Colombo guide to colonial chic
A Colombo business hotels review with spicy curry, never in a hurry, nightlife, shopping, high teas and plain old-fashioned fun.
updated by Kate Springer
Colombo golf/ photo: Gemunu Amarasinghe
FOR decades hamstrung by security threats, Colombo, the Garden City, has made a swift comeback with an end to the undeclared “war” with the Tamil Tigers in the north. The only checkpoints you’ll spot now are for frazzled policemen trying to rein in wayward motorists.
The cocktail circuits hum and well-heeled travellers have returned as, once again, Sri Lanka and Colombo climb up the wish-list as desirable holiday and business destinations. Jaunty Colombo remains a dazzling place in which to shop, eat and party.
Welcome to Colombo, Sri Lanka, the capital of the island of Serendipity. Here's a quick guide to Colombo business hotels, leisure digs, restaurants, bars and sights.
There's enough in this Colombo fun guide for a languorous holiday or a busy business trip. Business travellers and vacation planners, dive right in.
By day, Colombo's population is swollen by commuters who join residents to fill its streets to overflowing with sluggish traffic – it can take more than 90 minutes for the 35km taxi ride from the airport to Fort, the city centre. At night, when only determined night owls are around, it takes 40 minutes. On now with our Colombo guide for business and fun. Some three-wheeler taxis have meters, but it is still better to agree on a price before jumping in as, frequently, the meter is "broken”.
Colombo Airport and nearby hotels
Tall pints at Cricket Club/ photo: Gemunu Amarasinghe
The peak time for arrivals at Colombo's international airport is between 5am and 10am and for departures, from 7am to 8am. After massive extension work, airport queues flow smoothly. Good duty-free shops are available, but smokers be warned – there’s no duty-free allowance for cigarettes.
All visitors, except Maldivian or Singaporean passport holders and children under 12 years old, must apply online for a visa in advance (www.eta.gov.lk). A 30-day tourist visa costs between US$10 and US$20, depending on your nationality. There are visas upon arrival too. If you forget to apply online, expect to pay an additional US$5 upon entry. For the latest information, check: www.immigration.gov.lk.
Beyond customs is a hall of counters for currency exchange and tourist and taxi assistance where no hawkers linger. Hotel representatives with name boards greet guests in this hall and direct them to hotel cars. Expect to pay from US$30 in Sri Lankan rupees for a hotel car to Colombo (US$1=SLRs130).
On departure, all passengers must have their luggage x-rayed before they can enter the airport. Consider hiring a porter (tip him Rs100 or less than US$1 a bag) who will steer you through and then guide you to the right check-in desk.
The great news for departing business class passengers (or those in transit) on SriLankan Airlines (the main carrier serving Colombo) is the pleasant business class lounge with an engrossing runway view after passport control. It has hot and cold buffets, a selection of wines and draft beers and ice-cream, eight free Internet stations, a smoking room, three sleeping rooms, toilets with showers, a TV with the volume turned off and headphones provided, and a free ayurveda (local herbal oil) massage parlour.
Jetwing Beach Hotel/ photo: hotel
There are VIP lounges for other airlines and a British style pub, The Hangar Bar (open 24/7), and two coffee lounges as well as a restaurant, so waiting to board a flight is a comfortable experience.
There are VIP lounges for other airlines and a British style pub, The Hangar Bar (open 24/7), and two coffee lounges as well as a restaurant, so waiting to board a flight is a comfortable experience.
While there is no hotel within the airport perimeter, The Gateway Hotel, Airport Garden (formerly the Taj) is 10 minutes away by free shuttle. With 110 rooms in a lagoon-side garden, this hotel has Broadband access in rooms as well as public areas. These include Buzz, a restaurant serving international cuisine, and swimming pool. Also on the road to Colombo is the Ramada Katunayke, a cheaper option with 60 air-conditioned rooms, business centre and 24-hour coffee lounge.
Another option is the Jetwing Beach hotel, 20 minutes away to the north of the airport on the beach at Negombo. A five-star property with 75 spacious rooms, three suites and extras like an LED TV, rain shower, CD/DVD player and private terrace.
In the same area, don’t miss Colombo boutique hotel The Wallawwa. Amid peaceful, rural surrounds, this 200-year-old restored manor is gracefully inviting. The 14 rooms – 12 of which are suites – feature pops of orange and come with a la carte breakfast, free WiFi, and flat-screen TVs. After a walk through the three-acre garden, refresh at the pool, spa or alfresco restaurant, The Verandah.
Drag queens and alcohol
Quaint Wallawwa/ photo: hotel
While office and apartment blocks have sprung up, new hotels have followed suit. Many of these are in the boutique mould with stunning, designer-smart conversions of colonial villas, providing a pleasant place to stay cocooned away from the hustle and bustle.
Recently a few restaurants (many in British-built bungalows) have opened – and closed, including those presided over by one of Colombo’s favourite characters, a master chef who doubles as a drag queen known to everyone as “Koluu”. Koluu can be seen as a symbol of Colombo's split personality.
It wants to be trendy and daring but remains really rather old-fashioned and respectable. It has swanky boutiques, posh lifestyle stores and a modern office infrastructure, yet beneath its bustle old mores hold sway.
Every full moon day (known as Poya Day) is a holiday which, added to statutory holidays, means Sri Lankans have almost as many holidays in a year than working days. Poya days are legally "dry days" and bars can also be closed unexpectedly on other holidays too, even on Christmas Day.
On dry days, hotels endeavour to keep resident guests merry by providing mini-bar or room service. While some city banks are open seven days a week, and some supermarkets and casinos 24 hours a day, restaurants and bars can only serve drinks from 11am to 2pm and from 5pm to 11pm unless they pay for a temporary extension permit. This rule is a hangover from colonial days and had been pretty much forgotten until late 2005, when the police decided to crack down on transgressors.
Courtyard accents/ photo: hotel
With very few exceptions, in most restaurants anyone who lunches or dines outside those hours must do so without wine, a small pity. However, Colombo's restaurants are top-notch and fine dining is no longer confined to five-star hotels.
Room Service (www.roomservice.lk), has a hotline telephone number (Tel: [94-11] 576-8768) and delivers meals from the menus of a score of popular restaurants to anywhere in Colombo within an hour (11am-11pm daily, delivery charge Rs300 per order per service outlet). Menus and meal prices are listed in the free magazine Room Service.
Colombo guide to dining and nightlife
Probably the leading independent restaurant in Colombo is The Gallery Café (2 Alfred House Road, Colombo 3; tel: [94-11] 258-2162, open daily 10am to 11pm) in the courtyard of what was once an architect's residence. Tables are packed into a pavilion under shady trees while all comings and goings are monitored by the "in-crowd" enjoying Mediterranean-style dishes. Prices are between US$30 and US$40 per person for a meal with drinks and appetizers.
The Old Dutch Hospital complex behind the World Trade Centre is a wellspring of restaurants and bars. Look for Colombo’s beloved Ministry of Crab (tel: [94-11] 234-2722, open daily 6pm to 11pm), Harpo’s Colombo Fort Cafe (tel: [94-11] 243-4946, open daily), and the Heladiv Tea Club (tel: [94-11] 575-3377, open daily) for sweets. And the award for the neighbourhood’s best watering hole goes to Brewery by O! (tel: [94-11] 243-6462, open daily 11am to 3pm, 5pm to 11pm), a trendy pub with laid back surrounds and tasty bar snacks. Grab a giant tower of Lion Lager, a pool table, and relax.
Room at Taj Samudra/ photo: hotel
A bit of a stretch, SriLankan Airlines’ catering on the ground – Semondu – at the Old Dutch Hospital (tel: [94-11] 244-1590, open daily 12 noon to 2.30pm, 7pm to 11pm) has earned its spurs as Colombo’s swankiest restaurant. The white stucco interior, shimmering chandeliers and warm woods will transport you to the gastronomic capitals of the world, sans jet lag.
For alfresco dining in the Old Dutch Hospital complex, head to WIP Work in Progress (tel: [94-11] 244-1275, open daily 12 noon to 2.30pm, 7pm to 11pm), which serves up grilled meats and sandwiches. Prices run around Rs6,000 for two.
Farther south, you’ll stumble upon Park Street Mews (50/1 Park Street, tel: [94-11] 230-0133, open daily 8am to 11pm), another quirky addition to the Colombo dining scene. Around the corner from the Beira Lake Temple in a complex of restored old buildings, this popular spot is known as much for its fish and vegetarian dishes as its event listings, hosting a roster of high profile events such as Colombo Design Week. Like the funky lamps, art or furniture? Take them home – basically anything you see if for sale.
More informal and popular with the city’s intelligentsia rather than the fashionistas is the garden café at Barefoot (706 Galle Road, Colombo 3; tel: [94-11] 258-9305; open daily) guided by the aforementioned Koluu and offering innovative dishes in a peaceful atmosphere despite its main road location.
In complete contrast, Chesa Swiss (3 Deal Place, Colombo 3; tel: [94-11] 471-2716; open daily) caters for serious diners at the top end of the market (expect about US$40 per head for appetizers, a drink and main course). For food prepared and served quickly in a friendly ambience, there is the Cricket Club Café (34 Queens Road, Colombo 3; tel: [94-11] 250-1384; open daily 11am-11pm) where a meal for two costs from around US$20, and drinks flow in its backroom pub.
Swinging Colombo nightlife/ photo: Gemunu Amarasinghe
Opened to cater for Colombo 's cognoscenti, Bay Leaf (79 Gregory's Road, Colombo 7; tel: [94-11] 269-5920, open daily) is housed in a magnificent mansion complete with verandah and balcony tables, private dining rooms and party garden. With its own bakery and swish cocktail bar, this locally run restaurant serves prettily presented, delicious dishes and has a gentle, cosmopolitan flair.
There is a restaurant for members at The Royal Colombo Golf Club (223 Ven Pelpola Vipassi Himi Mawatha, formerly Model Farm Road, Colombo 8; tel: [94-11] 269-5431) where temporary membership for visitors is US$65, plus 10 percent service charge per person.
Restaurants featuring a la carte Sri Lankan cuisine are scarce, but reasonably priced rice and curry self-service meals are available from the Curry Corner of the buffets set up for lunch and dinner in the 24-hour coffee shops of the five-star hotels. For example, the lunchtime buffet with a choice of curries at the Hilton's Spices restaurant costs Rs2,220. The Hilton hotel's garden restaurant Curry Leaf is a romantic place for local food in the evenings.
Village-style cooking can be experienced at the Nuga Gama restaurant, a re-created rural settlement in the grounds of the Cinnamon Grand Hotel, and open every evening (7pm-11pm) and for lunch at weekends, from noon to 3pm at Rs1,450 for a rice and curry buffet.
The hotel also boasts possibly the country’s best seafood restaurant, The Lagoon (open daily for lunch and dinner) with freshly caught fish lying on ice slabs awaiting selection by guests to be cooked as required. Fresh oysters are about US$1 each, at only Rs1,300 a dozen.
Enjoy cheap (Rs1,450 lunch, Rs1,650 dinner) and justifiably popular rice and curry buffet meals at Raja Bojun (Ceylinco Seylan Towers, 90 Galle Road, Colombo 3; tel: [94-11] 471-6171; open daily 10am to midnight). Thambapani (496/6 Duplication Road, Colombo 3; tel: [94-11] 250-0615 open daily 11am-11pm) is more sophisticated, specialising in "island cuisine" and seafood in a garden setting.
Grand Oriental mood/ photo: hotel
The renovated Palmyrah Restaurant (Hotel Renuka, 328 Galle Road, Colombo 3; tel: [94-11] 257-3598, open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner) is renowned for its north Sri Lankan (Tamil) a la carte specialities at good prices.
There are air-conditioned food courts open from 11am-9pm featuring Sri Lankan, Chinese, Indian, Thai and Korean dishes in the basement of the Majestic City (10 Station Road, Colombo 4) and Crescat Boulevard (Galle Road, Colombo 3) shopping malls, with a smaller open-air courtyard of organised food vendors outside Odel (5 Alexandra Place, Colombo 7), a home-grown Sri Lankan fashion brand.
If it’s Mediterranean flavours you’re craving, escape the noisy city and head east into the suburbs of Battaramulla. At Coco Citrine (80 Pannipitiya Road; tel: [94-11] 288-5881), a bright and breezy cafe decked out in clean white and sizzling oranges, savour everything from zesty Greek salads to juicy kebabs dripping with tzatziki sauce. When you’ve licked your last finger, linger in the sun with a crisp cocktail.
Now the city is coming to life again at night, Galle Face Green throbs with sunset action as kids fly kites, lovers promenade, and street hawkers offer snacks like prawns in a deep fried patty.
At night, the well-heeled head for the five-star hotels, some of which have nightclub-cum-discos open at weekends, and all have live music each evening in their lobby bars. Having started small as an insiders' hangout with drinks patio, Rhythm & Blues (19/1, Daisy Villa Avenue, Duplication Road, Colombo 4; open nightly) has blossomed into the city's swing joint that doesn't get into its stride until after 10pm and continues with nonstop bar service and revelry. The food is pretty good too. Bistro Latino (Duplication Road, Colombo 4) throbs with Latin American music (and dancing) until 11pm.
Hilton/ photo: hotel
Thanks to the complimentary drinks and snacks, casinos tend to be popular among travellers. Though some have high buy-in points – think US$100 – you can always sell back the chips you don’t use. There are several casinos open 24 hours with Bally's (34 D R Wijewardana Mawatha, Colombo 10; tel: [94-11] 233-2211, near the back entrance to Fort Railway Station) almost exclusively for visitors, the MGM (772 Galle Road, Colombo 4; tel: [94-11] 250-2268, near Majestic City) for locals and visitors, and Bellagio (430 R A De Mel Mawatha, also known as Duplication Road, tel: [94-11] 257-5271) a glitzy and vast venue, popular with all comers.
Shopping tips for sultry afternoons
Colombo's reputation for trendy fashion shopping stems from the success of Odel (5 Alexandra Place, Colombo 7, tel: [94-11] 462-5800), now a fully-fledged department store after starting out as a cut-price local garment outlet. It has a small sweets counters and a good Japanese lunch outlet, Nihonbashi (tel: [94-11] 471-8758) for counter service of super sushi and sashimi platters (from Rs500). Crowds flock to House of Fashion (28 Duplication Road, Colombo 5; tel: [94-11] 250-4639) in search of imported items (not just clothes) at low prices.
Colombo has an amazing number of shops with unusual household goods and artefacts for stylish modern homes. Barefoot specialises in fabrics in gorgeous hues, while Paradise Road (213 Dharmapala Mawatha, Colombo 7, tel: [94-11] 268-6043, open daily 10am-7pm) is ideal for ingenious gifts and upmarket décor. Hermitage (28 Gower Street, Colombo 5, tel: [94-11] 250-2196) has an Indian antique ambience.
The air-conditioned Colombo shopping malls of Liberty Plaza, Majestic City and the more upmarket Crescat Boulevard with its designer-label stores, all have shops selling the latest DVDs (you'll be assured they are "genuine copies"). There is a branch of the Keells Super in Crescat's basement for shopping as the locals do and buying local produce like devilled cashews and pickled quail eggs.
Cinnamon Grand pool/ photo: hotel
Sri Lanka is the source of Ceylon tea and Colombo’s popular tea bar, Tea Breeze has left its original downtown location and moved to the airport. Be sure to seek out the new version for pots of exclusive estate-grown leaf teas, unusual tea milkshakes, delicious pastries and sandwiches, all served elegantly by smart stewards in dark green livery. Packaged pure Ceylon and single estate teas can be purchased there and from the Mlesna Tea Counters at the Crescat, Liberty Plaza and Majestic City shopping malls and from the Dilmah outlet at Odel.
Colombo business hotels review
For years Colombo hotels soldiered on with low occupancy as tourists usually headed straight for the beach or a round-island tour, but business travellers are back and demanding the best. Hotels are meeting the demand by adding lots of restaurant options.
The Cinnamon Grand Colombo, which expanded and modernised under the John Keells Hotel Group, leads the way with the most popular seafood market restaurant in town, The Lagoon; an elegant Italian restaurant, Echo; genuine 1970s vintage steak house, The London Grill; a saloon-bar pub with great grub, Cheers; a verandah Asian fusion restaurant, Tao; a South Indian restaurant, Chutneys; and the Nuga Gama Sri Lankan village restaurant. All the hotel's 501 rooms offer free WiFi and full five-star hotel amenities. There is also a premium executive floor with an exclusive, dedicated bar lounge (and smoking room). This is a dependable Colombo business hotel choice.
Cinnamon Lakeside/ photo: hotel
The Keells Cinnamon Lakeside (formerly Trans Asia) has revamped its restaurants while retaining the exceedingly popular (must reserve) Royal Thai. The Long Feng (Singaporean) has yielded its location by the Beira Lake to a relentlessly trendy drinks and tapas bar (7 Degrees North) for a conventionally smart room next door.
There is an expanded sushi bar in the hotel’s brightly redesigned lobby and glass walled The Dining Room 24-hour coffee shop. With 346 aircon rooms including executive floors that can only be accessed by a special card, the hotel is becoming a smartly efficient choice for executive travellers.
Facing the sea, the Taj Samudra has 300 rooms with Broadband access and a stylish coffee shop, Latitudes, as well as traditional Indian, Chinese and steak restaurants. Rooms with sea views cost extra.
Across the street is another option that won’t assault your wallet. The functional Ramada Colombo (formerly the Holiday Inn) offers 92 standard rooms, as well as a handful of suites. Expect practical, clean-cut accommodations sans frills.
There is a triangle of hotels in the old part of town under the shadow of the city’s tall twin towers World Trade Centre. The Hilton Colombo has 382 rooms, including four floors of executive rooms with lounge, butler services and free WiFi (US$20 per person, per day for every else). In addition to the designer, colonial-style pub Echelon, it has a main restaurant (Spices) with extensive buffet meals, as well as Chinese, Italian, Sri Lankan, Japanese and a slick, fine-dining restaurant, Spoons.
Its neighbour, the upgrading 450-room Galadari Hotel, is a highly rated address among Colombo business hotels. Galadari’s cocktail bar with sea view (Margarita Blue) and the best doormen in Colombo, suit its dedicated-to-business image.
Galadari class/ photo: hotel
Across the road, the 250-room Ceylon Continental Hotel Colombo (formerly the InterContinental), retains much of its old style. Its executive floor has a high tea and cocktail lounge with stimulating views of the Indian Ocean while the international market-style restaurant gets the family crowd. The hotel works equally well for leisure travellers as well as those on business and all rooms have WiFi access by prepaid cards.
The Hilton Colombo Residence has self-contained apartments available for long or short lease and is next to a supermarket offering straight-to-the-kitchen delivery. All apartments have high-speed Internet access and WiFi. Not as central and not quite so smart, Global Towers is an apartment hotel on the city's outskirts. Every bedroom has Internet connection.
Heritage and boutique stays
For Colombo colonial hotels with true character – and not just a hint of the musty – there are some unique accommodation options. The Galle Face Hotel on the seafront has 65 rooms and huge suites in its Classic Wing, and Broadband access in its business centre. It has spawned a stylish 80-room executive-class Regency Wing, where The 1864 fine-dining restaurant and wine bar attracts loyal guests. This is a splendid (much-improved under new management) Sri Lanka heritage hotel with a wide following.
At the Grand Oriental Hotel, by the old port gates, rooms are smaller but have the atmosphere of bygone days. Among the first Colombo boutique hotels to open was the Havelock Place Bungalow with only seven colonial style rooms, restaurant and swimming pool, WiFi access throughout the premises and Internet access included in the room rate. This has been followed by the Park Street Hotel, a huge 12-room bungalow with an atmosphere of discretion.
The gracious Galle Face/ photo: hotel
Casa Colombo off the Galle Road in Bambalapitiya is dubbed a ‘retro-chic designer hotel’ and each of its 12 suites is a fantasy (some come with in-room laptops, all with free WiFi) and it exudes an atmosphere of extravagance and fun in this conversion from a 200-year-old mansion. If you can swing it, spring for the Royal Suite, complete with deep-soak bathtub and lux accessories.
Beside the German Embassy, seek out swanky urban retreat Colombo Courtyard. This contemporary boutique hotel fuses modern design with eco-friendly elements, such as recycled materials in the decor and high-efficiency lighting. The minimalist, wide-open spaces will please even the most zealous neat freak, while the spacious suites and warm wood details should delight the rest. Peek into the bathrooms for a surprising contrast of angular, industrial-style stone and cement elements. Up for a tipple? The hotel is also home to a few of the city’s hippest bars, including Grape Expectations, Loft, and Cloud Cafe.
Tintagel Colombo was created with taste and style from a famous 1930s villa (it was home to three prime ministers) by Shanth Fernando, the designing genius behind the Paradise Road stores and the Gallery Café. A classic and impressive place to stay and a good Colombo boutique hotel choice.
Budget beds guide
For Colombo budget options, an established, lower-rate choice in the centre of Colombo is Renuka City Hotel. This has Broadband and WiFi access, and a swimming pool down the street. Occupancy at the centrally located Juliana Hotel often exceeds 100 percent since its 51 huge but basic rooms can be booked for day use too.
Tintagel: 1930s villa/ photo: hotel
The Indra Regent has only 29 rooms but its facilities include a pool bar, a coffee shop and the Hot Rock nightclub. In a similar style, but without the fun, the Pearl City Hotel has 63 rooms and is located by a busy junction. Overlooking the sea Hotel Westeern (yes, this is Western spelt with an extra "e") has 42 rooms and a friendly informality to match its low rates.
And that wraps up our Colombo fun guide. It may not have the style of its more glamorous neighbours like Singapore and Dubai, but Sri Lanka’s capital has enough accommodation, eateries and activities to suit every pocket and whim.
FAST FACTS / Hotel Contact List
Check out the latest edition of Sri Lanka: The Bradt Travel Guide by our contributor, Royston Ellis (www.roystonellis.com) available from www.bradt-travelguides.com. Ellis is also the author of the Insight Pocket Guide: Sri Lanka Step By Step.
The country code for Sri Lanka is 94, and [94-11] for Colombo. When calling a Colombo number from elsewhere within Sri Lanka, the code is 011. This code must also be used when calling a Colombo number from a local mobile phone, even in Colombo.
Say goodbye to all this/ photo: Gemunu Amarsinghe
The Sri Lankan rupee fluctuates daily, but the exchange rate is roughly US$1=SLRs130. US dollars are not usually acceptable, except in casinos. Banks give a better rate for travellers' cheques than for cash. ATMs accept international credit cards for cash withdrawals.
Three-wheeler taxis are ubiquitous and rates have to be negotiated as there are no meters. Five-star hotels have their own chauffeur-driven cars with rates from around SLRs1,500 for a morning's hire. Radio taxis are provided by Cool Kangaroo (tel: [94-11] 258-8588) and GNTC (tel: [94-11] 268-8688) at Rs68 per city kilometre and about Rs2,200 to the airport.
For a good introduction to the sights (and the back streets) of Colombo, take the open top London Transport Routemaster bus (built in 1956) that makes a four-hour city tour every Sunday morning, with pick-up from major hotels. Special tours are also organised to tie in with cultural shows on weekday evenings (www.colombocitytour.com).
By government decree, the city's five-star hotels have been graded into different price bands with a fixed minimum rate below which they cannot sell a room to individuals, so try for a corporate rate or look for special promotional rates through an online travel agency.
Hotel room rates quoted are per night, some with breakfast. This is a rule-of-thumb indication only. To any rates must be added 10 percent service charge and a statutory levy totalling another 17.65 percent unless otherwise indicated. Food and beverage also attract 10 percent service charge and municipal taxes.
Among recommended travel agents for local arrangements are the specialists for unique places to stay, even in Colombo, Red Dot Tours (e-mail: email@example.com and www.reddottours.com), the mainstream Aitken Spence Travels (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and www.aitkenspencetravels.com), and Walkers Tours (e-mail: email@example.com and www.walkerstours.com). Also check out holiday and luxury bungalow specialist Ceylon Tea Trails (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and www.teatrails.com) and Eco Tourism (www.srilankaecotourism.com) for a guilt-free sojourn.
Colombo hotels directory
Casa Colombo. Tel: [94-11] 452-0130, fax: 452-0150, (e-mail: email@example.com or www.casacolombo.com).
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