Sri Lanka’s west coast is the island’s front door. This is Sri Lanka at its most developed and populous: the busiest, brashest and most Westernized region in the country, home to the capital city and the principal coastal resorts, which have now all but fused into an unbroken ribbon of concrete which meanders along the seaboard for over a hundred kilometres.
Founded by Arab traders in the eighth century a.d.—although known to them and to the Chinese and Romans 1,000 years earlier—it became a Portuguese trading post when they arrived here from Cochin in November 1505. The Sinhalese capital was moved from Kotte to Colombo in 1551.
Under Dutch control in the 17th century, it passed to Great Britain in 1796. An Allied naval base in World War II, it became capital of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, in 1948. In June 1951 an economic development organization, the Colombo Plan, was established at an international conference here. Of historic interest is the Portuguese fort and a large district of old streets.
Situated about two-thirds of the way down the west coast, Sri Lanka’s sprawling capital, Colombo, is usually low on visitors’ list of priorities, although beneath the unprepossessing surface lies an intriguing and characterful city which offers a fascinating microcosm of contemporary Sri Lanka. North of Colombo is the busy resort of Negombo, whose proximity to the airport makes it a popular first or last stop on many itineraries, while further up the coast is the idyllic Kalpitiya peninsula, with deserted beaches and superb dolphin-watching, and – a short drive inland – the vast Wilpattu National Park, now slowly regaining its former glory after decades of upheaval during the civil war.
South of the capital lie the island’s main beach resorts. The principal areas – Kalutara, Beruwala and Bentota – are home to endless oversize hotels catering to vacationing Europeans on two-week packages. Pockets of serenity remain, even so, along with some characterful hotels and guesthouses, while further south lies Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka’s original hippy hangout, now rather past its best, though it does retain a certain down-at-heel charm and (by sleepy Sri Lankan standards at any rate) a refreshingly upbeat atmosphere thanks to the backpackers who still flock here for cheap sun, sand and surf.
Sri Lanka’s capital and largest city, Colombo, is at first glance a confusing jumble of bustling streets, modern office blocks, peeling colonial buildings, and downcast apartments. But get past the traffic fumes and you’ll find plenty to see and do.
There are fine restaurants, a buzzing nightlife scene, and good museums, parks, and beautiful Buddhist temples that are all worth visiting. The beach resort of Mt. Lavinia is only a short taxi ride from the downtown area and offers a golden, sandy beach and sunset views to die for. As an exciting blur of colours and cultures, Colombo presents a neatly packaged microcosm of this island nation.
Although reclaiming its 19th-century moniker ‘the garden city of the East’ is unlikely, Colombo is rapidly emerging as a must-see stop in Sri Lanka. No longer just the sprawling city you have to endure on your way to the southern beaches, it has become a worthy destination in its own right.
The legacies of colonial Colombo’s garden roots are still very much intact along its often shady boulevards. Fort is in the midst of widespread historic restoration of its landmark colonial architecture, while Pettah brims with markets and rampant commerce.
Even traffic-clogged Galle Rd is getting spiffier with glossy new hotel complexes, while the seafront benefits from new roads that are spurring hotel construction. Colombo’s cosmopolitan side supports ever-more stylish eateries, galleries and museums. Surprises abound in its old quarters where you can find great local food and discover a characterful shop or tiny, convivial cafe. The capital is an excellent start – or finish – to your Sri Lankan adventures.