Things to do in Colombo, Sri Lanka

Things to do in Colombo, Sri Lanka

Gina Samarotto

In the world of far-flung, exotic, bucket list-worthy destinations – few beckon quite so beguilingly as the island of Sri Lanka. Officially known as the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, the mystical ‘Teardrop of India’ was originally named Ceilão by Portuguese explorers until its eventual colonisation as Ceylon by the British in 1796. In 1972, the country was a newly minted republic free from foreign rule and Ceylon was again reborn – this time as ‘Sri Lanka’, Sanskrit words meaning ‘resplendent land’. And with Sri Lanka’s seemingly never-ending options of wonderful things to do and magical places to explore this is one destination you’ll want to embrace with arms wide open.

What to do in Colombo

Nestled between the Indian subcontinent’s mainland and the islands that make up the Maldives, Sri Lanka is verdant and exotic; home to tea plantations and cinnamon groves, ancient ruins, and dense jungles, city streets, and quiet villages. And Colombo, the nation’s thriving capital, is an ideal prelude to Sri Lanka’s central provinces and idyllic coastal communities. It’s a city that serves its guests as both a door and destination, as time and preference allow.

Photo: Gina Samarotto

Photo: Gina Samarotto

When in Colombo, head to the old Dutch Hospital, one of the country’s oldest and most historically significant destination reimagined into one a chic retail and dining venue. Posh shops including Spa Ceylon and Barefoot – a veritable wonderland of home accessories, textiles, toys, and crafts. If an authentic, Sri Lankan experience is what you crave, head to Colombo’s Pettah district and home to a mind-blowing local market guaranteed to get very ‘real’.

A cacophony of sights, sounds, and smells; chaotic is the only way to describe this market where locals and visitors are pressed shoulder to shoulder as they search for everything from jewellery and handcrafted textiles to food stalls serving local specialties to vendors hawking freshly butchered meats. For a day spent sans the frenetic energy of the market, Galle Face Green is a 5-hectare long park on the shores of the Indian Ocean. Replete with sandy beaches, rolling paths and open green spaces perfect for an al fresco picnic lunch, each August Galle Face Green is also home to one of the most impressive kite festivals on Earth.

At just under 150km northeast of Colombo, the Matale District town of Dambulla is well-suited for a day trip from Colombo, though with the myriad ‘not to be missed’ offerings Dambulla offers it easily lends itself as a destination all its own. Adrenalin junkies can find their thrills served with a side of culture at the world heritage site known as Sigiriya, home to the ruins of a 5th-century city and where Lions Rock, an ancient, towering fortress accessible only by a series of narrow, seemingly death-defying stairs, awaits.

Giving tourists infinite photo ops throughout the central provinces are some of Sri Lanka’s most well-known residents – that is, the countless troops of toque macaque monkeys freely roaming about. Relatively harmless (the comical yet stealthy macaques aren’t usually given to aggression unless provoked), you can further reduce the chance of any unpleasant monkey business by not trying to touch or feed the animals. And keep a tight hold on your camera, hat, and sunglasses –the height-challenged thugs have a penchant for thievery when it comes to the belongings of unsuspecting tourists.

Photo: Gina Samarotto

Photo: Gina Samarotto

The best hotels in Colombo

The Galle Face Hotel is an elegant choice in the heart of Colombo, within walking distance to a host of local attractions including the Gangaramaya Temple, shopping at Crescat Mall and the Galle Face Green. Housed in a historic, stately 19th century building the hotel offers guests elegant accommodations, an in-house museum, a divinely ahh-worthy L’Occitane spa and its own historian who will be only too happy to tour you through the hotel’s curated collection of archives and artefacts.

If you require the conveniences of business services as well as luxury, the Taj Samudra offers the best of both worlds. An opulent, marble-clad behemoth situated near the Elaniya Raja Maha Vihara temple, the National Museum and the old fort; the Taj Samudra also allows guests to take advantage of their 24-hour business centre, seven fully equipped meeting rooms, high-speed Wi-Fi, secretarial assistance, interpretation facilities & workstations. Accommodations at the Taj Samudra range from comfortable guest rooms to graciously appointed suites featuring over 100 indulgent square meters of living space. When only the most decadently opulent lodging will, the hotel is home to the jaw-dropping Tata Suite; a residence sprawling across more than 300 square meters and boasting a grand piano in the living room, dual master suites, bespoke spa treatment areas, and a private conference room – all with panoramic views of the Indian Ocean.

An iconic landmark and part of Sri Lanka’s living Heritage, the AmanGalla Hotel is a stunning grand dame dressed in ancient mystique laced with modern luxury. Located approximately 125km from the centre of Colombo in an ancient seaport city; Galle is anchored by the magnificent ramparts and bastions of Galle Fort and punctuated with the countless jewellery shops, boutiques, restaurant, galleries and hotels that dot the narrow streets. Set amongst gardens and flanked by the walls of the old fort, the 17th-century building that houses AmanGalla is a masterpiece of graciousness kissed by convenience and just steps away from all Galle offers. After breakfast on the wide, shady veranda AmanGalla guests can set out to explore the city by foot – a walk that takes you past everything from shop windows boasting exquisite jewels to street stalls selling fragrant curries to snake charmers playing hypnotic melodies for their serpentine charges.

Photo: Gina Samarotto

Photo: Gina Samarotto

Where to eat in Colombo

While admittedly somewhat tourist-centric, if there is one thing the Ministry of Crab does well it’s crab and tucking into a plate of the Ministry’s chili and garlic encrusted creatures is a worthwhile Sri Lankan dining experience. The restaurant, within the walls of the old Dutch Hospital, is never not jumping – make sure to secure a reservation if you want to guarantee yourself a table.

Delicately Japanese-influenced, artfully creative dishes are what you’ll find at Nihonbashi.  Founded by Dharshan Munidasa (he’s also the mastermind behind Ministry of Crab), Munidasa isn’t a formally trained chef. Rather, the entrepreneur credits his lifelong career as an enthusiastic foodie for the success of his restaurants. When dining at Nihonbashi, be sure to try the tuna in any of its incarnations – the restaurant chooses their tuna (bought whole) directly from the Japanese docks where the catch is graded.

Located in the Cinnamon Grand Hotel, the Lagoon is a top pick among locals for upscale seafood. Well known for the Sri Lankan and Thai dishes served for lunch and dinner daily, Lagoon’s real claim to fame is the Maalu-Maalu seafood buffet served each Sunday.

While you won’t necessarily find a bevy of Michelin stars in Sri Lanka, what you will find are some of the most distinctive local dishes and some of the best street food anywhere on Earth. Don’t let a trip to this island nation go by without at least one meal celebrated over ‘egg hoppers’. A beloved street food that’s found in every market and on most breakfast tables around the country, ‘hoppers’ are crispy-edged, bowl-shaped crepes made from fermented rice flour and coconut milk. As the name would suggest, the dish is finished with a soft cooked egg and served with any one of an endless combination of curries, chili sauces, and chopped herbs.

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