Window on Colombo, Sri Lanka

Come and see for yourself... this city of contrasts 

Organised chaos?

Yes, the traffic can be dense, but watch carefully - everyone seems to get where they want to, with a minimum of anxiety and beeping.

Welcome to cool Colombo.

However - while the people may seem chilled, you can't say that for the climate! This hotel pool was most welcome in Colombo's sultry heat that delivers highs of 30C-plus year-round. Good news: the stifling humidity drops a little in January and February. 

It is impossible to ignore that Colombo is bursting with new growth, and everywhere we witnessed the juxtaposition of ancient and modern. 


It may help to know this:

Sri Lanka is not India. Geographically, it is part of the Indian sub-continent, but in so many ways it differs distinctively.

* Colombo is Sri Lanka's capital, easily accessed by many airlines.

Population of Colombo: 5.6 million (Sri Lanka - 22 million)

Currency: Sri Lankan Rupee - 133 (LKR) to AUD (Australian dollar); 186 (LKR) to USD.

Languages: Sinhala and Tamil, English still widely spoken

Religion: 70 percent Buddhist

Climate: Located almost on the Equator, Colombo has a tropical monsoon climate.


Why visit Colombo?

On two previous trips to Sri Lanka, we'd had only a few hours in the capital. Even so, those glimpses made us curious about a city that had withstood bombings and political demonstrations for decades, yet whose colonial and heritage buildings had maintained a sort of faded elegance - having 'good bones', as I described them.

Once the 26-year war finished in 2009, we now wanted to see what had become of Colombo - and were not to be disappointed. After the tensions, this city now cheerfully demonstrates why Sri Lanka has one of the world's fastest-growing economies.
Nearly two years ago, after a fascinating tour of the hinterland (more of this another time) we planned a week's stay in the capital. 
The elephant in the room: It hardly needs to be said that COVID-19 has upended many people's travel plans. However, now is the time to dream a little and research the places you may want to visit, when you can.
The good news is that Sri Lanka has been one of the countries least affected by the virus and could be available to welcome visitors later this year.


Colombo has many five-star hotels, most of them located overlooking the Indian Ocean. However, we wanted something affordable and not necessarily in the city centre, so we booked into this boutique hotel in a quiet side-street, around five kilometres away. It was perfect for us. The bedroom was a good size and had an ensuite; the dining room served breakfast, lunch and dinner.... 

...and there was a private swimming pool overhung by fragrant frangipani trees.

After witnessing Colombo's traffic on our trip from the airport to our hotel, I vowed we would only use a taxi while in this city. Our hotel manager recommended Kangaroo Cabs, but we soon realised that tuk tuks were far cheaper, easier to flag down, and (yes) a lot of fun. Plus we could see more - and felt like we were properly mixing it with the locals.

One day we met up with a guide from Golden Isle Travels, who took us on a city tour. As we had discovered she was interested in dining, we also wanted to pick her mind about food places that we could visit on other days. At lunchtime she took us to one of her favourite cafes, lakeside Life Food, specialising in healthy food.


This fresh juice was just what we needed after a hot and busy morning outside.



From a tuk tuk - roadside discoveries

The good thing about tuk tuks is that they are everywhere! It is said that there are about 1.2 million tuk tuk drivers in Sri Lanka, so you will wait only seconds before you see one. Learn more about them....

Still being built when we visited, this eye-catching high-rise can be seen from many parts of the city. Altair is a residential and commercial development, with 68 floors on the vertical tower and 63 floors on the sloping tower. At 240-metres it is one of the tallest buildings in Colombo.

And here the contrasts are clear. Turn your back on Altair, and you are confronted again by 'old Colombo'.

The 29-metre Lighthouse Clock Tower from 1865 operated as a signal for Colombo's nearby port. However when the light was obscured by other buildings, it was finally decommissioned. When adding the clock in 1852, the British government contracted the same company that built Big Ben in London.

Another landmark, now welcoming tourists, is the 356-metre Colombo Lotus Tower symbolizing purity within Sri Lankan culture, and also said to represent the country's flourishing development. The tower is currently the tallest self-supported structure in South Asia and has restaurants, shops and museums, as well as being a communications hub. 



Every tuk tuk driver in the city knows where the gem stone stores are, and they will be more than happy to take you to one, even if it is across town.

We came to this one by mistake - rather, a well-dressed stranger we met on the street shared news of a massive parade of elephants, some distance away, and how 'great for photographs' it would be (he had seen our cameras!). Before we knew it he had hailed a tuk tuk, paid the driver a tip to take us there - and we were on our way!

We ended up at this salesroom, and - surprise! - there was no elephant parade (which I was privately glad about).

Sri Lanka, once nicknamed 'Gem Island', is noted for its wide range of high-quality semi-precious gems, and outlets like this are perfect for those wanting rings or necklaces, or some other beautiful keepsake, which can be designed and finished, often within hours.

Many of the older buildings, built in colonial times, have now been repurposed, such as the Old Parliament Building near Galle Face Green, which is now the Presidential Secretariat of Sri Lanka.

I have to say, I like a city (or country) that keeps its elderly buildings and provides them with respect and a useful retirement.

And then there is the 65-hectare Beira Lake that has two sections and, because of the linking canals, seems to pop up in so many places. Here, it is near the waterfront where it empties into the Indian Ocean; in the distance, the regal Lotus Tower again.



Sacred sites


Although Buddhism is the main religion in Sri Lanka, there are Hindu temples too, such as this, the majestic Murugan Hindu temple in the Slave Island area.

Lake Beira offers a cool centre to Colombo and the Seema Malakaya Buddhist Temple complex built on the smaller lake, to the west, is a tranquil and refreshing place to wander.

Once again, lotus feature here. In Buddhist beliefs these plants represent purity of body, speech and mind.

There are several pavilions in the lake...

...and outside are these Lord Buddha statues, protecting the main temple hall.

Perhaps most noticeable in Colombo are the contrasts of old blending with the new - ancient beliefs and practices as neighbours to 21st-century architecture. 

These temples are designed for rest and meditation rather than worship.

The Guanyin statue stands outside the main hall, protecting it from harm



Colombo at play

This city is moving at such a pace that, by now, these buildings will be finished - and more beginning, such as the stunning waterfront Gensler skyscrapers due to be completed in 2021.

Galle Face Green stretches for half a kilometre along the waterfront south of the city centre. It is a wide, open area where families can come and enjoy the sea breezes... games or fly kites...

...and just relax in the open air.

This beach is for walking or paddling - but swimming is not advisable.

It is also an opportunity to dress in your best and brightest clothing, as these young girls have done, proudly posing for a photograph.

Of course everyone loves the local seafood, and stalls like this line the promenade. It is generally agreed that here is the best place to come for Sri Lankan street food.

And what better opportunity than to sit back on a sultry summer evening with friends?


The national obsession

If you want to strike up a conversation with a local in Sri Lanka (or anywhere on the Indian sub-continent) make sure you know the names of a few Australian or British cricketers! Cricket has the status of a religion and everyone has opinions of matches or individual players.

We had heard about The Cricket Club Cafe and, as it was in the vicinity of the lake and temples, we came here for lunch. 

It's not surprising that locals as well as visitors love this place. There are references to cricket throughout the rooms, and outdoors in the bar courtyard.

There is plenty of memorabilia such as this...

..and better still, the food suits the location, and the service is fast and friendly.



To market, to market....

'You must go to the Pettah Street Market,' everyone told us this, and as true market-lovers we needed no further encouragement. We arrived early in the day to find lanes and alleys crammed with shops and stalls. If you wanted to, it could take days to work your way through every one of them. 

Fortunately vendors seem to stick together, so you can pick the ones that suit your shopping list. Here, there might be a laneway of places specialising in lace and fabric and sequined materials and there, another of shoes or sweets, or watches and cameras. Then there's the Gold Market! If you get hungry, there are undercover areas selling food. Everyone's interests and needs are catered for.

Some people set up their own stand right on the footpath, and this man had drawn a crowd with his embroidery.

Brush up on your bargaining skills too, as the first price is hardly ever the actual price that can be agreed.

It would not be Colombo without endless supplies of food, and carts like this are everywhere so you can grab a snack and just keep on shopping.

These markets are riotous, noisy, sometimes crowded and pushy - and always colourful.

Then, when you think you have the measure of this place, and have had your fill of buying and choosing, suddenly you are mesmerised by this amazing building. The Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque, or Red Mosque, is one of the oldest mosques in Colombo.

It is vibrantly coloured, yet a welcome oasis of calm in the busy area. The mosque was completed in 1909 and has capacity for 1500 worshippers. Interestingly, pomegranates inspired its design of red and white painted bricks, and the domes are shaped to resemble that fruit too. 



Time to eat...

A morning in the markets should give anyone an appetite. One staple of Sri Lankan food is the hopper. Often eaten at breakfast, these are the local equivalent of waffles or pancakes. Cooked in a covered metal pan, a hopper can then be filled with egg or any other savoury choice.

After trying just one, I was hooked, and immediately visited a kitchenware store to buy some pans so that I could make them at home. Here is a recipe....

Another local food-lover gave us the tip about these markets near the Racecourse. The name is a bit of a give-away as it is here you will find vendors specialising in food that is said to be healthier and better for you.

It certainly looked good, and it nearly broke my heart not to buy one of these loaves - but we were leaving Colombo in a day or so, and it was too good to waste.

However, shopping is thirsty work, so we had two of these organic juices. Just look at the variety of fruits and vegetables!

Sri Lankan food is known for its spiciness, and these wonderful curries were in hot demand. Literally! The pace was so busy, I had to wait some time for the cook to have a moment to pose for this picture. 

These markets are the ideal showcase for unusual (and hyper-healthy) foods - such as this black lemon drink.


During our stay at Ellen's Place, we tried various restaurants, many within walking distance. This was one of our favourites.

August by Mama Aidas specialises in fusion Middle Eastern cuisine, so of course mint tea appears on our table to begin our meal.

Mama Aida arrived in Colombo from Lebanon as a young bride over seventy years ago, bringing with her the family's trusted recipes, many of which are still on the restaurant's menu. We could not resist the hummus with zaatar, tahini and olive oil - and those addictive pita breads.

We ate more, of course but this wonderful finale - August mess, a mixture of strawberries, rosewater-scented meringue, cream and pistachios, deserves a mention.

It was not just the food - it's the ambience too - that made us fans of this place.



The Old Fort area...

Finally, we knew that soon it would be time to leave this city that had won our hearts. A visit to the Old Fort area had been on our to-do list so, on the final day, we headed into town to an area of great history. 

Colombo's Old Dutch Hospital is considered to be the oldest building in the Colombo Fort area dating back to the Dutch colonial era in Sri Lanka. It has been restored and is now a heritage building and shopping and dining precinct.

By late afternoon, the area was quiet, but there is so much space here for larger groups.

One restaurant caught our eye. Multi award-winning Ministry of Crab is among Asia's Fifty Best Restaurants.

The menu features the local lagoon crab, portioned by weight and appearing in a wide range of sauces. Because the company wants to support sustainability, crabs under 500g are not served. Make sure you read the Constitution to understand the ethos of this outstanding establishment.



Farewell from Colombo's grand old days

Finally, finally we knew that time was up. Our week of fun and exploration in Colombo was at an end. There was just one last place we needed to see. One of this city's 'grand old dames' the Galle Face Hotel has witnessed it all. It has welcomed movie stars, royalty, pop-stars and Olympians. Photos of many of them, signed and framed, hang on sitting room walls inside.

The architectural style is restrained and genteel. Originally a Dutch Villa, a place for colonial gentlemen to mingle, it became, under the hands of those four original British entrepreneurs, a world-class hotel.

Of course it is also a much-favoured wedding venue as well, and we were lucky to catch sight of this Sri Lankan wedding party arriving for their celebratory dinner.

Here, above, is a potted history of this elegant hotel.

Galle Face Hotel's location overlooking the waterfront and the Indian Ocean is matchless.

The night before our departure, unwilling to leave, we said our farewells to this city - and Sri Lanka as well - seated in the outdoor dining area, admiring the ocean view as so many guests and visitors have done over the past century. 

Lovely Colombo - on an evening like this, there seemed hardly a more gloriously tranquil place to be.



Photos and text: ©Sally Hammond

Video: ©Gordon Hammond

Sally and Gordon Hammond independently travelled to, and stayed in, Colombo, enjoying a day-tour of the city with the compliments of Golden Isles Travels.


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