Talk about a phoenix rising out of the ashes. Colombo has emerged as a beacon of what’s chic and cool in South Asia. The capital city of the emerald isle, old rubs shoulders with new within the same space, breathing new life into Sri Lanka’s multi-cultural heritage.
Take the Old Dutch Hospital, a rambling piece of colonial heritage that hails from the 1600s, smack in the middle of the erstwhile Fort district. The ramparts, which once housed gurneys, are now home to chic boutiques, cozy restaurants and vibrant bars. Its shady courtyard is littered with al fresco diners, and for those who need a break from the buzz, it even houses a spa.
A stop at Colombo’s National Museum takes you back in time to revisit Sri Lanka’s heritage from its early Buddhist roots to its later colonial legacy. Ninth century Boddhisattva sandals are juxtaposed against galleries of British era paintings and a series of hand crafted masks, as well as several other well preserved artefacts. Don’t miss a quick stop at Wolvendaal Church with its striking architecture.
Shaped like a Greek cross, it is home to some of the finest wood craftsmanship carved out of ebony. Pause to visit the Dutch Period Museum. Originally the home of the Dutch governor, it’s a poignant monument to Sri Lanka’s past as this is where the original treaty between Holland and the Kingdom of Kandy was signed.
Most people don’t realize that the Dutch colonized Sri Lanka for almost 150 years and that Sri Lanka was the battleground for many European empires. The Sinhalese originally courted Dutch help to get rid of the Portuguese. The Dutch had a vested economic interest in defeating both the Spanish and the Portuguese and dominate the trade routes between South East Asia and Europe. However, Rajasinghe II, surrounded by Europeans from all sides, thought he would hedge his bets by giving the fort of Trincomalee to the French. In a game of colonial chess, the Dutch defeated the French at Trincomalee and captured the fort, but the treaty that made Sri Lanka a Dutch protectorate was never implemented. The Dutch brought Tamil slaves from Tanjore (present day Thanjavur) to work the cinnamon and tobacco plantations.
Step out beyond the fort area and you will find yourself approaching Pettah. This manically chaotic district is the hub of Colombo’s colourful markets – and some excellent street food! Golden Sinhalese coconuts stand along side mountains of tropical fruit and fresh veggies as you stroll along the pavements.
Along side Colombo’s colonial era architecture and its cutting edge contemporary new rise buildings, are plenty of temples particularly of the Buddhist variety. Of these, the Gangaramaya temple is well known, standing on a tree-lined street, in the heart of the city. It is the center of extravagant Vesak celebrations and is not only a place of worship, but also has a well kept museum and library on the premises.
Masks are one of the most vivid and eye-catching forms of Sri Lankan craftsmanship. The mask tradition originally came to Sri Lanka from Kerala and South India but took on a life of its own as Sri Lankan craftsmen enhanced the masks with lurid colours and carving. The masks were primarily used in traditional forms of ethnic dance – particularly the devil dance. A privately owned museum in Ambalangoda tells of the many legends behind these elaborate masks, and their myriad uses in traditional folklore. (read more about Sri Lanka’s mask heritage here: https://www.lanka.com/about/interests/masks/)
Puppetry is another ancient Sri Lankan art form and the Puppetry Museum in Colombo pays a fitting tribute to this rich heritage. A vast collection of puppets, some of which are nearly life-sized, speak of a rich and evocative history.
Colombo was originally known as the Garden City – even today it has several beautiful open spaces, green areas, and both lake and seaside waterfronts. Galle Face Green is the arterial promenade which runs along the sea face. Others such as the Cinnamon Gardens and the Viharamahadeva Park are a delightful place to stroll through at any time of the day.
Accommodations are plentiful in Colombo and there is an exponential growth of beautifully designed boutique hotels that have a quirky charm and plenty of personality. Other stalwarts like the Galle Face Hotel (which has recently been restored) are graceful reminders of Sri Lanka’s long heritage of hospitality. It is also known for its shopping – from designer clothes to local handicrafts.
Bustling and buzzing yet laid back and relaxing, Colombo is full of charm. Culture, adventure and cuisine are all within striking distance of the city’s walls. Road and rail connectivity to the rest of the country make Colombo a great jumping off spot from which to explore the emerald isle – or even a city break weekend in itself.