Weekend in Colombo
The Sir Lankan capital explored
A city revived: Experience the merging of Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim cultures in the tightly packed streets of Pettah, Colombo’s main market. Photograph: Kuni Takahashi for The New York Times
Shellfish central: The Ministry of Crab is located in the much-lauded Old Dutch Hospital, a restored 17th-century building. The restaurant serves fresh crabs in garlic, chilli, butter and pepper variations. Photograph: Kuni Takahashi
Go barefoot: The ideal place to while away a leisurely Sunday, Barefoot is a Colombo landmark. This frangipani-scented compound is a combination art gallery, restaurant, cafe and shop, and is the best place to pick up colorful hand-loomed textiles, books on Sri Lanka, handmade stuffed toys and other gifts. Photograph: Kuni Takahashi
Sri Lanka is so jam-packed with alluring outdoorsy activities that visitors often high-tail it out of the capital a day or two after arriving, choosing instead to spend their vacation days lounging on a southern beach, whale-watching off the coast or leopard-spotting in a national park. Yet Colombo is fast becoming a draw in itself.
This city of 555,000 people has been on fast-forward since a 25-year civil war ended in 2009. Checkpoints have come down, trendy lounge bars have opened up, and the vibe is one of cautious optimism combined with an increasingly cosmopolitan outlook. Today, this colourful city on the Indian Ocean, with its laid-back island ambience, palm trees, decaying colonial buildings and smattering of modern office blocks, is the perfect place to get a sense of where Sri Lanka is going after so many tumultuous years.
1 Rice and curry
Hungry like the wolf? Stop at the capacious Pagoda Tea Room, arguably the oldest dining establishment in the city (circa 1884) and the place where the Grammy-winning Duran Duran video was filmed. Find a seat in the cool and cavernous dining room and order what almost every Sri Lankan eats for lunch: “Rice and curry.” Not strictly curry in the Western sense, this is a heaping pile of rice topped by three or four of the day’s offerings of delicately spiced coconut, chile and vegetable concoctions; vegetarian version, 170 rupees (94 cents); beef version, 250 rupees (€1.38).
2 To market
Experience the merging of Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim cultures in the tightly packed streets of Pettah, Colombo’s main market. Shirtless men in sarongs haul carts loaded with vegetables, electrical goods spill out of shop doorways, and mosques compete with Hindu temples for space. Ayurvedic medicine for what ails you (widely used in Sri Lanka) can be found in abundance on Fifth Cross Street, and jewellery shops, many selling the cut-price gems (sapphires in particular) for which the country is noted, line Sea Street.
3 3 Sunset Stroll
Cool off from the immense heat of the day with a stroll along Galle Face Green. This broad stretch of lawn borders the ocean on one side and the city’s business district on the other. On evenings and weekends, the green fills up with a cross-section of Colombo citizens, from elderly couples enjoying the sea breeze to groups of scruffy youths playing cricket, and still others strolling, flirting, jogging and flying kites.
Pick up a couple of isso wade (deep-fried shrimp cakes, around 50 rupees each) from one of the myriad vendors. Then, just before sundown, settle in for a refreshing gin and tonic (770 rupees) on the veranda of the venerable Galle Face Hotel, at one end of the green.
The hotel was built by the British in 1864, and its Victorian suites have played host to a varied collection of guests, including Richard Nixon, Indira Gandhi, Yuri Gagarin and Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote the final chapters of “3001: The Final Odyssey” here. The veranda offers some of the city’s best views of Sri Lanka’s gorgeous sunsets: a spectacular daily show of fiery pink, orange and red sky as the sun sinks into the ocean.