From Arab settlers in the 8th century to the Portuguese, Dutch and the British up until the 20th century have all fought over Sri Lanka’s treasures including precious gems, scented woods, spices, and tea. The island remains a popular shopping destination within Asia: highlights include clothing – with many well-known European and American brands available at discounted prices – antiques and furniture, homeware and jewellery, craft shops and bazaars that are fun wandering around to get a feel for the real Sri Lanka. For a list of recommended shops, see our Booking Information.
Larger more established private and government shops across the island will have prices marked on each item for sale which is far easier for the customer. If you are browsing around antique shops, craft shops, bazaars and small shops in tourist towns like Unawatuna and Hikkaduwa, then you may be expected to bargain. You’ll also need to bargain in jewellery stores, so make sure you research prices before making a purchase. Your driver will be able to give you an idea of what the correct price should be for many different items, so do ask if you are unsure, and remember that it is typical for prices to be significantly inflated for tourists. However, if you bargain in a friendly manner then the prices will soon come down. Avoid being aggressive as this is likely to offend and will not secure the best price. When buying gemstones, ensure that you shop from a dealer that has a license from the government National Gem & Jewellery Authority.
Village Fairs and Bazaars
Fresh vegetables, herbs, and fruit from village home gardens to homemade buffalo curd and honey, or a hot cup of tea is always at hand for you to buy along the way as you explore the island. If you want to get a feel for the trading heart of Colombo, spend a hectic morning wandering the narrow streets of Pettah Market, where you will find anything from colourful fabrics to the latest mobile phones. If you accept anybody’s offer to act as a guide, ensure you establish the financial basis upon which this is being offered.
Sri Lanka’s rich heritage with a blend of Asian and European influences extends to furniture and object d’art. There are several antique shops where antique Colonial period furniture to ornaments, Moorish porcelain, brass lamps and pottery can be purchased. Ambalangoda and Galle Fort are the most famous for antiques. There are several shops in Colombo as well where prices are somewhat higher than along the west coast.
Various traditional arts and crafts are produced in different parts of the island as home-based cottage industries where intricate skills have been passed down for generations. These crafts are best purchased from villages where you can observe how they are produced. You can also purchase crafts from larger, government-run shops such as Laksala (which has outlets in Colombo and Kandy) or Lakpahana in Colombo.
Several local artisans and entrepreneurs have developed exquisite arts and crafts which blend Sri Lankan heritage with contemporary design. These products are often made of indigenous materials such as recycled paper, elephant dung, terracotta, scented woods and oils, and handloom fabrics and include: stationery, scented candles, relaxing massage oils, toys and linen, clothing, crafts, artwork and souvenirs, many of which make lovely gifts. Barefoot (which has outlets in Colombo and Galle) is one of the best places to find these items.
The Sari, with its six yards of colourful fabric in silk or cotton, is a must have for a woman heading home after a journey of discovery on this tropical island. Drape it on you, your bed or hang it on the windows and let it catch the sun as it sways in the wind. Saris vary from simple cotton intended for daily wear to exquisite hand-worked fabrics used for special occasions, including weddings. Saris are available across the country but shops in Colombo have the best selection. The versatile sarong, ideal for lazing about in, is another popular local dress for men and women: visit Barefoot for a range of colourful handloom sarongs.
From temple paintings to contemporary design, the creative arts are vibrant and readily available for purchase in Sri Lanka. Just stroll down Colombo seven’s leafy Green Path where art works are displayed right along on the road, created by young students and other local artists. Once a year, Green Path becomes a hive of activity with the 'Kala Pola' – an art fair where artists from the regional towns also bring in their creations to sell. Works of well-known local artists including George Keyt, Ivan Peries, Richard Gabriel, Lionel Wendt, Senaka Senanayake, Jagath Weerasinghe, Druvinka, and Muhanned Cader are exhibited in galleries such as the National Art Gallery, Sapumal Foundation, the Lionel Wendt, Barefoot Art Gallery and Paradise Road Gallery Café.
Gems & Jewellery
Sri Lanka is famous for its precious and semi-precious gemstones including Blue Sapphires, Red Rubies, Cat’s Eyes, Alexandrite, Tourmalines, Zircons, Garnets, Amethysts and Topaz. The town of Ratnapura is home to a thriving gem and jewellery industry that dates back to ancient times. Here you can see gems being mined, cut and polished as well as purchase gems. This industry is monitored by the National Gem and Jewellery Authority which has outlets located in Colombo and Ratnapura to check the authenticity of gems that you have purchased. You can purchase exquisite gem studded jewellery set in gold, white gold or platinum in jewellery shops in Colombo, Galle, Kandy and Ratnapura. Given a period of about five days, they will create exquisite pieces to your specifications. Colombo has the best choice of reputed jewellery shops. When you are shopping for gems across the country, make sure you purchase stones from shops that are licensed with the National Gem and Jewellery Authority.
Clothing, table linen, cushions and upholstery fabrics in hand-spun cotton fabric made in the villages are widely available. Barefoot’s signature fabrics, with vibrant checks and stripes, are a wonderful option to brighten up your home. Handloom soft furnishings and fabrics are also available at Seylin in Kurungella on the way to the Cultural Triangle, which also has an outlet in Colombo 5.
Take home a packet of world famous Ceylon tea: you have the choice of savouring different blends of tea in a hill country tea factory and purchasing directly from estates such as Labookelle Tea Estate close to Nuwara Eliya, Bogawantalawa Tea Estates in Dickoya, Dambatanne Tea estate in Haputale, and the Tea Research Institute in Talawakelle, or from picking up Ceylon tea at a specialist tea centre or at an island-wide grocery store such as Cargills and Keells. We highly recommend the world renowned Dilmah teas.
Sri Lanka is the world’s second largest cinnamon exporter – this precious crop is grown in estates along the south coast. You can purchase fresh cinnamon from plantations in Mirissa as well as in Koggala where villagers process cinnamon on an island in the middle of Koggala Lake. Various other aromatic spices and condiments, such as mixed curry powder, chili powder, saffron, turmeric and cloves, can be purchased from the main grocery stores. ‘Ma’s’ spices are highly recommended.