After the political upheaval last year, Sri Lanka has bounced back, and it’s time for a visit to Colombo. A seaside city with a flourishing heritage scene, Colombo is the perfect start (or end) to any Sri Lankan holiday. The capital was built on, and is home to some postcard-perfect colonial-era monuments – and of course, famous residences and buildings by its most famous architect, Geoffrey Bawa.
A city that is constantly transforming, parts of Colombo are now gentrifying with new upscale shopping hubs, high-rise developments and a swanky port city. Add to this the multicultural neighbourhoods teeming with temples, mosques, churches and buzzing markets with fresh produce.
Here’s our lowdown on the very best that Colombo has to offer – as well as a few getaways just beyond.
Where to stay in and around Colombo
Right by the tree-lined stretch of Ward Place and just two streets from Viharamahadevi Park stands Jetwing Colombo Seven, the local hotel brand’s metropolitan addition with deluxe rooms, studios and apartments that offer city views. Its restobar Ward 7 sits by the hotel’s rooftop infinity pool and serves island-influenced nibbles like devilled pork marinated with chilli, deep-fried and mixed with curry. If you’re looking for a feel of the city’s local nightlife, ask the concierge about the hotel’s cheekily named “Dodgy Bar Tour”.
Legendary Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa has given the island many stunning public buildings and luxury hotels, the latter often booked up months in advance. But Tropical Modernism fans short on time (and funds) can snag a night or two at this bed and breakfast in the heart of Colombo. Bawa renovated it as a private home for renowned Sri Lankan concert pianist Druvi de Saram in 1986, and it’s currently maintained by the Geoffrey Bawa Trust. Spacious and characterful rooms aside, the highlights of the gracefully aging property are its clay-coloured courtyard and the art-filled piano room (request a tour from the property manager).
A two-hour drive south from Colombo, passing the heritage city of Galle, Cape Weligama is a Relais & Chateaux resort that delivers breathtaking views at every turn. Enjoy a vista of the Indian Ocean with your made-to-order breakfast at Ocean Terrace, reflect on the waves from the infinity-style Half Moon Pool or soak up the sunset light on the surf over a private dinner from one of the viewpoints. The villas – named after historic explorers – come with enormous bathrooms, dressing rooms and mod-cons such as top-notch Bluetooth speakers. Depending on the season, the waters around Weligama are also ideal for surfing and whale-watching, which the hotel will be glad to arrange.
Where to eat in Colombo
Rice and curry are staples of Sri Lankan cuisine, and Nuga Gama offers an authentic place to try it. Set around a 200-year-old banyan tree inside the luxe city hotel Cinnamon Grand, this rustic restaurant only open for dinner creates a Sri Lankan village feel with its in-house organic farm, kerosene lanterns and women chefs dishing up classic Sri Lankan fare passed down through the generations. The restaurant’s live stations dish up classic Sri Lankan street food like appam, or egg hoppers (bowl-shaped snacks topped with an egg) and kottu roti (chopped flatbread mashed with vegetables, egg and a meat of your choice).
Well-placed on the vibrant entertainment street of Park Street Mews, Monsoon is the place to go to for a taste of Southeast Asia. The lunch menu offers classic plates like nasi lemak (coconut rice served with spicy chili paste, anchovies, peanuts and boiled egg) and pad thai (stir-fried rice noodles) while dinner features Malaysian tauhu bakar, grilled crispy tofu plated with mango salad. There’s also a selection of local spirits like Rockland gin and arrack. The fine-dining venue’s high ceilings and chic decor make it a prime date spot.
Where to drink in Colombo
One of several hotspots along the pedestrian-only Park Street Mews – where Colombo’s well-dressed hipsters congregate – Uncle’s stands out with its retro-chic signage and interiors, DJ nights and classic cocktails with Sri Lankan twists. The Amba Martini features mango and spices, while the Kolompuré Manhattan sees rye whiskey replaced with arrack and the vermouth infused with cardamom and nutmeg. The bar bites are also standouts – cancel your dinner plans and order hearty “short eats” such as the lamb rolls and cheese toast.
Ranked #42 by Asia’s 50 Best Bars, Smoke & Bitters is well worth the two hours’ drive along the Southern Expressway from Colombo. It’s a charming spot within a coconut garden in the country’s latest surf town Hiriketiya, and the cocktail list is all about championing island spirits and local ingredients. Drinks include rum cocktails blended with sundried stoneapple flower and arrack paired with banana peel and smoked wild bee honey. The equally outstanding smokehouse menu offers pulled pork, smoked jackfruit and chargrilled barramundi.
What to do in Colombo
A quick online search would turn up sights the likes of Colombo Fort, Seema Malaka Lake Temple and Jami Ul-Alfar Masjid (also known as the Red Mosque) as must-see attractions when visiting Colombo. But here are a couple of stops that, in our humble opinion, are not to be missed – especially for the heritage and art enthusiast.
Boasting an extensive collection of artefacts, this sacred Buddhist temple located close to Beira Lake was established 120 years ago. Two Buddha statues guard the temple’s wooden door entrance, which features intricate traditional-style elephant and swan carvings. The in-house museum showcases antiques such as sculptures of Hindu gods, vintage coins and watches. Then there’s the country’s smallest Buddha statue housed in a glass box, only viewed by a magnifying glass. Remember to dress modestly when you visit.
This contemporary gallery – the first of its kind in Colombo – spotlights the works of young local artists and island natives. Since it opened in 2009, this independently-run space has helped elevate Colombo’s art scene with exhibitions throughout the year. Featured artists include Firi Rahman and Shaanea Mendis, whose works both explore the relationship between man and nature in different ways.
Where to shop in Colombo
Paradise Road is among the most renowned homeware and decor brands in Colombo. Their flagship store opposite Viharamahadevi Park sells a curated collection of handicrafts, antiques and hand-painted crockery, crafted by skilled artisans from cottage industries across Sri Lanka. Other items on offer include batik napkins, table runners, scented candles and quirky door stoppers. An in-store cafe serves coffee and great cakes.
The neighbourhood surrounding Viharamhadevi Park continues to attract trendy, upmarket retail stores. And everything at Urban Island is a conscious nod to the slow, tropical life of Sri Lanka. This lively concept store deals in handmade cushion covers made using heritage techniques, cane furniture and jute rugs. Don’t miss its planters made with sundried palmyrah palm leaves, dyed and hand-woven into intricate designs by women in Sri Lanka’s north.