Colombo is a city on the rise. Quite literally. An incredible boom in building projects mean that high-rises and luxury hotels will soon dot the seafront of Sri Lanka’s capital, transforming the city’s skyline. “Is there any point going to Colombo?” was a question we were asked more than once in advance of our departure, and the answer is a resounding yes. Not merely the city you must endure on your way out to the sea, Colombo is a great place to wind up your time in Sri Lanka.
“It was really only around when the British arrived that Colombo was established as a vital post on the maritime routes of the Indian Ocean”.
The Portuguese built a fort here in 1517, which was the seed that would grow into the hub Colombo is today. When the Dutch arrived they expanded the fortifications of this fort, giving this teeny city suburbs, but it was really only around when the British arrived that Colombo was established as a vital post on the maritime routes of the Indian Ocean, and in 1815 Colombo was named capital of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon).
There is little that greets you as you drive into the city that hints at its past as the “Garden City of the East”, but you can spot little hints of this legacy in parks and shaded avenues. Plus cool little eateries, shops, and galleries abound, a treat for anyone looking to explore the evolving social and cultural landscape of this city. The classics are still here, and still excellent, but there’s also a fresh crop of offerings appearing constantly.
Go to Paradise Road to kit your home out in gorgeous, tropical chic. You’ll find dinnerware and home accessories stacked high, as well as a lush, scented spa section, and all sorts of cool, locally-inflected oddities that would make fantastic gifts and souvenirs. Stop in their café – Paradise Road Cafe – for excellent cake and coffee.
PR is a concept store by the same crew, and worth stopping at. You’ll find a handpicked selection of clothing and accessories from Sri Lankan and Indian designers, as well as French sunglasses, locally-designed swimwear, slippery silk separates, and incredible jewels. While there, pop across the road to Milk & Honey for a relaxed and healthy meal or juice.
Of course there is Ministry of Crab, probably Sri Lanka’s best-known restaurant, which serves up fresh crabs in garlic, chilli, butter and pepper variations and sits in the Old Dutch Hospital, a 17th-century structure with a red-tiled roof and central courtyard that’s been restored into cool hub housing some of the city best eating, drinking, and shopping. It is on the spendy end of Colombo’s eating spectrum, and you’d do well to reserve a table well in advance of your visit.
Other excellent places to eat include The Gallery Café, where you’ll spot well-heeled locals and be served elegant fusion food and tamarind chili martinis, and the Barefoot Garden Café is a lovely spot for lunch. You’ll find a concise menu of café-style food served in an outdoor courtyard that is begging for long afternoons spent with a bottle (or two) of prosecco. The food is alright, but Barefoot is a Colombo landmark, and a favourite for Sunday brunch when a jazz band performs all afternoon. This compound also houses an art gallery and shop and is a great place to pick up textiles, cool postcards, handmade toys, essential oils and spa products, and more.
When you’ve eaten and stocked up on souvenirs, head to the city centre for a walk around Beira Lake and a visit to the Seema Malaka temple, a meditation centre designed by Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka’s best-known architect whose tropical modern style is a strong inspiration here at Nicobar this season. In a city filled with bustle and tuk tuks, this tranquil oasis is a gorgeous little getaway in the heart of it all.