Old Town Colombo: A Feast for the Senses
My first impression of Colombo was overwhelming, but I left truly impressed and in love with the city. Many of the people you meet are genuine and friendly and I found Colombo to be fairly safe. It’s much more modern than I expected, while also embracing its heritage, and the blend of new and old cultures is fascinating. Come with an open mind and prepare to have your eyes opened too.
The Star Anise Boutique Capsule Hotel was more of a hostel-style accommodation but it was surprisingly pleasant and the novelty couldn’t be beat. For upmarket options try Galle Face Hotel, The Steuart, The Kingsbury, or Hotel Galadari.
The single capsules at Star Anise are glorified single bunks, but instead of the shaky standard bedding of backpacker’s hostels, these are rectangular mini-rooms built into the wall. The big plus of staying here is a super clean (shoes-off policy) and well-equipped establishment with a professional, friendly, and helpful staff, but also in-room power outlets, fold-down shelf, lamp, and lockers, not to mention, Wi-Fi, lounge, and kitchen, and a cute little rooftop terrace and garden.
Navigating the City:
Star Anise is in the ‘old town’ area of Colombo’s Fort District and the Presidential Palace is at the end of the street. There is a fancy Dutch Hospital precinct just a few blocks away, but take a right instead of a left turn and it’s as 3rd world and crummy as it gets. For me, the must-see part of Colombo is the Pettah area of the city. Simply because this is where you’ll realize you’ve been transported to a completely foreign land.
The Khan Clock Tower is a good starting point (adjacent to the Port at which cruises will dock) and every couple of streets there seems to be a theme change: from toys and gifts, to fruit and vegetables, to clothing and jewelry, appliances and electronics, grains, spices, and, of course, the ubiquitous fish and poultry section can be found by scent. Within the market-streets, which are mostly shops and alleyways more than tents or stalls, stop into the beautiful mosaics of the Red Masjid (visitors welcome) and make new friends while enjoying the shade in a fresh and peaceful escape from the busy streets.
An abundance of little cafes and street carts of food exist around here too. Everything I tried was delicious, unique, fresh, and inexpensive, but if in doubt just find somewhere busy. Fifty locals crammed into a shoebox can’t be wrong!
If you’re feeling brave, it’s worth a wander across to the Manning Market area. This is only across the main road to the south end of the markets (right by the main train station in the city) but represents a steep dive down into a much quieter and decrepit part of the world than many would have experienced before. Although I didn’t meet many English-speaking people here, all I met were welcoming and friendly, making me feel a lot safer than it looked. I even joined in a local game of street Cricket and sat for a beer and chat...through hand signals and drawing in the dirt.
The Galle Face (wide open space for festivals/events, sports, flying kites, and generally hanging out and socializing) is definitely worth a wander. Different times of day it could be a hive of social activity, a romantic date spot, or jam packed with a music festival. It does have a beach but there are plenty of warnings to avoid swimming in the area.
Take a tuk-tuk or taxi to Gangaramaya Park which has a pretty impressive (greener than clean) lake surrounding it, offering an open space. Walk the bridge to the little island pocket of serenity in the middle and enjoy the breeze! A few blocks away is the Gangaramaya Temple which accepts only respectful visitors so dress appropriately, if planning to enter.
Not far away from there, maybe a 10 minute walk at most, is Viharamahadevi Park. Pony rides, a pond with paddle boats, large lawns and open spaces, shaded tree glades, amphitheater, and a Buddha statue are all great reasons to come. Along one edge of the park is a collection of culturally significant buildings, including new and old town halls, National Museum, Museum of Natural History, National Gallery, National Theater, and so forth.
Get lunch at The Ministry of Crab. Expensive by local eatery standards but it is relatively moderately-priced for a high-quality restaurant by western standards. Roughly converted to $10-30 U.S. per plate this would easily be 200-300% more expensive in NYC. I had the best crab curry in the world. At least, I’m pretty sure it is, anyway. I spent a good amount of time enjoying the food here. The restaurant is owned by famous national sports stars and legendary Cricketers Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, with Dharshan Munidasa.
Around the city, especially during rush hours, traffic can be as hectic as you can imagine any major city to be. And with tuk-tuk or taxi being relatively cheap compared to most countries and cities, this is an easy and convenient way to get around. Most rides between any of the above mentioned places and attractions should not cost more than 200-400 rupees. Negotiate pricing before you ride.