Colombo is not really on the Sri Lankan tourist trail and for understandable reasons: it’s crowded, humid, a bit smelly in places and lacking in the tourist attractions one would expect with a capital city. Scratch beneath the surface though and you have a vibrant and beguiling city of tangible contrasts and where a very good time can be had, with a bit of imagination.
Sri Lanka for such a small island (roughly the size of Ireland) has an astonishing ethnic diversity and in Colombo this is best reflected in the architecture. Singhalese, Tamil, Moorish, Portuguese, Dutch and British influences are everywhere and it makes for a fascinating voyage of discovery. A five minute tuk tuk ride can take you from the rarefied Cinnamon Gardens, an area of gated white washed houses and gentleman’s clubs to Pettah Market, a noisy and hot melting pot of humanity, where gentleman’s clubs are in short supply.
There is accommodation to suit all purses. At the top end Galle Face Hotel is a Colombo landmark and a relic of the British era. There are few better places to have a sundowner. For those on a budget Mount Lavinia is the place to be. A slightly faded coastal resort in the southern suburbs it has any number of budget guest houses and can get lively at weekends. Voila Blanche is a good starting point.
Colombo nightlife would not satisfy the dedicated clubber and is on a par with a small English provincial city, Bath for example. Pubs are not really Sri Lankans cup of tea and the one’s that do exist are both attached to five star hotels. Both good places though. Nightclubs always seem to be changing names and are all similar in music, house and clientele, a small selection of wealthy Colombites, ex pats and the odd tourist. Treat such places lightly and you will have a good night.
Good restaurants are omnipresent in Colombo. The Gallery, Geoffrey Bawa’s (Sri Lanka’s leading architect) former home is a delight. Next door is the Cricket Club Café, a haven for cricket fans and with a good atmosphere but very expensive. Loon Tao is a sea side Chinese restaurant in Dehiwala, where you cross over a railway line and if you get the right night eat some of the best crab you will ever sample.
Colomboites generally go out to fancy restaurants to eat food other than Sri Lankan, meaning the expected rice and curry fest is not forthcoming. There are any number of street café’s to gauge at, but these can be very hit and miss and it takes the taste buds a while to acclimatize to. Sri Lankan food is not as insanely spicy as you would think. Pilawoos’s, a chain of late night café’s dotted throughout the city is a good place to try street Sri Lankan food.
Colombo’s traffic is a nightmare so try and keep travelling down to a minimum. There are parks, museums and shopping malls of course and a trip to a market is a must for the experience and a great place to but fabrics, but they are mostly forgettable. Colombo is a place to eat and drink well and to meander around taking in the huge variety of life, before heading off to calmer waters.