Sri Lanka’s bustling capital is the arrival point for most visitors, and chances are you’ll be spending a night here at the start or end of your trip. Take time to explore and you’ll be rewarded with a vibrant city of contrasts: a melting pot of races and religions, where elegant mansions sit alongside cacophonous markets, lush gardens by traffic-clogged highways, and industrial cranes by a sweeping beach. It makes a fascinating introduction to Sri Lanka past and present, and it’s home to the county’s top museums - including the National Museum and the Dutch Period Museum, which are both worth a visit. What’s more, much of the colonial architecture remains intact - look out for ornate buildings in the area known as Fort, which once formed part of the European defences. Colombo is also surprisingly cosmopolitan, with an array of stylish bars and restaurants, plus excellent shopping.
Pettah Market is a must-see - a noisy maze of stalls that's great for trinkets and spices; while there, take time to marvel at the Jami Ul Alfar mosque. For more serene shopping, head to the boutiques around Galle Road and Viharamahadevi Park. Our top picks are Barefoot (704 Galle Road) for sarongs and fabrics, Buddhi Batiks (32 Ward Place) for contemporary batiks, the Saskia Fernando Gallery (41 Horton Place) for modern Sri Lankan art, and the collection of interiors and craft shops which make up Paradise Road (213 Dharmapala Mawatha Street). Hip Casa Colombo is just off Galle Road, and staff can arrange bespoke shopping tours.
Colombo has plenty of excellent eateries to choose from. We love The Gallery Cafe, which is housed in the former offices of Sri Lanka’s best-known architect, Geoffrey Bawa, at 2 Alfred House Road - the pavilion-style courtyard is a wonderful place to linger, and there are rotating exhibitions by established and emerging local artists. Other favourites are Ministry of Crab (Old Dutch Hospital) for excellent iced tea and a fun take on Sri Lankan food, and Hansa Café (24 Fife Road) for organic Ceylon coffee.
Head to Galle Face Green, immediately south of Fort, for a stroll along the lawned seafront promenade. It was originally created to allow Dutch canons a clear line of fire but is now a popular spot for families, joggers and romantics. Afterwards, reward yourself with afternoon tea or an ice-cold beer at the Galle Face Hotel, one of the city’s most historic colonial buildings and a great place to watch the sun set over the Indian Ocean.
Sri Lanka’s favourite street snack is made from strips of rotti topped with meat, eggs, onions, tomatoes and fresh chillies. You can pick it up at stalls all over the city, but some of the best is found at Hotel De Pilawoos (417 Galle Road). It’s popular with well-heeled locals and workers alike, and the speciality of the house is cheese kothu.
This is one of Sri Lanka’s most sacred Buddhist sites, with a pagoda, an assembly hall, shrines, and rows of Buddha statues to admire; it’s also the location for one of the country’s biggest Perahera processions - a spectacle not to be missed if you’re here during February. It sits on Beira Lake, a vast expanse of mirror-still water encircled by trees and high-rise buildings, whose peaceful shoreline makes for a pleasant stroll.
Head down to one of the beachside restaurants in Mount Lavinia for great seafood. Locals and tourists cram in, the world passes by outside, and at night the seafront sparkles with light. Our favourite haunt is Bu Ba (100m from Mount Lavinia train station), whose candlelit tables spill onto the sand. You can stay nearby at the friendly Mount Lodge.