Insider's Travel Guide to Colombo, Sri Lanka

What to do in Colombo

Are you wondering what to do in Colombo? Sri Lanka’s capital city boasts many things to do; visit the Galle Face Hotel and the Galle Face Green, relax at the Gangaramaya Temple and at Beira Lake, visit the National Museum. But, to really delve into Colombo’s soul, you need to have a bit of insider knowledge. Our Colombo local, Rukmankan Sivaloganathan, shares his favourite places to eat, drink and see in his city.

A BIT ABOUT OUR INSIDER:

Rukmankan Sivaloganathan, Colombo local

Rukmankan Sivaloganathan, Colombo local

Name: Rukmankan Sivaloganathan
Place of birth:  Jaffna, Northern Sri Lanka
Occupation:  Travel entrepreneur; founder of Experientially, a bespoke travel consultancy to Sri Lanka.
Hobbies and interests: Amateur interest in history and anthropology, deep interest in politics and current affairs, and follow cricket and F1
How long have you lived in Colombo?  Colombo, for 29 years

A BIT ABOUT COLOMBO, SRI LANKA: 

Travelling by tuk tuk, Sri Lanka

Travelling by tuk tuk, Sri Lanka

How do you best navigate your city?

Taking a tuk-tuk or taxi in Colombo is easy. We also have Uber and Pickme (the Sri Lankan version of Uber). You can download the Pickme app for ease.


What do you think Colombo does better than other cities?

Colombo has a lot of hidden sights and sounds that are yet to be teased out, so everything feels like it’s insider access.


Where is your favourite view of the city?

The views from Cloud Red, the rooftop bar at Cinnamon Red, and Ward7, the restobar at Jetwing Colombo 7 are fantastic. You get a real sense of the city and its changing skyline from these two locations.

You can also climb up to the top of the Sambodhi Chaithya, at the mouth of the harbor. This is an elevated Buddhist stupa that has some stunning views of the port and the Fort/Galle Face areas.

When it opens, the view from the Lotus Tower will be unmatched. It’s the tallest structure in South Asia and the view is stupendous. I was lucky enough to get a sneak peek.

One of the beaches in the ‘Deep South’ of Sri Lanka.

One of the beaches in the ‘Deep South’ of Sri Lanka.

Where is your favourite respite from city life?

Sri Lanka has lot of escapes that are just a few hours drive away. My favourite beach is Hiriketiya, in the deep south. It’s a little horseshoe shaped bay and is pretty tiny so that chances of it becoming overdeveloped are small. I also love the Hill Country with its beautiful scenery and cooler weather.

What is your favourite building in Colombo?

Perhaps an unpopular view, but I do like the soon-to-be-completed Altair, a condo designed by starchitect, Moshe Safdie. It contains two towers on the Beira Lake, with one leaning against the other. Makes for a dramatic sight.

But my real loves are the old colonial buildings in Fort and here I’ve always been fascinated by the under-rated YMBA building.

Where do you consider to be Colombo's most underrated location that more people should visit?

Quite possibly Viharamahadevi Park. This is the city’s ‘lung’, a large park located in the middle of the city near the Capitol-like Town Hall. It’s a lot bigger than it seems and has several different spaces. Locals probably use it as often as we should.  

Uga Residence, Colombo. Image credit: Uga Escapes

Uga Residence, Colombo. Image credit: Uga Escapes

Where to stay in Colombo

Colombo is pretty small. You’ll find most hotels in Colombo 1, 3, and 7 and those are good places to stay. Where you should stay depends on the type of traveler you are.

5 star hotels in Colombo

For a fancy chain stay at Shangri-La or the Galle Face Hotel, is an iconic colonial hotel, with history, past celeb guests, and magical sunsets.

Boutique hotels in Colombo

For a hotel with history I’d strongly recommend Tintagel (former home to three Heads of State) or Uga Residence for it’s great location and food.

Budget hotels in Colombo

if on a budget, Cinnamon Red is budget-chic.

Where to eat in Colombo:  

Crab dish at Ministry of Crab. Image credit: Ministry of Crab

Crab dish at Ministry of Crab. Image credit: Ministry of Crab

Which dish is a must-try?
Perhaps a little clichéd (a renowned restaurant here in Colombo), but you honestly can’t go wrong with Ministry of Crab. Let me also recommend Upali’s for excellent Sri Lankan food. However, my favourite restaurant has to be London Grill. The steaks are excellent and it’s one of the few places that serve escargot.

Is there a local delicacy we should try?
Kottu and hoppers. You can’t go wrong. For kottu I’m going to buck the trend and suggest you try it at one of the hotels or at Hotel de Plaza on Galle Road, Colombo 3. It’s fashionable to deride the hotels as inauthentic but they honestly do a great job. Hotel de Plaza is a more traditional place and is much better than the overrated Pilawoos (a staple on travel guides). For hoppers, again the hotels are a good choice but I also recommend Café on the 5th.

Interiors at Capital Bar & Grill, Colombo. Image credit: Shangri-La Hotels

Interiors at Capital Bar & Grill, Colombo. Image credit: Shangri-La Hotels

Which restaurant has the best atmosphere?
The Capital Bar & Grill at the Shangri-La has a great vibe, with its smoky jazz, 3 different dining areas, and just excellent interiors.

Monsoon interiors. Image credit: Monsoon

Monsoon interiors. Image credit: Monsoon

Where serves the best value for money dining options?
Monsoon, an Asian restaurant at Park Street Mews, has great food at reasonable prices and superb décor.

Also, if you know someone who’s a member, ask them to take you to one of the old sports clubs, such as Colombo Swimming Club, Colombo Rowing Club, or the Royal Colombo Golf Club. Easy atmosphere with cheap (and good) food and drinks.

Where is the best place to splurge on a delicious meal? 
London Grill, thanks to their delicious steaks, of course.

 

Colombo Nightlife: 

Designer cocktails at Baillie Street Merchants. Image credit:  Baillie Street Merchants

Designer cocktails at Baillie Street Merchants. Image credit: Baillie Street Merchants

Where might we find Colombo's best cocktail? 
A toss up between the 1-Sri-1 at Baillie Street Merchants and the Lapai Sipai at Ask for Fern. Both these establishments are part of a new wave of exceptional speakeasies and bars starting up in Colombo.

Who has the city's best winelist? 
Botanik, London Grill, and the Capital Bar and Grill all have some excellent wines on their menu.

And the bar with the best atmosphere? 
I’d head to Park Street Mews, a little private street with some great bars and restaurants where all in Colombo hang out. Specifically I’d recommend the tables outside Curve. Being a small place, drinks here mean that you will bump into many people you know. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is up to you.

Which bar is the best value for money? 
Curve at Park Street Mews. Great atmosphere too. But if you can get into the private clubs, nothing beats them for value.

Cocktail hour at Ask for Fern. Image credit:  @lifestylewithnadun

Cocktail hour at Ask for Fern. Image credit: @lifestylewithnadun

And the best splurge? 
Baillie Street Merchants, Botanik, and Ask for Fern are all excellent. Why not do a few drinks at each?

And finally, where is the best place to carry the night on, post-midnight? 
Colombo has more of a bar scene than a club scene but Love Bar usually takes an epic turn past midnight. Try and get up to The Attic just above too.

 

FOR CULTURE VULTURES: 

Who is your favourite local artist? 
Not really an expert on this so will go for some safe choices! Laki Senanayake is a local legend and has some great pieces of art and sculpture. I also really like what Pala Pothupitiya does…very eclectic.

Where is your favourite local gallery? 
Check out both Saskia Fernando Gallery and Barefoot Gallery.

And your favourite international gallery? 
Colombo doesn’t have a lot of international artists on show but if/when they are, they would be at either one of the galleries mentioned above.

FINAL WORDS: 

Can you sum up why you love living in Colobo? 
Colombo is becoming increasingly more cosmopolitan but it still has that small town charm. Like most places, it’s also the people that make a difference and for a local like me, it’s great to be in a place where all your friends not only live nearby (hey, it’s a small city!) but also generally have the time to meet up a few times a week. It’s hard to get that many places, let alone capital cities.

Catching up with friends over dinner

Catching up with friends over dinner