Sri Lanka has been blossoming since the decades-long civil war ended in 2009 and nowhere is this transformation – some say "Singapore-isation" – more apparent than in its largest city, on the country's south-west coast. Today's Colombo, population 5 million, is a changeling that manages to blend old and new, its stately post-colonial buildings (many now being restored by private investors) rubbing shoulders with glimmering new high-rise hotels such as the Shangri-La (with a Sheraton and a Ritz-Carlton opening soon), a new lotus-shaped spire (one of the highest in Asia) and a $US1.4 billion Chinese "port city" rising out of the Indian Ocean (due for completion in 2023).
The National Museum of Colombo is the largest in the country and a good place to get your head around its chequered past with artefacts from Singhalese royals, Arab traders and Portuguese, Dutch and British colonials (who finally left Sri Lanka to its own devices in 1948), all housed in an impressive neo-classical building constructed in 1877.
With 300,000 tuktuks in Colombo, these motorised rickshaws are the best way to get around, but doing a city tour in a convertible tuktuk takes this up a notch (tuktuksafarisrilanka.com). Late afternoon, Galle Face Green is the place to be; join local families promenading by the sea, playing cricket and flying kites (the cheapest kites cost less than $1). Keep wandering south and into the Galle Face Hotel, built in 1864 and renovated in 2015, for two quintessentially Colombo experiences: a signature Pimms cocktail or high tea, served between 4pm and 6pm daily on the verandah under slowly rotating ceiling fans.
You're spoilt for choice when it comes to city-and-ocean views in Colombo. The Harbour Room at the Grand Oriental Hotel, Colombo's first luxury hotel when it opened in 1837, has the best view of the city's working port. Singaporean brand Ce La Vi opened its newest rooftop restaurant/bar in July this year, atop the five-star oceanfront Kingsbury hotel. Then there's the just-completed 350-metre Lotus Tower, which has a sky-high revolving restaurant, observation lounge and luxury accommodation.
An evening walking food tour with Urban Adventures (urbanadventures.com) gives you the chance to explore the city's Fort district and Pettah markets and sample Sri Lankan specialties along the way such as egg hoppers (rice flour bowls containing fried egg) and faludas (rosewater-flavoured ice-cream sundaes). Ministry of Crab in the restored 17th century Dutch Hospital, often touted as one of the best restaurants in Asia, is famous for its garlic chilli crab and pepper crab dishes (reservations essential, see ministryofcrab.com). And while tea is still Sri Lanka's chief export, Colombo has a lively cafe scene. Try Kopi Kade, run by a Melbourne-born barista; or Paradise Road's Gallery Cafe, built in the former office of world-renowned Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa.
Mid-range offerings include Dwell (dwell-hotel.com), a new Japanese-run design hotel that opened in March; and Black Cat Bed & Breakfast (blackcatcolombo.com), a white colonial mansion in the posh precinct of Cinnamon Gardens which has five minimalist rooms upstairs and a hip cafe downstairs. The seaside Shangri-La Hotel Colombo (shangri-la.com) is the city's newest five-star offering, with 500 rooms from $US170 a night. At the other end of the budget spectrum Star Anise (thestaranise.com), the first capsule hotel in south Asia, provides a boutique alternative to the backpacker hostel from $US22 a night including breakfast.
Use PickMe tuktuks with meters (cheaper and easier than haggling over fares), and avoid peak-hour when traffic along Galle Road, the city's coastal thoroughfare, can grind to a halt. Colombo is divided into 15 suburbs that are numbered as well as named, which can help you get your bearings; the historic Fort district is Colombo 1. If you're there between July and October, carry a folding umbrella for shelter from monsoonal downpours.
Louise Southerden travelled as a guest of G Adventures and Urban Adventures.