For Hospitality Directory
The received wisdom about Colombo is that you leave as soon as possible to explore the true attractions of Sri Lanka – the beaches, tea plantations and historic city of Kandy. Although those are all undeniably wonderful, we were keen to spend some time exploring this rather overlooked South Asian capital.
The recent building of a new highway has revolutionised transportation into Colombo, knocking an hour off the journey time from the international airport to the city centre – now it’s possible to do it in 25 minutes on a good day. We were fortunate to stay at the Hilton Colombo Residence. It’s an excellent choice, especially for travellers with small children like us. We had a spacious, spotless three bedroom apartment on the 24th floor with stunning views of the Indian Ocean and the eternal bustle of downtown Colombo. It was particularly spectacular watching the fireworks on New Year’s Eve. The staff were friendly, there was a handy grocery store on the corner, and the taxi service was startlingly efficient, including arranging long excursions to the coast or Kandy at a moment’s notice.
Just around the corner from the hotel, five minutes by tuk-tuk, is the incredible Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple.
This beguiling sacred space has its own resident elephant calf and an astonishing hoard of treasure donated by worshippers over decades. It’s a beautiful, surprisingly serene spot that shouldn’t be missed by visitors to Colombo. Geographically a visit there combines well with a more secular temple – the famous shopping mecca, Cotton Collection. If you can embrace the chaotic crowds of fellow fashionistas, it offers a brilliant selection of high quality cotton clothing and accessories.
The Colombo National Museum has a lovely garden with ancient, enormous banyan trees that’s perfect for a pit stop before you take on the enormous collection of artefacts.
The large collection of demon masks are good fun, and it’s an accessible, if almost overwhelming, introduction to the country’s rich, turbulent history. It’s the country’s largest museum and one of its most important cultural highlights.
Colombo’s newest attraction is also one of its best. The Ape Gama Traditional Village is a brilliantly-executed mock-up up of a sprawling Sri Lankan village right in the centre of the city, near Parliament.
There’s a cute little zoo with native wildlife including a crocodile, shops selling quality local handicrafts, a theatre, restaurant and plenty of corners to explore for a few hours. It was opened for the Commonwealth Heads of State summit in November 2013 but now you don’t need to be David and Samantha Cameron to enjoy it.
Colombo is a great introductory point for Sri Lankan cuisine, too. It’s totally unique and unbelievably tasty, with savoury, spicy curries, irresistible condiments like coconut sambal and lots of fresh seafood components. The Sugar Bistro & Wine Bar next to the Cinnamon Grand Hotel has a buzzing atmosphere and offers an appealing mix of local and international dining. The Galle Face Hotel has a pretty unbeatable setting right by the Ocean for dining and cocktails, while chipmunks and birds scamper around the outdoor tables. Galle Face Green begins next to the hotel, a beachside promenade that doubles as the number one destination for street food.
Colombo is a modern city and the traffic and modern architecture can be oppressive, but it’s also full of energy and charm. Around most corners there’s an evocative English or Dutch colonial relic – a church, a warehouse – to admire. It’s also a very diverse city, and always has been, one which delivers a warm welcome to travellers and a few surprises.