BuddhaA large Buddha planted squarely in the path of arrivals to Bandaranaike International Airport welcomed us to Colombo, Sri Lanka last February. Incense burned in front of the image, and a sign warned us not to pose for pictures with backs to Buddha. As we would see, religion in Sri Lanka is an active affair, with images in homes and businesses redolent with the warm scent of incense and flowers. Our saintly encounter at the airport was an auspicious beginning to a six-week-long exploration of the island.

Before heading off to Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle, we spent a few days in Colombo acclimating to the tropics and Sri Lankan culture. Here’s a look at the things we enjoyed the most during our long ‘weekend in Colombo’.

1. A comfortable home base

Our room at The Kingsbury was a centrally-located oasis, perfect for getting over jetlag. As an added bonus, we had opportunities for a world-class look at the beachfront, from our room and from the rooftop Sky Lounge.

Kingsbury
Our suite at The Kingsbury was a ‘room with a (sea) view’. It was just right for catching up on our rest after a long flight, and as an escape from the relentless heat and humidity of the city.
Galle Face Green
The view toward Colombo’s famed Galle Face Green, from The Kingsbury’s Sky Lounge. Look quickly, as the beachfront will soon be lined with luxury hotels, dwarfing the government buildings and hotels dating from colonial times.

2. Sunset on Galle Face Green

Galle Face Green
The famous Galle Face Green sunset, everything it is cracked up to be!
Sky Lounge at The Kingsbury
The Sky Lounge at The Kingsbury is an atmospheric place to watch the sun go down, or enjoy a nightcap.

3. Colombo’s new-old vibe

Everywhere, especially in the capital and former war zones, Sri Lanka is under construction. New roads and bridges are being built to replace those lost to war and the 2004 tsunami. Five-star hotels are going up and colonial-era buildings are being renewed. We enjoyed the vibe of a city that is in the midst of great change–on its way to modern, with a good dose of small town Sri Lanka still evident.

Cargill's Department store
The original Cargill’s Department store, with its candy-cane striped arches.
Watchtower
The watchtower is located in the presidential complex in Colombo 1 just outside the entrance to The Kingsbury.
World Trade Center
Just blocks from the beachfront, skyscrapers house international businesses and national headquarters for various industries.
Fort Train Station
Bustling Fort Station is the jumping-off point for trains to destinations near and far, located between Beira Lake and the historic Pettah neighborhood.

4. Sri Lankan flavors

Our Sri Lanka food experiences started in Colombo. The breakfast buffet at The Kingsbury was copious, and offered an extensive selection of western and Sri Lankan specialties, from string hoppers with curry and coconut sambol, to fresh fruit and juices, and very good Sri Lankan tea and coffee. At Green Cabin, we enjoyed our first lamprais, a dish we would later learn to prepare. For a taste of the familiar, we had lunch in the restored Dutch Hospital complex. Our best meals came later, as we traveled about, but it is not hard to find superb dining in the capitol–for ideas, check out these recommendations from the culture trip.

Lobster on display at The Kingsbury's Ocean restaurant
Seafood is good all along the Sri Lankan coasts. These brightly colored lobsters were part of the buffet at The Kingsbury’s Ocean Restaurant.

5. A shopping preview

From shops and markets in the historic Pettah neighborhood to galleries scattered around the city, Colombo offers products from around the country, as well as the work of up-and-coming designers.

Sri Lanka’s garment manufacturing industry supplies branded high street fashion to clothing stores in-country and abroad. Prices beat those in Europe and North America, especially for last season’s fashions. Sri Lankan friends recommended several shops around town–Odel, House of Fashions, Cotton Collection and Mondy, to list just a few. We were just beginning our trip, and did not to try these out for ourselves. Maybe next time!

Barefoot
Barefoot offers handmade, natural products for home and body, from several locations in Colombo and Galle Fort. The shop is a wonderful place to pick up high-quality reminders of Sri Lanka: textiles, tableware, hand-crafted papers, clothing and much more.

6. Elephants on parade

In Sri Lanka, every full moon brings a holiday. And in Colombo, once a year, with the February full moon comes the Nawan Perahera. For visitors, it’s a marvelous opportunity to witness a two-day extravaganza of elephants on parade, and see dances from around the country performed in the streets of the city. Happily, our stop in Colombo coincided with the Perahera, which gave us a dose of elephant magic and Sri Lankan tribal culture at the outset of our journey across the country.

Baby elephants
These baby elephants were crowd-pleasers at the Nawan Perahera, held in Colombo at the time of the February full moon.

7. Day trip to Kelaniya

From Colombo, we made a day trip to Kelaniya Great Temple of Sanctity, an hour’s tuk-tuk ride outside the city center. It was an adventure to brave Colombo traffic in a three-wheeler and the temple itself was a wonderful introduction to Sri Lanka’s many temples.

Buddha
It does not take a trip out of town to find a Buddha in repose–this one at the Sri Sambuddhaloka Viharaya center in Colombo 1.

Visitors to Sri Lanka often bypass Colombo entirely, heading directly for the beaches that ring the island, or embarking on a whirlwind tour of the country’s historic sites and natural wonders. For us, a few days in Colombo, with its mix of the new and the familiar, was the ideal starter kit for our travels in a wonderful land.

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Thanks to The Kingsbury for hosting our stay in Colombo! As always, observations are our own.

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