At a time when chain hotels are popping up in Sri Lanka, the Galle Face—fresh from a nearly three-year renovation—still stands out. It was opened right on the shore of the Indian Ocean in 1864 by British businessmen and became a glamorous hub during Britain’s colonial rule, hosting such notables as Mark Twain and Vivien Leigh. Prince Philip visited too, and his first car, a beloved 1935 model Standard Nine, is the centerpiece of the in-house museum.

Now owned by the great-grandson of one of the hotel’s first Sri Lankan shareholders, the hotel embraces its past—just take a look at the celebrity photos lining the clubby bar. A classic high tea on the veranda gets a local twist with snacks like pandan pancakes. And doormen still dress in the traditional Portuguese-influenced Kuruppu uniform out of respect to one legendary employee who wore it while greeting guests here for 72 years.

History tours at the hotel point out paintings left behind by a Russian Revolution–era traveling circus performer, as well as the springboard floors in a ballroom that once housed the famous Coconut Grove.

Before sunset, according to long tradition, the flag is lowered to the sound of the bagpipe, followed by Pimm’s Cups and gin and tonics all around. From $125

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