Most holidayers to Sri Lanka barely spend a few hours in the capital before heading off to either the hills—Kandy and Nuwara Eliya—or the beaches in the south of the island—the likes of Bentota and Galle. Yet Colombo is in itself a worthy destination. With the end of the civil war in 2009, checkpoints are down to zero and the city of 5.8 million has its fair share of sights and sounds. Unlike in India, local travel is hassle-free and inexpensive. Everything, from buses to autos (called tuk tuks), is tourist-friendly. Still, even if you want to pack in a lot in a limited time, it’s best to put on a pair of walking shoes, grab a bottle of water and explore the city on foot.
In the AM
Start the day with a local breakfast of string hoppers: These are rice flour noodles served as discs and eaten with hand. Add a curry—it could be yellow dal and the coconut-based pol sambol—and you’ve got yourself a local start to the day. Top it off with steaming chai. Many restaurants near Colombo Fort Station or near the southern part of Galle Face Road will serve this. Or, to save time, request your hotel to rustle it up. Take a quick stroll around Pettah Market on your way to the next stop. (If you decide on the hills or the beach, train tickets can be bought in advance at Colombo Fort station.)
Head to the National Museum, Sri Lanka’s largest. Established in 1877 by Sir William Henry Gregory, an Irish writer-politician, it houses an extensive collection of Sri Lankan (mainly Sinhala) art and artefacts dating back a millennium. While the display leaves much to be desired, history buffs can get a taste of the country’s regalia as well as the throne and crown of the Kandyan monarchs who ruled the country from 1473 to 1815. The museum lawn is home to probably the largest peepul tree in South Asia spanning around 50 metres. Set an alarm to leave the museum in time for lunch.
The bylanes of Colombo are clean and well-kept, and the row houses deserve a second glance. Plan your afternoon here. The kirana shops there are similar to those in India. The best experience of the city awaits you in Colombo’s commuter trains that run along the waterfront. Nothing separates the track and the vastness of the Arabian Sea. As the train curves in behind Galle Face Road, one gets a clear view inside Galle Face Hotel— one of the oldest in Colombo comparable with the Taj of Apollo Bunder in Mumbai—with its wide pool and palatial rooms. Down the road is the more modern Taj Samudra. While some trains transport you back to the 1960s with their bright red coaches and no lights, there are modern Chinese-built metro coaches as well. Both run on the same track. I suggest you catch the train at Bambalapitiya station and ride it along the water to the Slave Island Railway station. It’s worth it.
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(This story appears in the July-Aug 2016 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)