Experience a bit of the city in a day with YAMU’s Colombo Trails, a part-tuk part-foot tour of the city’s sights, smells and tastes. Our second in the series is Cinnamon Gardens, one of the city’s prettiest (and best) neighbourhoods.
Cinnamon Gardens a.k.a. Colombo 7 is a gorgeously leafy neighbourhood that somehow manages to conceal a fantastic number of cricket grounds among the homes of Colombo’s rich and famous. There used to be a big cinnamon plantation here during the Dutch days, but over time it seems to have made way for embassies, VIP residences and schools. While this means that traffic jams are commonplace, there is an easy fix and it involves feet, sunglasses and breathable cotton clothing. But if you have tasted first blood on the Galle Road, this will be a walkover.
With an early start, this trail takes slightly over half a day to complete.
Our starting point, Independence Square, was where Sri Lanka threw off the shackles of colonialism (sort of) without realising what lay in store for it (totally). These days it is full of aunties trying to stay fit. The Memorial Hall, which houses a small museum, has steps where you can sit down and enjoy the breeze among the stone lions that guard this national monument. In the days of high security zones, people were limited to the square, but some lovely connecting paths have come up and a lot of walls and barbed wire have gone away.
From Independence Square, walk south to Bauddhaloka Mawatha using the Rupavahini Road. This gives you two options. The first is an opportunity to take a quiet stroll through a cemetery. Most Sri Lankans will find this preposterous, but there are quite a few old WWII graves here that are worth a look at. The second option takes you to more sights out of Sri Lanka’s early years as an independent country. If you are taking the first option – essentially a detour – cross the junction to get onto Torrington Avenue and walk south until you reach the Jawatte Cemetery. For the second option, turn east along Bauddhaloka Mawatha.
The Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (or BMICH, as I like to call it) is best described in one word: regal. A manifestation of the friendship between Sri Lanka and China, it has beautiful grounds and a wonderful interior. The BMICH plays host to all sorts of exhibitions at any given time and also houses a museum dedicated to a husband and wife who were former Prime Ministers of Sri Lanka. Further down the road is the Cathedral of Christ the Living Saviour, which has a unique mixture of local and modern architectural influences.
At the Wijerama junction, hop into a tuk-tuk and go to the Nelum Pokuna Theatre nearby. Inspired by the 12th Century Lotus Pond in Polonnaruwa, this theatre and performing arts centre is one of the newer additions to the city. Next door is the National Art Gallery, which has interesting collections that are unfortunately not very well displayed. On the opposite side of the road, however, is one of the most unique spaces to see and buy art in the city. The Viharamahadevi Art Pola mostly features the work of young artists displayed in the open and is an excellent place to test your bargaining skills.
Walking west until the roundabout brings you to another set of options. One goes south along Sir Marcus Fernando Mawatha and the other takes you north to Dharmapala Mawatha. The first option will bring you to the National Museum. This enormous and beautiful building houses an excellent collection, but do note that there is a fee for bringing in your camera. If you are pressed for time, it makes sense to give the museums at Independence Square and the bimch a miss to have enough time to give this one its due.
Lunch is probably a very good idea after all the sightseeing, so head south along Cambridge Place. Dinemore is alright for a quick lunch on a budget, but Café on the 5th may be a better alternative as it serves decent rice and curry and has a lovely outdoor seating area. If you are willing to sacrifice authenticity for the sake of curiosity, however, go straight to Flower Drum for some solid Lankan-influenced Chinese cuisine. The hot butter cuttlefish, sweet and sour fish, and fried rice have kept this place open and full since 1982. If all else fails, try Raheema’s biriyani lunch.
For those of you who took the second option, as you walk north from Nelum Pokuna Mawatha, you will pass by the Cenotaph War Memorial, which is dedicated to the men and women of Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then called) who died fighting in both world wars. Once you reach Dharmapala Mawatha, walk west towards the junction with Sir James Peiris Mawatha and then turn north and head up the road to the Beira Lake.
The Beira Lake was long notorious for its odour, but a lot of effort has gone in over the years to clean up its waters and make it into a pleasant space. This part of the lake, which actually is connected by a thin canal to its much larger part near Fort, has a nice path that goes all the way around it. As you walk north, you will pass by the Sima Malaka with its distinct blue roof.
A centre for meditation, Sima Malaka was designed by the famous Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa. It is actually a part of the nearby Gangaramaya Temple, which is known for the stepped wall on which there are numerous small statues of the Buddha. Interestingly, the temple has a museum full of the gifts it has received over the years that actually includes a couple of vintage cars. Its annual Navam Perahera is a sight to see if you are in the city during the full moon in February.
Getting some lunch from here is easy enough. Heladiva is located near the Gangaramaya Temple and does good rice and curry for a reasonable price. If you walk a little further east along Sri Jinarathna Road towards Park Street, you will reach the Mews Restaurant. Part of one of the city’s newest and most exciting spaces, the Park Street Mews, this is a perfect place to take refuge in for the rest of the afternoon. If you want variety, however, head to the Urban Kitchen near Arpico.
If you are wondering how to spend the rest of the day, consider a long stroll around ODEL if you took the second option to the Beira Lake. For those who took the first option to the Museum and ended up having lunch around the Thurstan College area, you can while away a few hours at The Commons on Flower Road (a.k.a. Sir Ernest de Silva Mawatha, but nobody calls it that).