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Set back from Kynsey Road – Colombo’s answer to Harley Street – Maniumpathy passed through five generations of the Hallock family as part of a dowry before recently being transformed into a charming boutique hotel. Centred around a shady courtyard, it has retained all the allure of a grand colonial residence; from elegant fretwork to beautifully restored antiques, everything here evokes a rich and storied history.
What’s more, it’s a place where tranquility abounds. Take a dip in the sleek pool, sink into a Chesterfield with a book or tinkle the ivories of their stand-up piano. When you’re at Maniumpathy, the hustle and bustle of Colombo fades away, as if the hotel has a button to put the noise of the city on mute. Meals are served at a terrace restaurant, where the Jaffna-inspired curries are some of Colombo’s best and egg hoppers are not to be missed.
Just the other side of Viharamahadevi Park, Residence by Uga is equally restful. A converted 19th-century mansion once home to Sri Lanka’s first president, it enjoys an enviable location a stone’s throw from the hip bars and restaurants of Park Street Mews, and just a few hundred metres walk to Gangaramaya Vihara – Colombo’s most distinguished Buddhist Temple. The hotel itself has plenty of charm: the lobby is housed in a huge terracotta-roofed pavilion overlooking the 15m pool, with inviting wicker chairs dotted around its portico.
Rooms – once the property’s stables – are long and spacious, with heavy shuttered doors leading to little private courtyards, perfect for shutting out the world and sleeping off jet-lag. There’s a little gym upstairs, something noticeably absent from many of Sri Lanka’s smaller hotels. At their restaurant, rare, they have perhaps Colombo’s best fine-dining offering. Dinners here are formal affairs where international dishes are spiced up with a Sri Lankan twist. The wide range of homemade ice creams are a real highlight – try the seeni sambol and sprats flavour, an imaginative adaptation of a classic local pairing.
Should you want to step straight off the plane into full-on relaxation mode, or spend a day or two winding down before you have to face your flight home, The Wallawwa is the place to do so. Set amid beautifully maintained, 200-year-old tropical gardens, it has a far-flung, rural feel. It beggars belief that central Colombo is just a 40-minute drive and Bandaranaike International Airport practically on your doorstep – just 15 minutes by car.
The Wallawwa – which means manor house in Sinhala – truly feels like home away from home. Staff might invite you to join a game of cricket or wander around the hotel’s organic farm, where there’s everything from pineapples and passion fruits to tomatoes and micro herbs (the basil we tried was sensationally fresh).
There’s a wonderful sleepiness about the place: the little library full of books and board games tucked behind the verandah; the pool, hidden away in the garden and shrouded by jungle trees; indulgent afternoon tea on the lawn. Interiors seamlessly fuse colonial Sri Lanka with a modern, understated elegance: rooms, brought to life with dashes of vibrant colour, have high, wood-beamed ceilings and polished stone floors. The Wallawwa is soothing and serene, and some time spent here is a great way to start or end your trip.
Set on the narrow stretch separating Galle Face Green from the sea, you’ll find this little collection of pavilion tents. They’ve been serving up street food al fresco since 1987 – order kottu (roti, chopped and fried with onions, chilli and spices) with spicy chicken gravy and barbecued seafood, then sit and watch the world go by. Galle Face is one of Colombo’s most popular meeting spots; you’ll see children flying kites and couples strolling along the seafront, and you can’t beat the sound of waves crashing into shore.
Ministry of Crab
If you fancy something a little more upmarket, dash up the road to the Dutch Hospital – Colombo’s oldest standing building – and get your hands dirty at this venture from Sri Lanka’s best-loved cricketing duo. Fresh two kilogram crabs are the order of the day here and come rolled in pepper or chilli or slathered in butter – booking essential, get cracking.
The Barefoot Garden Café
This charming courtyard café is a favourite for lazy lunches. Their black-pork curry is everything you want it to be, perfectly washed down with a tall glass of homemade ginger beer. It’s always lively come Sunday, when a jazz band play all afternoon.
The Gallery Cafe
Set in a building that was once the office of Geoffrey Bawa – Sri Lanka’s most celebrated architect – this peaceful little spot serves refined local cuisine alongside internationally inspired dishes. So whether you want Sri Lankan fish head soup or sweet pumpkin ravioli, they’ve got you covered. They also offer 30 desserts (most of them chocolatey), seductively punchy cocktails and monthly exhibitions from local artists.
One of the oldest hotels east of the Suez, and formerly a haunt of Noel Coward, Lord Mountbatten and Roger Moore, this is a place where history comes to life. Wandering into the terrace bar feels like stepping back in time. It’s perfect for evening cocktails; there are great views at sunset, when in a time-honoured tradition, bagpipes are played and a flag raised to full mast.
This chic rooftop bar overlooking the Colombo Cricket Club is a lovely spot for a late-night tipple. Leave your thoughts of rum and whisky at home and get to know arrack. Sri Lanka’s local spirit – distilled from the sap of coconut flowers – mixes well with everything: it’s refreshing with ginger beer or thambili (king coconut) but we recommend trying it with lime juice, soda and a sprinkling of brown sugar.
In front of the Barefoot Garden Café is one of Colombo’s best boutiques, selling crafts fabrics and everything in between. It’s just the place to pick up presents or a couple of books to take on your travels. Try Carl Mueller’s The Jam Fruit Tree or Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai – Sri Lankan literature is both rich and absorbing, and often doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.
Opposite the recently restored Colombo Racecourse, Lakpahana is another treasure trove for the stylish souvenir hunter, where you can pick up painted elephants, batik sarongs or a Sri Lankan devil mask (particularly recommended if your house is in need of an exorcism). It’s also home to the Good Market shop, the place to get your hands on natural soaps and Ayurvedic products, jars of organic jam and chutney, or fruit fresh from farmers in Nuwara Eliya.
Those who get a buzz from the hustle and bustle of local life should not miss Pettah. In this myriad of market streets you can find everything from fruit and veg to fabrics and electronics. It’s loud, busy and vibrant – if you need a break from the chaos, seek out the Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque, one of Colombo’s most striking buildings.
Take a train across town…
Train travel is one of Sri Lanka’s great joys, but with heavy bags and the need to book tickets in advance, a long-distance journey might not be for everyone. If you fall into this camp, consider taking a trip across Colombo. Head to Fort, the city’s main station, and hop aboard a train to Mount Lavinia. It’ll cost you the princely sum of 15 rupees. The rickety railway hugs the coastline for the length of the 20-minute journey; standing in the doorway with the wind in your hair is nothing short of exhilarating.
… and stop for a swim
Mount Lavinia is home to Colombo’s best beach, so while you’re there you might as well make the most of it. Head to Buba, a secluded spot tucked on the south side of the Mount Lavinia Hotel. Dive into the Laccadive Sea, and dry off in the sun with a cold Lion Lager and a plate of hot butter cuttlefish.
Get a feel for Colombo’s art scene
Any design lover should book an appointment to see Number 11, Bawa’s beautiful former home in the heart of Colombo, while those keen to get a feel for local art should look no further than the Saskia Fernando Gallery. It’s played a major role in driving the Sri Lankan creative scene forward, and there’s no better place to pick up paintings, sculptures or prints by the island’s best contemporary artists.
THE CULTURAL TRIANGLE
The best way to travel from Colombo to Kandy is by train; it takes an hour less than driving, comes with the benefit of beautiful scenery and offers a better chance to get a close-up look at everyday Sri Lankan life. Tickets – which go on sale a month in advance – are cheap but sell out fast, so you may want to ask an agency to book them for you. We’d opt for second over first class (you can fling the windows open wide and really feel at one with nature) but if your train has an observation car, this is the ticket you want. Climbing up into the misty hills is a magical experience, and the hawkers who jump on to sell fresh fruit and all varieties of snacks ensure you won’t get hungry or bored.
A 10km drive out of town through winding hills, The Kandy House is the ideal base to explore this historic city – formerly the heart of the Sinhalese kingdom. As soon as you arrive, you’ll feel as though you’ve fallen into a forgotten realm. The property was built in 1804 by the chief minister of the Kandyan Kingdom, who wanted a home to rival the royal residences. At once it evokes an old-world, eastern opulence, with its antique ebony furniture and arched colonnades. There are wide verandas with chaise longues and rocking chairs to sink into, and at the heart of the home lies an open-air courtyard, ensuring nature never feels far away.
You can spend all day lounging here; get lost in the lush six-acre gardens, luxuriate in an Ayurvedic massage with views of the rugged hills or wander down to the infinity pool for a dip. Fringed by banana trees and tall palms, and overlooking paddy fields, it’s a lovely haven. At dusk, the distant sound of monks chanting adds to the sense of calm, while the fairy-light strewn lawn is an enchanting spot for a pre-dinner cocktail. Twice a week they serve a delicious 10-curry feast; the rest of the time dinner is a daily changing three-course menu based around whatever’s fresh from the local markets.
This quaint little café just a few steps from The Temple of the Sacred Tooth serves up great snacks, smoothies and juices from morning to night. The Kandy King salad – roast pumpkin, rocket, pomegranate, cashews and feta – is one to remember and recreate at home, followed by homemade Ceylon chai and jaggery ice cream or quadruple chocolate sundae.
If you’re after some seriously good South Indian cooking, look no further than Balaji Dosai. At this unassuming eateries you can fill up on flaky dosas and hearty vegetarian curries without putting too much of a dent in your wallet. You can’t go wrong with the masala dosa, stuffed with potatoes, leeks and spices. Try it with chana and daal curries – you won’t be disappointed.
If you want to really eat like a local, wander around and head into one of the roadside joints (often confusingly called hotels, despite not having any rooms). The Kandyan Muslim Hotel and The Kandy Garden Café are two of the more well known establishments but all of them serve the same kind of stuff – kottu, egg and string hoppers, rice and curry, short eats – so follow your nose and find your favourite.
The Temple of the Sacred Tooth
Sri Lanka’s most famous temple complex, nestled on the north side of Kandy Lake, is home to the country’s most revered Buddhist relic – a tooth belonging to Buddha himself. Visiting for the Evening Thevava ritual (6:30-8:00 pm) is spellbinding: the beating drums and worshipping crowds bring this special place to life. Also housed within the complex is the International Buddhist Museum, a must for anyone who wants to learn more about Eastern ways.
Take a Hike
The Kandy Lake is a peaceful place for a stroll, although nature lovers may prefer to head to Peradeniya for a visit to the Royal Botanical Gardens. Home to 4000 species of plants, a vast array of birds, plus families of monkeys and fruit bats, you can while away an afternoon walking. The giant Javan fig tree is haunting and monstrous, like nothing you’ve seen anywhere before. The Udawatta Kele Sanctuary is another must for lovers of flora and fauna, and an ideal spot for a morning hike, while the iconic Bahiravokanda Vihara Buddha statue – just outside of town – offers sweeping views across Kandy.
THE REST OF THE CULTURAL TRIANGLE
Ulagalla is the perfect springboard from which to explore the rest of the Cultural Triangle, ideally located to take in all the temples and ruins that make the region one of Sri Lanka’s must visits. Once you get to the hotel though, you may want to shut yourself off from the outside world. At this gorgeous rural property – set on 50 acres of farmland – there’s plenty to keep you happy for as long as you want to stay.
Try your hand at archery or gallop around on horseback; if you want to take things a little slower, pick organic vegetables and watch them transformed into an array of Sri Lankan specialties. The bikes you’ll find parked outside your villa are a fun way to work off any extra pounds you might have picked up on your trip. Ride around the property and neighboring countryside; those who really want to explore can take a two-hour cycle tour to a local village.
The 20 villas, spread sparsely across the resort, are secluded and spacious – like your own little jungle home. They’re largely solar powered and most come with private pools. If cycling seems like a chore, buggies are on hand to whisk you to the hotel’s central wallawwa. The balcony restaurant overlooks an enormous, inviting pool – and all the rice comes from the property’s own paddies.
Nelum Kole Bath Kade
If you’re spending the day in Anuradhapura, make the effort to find this little shack just outside of town. Our tuk-tuk driver insisted on us stopping there and we were eternally grateful. Fiery buffet-style curries come served on the traditional lotus leaf. Don’t miss the fried river fish and spicy daal. Only open for breakfast and lunch, this one’s the definition of a hidden gem.
Your best bet if you’re in Polonnaruwa is Priyamali Gedara, a superb family-run restaurant just 10 minutes drive from the ruins. Set in a thatch-roofed hut overlooking paddy fields, they offer a huge range of curries cooked the traditional way – cast-iron pots placed straight on to the fire. Plate after delicious plate comes out of the kitchen until you’re full to the point of bursting; it’s Sri Lankan home cooking done right.
This rock fortress – often called the eighth wonder of the world – is quite possibly Sri Lanka’s most evocative sight. King Kasyapa built his palace atop the rock in the fifth century: pass through his lion paw gateway and take in the glorious frescoes as you snake up the side of the structure. Once you reach the summit, the views are indescribable. Try to start your climb early and make it to the top for sunrise. If you want an Instagram-worthy shot of Sigiriya – or just really like climbing – you might also want to check out Pidurangala rock, a couple of kilometres away.
Lovers of archeology won’t want to skip Anuradhapura. In this ancient city, you’ll come across crumbling ruins, giant dagobas (Jetavanarama is the most impressive) and Sri Maha Bodhi, a sacred bo tree which has been guarded for 2000 years. Some prefer the ruins at Polonnaruwa, but we loved the fact that Anuradhapura remains a bustling pilgrimage site; the troupe of female monks chanting at the bodhi tree temple will make your day. Sites are spread out so hire bikes or a tuk-tuk to get around, and don’t miss the chance to take a trip to Mihintale, an storied mountain monastery 13km away.
Polonnaruwa, less than two hours drive from Ulagalla, replaced Anuradhapura as the island’s capital around 1070 AD. Naturally the ruins are newer, so it’s easier to get an idea of what the city actually looked like. The sites are closer together than Anuradhapura too, but it’s still big enough to justify hiring bikes. The Buddhas carved from granite at Gal Vihara are beautifully preserved, the dagobas are striking and the sacred quadrangle is bound to take your breath away. Oh and if you manage to whip round the ruins in the morning, you can spend the afternoon at Minneriya National Park. During the dry season (May to September), elephants flock from far and wide to make the most of the lake and the fresh green grass. If you’re lucky, you’ll see more than 200 converge – that’s the kind of crowd we can deal with.
These five cave temples, which sit atop a near 600-foot rock, have been a pilgrimage site for over two thousand years. The ascent can be tough but there are monkeys to keep you company, and when you reach the top the breathtaking murals and statues inside the caves – and sweeping vistas outside them – more than make up for the climb.
THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW
Most holy sites will ask you to remove your shoes and cover your knees and shoulders. Wearing trousers in the sweltering heat might not make for the best day out, so carry a sarong in your bag that you can fling on before entering the temples.
Sri Lanka’s attitude towards alcohol is a little ambiguous and the Cultural Triangle is the country’s Buddhist heartland – so you’re unlikely to find bars, or restaurants serving beer here. The best place to enjoy a drink or two will no doubt be back at your hotel.
Many tourists are sceptical of the guides who hang around at places of interest, and not entirely without reason. We’ve experienced some who were great, and others who saw us as an easy pay-day. If you want to go without, newly launched app LocoMole gives insightful guides to most of the places within the Cultural Triangle, and helps you to understand what you’re actually seeing.
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