Lonely Planet Sri Lanka (Travel Guide) (2015)
COLOMBO FORT AND PETTAH
A walk through the heart of old Colombo, starting in Fort district with its grandiose old colonial buildings and then continuing on to the bustling Pettah shopping district.
DISTANCE: 4km (2.5 miles)
TIME: Half a day
START: Presidential Secretariat
END: World Trade Centre
POINTS TO NOTE: This route starts and ends in the High Security Zone - avoid taking photographs of soldiers, police checkpoints or anything else that might be considered sensitive from a security point of view.
Colombo, Sri Lanka’s colonial heart, is a fascinating reflection of the island’s contrasts: from the rifle-toting soldiers defending the High Security Zone in central Fort to cheery shopkeepers and street hawkers in Pettah’s crowded markets; and from decaying colonial office blocks to the brash modern glass-fronted towers of the World Trade Centre and surrounding high-rises.
Fort district was formerly the administrative and financial heart of the city, occupied for 450 years by the Portuguese, Dutch and British in turn - some old cannons remain by the Presidential Secretariat, but there is no trace of the old fort ramparts. Repeated LTTE attacks during the civil war - including a devastating bomb blast outside the Central Bank in 1996 - largely killed off the commercial life of the area, while the presence here of the President’s House and consequent heavy police and military presence means that many streets remain closed off for security reasons.
Colombo’s skyline in the evening
The Presidential Secretariat
Start at the Presidential Secretariat 1 [map] building (formerly the parliament) overlooking the northern end of Galle Face Green, with its neoclassical columns, steep steps and statues of independent Sri Lanka’s first four prime ministers standing in front.
From the roundabout in front of the Secretariat, the seafront promenade runs alongside the Kingsbury (formerly the Ceylon Continental) hotel leading to the city’s lighthouse . Built in 1951, it overlooks the Governor’s Bath , a seawater swimming pool. Beyond that is the quirky Sambodhi Chaitiya , a towering Buddhist stupa-on-stilts dating from 1956.
Tuk-tuks ply Colombo’s streets
King’s Prison Cell
Return to the roundabout opposite the Secretariat and walk up to the security gates blocking the road to the President’s House, where you can see the city’s old lighthouse clocktower a short distance ahead. This is as far as you can walk, but look beyond the railings to see a small domed cell 2 [map] with a red-tiled roof, where Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe, the last king of Kandy (from 1798 to 1815), was imprisoned. Turn east and walk along the road that leads past the Bank of Ceylon headquarters.
Next to it, the glass-walled twin towers of the World Trade Centre 3 [map] , Colombo’s tallest and most prestigious building, loom over a colonial building opposite, the former Dutch Hospital , recently restored and reopened, and now home to an excellent little cluster of cafes, restaurants and shops. Behind it is the Colombo City Hotel , where you’ll find the Panorama Rooftop Restaurant , see 1 [map] .
After passing the World Trade Centre, turn north into York Street. Looking west down Chatham Street you can see the lighthouse clocktower 4 [map] , originally built as a lighthouse in 1857, with clock faces added to each of its four sides in 1914. Beyond it (but completely obscured by trees, buildings and security barriers) is the President’s House 5 [map] , built by the last Dutch governor in the 18th century and known variously as King’s or Queen’s House by the British, whose governor resided in it.
A few steps further along on the left is Laksala (60 York Street; www.laksala.gov.lk ; daily 9am-9pm), a government-run handicraft emporium. Continuing northwards along York Street, glance up to see the puce stone walls decorated with plaster horns of plenty that herald Cargills 6 [map] (40 York Street; www.cargillsceylon.com ; Mon-Fri 8.15am-5.15pm), Colombo’s oldest department store, established in 1844.
Another of Fort’s graceful old colonial buildings, the Grand Oriental Hotel 7 [map] , sits at the end of York Street right next to the port. Originally built as an army barracks in 1837, the Grand Oriental was subsequently turned into a hotel in 1875, luring in guests newly arrived by boat at the adjacent port. Next to the hotel in Church Street, behind a police barricade, is the Church of St Peter 8 [map] , originally the reception and banquet hall of the Dutch governor’s residence.
Cargills and the World Trade Centre
Walk eastwards in the shade of dilapidated colonial buildings along Leyden Bastion Road opposite the port’s walls, and cross the small canal linking the harbour with the Beira Lake , passing the Khan Clock Tower 9 [map] , erected in 1923.
Beyond Khan Clock Tower you enter Pettah , Colombo’s helter-skelter bazaar area, usually thronged with dense crowds of shoppers, hawkers and porters jostling amidst the crowded streets. The name comes from the Tamil word pettai (old town). This was once a prime residential area but degenerated into ‘the native quarter’ as the British colonists moved out to build homes in the suburbs. Each of the side roads (called Cross Streets) leading south off Main Street specialises in a different type of goods - electronics, fabrics, spices and so on - with colourful shops stuffed full of every conceivable type of merchandise, ranging from cut-price mobile phones to cheap saris.
At the far end of Main Street is Kayman’s Gate ) [map] , although all that remains of the original gateway is a belfry, dating from the Dutch period. The word ‘Kayman’ comes from the Dutch cayman (crocodile) - crocodiles once gathered there to eat leftovers thrown out from Fort.
At Kayman’s Gate, turn right to Bodhiraja Mawatha to see the Old Town Hall ! [map] . Built in 1873, it is adorned with minaret-like towers and retains the double portico that once gave access to horse-drawn carriages. Adjoining it is the open-sided Colombo Municipal Council Museum @ [map] (Bodhiraja Mawatha; Mon-Sat 7.30am-6pm; free), where the exhibits include early 20th-century steamrollers and the granite slab commemorating the bequeathing of Galle Face promenade to Colombo.
Crowded Pettah streets
Dutch Period Museum
Now dive south down 5th Cross Street then turn west into Prince Street, crowded with shops selling glass and mirrors. The old post office here was restored in 1980 as the Dutch Period Museum £ [map] (Sat-Thur 9am-5pm; charge), filled with colonial furniture and household items.
Leaving the museum, turn south down 1st Cross Street to emerge in the frenzy of Olcott Mawatha in front of Fort railway station , the country’s main rail terminal. The road is named after an American Buddhist missionary Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907), whose statue stands in front of the station.
Continue west and cross Lotus Road, returning to Fort for lunch. Options include the Hilton hotel’s Spices restaurant, see 2 [map] , for a huge buffet spread, or one of the various eateries in the attractively restored Dutch Hospital. Alternatively, more inexpensive snacks can be had at Barista coffee shop , see 3 [map] , in the World Trade Centre, reached by an escalator from the northern corner of the Hilton’s forecourt. Be prepared for another security check - you are back in the city’s High Security Zone.
Food and drink
1 PANORAMA ROOFTOP RESTAURANT
Colombo City Hotel, Level 3, 33 Canal Row [map] ; tel: 011-534 1962; daily noon-3pm, 6-11.30pm; $$
Bird’s-eye views over the streets of Fort are the main draw at this rooftop restaurant, while food includes good-value buffets and à la carte dishes including curries and grilled seafood and chicken.
Lobby level, Colombo Hilton, 2 Sir Chittampalam A. Gardiner Mawatha [map] ; tel: 011-249 2492; daily 6am-midnight; $$$
Very popular for either a quick lunch, with an extensive range of a la carte Sri Lankan, Indian, Chinese and Western dishes, or a more leisurely dinner, featuring a variety of themed buffets.
Level 3, World Trade Centre (WTC), Echelon Square [map] ; tel: 011-233 2163; Mon-Fri 8am-6pm; $
Branch of the popular citywide chain, serving up some of the city’s best coffee along with assorted snacks. Gets busy with local office workers at lunch.