Lonely Planet Sri Lanka (Travel Guide) (2015)
Hire a taxi or a tuk-tuk for this enjoyable drive around Colombo’s modern suburbs, with eclectic sights that include the city’s most flamboyant Buddhist temple, its grandest park and a couple of modern monuments, rounded off with a visit to the excellent National Museum and some shopping on Galle Road.
DISTANCE: 25km (15.5 miles)
TIME: Half a day
START: Galle Face Hotel
END: Cinnamon Grand Hotel
POINTS TO NOTE: Hotel taxis have printed price lists, but the fare for a three-wheeler rickshaw (tuk-tuk) usually needs to be negotiated before setting off. Western tourists will often find tuk-tuk meters mysteriously not working, obliging them to bargain for a fare. To get an idea of what to pay, ask at your hotel first, and then bargain like crazy. Walk away if you can’t get the fare you want - you’ll have plenty more offers. Taxis and tuk-tuks will wait while you sightsee or shop. A tip of about five percent of the fare for a hotel taxi should be sufficient. There’s no need to tip a tuk-tuk driver unless they’ve been particularly helpful. Shops in Colombo open from 10am, so don’t start this route too early if you plan to shop. Supermarkets and department stores (but not all outlets in shopping malls) are open on Sundays too.
From Fort, Colombo stretches southwards down the west coast to the commercial suburbs of Kollupitiya and Bambalapitiya, and bulges eastwards inland to Slave Island, the area in which slaves were kept in Dutch times, the broad avenues of the upmarket Cinnamon Gardens residential area, and on to the parliamentary capital of Sri Jayawardenapura-Kotte.
A bridge over Beira Lake
GALLE FACE GREEN
Start at one of Colombo’s oldest and most traditional hotels, the Galle Face 1 [map] (established 1864) - worth a visit for breakfast on the patio of its Veranda Café , see 1 [map] - then drive south down Galle Road past the heavily fortified Temple Trees 2 [map] (the official residence of the prime minister) and then turn inland at the Kollupitiya junction heading down Dharmapala Mawatha.
At Gangaramaya Temple
At the next junction, turn north (left) into Sir James Peiris Mawatha to visit the quaint Seema Malakaya 3 [map] (daily 7.30am-11.30pm; free), designed by the great Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa (1919-2003). Used for religious ceremonies by monks from the nearby Gangaramaya Temple, this is one of the prettiest sights in central Colombo, with three linked pavilions set amidst the serene waters of Beira Lake, connected to the shore by a narrow wooden bridge.
The Gangaramaya Temple itself 4 [map] ( www.gangaramaya.com ; daily 7.30am-11.30pm; charge) lies a short drive east down Sri Jinarathana Road. This is one of the island’s most colourful temples, packed with an eclectic miscellany of shrines, statues and stupas, while the resident elephant can often be seen in the main courtyard. It also houses a bizarre museum (same hours and ticket as temple) of items presented by devotees, stuffed with an eclectic medley of items ranging from vintage motorcars to what is claimed to be the world’s smallest Buddha state, so tiny that a magnifying glass it provided to see it through. In February, the area takes on a festive air when the Navam Perahera, one of the city’s biggest festivals, fills the surrounding streets with a grand procession of colourfully caparisoned elephants.
Crowds outside the BMICH
Vihara Mahadevi Park and the Town Hall
Back on Dharmapala Mawatha, heading east, the green lawns and shady trees of Vihara Mahadevi Park 5 [map] are all that remain of what was once a vast plantation of cinnamon trees lying at the northern edge of the upmarket suburb still known as Cinnamon Gardens, dotted with stately old villas inhabited by the city’s elite, and numerous embassies. The park fronts the impressive Town Hall 6 [map] , resembling a miniature version of the Capitol building in Washington, DC - best admired from the balcony at Paradise Road Café , see 2 [map] , part of the Paradise Road store, an Aladdin’s cave of unusual souvenirs from tropical candles to faux-Victorian toys. By De Soysa Circus (formerly Lipton’s Circus), at the end of the road, is another store, Odel , selling designer clothes at cheaper prices than in Europe; Nihonbashi , see 3 [map] on the ground floor is ideal for a light lunch.
COLOMBO’S SOUTHERN SUBURBS
Drive south down C.W.W. Kannangara Mawatha, past the minarets of the eye-catching Devatagaha Mosque , then turn eastwards (right) into Horton Place. This sweeps through a residential area of fine houses and links up with Sri Jayewardenepura Mawatha.
Follow Sri Jayewardenepura Mawatha for 10km (6 miles) to reach the suburb of Sri Jayewardenepura -Kotte , built on the location of the old town of Kotte, site of the first Portuguese landing on the island in 1505. Due to a strange whim of former President Jayawardene, in 1984 Sri Jayewardenepura-Kotte was made the island’s official capital, meaning that it’s this suburb of Colombo, rather than Colombo itself, which is (technically at least) the seat of national power. It’s also home to the Geoffrey Bawa-designed Parliament 7 [map] . Casual visitors aren’t allowed inside, although you can get a good view of the building, constructed in traditional Kandyan style with tall pillars and sweeping roofs, and poised as if floating in the middle of the Diyawanna Lake.
Gangaramaya temple ceiling
Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications
On the southern side of the road as you return to the city is Colombo’s 18-hole golf course (Royal Colombo Golf Club, 223 Ven Pelpola Vipassi Himi Mawatha (formerly Model Farm Road); tel: 011-269 5431, www.rcgcsl.com ; day visitors welcome). Drive past Kanatta Cemetery and at the roundabout turn into Bauddhaloka Mawatha. About 1km (0.6 mile) down this road on the left is the octagonal BandaranaikeMemorial International Conference Hall 8 [map] (BMICH; Bauddhaloka Mawatha), a gift from the Chinese government to Sri Lanka in memory of assassinated prime minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike (1899-1959). Close to its entrance is a 1970s replica of the Aukana Buddha Statue - the original at Aukana, in the island’s interior, was carved out of sheer rock sometime around AD 400.
Next, turn right into the first road (Maitland Place) after the BMICH, then left into Independence Square to see the Kandyan-style Independence Commemoration Hall 9 [map] , built shortly after Sri Lanka gained independence from Britain in 1948.
Statuary in the National Museum
Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications
Head north up Independence Avenue, leading from the square then left along Albert Crescent to reach the impressive Colombo National Museum ) [map] (daily 9am-6pm; charge), housed in a grand colonial building of 1877. The museum’s extensive collection ranges from Buddhist statues and royal regalia to kitchen utensils and antique puppets.
Continue by driving south via Cambridge Place and Cumaratunga Munidasa Mawatha, past the playing fields and campus of Colombo University, to rejoin Bauddhaloka Mawatha.
The National Museum’s imposing exterior
SHOPPING IN BAMBALAPITIYA
Where this road joins the Galle Road, you can detour 50m/yds southwards to Bambalapitiya to visit the Majestic City shopping mall, good for fashions and electronics. Unity Plaza , the building next to it, has the well-stocked Vijitha Yapa Bookshop (daily 9.30am-6pm) and a host of computer stores. Best of all, however, is Barefoot (704 Galle Road; www.barefootceylon.com ; Mon-Sat 10am-7pm, Sun 11am-5pm), a short drive north along Galle Road. A city institution, Barefoot is famous for its colourful handloom fabrics, made into clothes, homeware, bags, stationery and cute toys, and also boasts the city’s most appealing garden café, the Barefoot Café , see 4 [map] , which hosts regular exhibitions in the attached gallery as well as regular jazz afternoons and other special events.
The final stop on this shopping odyssey is the Crescat Boulevard, part of the Cinnamon Grand Hotel complex. As well as stylish shops, Crescat has a basement food court , see 5 [map] .
Food and drink
1 VERANDA CAFÉ
Galle Face Hotel, 2 Galle Road [map] ; tel: 011-254 1010; www.gallefacehotel.com ; daily 7.30-9.30am, 12.30-2.30pm, 7.30-10.30pm; $$
A memorable slice of colonial-style Ceylon, overlooking the garden patio and giant chessboard of Colombo’s venerable seafront hotel, and offering a range of breakfasts, plus buffet and a la carte lunches and dinners and high-teas.
2 PARADISE ROAD CAFÉ
213 Dharmapala Mawatha [map] ; tel: 011-268 6043; www.paradiseroad.lk ; daily 10am-7pm; $$
Set on the tiny balcony of the Paradise Road emporium and serving good coffee and delicious cakes, along with a short menu of light meals and daily specials.
Odel, ground floor, Alexandra Place [map] ; tel: 011-471 8758; daily noon-8pm; $$
Sushi bar and small restaurant in the Odel department store, perfect for a light lunch and fine Japanese dishes during a break from shopping.
4 BAREFOOT CAFÉ
706 Galle Road [map] ; tel: 011-258 9305, www.barefootceylon.com ; Mon-Sat 10am-7pm, Sun 11am-4pm; $$
Recover from the almost inevitable shopping spree at Barefoot in the soothing courtyard café at the back, where you’ll find the best fruit juices in town plus a tempting selection of tasty light meals (including excellent daily specials), snacks, salads and cakes.
5 CRESCAT FOOD COURT
Crescat Boulevard, 89 Galle Road [map] ; tel: 011-256 4238; daily 10am-10pm; $
The lively food court in the basement of this smart shopping mall is crammed full of stalls selling everything from pizza and ice cream to Sri Lankan and Mongolian specialities. A fun place for lunch.