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Sri Lanka: Colombo, the Commercial Capital!

Ayubowan and welcome to Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital.

This coastal city’s history, particularly colonial occupation, can be seen through diverse architecture, a busy trading port and stately monuments.

Colombo is a city of canals, lakes, and rivers bordered by the Indian Ocean. Numerous parks offer a reprieve from the hectic traffic.

When planning your Sri Lanka adventure, allow 2 – 3 days for Colombo. There’s a lot to see, so let’s take a look.

Sri Lanka: Colombo, the Commercial Capital.

 

Background.

Colombo has been on the map for over 2,000 years. Indian, Chinese, Persian, Greek, Roman and Arabs identified Colombo’s natural harbour as a strategic position on their east-west trade routes.

In the eighth century, Arab traders settled at the harbour. These traders are the ancestors of Sri Lankan Moors today.

By the early 1500s, after Portuguese arrival, most of the Arab residents were banished making way for Portuguese coastal control. The fort built in 1517 extended Colombo’s use from a trading port to Military garrison.

Sri Lanka: Colombo, the Commercial Capital.

The agreement between the King and Dutch East India Company in 1638 was to rid Sri Lanka of Portuguese coastal control. The result? The Dutch simply replaced the Portuguese, expanding the fort area to suit their own purposes.

1796 saw the British successfully take on the Dutch and continue to use Colombo as a military outpost. It was 1815 when Sri Lanka became a British Crown Colony and Colombo had a growth spurt with civilian housing and town planning.

A drastic change occurred after independence in 1948. Country, regions and street names were amended. Forms of traditional dress, behaviour and culture returned.

Colombo’s status as Sri Lanka’s capital city was transferred in 1980, although Colombo is the commercial capital and is still often referred to as the nation’s capital.

Sri Lanka: Colombo, the Commercial Capital.

 

#explore

 

Cinnamon Gardens.

While driving through this affluent neighbourhood, imagine only seeing cinnamon trees. A 1.7 square kilometre cinnamon plantation grew here before colonisation.

Now, Cinnamon Gardens is home to Independence Square, The National Museum, Colombo Town Hall, and the Prime Minister’s office. Foreign embassies and high commissions separate mansions on tree-lined streets housing the country’s aristocracy.

 

Independence Square.

Britain signed over independence to Sri Lanka on February 4th, 1948 at, what was then, Torrington Square. To commemorate, Independence Memorial Hall was commissioned and a statue erected of Sri Lanka’s first Prime Minister.

Independence Memorial Hall’s design is based on the Royal Audience Hall at the Palace in Kandy. It was there in 1815, the Kandyan convention was signed handing control to the British. Independence Memorial Hall recognises Sri Lanka’s past and future.

Sri Lanka: Colombo, the Commercial Capital.

 

Port & Fort.

Although it’s a little crazy with tuk-tuks and other vehicles squeezing through the narrow streets, wander the Port, Fort and Pettah areas on foot to take advantage of photo opps.

Colombo now sees many cruise ships dock for the day, some overnight. The Sri Lanka Naval Base, Maritime Museum, and Colombo Lighthouse, all offer historical info and colonial architecture.

 

Buddhist Temples.

With around 70% of Sri Lanka’s population Buddhists, temples are prevalent across the country.

Colombo’s most visited Buddhist temple is on the shores of Lake Beira in the city’s centre. Gangaramaya Temple’s location and the mix of Sri Lankan, Chinese, Indian, and Thai architectural styles make it a popular tourist attraction.

Said to have an extraordinary museum collection and library, entrance to Gangaramaya Temple is just Rs 300. A small price to pay for the continued care and maintenance required for a temple of this nature.

Sri Lanka. Where to Begin?

Until you hear Ganga’s story. A baby elephant captured in the wild, chained at the temple and used for money-making purposes. This lasted eight years until she died.

I’ll leave you with this article so you can decide whether to support this temple.

Taking a baby elephant from its family and holding it captive doesn’t seem to be part of Siddharta Gautama’s teachings. In a nutshell, “To not do evil; to cultivate good; to purify one’s heart. Kindness, humanity, patience and giving are valued highly but more so are wisdom and compassion.” (from the Buddhist Society)

Lesser known by tourists but globally known for their teachings, Siri Vajirarama Temple is likely a closer fit for your path to enlightenment. Not as striking as Gangaramaya Temple perhaps, but their priority is meditation and sharing Buddha’s teachings rather than securing funds at the expense of an elephant’s life.

Sri Lanka: Colombo, the Commercial Capital.

 

Jami Ul Alfar Mosque.

Arab traders arrived at the shores of Colombo in the 7th century.

Settling and marrying local inhabitants (once converted to Islam) the Muslim community grew rapidly until the Portuguese arrived.

Almost wiped out, Muslims were protected in the mountains by the King. Slowly the Muslim population restored and is now about 10% of the country’s total.

This candy-striped mosque in Pettah was built in the early 1900s initially housing 500 worshippers. Land accumulation over time allowed additions to accommodate 10,000 today.

Sri Lanka: Colombo, the Commercial Capital.

 

Hindu Temples.

There are a number of Hindu temples in the Pettah area. You can’t miss their elaborate stone carved exteriors. The detailed carvings represent stories of Hindu deities.

While visiting Jami Ul Alfar Mosque, a beautiful example is just around the corner at 2nd Cross street.

Sri Lanka: Colombo, the Commercial Capital.

 

Lotus Tower.

That 350m spire on Colombo’s skyline is the new Lotus Tower. Not yet complete, it will serve as a telecommunication antenna for 50 TV stations, 35 radio stations, and 20 telecom providers.

The Lotus Tower’s additional purpose is to attract tourism.

Within the lotus flower are six floors of hotel rooms, restaurants, museums, exhibition & conference halls. Above it, an observation deck overlooking Colombo. On the ground, a huge waterpark.

After a few delays, the expected completion is 2020.

Sri Lanka: Colombo, the Commercial Capital.

 

National Museum.

Since 1876 the National Museum has displayed the cultural and natural heritage of Sri Lanka. While Jaffna, Kandy and Ratnapura have branches, the main event in Colombo is not to be missed.

The ground floor galleries follow history through the ages while galleries on the upper floor are displayed thematically.

Over a million pieces are housed in this fascinating museum with dioramas depicting traditions, survival and beliefs.

Sri Lanka: Colombo, the Commercial Capital.

 

Mount Lavinia Hotel.

The romance between a Sri Lankan dancer and the second governor of British Ceylon, as they called it, has its roots in Mount Lavinia Hotel.

General Thomas Maitland arrived in Colombo in 1805 to take up his role as governor. Dissatisfied with his accommodation, King Tom, as he became known, scoured the region for an appropriate location for his new home.

Selecting a promontory on the coast at Galkissa, not far from Colombo, more a palace than a mansion was established.

As the lead dancer in her father’s mestizo troupe, Lovina Aponsuwa captured the governor’s attention. Her half Sinhalese half Portuguese exotic beauty was no match for the governor’s heart and a “close” relationship ensued.

Mount Lavinia Hotel’s structure is a tribute to the dancer from her beau, complete with an underground tunnel leading from Lovina’s back door to the private chambers of King Tom.

The tunnel still exists but has been blocked at the entrance in the hotel. The colonial grandeur of Mount Lavinia Hotel is worth a look while imagining the excitement and entertainment of this pleasure dome built for freedom from rigid colonial English society.

 

#eat

If you follow my Instagram account, you would have seen some of Sri Lanka’s mouth-watering delicacies. Armed with a list of traditional dishes to sample, we managed to check off quite a few in Colombo.

 

Hoppers.

These paper-thin pancakes are cooked over the fire in a bowl-shaped pan. The edges of the pancake “bowl” become crisp and light while the base remains soft and fluffy.

Hoppers come plain or with egg. Served with fish, chicken or beef curries for breakfast, they are a must.

Sri Lanka: Colombo, the Commercial Capital.

 

Pol Sambol.

Finely grated fresh coconut, red onions, dried whole chillies, chilli powder, lime juice, salt & Maldive fish are all ground in a bowl to make a form of dry chutney.

Pol sambol is served with everything! For breakfast, snacks, lunch and the evening meal, pol sambol is delicious but be warned, it packs a punch.

 

Fruit.

If you live in the desert and the bulk of your fruit is flown in, then it’s an event to eat fresh local fruit on location. As you’d imagine, mangoes, pineapple, papaya, Asian apples, melons, and all kinds of tropical fruit are available in Sri Lanka.

You’ll see fruit vendors in the streets through Pettah Bazaar. The fruit is pre-prepared and served with salt & pepper and chilli chutney. It is sooooo good!

Sri Lanka: Colombo, the Commercial Capital.

 

U’Palis.

Relax at a table on the terrace and scour U’Palis menu for traditional classics. All Sri Lankan curries, styles of bread, sides and condiments you’ve heard of can be found here.

Be sure to add Wambatu Moju to your order. This amazing candied eggplant chutney is perfect with everything and quite frankly, could be eaten with a spoon.

Reduced to almost black, this spicey, sweet chutney comprises deep fried long purple eggplant caramelised with red onion, green chillies, mustard seeds, chilli powder and turmeric. It’s moreish!

Also on the menu, Gotu Kola Sambol – Pennywort salad in English. Pennywort is shredded then combined with shallots, tomatoes, freshly grated coconut, chillies, salt, pepper and lemon juice.

Currently unlicensed, give U’Palis a call for info on how you may get around this slight inconvenience.

For Aussie readers, a Melbourne branch of U’Palis can be found on Blackburn Road, Glen Waverley.

Sri Lanka: Colombo, the Commercial Capital.

 

Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct.

There are bars and eateries at this historic site but none more famous than Ministry of Crab. Ranked at number 25 on Asia’s 50 best restaurants for 2018, Ministry of crab is, as the name suggests, all about crab.

The menu is spectacular! First, select the size of your crab.

Sizing begins at a half kilo increasing to small, medium, large and extra large. Then comes the kilo crab followed by jumbo, colossal, “OMG” and Crabzilla at 2kg.

Next, select your flavour. Pepper, chilli, curry, garlic, or butter crab. Do you feel like baked crab, crab & avo salad or crab liver paté? They have those too.

Ministry of Crab is not for the budget conscious but it is excellent value. Prices are per kilo so have a little or a lot.

If prawns are more your thing, you have the same options as the crab. Oysters, clams, fish and chicken make up the rest of the menu.

Sri Lanka: Colombo, the Commercial Capital.

 

#drink.

 

Baillie Street Merchants.

In the Old Fort area, Baillie Street Merchants is a password entrance venue. Make a reservation and the password is supplied.

A little hard to find, Baillie St Merchants is on Mudalige Mawatha.

At the head of Chatham St, pass the Lighthouse Clock tower. When you reach the President’s House, take the first right. Baillie Street Merchants is about a 100m to your left.

Cocktails are innovative and the spice merchant theme runs through the menu.

Sri Lanka: Colombo, the Commercial Capital.

 

Traveller’s Bar.

Are you up for a sea breeze, open deck and Indian Ocean sunsets? Then head to Traveller’s Bar at Galle Face Hotel. They have ice cold beer, a good wine selection and cocktails too.

 

Ward 7.

With views overlooking central Colombo, Jetwing Colombo Seven’s Ward 7 is a popular venue for locals and hotel guests. Air-conditioned indoor and relaxing al fresco tables cater to your every whim.

Whether it’s cocktails & bar snacks or complete à  la carte dining, Ward 7 rooftop bar takes you from Bloody Mary’s to Cognac.

Sri Lanka: Colombo, the Commercial Capital.

 

#shop

Colombo has shopping malls with western brands if you need them but here are some of Colombo’s unique shopping experiences.

 

Pettah Bazaar.

This frenetic area of interconnecting streets seems to sell everything from dolls clothes to Xmas decorations. Street vendors block intersections with their carts of tropical fruits served with salt & pepper or chilli chutney. Tuk-tuk drivers, housewives, and businessmen dodge and weave on their errands.

In amongst this madness is Sea Street, a goldmine of jewellery stores. Unless you know your gold, take a local to help you haggle.

Sri Lanka: Colombo, the Commercial Capital.

 

Majestic City.

If you’re including Hotel Lavinia in your tour of Colombo, stop in at Majestic city. Yes, it’s a shopping mall, but here you’ll find Mlesna tea boutique and Larich spice boutique.

Mlesna carries tea from all over Sri Lanka at affordable prices. White, green, black and blends are packaged for travel and their decorated containers make for perfect gifts.

Larich is a one-stop-shop for all the sambols and chutneys you won’t be able to live without when you leave Sri Lanka. Prepared curry pastes, sauces and dried fish are also popular.

 

#stay

 

Jetwing Colombo Seven.

Conveniently located on Ward Street, Jetwing Colombo Seven is close to many of Colombo’s attractions. Once you’ve explored your spacious room and made a note to soak in that fabulous tub, make your way to the rooftop.

Sri Lanka: Colombo, the Commercial Capital.

It’s here Ward 7 (previously mentioned in #drink) has your sundowners covered. The gym is on the rooftop but the pièce de résistance is the infinity pool. Open from 06:30 until 22:00, you’ll want to hang out here all day.

Jetwing Colombo Seven is a green hotel. Their environmental ethos is obvious with no single-use plastic, recycling and refilling of water bottles and wastewater reused on gardens.

Even the toilet paper is made from recycled wheat husks.

Toiletries are in cloth bags or glass bottles and did you know we use eleven litres of water per minute to shower? This gentle reminder before stepping in hopes to reduce water usage.

Sri Lanka: Colombo, the Commercial Capital.

Disclaimer: This article contains discounts and upgrades that will never affect our 100% honest opinions.

Booking.com.

For accommodation options (in case Jetwing Colombo Seven is fully booked) enter Colombo in the search option below then filter your preferences. You’ll find a wide selection of hotels within your budget.

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Getting There & Getting Around

Barandaraike International Airport and Colombo port are your only international options for reaching Colombo.

Domestic travel from Colombo to other Sri Lanka regions is supplied by bus, plane, train and automobile.

With your Über app, private cars, taxis and tuk-tuks are available. Without the app, use metered taxis, buses and trains and to save any drama, only use tuk-tuks with meters.

Tuk-tuks, especially around the Fort area, will offer sightseeing tours at inflated prices. These guys are only in it to make a living so I’m not suggesting you avoid them, simply negotiate and be clear on where you want to go.

 

When To Go

Colombo is on the central-south-west coast of Sri Lanka with a tropical monsoon climate. Heavy rains occur April/ May and September, October, November.

Average daytime temperatures reach 30-32C and drop to 22-25C in the evening. Humidity is between 70 and 80% throughout the year.

For tips on planning your entire Sri Lanka adventure, please follow this article we prepared earlier, “Sri Lanka: Where to Begin?”.

 

Pin it for later.

 

Sri Lanka: Colombo, the Commercial Capital.

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