If you’re travelling to Sri Lanka, chances are you haven’t blocked out much time to check out the capital. The first thing you’ll want to do is collapse on a coastal banana lounge or stick your face out a train window to feel the wind in your hair as jungles, mountains and tea fields cascade in and out of view.
And that’s fair enough. You’ll do all that and it’ll be incredible.[related_articles]56689,59713[/related_articles]
But, if you rush out of Colombo too fast, you’ll miss an opportunity to explore one of the world’s most friendly, fun and surprising cities. It’s a bright postcolonial patchwork of Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim culture. There are grand manors on one street, shanties down the next and places of worship in every direction.
All you need to take in the best bits is 48 hours.
The streets of Colombo get hot and hectic. Dogs laze on corners all day then chase cars like frisbees as the sun goes down, tuktuks cause chaos, and kids start up games of cricket on every available surface.
You’re going to need to start the day with a good breakfast. If you’re in town before 11am, fill up on a Mini Tiffin tray from Sri Vihar. It comes with idli (a kind of savoury cake), sticky rice ven pongal, vadai (a savoury doughnut-shaped treat), and dosai twice the size of your head. It’s the most expensive breakfast option they have and it’ll still only set you back $2.65 (321LKR).
Across the road is a clubhouse called Dutch Burgher Union that doesn’t look like it’s changed much since it opened in 1908. Their lunchtime lempiras are famous, but you’re probably still bursting from breakfast, so maybe just plan your day in their shady courtyard and settle your stomach with the best ginger ale you’ll ever taste. (Don’t forget to eat the raisins at the bottom of the glass.)
Next, wander around Viharamahadevi Park. You can hire a rusty bike for around 80c (100LKR) and hoon around the fountains. Or rest under a knotted old banyan tree. Whatever you do, don’t miss the chance to mind-meld with the flower horn fish that greets you at the tiny on-site aquarium.
It’s probably stinking hot by now, so wave down a tuktuk (make sure it has meter) and find the closest luxury swimming pool. If you’re not staying at your hotel of choice, you might need to schmooze staff to swim. Cinnamon Lakeside is a top pick; it looks as if it was dreamt up by a Miami gangster-turned-bird enthusiast.
Welcome the tropical dusk with a handmade cream at Park Street Mews. Or head to Barefoot, a base for local weavers and makers. They work with abstract geometry and vivid dyes and their dedication to colour spills into the design of the courtyard. The place is also a bar, a restaurant, a gallery for local artists, a bookstore, and an outlet for clothes and curios that won’t unstitch before you get them home. There’s also live music on a Sunday. The colours are sharp but the jazz is smooth.
For over 150 years, guests of the Galle Face Hotel have been gorging themselves on fine food and sipping on cold drinks while the rhythm of Indian Ocean massages away their stress. Mark Twain did it, Ghandi did it, Princess Alexandria of Denmark did it, Castro did it, Harrison Ford did it while shooting Temple of Doom. Now it’s your turn.
In the afternoon, peel yourself away from the Galle Face Hotel and walk along the Galle Face Green to the fort (which used to be Colombo’s town centre). For lunch, you can’t do much better than Ministry of Crab, a Mediterranean-Japanese-Sri Lankan fusion restaurant so dedicated low food miles they have their own freshness constitution. It’s in the Old Dutch Hospital shopping complex just near the fort.
If you don’t feel like blowing your budget on crab, catch the train along the coast to eat some hot-buttered cuttlefish at Barracuda. Or walk around Beira Lake towards Buhari for a massive plate of their renowned biriyani (a mixed rice dish). It won’t cost you more than $4 (480LKR).
Mount Lavina beach is where the locals cool down at dusk. Jump in and let the ocean toss you around. Then head OZO Rooftop Bar and Lounge for cocktail hour. It’s buy one get, one free from 5pm ’til 7pm, and has one of the best views in the city.[qantas_widget code=CMB]Check out Qantas flights to Colombo.[/qantas_widget]
(Lead image: Sri Lanka Tourism / Flickr)