When you live in a city as diverse as London you soon learn that there is a list of pulsating, uber cool, queues out of the door, “you’re not on the list” venues that simmer just below the surface. They give this city its edge. BUT you have to be in the know.
To say that food and drink plays a big part in Sri Lankan culture would be the single greatest understatement in the world. When you are the producer of almost all of the world’s cinnamon and most of its spices it follows that your cuisine would be pretty darn good. Mix in the Dutch Colonial and South Indian influences with centuries of being a trading post and you have a pretty picky bunch of locals when it comes to food. So, here to help you eat like a local, is a short list of restaurants, cafes and after hours joints that I frequent with my friends whenever I am in Colombo.
Barefoot is somewhat of an institution in Colombo. Nestled in the heart of the city it is an easily accessible, vibrant space typical of Colombo. The garden cafe here is consistently packed on Sunday afternoons. You will need to be earlier than midday on Sunday to grab a table in the shade. Get here later and you’ll be sitting under the baking midday sun. Sunday lunch at Barefoot is extremely popular with locals. The freshly cooked food is to die for. Ask to see the specials and the waiters will bring a giant chalk board up to your table. Barefoot is renowned for it’s black pork curry if you can handle it. However, pretty much everything on the menu is scrumptious. Even on a busy Sunday afternoon the service is quick. Just to make your meal a little more special you will be treated to live music by a fantastic jazz ensemble while you eat. This is alfresco dining at it’s best.
What to eat – Chargrilled butterfly prawn salad
What to drink – Lime and mint juice
Spoil yourself – Orange cake and vanilla ice cream.
The Dutch Burgher Union is a gem in Colombo serving great food that is far too popular for it’s own good. The Lamprais here is quite possibly the most authentic that you can buy. Consider the Lamprais a gift from the Dutch Burgher community of Sri Lanka to the rest of us. Traditionally, it consists of savoury rice, a mixed meat curry of chicken, beef and pork and vegetable accompaniments baked in a banana leaf. In recent times however, it has been adapted to chicken, mutton or fish only – a testament to it’s popularity outside the Burgher community where beef and pork maybe avoided. The aroma of the baked banana leaf and all the spices within it will have you salivating while you scramble to open it. Speaking from experience, this is also a great hangover cure.
What to order – Chicken or Mutton Lamprais
What to drink – Lime juice
Spoil yourself – Another lamprais
3. Short Eat lunch – Fab
Sri Lankan patties
Lunch is considered the main meal in Sri Lanka. This is a busy old time in Colombo. Miss the lunch time rush and you will find there is no food left any where in your locality. As such, you will have to down grade to eating ”short eats” for lunch. If you find yourself in such a predicament while in Colombo, hail down the first tuk tuk you see and ask to be taken to the nearest “Fab”. You will never be too far away from a branch of Fab because they are conveniently scattered through out most of Colombo. This chain has the best offering of Sri Lankan “short eats”. Short Eats are usually served as snacks at parties before the main meal. The most popular are cutlets, patties and Chinese rolls. These are filled meat, fish or veg rolls breadcrumbed or encased in crusty pastry and deep fried. Dip your short eats in the nectar of the Gods that is Sri Lankan chillie sauce for a great alternative to a rice and curry lunch.
As the name suggests The Good Market in Colombo is an offering of all things good. As well as local handicrafts, the market offers organically farmed fruit and vegetables, spices and cooked food without additives. There are also stalls representing local charities if you wish to support them. The market happens twice a week – Thursday afternoons in Diyatha Uyana, Battharamulla and Sundays at the Racecourse Grounds, Colombo 7. Both locations are easy to get to. More refreshingly, they will take you off the regular tourist hot spots. You will see people of all backgrounds buying, selling and generally mixing at The Good Market. The range of food here varies from traditional Sri Lankan to tasty cup cakes. More importantly, the food is of the “home cooked” variety. Eat small amounts and taste everything. The traditional food stalls here are as authentically Sri Lankan as you will ever find.
What to eat – Everything
What to drink – Everything
Spoil yourself – A 30 minute massage from the blind therapists at Thusare Talking Hands.
Located in Colombo 7, Upali’s has secured it’s place in the hungry bellies of Colombo dwellers as the ”go to” for traditional Sri Lankan cuisine. Do not let the impressive building and affluent location put you off. At the heart of this establishment and it’s success is traditional cookery. Upali’s has established itself in Colombo, where there is no shortage of quality food on offer, due to it’s eye wateringly tasty “village food” menu. This is a feat that at best would be a challenge and at worst impossible to pull off on this scale. However, Upali’s succeeds where many have failed. There is an extensive menu of traditional food such as ”pittu”, ”string hoppers” and ”hoppers”. That is before I can even mention the tear jerkingly tasty lunch buffet. All of which is highly recommended. You will need to visit more than once to enjoy everything on the menu here. Due to it’s popularity, it is commonly accepted that tables are not readily available, particularly in the evenings. However, true to Sri Lankan hospitality, they will never turn a hungry person away. During peak hours, provided there’s enough space, you will be escorted to their coffee shop next door where you may order from the restaurant’s menu. I kid you not!
What to order – Hopper special which arrives with two curries and a coconut sambol.
With a considerable Chinese community, based mainly in the city, Colombo has always been spoilt with magnificent Chinese food. Chinese restaurants in Colombo have been part of the landscape since my childhood. The community has been kind enough to tweak the cuisine to suit local palettes with the use of spices and freshly caught seafood. The result is lethal! This is possibly the reason that Chinese eateries outnumber traditional Sri Lankan eateries in Colombo. They range from 5* restaurants to busy little places with plastic chairs and queues out of the door. The Chinese Dragon Cafe is a small chain and one of the best known in Colombo. Their take on seafood is not for the lighthearted. This is hardcore fusion cookery. The chillie crab, cuttle fish and prawns will sizzle on your tongue. Eat your seafood with Kun Kung – a local stir fried green which is executed to perfection. Skip the fried rice and eat them together.
What to eat – Hot Butter Cuttle fish and Kun Kung
What to drink – Lime juice
Spoil yourself – Chillie crab
7. Dinner – Flamingo House and The Love Bar (Horton Place, Colombo 7)
Latest addition to Colombo
Plush dining area of FH
Flamingo House is a recent addition to Colombo’s culinary landscape. It has however, established itself fiercely amongst Colombo’s big players. With decor that is easily set to become one of the most Instagrammed spaces in Colombo, it rivals no other. An absolute credit to Flamingo House is that the same attention to detail has been extended to it’s food. The carefully curated menu is as eclectic as the decor. Order the dim sum and you will get a treat that is as light as a breath which melts on your tongue. If this is your cup of tea, get there on a Sunday for their “Sumday” special – All you can eat dim sum. All day! If you are at Flamingo House for an evening meal spend a little while admiring the space. It looks its best when the sun goes down. Once you finish your meal carry yourself upstairs to the Love Bar – the hippest venue in Colombo at present. Order yourself a Kalinga Gimlet and dance the night away.
What to eat – Dim Sum
What to drink – Kalinga Gimlet
Spoil yourself – Anything bubbly
8. Pilawoos – After hours (Galle Road, Colombo 3).
Of all the places on my list there are none more typical of Colombo than the national treasure that is Pilawoos. Serving Sri Lankan street food and open 24 hours, it’s come a long way since its humble beginnings on the sidewalk of Galle Road. It has grown to become an icon of Colombo’s nightlife. Night clubs have come and gone but mighty Pilawoos survived. Arrive here by car and you need not leave it’s comfort; waiters come to your window. This unique service naturally makes it popular with clubbers and night owls (and drunks) of Colombo. Pull in to the sidewalk at 3am and you will see all of Colombo’s elite hanging out of their car windows ordering Kottu Roti and Milo. (“Kottu Roti” translates to “chopped roti” in Tamil). Kottu, as it’s commonly known, consists of chopped roti, veg and meat. Cheese is added at your request. Wash this down with an ice cold Milo and you will be more than ready for bed.
As a frequent traveller I can say that I have passed through a few airports in my time. They generally do not stick in my mind for any reason. However, as far as airports go Changi airport is a monster! It was voted the World’s Best Airport (Skytrax 2016). It’s certainly easy to see why. There are grand open spaces with sculptures, art, massage chairs and hundreds and hundreds of shops. If you really wanted to you could possibly spend a couple of days there. The single most memorable thing about Changi airport? Baby changing facilities in the men’s washrooms. Talk about progressive.
Travel and guidebooks list lots to do in Singapore. However, as with any short stay planning your time well is key because this is a great big place. I had no intention of doing everything on my list. So I chose Gardens by the Bay due to it’s proximity to my hotel. There’s a real “otherworldly” sense about Singapore. It’s certainly true here. These vertical gardens are set on reclaimed land and stretch an impressive 250 acres. They look and feels more like a feat in architecture and engineering than in gardening. If you would like a better view of the gardens you can purchase a ticket for the train which takes you up to an elevated walkway. Visitors can walk between each of the 5 vertical gardens.
If you really love gardens then by all means walk the walk.
Vertical Gardens – Gardnens by the Bay
Gardens by the Bay
If you like a little grit every now and again go to Chinatown. It’s vastly underrated in the guidebooks. As the name suggests, Chinatown Food Street is packed full of street food stalls. How many dumplings can you eat in an hour? Well, go find out! The food stalls are packed with locals – a sure fire sign that you’re onto a good thing.
In the midst of the hustle and bustle of Chinatown you will also find the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. It’s a place of worship for Singaporeans as much as it is a museum for travellers and tourists. Standing majestically in the middle of Chinatown it offers a glimpse of everyday life in Singapore.
As with all Buddhist temples you will need to be dressed modestly before you enter. Don’t worry if you find yourself in shorts like I did. Thankfully, cover ups are provided. With 5 floors filled with beautiful and curious objects there is enough here to make your entire trip worthwhile.
The ceiling of the grand hall on the ground floor is decorated with hundreds of gold lanterns. Thousands of tiny carved identical statues of Buddha are inserted into the walls. Each Buddha has been individually carved by a different sculptor and is marked with a unique serial number. Each room is home to colourfully decorated statues. You can purchase flowers and incense from the temple premises as offerings for the Buddha.
Hand carved Buddha statues
Colourful statues in every room
Beautiful lanterns on the cieling.
Offerings for the Buddha
There is a lift to all the floors which is handy. The mezzanine floor gives a great view of the main hall below. There is also a wax works museum of prominent monks of Asia on this floor. There is an outdoor garden housing the prayer wheel on the fourth floor. The garden is a riot of colourful orchids. Flowers bloom in abundance here due to the humid climate.
The top floor houses the tooth relic of the Buddha. It sits behind a glass screen in a golden casket. There were lots of people meditating on this floor and no photography was allowed. It took me over an hour to see everything inside this temple. If you are planning a visit make sure you give yourself plenty of time too.
On a broader note, public transport in Singapore is amazing. It’s punctual, affordable and clean. So getting around any where is easy and stress free. There is an endless list of things to do here. It has the feeling of a giant theme park where the fun never ends if you can keep up. There are water parks, night safaris, bird parks and light shows. Millions of dollars have no doubt been spent constructing them. And they truly are impressive.
Would I go back? In a heartbeat! There are places I have since read up on such as Kampong Glam and Pulau Ubin that I would love to explore. Another trip might be in order!
Travel tip: I travelled to Singapore from Colombo on a 3 night package deal booked with Hema’s Travels, Colombo, Sri Lanka.