48 Hours In: Colombo in association with Emirates

Mouth-watering Sri Lankan food, spectacular sunsets and crumbling colonial architecture: the 'capital' of the Indian Ocean has it all, says Allan Calder

The tsunami that devastated Sri Lanka on Boxing Day did not scar the island's capital - which could also claim to be the capital of the Indian Ocean. It enjoys a fine oceanside location, its architecture ranges from colonial to futuristic, and Colombo's citizens are friendly and welcoming.

TOUCH DOWN

The only airline with scheduled services between the UK and Colombo is SriLankan Airlines (020-8538 2001; www.srilankan.aero), which flies 11 times a week from Heathrow. Three of these flights operate via Male in the Maldives, which adds a couple of hours to the journey. Thanks to the airline's link with Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com), you can easily combine a visit to Colombo with a stopover in Dubai.

From Colombo's Bandaranaike airport, fast air-conditioned buses run in about 40 minutes to Bastian Mawatha bus station (1) in the Pettah area. The fare is 30 Rupees (£0.16). A pre-paid taxi to Colombo costs around Rs1,000 (£5.50).

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Each neighbourhood of the capital is assigned a number, which is widely used by local people as shorthand to describe a district. The old colonial core of the city is Fort, or Colombo 1, mainly devoted to government and commercial buildings. Most of the transport hubs, notably Fort railway station (2), are east of here, in the Pettah area - (Colombo 11). South of here is Slave Island (Colombo 2), which is not an island and no longer houses slaves, and beyond that the upmarket area of Kollupitiya (Colombo 3) along the Galle Road artery; Galle is pronounced "gaul". To the east, Cinnamon Gardens (Colombo 7) is a prosperous area where the writer Sir Arthur C Clarke has lived for many years.

CHECK IN

The hotel with the strongest pedigree is the Galle Face (3), an 1864 creation superbly located on the shore at 2 Kollupitiya Road (00 94 11 254 1010; www.gallefacehotel.com). A double "economy" room costs US$77 (£43), while a Royal Suite is US$404 (£224). If you prefer to stay closer to the centre, choose the reasonably priced and well-located Grand Oriental Hotel (4) at 2 York Street in Fort (00 94 11 232 0931), where a basic double is around US$40 (£27).

TAKE A RIDE

The easiest way to get around is by tuk-tuk, the motorised tri-shaws that swarm all over the city. Before you hire one, make sure the driver understands exactly where you want to go. You will, of course, be charged the tourist rate; even so, don't pay more than Rs200 (£1.20) for short journeys and never pay more than Rs500 (£2.80) within the city.

TAKE A HIKE

As in Belfast, the military presence in Colombo is slowly dwindling after a generation of strife, though you will still encounter some roadblocks in Fort, where this walk takes place. Starting at the Grand Oriental Hotel (4), walk south along York Street; look upwards to appreciate the melange of gently crumbling colonial architecture. Turn right into Chatham Street. The clock tower (5) in front of you is the main symbol of the British era. When you reach it, turn left along Janadhipatha Mawatha to one of the newer emblems of the city: the Ceylon InterContinental (6). This marks the start of Marine Drive, which curves out into the ocean. At the western extreme is a handsome lighthouse (7) and a striking white dagoba, a mound characteristic of Sri Lanka. Church Street is so named because of St Peter's (8), which recently celebrated its 200th anniversary as a place of worship.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

The midday meal is a delight in Colombo. You can pick up a lunch packet (comprising rice, vegetable curry and possibly fish or meat) from street-corner vendors. A speciality is the egg hopper, like a crisp pancake with an egg in the middle. You use it in lieu of cutlery to scoop up vegetable curry, dal and rice. Moving upmarket, the café in the Paradise Road emporium (9) at 213 Dharmapala Mawatha (00 94 11 268 6043) occupies part of a fine mansion in Cinnamon Gardens. The Barefoot Garden Café (10), inside the Barefoot shop and gallery at 704 Galle Road (00 94 11 258 9305) in Kollupitiya, offers good food in a pleasant and quiet atmosphere.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

The National Museum (11), anchored firmly in parkland in the south-east of the city, is the place to begin tracing the complex history of Sri Lanka. Its extensive collection is all yours between 9am and 5pm, any day except Friday, for an admission price of Rs65 (£0.35). For an insight into the lives of the early European settlers, visit the Dutch Period Museum (12) at 95 Prince Street in Pettah (00 94 11 244 8466), which has previously served as the Dutch East India Company office, a British military hospital and a post office; open 9am-5pm daily except Friday, admission Rs65 (£0.35).

WINDOW SHOPPING

Colombo has hundreds of tourist shops, but to avoid them all, visit the huge open-air market that infiltrates the web of side streets north of Fort station (2). To stock up on well-designed and well-made clothing, head for the wide and varied selection at Odel's (13), a huge, rambling and wonderfully air-conditioned department store that occupies a large colonial building at 5 Alexandra Place in Cinnamon Gardens. You'll see the sorts of high-quality garments that are made in Sri Lanka for UK clothing chains, but prices are naturally much lower in the country of origin.

AN APERITIF

On any evening except when the moon is full, treat yourself to a drink at the Galle Face Hotel (3). On the Checker Board terrace you can sip a sunset cocktail (or one of the excellent local beers, such as Three Coins Irish Dark) and watch the sun merge with the ocean. On full moon nights, you will have to make do with something non-alcoholic.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

The Gallery Café (14) is a former architect's studio at 2 Alfred House Road (00 94 11 258 2162) that has been turned into a beautiful courtyard restaurant. As you enter the place, the clamour of Sri Lanka subsides. You can dine regally on food that fuses the best from across Asia and the Indian Ocean. Take time to appreciate the sublime design and natural tones that comprise a good definition of the word "serene". Past diners include Mick Jagger and Leonardo di Caprio.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

Dutch colonialists were always more interested in trade than religious conversion, but with the mid-18th century Wolvendaal church (15) in Pettah, they decided to make their ecclesiatical mark on Colombo. Services are still held on Sundays; if you attend, pay particular attention to the fine furniture.

OUT TO BRUNCH

Cricket fans should bowl along to the Cricket Club Café (16) in Kollupitiya, on Queen's Road near the junction with Duplication Road. It serves good Western-style food amid a surfeit of cricketing memorabilia.

A WALK IN THE PARK

Galle Face Green (17) isn't - green, that is. Millions of feet have worn down this broad stripe of seaside lawn to bare earth. But there is no better place to enjoy the company of the citizens, especially late on a Sunday afternoon.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

If cricket and the green have brought you to the south of the city, it is well worth continuing another few miles south to the Mount Lavinia Hotel. Built in 1806 by Governor Sir Thomas Maitland for his beloved wife Lavinia (which explains the somewhat unfortunate name) it is a superb colonial building in a wonderful location. It was used as a hospital in the film The Bridge on the River Kwai. Close by on the beach, there are excellent seafood restaurants from which you can watch the sun set.

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