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Sri Lanka guide: How fully vaccinated travellers can explore Colombo in 24 hours

There is finally light at the end of the tunnel for travellers. Yes, Europe will have to wait, but our next-door neighbours, Sri Lanka, makes for a great option if you’re in the mood for a vacation soon. Sun, sea, sand, culture, great food with a side of style — Colombo, Sri Lanka, might just be the perfect option to slide your way into pre-pandemic life.

Now Indian travellers who are fully vaccinated are allowed to travel to Sri Lanka sans the mandatory 14-day quarantine. You will be tested once you arrive, and your second shot needs to be taken at least 14 days before you head to the country. 

So we decided to put together a fun and effortless 24-hour itinerary to Colombo, the capital city, to start your vacation with just the right amount of sass. With travel influencer and Sri Lanka expert Riaan George helping us with the introductions and leading us to the best places to visit with his Sri Lankan-based idea #LoveColombo. 

Where to stay

Mövenpick Hotel Colombo

Mövenpick Hotel Colombo is perhaps the best place to set the pace if you are looking for sweeping views of the sea with floor-to-ceiling windows that catch the morning light and set you up for a great sunset view in the evening. Ask for the suites! They have a bathtub in the room, and that means Insta-worthy selfies. Armed with a rooftop bar and an infinity pool, this is just the best place to park your #travelgoals in Colombo. The Accor hotel was Colombo’s first five-star hotel in 25 years, which means you get to try everything there. From the spectacular food to the beautiful sunsets.

Where to eat

The rooftop bar, Vistas, on the 24th floor of Mövenpick Hotel Colombo has two advantages: Live music and Sri Lankan cocktails like the signature achcharu cocktail (a mix of salt-infused raw mango), the Ambarella (pineapple, black pepper, and chilli flakes included), and the Pol Gal Pol Cocktail made from arrack.

The Robata Grill at the same hotel gave us the best flavours of Asia – every dish inspired from Japanese, Indonesian, and Chinese, Malaysian, Thai, Korean, and Singaporean fare. We spent an afternoon with TV Personality Danu Innasithamby who regaled us with tales from the land and his own amazing experiences with a side of teppanyaki-flamed Hokkaido scallops, crayfish clear soup, five-spice marinated roasted sliced duck, grilled prawns, garlic rice, stir-fried veggies, and more.

Ayu, the popular restaurant at Mövenpick, is the perfect place for a typical Sri Lankan breakfast. Ask for the spicy sambals (Sri Lankan chutneys). Pick the famous Pol sambal that contains coconut, spices, dried chillies and onions and pair it up with rice, string hoppers, egg hoppers and parottas to make it one big happy meal. And don’t forget to end the meal with the humble yoghurt with treacle.

Loved by digital nomads, Black Cat Café is all about an effortless menu of burgers and handy eats with interesting coffee options. One look at the buttermilk pancakes served with stewed apple and crispy kithul bacon, and you’re sold! Plus the café also serves up some great shopping finds curated for you. Stop by for delicious sandwiches, espresso-based coffees, healthy drinks and well, fresh breads. If you love his café a bit too much as we did, you can also opt to stay there. The first floor of the colonial house is perfect for those looking for a quiet Airbnb packed with vibrant art and happy streets. P.S. Pick up some Black Cat Merch, totes and tees if you want to hold onto the incredible memories you will create there.

We have three words for you: Garlic Chili Crab. Other amazing choices include Pepper Crab and the very popular Baked Crab. The Ministry of Crab is a hop, skip and jump away from where we stayed, and it’s not to be missed in Colombo because it is listed as one of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2021. Fresh seafood, zero compromises, and there is a no-freezer policy at the restaurant, so everything is fresh and cooked to perfection.

Carnival Ice Cream Shop is one of the oldest, quaintest ice cream parlours in Colombo and has been a family favourite since 1983. Sit down amidst the buzz, get your hands on ice creams with unique flavours like Durian, Butter Toffee, Biscotto and Cookies, and more. We were also eyeing the stacked up sundaes with oodles of dry fruit pieces and the colourful milkshakes.

Cafe Francais at Park Street Mews is where you need to go if you are looking for the best cocktails with a side of yummy starters. In any case, Park Street Mews is where you let your hair down, party, and drink some dangerous cocktails. Meet the fun chef, Bertrand Dubois, who entertained us with great dancing and lots of shots. Go for his gourmet burgers and French-style snails but stay for the midnight dancing and the stellar wine list.

Where to visit

With 24-hours at your disposal, it’s easy to miss the basics. So stick to the priority list of touristy spots that give you an overview of the city — walk to the Old Dutch Hospital Complex. There’s live music and amazing crowds in the evening. The Gangaramaya Temple was a wanderer’s delight with history and beautiful art accompanied by a calming feeling. One historical landmark to not miss is the Independence Memorial Hall, also called Independence Square.

Where to shop

Pendi: Away from the usual touristy fare and hub to the best local designers and labels is Colombo’s Pendi. Managed and owned by Natalie Pendigrast, the space is every shopper’s delight. Everything from botanical prints to hand-made soaps to homeware is created with love and care. Pendi’s strength lies in promoting local designers and curating some mind-blowing collections. Bespoke and unique — Pendi keeps you updated on all the local fare. It was our favourite lifestyle store. We even had an amazing evening with some great local artists and designers to understand their ethos and love for creativity.

Buddhi Batiks by Darshi Keerthisena: You cannot leave Colombo without carrying a piece of its heart, and you must know that Darshi Keerthisena, a local designer works who with batiks, has been keeping the art alive through her label. The old-school batik artwork now resides in her quirkily designed outfits, saris, and scarves. Darshi also showcased her work when she met Queen Elizabeth II. And well, it’s a well-known fact that Darshi’s batiks are the first choice among Sri Lankan brides.

LOVI Sarongs: On our first night in the city, we were handed these goodie bags with a much-interesting welcome gift from LOVI, a brand known for its sarongs for men and women. A traditional wrap-around skirt that comes in chic designs and pockets, traditional yet modern. A great gift to carry back, these hand-made wonders come in stunning colours and drape easily. Founder Asanka de Mel talks about fusing authenticity with style, and it’s why they are such a popular souvenir to cart back.

The Design Collective: A well-known multi-brand fashion store owned by two friends, Binu Wickramasinghe and Shahili Gomes, is the first place to head to if you want to see what local fashion designers have to offer. It presents a blend of stunning casual wear, cocktails gowns and jewellery, alongside a few knickknacks. Shahili, a graduate from Imperial College Business School, manages to find every cool designer on the planet, makes sure the store stands to support local and Asian labels and stays on top of trends. Binu, on the other hand, has been working in fashion from Delhi to London and has brought in her design expertise via the labels she exhibits at the store. Together they bring great fare to their multi-brand concept store and create a showcase for young, lesser-known brands.

Other amazing picks to carry back home?

Basilur is Sri Lanka’s most popular premium tea label and is available at most stores. Pick the white tea or the green tea.

Spa Ceylon, a homegrown Sri Lankan beauty label known for its extensive usage of local ingredients and a wholesome approach to beauty. If you’re a beauty lover, pick their Ceylon Grapefruit and Rice lip balm or the Ceylon Coffee & Cocoa balm.

How to get around

Ditch Uber and opt for Tuk-tuk Safari. A tour on the coolest Tuk-tuks with officially-dressed chauffeurs and an icebox filled with coconut water, colas and Lion Beer is how the gods intended for us to enjoy Colombo. They come with convertible roofs and WIFI.

All Images: Courtesy brands; hero image: Courtesy Shutterstock

Latha Sunadh
Deputy Editor
When she's not trying on a new serum, researching on yet another classic fragrance and sharing lip balms with her 5-year old daughter, Latha Sunadh keeps it reined in with a nice song and a good book. Special skills include obsessing over handmade, home-made and handcrafted luxuries.