Lacing Sri Lanka's Western coastline, the city is small enough to explore in a short time (600,000 inhabitants, 37km²), but vibrant enough to keep you entertained. Colombars are a diverse lot, with a mélange of cultures, ethnicities, and architectural styles, all of which get along well. Most of the time.
Colombo's probably best experienced over a lifetime, but if you've got slightly less time, here's a guide to 24 hours in the city.
9 AM // Rise and Shine, Sleepy Head
Indulge in some breakfast by the sea.
Head over to Whight & Co on Marine Drive and wake up with some locally grown and home-roasted coffee. Watch the Laccadive Sea sparkle at you, and breathe in the lightly salted air. You can also try a Sri Lankan breakfast if you're feeling adventurous – ask for curry and string hoppers with the works.
10 AM // Welcome to the Jungle
Start off your exploring with the excitement of Pettah.
Pettah is busy, it's messy, it's loud. It's also a lovely bubbling melting pot of local culture, language, and business. If you're looking to just walk about and take in the eclectic charm that life in South Asia affords, or just do a bit of shopping on the cheap, this is the spot. You'll find everything from trinkets to leather to coconuts.
Pick up some thambili (king coconut) to sip on, and check out the Red Mosque, the Kathisaran Temple, or St Philip Neri's Church, all old religious edifices dating back a century or so. If you find creepy life-size dolls and political history interesting, you could also explore the Old Town Hall.
11:30 AM // Fort's Forte
Walk off the colonial hangover.
Playing neighbour to Pettah, the Fort area is home to some of the city's oldest and grandest buildings. Boasting colonial façades and bustling financial spots, Fort is a great area to walk about and envision what the city would have looked like in the colonial heyday. A lot of the façades still retain the old name plaques and balustrades too.
Our personal favourites include the Cargills Miller building, the Old Parliament Building, and the General Post Office. The Grand Oriental Hotel is also in the area and features a stunning view of the port lit up at night.
12:30 PM // A Barefoot Lunch
Hang with handloom & hipsters
The Barefoot Garden Cafe is a Colombo staple. A favourite amongst locals, expats, and tourists alike, it's a quirky, leafy oasis in the city. You can look forward to consistently good fare, plenty of vegetarian options, and cold beer in the rising afternoon temperatures. They also have a gallery featuring hot new local artists and a shop inside which caters to pretty much any souvenir needs you may have. Barefoot handloom fabric (usually in the form of a sarong) is beautiful, sustainable, and the uniform of the true Colombar expat.
We'd recommend you pick up a book from their store and settle down with some black pork curry and an icy Lion lager (Sri Lanka's proud, crisp brew).
2 PM // Hibernation
This is essentially the worst time to be out and about in Colombo. Unless the prospect of searing heat, blaring traffic, and end of school day hysteria sound appealing to you, we'd recommend you hide. Any local lady of leisure will tell you that this is the best time for a siesta. You can catch your 40 winks back at your hotel, lounging by a city hotel's pool with a cocktail (Cinnamon Lakeside or Cinnamon Grand), or at a spa with a nap-inducing massage (Spa Ceylon or Nail Anatomy).
4 PM // Spiritual Decadence
Bling Buddhism by the Beira Lake.
The Gangarama Temple is one of the most eclectically engaging spots on the island. Despite Buddhism's reputation for austerity, the Gangarama is an actual smorgasbord of history, clutter and randomness. The premises is so absolutely stuffed with gifts, donations, and collections like vintage luxury cars, currency, statues, antiques etc, it's a museum in itself. In the heart of the swirling colours, gold, and ostentation, you'll find an old bo tree around which you can sit down for a moment of calm contemplation and mindfulness. Also be mindful of the dress code, no shorts,vests, or short dresses are allowed.
The ticket price (technically a "donation") also gets you into the Seema Malaka temple, on neighbouring Beira Lake. Designed by Bawa in the 1970's, it's a serene and spiritual spot, open to the elements, inviting in the gentle laketop breeze.
5 PM // Galle Face Lovers
Go fly a kite.
The Galle Face Green has been one of the city's oldest and most frequented promenades since 1859, when Governor Sir Henry George Ward bravely tried to set down lawns by the sea (an exercise in futility valiantly repeated numerous time since then). It's about 500 metres of urban park, perfect for kite-flying, street food, and canoodling under umbrellas.
You must try the isso vadey, a crispy prawn and cracker concoction the colour of the setting sun. Nana's is street vendor and a GF institution in itself, you owe it to yourself to let their incredibly knowledgable waiters gently guide you through a streetside culinary journey.
6 PM // Sip On Some Sunset
Historical cocktails with a splash of glam.
The Galle Face Hotel precedes the Galle Face Green by a few years. Built in 1864, it is a bastion of historical elegance. It's played host to numerous heads of state, royalty, and society weddings. The property is undeniably romantic and has gone through a much- needed renovation of late. We'd recommend you step down to their terrace for some al fresco drinks and watch the sun slip into the horizon.
Service is slow, but so are the waves lapping on the shore. Welcome to the island life.
7:30 PM // Tropical Dining
If you're just here for one night, you may as well shell out and make it count. Both Ministry of Crab and the Gallery Cafe combine international standards and consistency with elegant, vibrant local flavours and design. As you'd expect, MoC boasts a variety of fresh seafood, and their garlic butter crab is slaveringly divine.
The Gallery Cafe is an older institution, housed in Geoffrey Bawa's former office, and serving up some of the city's best dessert. We'd recommend you make reservations in advance for both. In case you'd prefer purely Sri Lankan fare at a reasonable price, we'd suggest Upali's.
9:30 PM // Big City Lights
Wind down after a heavy day the way true Lankans do – with a thundering tipple. Shed your bags, shed your guide map, shed your inhibitions, and settle down for an evening of stellar views and over iced drinks. If you're looking for careworn glamour and a lovely view of the port, head to the Harbour Room at the Grand Oriental Hotel. If your tastes are marginally classier and you actually want a good cocktail, try the Sky Lounge for possibly the best view in the city.
If gazing at visages rather than vistas are your thing, try the Park Street Mews or the Dutch Hospital. They both have a popular selection of bars and lounges to libate and satiate. We'd suggest arrack-based cocktails for some local flavour, like an Arrack Attack or Arrack Sour.
Midnight // Get Lucky
At this point, a cosy bed and shower is probably your best bet. If you're still up and at them after this whale of a day, we're impressed. Colombo does have a few night clubs, but they tend to get quite crowded. If you're insistent on going out and exploring the night life, we'd recommend Clique for some slick tunes and less offensive crowd. If you prefer a solid nap time, check out our list of hotels in the country here, or our list of hostels here.
Enjoy Colombo. We'll see you when you return!