. To be honest, I find the beaches south of Colombo more beautiful and less rugged than Negombo Beach. But I was here in October and that’s when the most rain falls in this part of Sri Lanka all year.

Accommodation on the beach

And if you do stay longer check if you can book a hotel with a swimming pool, just to be sure. In case the beach is a bit disappointing. In Negombo, you have a wide choice of nice restaurants and cafes.

Looking for accommodation in Negombo? Look here for the options

The beach of Negombo in Sri Lanka
The beach of Negombo in October

Transportation and the continuation of your journey through Sri Lanka

On to the next destination? Most people continue their journey to the north or east of the country. From the bus station in Negombo, you can be in the ancient royal city of Anuradhapura within 3 hours and you can continue your journey to Jaffna. But you can also choose to go to Dambulla and visit the cave temple of King Valagamba or to Sigiriya for the climb of the Lion Rock. Both places are located in the middle of Sri Lanka. Or a little further south to another important cultural city, Kandy, and then continue on to the high plains of Sri Lanka. Or are you already ready for the beaches in the south with as absolute highlight the Dutch fort in Galle.

Do you have more tips, comments, or ideas about Negombo? Then feel free to leave a message below.

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