Sri Lanka has been inhabited for more than two millenia, and its major influences come from the Sinhalese and Tamil ethnic groups and Buddhist and Hindu religions from India. Most visitors to Sri Lanka don't spend time in the capital, and until 2009, Colombo was largely off the radar for foreign visitors due to its intermittent 29-year civil war. Now, peace has settled and visitors will find its capital an unexpected delight. Its fringe of beaches isn't all that makes Colombo unique, as the country's diverse array of ethnicities - including Muslims and Burghers - each bring their own rich cultures while sharing that laid-back spirit so special among islanders. You would be hard-pushed to find their rip-roaring sense of humour and fun in other major cities, too.
A comfortable bed
Colombo's budget and mid-range accommodation can be uninspiring but you'll find plenty of it around Mount Lavinia Beach. If you're at that end of town, splash out and stay at the Mount Lavinia Hotel (www.mountlaviniahotel.com; 00 94 11 2711711), the scene of a secret love affair between the former British Governor-General of Ceylon, Sir Thomas Maitland, and Lovina, a Mestizo dancer in the 19th century. A double starts at around US$146 (Dh536).
For a very different historical experience, head to Tintagel Colombo (www.paradiseroadhotels.com; 00 94 11 4602060). It's the newly repurposed home of the former prime minister Solomon Bandaranaike, who was assassinated on the veranda in 1959. An executive suite starts at US$280 (Dh1,028) per night. The boldly decadent interior is exactly what you'd expect from the Paradise Road empire behind it, which began with the Paradise Road art gallery just down the road.
Boutique hotels are popping up all over now, but the original is still one of the best. Havelock Bungalows (www.havelockbungalow.com; 00 94 11 2585191) may be in the centre but you wouldn't know it from its peaceful atmosphere, complete with garden, pool and comfy sofas in the living room. A standard room starts at US$100 (Dh367). Always book ahead wherever you stay.
Find your feet
Arriving at the Fort Railway Station, the kinetic buzz of shoppers, insane whirr of traffic and dusty heat can be overwhelming. Jump into the madness and explore the sprawling Pettah Market that is packed with Bob Marley flip-flops, glittering saris and everything else under the scorching sun. Alternatively, make your way to the cooling Beira Lake in the heart of the city or to the verdant Viharamahadevi Park, near Colombo's most regal attractions. You can take a moment to plot your route (the city is divided into easily demarcated districts) with a trusty tuk-tuk driver.
Meet the locals
Head to Galle Face Green with the locals at sunset. Here, kids play ball games en masse, and couples stroll along the seafront, shaded under vibrantly adorned umbrellas. It's a great time to see Colombites at leisure, as well as sample local street food. Kottu Roti, a chopped up pancake-like noodle mixed with meat and vegetables, is a hearty favourite. To mix with socialites, it has to be Colombo 7, where the streets are lined with trees and (relatively) expensive cafes. Head for afternoon tea, cake and gossip at The Commons Café (www.thecommonscolombo.com; 00 92 112 694 435) and savour delectable sweets in the lush courtyard.
Book a table
You'll never go hungry in Colombo; the city is full of street stalls heaped with fried "short eats" and family run cafes selling enormous portions of the Sri Lankan staple - rice and curry. For elegant surroundings outside the major hotels, options are limited. However, Ministry of Crab (www.ministryofcrab.com) is a treat and can be found in the atmospheric surroundings of the Old Colombo Dutch Hospital. The restaurant celebrates fresh Sri Lankan seafood and has received rave reviews. Sample a classic dish and opt for a kilo of chilli crab (5,570 rupees; Dh167) with a coconutty Pol Sambola (240 rupees; Dh7) on the side. Lemon Bar & Kitchen (www.lemon.lk, 00 94 11 2682122) is all the rage among expats, and serves up celebrity Chef Koluu's European and Sri Lankan dishes with a rooftop view. Start with an artichoke dip followed by Beef Pethi curry with its zesty, lime pickle.
Colombo's malls aren't yet comparable to the shopping centres in the rest of Asia and the Middle East, although Odel's (www.odel.lk) flagship store is a good one-stop shop for both souvenirs and everyday clothing. The city does boutiques well, and you'll find an enchanting array of ethically minded clothing, local crafts and reasonably priced artwork. You can find the flower power fashion of the young designer Deneth Piumakshi (www.denethpiuma.com) at Cantaloupe Boutique on Galle Face Court 1. Her vibrant creations are not only playful but are also made by village women who use "cheetah", a bright, floral sarong that was once traditional dress.
What to avoid
While Colombo's small scale makes it manageable, the heat, dust and slender pavements make cabs or a tuk-tuks a better option than walking. For a true Sri Lankan experience, take a bus.
The beach. Recline at Mount Lavinia's palm-shaded Buba Restaurant & Beach Club (42/11, Vihara Rd, Dehiwala; 00 92 2732 190) alongside hip young locals. Adventurous types can arrange a kite surfing tour with Kite Surfing Lanka (www.kitesurfinglanka.com). They can arrange transport from Colombo to Kalpitiya and a day's tuition, with equipment, for Dh570 per person.
Return direct flights from Dubai to Colombo take four hours 40 minutes and start at (Dh1,221) with SriLankan Airlines (www.srilankan.com).
Follow us @TravelNational