Like every great city, Colombo connotes different things to different people. Ex-colony of Portugal and The Netherlands, bustling metropolis, commercial capital of Sri Lanka, beachside city….Colombo is actually many worlds rolled into one. A blend of heritage and modernity, the city is a good introduction to Sri Lanka. Here is a list of compelling experiences you should sample in this beautiful city.
Colombo National Museum
The true measure of a country can be had from a look at its past. In other words, its history, evolution and heritage. And there’s no better way to do that, than by visiting a museum. The Colombo National Museum is the main centre of the National Museum – the other two being in Kandy and Anuradhapura. Housed in a very well-preserved building with sprawling lawns around it, the museum’s artifacts trace Lanka’s history right from the time of ancient Ceylon. Episodes of valour, intrigue, romance come alive in these artifacts, which have been maintained well. My favourite section is the one devoted to Ceylon’s maritime history, which is long and chequered.
You will need a half day to cover the museum in leisurely fashion, though a quick tour can be done in two hours. Try to avoid visiting it on holidays, since it gets really crowded. A great way to get started in Colombo.
The bazaars of Fort and Pettah
The bazaars (old-world markets) of any city are true barometers of the city’s culture and way of life. Pulsing and throbbing with life, bazaars offer a peek into the city’s psyche and tell you what makes the city tick. So too with the bazaars of Colombo. Situated around the Fort and Pettah areas near the Colombo railway station, they provide an interesting counterpoint to the modern high-rises located close by. Shops and stalls of all hues and shapes can be found peddling a mind-boggling variety of wares. The nerve centre of Colombo, this district is best covered on foot. The main idea is not to buy something here (though you can, if you want to. There is a lot on sale here. Just bargain hard.), but just to stroll around taking in the palpable vibes. And while you are at it, sample some local delicacies from a small eatery.
Just a hop, skip and jump away from the Pettah area of Colombo, this church is roughly 260 years old. It was considered to be the crown jewel of the Dutch Reform Church in Ceylon. Built by the VOC (The United Dutch East India Company), the Wolvendaal Church has probably been getting better with age. The age of the building and the props and artifacts of the church combine to give Wolvendaal an unmatched sense of history and atmosphere. On a quiet day, you could get the sexton of the church or the priest to show you around the place, and if you are interested, open up on the history of the Dutch Reformed Church. I did. Some trivia – look for the initials ‘IVSVG’ on the south-east gable of the church. They stand for the name of the Dutch Governor who built it.
A much-venerated place of worship for the Buddhists and Hindus, it’s main attractions are the relics of The Buddha that are stored here, and the gallery of Buddhist art. An interesting twist in the tale is that the relics preserved here were originally found in Bangladesh. They were released by Bangladesh at the special request of the Lankan Government. The art gallery in the temple complex traces the evolution of Buddhist art and counts among its possessions, murals, frescoes and other paintings of Ceylonian temples of yore. The spotlights illuminating the pieces create a superb effect.
The lake in the temple complex is a great place to sit in quiet contemplation. Except on festival days, the temple is cloaked in the soft quilt of silence.
Mount Lavinia Hotel
If you accept a popular legend, you would be tempted to exclaim that Mount Lavinia Hotel is to Colombo what Taj Mahal is to India. Built by a British Governor of Ceylon in 1806, the sprawling mansion is rumoured to be dedicated to the lass who stole the Governor’s heart (and hence named after her). Seeing how beautiful the mansion (which is today a luxury heritage hotel) is, you can’t help wondering at the beauty of the woman who fired the imagination of the Governor. With polished wooden floors, paneling in mahogany and calamander, large windows that open on to the sea and white columns, the hotel reminds us that good architecture is great art. Stop by to explore the nooks and crannies of this beautiful building and wade into a scrumptious meal by the sea.
The Talangama Wetlands
Sri Lanka is known for its wildlife sanctuaries, but not much for marshlands and birding spots. The Talangama Wetlands are therefore, a revelation! Definitely not on the radar of most tourists, this lush green area is a completely uncharted territory. According to estimates of ornithologists, this area teems with about 100 species of birds. Apart from some species that permanently live there, a lot of migratory birds home in on these wetlands with unfailing regularity every year. The Talangama Wetlands are a short drive from the city of Colombo. Plan to spend a few leisurely hours here, looking beautiful winged creatures in the eye. And oh! Don’t forget to take that pair of binoculars and a nice picnic lunch along.
Isipathanaramaya Buddhist Temple
Another hidden gem, this. Even many of the locals do not know about it. A small Buddhist temple near the intersection of Havelock Road and Dickman’s Road in Colombo 5, this one takes you back in time. The original look and feel of the structure has been maintained; man’s wanton hand has been stayed. The temple complex houses a museum too, where richly carved antiques have been displayed.
Washed out after scouring Colombo from end to end? Then, head straight to a 100 year old tea warehouse in Park Street Mews. However, instead of asking for some of Ceylon’s best tea, ask for a full body massage. Because, Spa Ceylon offers probably the best relaxation therapies in Colombo. This swank spa offers a wide range of massages and other therapies to shoo your aches away and lull you into a sense of well being. A good time to visit would be at the end of your tour of Sri Lanka.
Galle Face Hotel
Galle Face Green is the single most popular stretch of open space in Colombo. Young couples, families with screaming kids and executives after a hard day’s work can be seen enjoying all that this stretch offers. Just where the stretch ends, stands the Galle Face Hotel, one of Colombo’s most famous heritage landmarks. Built in 1864 by the British, it is today a luxury hotel with a beach-fronting al-fresco restaurant. Dinner at this restaurant is a great way of letting your body and senses relax. Catch the last rays of the sun and sit down to enjoy a sumptuous spread. And live music, did you say? The sea beats a five-piece band hands down-any day!
Odel and House of Fashions
For long, Sri Lanka has been the production house of several leading apparel brands across the world. As a result, Colombo boasts of a few stores where one can find high-quality apparel for a song (and a few bucks, that is). By far, the largest of these is the House of Fashions on Duplication Road. This three-storied store offers great deals on clothing for men, women and kids. However, if you are looking for high-fashion apparel and luxury brands, then Odel is the place to head to. Odel has three stores in Colombo. Any self-respecting taxi driver will know all these stores; so, getting there won’t be a problem.
Retail therapy is the best way to end a holiday and spend all your remaining foreign currency, what say?