Arab traders called Sri Lanka Serendib, which means “pleasant surprise,” and upon landing at Bandaranaike International Airport, you will immediately understand why. Everywhere you look, you’re confronted with lush vegetation, almost as if you were arriving in the middle of a forest. Welcome to Sri Lanka’s largest city, Colombo — where old and new, modern and traditional, blend seamlessly to deliver a pleasant surprise of a getaway. To conquer the capital in 48 hours, we’ve come up with a full itinerary.
Kick off your stay in proper serendipitous style with a scrumptious breakfast in one of the restaurants at glitzy Cinnamon Grand Colombo hotel — from The Cafe for a healthy start of the day with a fruit smoothie to the international buffet of Taprobane that offers a huge variety of more substantial dishes (think cheese, fresh juices, pastries and eggs) from all over the world — before diving headfirst into the mix of cultures and traditions that makes Sri Lanka so captivating. The next stop is the two-story National Museum of Colombo within the Cinnamon Gardens area. It’s a classy district that also boasts the city’s largest park, which is a sweep of tropical plants worth spending an hour or two exploring. The museum stands right in front and showcases an impressive collection of holy statues, tools, paintings, fabrics, maps of the old country, finely inlaid swords and a sumptuous throne belonging to King Wimaladharma that dates back to 1693.
After perusing the whimsical Hindu gods and ancient knickknacks, take a little break at Barista Lavazza, just a short walk from the museum, and fuel up with a delicious slice of blueberry cheesecake and coffee. When you get an energy jolt, visit the adjoining Laksala. The government-run souvenir shop sells all kinds of traditional gifts, including Ceylon teas (the island, whose former British colonial name was Ceylon, specializes in the variety), incense and wonderful gems and precious stones. Then make your way to the National Museum of Natural History and complete your full immersion in Sri Lankan heritage by taking a virtual journey around the country to admire its bewitching range of tropical greenery and wildlife, from elephants to leopards to whales.
For lunch, go to the Old Dutch Hospital to grab a bite in one of its stylish coffee shops and restaurants (such as Work In Progress) before heading to what’s likely to become your favorite cultural experience, a proper ayurvedic treatment. Take a cab — or if you feel brave and are in the mood for adventure, a rickshaw — and in a couple of bends and near-misses you’ll reach 33 Wijerama Road, where the peaceful scents of Siddhalepa Ayurveda Spa will envelop your senses and lure you in for a relaxing massage (abhyanga), an herbal steam bath (vashpa swedha) or a revitalizing body wrap (shariira ubtan).
The best way to round out a long but rewarding day is at Waters Edge, where you can have a sweet dining experience in the resort’s stylish Dining Room enjoying tasty meals (we loved the prawn tempura) from different culinary traditions with a beautiful vista on the lake.
Start your second day in the vibrant Sri Lankan capital by strolling around its most traditional district, Pettah — an insightful neighborhood that will make you feel as if you’ve stepped back to colonial times, when the Dutch, the Portuguese and the British were busy leaving their own imprint for posterity’s sake. Before digging into the open-air Pettah Market, wander its side alleys, by the old buildings still displaying their original signs that invited passersby to Millers for tobacco, groceries and wine, and Cargills for just about everything you could ever need.
In Pettah, the customs and heritage you saw the day before at the National Museum are daily routine. Mainly a Tamil area, here the quaint mosque stands beside colorful sari shops, and spice bazaars and jewelry stores sit side-by-side with Christian churches and Hindu temples. It all lines up to form a cross-cultural cluster of experiences.
For lunch, you can either dine in one of the rustic eateries here, or continue on to your second stop of the day, Barefoot, the mecca for shoppers in the city center. Before reveling in the beguiling collection of goods on the shelves, indulge in its café set in a frangipani garden — every Sunday, live jazz music will make your lunch entertaining and inevitably have a Western flavor. But music and setting are not the main lure at Barefoot, so meander inside the old villa revamped into a boutique of strictly handmade merchandise, from trendy batik clothes to essential oil-based soaps. If your ayurvedic service the previous day has left a mark on your memory, don’t leave Barefoot without visiting its Spa Ceylon department, where you’ll find all kinds of natural treatments, balms, oils and whatever you need to continue the pampering once you’re back home.
Shopping can be exhausting, so before the next landmark, drop your bags in your room and refresh in Cinnamon Grand’s swimming pool. Devote the rest of the evening to spiritual Sri Lanka by visiting the eclectic Gangaramaya Temple near Beira Lake. The entrance fee is a donation of 100 rupees (76 cents), and soon after stepping over the threshold you’ll see a wide range of holy images and statues used in both Buddhist and Hindu rituals. A short walk away is Seema Malaka Meditation Centre, another Buddhist sanctuary built on Beira Lake, a peaceful corner in the hectic heart of the city that’s best enjoyed in the evening, when the night lights evocatively gleam on the calm waters.
End your stay with a cozy dinner back at the hotel, savoring the traditional Sri Lankan cuisine of Nuga Gama, where a wide range of curries, prawn dishes and coconut-based pol sambol will be served in a rural-style décor that will make you feel as if you’re dining in a traditional village. It’s one more pleasant surprise before heading home.
Photos Courtesy of Angela Corrias and Cinnamon Grand Hotel