Here it is, in honor of my dear friends in Sri Lanka and the FS bloggers on their way there soon. I know I promised this about a million years ago, but you know, school and work got in the way. And one more quick caveat - I didn't come to Sri Lanka as a tourist, I came for work. Since I was pretty well immersed in all things local and authentic in my work and at home, whenever I went out I favored Western stuff. So this is more of a guide for homesick expats than for travelers. If I left out one of your favorites just let me know, there's always room for a Guide Part 2!
Places to eat and/or shop in Colombo
Odel, the randomly fancy store in the middle of Colombo. In case you're interested, you can buy gelato and I think they also sell GoNuts Donuts there. (The Krispy Kreme of Sri Lanka.)
Cricket Club This place is a great expat hangout. I highly, highly, highly recommend their cobb salad, pumpkin ricotta (non spicy version), prawn-burger, chocolate milk shake, and banana fritters. Basically, the entire menu is great.
Barefoot Big, full of nice stuff to buy, not just souvenirs, but fabrics and pillows and clothes and stuff. They also have a nice cafe out back.
The Galle Face Hotel Every expat in Sri Lanka is basically required to come here at some point in their stay - if not once a week - for 'sundowners', the charmingly-named tradition of watching the sunset from the waterside lawn. (See picture.) They also have high tea. It's every bit as post-colonial as it sounds, but if you've had a rough day of Sri Lanka-ness, it is also a taste of something homey.
Inn on the Green - An English pub attached to the Galle Face Hotel. The fish and chips are fine, but come for the quiz night once a week. Bring a smart quiz team and you'll win back your drinks or better.
Barista Come here when you miss American style coffee bars.
Hotels like the Cinnamon Grand, Hilton, etc. - There are a half dozen expensive expat hotels with great restaurants attached. I didn't try many of them out, but from what I hear they are all excellent.
Palmyra and Green Cabin (Sri Lankan food) I ate Sri Lankan food every day at work, so I didn't often eat it when I went out. However, when I did go out for Sri Lankan, these restaurants were favorites. Plenty of regular street side shops have great string hoppers (see below) or kothu.
Nihonbashi - expensive, but amazing sushi
Places to Go
Mt. Lavinia beach and hotel
The old fort city in the south of Sri Lanka. It's an interesting cultural city, I really liked just walking the quiet streets. Emphasis on the QUIET. After Colombo it's a nice break. I'd also recommend the annual literary festival, it's more fun than you would think.
You absolutely can't skip this one if you are in Sri Lanka for any length of time. Adam's Peak or Sri Pada as Sri Lankans call it. #1 You have to hike it overnight, so it's a beautiful starlit trip. #2 Your goal is to hit the top before sunrise so you can see it from the mountaintop terrace. #3 This will be the one and only time you are comfortably cool or even chilly. A light jacket and hat are a good idea. #4 Stop at the tea stalls along the way. They are perfect places to relax and get warmed up. #5 Avoid going during poya (religious holiday) or at least don't go during poya and a weekend. We made that mistake and there were so many pilgrims that we had to wait in line at the top of the mountain for three hours. Seriously though, still 150% worth it.
Sigiriya and Kandalama
Sigiriya is the mountain/tower-thing pictured here. Halfway up there are some caves and on top are the ruins of a palace. It's fun, a bit tiring, and kind of scary if you're afraid of heights. And of course, I've already written about the Kandalama hotel which is the best place to stay when you visit Sigiriya.
The beaches (Hikkaduwa, Unawatuna, Trincomalee, etc)
There's really no need to explain this. Beaches are amazing. The best part about Sri Lankan beaches is that they all have amazing names. I particularly like Unawatuna.
Kandy - The old capital city. A great place to visit for a weekend when you can't take the heat any longer. It's in the hill country and it's just beautiful. If I had my own wheels I would have gone there every weekend. (Well, every weekend when I wasn't already going to the beach.)
Tea country - the tea plantations are gorgeous and the hills around them are perfect for relaxing.
Foods to try
(Regular, Egg, and String)
The first picture shows regular hoppers on the left and egg hoppers on the right. They're kind of like crispy crepes. You rip off bites and use them to mop up sauces or curries. The second picture shows string hoppers, a personal favorite. It's the same deal, eat them with curry and your life may be forever altered.
Kottu - very hard to describe. It's a mix of chopped veggies and roti. It seemed to be more of a late night snack food, but provided you find some that isn't too spicy it would be good any time of the day.
And of course, all of the fruits and vegetables were amazing, my favorite was the papaya.