What to do & where to stay in Colombo Overnight
An auto rickshaw (in India), or rickshaw (in Pakistan) also known as a Bajay or Bajaj (in Jakarta, Indonesia), three-wheeler, samosa, tempo, tuk-tuk, trishaw, autorick, bajaji (in Madagascar and Tanzania), keke Napep or Maruwa (in Nigeria), rick, tricycle, mototaxi, baby taxi, lapa or tukxi (Piaggio Ape Calessino) in popular parlance, is a motorized development of the traditional pulled rickshaw or cycle rickshaw.
Tuk Tuks can be found on all roads in Sri Lanka from the curvy roads in the hill country to the congested roads of Colombo transporting locals, foreigners, or freight about. Sri Lankan three-wheelers are of the style of the light Phnom Penh-type. Most of the three-wheelers in Sri Lanka are a slightly modified Indian Bajaj model, imported from India though there are few manufactured locally and increasingly imports from other countries in the region and other brands of three-wheelers such as Piaggio.
It is hard to sleep, even after travelling for 24 hours when you crave sleep, as the sights and sounds outside your hotel bedroom window fizzle and dance in your imagination, beckoning you to explore a new and exotic destination; and so it was for me that after two long flights from London to Colombo via Mumbai, and after only three hours sleep, I decided that was just about enough to sustain me over the next 24 hours in Colombo, the capital city of Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), as this fascinating city was waiting be explored. After my first Sri Lankan breakfast of egg hoppers, vegetable curry, fresh fruit and hot Ceylon tea, my Colombo adventure started……..“Sleepless in Colombo! Tuk Tuks and Temples with Tea!”
Colombo is a city of contrasts, with high-rise cosmopolitan hotels soaring above the old Colonial buildings with their red-tiled roofs and stone columns to frenetic, bustling street markets, it is vibrant and colourful with a special atmosphere that feeds your curiosity and imagination; my father was here during the 1950’s when he was in the Royal Navy, and remembers it with fondness, and in many instances Colombo is still a city he would recognise, but with an air of confidence and modernity that makes it such a wonderful place to have a stop-over, if you are travelling to places further afield in the Far East or Australasia.
All regular Lavender and Lovage readers will know that I am story-teller, and I’m not a fan of “Listicles” (a short-form of writing that uses a list as its thematic structure, but is fleshed out with sufficient copy to be published as an article; very popular in modern journalism and blogging), however as I spent such a short time in this fascinating city, I hope you will allow me to share a list of places to see, stay and visit, but still accompanied by short stories of what I saw and experienced. Today’s title gives you a hint of what to expect……I will be sharing my personal experiences of where to lay your head (hopefully for longer than my three hours!), where to eat and what to see…..for a more in-depth view of Colombo (and for longer stays) please DO visit my friend Alice Luker who has a very informative post about this colourful city’s restaurants here: Style in Sri Lanka on Colombo.
Where to lay your head:
Cinnamon Red: This is where I stayed, this is a modern “Boutique” hotel that has large comfortable rooms, and a SUPERB restaurant, FlavouRED, that serves fresh, local and innovative cuisine…..there is also an amazing “infinity” pool on the rooftop. Stylish and contemporary but with old-fashioned courteous customer service, the rooms start from £58 a night, making it a very attractive “mid-range” hotel to stay in when in Colombo. There are views of the city and the sea and my room was spacious with a large en-suite which boasted a luxury selection of toiletries. I heartily recommend this hotel and the meals I enjoyed here were some of the BEST I ate whilst travelling around Sri Lanka.
Where to “Take Tea”:
Cinnamon Grand Colombo: Taking tea in Sri Lanka is something that my dad remembers from his stay there in the 50’s, and the afternoon tea that I took at the Cinnamon Grand in Colombo would rival any top-drawer hotel in London. I was treated to a cacophony of cakes, scones with jam and cream, dainty sandwiches and small buttery tarts, all that were served with piping hot, fragrant tea served from silver pots; tea was taken in the Tea Lounge (with the directors of the Sri Lankan Tourism Board) of this grand old colonial hotel, and was as elegant a tea as any I have taken in the UK. High Teas are also served which have the added extra of hot Sri Lankan specialities making it a very unique tea experience. Although you can choose to have your tea with coffee or a selection of beverages, with an impressive list of over 8 Ceylon teas to choose from, it seems more appropriate to drink Ceylon tea with your dainty bites and nibbles.
How to Travel Around:
Tuk Tuk Safari: The most common form of transport in Colombo (and indeed throughout the whole island of Sri Lanka) is the ubiquitous Tuk Tuk. And, if you want to see more of this diverse city, then I can recommend a Tuk Tuk Safari! You are collected from your hotel by the smartly dressed Tuk Tuk drivers before being whisked off in surprisingly comfortable “Premium” Tuk Tuks with complimentary ice-cold Lion Beers, Fresh Coconut Water, a sound system for music and a plug-in point to charge your mobile phones! My Tuk Tuk safari took me all over Colombo and I ended up taking in the magnificent views of the Indian Ocean at dusk before being taken back to the hotel. The tours take between 4 and 5 hours and are simply the BEST way to see this lively city…...the prices start at a VERY cool and low £28 per person and the tours on offer are:
City Safari – 4 hours
(£28 per person)
The City Safari is suited to those on a budget or whom are visiting Colombo for the first time and want to get an overall city tour experience (with an added edge!). The City Safari will take you to some of the hottest seasonal attractions and sights (some of which are off the beaten track and exclusive to us). We encourage guests to bring their own snacks and refreshments and stock up the on-board cooler. Don’t worry if you don’t remember to do so, as you can just ask your chauffeur to stop by the supermarket.
Food Safari – 4 hours
(£35 per person)
The next is the Food Safari, which we have dubbed “Colombo’s best food tour!” The Food Safari covers hotspots in Colombo, as well as numerous super-authentic (local favourite) food stops along the way. We guarantee you will experience some of the best local cuisine this beautiful city has to offer. Warning: this tour is not for the faint-hearted, as you will be taken to some very local street food destinations. However, don’t worry if you don’t feel up to it, as we have a few other options up our sleeve and we can accommodate anyone and everyone. We also have a few vegetarian options, so please advise when you book if you are vegetarian. You are encouraged to bring your own refreshments along and stock up the cooler with whatever you wish to drink (alcohol is encouraged).
Gala Safari – 4/5 hours
(£42 per person)
The last is the Gala Safari – the all-inclusive favourite! This is an amazing combination of Colombo’s best seasonal hotspots, all of our amazing local food stops AND lots of drinks are also included (alcoholic and non-alcoholic). This Safari runs a bit longer, depending on how the guests are going, so please be prepared for a massive fun-filled evening. This all-inclusive experience is excellent value and we guarantee you will find it impossible to beat! This is the safari I was on and it was JUST amazingly good fun! You can book here for your little bit of Colombo fun: Book a Tuk Tuk Safari
Culture Vulture and Leisure Opportunities:
Colombo is an exciting mix of old and new, and whilst on the Tuk Tuk Safari, see above, I was able to visit some of its famous landmarks, beaches and temples. The following list is just a few suggestions of where to visit if time is short, but I think they represent the essence of Colombo, and can all be seen from the comfort of a Tuk Tuk, whether you take the safari or not.
Independence Square and Memorial Hall: A beautiful open building with stone columns and nearby fountains, there is an interesting museum in the basement of the nearby Independence Memorial Hall that commemorates independence from the British in 1948. Just outside this impressive building, expect to be met with a man and a monkey called “Michael” as well as a snake charmer……they will ask for money in return for being photographed, I didn’t succumb, but I heard that the going rate is about 200 LKR (about £1)
Independence Arcade: A FABULOUS place to spend a few hours, this former British colonial building has been given a new lease of life with a wonderful collection of shops, restaurants and entertainment under one roof; you can wander around the interior with its marbled floors and wrought iron stair art, as well as dine and shop, and the water feature in front of the building is simply stunning…..of huge historic importance, this building now represents the modernity, self-confidence and hope of a new independent Sri Lanka.
Gangaramaya Temple: A wonderful example of a Buddhist Temple, this is not just a temple, but an eclectic collection of Buddhist ephemera and devotees gifts, with a separate museum which holds innumerable number of Buddha statues from all over the world along with statues of Hindu gods, old watches, Dutch coins and many other antique collectibles.
Cargills Department Store: Construction of the beautiful and ornate Cargills building in Colombo commenced in 1902 and was completed in 1906; it was to provide British Planters and Colonial Administrators with every imported luxury to Colombo in the former Ceylon. In the past, the building served as Colombo’s premier department store consisting of everything from clothing to groceries. Today the building still serves as a department store and is one of the cities most familiar landmarks, and is well worth a visit.
Galle Face Green: Make sure you try to visit this green at dusk, when the sun slips down over the Indian ocean and the evening breeze carries the numerous kites that are flying high over old and new buildings alike…..Galle Face Green is a half kilometre promenade in the heart of Colombo and was initially laid out in 1859 by Sir Henry Ward, Governor of British Ceylon. The stretch of land was used for horse racing and golf and was known as the Colpetty Race Course. Today, you will find a multitude of street stalls selling their tempting fare, with families walking along the sea front and enjoying picnics.
Street Food: Street food is not a new phenomenon, but as more people travel the globe, it has become a very popular way of enjoying the local cuisine; in Colombo, you can enjoy small plates everywhere, but if you are a real street food lover, then the handy guide I’ve shared below will help navigate you around the culinary map of Colombo, not forgetting to try the Sri Lankan speciality of Kottu Roti, a dish using roti bread, vegetables and eggs or meat with spices – you can usually HEAR the street vendors cooking this dish before you see or taste it, as they chop all the ingredients together in the pan in which it is cooked!
Disclaimer: I was the guest of the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau; all flights, transfers, food, drink and excursions were included in the media trip I attended. All views and opinions remain my own and I was not paid to publish this article, although I retain the right to publish similar material on a commissioned basis with other print and on-line publications. With thanks to Udara from the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau and Sunanda our driver who looked after us so well for the entire trip!
With thanks to Cinnamon Red Hotel and
For any help or advice on travel packages and tours in Sri Lanka, please email me via the contact form above, and I will put you in touch with the relevant tourism officers and/or hotel groups. Karen