Although it’s unlikely it will reclaim its 19th-century moniker ‘the garden city of the East’, Colombo has nevertheless emerged as a must-see stop in Sri Lanka. No longer just the sprawling city you have to endure on your way to the beaches, it has become a worthy destination in its own right and makes an excellent start – or finish – to your Sri Lankan adventures. The legacies of colonial Colombo’s garden roots are still very much intact along its often-shady boulevards. Fort is a compelling place thanks to ongoing restoration of its landmark colonial architecture, while Pettah brims with markets and rampant commerce. Even traffic-clogged Galle Rd is getting spiffier with glossy new hotel complexes. Colombo’s cosmopolitan side supports ever-more stylish eateries, galleries and shops. Surprises abound: with a little exploration you’ll find great local food, characterful shops and tiny, convivial cafes. Meanwhile, a building boom like no other is transforming the city’s skyline.
ItineraryThis is a typical itinerary for this productStop At: Colombo Fort, Colombo, Western ProvinceDuring the European era Fort was indeed a fort, surrounded by the sea on two sides and a moat on the landward sides. Today it’s literally at the centre of Colombo’s resurgence, with grand old colonial-era buildings being restored amid a mix of modern structures, such as the World Trade CenterDuration: 15 minutesStop At: Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct, Colombo, Western ProvinceCentrepiece of the vibrant Fort, this colonial-era complex dates back to the early 1600s. Lavishly restored, it is home to shops, cafes and restaurants run by some of Colombo’s best operators. Enjoy a pause for a cold drink amid the incredibly thick columns of its arcades. There’s an annex in a 19th-century British building on the backside that faces Chatham St. Duration: 45 minutesStop At: Pettah, Colombo, Western ProvinceImmediately inland from Fort, the bustling bazaar of Pettah is one of the oldest districts in Colombo and one of the most interesting places to spend a few hours. It is the most ethnically mixed place in the country. Large religious buildings represent a plethora of faiths, while more earthly pursuits can be found in market stalls and shops selling seemingly everything.The crowds in Pettah can become overwhelming during the morning and late afternoon rush hours, but the streets are still thronged during most daylight hours. Vendors hurrying with carts piled high with impossible loads, zooming three-wheelers, cars trying to fit down narrow lanes and people rushing here and there can make for an exhausting experience. Your best bet is to find a shady doorway out of traffic and just observe the timeless manic swirl around you. Wolfendhal Lane is a typical side-street refuge: wander past its textile stores and exchange gentle ‘hellos’ with the locals. Various streets in Pettah each have their specialities.Duration: 30 minutesStop At: Pettah Floating Market, Colombo, Western ProvinceA perfect example of how quickly Colombo is changing: what was an industrial canal has been reborn as a waterfront district with simple cafes, food vendors, shops, and chairs under umbrellas for relaxing. Local couples stroll the wooden boardwalks, holding hands and pausing for simple pleasures.Duration: 25 minutesStop At: Galle Face Green, Colombo, Western ProvinceColombo’s front porch is immediately south of Fort. So popular that it’s more brown (dirt) then green (grass),this is where Colombo comes to unwind. Galle Face Green is now under threat as looming new high-rise hotels, apartments and offices cut off dawn light to the east, and the vast Colombo Port City cuts off some of the open ocean on the west. At the south end of the green is the luxe Galle Face Hotel.Duration: 20 minutesStop At: Beira Lake, Colombo, Western ProvinceSouth Beira Lake is the pretty centrepiece of the city. Pelicans vie for space on the water with rental swan boats rental per 30min Rs 150; h 9am-5pm), which courting couples looking for a little privacy lethargically paddle about. Stroll the waterside walk with local families, while their children race over the cable-stayed bridge to the playground and immaculate gardens on the small island.Duration: 30 minutesStop At: Seema Malakaya Temple, Colombo, Western ProvinceOne of Colombo’s most photographed sights is on an island on the east side of the South Beira Lake. This small but captivating meditation centre was designed by Geoffrey Bawa in 1985 and is run by Gangaramaya Temple. The pavilions – one filled with Thai bronze Buddhas, another centred on a bodhi tree and four Brahmanist images – are especially striking when illuminated at night. New additions appear less sympathetic to the poetic originalDuration: 30 minutesStop At: Gangaramaya (Vihara) Buddhist Temple, Colombo, Western Province Run by one of Sri Lanka’s more politically adept monks, Galboda Gnanissara Thera, this bustling temple complex has a library, a museum and an extraordinarily eclectic array of bejewelled and gilded gifts presented by devotees and well-wishers over the years (plus one lonely and chained temple elephant named Ganga). Gangaramaya is the focus of the Navam Perahera on the February poya(full moon) day each year. This is the centre for the most extravagant Vesak celebrations in ColomboDuration: 20 minutesStop At: Colombo National Museum, Colombo, Western Province A large 9th-century stone Buddha greets you with an enigmatic smile as you enter Sri Lanka’s premier cultural institution, which gets better (in small increments) each year. In galleries dating back as far as 1877, you’ll encounter all manner of art, carvings and statuary from Sri Lanka’s ancient past, as well as swords, guns and other paraphernalia from the colonial period. There are 19th-century reproductions ofEnglish paintings of Sri Lanka and a collection of antique demon masks.Duration: 1 hour