Sri Lanka's capital and largest city, Colombo, is at first glance a confusing jumble of bustling streets, modern office blocks, peeling colonial buildings, and downcast apartments. But get past the traffic fumes and you'll find plenty to see and do. There are fine restaurants, a buzzing nightlife scene, and good museums, parks, and beautiful Buddhist temples that are all worth visiting. The beach resort of Mt. Lavinia is only a short taxi ride from the downtown area and offers a golden, sandy beach and sunset views to die for. As an exciting blur of colors and cultures, Colombo presents a neatly packaged microcosm of this island nation.
For bargain-priced Sri Lankan snack foods, as well as the national dish of "rice and curry," it's hard to beat this. The decor is simple and the furnishings minimal, but the focus here is on flavor. For a light meal, try the hoppers: small rice-flour pancakes that you dip in curry sauces and sambal (a hot chili condiment). The string hoppers (where the flour is formed first into noodles, then steamed together into small cakes) are particularly delicious.
One of several dining options in the Cinnamon Grand Hotel, this romantic candlelit choice focuses on seafood and consistently receives some of the best reviews in the city. This charming restaurant with an outdoor terrace beside a manmade lagoon places its emphasis on variety, freshness, and quality. You can select from the fresh catch of the day—including huge lobster—then mix and match your own sauce, cooking method (grilled, steamed, curried, etc.), and style (Sri Lankan, Chinese, Indian, Thai, or Continental). Or if that's too confusing, go for one of the more established classics, such as lobster bisque. The prices here may be sky high by Sri Lankan standards, but they would not break the bank most other places.
There can't be many bustling capital cities where you can eat while curling your toes in the sand, with the waves of the balmy tropical Indian Ocean breaking just a few feet away. By taking a short taxi ride south from downtown Colombo, you can do just that at the Mount Lavinia Hotel's beach restaurant. Dine beneath the palm trees by candlelight as a gentle sea breeze cools you. Choose from a range of fresh seafood caught that same day in that same ocean, and cooked to your liking in any style. For the perfect mix of ambience and flavors, have your quarry cooked "Sri Lankan," with plenty of local spices and curry.
One of no less than 13 eateries in the central Cinnamon Grand Hotel, this place serves up possibly the best South Indian cuisine in the country. Overlooking the hotel pool, the restaurant's modern minimalist dark-shaded decor and shiny polished wood floors lend it a chic atmosphere. The menu spans 20 pages and offers dozens of vegetarian and meaty regional specialties from each of four South Indian states: Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. The kitchen adds a sophisticated twist to such classics as thali and masala dosai. Service can be a little slow, but the food is consistently worth the wait.
One of Sri Lanka's very best restaurants, this open-air courtyard eatery occupies a historic building that was once the office of the nation's most famous architect, Geoffrey Bawa, and is now an art gallery. The decor is truly stunning, and the food—Asian fusion, blending Sri Lankan and European influences—more than matches it. All of the cooking uses fresh local ingredients in an inventive, flavorsome way. One signature dish is black pork curry, and the restaurant is also renowned for its great desserts. Located in a high-class area full of foreign embassies, the restaurant doesn't have a formal dress code, but T-shirts and shorts are a definite no-no.
While not as idyllic as the beaches along Sri Lanka's south coast, the sandy shores of Mount Lavinia—itself a southern suburb of Colombo—offer one major advantage: they lie just 8 km (5 miles) from the downtown area and are easily reachable on a day trip if your time is limited. You may want to avoid weekends, however, as that's when everyone comes to stroll and generally unwind. There are beaches closer to the center than this, but Mount Lavinia is wider and cleaner. It also has the most extensive facilities, including plenty of eating and drinking options.
Serving as a reminder that Sri Lanka was once a colony of the Netherlands, this beautiful Dutch Reform Church—the oldest in Colombo—dates from around 1740. The name, meaning "Dale of Wolves," refers to a time before the city expanded this far, when the area was still a swampy marshland roamed by wild beasts. The wolves in question were actually jackals, but apparently the early Dutch colonists couldn't tell the difference. Services (in Tamil and English) are still held here on Sunday mornings, and if you're lucky enough to encounter one of the enthusiastic curators, you may get treated to a personal tour of this historically fascinating building.
Colombo National Museum
Also known as the Sri Lanka National Museum, this is the largest museum in the country. Established in the 1870s during the time of British rule, the palatial white building reflects the colonial architectural tastes of the day. Today it contains collections of royal regalia, including the throne and crown jewels of the kings of Kandy. Other exhibits tell the colorful history of ancient Sri Lanka. It's fascinating, if quaintly old fashioned—few new exhibits seem to have been added since it opened more than 130 years ago. Note that ticket sales stop one hour before closing.
Talamgama offers an escape from Colombo just a short drive east from downtown—though to get here you'll need your own car or a taxi ride. This area of wetland around the small Talangama Lake is a haven for nature lovers and a great place for a walk. Around 100 bird species have been sighted here, reptiles abound, and monkeys are often seen, too. It's also home to countless species of butterflies and dragonflies. But most of all, this is a welcome oasis of green calm away from the urban sprawl—a place to forget city life, if only for a few hours. The best times to see wildlife are early morning and late afternoon, when the midday sun is less strong.
Some are put off by the feeling that this is more a commercial than spiritual enterprise, but this Buddhist temple beside Beira Lake in the heart of Colombo is undeniably the city's most colorful shrine. Founded in the late 19th century as an institute for training monks, it is full of Buddha statues—some of them massive—in various styles from Thai through Sri Lankan to Burmese. An adjoining museum houses an eclectic collection ranging from jade and ivory Buddhas, to an old Rolls-Royce, and the very first Mercedes to arrive in Sri Lanka. Be forewarned, however, that some visitors are distressed by the sight of the resident temple elephant—which spends most of its days chained up with little chance to move.