Colombo is in an exciting phase in its history. There is a sense of renewed ambition now that peace has been restored to Sri Lanka, but it remains a compact, manageable coastal city offering excellent value and an atmosphere all of its own. Ancestral mansions stand side-by-side with modern hotels springing up into the skyline. Street bazaars buzz right next to a few modest shopping malls. While some roads are clogged with vehicles, there remain many sleepy tree-lined boulevards. Colombo might be mildly chaotic at times but it has at its heart a relaxed and genial air.
Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital, is its only true city. It lies one hour’s drive south of the Bandaranaike International Airport and stretches about 12 km along the coast from the Fort area in the north to its southern beach suburb of Mount Lavinia. It is a convenient hub for the start or end of any visit to Sri Lanka.
Colombo is the commercial capital of Sri Lanka and lies alongside the present administrative capital, Sri Jayawardenepura, Kotte. Colombo’s port was influential as early as the 5C when ships from Rome, Arabia, and China traded with Sinhalese kings for food supplies, spices and jewels. Many nations fought for the island’s treasures including Arab settlers in the 8C, followed by the Portuguese, the Dutch and, finally, the British who captured Colombo in 1796. This era of western domination ended peacefully with independence in 1948, followed by a separatist war fought by the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) that lasted 25 years. Terrorism was eradicated in 2009, bringing hopes of a lasting peace. Throughout it all, the city of Colombo remained relatively stable and, as well as the majority Sinhalese, Moors, Tamils, Burghers, Chinese, and Malay populations contribute towards its colourful fabric.
Food is a highlight of Colombo. A wide selection of small restaurants serve local hawker-style favourites like meat patties, fish buns, egg rolls, string hoppers, lamprais, kothu roti and biryani. There is a wide variety of western-style fast food outlets and coffee shops ranging from McDonalds and Pizza Hut to Barista, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Coco Verandah, The Commons, and Perera & Sons. If you are searching for authentic Sri Lankan food then choose from the Palmyrah Restaurant at Renuka Hotel, Hilton’s Curry Leaf, Nugagama at the Cinnamon Grand and Green Cabin Restaurant on Galle Road. Indian cuisine is served at Mango Tree, Navarathna (Taj Samudra) and Chutneys (Cinnamon Grand). The most popular dining-out experience is at the Paradise Road Gallery Cafe, the restaurant with the most seductive ambience in the island. For a more informal open-air dining experience, try Bayleaf, housed in an old manor house; or Barefoot Cafe which often has live jazz on a Sunday. The Ministry of Crab set in the colonial period Dutch Hospital shopping precinct, serves up crab cooked Sri Lankan and western style. The Lagoon at Cinnamon Grand is also a good seafood restaurant. Arguably the best Thai restaurant is the Royal Thai at Cinnamon Lakeside. There is a huge selection of Chinese restaurants led by No. 168, off the Galle Road, which is an authentic, no-frills restaurant popular with the local Chinese community, and the Emperor’s Wok at the Hilton.
Colombo has a scattering of pubs, nightclubs and hotel bars that come alive especially on Friday and Saturday nights and feature live bands or DJ music. 7 Degrees North (Cinnamon Lakeside) is a fabulous setting by the lagoon. There is also the Breeze Bar (Cinnamon Grand), Library (Cinnamon Lakeside), Zaza Bar (CASA Colombo), Amuseum, Buba and Silk. Characterful pubs include the Cheers Pub (Cinnamon Grand), In on the Green (Galle Face Hotel) and the Cricket Club Café.
From buzzing bazaars to stylish boutiques, Colombo’s shopping experience is improving. At the Laksala craft village in the suburb of Battaramulla, villagers turn out intricate crafts from clay, brass, wood and palm leaves. Other attractions include homewear stores like Paradise Road, Gandhara, and Saffron Villas. Barefoot is a popular tourist haunt. There are several good quality jewellers. The trading heart of the city is in the narrow streets of Pettah Bazaar where you will find anything from steel pots to the latest mobile phones. If you accept anybody’s offer to act as a guide, ensure you know the financial basis.
Colombo’s streets come alive in January for the annual ‘Duruthu Perahara’ and again in February for the `Navam Perehara’. These colourful processions display folklore, music, dancing, drumming and elephants. Vel, a Hindu festival, takes place in July or August where an ornately decorated Vel chariot, drawn by a pair of snow-white bulls carrying the statue of Lord Murukan, parades the streets of Colombo. The arts, sadly, remain largely inactive. The most popular event in Colombo’s art calendar is the Kala Pola held in February which sees the shady sidewalks along Green Path filled with the creative works of local artists.
Sri Lanka is affected by two separate monsoons which generally means that there is usually good weather somewhere on the island. Global warming has made weather patterns less reliable, but essentially the main south-west (“yala”) monsoon brings rain to the west (including Colombo) and south-west coasts and hill country largely between May and July. The less severe north-east (“maha”) monsoon hits the east coast – including the cultural triangle – predominantly from November to January. There is also an inter-monsoonal period of unsettled weather preceding the Maha monsoon in October during which heavy rainfall can occur anywhere across the island, Colombo very much included.
Colombo is a compact blend of old and new. A modern skyline is growing alongside colonial-period buildings and rudimentary shops. Ancient temples, Hindu Kovils, churches, and mosques are found in the heart of the city and the suburbs. Museums, art galleries, golf courses and gyms, spas and salons, bars, restaurants, night clubs and live music all add to Colombo’s appeal.