Colombo’s history dates back over 2,000 years when ancient traders used the port as a vital trading ground. Now, it’s a bustling city that is the perfect mixture of modern living combined with colonial buildings and ruins. In the city, as soon as dawn breaks, the roads are constantly packed with rickshaws, cars and taxis as everybody rushes to make a living. However, you can easily escape the buzz and discover a world of rolling lawns, historic buildings and lots of ice cream.
If you’re still undecided about accommodation, then take a peek at Cinnamon Red Colombo. It’s strategically located near the Galle Face Green, a massive ocean-side urban park in the heart of Colombo. Known for offering exceptional value for money, with amenities like a rooftop pool and Wi-Fi, the accommodation is hugely popular with travellers so make sure you book early.
If you’re looking to spoil yourself and want the flexibility of your own space, The Kingsbury Residences (above) is one way to treat yourself. The apartments have a dining area, with sea views and a large outdoor pool, and even an in-house spa. While all the residences are equipped for self-catering – the property even offers grocery delivery – swanky restaurants are within walking distance.
Colombo is a walking destination and it is the colourful streets of Union Place that you’re likely to spend hours exploring. The narrow lanes around Church and Malay Street are lined with brightly painted houses and street art. Here, you’ll see washing hanging from clotheslines, kids playing on the road and hear music playing as grannies prepare dinner for their families. Don’t be surprised if one of the residents invites you inside for a glass of fresh lemon juice.
Watching the sunset from a 5-ha oceanside urban park situated along the coast sounds just perfect, and the Galle Face Green is just that. The promenade was initially laid out in 1859 to be used for horse racing and as a golf course. Now, it’s a great place for families to picnic, young children to play cricket and football, and for couples to take a stroll. It’s busy, but because of its size, you’ll always find a spot to be alone should you so wish.
Ask any local and they’ll probably tell you that it is here that you’re going to get the best taste of Colombo. Street vendors sell the best homemade snacks like roti (a fried crepe) filled with a variety of fillings of your choice. Spicy rice and curry is also a good takeaway option.
If you’ve got a sweet tooth, then head to the Green Cabin (Galle Rd, above) and try their vast selection of pastries. Butterscotch mousse, coconut ice cream and any cheese desserts are highly recommended. The pastries are really affordable and you can get a takeaway so that you’re set for a snack later in the day.
As you wander the streets you’ll soon realise that ice cream is very popular in Colombo. Men cycling with cooler boxes ply the streets to sell you their ice-cold treats. The avocado and pineapple ice cream certainly sounds like an unusual combination, but somehow it works and you’ll wish you bought seconds.
In the heart of Colombo is Beira Lake, and at its centre, a small island with the Simamalaka Shrine (often referred to as Seema Malaka Temple; above). It is officially part of the Gangaramaya Temple, although it is a few hundred metres away from it. The main roof is covered with blue tiles and the shrine is used as a place of rest and meditation rather than worship. It’s most magical at night as it is lit up and it’s a really memorable experience to watch locals meditate under the colourful lights. Tip: While taking pictures in front of the Buddha statues is not illegal, Sri Lankans find it disrespectful and will often ask that you don’t do so, especially at temples. You can take pictures of the Buddha statues on their own.
The island itself is probably the number one spot for a romantic night in Colombo. You can hire a swan-shaped pedal boat and spend an hour floating on the lake.
The Gangaramaya Temple is considered one of the most important temples in Sri Lanka because of its architecture which includes Sri Lankan, Thai, Chinese and Indian influences. It has a library and museum, and is filled with offerings from locals. It is famous because of its abundance of Buddha statues and is not only a place of worship, but also serves as a centre of learning.
While most head to Pettah, the most popular and busiest market in Colombo, Manning Market (above) is also worth a visit. It’s colourful, with lots of spices, exotic fruit and bananas – lots and lots of bananas – on sale. You may not be intending to purchase fruit here, but you’re bound to leave with some unusual food that you haven’t tried before. And, of course, the market is worthy of an Instagram gallery all by itself.
Colombo’s biggest park, Viharamahadevi Park (above) is another popular place to escape the busy city centre. Opposite the white Town Hall, it is here that you’ll bump into some local residents in the form of parrots, bats and squirrels. There are tours that you can join to learn more about the flora and fauna in the park, or you can simply find a spot to kick back, take off your shoes and enjoy the peace and quiet.
If you’re looking to stop by some of the more traditional tourist attractions, a visit to the National Museum should be top of the list. Built in 1876, the museum is a landmark in the city. Besides the impressive structure, the courtyard itself is worth a stroll. Inside, exhibits on ancient Sri Lanka are on display as well as items owned by the former royal families, including their thrones and crowns.
The Independence Memorial Hall is another important site that you have to add to your list. Sri Lanka gained its independence from Britain in 1948. The stone building and surrounding garden is a reminder of the battles fought and there is a statue of Sri Lanka’s first prime minister, Rt Hon Don Stephen Senanayake, who is referred to as the Father of the Nation. Now, the area is used for religious events and the annual Independence Day celebration.
The Old Dutch Hospital (above) is a venue you should not skip visiting either. Believed to have been built around 1681, it was used to look after officers serving under the Dutch East India Company. It is now a heritage building and has evolved to become a shopping and dining spot in Colombo. You’ll be spoilt for choice with the many restaurants, cool eateries and homegrown boutiques right in the centre of the structure.
– TEXT BY JESSICA FARAH
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This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.