“Colombo is a noisy, dirty, and vibrantly alive city; an ethnic melting pot both invigorating and exhausting.” srilanka.for91days.com
Colombo, the capital city of Sri Lanka, is a congested, sprawling metropolis with a rich colonial heritage that’s home to a myriad of religions and cultures. Beyond all the chaotic traffic and fumes lies trendy restaurants, cafes, shops and hotels amongst the old street markets, temples and areas of degeneration.
The city is a heady mix of where old meets new, Galle Road, which runs from the capital all the way to Galle itself in the South, is the city’s main drag. We spent a couple of days exploring the capital, formerly known as ‘the garden city of the East’ due to its natural harbour which attracted tea, rubber and spice traders and later Portuguese, Dutch and British conquerors. The best way to get around is by tuk tuk, the three-wheeled bright coloured vehicles that weave in and out of the traffic maneuvering through the tightest spaces. Tuk Tuks are cheap (always negotiate your price before setting off) and fun if not a little hair raising at times. You can also book a tuk tuk via Uber in Colombo.
Standing tall above the waterfront of Beira Lake is the Lotus Tower (aka the Colombo Lotus Tower), a new communication, leisure and observation attraction. By day it’s a garish purple and green colour but at night it’s transformed into a colour changing neon beacon visible throughout the city. The tower, the tallest self-supported structure in South Asia, was officially opened in September 2019 after seven years of construction.
Colombo is testament to Sri Lanka‘s multiethnic heritage with Buddhist and Hindu temples, mosques and churches scattered throughout the city. We visited the colourful Sri Kailawasanathan Swami Devasthanam, the oldest Hindu Temple in the city and Gangaramaya, the eclectic Buddhist Temple that’s a blend of architectural styles from Sri Lanka, Thailand, Chinese and India. This temple is reminiscent of an antique store with all matter of dusty artefacts and antiquities displayed in glass cabinets as well as vintage cars and Buddha statues of all sizes. The world’s tiniest Buddha is here, viewed via a microscope.
The best way to embrace all the sights, sounds and aromas of the city is via an organised walking or tuk tuk tour. We took a sunset tour with Tuk Tuk Safari Sri Lanka (booked via Viator), the 3-4* hour tour included various stops around the city that included interactive spice and coffee experiences at the spice market, fresh coconuts and street food, tea tasting and either lunch or dinner depending on whether you choose a morning or afternoon tour. Our friendly host was Chathuranga (who also calls himself Donald Duck) who took us to temples, the Dutch Hospital, Pettah market and various prominent landmarks.
The bustling Pettah markets in the oldest district of the city are a riot of colour, noise and aromas. The shops and stalls offer everything from textiles to fresh fruit and vegetables. The distinctive red and white exterior of the Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque (Red mosque) can be glimpsed in amongst all the chaos. Popular seafront grassy area, Galle Face Green houses street food vendors famous for Kottu (Sri Lankan roti with vegetables, egg and/or meat and spices) and the street snack Wade (Vade). The old converted Dutch hospital near Galle Face Green is home to a few shops and restaurants, the popular Ministry of Crab is located here.
Art galleries, shops, restaurants and an upmarket hotel can be found on Paradise Road. The contemporary eatery Paradise Road The Gallery Cafe is housed in a colonial bungalow that was once the offices of renowned Sri Lankan architect Geoffery Bawa. This is a must visit restaurant with its open air dining area, courtyard with reflecting pool, gallery & shop.
The menu is a mix of Sri Lankan and international dishes and its dessert menu is a sweet toothed diners dream with over thirty irresistible choices with a focus on chocolate. Paradise Road Galleries feature rotating exhibitions by established and emerging local artists. Pick up some unique Sri Lankan designed homewares, handicrafts and art in one of the Paradise Road shops.
Another good place for a bite to eat is Park Street Mews, a strip of contemporary restaurants and bars housed in old warehouses that offer a selection of international cuisine. We tried the south Asian flavours at Monsoon, a menu packed with dishes from Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam as well as cocktails served in a trendy, industrial style setting.
High end retail store Barefoot offers a range of vibrant coloured Sri Lanka handcrafts designed and made by local artists and craftsmen. Alongside the clothes, bags, household linens and toys there’s also art, books and unique souvenirs. Barefoot Garden Cafe is located in the courtyard at the entrance to the Barefoot art gallery and shop, it’s an ideal spot for a coffee and lunch.
We stayed at Galle Face Hotel, the first hotel to be built in Sri Lanka and the oldest hotel in Asia. The colonial style hotel has undergone much renovation but retains its heritage and proudly documents its history at the in-house museum. It’s a popular place for a traditional afternoon tea and it’s Cuban King of the Mambo restaurant and bar is a great spot for sundowners, dinner and live music.
Colombo is often overlooked as a destination in itself, the majority of visitors to Sri Lanka land at Bandaranaike International Airport and bypass the city on route to the Southern Province or cultural triangle. It’s a vibrant city, once you embrace the amount of people and traffic you get to experience the colourful street markets, colonial buildings, museums and galleries, lively nightlife and top notch dining venues.
*Ladies are given flower garlands, all food, drinks and entrance fees are included in the tour price, cold drinks including beer is provided as well as umbrellas, hand sanitizer and even a wifi hotspot if required. The chaotic city traffic may impact the tour running time.
Read more about Sri Lanka in previous posts HERE
All views are my own. Unless otherwise stated, all photos on this page © Jo Brett 2020. All rights reserved. Additional photos used with courtesy of www.viator.com/tours/Colombo, www.barefootceylon.com/cafe/ and www.paradiseroad.lk/restaurants/paradise-road-the-gallery-cafe/