In 1803, Robert Percival claimed of Colombo “There is no part of the world where so many different languages are spoken, or which contains such a mixture of nations, manners, and religions.” In 1914, Bella Woolf declared “It is the meeting place of the world. It palpitates with life and with the romance of those who wander the earth.”
That is the key to appreciating Colombo when so many people complain of the hustle and bustle? Well, for those who like the capital and revel in the mix of influences, food, activities and religions, there is a certain satisfaction in believing yourself one of the few who can see through the surface to the core. If only people would venture out of this tourist cocoon they might just discover a little something to love about Colombo!
So, for the uninitiated, it’s time to introduce you to Colombo and her districts that sprawl down the Galle Road until they peter out into the suburbs. Starting at the northern tip and working down, we begin in the Fort. Previously it was the centre of Dutch and Portuguese domination and you can still view examples of colonial architecture. However, these days it is the banking and commercial centre of Colombo, with many areas subject to strict security measures. Sri Lanka’s own twin towers stand in this area flanked by the five-star Hilton, Ceylon Continental and Galadari hotels.
Very different from the Fort is frenetic Pettah, where business people wheel and deal from dawn until dusk. Whatever it is you want, it can be found in Pettah. Avoid the tourist market next to the railway station and weave your way through the tiny streets that lattice the area, each of them specializing in a different range of products. There is a fish market, fascinating but not the most sweet-smelling or beautiful of destinations. If hunger creeps in, pop into a shop and try the delicious Indian sweets. You can sample small pieces to make sure you like them and then take away your own calorie bomb in a box!
Immediately south of Pettah and the Fort, facing the sea, is Galle Face Green. Designed by the British in 1859 for horse racing, it is now a truly Sri Lankan playground. At the weekend, and especially at dusk, the Green is filled with kite flyers, cricket players, picnic eaters, day trippers - and lovers. Galle Face Green gives the foreigner a glimpse of the private and familial side of Sri Lankan life.
You can escape to the cool oasis of the famous, Raffles-like, Galle Face Hotel and encounter impressions of yesteryear, and enjoy the colonial-style experience of sipping tea on the verandah of this beautiful old building. Should you be there in the evening, it has a chess board-style black-and-white patio on which you can indulge in sunset cocktails.
Just inland is Slave Island, so called because the Dutch used to house their slaves there. Curiously, Slave Island has an island of its own. World-renowned Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa designed the Sima Malaka Meditation Island in conjunction with the Gangaramaya Temple just across the road. It sits on the Beira Lake and is the perfect retreat for those looking to escape the city among the serene Thai Buddha statues. Its mother-temple was built in the 19th century and features a small museum, beautiful stone carvings and Buddhist paintings.
South of these areas, on the coast again, is Kollupitiya, an example of Colombo’s development into an international city. Crescat Boulevard, the country’s premiere shopping centre, is managed by the highly regarded Colombo Plaza Hotel. Restaurants and shops in this area are cosmopolitan in flavour, so you can find almost any cuisine you want and often in guises familiar from other countries, such as Barista, Nandos, Deli France, Pizza Hut, McDonalds and more. However, if you fancy a rice and curry, pop into the Renuka Hotel and enjoy one of the tastiest buffet spreads in the capital.
Inland is the heart of Colombo where the rich and influential live in their guarded mansions on elegant tree-lined avenues. Named after the cinnamon plantations that used to dominate the area, Cinnamon Gardens is a beautiful place to live – providing you have the power, status or cash to do so. Colombo is quite a green city take a stroll around Viharamahadevi Park with its towering trees.
Just south is Havelock Town, quieter and more unassuming than other areas. Coming back towards Galle Road you reach Wellawatte with its beautiful Hindu kovils (temples) that parade their carved figures and bright colours to all who pass. On the Galle Road you will see the Savoy Cinema, which shows English language as well as Sinhala and Hindi films. Turn towards the sea and you come to the beach where it is worth eating at the world-famous Beach Wadiya or, if you fancy some vegetarian Indian fare, stop at Shanmugas.
Further south still you will reach Dehiwala and its Zoo. Though the zoo was a pioneer of the open plan concept, this is yet to be implemented throughout the zoo, so bars and cages are still to be found, but enclosures like the lion and gibbon islands, are fascinating to watch animals in the simulated natural surroundings.
Finally there is Mount Lavinia, with its striking hotel and relaxed beach restaurants. Should you need sea air and refreshment on the beach, this is the closest place to the city to do it. While the beach is a pleasure any day, it is on Sunday evenings that it truly comes alive.