Three trendy locals give us their recommendations for the best food, heritage, and shopping spots in Sri Lanka’s contemporary capital city.
By RIAAN JACOB GEORGE
Colombo, Sri Lanka’s biggest city, has long been a popular gateway to the rest of the country’s tourist trail. But the city itself is a veritable treasure chest of art, design, cultural trends, food, and nightlife. And the bustling metropolis definitely merits more time to discover its cool side. We called on some of the city’s influential insiders to give us some tips!
The Heritage Circle in Colombo
Amrit Rajaratnam: Heritage specialist, conservationist, and hotelier.
For me, the Fort district is Colombo’s richest quarter in terms of architecture. Now considered to be the central business district, this beautifully laid out heritage neighbourhood is home to several corporate towers and luxury hotels. I start my tour at the iconic Grand Oriental Hotel. Situated across the street from the docks, this stately building, made in 1837, has welcomed eminent travellers like Prince Philip and Mahatma Gandhi through the last century. I’d recommend you sit in their verandah and enjoy a drink, enveloped in warm nostalgia. Nearby is one of my favourite structures—the Cargills department store, whose unmistakable red-and-white building transports me to Oxford Street in London. With a beautifully maintained façade, arched arcades, and wooden panelled flooring, it’s a charming sight. Also, be sure to visit the old Dutch Hospital, now converted into a gorgeous retail and dining space that comes alive every evening with trendy and bustling bars and restaurants.
Celebrity chef Dharshan Munidasa’s Ministry of Crab is a mustvisit for seafood lovers. There’s also Taphouse, a bustling local brewery, located close to The Dutch Pub, famous among local office-goers. Right next door, the residence complex of the President of Sri Lanka boasts starkwhite Dutch colonial architecture and elegant colonnaded verandahs. Spend Sunday morning here to appreciate the heritage of this neighbourhood—the offices will be closed and you will have the area largely to yourself at that hour to explore at your own pace.
Two masterpieces I would definitely suggest visiting include the stately Colombo National Museum, dating back to 1877, and College House, both located in the Cinnamon Gardens neighbourhood. While the former houses memorabilia from the erstwhile Kingdom of Kandy, the latter now serves as the head office of the University of Colombo. With their blend of Dutch and British colonial architectural styles, parquet wood floorings, archways, and stately internal courtyards, these two buildings are impressive reminders of Colombo’s rich architectural heritage.
The Foodie’s Trail
Rukmankan Sivaloganathan: Food entrepreneur and travel curator.
Any trip to Colombo is incomplete without tasting its favourite national staple—rice and curry. This is best enjoyed at the ubiquitous bath kadeys (rice shops) with their faux village décor—my favourite is Chiminiya, a little eatery with big flavours, near Beira Lake. With its variety of vegetarian and non-vegetarian options, there’s something for everyone! If you’re looking for exotic, local sub-cuisine, then head to Sri Kathiresan Street in the Pettah district, where you will find two local Tamil eateries, Mayura and Murugan. Located adjacent to each other, they serve possibly the best mutton and crab curries in town. I must highlight Colombo’s coffee and breakfast scene. My personal favourite is Black Cat Café, housed in an old, colonial-era house, in Wijerama Mawatha district. It’s a great breakfast spot with local gourmet coffee and a fabulous ambience to sit and people-watch. Under a 10-minute drive, Department of Coffee at the heritage Race Course quarter offers yummy vegan options. Colombo also, suddenly, seems to have a surfeit of rooftop bars. Enjoy sweeping views and jazz music at the ultra-chic Vistas Bar on the rooftop of Mövenpick Colombo, or catch the upscale fine-dining scene at Botanik, a swanky rooftop bar in the central business district that’s known for its arrack-based cocktails. Finally, every seaside town is known for its beachfront bars and a local go-to here is The Station, a bustling eatery loved for its Sri Lankan crab curry and shrimp cocktails.
The Design and Shopping Guide
Danu Innasithamby: Influencer, TV presenter, actor, and radio host.
For me, it’s homegrown Sri Lankan brands all the way! The Barefoot store on Galle Road needs no introduction and ever since the late, famed designer Barbara Sansoni founded it, this place has been a hub of textile activity. Today, it is an iconic address in the city, be it for its fabrics, books, stationery, or even the soulful jazz afternoons on Sundays. Across town, at the Race Course, design entrepreneur Natalie Pendigrast’s store, Pendi, is where many small, local business owners get a platform to showcase their work. In addition to Natalie’s signature cane lamps and home décor pieces, you will find a great curation of artsy homegrown brands, such as Ceylon Soap Company, GeoBlox wooden décor, Alcado jewellery, and Cane Couture bags.
Here in Sri Lanka, we are immensely passionate about wellness, as well. And Aroma Bliss Ceylon, a home-grown luxury beauty brand known for keeping the authenticity of Sri Lankan ingredients alive, stands out for me. Today, they boast numerous outlets across the country—I love visiting their branch in the Colombo 7 neighbourhood to pamper myself with their products, including the Cinnamon & King Coconut Body Butter and the divine Kasthuri Kaha range of body lotions, night creams, glycerin bars, and gentle face washes.
Another address I like to frequent is the Selyn Fair Trade handlooms and handicrafts store on Fife Road. For the last 30 years, this establishment has brought together the weaving community and helped women become entrepreneurs by contributing to the store’s collection. It’s a great place to source gifts such as table mats, cushions, sarees, and even toys. And finally, I recommend Lovi Ceylon—a unique brand whose founder Asanka de Mel has transformed the traditional Sri Lankan sarong into a fashion staple. Today, Lovi retails its in-demand sarongs at its Race Course boutique in a host of fabrics, colours, and styles, which make for gorgeous keepsakes from our country’s vibrant capital city.
Vistara offers direct flights five times a week between Mumbai and Colombo.
Related: 7 Eclectic Design Spots In Colombo You Simply Cannot Miss!