20 reasons to visit Colombo, Sri Lanka
Colombo classic: The historic Galle Face Hotel. Photo: Getty Images
Brave the streets of Pettah to pick up everything from fabrics and fruit to watches and wedding invitations. "It's utter chaos," the locals cheerfully admit. "You can get a suit made in two hours, though it may last only three." The streets are crammed with saris, electronics and ayurvedic medicines, while the fruit and vegetable market heaves with sacks of outrageously fierce-looking chillis.
2 GALLE FACE GREEN
It's easy to forget Colombo is a seaside city when you're stuck in a 1pm traffic snarl on the Galle Road. The best way to reconnect with the Indian Ocean is by making like a local and promenading on the Galle Face Green. Sundays are a big day for local families, kite flyers and food trucks serving deep-fried snacks.
3 SRI LANKAN CRAB
Singapore's famed chilli crabs actually come from Sri Lanka, so go back to the heart of it all at Ministry of Crab, one of Australian-Sri Lankan chef Peter Kuruvita's top picks on the Colombo dining scene. It may be the priciest place in town, but chef Dharshan Munidasa's cooking is worth it (ministryofcrab.com). Crab gets the Tamil treatment on Sundays in a Jaffna-style crab curry at Yarl (56 Vaverset Place, Wellawate, Colombo 6) or little sister Yarl Eat House (Cnr Galle and Station roads, Wellawatte).
4 OLD DUTCH HOSPITAL
Until recently, the Old Dutch Hospital was a crumbling ruin. Dating from 1677, it's the oldest building in town and now its long, low courtyards are Colombo's new heart. It's a one-stop shop for clothes and gifts, spa treatments, chic dining, serious tea drinking at Heladiv Tea Club or more relaxed pizza and steins of beer at Colombo Fort Cafe. Come nightfall, it's a buzzy hotbed of locals and tourists.
5 CLOTHES SHOPPING
Odel is Colombo's fashion house of choice (5, Alexandra Pl, Col 7) and KT Brown its designer, with ethnically inspired designs (7 Coniston Place, Col 7, ktbrownstudio.com). For leaner budgets, Cotton Collection (143 Dharmapala Mw, Col 7) has fab finds and nearby Kelly Felder (117 Dharmapala Mw) employs only local designers with new stock every Tuesday. For cool beachwear, check out the super-colourful Arugam Bay label, in Odel, Barefoot and their showroom (32 Ward Place, Col 6), which is also home to contemporary Buddhi Batiks. Grab a tuk-tuk and skip between 'em.
It's a cafe, an art gallery, a performance space and shop. Established 40 years ago by Sri Lankan artist, entrepreneur and philanthropist Barbara Sansoni, its signature style is hand-woven, hand-dyed yarns made into brightly coloured children's toys, free-flowing clothing and fabrics manufactured ethically by women across the country. Also one of the best places for books on Sri Lanka (704 Galle Road, Colombo 3 and Old Dutch Hospital, barefootceylon.com).
7 BOUTIQUE HOTELS
It's a small country and Sri Lanka has embraced the small, boutique hotel concept. Lovers of classic interiors head to style guru Shanth Fernando's 10-room Tintagel (tintagelcolombo.com) while Casa Colombo is a playful (some would say over-the-top) 12-suite remake of a 200-year-old mansion (casacolombo.com). Park Street Hotel mixes minimalism and antiques (asialeisure.lk) while Lake Lodge's 13 rooms overlook South Beira Lake (taruhotels.com). Newcomer Colombo Courtyard doesn't have the design pedigree but it's small and centrally located (colombocourtyard.com). Because of a government tariff, Colombo hotels aren't cheap. They also book up quickly, so get in early.
8 AYURVEDIC SPAS
The subcontinent's traditional ayurvedic medicine morphs into a sublime spa experience at the Siddhalepa Ayurveda Spa (33 Wijerama Ma, Col 7, siddhalepa.com) or Spa Ceylon, with its scents of white tuberose, red sandalwood and jasmine (Dutch Hospital, Park Street Mews, spaceylon.com). A warning: be prepared for days of oily hair or plenty of hair washing if you're signing in for Shirodhara, where warm oil is continually dripped onto your third eye (forehead).
9 ART MARKET
Support local artists with a visit to Colombo's kala pola (art market) on Sunday mornings, where affordable artwork is hung around Viharamahadevi Park (Col 7). If you miss the market, Saskia Fernando Gallery exhibits Sri Lanka's top artists (61 Dharmapala Ma, Col 7) or cool down at artist Harry Pieris' serene Cinnamon Gardens mansion, the Sapumal Foundation (34/2 Barnes Place, Col 7). Barefoot and Paradise Road Gallery and Cafe (2 Alfred House Road, Col 11) show and sell the country's greats.
10 GEM & JEWELLERY SHOPPING
Sri Lanka is most famous for its blue sapphires, as worn by the British royals. Slip in to premier gem dealer Colombo Jewellery Stores for a quick education and check out the well-priced men's watches while you're there (1 Alfred House Gardens, Col 3, also Old Dutch Hospital, Galle Face Hotel, cjs.lk). Ridhi is a good stop for affordable silver jewellery (74 Lauries Road, Col 4, ridhi.lk).
The verandah of the Galle Face Hotel, looking over the Indian Ocean, is the place to be seen for a sunset cocktail or dinner aperitif. The grand dame has been swizzling sticks since 1864. Budget alternatives include the sleepy rooftop bar of the Colombo City Hotel beside the Dutch Hospital, or join the locals on Galle Face Green with a bottle of pop.
Go to a cricket match. "There's no sledging here, it's just a big party," swear the locals. Catch the internationals at the R. Premadasa Stadium. For more slap of leather on willow, pop in for lunch and current matches or old classics on the many big screens at the Aussie-owned Cricket Club Cafe, (34 Queens Road, Col 3, thecricketclubcafeceylon.com).
13 TEA TASTING
Taste some of the world's finest teas at Mlesna Tea Centre (89 Galle Road, Col 3) or the Australian favourite, Dilmah Tea Shop (5 Alexandra Pl, Col 7). If you can endure the seriously lacklustre service in the government-owned Sri Lanka Tea Shop, you'll find a broad range of teas, from working-class brews to elaborately packaged gifts.
14 WALKING TOUR
Colombo local Mark Forbes takes you by the hand through the Portuguese, Dutch and British architecture and influences on Colombo. Pause for a cuppa, butter cake and harbour views at the Grand Oriental Hotel, which dates from 1837, before continuing on through the Pettah markets and into the ramshackle 180-year-old mansion that is the Dutch Period Museum (colombocitywalks.com).
Colombo's short eats are a vast collection of pastries with such fillings as curried chicken, seeni sambol (caramelised onion) and fabulous fish rolls. Kollupitiya, in Colombo 3, is fertile hunting ground for short eats cafes: try Perera & Sons' modern, super-clean branches (2 Dharmapala Mw), stalwart The Fab (474 Galle Road), Cafe on the 5th (108 5th Lane) or Sponge, which many rate the top short eatery in town (347 Galle Road). Hit local fave Green Cabin for hoppers, thin pancakes made with coconut milk, designed to scoop up curry sauces (453 Galle Road). Don't expect gushing service.
16 UNIQUE SOUVENIRS
Resist globalisation and discover unique, locally produced artisan products: find textural elephant dung paper, ceramics at the government-owned handicrafts shops Laksala (60 Fort St, Col 1) and Barefoot's signature bright woven linens. Sri Lanka's premier homewares store, Paradise Road, prints the curvaceous Sinhalese alphabet and elephant motifs on to household linens in a palette of black and French beige (213 Dharmapala Mw, Col 7). Find affordable gifts at Casa Serena (122 Havelock Rd, Col 5) or try Lakpahana (14, Phillip Gunawardena Mw, (Reid Ave, Col 7), Suriya (39 Layards Rd, Col 5).
17 FEEL-GOOD TOURISM
Shop for fair-trade toys, ethically produced food and craft at the kid-friendly Good Market, every Thursday from noon-8pm (Water's Edge Park, Battaramulla, thegoodmarket.lk). The Warehouse Project gives good reason to eat more cake: profits from its Wonderbar soul food and Cakes for a Cause projects help run community programs for the local Maradana population. Email for a tour of the watta (shanty community). See warehouseproject.lk.
18 MULTI-FAITH VOYEURISM
Pick a religion, you'll find an elaborate place of worship in Colombo: the Buddhist Gangaramaya temple on Beira Lake was designed in part by the influential architect Geoffrey Bawa. Wolvendaal Church is the country's oldest Protestant church, from 1749, while the red and white striped Jami-Ul-Alfar is open for visitors except during prayer times. For a hit of intricacy, visit a Hindu kovil: the old and new Kathiresan Kovils in Pettah were built to appease the war gods. The Catholic St Lucia's Cathedral is modelled on St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican and the Sambodhi Chaitiya is a shining white dagoba (stupa) raised so seafarers could see it offshore.
19 THE FORT DISTRICT
Fort is the heart of Colombo, named for the 17th-century, Dutch-built ramparts pulled down by the Brits in 1879. Its modern face is the glitzy World Trade Centre (where you can get a decent coffee) and the revitalised Old Dutch Hospital. Its British Raj face is undoubtedly the gothic pink-and-white Cargills Building on York Street, the Old Parliament building (1930), the old GPO (1891) and the Lighthouse Clock Tower, built two years before London's Big Ben, in 1857, now towered over by skyscrapers.
20 MOUNT LAVINIA
Dive into the Indian Ocean at Mount Lavinia, half an hour north of central Colombo. The waters are far cleaner than off the Galle Face Green and the beach is lined with seafood restaurants. For a taste of luxury, check into the five-star British colonial Mount Lavinia Hotel for colonial-style High Tea overlooking the ocean, from 3.30pm daily (mountlaviniahotel.com).