Planning a perfect day in Colombo is easier said than done. Make plans in Sri Lanka's sunny capital and it will find a way to distract you, shuffle your schedule and insist that you move at its pace.
Until recently, nothing about Colombo was according to plan. Strange winds brought ships from Rome, Persia and India to its shores. Trade winds turned it into a battleground between the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. Then came a civil war that lasted a generation. Then came peace. In recent years, the city has beautified, blossomed and let down its hair. Some of it planned, some of it by happy accident.
Plan your perfect day by all means. But allow for a bit of “Sri Lankan time” and expect to make detours. After all, this is the place that inspired the word “serendipity”. At about 50 rupees (50 cents) per kilometre, Colombo’s ubiquitous three-wheeled auto-rickshaw cabs are one of the cheapest ways to explore the city.
Start with a cup of Ceylon tea from any roadside shop, served plain with a slice of ginger and large helpings of sugar. Then take a stroll through the city’s centre before Colombo wakes, before noise hits the air and the heat descends. Beira Lake is at Colombo’s heart, with arteries snaking from Slave Island to the Fort district, past hotels and railway lines. It’s flanked by trees and is home to a floating temple, an island park and colourful birdlife. If the boatmen are around, take a cruise of the canals. If not, follow the road to Gangaramaya Temple – a trove of antiques, artefacts and paintings of Buddhist mythology. Alternatively, if you prefer ocean to lake, and if your hotel’s location allows, start the day on the soft sands of Mount Lavinia Beach on Colombo’s southern outskirts, along the road to Galle. It’s at its least crowded and most serene in the early hours. Climb to the famous terrace of Mount Lavinia Hotel – residence of British governors from the early 1800s to 1947 – and watch the coastline curve towards the old fort.
Buddhist statues beside Beira Lake
Wedged north of Beira Lake and south of the harbour, Pettah Market enthrals travellers with its colour and bustle. That said, navigating its teeming streets in the scorching sun is tough work. So get there before the shops open and you can take in the city’s past and glimpse its future, sans the noise and the dust. The floating market built on the canal is a fresh urban initiative, unlike the shops across the road that have peddled bargains from the shipyard for generations. A walk through Fort – the city’s central business district – will take you to the Dutch Museum, the Galle Buck Lighthouse with its Indian Ocean view and to the disused Cargills building, a 19th-century department store that’s now empty aside from one fast food outlet. If you stick around Pettah after 9am, you can haggle for whatever the ships have brought in that week – everything from saris, toys and suitcases to fruit, gadgets and the occasional gem like an old watch or an ancient typewriter.
While you’re on the street, hydrate with some coconut water, known locally as thambili. Or munch on short eats such as fish buns, stuffed chillies and egg cutlets, all fresh from the oven. But don’t miss out on a good Sri Lankan breakfast served up at roadside tea kades (stalls). Traditional fare features bread, roti or string hoppers with pol (coconut) sambol, dhal gravy and fish curry. If you’re after something more opulent, the Cinnamon Lakeside hotel’s brunch is served on Beira Lake, while The Kingsbury hotel’s Harbour Court offers breakfast with a view of the port from the edge of the Fort district.
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At 50 rupees (50 cents) per kilometre, rickshaws are one of the cheapest ways to get around.
If you want to squeeze your sightseeing into an hour or two, hop aboard an open-top double-decker and survey the city’s colonial heritage, temples, churches and mosques, plus its landscaped parks, renovated mansions and collections of statues. But cities are best discovered one attraction at a time – it’s better to explore in depth than to tick boxes. Spend your morning among the treasures of the Colombo National Museum in Cinnamon Gardens or walking the nearby street galleries of Kala Pola.
Your lunch options are many. There are fine establishments like The Bayleaf (in Cinnamon Gardens), The Bavarian and Mango Tree (all in Kollupitiya, also known as Colpetty), serving Italian, German and Indian respectively. But for it to be a perfect Colombo day, you can’t skip a rice and curry, available at city eating houses and at comfy settings in Kollupitiya such as Green Cabin or Raja Bojun. Try a lamprais – flavoured rice steamed in banana leaf – or enjoy a crab banquet at The Fat Crab on Marine Drive or at the Old Dutch Hospital’s Ministry of Crab in the Fort area.
Time to seek out some air conditioning. It’s too hot to siesta in the park or trudge the streets but it’s the perfect time to shop. Barefoot is a café, gallery, music venue and a purveyor of richly coloured handloom materials and ornaments. If it’s a Thursday, the Good Market at Diyatha Uyana has organic food, local art and live music on offer. For branded clothes at minimum mark-up, visit House of Fashions and for fine Lankan craftsmanship try Laksala or Paradise Road. Literary types should drop into the second-hand bookstalls on DR Wijewardena Mawatha (popularly known as McCallum Road) in Maradana, where first-edition Victorian classics hide amid airport novels of the 1970s.
Some choose to spend the afternoon sprawled in the shade with a beverage or floating on a pool that reflects the light-blue sky. But for some, a perfect Colombo day isn’t complete without cricket. Drop in at any of four Test match venues (see cricinfo.com for details of Colombo’s major grounds) and catch the final session of an international game or a big school match. The atmosphere is carnival regardless of how well the home team is doing. But for the true Colombo experience, join a street cricket game at a grassy park or a neighbourhood clash on a dusty cul-de-sac. It’s played with a tennis ball and taken very seriously. The kids have a more-the-merrier approach to guest players as long as they don’t hog the bat, lose the ball or refuse to field.
Since the Sri Lankan Civil War ended in 2009, Colombo’s public parks have received upgrades and face lifts. What used to be the domain of lovers under umbrellas, bored teenagers and tired vagrants is now paved with walkways, benches, cycle paths and playgrounds. Colombo is at its prettiest in the amber of late afternoon. Start at Viharamahadevi Park at the cusp of two prime residential zones, Kollupitiya and Cinnamon Gardens. Walk up to the huge Buddha statue and the town hall that resembles the White House, weave past old homes and new high-rises and enter the avenue to Independence Square, where the affluent and fitness-obsessed stretch their legs. The walk will take you past gardens and fountains, around the grand courtyard where presidents are sworn in, through a colonial home now called the Arcade shopping mall and towards the old Colombo Racecourse, which is home to elegant restaurants.
But don’t dawdle. You have a date with the sun at Galle Face Green. Essentially a park by the sea, Galle Face on a perfect day will give you orange skies, pink clouds, milky waves, colourful kites and seaside delicacies such as isso vade (fried patties topped with prawns) and devilled meats from Nana’s grill. Start with a drink at Galle Face Hotel’s Sea Spray bar and restaurant and watch the sunset. Then walk to the harbour and end up at the Old Colombo Dutch Hospital – another renovated building that houses shops and eateries.
What a long day. Time to sit on a rooftop and see the city from another angle. Hotel Cinnamon Red’s Cloud Red bar in Kollupitiya boasts an infinity pool and a 360-degree view of Colombo’s skyline. Or try the Ce La Vi at The Kingsbury that lets you stare down the coastline. All views are best enjoyed with a shot of arrack, a cold Lion beer or a cup of Ceylon’s finest.
Here’s where serendipity kicks in. If you’re lucky, there’ll be a play at the Lionel Wendt Art Centre in Cinnamon Gardens or a concert at Park Street Mews. Colombo’s theatre serves up the satirical, the avant-garde and big-production musicals – and does those well. The music scene splinters between electronic raves, experimental jazz, local-flavoured hip-hop and heavy metal. If nothing’s happening, there’ll always be a pub with a game on – or a murky tavern in Slave Island serving descending grades of arrack. For dinner, the recommendation is Chinese. Sri Lankan Chinese, that is. The city’s most popular cuisine fuses Eastern flavour with local spice and is served at places such as Tsing Tao and Peach Valley (both in Cinnamon Gardens) and Ming Han (Kollupitiya), plus a hundred others.
If there’s still adventure in you, dance with local nocturnal wildlife at Sugar (Kollupitiya) or Amuseum (in the Taj Samudra Hotel by Galle Face Green) or Silk (Cinnamon Gardens) or engage in some off-key singing at Sopranos (Cinnamon Gardens). And if you’re desperate to donate to the house that always wins, Kollupitiya’s casinos will gladly oblige.
This is where Sri Lankan time comes into play. You could find yourself wrapping up at midnight or closer to dawn. Whatever the time, the last act of your day should be devouring a delicious kottu roti at Hotel de Pilawoos on Galle Road in Bambalapitiya, washed down with some lime juice. This shredded mess of meat, veg, egg and roti is a borrowed dish that the city has now embraced. It’s the local equivalent of a late-night kebab and is also the perfect way to end a pretty-near-perfect day.