Sri Lanka is a hot destination for many travelers right now and for good reason – with lush mountain retreats and pristine beaches, it really is a paradise. But there is more to this country than its picture postcard reputation.
Its’ charming capital Colombo also makes for a great city break as I discovered recently. Dynamic, accessible and friendly with great food and history, it’s worth incorporating a few days in the city on your next trip to Sri Lanka, or as a stopover en route to Asia. Here are my top reasons why Colombo should be on your travel agenda:
- The Location
Four hours from Doha and less than four hours from a range of Asian cities (Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Hong Kong) plus its close proximity to honeymoon haven The Maldives, Colombo is conveniently located for both Qatar Airways and Sri Lankan Airlines flights.
If you are headed to Sri Lanka for a longer visit, perhaps to the beaches or hill stations, Colombo makes an excellent beginning or luxe end to your trip.
2. The History
While the city has been known as a trade stop for more than 2000 years, it is the legacy of the Portuguese, Dutch and British that is reflected in the city’s architecture alongside influences from the city’s Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim heritage.
The result is an endlessly fascinating cityscape. Must visits include the Galle Face Green – the city’s promenade – as well as the Old Dutch Hospital and the mezmerizing Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple. Also worth a visit is the Old Dutch Hospital, now housing restaurants, cafes and bars, its thick walls and red tiled roof are especially beautiful when lit up in the evening.
3. The Shopping
The only way to experience Colombo is at street level and thanks to Tuk Tuk Safaris we were able to see the city at street level and also visit places we might not have thought of. Believe me, careening around the city at full tilt with Bob Marley blaring while clutching a coconut is every bit as fun as it sounds.
But back to shopping, on our tour we visited the crowded streets of Pettah we sampled locally produced spices and coffee, bringing more than was probably necessary home with us.
Also worth a look, if you are visiting on a weekend, is the charming Good Market. With an emphasis on organic and sustainable goods, you can pick up some handicrafts (I bought a woven shopping basket), as well as try local food and get yourself locally-sourced coffee and a massage.
4. The Food
Sri Lankan food is a revelation and worthy of its own post (to come!). But be prepared – it’s also spicy. With a base of coconut and chilli and seafood-heavy, it’s one of the world’s most underrated cuisines. Must eat dishes include their breakfast staple of hoppers, or wafer thin rice flour pancakes which can be filled with a fried egg and served with a spicy curry. You should also sample the local take on samosas, that great street food of South Asia, stuffed with veggies and spices. And of course, any kind of seafood is a must. freshly caught, you can find it in fish or prawn curries or served simply grilled.
The food options in Colombo range from the street food stalls along Galle Face Green (a must eat is the kottu – prepared teppanyaki style its a mix of veggies, protein and roti) through to world class cuisine served up at the cult favorite Ministry of Crab (where you buy your crabs and prawns according to size – Crabzilla being goals).
Speaking of Ministry of Crab, this is a must visit for any foodie. Book well in advance, turn up on time (it’s in their constitution). Put on the bib, order a cold beer and the chilli garlic crab (the bigger the better) with extra slices of the “paan” garlic bread to soak up the juices. For something a little more gentile, go for the butter crab, which is served cold with hot butter dipping sauce. All seafood is locally sourced and fresh (not frozen).
We had a great primer for Sri Lankan food thanks to a stop at The Curry Pot by the beach, where you could pick from an array of dishes including a meaty jackfruit curry served with accompaniments like pol sambol (spicy coconut) and a candied eggplant relish (trust me – life changing). Here office workers sat side-by-side with tourists scarfing down plates of spicy goodness.
But there are options if you need to dial down the spice. On the advice of a reader we hit the Bavarian German Restaurant and Bar. Yep. German food. In Sri Lanka. But hear me out – it’s been around 40 years and the day we visited was pumping with locals, expats and tourists. Sometimes all you need is a schnitzel the size of your head and a huge beer to be happy.
5. Luxe Hotels
Since my first visit to Sri Lanka more than a decade ago, the luxury hotel scene has exploded. On my most recent stay, we booked into the spanking new Shangri-La Colombo. With an incredible location on the coastal edge of the city, this hotel deserves its growing reputation. The rooms have city or coastal views and are spacious and well appointed (big ticks from me for their well positioned charging points in each room!).
Booking a Shangri-La Horizon Club room gives you access to their concierge floor complete with a breakfast buffet (make sure to sample the local hot dishes), snacks, afternoon tea and evening cocktails plus a range of other goodies.
The hotel has six bars and restaurants if you don’t feel like venturing out and I can recommend the excellent Capital Bar and Grille for a relaxed but sophisticated evening drinks and dinner (when you need a break from the spice!).
Meanwhile, the hotel’s concierge know the city inside out and were a wealth of knowledge and connections for us – they organized a fun Tuk Tuk Safari through the streets of Colombo as well as restaurant reservations at some of the best places in town. They can tailor-make a schedule for you depending on your interests – food, history, culture, shopping. You can grab one of the hotel’s free tuk tuks to get around or book one of their luxury cars (very reasonable prices by the way!)
Colombo – The Life on the Wedge Essentials
Fly: Both Qatar Airways and Sri Lankan are good options and connections for visiting Sri Lanka from Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Flight time from Doha is four hours.
Stay: Shangri-La Colombo on Gale Face Green. Super luxe but made home-like thanks to the warm and genuine hospitality from the hotel’s staff.
Eat: Ministry of Crab (book well in advance) or wander along the Galle Face Green of an evening to sample the street food.
Getting Around: Book a Tuk Tuk Safari – informative, fun and slightly insane way to see the city.
What to take: An umbrella and a sense of fun
What to Bring Back: Tea, Sri Lankan coffee and spices.
Pro Tip: Colombo’s airport is more manageable thank most but book the the Silk Route arrivals service and let them smooth the way. At US$50 they ease you through immigration and take you to a lounge for refreshments. Your driver or transport can also meet you there.
Before You Go: Make sure you apply for the Sri Lanka E-Visa.
If it seems like I am a little bit in love with this city – you’re right. Book a weekend stay and see for yourself!
*Thank you to the team at the Shangri-La Colombo for their hospitality and genuine warmth.