So you are heading to Sri Lanka, I bet you cant wait to take tht picturesque train ride leaning out of the open doorway, or relaxing on one of the stunning beahces. Well I'm here to show you that the capital is also worthy of your time here.
Before I had begun living in Colombo, and then during my numerous stays I was finding the guidebooks and a selection of articles collectively agreeing that you should pass through quickly, advising you not to spend more than one or two nights in the city before moving off to the beaches in the south or heading north to the cultural triangle. Err, WHY!?
All advised you that there is nothing particularly worthy of your time here which, clearly I found to be quite a biased view, to say the least. Uneducated and unobservant views have hindered the inclusion of Colombo on the visitor's must-see lists for too long; however the times are changing for the better and visitors are seeing, experiencing, and mentioning Colombo left right and center.
If someone, or in this case a whole group of people say a place isn't worth exploring, well it surely catches my interest to do the opposite! If someone tells you not to do it, it's all you want to do right!? I need to be telling you about my favourite places and what the city means to me. It's what keeps me hanging around to become a part of the scenery.
Read the lines below to see what I found myself returning to countless times. If you aren't a Sri Lankan newbie then see if you agree with any of my choices and be sure to share your own in the comments.
Galle Face Green
This is an icon of Sri Lanka (all of the SL newbies, if you aren't yet familiar with this name you will be well associated (or sick of) it pretty soon into your introduction to the country). One of the first places I saw when I arrived, it was a refreshingly open space to the clutter and mayhem of the city surrounding. The bonus being 180 degrees of uninterrupted oceanfront views.
During the day it is a great place to wander or sit and catch up with friends while taking in one of the impromptu games of cricket that the group of kids have just begun across the green. If I get the chance and I'm in the right non-fidgety mood, I will people watch until the cows come home, and this is a prime spot to do so - under the shade of a tree during the day, and then moving right into the thick of it come sundown; this is when the place really comes alive, literally and metaphorically.
The green is quickly but steadily thronged with people, tourists, families and lovers as the sun dips, each here to hang out, take one last dip in the ocean, or sit down to dinner at one of the many food stalls. Expect good local rice and curry dishes (piled high on your plate) mixed with the ever-present 'short eats'; street foods consisting of deep fried curry and meat filled rolls, samosas, spiced seafood and multitudes of chilli covered delights. If you can handle your spices you can feed your belly all night long.
The green holds a special atmosphere during the evenings; the space is buzzing with activity and a heady dose of nostalgia (reminiscent of the colonial days).
Come In The Day For Fewer crowds, a dip in the ocean.
Visit At Night For The atmosphere, the sunsets, street foods and people watching.
This is Colombo's oldest and largest pocket of eco-friendly space. Publicly serving citizens since 1951, it is situated in central Colombo (07) and you'll be hard pressed to miss it if you are travelling in and around the city. The park is encircled by several main roads and flanked on its Northern tip by the colonial grandeur of the whitewashed Town Hall (again even harder to miss) and on the Southern end, the collection of museums, galleries and performing arts centres are all handily based here.
So if those are the sorts of sights which float your boat you have ahead of you a day of easy walking, with the choice of Colombo's varied dining locales only ever a short ride away (but that's a post or three for another time).
My first encounter was back in 2012 when the group of guys I had recently been welcomed into were invited to take part in the Derana Music Awards, which is basically the Sri Lankan version of The X Factor. Well, that was my first thought when I was sitting there 7 years ago. This and other events similar are held in the park's Eastern point at the amphitheatre.
My other more frequent visits after the park's 'spruce up' in 2013/14 concluded that it is a very peaceful place to walk around at nights; it's now a lot safer with the installation of street and path lighting on all of the main walkways. Benches are aplenty so stop often to find your favourite spot if you plan to visit here often or live in Colombo for some time.
Being in nature is one of my happy places, and I can easily spend an hour or more aimlessly wandering or people watching - which is part of the draw of this place for me. Occasional walks will slowly unravel different sections of the space, uncovering hidden gazebos or shady spots by the large lake. If you give your time to Viharamahadevi you will have found a gem of a location to rest and recharge.
Go In The Day To Visit the amphitheatre, gardens and surrounding buildings, people watching.
Visit At Night For A welcoming silence as the city quietens, aimless wandering, fewer crowds.
Spanning 318km this is one of the country's oldest arterial roads. Beginning in Colombo 01 (Fort) it renames as the A2 Highway in Mount Lavinia, forming the main coastal road to the deep south (named Galle Road because it leads straight down to Galle) before winding it's way up into the hills and terminating close to Wellawaya. I'm clearly only focusing on the section that runs down to Dehiwala-Mount Lavinia because this is only a post on Colombo (it is mesmerising for different reasons on the coastal road, though!).
The section which intrigues me the most is between the Kollupitiya (Col 03) and Bambalapitiya Railway Stations (Col 04). This is where I allot most of the time I spend on or near to Galle Road - the well known Barefoot Garden Cafe is one spot I overuse, preoccupying time and again and only a short distance from the Majestic City Shopping Centre and cinema, as is another cherished spot - the ocean front.
Ducking down onto one of the numerous side lanes offers up countless things for the eyes to indulge upon - being an ex-design student and ador(er) of the SL architecture I can do nothing better than to dive down those side streets and explore roads away from the modern infrastructure.
Running alongside Galle Road is Marine Drive, the closest you shall get to the ocean in a vehicle before stepping off onto the railway tracks and onto the rock ballast. Many an evening have I strolled along this strip and wandered across the unrestricted tracks to watch the sun set.
This is an austere location with few crowds; I highly recommend trying this out one evening after experiencing Galle Face Green. I know I much prefer the simplicity of sitting on the rocks, having the sea breeze whip me up into a hair nightmare while watching the passing trains rumble on only meters behind me. I feel a part of the place, having a more authentic experience - a daily activity that's not considered a must do for the locals, but a holiday essential for visitors. It reminds me of how I merge between a local and a visitor, feeling I have discovered a happy median both parties have not yet clocked on to.
Visit In The Day For A short break from your iced tea and the Jazz band at Barefoot Cafe, Shopping.
Come At Night For A peaceful empty view of the sunset, authentic trains up too close and personal, bars and restaurants for dinner.
Barefoot Garden Cafe
Barefoot. One of the worst - kept secrets of Colombo. Centrally located on Kollupitiya Galle Road, it is a popular venue for tourists and locals alike. Frequented by expats, as well as being managed by one it is a very welcoming cosmopolitan little sanctuary in the city.
The premises attract many tourists because of their shop; Barefoot fabrics are hand loomed and brightly coloured and very well known, the company being set up in in the early 1970's by the artist Barbara Sansoni. The craft has bloomed and is a common stop for tour buses who browse the handicrafts, fabric store and bookshop before wandering down into the open yet secluded frangipani tree-filled courtyard - welcome to Barefoot.
Despite its sometimes frenetic pace when at peak occupancy Barefoot has somehow managed to transform each visit into a slow-paced, chilled out and almost tranquil experience. Many a time have I enjoyed the forgotten pleasure of sitting with one of my favourite chilled drinks (iced tea, vanilla or peanut butter milkshake everytime people!) and doing nothing but being. It is from the many hours of doing so that I learned of the best times and days in which to visit (for one extremely bustling eatery you wouldn't believe me if I said to you that I have practically had the cafe to myself on occasions).
The Friday evening and Sunday afternoon live Jazz band really helps cement that idle feeling you're overcome with upon entering. Perhaps it's the fact that Barefoot is individual; I have come across no other cafe or restaurant in Colombo that is built within a rambling colonial house, the antiquity of the buildings have been preserved, dressed in Barefoot's signature textiles and artwork is ageing gracefully alongside the company's infectious atmosphere of an oasis, to bring you that unmistakeably Barefoot appeal.
Come Earlier For A good choice of seats, the atmosphere.
Come Later For Fewer crowds, beer as the sun sets through the frangipani.
This site is now split into two (when asking where you would like your tuk-tuk driver to drop you off). The Independence Memorial Hall is the commemorative building on the green that celebrates Sri Lanka's separation from the British rule in 1948; their last foreign ruler.
The Arcade Independence Square is the white building behind the hall, a newly built shopping centre. I was lucky enough to be around during its final phase of construction and official opening in early 2014, and I was quick to find one or two new charming spots to grab lunch or pick up the king of all iced teas from. It is in its own right a pleasing space to wander around in; find yourself going in circles along the maze of corridors or finding a shaded spot in the courtyards and gardens, all beautifully designed to make the most of the outdoor space.
The arcade was inclusive of Colombo's 'Beautification and Development of the City' project, an advance to establish Sri Lanka as one of the hubs of Asia. The government's Urban Development Authority states that this regeneration would "refurbish the city's dilapidated structures". However, I learned the original buildings were in fact destroyed; once the city's largest mental asylum it has been rebuilt upon the architectural ideas of such buildings in France and Europe. This strikes me as quite a backwards thing to do, and an unfortunate oversight into the original colonial architecture of the asylum. The end result does however successfully recreate the grandeur and symbolism of what asylums often represented (in Europe and in the USA) - large landscaped gardens within self-sufficient communities, icons of cities.
Visit In The Day For Shopping, dining outdoors, ambling the grounds surrounding the memorial hall.
Visit At Night For Seeing the newest cinema releases, the gardens and arcade illuminated.
Going to Mount is the closest you can get to feeling you are going on a holiday without actually going the distance. I can't be the only person who feels this way either when living in Colombo and having a spare Saturday to use wisely.
You see, from Dematagoda (09) it takes approximately 30 minutes to get to central Mount Lavinia (traffic permitting and in a tuk-tuk of course). This is just far enough to feel outside of Colombo but without the long car rides or hours of train journeys requiring multiple days away. If you are an expat living in Colombo the holiday feeling still applies here - for me anyway it has something to do with being at a beach - the English are sadly repressed to any form of beach that includes soft sand, warm winds and blue waters (or waters in which you don't come out of blue from the ankles down and sludged in sandy ocean mud).
Sorry England, we both know I was never meant to have grown up on your shores.
Another desired aspect of what to do "when in Mount" is to walk along the railway tracks. I'm not sure what the underlying thrill or attraction to this quite frankly dangerous act is, perhaps because in the West it is illegal to cross the barriers off of the platforms and is a definite forbidden act, whereas here it is a normal daily pathway, with a certain skill at separating the crowd to let the train pass by without a fatality.
All uptight westerners would be having heart palpitations just at the sight of such disorder. But I think that's it; here I can entertain my devious side and casually slip off of the tracks and straight onto the sand come the faint blare of a horn.
At the time I was lucky enough to have friends based in Mount living only a stone's throw from the tracks, and one of our favourite drinking stations on the beach. Buba (pronounced boo - ba) is a typical Sri Lankan beach restaurant with a vibrant scene come night where it transforms with the music played. You'll only find backpackers or expats here mingling amongst the locals, so forget about evening dresses and high heels.
Of course, there are many more things that Mount Lavinia offers that I haven't mentioned; Galle Road continues all through and the best biryani is found here - it's just too bad neither I or anyone could ever remember the name of the place it comes from! I'll have to leave that for you to go and hunt down.
All you really need to do is to take a stroll along the long and wide beach and you will definitely not be short of places to eat day or night. This is a suburb (of Colombo) that is best experienced with exploration and stumbling upon areas - every one of my friends has their own favourite place to see, eat or stop at along the coast, so really just get out there and delve in.
Come In The Day For Sunshine and Exploration.
Visit At Night For Beach bars and music, sunsets and food in all directions.
After writing this I hope that I have given you a good jumping off point into Colombo's green spaces - I seem to attract and magnetise to open spaces. But hey, if a city has such open spaces I do encourage you to use them, it adds a new dimension to the image of the city. I also planned to add more to this list and then it dawned on me that all of those would be about food and places to eat - you can really see how I spend my time in Colombo huh!
In all seriousness, there is an enormous and sometimes seemingly limitless choice of places to eat and drink, and what to eat - Thai, Chinese, Western, American, Indian, Italian... it goes on trust me! I was thinking to assign a whole new post on that topic at some point because even for the seasoned diner the options in Colombo are mind boggling at times.
For now, though I thank you for reading this through to the end and hope that it has caught your interest for at least one of the locations and you now want to add Colombo to your list of stops? As always share in the comments your thoughts.