The last few years have not been favourable to Sri Lanka, an island nation 26 miles off the south coast of India. Citizen Femme recently visited, to find out if – and why – Sri Lanka should be written back onto your 2023 travel list.
Sri Lanka is open for business. It remains a magical – and safe – island destination for tourists. Not least for its food scene, beaches, heady surf spots, and lush tea country, but also for a raft of new, local-focused initiatives. One big reason to visit now is the Pekoe Trail. This new 22-route, 185-mile hiking trail through Sri Lanka’s dramatic tea country is set on long-forgotten paths, originally used to transport tea to factories by horses. A joint EU-US initiative, 10 years in the making, it’s designed to benefit remote mountain communities by attracting travellers, with future plans to include street food stops and places to stay. Nine of the 22 routes are open so far, with the rest to follow by July 2023.
Forget the empty shelves and fuel-thirsty cars that have been paraded across the media over the last year or so. On a recent trip to Sri Lanka’s capital and second cities, Colombo and Galle, Citizen Femme found lively streets, well-stocked supermarkets, and a population eager to entertain and welcome visitors. Prices are a little higher, yes, but as shopkeepers and guides told us, “The best thing you can do to support us is to come to Sri Lanka and have a good time.”
You don’t need to tell us twice. Here’s where to stay, shop, eat, drink in Colombo and Galle.
What To Do
Most use Sri Lanka’s cool, chaotic city Colombo as a jumping-off point, but it’s a destination worth taking time over, vibrant with temples, tuk-tuks, rooftop bars and street food stalls; its classic haunts are ripe for revisiting, and there are new experiences to enjoy. For a new take on the city, a Forgotten Colombo open-top jeep tour is an exhilarating experience. For a sense of the city’s ever-developing skyline, Sail Lanka offers sunset sailing trips aboard a luxury catamaran. For a quintessential Colombo experience, head to the Galle Face Green seafront space. It’s the place to be on Friday night for a saunter and street food. Elsewhere, art lovers will enjoy a browse in the longstanding modern Saskia Fernando Gallery which features work by Sri Lankan artists, or a pre-arranged tour of eminent Sri Lankan architect, Geoffrey Bawa’s former offices, Number 11.
Where To Stay
A charming modern-rustic hotel with a tropical twist. It occupies a breezy former villa on a quiet leafy street in the chic Colombo 7 district, near shops, bars, and restaurants. Fish swim in a small ornate stone pond off an airy high-ceilinged lounge complete with slouchy sofas and plants. Breakfast is taken opposite on an airy outdoor terrace lined with towering bamboo. Rooms are painted white, with bright soft furnishings and artworks by the Chinese-American owner. Some rooms have Jacuzzis and others have balconies. On the roof is a pool and a sleek Japanese restaurant.
Galle Face Hotel
This friendly time-warp of a hotel that opened in 1864 is the oldest in town, with long memories and a string of illustrious guests. It sits next to Galle Face Green, the city’s biggest seafront promenade, overlooking the lively Indian Ocean. It started life as a Victorian villa, until two wings were added; the North Wing home to its most opulent Landmark Rooms overlooking the green. Inside, creaking corridors might look a little worn but only add to its storied charm. There’s a sea-facing saltwater infinity pool overlooking the private beach, plus an indulgent spa and a fine-dining restaurant that locals love, too.
Meticulously trimmed high hedges surround the vast cobbled drive, complete with a fountain, leading to this double-fronted palatial-style heritage building. Once home to several political leaders, today it’s an impeccably designed, yet laid-back boutique hotel. It feels as special to approach as it does to tiptoe along its grand yet cosy corridors, the feel of thick-pile carpet underfoot. Décor-wise, it’s an exercise in black, brown, and cream tones and all rooms are spacious suites. The executive suite is the biggest and most luxurious: it has French doors onto its own private garden with a plunge pool. Elsewhere, there’s also a dark-and-cosy restaurant perfect for quiet dinners.
Eat + Drink
Virticle by Jetwing
Dinner and drinks atop a Colombo skyscraper are a must. Newly opened Virticle by Jetwing is your friendly choice for views and a special-occasion splurge. It’s a sleek modern space perched 29 floors up an office building known as the South Access Tower. Grab a seat on the buzzy panoramic terrace, or inside the inviting yet edgy dining room, with high ceilings and full-height glass windows. The menu celebrates local ingredients and is kept simple with just a few dishes for each course to choose from, maximising time spent gazing at the Colombo skyline.
Drunken Lankan cocktail classes
Sri Lanka has no shortage of bars, but mixologist Ashwel Handy, aka the Drunken Lankan, has plans to shake things up. Pun intended. He hosts immersive cocktail-making experiences for small groups at a bar called Uncles on the sophisticated Park Street Mews. The twist? He shuns imports, instead working up his punchy concoctions with ingredients and products native to Sri Lanka, like curry leaves, passion fruit, pineapple, chilli and Sri Lankan white wine. He mixes three and five cocktails in a session, alongside many a heartfelt anecdote and cool fact about cocktail-making history.
High Tea at the Galle Face Hotel
Every afternoon from 4pm until 6pm, the nostalgic Verandah restaurant at Colombo’s oldest and grandest hotel is the setting for a traditional British high tea. Delicate finger sandwiches, freshly-baked scones, homemade jams and real clotted cream are served alongside pots of fresh, fragrant and fine Ceylon teas, all of which you pour over while gazing at the surfy Indian Ocean. Taking high tea at the Verandah is also an excuse to snoop around the creaking corridors of Colombo’s grand dame hotel, a magnet for royalty, film stars and countless other celebrities since it opened in 1864.
Where To Shop
A beautifully converted historic colonial home is the setting for this high-end design homeware shop. Shelves and tables are crammed with timeless, stylishly-painted dinnerware, table linens, ornaments, and light fittings. Designs that appeal to an international audience are handcrafted mostly by local artisans. There are two floors to browse, and a small café upstairs serving coffee and cake, with seats by a big window overlooking the street.
Aroma Bliss Ceylon
The heady smell of Sri Lankan spices hits you when you walk into an Aroma Bliss Ceylon shop in Colombo. New to Sri Lanka, it specialises in indulgent natural skincare products made using delicate blends of high-quality ingredients. The packaging is sultry, in dark and gold, and the product names exotic: watermelon hand cream, ginger hair cleanser, pandan leaves face wash, saffron day cream, and cinnamon soap. Save time for a trip to their spa, The Beauty Lab, for an indulgent Aroma Bliss Ceylon Basic Facial, among other seductive-sounding treatments.
A trip to this long-standing Sri Lankan crafts shop – with outposts in both Colombo and Galle, and specialising in handwoven linen – is a must. From the brightly painted walls to the vibrant crafts, everything about Barefoot reflects the late founder’s love of intense colour, and weaving. Choose from silk and cotton saris, hairbands, slippers, batik cushion covers, and soft toys. There’s a book shop, too, stocked with works by Sri Lankan authors, and coffee table books on Sri Lankan culture and design. The Colombo shop also has a lovely shady courtyard café. Order a sweet lime and browse the menu of Sri Lankan classics and European dishes. It’s also the setting for live jazz performances every Sunday.
What To Do
Where next after Colombo? It has to be Galle, 100km south on the coast where life slows down. It’s best known for its historic Galle Fort, a beautiful 16th-century fortified city founded by the Portuguese. Learn its history on a self-guided walking tour using new, Sri Lankan owned audio guide app, My Balamu. It guides you around the Fort perimeter, taking in well-known sights such as the lighthouse, the cricket ground and the Dutch Hospital, one of the oldest buildings in Galle with beautiful white archways and an orange tiled roof. A cooling dip calls after soaking up the culture, then you’re ready for a cooking and cycling experience in the countryside with Village Rider. Hop on your mountain bike and follow your guide as you meander along rivers and through tiny hidden villages. Stopping for ingredients at a roadside fruit and vegetable stall, skilled chefs at an outdoor kitchen transform into delicious curries for lunch.
Where To Stay
Arriving at this old-fashioned Dutch-colonial-style villa in the countryside near Unawatuna beach, and just a 20 minute drive from Galle Fort, feels like stepping back in time: you drive in through a big wooden gate, up a gravel drive where a few classic cars are parked. It also feels peacefully remote, set along a lush, narrow lane overlooking paddy fields. The lawned garden complete with a private pool and a big outdoor dining space is the main feature. Inside, four identical double bedrooms fork off a long grand hallway filled with sofas and artwork. Each has white walls, a dark-wood floor, a four-poster bed, and a writing desk. In contrast, sleek bathrooms are vaguely Moorish in style, with curves, extra-deep sunken bathtubs and luxuriant oversized rain showers.
The Fort Printers
A former 18th-century mansion in the heart of Galle Fort has been transformed into this elegant boutique hotel which exudes an air of nostalgia, inside and out. Set on the attractive Pedlar Street, it’s as pretty as an artist’s sketch, with a whitewashed exterior and front terrace for cocktail sipping. Inside it’s exquisitely styled, yet still manages to feel homely, mixing antique and contemporary furniture against dusky pinks and blues. Many original features like dark-wood floors and grand shuttered windows have been preserved. Entry-level rooms are spacious and some come with a chaise longue. There’s a sleek, decadent-looking restaurant on site, too, serving European and Sri Lankan classics.
Tabula Rasa Resort and Spa
The five-star Tabula Rasa Resort – meaning new beginning – near Habaraduwa Beach in Galle opened in 2019, only to close immediately for the pandemic. Needless to say, it’s ready to shine. It belongs to a Dutch couple, who designed it to feel part of the lush landscape, with care taken not to disturb the long-standing palm trees. The result is a self-contained village-like ocean-facing haven of 24 rooms, surrounded by towering swaying palms. Some have plunge pools and views over the surrounding lush countryside, others are individual bungalows. Monkeys hang from branches and wild peacocks roam the paths. You can star gaze at the Sky Bar over a sundowner. or enjoy a sea-view float in the dreamy infinity pool. There are also six beach cabanas reserved for guests at Habaraduwa Beach stocked with beach towels.
Eat + Drink
Start your morning in Galle Fort with a coffee or an obligatory king coconut – fresh coconut juice – at Galle’s grand dame, which hosted travellers from steamer ships in its former life as the New Oriental Hotel. The peaceful library is a lovely place to sit, its shelves filled with Sri Lanka-themed books. Come early evening, it’s nice to settle into a lounge chair in the airy Great Hall for some pre-dinner jazz and a glass of the local tipple, arrack. Dinner in its bygone-era Dining Room restaurant is a memorable treat.
This laid-back café-restaurant is set within the Old Dutch Hospital shopping precinct, facing an old jackfruit tree. Grab a seat outside on the shady veranda or inside out of the heat and order a cooling glass of lime juice. European dishes are the menu mainstays, including dishes such as sandwiches and burgers. You can’t go wrong with a stack of pancakes and fresh fruit or traditional Sri Lankan hoppers for breakfast. Come early evening, small plates like tomato crostini, hot buttered calamari, and chilli garlic prawns are on offer, to have alongside a crips glass of wine.
Isle of Gelato
Grabbing a heaped tub of creamy ice-cream from Isle of Gelato before your post-lunch beachside saunter around Galle Fort is a sensible idea. Not only to help keep you cool, but also because it’s of superior quality, made entirely by hand from scratch, flavoured naturally, not an artificial colouring in sight. They cater for vegans, too. Setting eyes on the cabinet of flavours, those with indecisive tendencies may find choosing troublesome. To be honest, you can’t go wrong with any of the flavours, although the dark chocolate truffle sorbet is particularly good – managing to be both decadently silky and light at the same time.
Where To Shop
Allow a good half an hour to browse this new boutique in a historic building once owned by a Victorian British businessman. It’s a calming whitewashed space decorated with chic hand-crafted homewares and paintings by Sri Lankan artists, all set around carefully organised rails of sun dresses, sarongs, and pieces by international designers, such as Issey Miyake. It’s a good place to pick up a packable souvenir, too, like a colourful wooden candlestick, ombre-fabric tote bag, or a small burnished wooden pot.
Beautifully painted wooden elephants – in all sizes – pack this miniature local craft emporium, tucked away in a pretty shophouse building near Galle lighthouse. The sight of woven bags spilling from either side of the beautiful open shopfront, alongside colourful masks, hats, bowls, plates, mobiles and jewellery will lure you in. You’ll be equally captivated inside, too, not least by the hand-crocheted jute tablewear by local maker, Mallara.
STICK NO BILLS
A time-travelling adventure awaits inside this cool, shop-come-gallery. It specialises in vintage travel posters that transport you to a golden era of travel, before mass tourism. Particularly striking are its hand-illustrated maps and travel posters depicting old Ceylon. By shopping here you help small business owners and the community, too. The founder, Meg Baber, donates a percentage of every sale to help vital humanitarian and conservation projects. She also champions the true owners of the original copyright.
– Our trip to Sri Lanka was organised by Secrets of Ceylon