A long weekend in… Colombo

Postwar exuberance and government funding are reviving the Sri Lankan capital. From a tea-tasting odyssey to zigzagging between galleries, Cynthia Rosenfeld taps into the buzz

Beira Lake
Beira Lake | Image: Getty Images

Welcome to Colombo, post-conflict. After three-plus years of definitive peace, Sri Lanka’s capital vibrates with enthusiasm – and investment. An oxymoron no more, Colombo Fashion Week now attracts international editors, while its winning talents have gone on to show in the City of Lights. Art openings no longer require arrival via metal detector, but instead lure cognoscenti collectors from London and Hong Kong. Luxury hotel brands such as Shangri-La and Hyatt are planting their flags, while some of the subcontinent’s buzziest restaurateurs, including Olive Bar & Kitchen’s AD Singh, have been spotted scouring the ever-pricier real estate around this equatorial city.

Gallery Café
Gallery Café | Image: Alamy

Ancient Egyptian texts may suggest early trade with the exotic teardrop-shaped island off the southern tip of India, long known as Ceylon, and Ptolemy may have included it in his second-century AD book Geographia, but discuss history today, and one foreign name comes up before all others: Lee Kuan Yew. Sri Lankans fondly remember the future leader of Singapore’s 1956 visit and his expressed desire to model that nascent nation, which had gained independence from Britain in 1948, on Sri Lanka’s successful mix of Hindu Tamils, Sinhalese Buddhists and Muslim Moors.

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“Alas, it did not work out,” wrote Lee in 2000, referencing the downward spiral sparked by President Solomon Bandaranaike’s decisions to make Sinhalese the national language and Buddhism its official religion. Tensions mounted with the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), exploding into a civil war that formally began on 23 July 1983. Twenty-six dark years ensued, but tourism never entirely dried up (though Colombo rarely served as more than a pit stop for international flights en route to elsewhere).

Park Street Hotel
Park Street Hotel | Image: Asia Leisure

Since his definitive victory in January 2010, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been cleaning up the island and securing foreign funding, not least among it the $213m International Bank for Reconstruction and Development loan to metropolitan Colombo. His new airport expressway will cut travel time from an hour to just 20 minutes. Military checkpoints have come down in the business district, and a landscaped boardwalk around Beira Lake once again offers a pleasurable stroll.

 The Zaal at the Amangalla, in Galle
The Zaal at the Amangalla, in Galle

A genuine postwar exuberance is in the air, luring internationally educated Sinhalese and Tamil Sri Lankans alike back to their capital. Most settle here, and many have brought with them design talent and a knack for intimate, stylish hospitality. This shift began in 2006, before peace was officially declared, with Colombo’s first proper boutique property, Park Street Hotel, a 250-year-old bungalow built near Beira Lake. Portraits of the original owner’s Muslim, Catholic and Jewish descendants attest to this prewar melting pot, while updates include an enticing swimming pool and 12 sprawling accommodations. Directions from the solicitous staff will get you around the corner for a visit to Gangaramaya Temple and its resident elephant. Fans of modernism, though, may prefer the new, sleeker Colombo Courtyard, with its polished concrete interior inspired by native son Geoffrey Bawa, whom many consider the “father of tropical architecture”. Rooms with the large bathtubs are the ones to book here.

The Dewatagaha mosque in Colombo
The Dewatagaha mosque in Colombo | Image: © Reinhard Schmid/4Corners Images

Another prewar relic, the 10-room Tintagel Colombo, was built during British rule and subsequently inhabited by three successive prime ministers of the Bandaranaike family. Its new owner Shanth Fernando, the local bon vivant and lifestyle polymath often referred to as the “Conran of Colombo” for his successful Paradise Road homeware emporium, filled the pillared Cinnamon Gardens mansion with Ming cabinets, Flemish chandeliers and his personal collection of black-and-white portraits by Sri Lankan photographer Lionel Wendt. It’s not unusual to find Shanth – he’s known by only one name – directing gardeners while greeting guests as if they are in his own home.

Ministry of Crab
Ministry of Crab | Image: Courtesy of Ministry of Crab

“I don’t delegate,” Shanth says when we meet, his eyes darting among waiters at Gallery Café, the 15-year-old, hugely popular alfresco eatery he owns in Bawa’s former architectural offices, which is as well known for its people-watching as for its chargrilled black-pork dry curry. Colombo’s current star culinary attraction, however, is Japanese-Sri Lankan chef Dharshan Munidasa. When the city’s nearly 350-year-old Dutch Hospital relaunched as a dining and shopping compound in 2011, the local television star opened Ministry of Crab with cricket legends Mahela Jayawardena and Kumar Sangakkara to serve the country’s legendary export-quality crabs – rather unbelievably, as the first restaurant in Sri Lanka to do so as the main affair.

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Sri Lankan tea, meanwhile, has been an on-and-off island mainstay since it was first grown by a British planter in 1867. A serious sip-and-spit, akin to fine‑wine tasting, can be arranged at the headquarters of Dilmah Tea. A private session with its founder, Merrill Fernando, introducing the complete range, from white to black, distinguishing connoisseur aspects such as highland-grown and single-estate harvests, convinced this author to swap caffeine allegiances entirely. Western dishes and a few Sri Lankan specialties are on offer, too. Elsewhere in town, promising tea upstarts are developing bespoke blends by mixing the unexpected in among the local tea-leaf varieties. At Euphorium Tea Salon, the half-Japanese, half-Sri Lankan owner serves a uniquely smooth black-tea-based Chloe blend, mixed with dried-flower petals, while the just-launched Teaeli does house (or hotel) calls to introduce its pleasantly addictive range, which includes Earl Grey concocted with real orange peel, bergamot and blood orange.

Sipping, eating and sleeping: check. But what to do in between? Tours, or simply strolls, through the once-derelict Colombo Fort have become possible again thanks to promising urban renewal in the hands of redeployed army and marine officers. The Portuguese first built a fort here in 1517, from which they controlled the Indian Ocean coastline until the Dutch captured Colombo in 1656. Their elite built grand homes and staffed the Dutch Hospital with European surgeons. Along the streets – named Bristol, Chathum and York by the British, who seized Colombo in 1796 – Sri Lankan photographer Mark Forbes turned his personal interest in this multicultural microcosm into Colombo City Walks. Forbes points out landmarks such as the De Mel building (made famous in Duran Duran’s Hungry Like the Wolf video) and architectural details including the pneumatic pipes used to transport mail inside the Cargills Building, built in 1906, while also sharing the local gossip that the candy‑apple-red food emporium may be turned into a Raffles hotel.

A good car and driver is the best way to zigzag among Colombo’s myriad shopping options. Hand-loom haven Barefoot has long been synonymous with Sri Lankan style for its technicolour textiles, exceptional book selections and homey charm. This is now augmented by a well-cut women’s fashion line of one-offs, called M Fact, and geometric silver jewellery by Shaestha de Costa. A mile south of here, at Melaché, viscose-jersey frocks reminiscent of early Donna Karan are finely finished with local textile touches by Dimuthu Sahabandu, while inside the cavernous Selyn, hippy-chic dresses by Deneth incorporate the floral cheetha fabric of local villages. Kids’ needs are considered just as stylishly by Dutch designer Irstel Jansen, whose Si! Si! collection can be viewed by appointment inside Colombo’s art-deco expat enclave known as Galle Face Court Two.

Sri Lankan art is catching up with the better-known market on the subcontinent, so now is a good time to buy, and the gallery of Saskia Fernando (daughter of Shanth) is a great place to start. The new space, fringed outside by elephant-ear palm fronds, incubates budding indigenous talents such as painters Yohan Medhanka and Nadia Haji Omar and sculptor Prageeth Manohansa. The other art stop worth making is Hempel Galleries, where London transplant and Colombo Biennale co-founder Annoushka Hempel (stepdaughter-in-law to the Blakes-hotels doyenne) exhibits art entwined with social commentary by Anoli Perera and 2010 Sovereign Asia Art Prize-winner Pala Pothupitiye, whose intricately redrawn Sri Lankan maps speak of enduring postwar displacement among ethnic Tamils.

As the sun sets, consider braving the Alice in Wonderland lobby of The Kingsbury hotel, where lifts whisk you up to the Sky Lounge. IThis rooftop bar – Colombo’s most promising nightlife scene – has an impressive cocktail list. The view takes in the kites sailing above Galle Face Green and the vast Indian Ocean, stretching from here to the coast of East Africa. As night falls and the buzz level grows, the sky becomes illuminated by construction sites, where crews are working through the night to bring Colombo ever closer to the future.

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