Sri Lanka is in business again. for years, parts of the country have been no-go areas ravaged by the 2004 tsunami or by the island's protracted civil war. But with the defeat of Tamil separatists, and the financing of hundreds of post-tsunami reconstruction projects by foreign aid, the whole island is now accessible, safe and bustling with tourists. Colombo is the entry point for almost all of them and worth exploration. Here are five of its must-dos.
1 Visit the Gangaramaya Temple
If you visit only one temple, make it the 19th century Gangaramaya, gangaramaya.com. It's a thriving place of worship and full of arresting photo ops, from orange-robed monks to Buddha statues and the toothy resident elephant.
2 Eat Kottu Rotti
One of Colombo's favorite fast foods is kottu rotti finely chopped flatbread cooked on a hot skillet with vegetables, eggs and meats of your choice. The locals typically wolf down a plateful after a night's drinking: take one bite of its greasy blissfulness and you'll appreciate why. A great place to try kottu rotti is the Hotel de Pilawoos, tel: (94-11) 257 4795 a grungy 24-hour café much favored by the city's young and sleepless. The more salubrious Commons Coffee House, thecommonscolombo.com, does decent kottu rotti as well.
3 Kick Back in Negombo
Negombo's name may be a corruption of meegamuwa, Sinhalese for "village of honey." But it was cinnamon that first attracted the Portuguese and the Dutch, who set up a port here and left a ruined fort and ingenious canal system as part of their legacy. Today, its charm lies in its fishing-village-meets-beach-town vibe. Allot an entire day Negombo is an hour's drive north of Colombo and don't miss the Technicolor sunset.
4 Take In Some History
The National Museum of Colombo, museum.gov.lk, was established in 1877, when Sri Lanka was a British colony. Among its treasures are the imposing golden throne of the King of Kandy and various ancient Buddhist artifacts, including a priceless collection of rare palm-leaf manuscripts. Browse at will between 9 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. daily, public holidays excepted.
5 Pick Up Some Tea
Fancy some tea flavored with banana? What about tea with the taste of brandy? This is the home of the famed Ceylon tea, after all, so don't leave without stocking up. Try branches of Keells, a local supermarket chain that carries a very wide selection, or Odel, a fashion retailer that also has a great line in souvenirs, including a smart wooden gift box of assorted teas for just $21. There are five branches of Odel in town and, if you're pressed for time, there's also one at the airport. See odel.lk/odel-stores.