The swanky homes of Cinnamon Gardens and the Town Hall resembling the White House in Washington are hard to miss when careening around Colombo in a tuk-tuk. But many of the city’s secrets and surprises are hidden behind walled courtyards and held by the locals themselves. Breaking the ice is easy at the mere mention of the favourite national past-time of cricket.
Cricket Crazy. Even if you secretly don’t know Don Bradman from Ricky Ponting, you can fake it at the Cricket Club Café. Owned by Australians it’s a first of its kind in Sri Lanka where the walls are lined with memorabilia and expats. True enthusiasts will have already logged onto Sri Lanka Cricket (www.srilankacricket.lk) and booked their tickets in advance for the recently renovated R. Premadasa Stadium.
Temple time: The Gangaramaya (Vihara) Buddhist Temple complex has a library, museum, a plethora of jaw dropping decorations and even its own elephant. Buddhist temple Seema Malaka, designed in the 1970’s by architect Geoffrey Bawa and sunk into Beira Lake, is a serene retreat from the chaotic metropolis. Head to Sea St for Hindu temples New and Old Kathiresan Kovil dedicated to the war god and the starting point for the annual Hindu Vel festival held in July/August. While in the Pettah district visit the candy-striped red and white brickwork of the Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque built in 1909 and the restored Wolvendal Church which is paved with the tombstones of those buried beneath.
Sunset serenades. As the sun slips into the Indian Ocean, sip gin and tonics at the Galle Face Hotel’s Verandah Bar. Few resist the urge at becoming temporary wedding photographers for posing wedding parties in the elegant grounds on any day of the week. Then head next door to the Galle Face Green which was originally laid out in 1859 for horse racing and now it heaves at sunset with picnics, gossip, kite flying, canoodling lovers and kids running amok.
Tantalising tastes. Sri Lankan curries use a greater spice base and a quicker cooking time than their Indian neighbours. The results are fresh, zingy and flavoursome especially the Black Pork Curry at the Paradise Road Galleries and Gallery Café. Sample street food on the Galle Face Green and or try the street food specialty Kottu Roti (chopped up roti with vegetables, meat and sauce) at any time of the day or night at the Hotel De Pilawoose (422/3 Galle Rd btw 6th Lane & Alfred Pl, Western Province). The national dish of rice and curry tempts from every corner but don’t miss out on hoppers at The Green Cabin who serve authentic and inexpensive local cuisine or try The Curry Leaf at the Hilton Colombo for upscale Sri Lankan fare.
Shopping spree. Glamazon’s will plunge into ODEL’s department store or partake in a rummage and a bargain at the House of Fashions. Dating back to the Dutch colonial era, the converted Dutch Hospital is a relaxing shopping and eating precinct. Barefoot has a maze of handcrafted homewares, a bohemian café and a bookshop crammed with international and local titles like author Ashok Ferrey’s exquisite Serendipity. Paradise Road Stores are emporiums to all things chic for your home. Art and antique lovers will wish they had a house in Sri Lanka to adorn with the handpicked items from around the world found at Gandhara Crafts and Artifacts. Famous for precious and semi-precious gems, especially blue sapphires, red rubies and amethysts from the National Gem and Jewellery Authority and Careems who have been bejewelling customers since 1890. Market goers may never return from the labyrinth of the Pettah Bazaar where each thoroughfare has its own speciality whether it be jewellery, Ayurvedic medicines, antiques or anything fantastical.
Nature calls. Viharamahadevi Park sits next to the National Museum and is known for its flowering trees, water channels, fountains and the odd working elephant feasting on palm branches. The Bellanwila Attidiya Bird Sanctuary is an extensive marshland abundant with bird life like whistling ducks, green herons and raptors like the brahminy kite. Further afield about an hour south and sure to enchant is Kosgoda Sea Turtle Conservation Project.
Culture Vultures. Colombo’s National Museum is the custodian of Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage and holds 4000 archaic palm leaf manuscripts, weaponry of Sri Lankan kings, demon masks and regalia of Kandyan Kings dating back to the 17th century. Just a few kilometres from the city discover the lost art of mask making at the Puppet Art Museum where puppetry was once used to pass on folklore from generation to generation to drive away illnesses and scare off demons. Shows are still on put once a month at the museum by villagers. The Sapumal Foundation laid the groundwork for modern art in Sri Lanka and houses over 1000 items from the 1920’s to the present. Theatre and art buffs flock to the Lionel Wendt Art Centre for art and photography exhibits, and live performances.
Mt Lavinia. Just 12 kilometres south of Colombo is all the romance of a bygone era at Mt Lavinia Hotel. Built in 1805 and once the Governor’s Residence, the pool perched on jagged cliffs is the ideal spot to be bathed in a golden glow at sunset. Fancy dining with sand between your toes by candle light? The Seafood Cove delivers with gems plucked from the ocean to your plate and it’s no wonder it’s THE place to pop the question. If you really want to mark the occasion ask the friendly staff to arrange an elephant ride along the beach or a boat trip on the Bolgoda Lake.
Arriving: Bandarankaike International Airport is 30km north of Colombo www.airport.lk with flights via India, Malaysia, Bangkok, Singapore, Qatar and Europe.
When: It’s humid year round but more so during the monsoon seasons May to August in the southern half and October to January in the north. The weather is more pleasant outside of the monsoon season.