Battered by decades of civil war, Colombo’s historic Fort district has transformed spectacularly over the past few years from a war-torn shell into one of Asia’s most enjoyable city neighbourhoods. Gavin Thomas reports from a capital city on the up.
London has a Ministry of Sound, Singapore has a Ministry of Design, but only Colombo has a Ministry of Crab. Voted one of Asia’s top 50 restaurants for the past three years running, the self-styled “ministry” sits nestled cosily inside a beautifully restored 17th-century Dutch hospital at the heart of Colombo’s historic Fort district, hemmed in by further upscale restaurants, bars and boutiques.
For those visiting Sri Lanka for the first time, the ministry and hospital complex is one of the island’s most enjoyable places to hang out in the evening. For those who have known the country slightly longer, the sight of the carefree after-dark revellers and gastronomic plenty seems little short of a miracle.
Fort used to be one of the saddest places in Sri Lanka. The oldest part of Colombo and former hub of the British colonial city, the district was devastated during the island’s 25-year-long brutal civil war, with repeated Tamil Tiger bomb attacks reducing Fort to a shadow of its once-glorious self.
Much of the district was placed off limits, partitioned by barbed-wire fences and festooned with sand-bagged gun emplacements. The grandiose colonial buildings were left abandoned and crumbling, the pavements haunted by posses of rogue money-changers, con-artists, pimps and dope-dealers, their whispered calls of “Change money?”, “Hashish?” or “You like nice girl?” the only signs of life in the deserted streets.
Almost ten years on from the end of Sri Lanka’s disastrous civil war, perhaps nowhere else so clearly encapulates the island’s near-decade of peace and resurgent optimism. Streets that were off limits for a generation now hum with the chatter of pedestrians and the occasional sedate buzz of a passing rickshaw.
Restaurants, bars and cool boutiques fill the streets, with tables spilling out onto the pedestrianized streets, and backpacker hostels and five-star hotels filling the spaces between. The stately old British Raj-era buildings have been immaculately restored and scrubbed into gleaming whiteness, while even the antiquated Pagoda Tea Rooms (in which Simon le Bon dramatically upended a table in Duran Duran’s 1982 Hungry Like The Wolf music video) are looking crisper than ever. No one tries to change your money or sell you drugs.
From here it’s a short stroll south to reach the serene oceanfront, perhaps dropping in for a sundowner at the breezy rooftop bar of the beautifully renovated Kingsbury Hotel. Looking north from the rooftop the view is dominated by a great swathe of land newly reclaimed from the sea, the future home, all being well, of the Colombo International Financial City.
This brand new metropolitan district is intended to plug the commercial gap between Singapore and Dubai and (according to prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe) serve as the economic heart of a “megalopolis of eight million people, the biggest city in the Indian Ocean”. The story of Fort’s renaissance, it seems, might only be beginning.
Only time will tell, of course. For now, though, Fort offers colonial splendour, hedonistic pleasures and a marvellous sense of renewed cultural and commercial optimism. Oh yes, and some rather good crab...
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