Visitors to Sri Lanka are often in such a rush to head for beaches, whale-watching tours, tea plantations and elephant safaris, that they don’t stop for a second glance at its commercial capital Colombo. Big mistake.
While at first sight, it may seem like a sprawl of a city, with its honking tuk-tuks, corporate skyscrapers and a massive ongoing oceanfront development billed as the next ‘mini Dubai’, Colombo is also a haven for history-lovers and culture vultures.
Glitzy new hotels rub shoulders with old colonial architecture, frenetic street markets give a snapshot of the life of old-style trading, while calming Buddhist temples allow a respite of reflection, in this city split into 15 postcode areas to identify specific districts.
Checkpoints have come down since the country’s 26-year civil war ended in 2009 to allow access to Colombo’s historical Fort area, presidential buildings, British-named streets, historic clock tower and lighthouse.
This relatively new freedom of movement and a far less visible military presence should give visitors peace of mind to explore a city which is fast developing but which, at least for now, hasn’t sold its soul.
Here are just a few of the highlights you shouldn’t miss in 48 hours.
Location is everything when on a city break and this sparkling new seafront hotel, which opened in November, is in prime position on Galle Face, a few minutes’ walk from the fascinating Fort area and the old Dutch Hospital, home to a mix of hip bars, restaurants and shopping opportunities.
This five-star, 32-floor, sky-high haven is all-out luxury, from the moment you step through its doors and admire the incredible crystal-encrusted lotus flower chandelier, to fine dining in one of its six restaurants or sampling the Chi spa.
Uninterrupted views of Galle Face Green, Beira Lake, the city skyline and the dazzling Indian Ocean make it a great base from which to discover the city.
Blow away the cobwebs from the 10 ½ hour flight with a walk on Galle Face Green, a 500m stretch of lawn separating the Indian Ocean from the financial district.
Amble along the promenade fringed by street vendor stalls selling isso vadei (red lentil cakes topped with shrimp), samosas and local crab, paying pennies, rather than pounds.
There are so many rice and curry places in Colombo, you’ll be spoilt for choice. Check out Upali’s (upalis.com) in Colombo 7, which offers authentic Sri Lankan cuisine, all for a few quid. And if you want to find out where the locals eat, visit yamu.lk, a review site made by – and for – Sri Lankans.
It’ll take at least an hour to whizz round this impressive white colonial building in Colombo 7, established in 1877 by the British, which houses relics from Sri Lanka’s history in a series of cool rooms. Highlights include bone remains from the 4th century, artefacts from ancient irrigation systems and gold antiquities. Entry 1,000 rupees (£5).
The best way to explore the Fort area of Colombo is on foot, so book a reputable walking tour: Mark Forbes (colombocitywalks.blogspot.co.uk) or Harold Sandrasagara (colombowalks.com) are both good. A three-hour walk with lunch from Colombo Walks is 4,000 Sri Lankan Rupees (around £20).
For more than 20 years, Fort – the main financial centre – was cordoned off because of the civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the terrorist group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (known as the Tamil Tigers) who were defeated in 2006.
Amazing architecture includes the red-brick Cargills, the country’s first department store built in 1844 – now, sadly, home to a smattering of fast food outlets – and the imposing Red Mosque (Jami Ul-Alfar Masjid), its tall minarets in swirling red and white patterns.
Built in 1920, this was once the most elite hotel in Colombo and the last port of call for wealthy travellers leaving Ceylon by P&O. Now a shadow of its former self, this faded residence has a certain tacky charm about it and still offers brilliant views of the port from its fourth floor restaurant and terrace.
Sip a gin and tonic or an arrack – local coconut-based firewater – watching the watery world go by. A G&T will set you back 600 Rupees (about £3). But eat somewhere else.
Come here to fine dine on crustaceans in the happening haunt of the Old Dutch Hospital, a 17th century building which originally treated the sick during the Dutch occupation of Sri Lanka, that has more recently become home to a clutch of fashionable bars and restaurants. Go for its signature chilli crab and choose your size, from ½ kilo (4,000 Rupees/£20) to Crabzilla (2kg, 26,000 Rupees/£130) for the ravenous.
Organised tuk-tuk tours are more expensive, but you won’t have to haggle a price. Tuk-Tuk Safaris (tuktuksafarisrilanka.com) charge 7,500 Rupees (around £35) for a morning, including entrance fees to temples, lunch and refreshments on tour. But if you’re on a tight budget, negotiate well and you can do it independently for around 3,000 Rupees (£14).
Colombo’s most famous Buddhist temple (entrance 200 Rupees/around £1) is likely to be crowded. The scent of incense is heavy as you explore a museum housing a jumble of antiquities, including elephant foot tables and coconut oil troughs. It looks thrown together and nothing is marked, so don’t expect to discover its provenance.
This Sri Lankan-run spit and sawdust joint with wooden chairs and tables invites you to choose your curry at the counter – including super-spicy mutton, chicken, sweet mango and pumpkin with all the accompaniments. Chicken, rice and curry will set you back 250 rupees (£1.25).
The bright, white racecourse grounds and colonial building were converted into a shopping mall in 2014, where you’ll find upmarket stores and boutiques selling a mixture of handmade Sri Lankan goods, batik, masks and traditional clothing.
Opposite the racecourse is Laksala, Sri Lanka’s only state-owned store, an emporium selling handicrafts, Ceylon tea and spices, and gemstones – including Sri Lanka’s famous blue sapphires. If you’re buying gems, make sure you get an authentic certification with your purchase.
It’s the last night, so have a blow-out at Colombo’s newest hotel’s luxurious restaurant. Head for the striking blue banquettes of the showier part of the Grill, which is separated into four sections with different ambiences. Carnivores should go for the signature ‘Tomahawk’ steak, all 1.3kg of it. A meal for two, with wine, may come to around £100 a head if you push the boat out.
How to get there
Hannah Stephenson stayed at the Shangri-La Hotel, Colombo (+94 11 7888 288; shangri-la.com/colombo/shangrila). Room rates are from US$ 180 (approx. £135) per night, based on two sharing and including all taxes and fees.
SriLankan Airlines flies daily to Colombo. Fares start from £500. Visit srilankan.com for more information.