Colombo

Tourists rarely spend time proper in the capital, instead hopping to the south coast or heading straight up to the Cultural Triangle.  Yet Colombo has a lot to offer: new cafés, fusion restaurants, hip hotels and independent boutiques are sprouting up all over its 15 districts.  With its palm trees, restored colonial buildings, action-packed markets and trendy hangouts, Colombo is a looking-glass through which to see a developing Sri Lanka.

To caffeinate

The above is true nowhere more so than its coffee scene.  Whilst Sri Lanka is best known for its tea, the island’s coffee has more than 250 years of history, dating back to when some of the finest coffee was grown in the hilly regions of Sri Lanka.  It’s said that tea growing only blossomed here after a fungal disease wiped out coffee plantations in the late 19th century.  Thanks to a rising interest in specialty single-origin coffee, third-wave artisan spots seem to be popping up all over.

At the top of my list is Plus Nine Four, a café in residential Colombo 5 district, sister café to Café Kumbuk and from the same team as that behind the well-named simple but stylish b’n’b Srilax.  Working in partnership with Soul Coffee, the atmosphere is laid-back and relaxing, with a shaded courtyard in which to enjoy a deliciously roasted brew (either medium or dark roast).  Their all-day menu has some strong brunch options, catering well to vegetarians and vegans alike (Madhu’s beetroot burger sounds very temping).  Named after the country’s dial-in code, it’s a great spot to head to straight after landing in Colombo, for a calming induction into the city over a leisurely brew.

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Also on my shortlist, in no particular order, are:

  • Kiku: A light and airy, Japanese-inspired café and workshop, with excellent coffee, healthy food and a minimalist vibe.
  • Kantina Konditori: Judging from their Instagram, the team behind this spot seem to know their coffee very well, with a Scandi-style vibe: think grey interiors, indoor plants, energy balls and bowls, and strong coffee.
  • Kopi Kade: Recommended by a friend who has spent a lot of time in Sri Lanka, the founder of this spot has apparently made every cup in himself. That shows true dedication and if that commitment is anything to go by, their coffee must be to match.
  • Black Cat Café: With an attached b’n’b, this café is set in an impressive 1920s mansion amidst a neighbourhood of similar homes. The coffee is known to be excellent, with healthy brunch fare on offer throughout the day.
  • The Grind Coffeehouse: With a very attractive-looking menu, this spot doesn’t seem to be linked to its London namesake but their coffee looks equally good.
  • Barefoot: This frangipani-scented compound is a combined art gallery, restaurant, cafe and shop, and is the best place to pick up colourful hand-loomed textiles, coffee table books on Sri Lanka, handmade souvenirs and other gifts. The garden restaurant, studded with palm trees, also has live jazz on Sundays.
  • The Gallery Café by Paradise Road: This stylish courtyard restaurant is housed in Geoffrey Bawa’s former office (the country’s preeminent modern architect) and serves up elegant fusion food.  It’s known as the hangout “to be seen”.

To see

For a stroll around the city, head to Independence Square to see the Memorial Hall or to the Cinnamon Gardens district, where you can view the City’s elegant historic monuments.  From there, it’s an easy wander to the home of architect and urban designer Geoffrey Bawa, known for his signature tropical modern style.  His Seema Malaka temple in Beira Lake is an elegant construction of wood and stone with a surfeit of Buddha statues.  It’s a peaceful haven in a city filled with honking tuk-tuks and buses blasting Indian pop.

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For stylish knick-knacks, head to Paradise Road, Urban Island and The Design Collective.  And if you’re after shopping in the local sense, take a stroll around Pettah Market where you’ll be immersed into a fusion of Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim cultures.  Shirtless men in sarongs haul carts loaded with vegetables, electrical goods spill out of shop doorways, and mosques compete with Hindu temples for space.  Ayurvedic medicine can be found in abundance and jewellery shops, many selling the cut-price gems (sapphires in particular) for which the country is noted, are available.

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For sunset, head to Galle Face Green, a seaside promenade and piazza overlooked by the city’s most famous historic hotel, Galle Face, which is an excellent spot for a cocktail while watching the sun go down.  After that, if you’re in the mood for street food, head to the famous Nanna stall on the seafront for Sri Lankan classics at street prices.

To eat

Like Colombo’s cafés, the restaurant scene is hotly developing and fiercely competitive.  A few restaurant groups dominate the market.  On my night in Colombo, opting for something different from the usual Sri Lankan fare, we headed to Monsoon, located on cosmopolitan dining hotspot Park Street Mews.  Opened by the Pearl Hotel Group, this spot is set in a tropical-inspired converted warehouse and serves modern Southeast Asian cuisine.  With excellent cocktail options and a stylish design, it’s a good spot to for a drink, though the food is mediocre.

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Here are some other spots that made it to my shortlist:

  • Kaema Sutra: Recommended by a local friend, this spot serves modern and inventive food in a classy ambience.
  • Nuga Gama: Though set in the Cinnamon Grand Hotel, this restaurant is separate from hotel and is set in a recreated Sri Lankan village. Named after a Banyan tree, the restaurant is centred around its beautiful trunk and aims to immerse you into rural life in the round: a greeting from the Arachchi (village headman), an ambala for a short rest, a village shop and kitchen to see the produce brought to life.  Though a bit touristy, the buffet of Sri Lankan foods has something for everyone.
  • Upali’s: Apparently serving the best curry in town, I’ve heard mixed things about this spot. For some, it’s unmissable, but for others the quality isn’t always reliable, especially since its surge in popularity.
  • Ranbath: Set in a Buddhist monastery (the Buddhist Cultural Centre near Thunmulla Junction), Ranbath serves organic, vegetarian food at very reasonable prices. Though the atmosphere is pretty basic, the food is fail-safe, presented in massive clay pots and served in nelum kola (lotus leaves).

To stay

Taru Villas, Lake Lodge: Part of the Taru Villas hotel group, this Colombo outpost is an excellent and affordable spot for a centrally-located stay in Colombo, located nearby the beautiful Beira Lake and offering a peaceful retreat from the chaotic capital.  It also serves one of the best hoppers I tried in Sri Lanka at breakfast, together with a much needed arrival welcome of a passion fruit and lime popsicle!  It’s a solid base for exploring Colombo, whether you’re here for a long or short stay.  Though there’s no swimming pool, Spa Ceylon is on nearby Park Street.  It’s ideal if you’re looking for a chic, one-of-a-kind retreat in Colombo.

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