Reading blogs and guidebook entries on Colombo, I was somewhat dismayed to read that my first port of call had such negative write ups. I was hoping to parachute into an exotic city pulsating with an abundance of interesting sights and photogenic landmarks, perhaps spend a frenzied 24 hours exploring to really kick start my 4 month trip around South Asia. But I read the city lacked any noteworthy attractions whatsoever or any real reason to linger after your flight touches down. It’s worrying when the best thing about a city appears to be the transport links out of it! There HAD to be more to Colombo than a busy international airport and I was determined to get the best out of the city in the 24 hours I had to kill.
After a long flight via Mumbai, I arrived at Colombo airport. After exchanging my pounds for Sri Lankan rupees (which can’t be bought in advance), I squinted through jet-lagged eyes at my booking only to realise that I couldn’t check in to my pre-booked dorm bed at Drift B&B until midday. Damn. It was still only 5am. Yet another thing I’d managed to overlook in the last minute scramble to organise my trip.
Tearing through the streets of Colombo in the dark isn’t the most inviting introduction to what I’d soon discover is a country of incomparable beauty. Even in daylight, Drift B&B is tricky to locate, but first impressions were good – spotlessly clean, a warm welcome and bright communal space with a blackboard full of helpful information – from happy hours to nearby restaurant suggestions. With no dorm rooms available until midday, I decided I couldn’t face six hours slumped in the brightly lit communal area so upgraded to the only bed available – in a rather plush deluxe double ensuite complete with poured concrete floors, a king sized bed and crisp cotton sheets. It wasn’t easy to justify the $67 price tag but I vowed to find some dirt cheap accommodation further down the line to compensate for it.
Colombo isn’t half as bad as people tell you it is – a handful of great restaurants, some swanky hotel bars to fritter your rupees in and an buzzing waterfront promenade where you can eat seafood or haggle for a kite, should the urge take you. By day, the shopping isn’t half bad either. I didn’t make it to the market but I spent an enjoyable few hours perusing the travel books, handmade textiles and colourful advertising posters at Barefoot, a multi-story shop-come-cafe a short walk down Galle Road from Drift B&B. The pretty courtyard is the perfect place to familiarise yourself with the city map, enjoy a scrumptious lunch and kick back with a smoothie and cake whilst you plan your onward journey and enjoy the tranquil surroundings.
In the evening, I took a stroll down the waterfront to soak up the las to the rays before heading to a live music night at Colombo Courtyard rooftop bar on Duplication Road – a spot recommended in my helpful map from the B&B. Swing by for happy hour before you head out for dinner. I opted for a traditional curry at Cafe on the 5th, renowned as the most authentic Sri Lankan food in the city. It didn’t disappoint, one fiery chicken curry and several portions of egg hoppers later, I was in a food-induced coma. One word of warning for fellow solo female travellers, don’t walk down 5th lane on your own after dark, I had a shady encounter with a guy in a car who tried to persuade me to get in. Luckily another car hassled him to move on so I hopped in a tuk tuk and vowed to be more careful from now on. Apart from this experience, Colombo felt pretty safe for a lone female but you rarely see women on the streets after dark.
At the tail end of my trip to Sri Lanka, I had another night in Colombo – this time, a much more ‘backpacking in heels’ experience – gatecrashing my friend’s work trip and sharing her plush suite at the Taj Sumdra hotel! It’s located in the most attractive part of the city, Galle Face Green. Overlooking it to the West sits the imposing Galle Face Hotel, a colonial style hotel which makes a memorable spot for a sundowner (although be warned, a gin and tonic will set you back a whopping 800 rupees, the cost of a good meal for two).
If, like me, you can’t afford to stay at these swanky hotels, it’s always fun to pop in for a snoop – just to gawp at the potted palm trees in the Taj dotted around the opulent foyer. We did however splurge on possibly the best pizza of our lives at Oro 1889. Italian-run, this place gives pizzerias back home a run for their money. Ours, a fluffy sourdough base topped with imported cured meats and rocket, was mouthwatering (and eye waveringly expensive). But worth every penny after a fortnight of solely eating curry and rice. Ask for a tuk tuk to the Liberty Arcade and don’t be put off by the sterile location in a shopping centre, it’s all East London style exposed brickwork and industrial style lighting inside. And the ice-cream cake for dessert is a slim slice of heaven.
Colombo might not be much to write home about but it’s a clean, easy to navigate city with metered tuk tuks and plenty of restaurants and shops to keep you amused before you get the train up to Hill Country or down to the sun drenched South coast.
Have you unearthed any hidden gems in Colombo I missed?