Scarred by decades of civil war, Sri Lanka and its commercial capital, Colombo, are relatively new to modern-day tourism. But Colombo has been a crucial trading post for more than 2,000 years. The city rose to prominence as Sri Lanka's most important port town in the 16th century with the arrival of Portuguese fleets. After a period under Dutch rule, Ceylon—as Sri Lanka was then called—became part of the British Empire in 1802. Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948, but the country experienced intense unrest from 1983 until 2009, when Sri Lanka's civil war finally came to an end.
Many visitors head for the pristine beaches or up to the mist-draped mountains of Sri Lanka's tea country, and find that Colombo merits more than just a quick stop. Development continues at breakneck speed here, with skyscrapers jostling for space alongside the elegant architecture of its colonial past. Bustling markets and newfangled shops rub shoulders with ancient temples and rich layers of history in this fascinating place.