I enjoyed Colombo much more than I thought I would. I’d read many reviews that describe Sri Lanka’s capital city as not worth a visit, and plagued by traffic congestion, noise and pollution. Sure it has some of these issues, but not worth a visit—no way. We spent a couple of days there at the start of our trip and it turned out to be a fascinating introduction to the country. What I like most about Colombo is its vibrant and diverse public spaces. The city buzzes with energy, and nowhere is this better displayed than in Pettah’s market streets and at Galle Face Green—my two favourite experiences in Colombo (and among my top memories of our entire trip).
Just 24-hours into our Sri Lanka trip I had come dangerously close to being squashed by a cart loaded sky high with garlic, pinned to a wall by a psychedelically-painted produce truck and run over by Formula One-inspired tuk tuk drivers. I was having the time of my life in Pettah’s narrow shopping streets and can thank Mike for yanking me to safety on more than one occasion. I get very excited in bustling (most would say chaotic) markets. Pettah Market is the antithesis of anything we have in Vancouver and that’s probably why I like it so much.
Pettah covers several blocks adjacent to the Fort area. There’s no real entrance (that we found) but it’s easy to know that you have “arrived”. The little streets are lined with shops and stalls; a dizzying assortment of promotional signs hang above the street-level craziness, and throngs of vendors, shoppers, vehicles and carts clog the constrained spaces. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. One resident we spoke to calls it organized chaos.
There are no official opening hours and commerce appears to run from early morning well into the evening. After a brief visit in the late afternoon (a very busy time) I managed to convince Mike to return again the next morning when the crowds were just slightly more tolerable. He did pretty well for someone who doesn’t quite share my passion for markets.
I had read that different streets have their own shopping specialties—jewellery, hardware, fake flowers, Ayurvedic medicines, produce…The plan had been to search out specific streets, but in the frenzy our plan was revised to aimless (and in my case, careless) sauntering. We especially enjoyed the huge produce market with many fruits and veggies that were new to us.
I was really surprised that in such a fast-paced, busy environment we were greeted with plenty of smiles, questions and selfie requests. It was our first taste of the famous Sri Lankan friendliness.
Another great surprise is the profusion of religious buildings scattered through the Pettah district that represent Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian faiths. This area is apparently the most ethnically mixed place in the country. Not to be missed is the stunning Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque, which is a real eye popper with its red and white stripes.
Galle Face Green
We arrived at Galle Face Green, Colombo’s oceanside promenade, at high noon. Our guide book waxed on about this vibrant gathering place but there wasn’t a soul in sight. Crazy Canadians out in the midday sun (a perfectly normal thing to do in sun-starved Vancouver). We were set straight by a waiter at a nearby restaurant who told us to return just before sunset.
What a transformation just a few hours later! The promenade was busy with strolling families, school children and their teachers were splashing in the waves, young boys were flying kites on the sun-scorched “green” and snack vendors were doing a booming business.
It’s a joyous place in late afternoon when the heat has subsided (a bit) and residents come out to play and socialize. Like at Pettah, we were struck by the diversity of people. Women in hijabs, saris and skinny jeans stood side by side keeping watchful eyes on their children.
People-watching and photography at Galle Face Green are fun activities. We spent a long time on the pier that provides sweeping views of the promenade and beach goings-on. It’s also a great place to be somewhat unobtrusive when taking photos.
We couldn’t resist a touristy end to a marvellous day with sunset cocktails at the Galle Face Hotel, an iconic heritage hotel originally built by British entrepreneurs in 1864.
Where we stayed in Colombo
While we usually like to stay in small, independent guesthouses we thought that a large, modern hotel with amenities might serve us well in a big, hot city after our long journey from Canada. The Cinnamon Red, part of the Sri Lankan-based Cinnamon Hotel Group, was just what we needed—a lovely, ultra-quiet room with good air con and a comfy King-size bed. The roof-top pool was a huge bonus and might have been the reason I managed to get Mike to Pettah Market a second time! The Cinnamon Red is centrally located and in easy walking distance to beautiful Gangaramaya Temple (another must-see) and the picturesque Seema Malakaya Meditation Centre on South Beira Lake.
Next posts: The beach walking paradise of Tangalla and charming UNESCO site, Galle