The usual mentality of people visiting Sri Lanka is to choose either the greenery and wildlife of the hill country and the north, or the relaxing vibe of the south, where all those beautiful beaches are. However, there’s no reason why a trip to Sri Lanka can’t take in the best bits of the whole country – particularly now that the previously war-torn north has become more accessible to tourists (although there is still a visible presence of the former situation in the region, such as checkpoints and so on). A well-planned trip to the country has the potential to include everything from a surf lesson in Weligama and a dive to an old shipwreck to a cooking course in Galle town and elephant feeding in Kandy.
Many travellers pass through this sprawling city and head down to the south without as much as a backward glance. Don’t make the same mistake – Colombo has plenty to offer visitors, from museums, galleries and tours to balloon rides,meditation centres, golf, shopping and restaurants.
Things to do:
Get your camera out and be prepared for a whole lot of sightseeing. Colombo has a seemingly endless list of temples, churches, mosques, bell towers, and period buildings to see; and yes, some of them really are worth a visit. The Sri Kailawasanathar Swami Devasthanam Kovil is said to be the oldest Hindu Temple in the country and is one of the most elaborately decorated buildings you’re likely to see, while the Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple is the most famous Buddhist site in the city. For culture vultures, the Colombo National Museum houses artefacts important to Sri Lanka’s history, while the National Art Gallery alongside the museum is a great place to check out the country’s best artists. Indoor exploring isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and luckily Colombo has an abundance of outdoor activities. The cycling tour of the city is a great way to get your bearings and see Colombo’s hotspots. Choose from a suburban cycling tour – taking in the Talangama Wetlands, semi-urban areas, and lake surrounding the Sri Lankan Parliament – or the urban tour, which includes the Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple, Manning Market station, and Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court.
If you’re keen to stay active, but want to try something a little more adventurous, there are white-water rafting trips in the area, or you can organise a hot air balloon trip over the city. When all the ballooning, biking, and general hubbub of the city gets to be a little bit much, relaxation is the order of the day. There are seemingly hundreds of day spas in Colombo, which offer everything from a quick foot rub to a full-on body polish. If you’re in need of an even longer break from the hustle and bustle, there are several yoga classes (or courses) to try.
Although Colombo doesn’t have quite the nightlife reputation of Bangkok or Hong Kong, like any big, bustling city there are still plenty of pubs, clubs and bars to be found. Curry Leaf restaurant is well known for serving fantastic Sri Lankan fare, and there is also plenty of street food on offer from stalls dotted around the city. Big spenders would be well-advised to head to the Fort district – which is also the financial centre of the city – where there are a string of upmarket cocktail bars, as well as fancy hotel dining. Alternatively, a little way down Galle Road, there are a number of drinking establishments and clubs (both classy and questionable) to choose from.
Galle & surrounding areas:
Although many people consider a visit to Sri Lanka incomplete without including beach time in Unawatuna or a stroll around Galle fort, the area is refreshingly free of crowds and largely unspoilt by tourism.
Things to do:
In such a beautiful area, it’s hard to muster up the energy to do anything bar taking pictures and kicking back with a cocktail. However, Galle and the areas nearby (including Unawatuna and Koggala) have a lot more to offer. A stroll around Galle Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a must. Much of the fort’s walls are now covered in grass, facing out into the sea, and there are more than a few photo opportunities here. In the town of Galle itself, cafés, cute shops and restaurants are dotted up and down picturesque streets, and locals are more than happy to point you in the direction of top-notch grub.
The little town is also a great place to book onto a Sri Lankan cooking course. Most lessons will encompass a market tour – where you can see exactly which spices and produce are going into the food you’ll prepare later – and are a great way to take some knowledge of the country’s delicious cuisine back home with you. Plus, you get to eat at the end of the evening. Winner. Just outside Galle, near Koggala, it’s possible to book onto a rainforest trek to learn more about the country’s ecosystem and spot exotic birds, monkeys aplenty and, unfortunately, the odd leech. Top tip: long sleeves and trousers are a must. In Koggala itself, the turtle hatchery (yes, it is as cute as it sounds) is a great place to see baby turtles, and, for a lucky few, release them back into the sea. If you’re fortunate enough to be in Sri Lanka between December and April, the area is a perfect base from which to book a whale watching trip. Tours take place about an hour’s drive from Koggala and start at around 6am (so get set for an early wake-up call). All that yawning is worth it though; you’re likely to spot sperm whales, blue whales and dolphins.
Head to one of the beachfront bars and restaurants in Unawatuna for some Sri Lankan food and beer (or try the locally brewed arrak, which is distilled from the sap of coconut flowers, if you’re feeling brave). You’re also likely to find the odd late-night bar or low-key club alongside one of these stretches of beach if retiring early doesn’t float your boat, but be warned – Ministry of Sound it ain’t. Think drunken dancing in flip flops to dubious music with a gaggle of other backpackers.
Treat yourself with an eco-luxury style stay on an oldtea plantation at Kahandakanda.com or try one of the many (cheaper) backpacker hostels in Unawatuna.