Colombo is the largest city in Sri Lanka and its capital. It has been an important trading port going back 2,000 years, linking the mighty commercial powers of the Mediterranean with the Far East, and its Portuguese, Dutch, and British colonial past is evident in the city’s design and architecture. It was made the capital of British Ceylon in 1815, and remained the British colonial seat until Sri Lanka’s independence was declared in 1948. Standing guard over Colombo’s harbour, and the spiritual heart of the city is The Fort. Originally the Portuguese trading post and expanded by the Dutch, nothing now remains of the fortifications, but it remains a delightful area to explore, with the prominent landmark of the Lighthouse Clock Tower dating from 1857, and the twin towers of its own World Trade Centre. Below the Fort, the delightful palm-tree-lined seaside promenade of Galle Face Green stretches for a mile south along the Indian Ocean. Covering 13 acres, it is Colombo’s most popular recreation area, especially at sunset and on weekends, with food vendors, kite flying, street performers, and seemingly everyone out for a stroll. At the southern end of the Green is the attractive colonial-styled Galle Face Hotel, dating from 1864, where a drink and/or a meal on the terrace overlooking the sea is an essential part of the Colombo experience. Certainly the most affluent and cosmopolitan city in Sri Lanka, Colombo has a good variety of luxury hotels, restaurants, and shopping; there are posh casinos that have resisted various attempts to close them down, and you can even find live jazz. The Pettah, east of the Fort, is an exuberant, colourful, and chaotic bazaar and shopping area where you can find nearly anything for sale, although you will be expected to bargain hard for it. There are a number of shops offering excellent quality souvenirs and local handicrafts: Barefoot is an internationally-known brand, and Lakpahana is a non-profit craftsmen’s cooperative well worth patronizing.
The favoured method of transport around Colombo is the tuk-tuk, a three-wheeled motorized rickshaw that will take you on an exciting ride through the traffic, but be sure to grab one equipped with a meter. Tour buses and organized walking tours take in the city’s many sightseeing attractions. The National Museum has exhibits of the crown jewels and regalia of the last kings of Kandy, and a 9th century stone Buddha will greet you at the door. Viharamahadevi Park (formerly Victoria Park) is the oldest and largest park in Colombo, and also has a large Buddha statue. Gangaramaya Temple, with its library and a fine museum, also puts on the annual Nawam Maha Perahera in February, a festival/procession with a colossal display of colourful culture and elephants. The Art Gallery is next to the Natural History Museum, and the Zoological Gardens stage a daily elephant show. The heart of cricket-mad Sri Lanka is the Colombo Cricket Ground in Cinnamon Gardens. Excursions from the city can take you to Mount Lavinia Beach, 20 minutes from the centre, for great nightlife and wonderful seaside eateries, and the Viceroy Special – a classy 19th century small-bore steam locomotive railway, complete with an observation carriage and a bar/restaurant car, can take you down the coast as far as Galle, or inland to the highlands of Kandy, with a very enjoyable stop en route at the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage.