Just a hop and a skip away from the Indian peninsula, Colombo is the cherry in the delectable pie that is Sri Lanka. Clean, green and beautiful, Sri Lanka — this emerald droplet in the Indian Ocean — is currently No.1 on the Lonely Planet’s top 10 must-visit destinations of 2013. For shoppers, adventurers, vacationers and itinerant travellers, there’s something here to whet everyone’s appetite.
1. Stay in a sea-facing hotel
Imagine waking up to early morning views of a rain-drenched promenade by the sea. Check into one of the many sea-facing hotels in Colombo like the legendary Galle Face Hotel, Taj Samudra, Cinnamon Grand or the new The Kingsbury, and you’ll be treated to one of the most spectacular views that Colombo has to offer.
2. Taste the Wattalappam
Indulge your sweet-tooth with this traditional Sri Lankan dessert, a rich egg custard made with an indigenous palm sugar (Kitul) treacle, coconut milk and cinnamon! Cinnamon rules Sri Lankan cuisine and it’s difficult to find a curry or dessert that’s not spiced with cinnamon. The historic influences are evident in the numerous other dishes too — like the Sri Lankan bread pudding with its British colonial touch.
3. Take the road to Galle
The Old Dutch Fort at Galle dating back to the 17 century, a UNESCO heritage site, is best experienced on a sunny day. Take the old route to Galle along the coastline, that’s dotted with picturesque beach resorts. Kalutara, Bentota, Hikkaduwa, it’s difficult to decide if the resorts on the way or Galle itself is more spectacular. Do stop by at the Kosgoda sea turtle hatchery to watch Olive Ridley, Hawksbill and Green turtles that arrive on the shore to nest.
4. Tune in to Gold FM
Go on a nostalgic trip with Gold FM, Sri Lanka’s leading English radio music channel that plays hits from the 1960s, 70s and 80s non-stop, island wide. From foot-tapping rock n’ roll numbers to the greatest country hits, it’s relaxing music 24 x 7 — anytime, anywhere.
5. Go on a shopping spree
From the exquisite Odel that’s all over the city to trendy Beverly Street, No Limit, Cool Planet, Fun Factory, House of Fashion… the list of places for clothes and accessories is long! You can shop for the most beautiful ceramic cutlery at the Lanka Ceramics or Noritake or Dankotuwa outlets.
6. Hang out at the Dutch Hospital precinct
The oldest building in the Colombo Fort area, the Dutch Hospital precinct has been restored and transformed into a heritage mall with its original tiled-roof 17 century Dutch colonial architecture intact. Wander through its thick-walled corridors and sip beer at the open courtyard that’s lined with restaurants.
7. Frolic with elephants
Pinnawala elephant orphanage is on the must-visit list. At this rehabilitation centre-cum-retirement home for orphaned and injured elephants, time your visit to watch the baby elephants being fed milk from large feeding bottles, or catch the entire group being herded across the road for an afternoon dip in the Maha Oya River. You can watch the elephants frolic in the river as you lunch at the restaurants on the rocky river bank.
8. Explore the history trail
If history interests you, the National Museum on Sir Marcus Fernando Mawatha would be the right place to begin, as it has an impressive collection of cultural artefacts from the early period. But the Dutch and British colonial presence is evident in the numerous churches along the Colombo coastline. Among the other interesting museums are the Dutch Museum on Prince Street, the Independence Memorial Museum at Independence Square and the Maritime Museum housed in a Dutch warehouse built in 1656 — the oldest yet well preserved building inside Galle Fort!
9. Sri Lankan wedding
Weddings best reflect a culture, and Sri Lankan wedding finery is in a class of its own. Skilfully colour-coordinated in shades, Sri Lankan weddings are a feast to the eye. And it’s not just the couple who dazzle, but the guests too. If you’re lucky, you can find newlyweds in their wedding finery posing at the most scenic beaches and hillsides. If there’s a wedding in the family, Colombo is where you should be putting together the trousseau.
10. Unwind at Mount Lavinia
An ode to the love that blossomed in 1806, between the British governor Sir Thomas Maitland and Lovina Aponsuwa a Mestizo-Sinhalese dancer, this governor’s bungalow-on-the-beach-turned-luxury-hotel is the most romantic location in Sri Lanka. Historic and breathtakingly beautiful in equal measure, a few scenes from the classic war-time movie The Bridge on the River Kwai were shot here.
Flights to Colombo are available from major cities in India. Airfare is anywhere between Rs.6,500 and Rs.11,500, round trip per person. Visa on arrival.
Travel from Colombo to its neighbouring tourist destinations is easier by train than by bus, though trains are less frequent and slightly more expensive than buses.
Importing currency from India is illegal. You will find exchange bureaus in Colombo — at airports and tourist areas. Remember to change your money back before leaving the country as you will not be allowed to export more than Rs.5,000, nor will foreign banks exchange the Sri Lankan currency.
Colombo is humid all year long. Heavy rains can be expected in the monsoon season — from May to August, and also from October to January.