Colombo has a bad reputation as a congested, uninteresting Asian capital city that is best avoided. It’s a bit like Male’, the unlovable capital of the Maldives, a short 75 minute flight away, that has been my home for the last 6 months.
Like most travelers, I’d wanted to head straight to the hills in Kandy, or to the beaches near Galle. But not my partner. He’s keen to spend two days in Sri Lanka’s capital city. What to do? Prove those who say Colombo can be skipped wrong and find beautiful places to visit in Colombo. Here are five we managed to visit. There are many more beautiful places to be discovered as the city is getting a make-over in the wake of nearly three decades of civil war.
The Galle Face Hotel
We decide to treat ourselves to a nice hotel, just in case we won’t find beauty anywhere else. There are several good and affordable options in Colombo, including some charming looking homes on Airbnb, but nothing beats the Galle Face Hotel, the grand dame of hotels, built in 1864 and said to be the first hotel East of the Suez. From Roger Moore to Richard Nixon, the impressive list of VIPs and celebrities who have stayed here over the years is on display in the hotel’s museum.
Perched right on the shoreline, at the end of the Galle Face Green, the hotel has the best position in town. Even if you don’t stay here – though with prices starting at USD 110 for a double, this is an affordable treat – you’ll probably end up on the large ocean-facing veranda for high tea or to watch the sun set over the pounding Indian ocean, sipping a G&T. Trust me, it’s a time honored ritual and the best way to finish the day in this hectic city.
The hotel may have undergone extensive renovations – the Classic Wing is currently closed - but it still drips with colonial charm. You’ll be greeted by doormen dressed in impeccable old fashioned white uniforms decorated with golden tussles. The smell of wax polish on shiny wooden floors evokes memories of an era before noisy splattery tuk tuks.
But what would we do without the trusted tuk tuk which brings us through heavy traffic to the city’s poshest address, Cinnamon Gardens. The cinnamon plantation that gave the neighborhood its name has long given way to the urban sprawl, though of the classiest kind.
Large shade trees and the city’s finest mansions line the quiet frangipani scented streets here. Stroll around and discover foreign embassies, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Colombo Town Hall, the National Museum and, at its heart, the sprawling complex of Colombo University, the country’s oldest campus. This is the elegant heart of town. The roadblocks and armed guards that dominated this neighborhood last time I visited, staying at the shabby YWCA opposite the president’s house, have disappeared. After 25 years of Civil War, Colombo is re-merging like an unpolished jewel.
We have lunch at Cafe Barefoot, another Colombo institution just off Galle Road, in nearby Colombo 3, or Kollupitiya. Opened by Sri Lankan designer Barbara Sansoni in 1964, Cafe Barefoot, housed in a colorful old Dutch compound, is a happy combination of art gallery, restaurant, cafe and shop, stocked high with brightly colored hand woven textiles and other gifts. Don’t come here on your first day, like I did, because chances are, you won’t leave empty-handed.
If your loop ends in Galle, like ours will, make sure you safe some travel money for a final splurge on handwoven homewares. The flaming orange, yellow and pink napkins that I bought at the smaller Galle store four years ago have been machine washed mercilessly and they are still as bright as the day I bought them.
The Barefoot bookshop is my favorite place to escape the chaos of traffic and heat. There is a large collection of Sri Lankan authored novels and some fatally fine coffee table books. This is were I become infatuated with Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka’s celebrated architect, the founder of Tropical Modernism and pioneer of Sri Lanka’s unique style of modern architecture. Many of his buildings are now converted into hotels scattered across the island and would certainly make for a fine guided tour of the country.
The Gallery Café
Geoffrey Bawa’s former office is just around the corner, on the other side of Galle Road, which runs through Colombo 3 like a blocked artery. We pick our way through quiet side streets past mansions of the country’s elite. It comes as no surprise that Bawa’s offices have been converted into The Gallery Café, the stylish restaurant, gallery and cafe, where Colombo’s smart-set hangs.
There is a vibrancy in the air, as tourists and the hippest Sri Lankans you’ll ever see, take high tea at Geoffrey Bawa’s former offices, cleverly converted, with Bawa’s approval, into a large courtyard restaurant that captures the essence of Bawa’s style of blending the inside with the outside, merging traditional and modern, east and west. My lemon meringue cake, by the way, is amongst the best I’ve ever had.
Number 11, Geoffrey Bawa’s home
The Gallery Cafe opened its doors in 1998, the year Geoffrey Bawa suffered a severe stroke that confined him to his nearby home for the remaining 5 years of his life. The open topped Rolls Royce that took the architect to his office every day in is the first thing you will see in his townhouse at number 11, on 33rd Lane, Bagatelle Road.
The unassuming exterior, a decorated glass door and semi-circle moonstone, hides a personal oasis of aesthetic beauty, creative genius and comfort. Bawa created his home by joining 4 individual bungalows into an airy, light-filled labyrinth of spaces that creatively link the inside with the outside, merging landscape and building. Walking through the house, which can be visited on a guided tour, is an aesthetic journey through Bawa’s style and ideas and gives an insight into the evolution of Sri Lanka’s postcolonial identity.
His former man servant and carer, a softly spoken young man who, together with 3 other staff has continued to life at Bawa’s residence, shows us around. His minimalistic commentary gives only a respectful glimpse of what Bawa’s personal life and personality might have been like. You’ll have to use your imagination to make the spaces come alive. Every room and artefact seems to tell a story. I close my eyes and can just about hear the faint chatter lingering in the open sitting area where Bawa would end the tropical day with a G&T, entertaining friends.
The eye-catching doors painted by Donald Friend during his stay with Bevis Bawa at Brief, are familiar to me from the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where the originals are now kept.
The stylish upstairs guest apartment is now rented out as a Bed and Breakfast. Imagine, for USD 186 you’ll get to have breakfast on the large concrete table downstairs in the heart of Bawa’s personal labyrinth and you’ll get to use the bedroom and living room where many of Bawa’s illustrious friends have stayed.
Whoever said that Colombo was ugly and should be skipped? I’ll definitely be back for more!
1. Galle Face Hotel: 2 Galle Road, http://www.gallefacehotel.com/
2. Cinnamon Gardens: officially Colombo 7, this quiet residential suburb is 3 km south-east of the city centre
3. Cafe Barfoot: 704 Galle Road, Colombo 3, http://www.barefootceylon.com/cafe/; Open from 10-7pm every day. Late night openings Thursday, Friday and Saturday. For large bookings call +94 11 2553075.
4. Gallery Café, 2 Alfred House Road, Colombo 3, http://paradiseroad.lk/gallery_cafe/about.php; this stylish cafe is part of Paradise Road owned by design entrepreneur Shanth Fernando. The Paradise Road brand now includes interior design shops, art galleries hotels and cafes, including the Gallery Café in Bentota, which is attached to The Villa, a beach-side hotel designed by Geoffrey Bawa.
5. Number 11, Geoffrey Bawa’s home: No. 11, 33rd Lane, Bagatelle Road, Colombo 3.
Guided tours are available Monday to Friday, except public holidays from 9:30 am to 4:00 pm. To book a tour or the guest suite, call (94) 11 2589212 or email firstname.lastname@example.org;
Have you been to Colombo? What are favorite spots?
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