Colombo is the capital city and the biggest, busiest city in Sri Lanka. It’s also where all of my family lives and they would love to have you over for dinner. James, my parents, aunt and I were spoiled rotten while we stayed in Colombo, visiting house after house where tables full of food were prepared just for us (more on that here). But we were treated to much more than food when we visited people’s homes, we were treated to their grounds. Because for such a busy, urban place, everyone, everyone seems to have a very lush garden and seems to be completely in touch with every tree, plant and type of grass thriving around and even in their homes. Innkeepers throw remnants of breakfast onto rooftops for crows that fly right up to, but never in, those open windows (did you know crows call all of their friends to eat rather than hoarding or stealing food from one another like most animals? They never eat alone.) Households set out bowls of bread and birds and squirrels alike eat from them. Maybe that keeps them away from the luscious beli fruit, king coconuts (yes, they will crack them open for you to drink from as soon as you make a mention of them) and guavas grown right in their yards.
On the rare occasion that we didn’t have invitations for lunch or dinner (or stole away to explore the city), we tried the most talked-about restaurants and cafes and some shops. You can spend your entire trip trying to fit in everything you have to eat: fresh fish and crabs straight from the sea, epic breakfasts at someone’s home and dozens of street food specialties. And you should.
A tip: order kangkung everywhere you can, ask for the largest bottled water, try the Lion beer.
Famed for its fresh king crab (which, being so prized, is often exported rather than featured on local restaurant menus) as well as its Cricketer owners, this restaurant could rival any in Toronto or New York for its service, presentation and attention to detail. The hot orange crab featured in the logo finds its way to adorable, printed bibs (which you will need to wear if you know what’s good for your clothing), a velvet-lined wooden box of heavy silverware including crab-claw-like crackers are presented for your choosing, communal tables both inside and in the open courtyard abound and the open kitchen makes the anticipation greater. You’ll have to go more than once to try the black pepper crab (distinctly Sri Lankan), their renown chili crab, and the classic curry crab. And I suggest you do. Then you might even have an opportunity to fit in an order of freshwater prawns grilled on Japanese charcoal (a trend I’m just seeing hit Toronto now) as meaty and delicious as the best lobster you’ve ever had.
We stayed close to this stalwart and no one visiting missed the chance to stop in and pick up some “short eats” for us, like “rolls” (pancake-wrapped curried potatoes and vegetables that are then breaded and fried), vadais and cutlets.
If you watch the episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show, No Reservations, this is where he had that late-night kottu roti. It’s full of young men at night who order inside but hang out on the busy street where servers hand-deliver their orders for them to enjoy leaning against their cars and chatting in the hot night.
Galle Face Green
Beginning at Galle Face Hotel at 2 Galle Rd., Colombo 3 (pictured on top)
Go on Sunday evening around 5pm to catch the sunset as you walk along the beach and take your pick of street food from vendors peddling all up and down the boardwalk–miniature crabs fried right onto spicy, fresh vadais, for example.
50 Baron Jayathilika Mawatha
If you go around noon, it’s full of business-types working in the area but around 3, you practically get the place to yourself and can take in the sweeping views of both main streets in the Fort area. Fans spin on vaulted ceiling and the windows and doors are open wide so you can take it all in while you eat a cheap and amazing meal-in-one-lampri (rice, curry and chutney-stuffed banana leaf) and bright red deviled shrimps.
Cons to eating dinner right on the beaches of Sri Lanka at night: ants and mosquitoes. Pros: Eating dinner right on the beach in Sri Lanka! Cross the (live!!) tracks carefully and reserve a great table for sunset in advance. Then order fish caught that day and sit back as they bring it whole to your table and do all the hard work of filleting it and serving it for you.
For a decidedly “could be anywhere” vibe but also very healthy sandwich or wrap, head to this serene little spot near an otherwise hectic and touristy section of Cinnamon Gardens. Why have pizza or other unremarkable food near Odel (the main department store) when you could have freshly pressed juices made to order from the juice bar at here? The tables sit in what feels like a private garden and you will have a hard time getting back to the busy day you stepped away from.
Design and dinner rival for your attention. You walk past two long pools of water that line the pathway into this only partly-covered but elegant dining room with an exposed prep-kitchen and the finest table settings (the owners also own a very chic housewares store). They are famous for their black pork curry and their crab but everything we tried on two visits was full of flavour.
In the same courtyard as Ministry of Crab, this is where to have a slice of cake and a tea–or a very good espresso and super-indulgent ice cream shake. In air conditioning.
Emperor’s Wok is a fine restaurant in the Hilton hotel and a place to get relatively authentic Chinese food. Akasa Kade on the weekends is the place to try a wide variety of Sri Lankan food–its buffet has been running for years in a dated but clean dining room on the top floors, so the view is part of the deal.
As in Ché Guevara. Che propganda becomes art on the walls in this air conditioned cafe with very polite service and a lovely little lunch menu of everything from pizza to tom yum soup to samosas. Sounds like a recipe for a disaster but everything we had was well made if not exactly authentic. It’s on Stratford, a short street–an emerging area? if you will?–that has boutiques of fine clothing and artisan-made gifts.
There’s not much reason to visit a department store in Colombo unless you’re into checking them out while travelling, however, the Sari Bar, with its wall of hand-painted and jewelled silks and linens is something to see.
113 Dharmapala Mawatha, Colombo 7
Well you do have to get some souviners right? This is the (three-floor) place.
Sri Lanka is known for and is a major exporter or quality sapphires. And everyone owns and gifts 22-karat gold. I can vouch for the workmanship at this jeweller where the designer hand sketches and colours your piece to make sure you’re pleased with what you’re ordering. It’s a splurge but it’s jewellery for the generations.
The shop (one in the franchise) owned but the folks at Gallery Cafe. On-trend flatware, dining and living accessories for every room, aruveydic scent diffusers and fine linens that anyone would want. Its the decor store of my dreams, really.
A block or two of narrow streets crammed with stores, people, beggars, carts, and suddenly, very old and majestic Hindu temples and a candy-cane brick mosque. There are rows of jewellery shops, a street of musical instrument stores, tons of food sellers (though the wholesalers are slowly moving to spots outside of the core of the city) and so many sellers of the tiniest electronic parts, laid out on blankets over the cobblestones. Lining the outside of the market, between it and Colombo Fort train station, are many street food vendors. It’s not a laid-back experience but Pettah market is a sight to behold. Be on guard but take it all in for the minutes you are able to bear it.
Mount Lavinia Beach
This is the main beach in Colombo but no one goes to Colombo for the beaches. Locals frolic on the shore (in street clothes) and a number of hotels and restaurants back out onto the beach, so it’s a good spot for a drink with a pretty view.
A large, beautiful park with a huge, impressive Buddha statue just past the entrance. There are waterfalls, landscaped paths and a kids’ play area too. It is close to both the Colombo National Museum and the shops of Cinnamon Gardens.
Many of the ancient sites lie outside of the capital but you could reach out and touch (though don’t!) statues, relics and art from those very sites, thousands of years old at this impressive museum. I found it almost impossible to resist siting on the throne of the very last King. An urged outweighed only by my fear of that armed guard.
Galbokka Point, Colombo 1
Another highly guarded area with its view of Colombo Fort and the Presidential residence, and I’m not even sure how “open” it is to tourists. But our driver called up to the guard and asked if we could climb up and take a look and he kind of sort of nodded. Very seriously.
A modest residence behind the (apparently famous) Carnival ice cream parlour. It’s central and yet a little oasis off hectic Galle Road. The epic (epic) breakfasts at this bed and breakfast are typical of a Sri Lankan spread but impressive just the same. Close to 20 curries, sambols, hoppers, rotis, rices, chutneys, meats and vegetables will greet you and every day brings a different feast if you can believe it. The very helpful manager and kind, attentive staff make you feel welcome.
It’s worth asking for a large suite–they are stunning–and also for one on the second floor or higher, away from the courtyard itself. That’s because all of the stone showers have slats open to the courtyard or to the interior corridors. It sounds strange at first but it’s completely private and kind of cool once you get use to it, but it can make for a bit of noise creeping in. The service is world-class and the rooftop lounge is a must for at least a drink.