Sri Lanka was ruled successively by the Portuguese, Dutch and British, and this is reflected in its elegant colonial buildings and multicultural mix of dining options. Curry Leaf, which has a relaxed ambience, is one of my favourite spots for local fare like kottu roti (fried dough with meat, vegetables and spices).
Housed in the former offices of world-renowned architect Geoffrey Bawa is The Gallery Cafe (above). I go there for art – a rotating collection of works by local artists and designers – before tucking into modern fusion dishes like lemongrass and ginger chicken, as well as black pork curry.
Seafood lovers should visit Ministry of Crab, a restaurant at a former Dutch hospital, which serves all manner of the delicious crustacean – some weighing more than 2kg. Choose from flavourful garlic, chilli, pepper and butter crab.
Colombo’s restaurant scene is thriving. Nihonbashi, named one of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2014, is a beautiful Japanese establishment with a zen garden. Try its delicate sashimi and sushi presented with attention to detail.
Also not to be missed is The Cricket Club Cafe housed in a charming colonial mansion. Some say it’s Sri Lanka’s only Swiss restaurant. Try its luscious fondue and sumptuous grilled meats.
From tea to topaz
The city is a treasure trove of speciality buys. It is particularly famous for its aromatic tea leaves, grown in lush plantations around the country, including Bogawantalawa Tea Estates in Dickoya and the Tea Research Institute in Talawakelle. Take home a packet of Ceylon tea from supermarkets like Cargills Food City and Keells Super. Dilmah and Mlesna’s teas are two of my favourites.
There’re also gems galore here, with stores across the city selling anything from tourmalines to amethysts and sapphires. The gem industry is monitored by the National Gem and Jewellery Authority, which offers certification for precious stones. For a fine selection of well-designed jewellery, Zam Gems is a reputable shop to visit.
If you’re strapped for time, head to Laksala, Sri Lanka’s biggest state-owned souvenir store. You’ll find everything from spices and fine fabrics to silver and ceramics made by local craftsmen from villages across the country. I love the vividly coloured paintings of local scenes.
Fun nights out
There is no shortage of unpretentious clubs and bars for a fabulous night out. When I want to dance, I head to Zaza Bar, a glass chamber (even the roof is made of glass) at a heritage hotel. At night, the dance floor comes alive with thumping music, while in the day, you can enjoy tea-infused mocktails.
For a different atmosphere, there’s the quaint, laid-back Cheers Pub that’s popular with the expat crowd. Stepping into the wood-panelled bar-restaurant feels like a journey back in time. Play a few rounds of pool and enjoy pints of draught beer.
If you like live music, In on the Green (2 Galle Rd) is another English pub to chill out at, with imported beer and lively performances. On open-mic nights, you can croon with the band. The crowd is a mix of locals and expats.
You can see Colombo’s past in historic buildings across the city, but to delve into its rich heritage, I recommend a trip to Colombo National Museum.
The sprawling colonial mansion from 1877 houses an impressive collection of artefacts ranging from botany to art. Look out for a striking royal throne made for King Wimaladharma in 1693 and weapons from the nation’s colonial era.
I like to spend weekends unwinding at Galle Face Green (above), a huge urban park that stretches about half a kilometre along the coast. Soak in the buzzing atmosphere – vendors, picnickers, kite flyers and joggers fill the place with laughter and chatter.
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ILLUSTRATION KEN LEE PHOTOS NIGEL PAVITT (CORBIS) / INMAGINE
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.