At the center of colonial Colombo is Fort district (not the Fort – there are no actual fortifications left, so the definite article has been dropped). The original fort was built by the Portuguese in 1517, and later expanded by the Dutch to protect their valuable trade in sapphires, elephants, cinnamon and ivory. As Colombo expanded during the 19th century under British rule, and the need for fortifications passed, the old defenses were gradually dismantled and their place taken by streets of grandiose neoclassical buildings, which announced the new European overloads’ mastery of their attractive new dominion.
Fort retains a time-warped British character, with huge old crumbling colonial buildings lining its small grid of streets, a couple of which – such as York and Chatham Streets – still bear their original names. Much of the area’s 19thcentury charm vanished during the civil war, however, when repeated Tamil
Tiger (LTTE) bombings drove most commercial life out to the southern suburbs and reduced parts of Fort to near dereliction. Large sections of the area remain cordoned off for security reasons, thanks to the presence here of the President’s House. Normal life has slowly been creeping back into the area since the end of the civil war, the whole place today back to a busy and crowded market places with the old traders actively going about their daily life. Without a doubt the bargains you will find here cannot be matched by any vendor through Sri Lanka. So if you are thinking of a ‘Shopping Adventure’ Old Fort will certainly not disappoint you.
At the end of Chatham Street, the heart of Fort is marketed by its most distinctive landmark, the Colombo City’s Victorian Lighthouse Clock Tower, designed by a British Governor’s wife in an attempt to instill punctuality into the notoriously bad timekeepers under her
husband’s rule. Ten years after it was built, a light was added to the top of the structure, and the hybrid clock tower-cum-lighthouse went on to service as the city’s major shipping beacon until the 1950s, when new high-rise buildings finally blocked its view from the sea. Immediately north of here, through the security fences and barbed-wire, you might be able to catch a glimpse of the President’s House (Janadhipathi Mandiraya), the official residence of the island’s head of state. This beautiful mansion was built in the late 18th century by the last Dutch governors. These included the indefatigable Sir Edward Barnes, who unified the country with a massive road-building effort and whose statue still stands guard at the gate. All road distances from Colombo are measured from here. The surrounding streets and landmarks, including Gordon Gardens and the old General Post Office are currently closed to visitors.