24 Hours in Colombo
I try to get back to Sri Lanka every year and each time I go I discover something new and exciting. The capital Colombo has a growing cosmopolitan scene, with chic restaurants and hotels springing up next to luxury high-rise apartments. Most of the city’s new wealth comes from international Sri Lankans returning from overseas, bringing not only cash, but global inspiration and creative vision.
Seven years ago, when I first visited it was a different story. At the end of the 25 year war between the LTTE (Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam) and the Sri Lankan government, Colombo was not a particularly welcoming place. Armed soldiers in barbed-wire watchtowers and constant security checks made the city feel intimidating and a meagre trickle of tourists left only a few scraps of business to go round. Today, though, these lean times are a dim and distant memory and with tourist numbers up nearly 40% in two years, Colombo has a new found energy and confidence.
A good place to start your Colombo tour is the historical Fort area and the gorgeous seventeenth-century Dutch Hospital, a legacy of the Dutch colonists. Converted into an arcade of stylish boutiques and restaurants, it’s also home of the renowned restaurant Ministry of Crab, the brainchild of two former Sri Lankan cricket captains. If you fancy an ice-cold Lion beer, try out one of the city’s rooftop bars. The large roof space at Colombo Courtyard offers a welcome breeze above the rooftops of Duplication Road and Cloud Red on the 26th floor of the boutique Cinnamon Red Hotel, also boasts an infinity pool. Stately Independence Arcade, another piece of historic heritage transformed, houses contemporary bars such as Asylum which dishes up great tapas and live jazz as well as more shopping. Despite these confident newcomers, Barefoot, an enduring haunt of both tourists and expats known for its homely menu, vibrant hand-loomed textiles and art exhibitions, is still one of the best places to socialise. Close by, Gallery Café, housed in the former offices of stellar architect Geoffrey Bawa is also deservedly popular, serving fabulous fusion food and delicious mixed cocktails (try the chilli and tamarind martini for a local twist). Old colonial stalwart The Galle Face Hotel has held on to its reputation for sophisticated elegance. Newly refurbished, the iconic hotel is famous for its chequerboard veranda and perfect location and is still undisputedly the best place in Colombo for a G&T, while gazing at the tequila hues of an Indian Ocean sunset.
Despite its new contemporary veneer, authentic Colombo street life is still easy to find. Grab a tasty snack of isso wade (deep-fried shrimp cakes) from one of the street vendors and mingle with friendly locals on Galle Face Green, packed on Sundays with families flying kites and packs of boys playing cricket. Further down the Galle Road, the long, straight road that forms the spine of the city, are authentic hole-in- the-wall eateries offering 100 rupee (50p) rice and curry lunch packets and fast food dishes like the famous kottu, which literally means chop – an appetising combo of roti bread, eggs, vegetables and spicy gravy all thrown together and noisily sliced up on an enormous steel board.
I recommend a good browse around Saturday’s Good Market, which has a collection of great healthy living stalls – look out for the Talking Hands massage station. If the heat gets too much, take a tuk-tuk to leafy Victoria Park for a leisurely stroll in the gardens and perhaps a visit to the well-known (and air-conditioned!) Odell’s department store. If you’ve got any energy left after that, late afternoon is a good time to brave frenetic Pettah Market, where bustling streets are piled high with everything from exotic fruits to vibrant textiles. Pettah is where Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim cultures meld seamlessly and beneath the chaos, you’ll discover a relaxed vibe and smiley locals. There are number of interesting buildings in Pettah too: I’m welcomed into the striking mosque where I gaze up at tiers upon tiers of candy-striped arches. Round the corner, Hindu temples line up on Sea Street, their soaring gateways (gopurams) covered in cartoon-like Hindu deities. Inside the dark and cavernous interior of Colombo’s oldest Hindu kovil (temple) Sri Ponnambal, I watch Brahim priests conduct elaborate pujas, offerings to the myriad of gods and goddesses.
Seema Malaka Temple on Beira Lake (feature image), is a must-see tourist pit-stop with its Buddha-studded pavilion or if you’re heading back down the Galle Road, you can find Ashokaramaya Temple with its Sistine Chapel-like ceiling depicting the life of The Buddha.
It’s precisely this colourful cultural mix that’s what I love most about Colombo. With its compelling history, tropical modernism, great hotels and laid back island atmosphere, Colombo is now starting to make a name for itself as a cosmopolitan destination in its own right.