COLOMBO HAS PLENTY TO OFFER THE VISITOR, ABOVE ALL, ITS FRIENDLY, WELCOMING PEOPLE WHO WILL CHARM YOU EVERY STEP OF THE WAY.
Colombo is the gateway city to Sri Lanka, a small country that boasts pristine beach stays, elegant hotels in the highlands surrounded by tea plantations, elephants wandering the streets and beautiful national parks. But don’t bypass Colombo with its slow-paced city life, lovely parks, bustling markets, colonial buildings and palm trees swaying in the balmy breeze.
To get the feel of an ancient city, I always head to the traditional market first, so as to soak up the history, everyday life and local culture all in one place. Pettah is Colombo’s main market, and here you will find the Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim cultures all merging in one big, exotic trading basket. Everything is on offer at this bustling market: fruit and vegetables, fashion accessories, pots and pans, electrical goods and arts and crafts.
Pettah is a market center for wholesalers, so retailers from all over Colombo and beyond come to get the best prices here and purchase supplies. Plenty of locals come to shop, though. I made my way through a maze of colors, sounds and smells and eventually I found my way out to Fifth Cross Street and Sea Street, passing Hindu temples and mosques.
It was time to catch some cool breezes and take a long stroll along the city’s green strip, Galle Face Green. This lovely stretch of lawn is where the city’s business district meets the ocean. On weekends and in the evenings the place fills up with a mixture of nationalities, and the vibe is very family friendly. There are always some young cricketers up for a game, and these games seem to be in constant progress, along with kite flying and kids just fooling around. In contrast, elderly residents take time out on the many park benches dotted along the green, happy to strike up a conversation with a visitor.
Galle Face Green is a good place to try street food. I loved the hot, steaming roti, which is a flatbread made of wheat flour and coconut and stuffed with a variety of fillers. My favorite was banana roti with melted chocolate on top. Served with fish or vegetables, it’s a meal in itself. Another discovery was hoppers, which taste a little like sourdough pancakes. Hoppers are made from fermented rice flour batter with coconut milk and baking soda, and egg hopper is a very popular breakfast choice. I also tried the isso wade, a delicious deep-fried prawn cake, and finished off with a steaming cup of black tea.
As the afternoon faded, I headed to the famous Galle Face Hotel, a historic icon of the city. The British built the hotel in 1864, and the cool verandah affords some of the best views of the city. With a refreshing drink in hand, I could just imagine the famous people who have also watched the sun drop into the ocean from this very spot. Past guests of the hotel include Yuri Gagarin, Richard Nixon and Indira Gandhi. It is claimed that the author Arthur C. Clarke wrote the final chapters of 3001: The Final Odyssey here at the hotel.
Colombo and temples go together. Sri Lanka has embraced Buddhism since 247 BC, and in fact, a large Buddha statue greets you on arrival at the airport. What better way to indulge in the culture in a deeper way than to visit the Gangaramaya (Vihara) Temple, one of the most important temples in Colombo? A large sleeping Buddha statue greets you at the temple entrance, creating a very relaxed, peaceful feeling. Worshippers and other visitors to this beautiful place of prayer have donated thousands of smaller Buddha statues. Visiting this temple also gives you an insight into Buddhist history, as the temple also houses a museum filled with Buddhist artefacts from all over the world. The temple is an institute for students of Buddhism; however, visitors are most welcome, and it’s well worth sprending a few hours here.
Positioned on Beira Lake, the temple is situated in a very tranquil, restful spot. If you are feeling energetic, you can engage in a bit of paddle-boating while you are at the lake. It may feel a little tacky to sit in a young lovers’ swan-shaped boat, but it’s an option if you wish to float with the numerous pelicans and storks that frequent the waters. You can also hang out with the large monitor lizards that laze on the sunny lakeshore.
A visit to the National Museum of Colombo will connect you with Sri Lanka’s history and culture. Again, you are greeted by a great Buddha statue; this time, a large 9th-century stone version, which welcomes you with a warm, beguiling smile. The stately colonial building is impressive, and the gallery dates back to 1877. This is Sri Lanka’s cultural showcase, so try and spend half a day here and learn about the carvings and artefacts from the ancient past. You will find an excellent 19th century English painting collection, a royal throne and other archaeological finds including coins, swords and guns, as well as statues. Don’t miss the top floor, which houses a fascinating traditional agricultural display.
SRI LANKA GUIDE
WHILE IN SRI LANKA
- Habarana – Enjoy elephant rides by the beautiful lake. This is a great base to access the Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks.
- Kandy – A charming old-worldly World Heritage Listed city, surrounded by wooded hills and a beautiful lake. See the Temple of the Tooth and the Royal Palace of Kandy.
- Sigiriya – This ancient palace and fortress complex dates back over a thousand years. Known as “lion rock” it rises out of the jungle 200 meters.
- Polonnaruwa – See the ruins of a long lost kingdom and relics of a magnificent ancient royal city, which dates back to 1070 AD. An archaeological marvel of the country.
- Tea Factory in Nuwara Eliya – Look out over the beautiful, expansive tea plantations with stunning views, tour the tea factory and enjoy fine quality Ceylon tea served with cake.