Why you should explore the Sri Lankan city of Galle + its surroundings
There are many reasons to travel to Galle. Here, Rachel Nicoll reveals her expert advice and travel tips on how to make the most of your time in the city
Galle’s complex past makes it an unmissable part of any trip to Sri Lanka. Situated on the country’s south-west corner, this fortified city and key trading port was founded by Portuguese colonists in the 16th century. Later, it fell to the Dutch and was subsequently extended, before being taken over by the British. In the 1600s, the French, the English, the Danish, the Spanish and the Portuguese were all fighting for supremacy of the seas in this region. Having changed hands so many times, today Galle is a fascinating melting pot of architectural styles and influences, and a great place to spend two or three nights.
The Old Town of Galle + its Fortifications
Galle’s Old Town and fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is delightful to explore on foot. Walking along the thick ramparts gives you uninterrupted views of the ocean and the harbour, and a peek at the old prison. Galle Lighthouse, standing on the fort’s south-eastern tip, is another interesting spot to visit, as is the 18th-century Dutch Reformed Church.
It is the perfect place to just potter around, soaking in the atmosphere. There are dozens of lovely eateries, cosy cafes and shady spots to have a drink. Poonie’s Kitchen, tucked in one of Galle’s traditional, Dutch-style courtyard houses, is a peaceful haven offering Western fare infused with Sri Lanka’s freshest produce. We also love Fortaleza Restaurant, nestled in a boutique hotel on Church Cross Street. Featuring a charming veranda and bar overlooking a central courtyard, the original wall within the restaurant dates back more than 200 years. Be sure to try the many delicious, fresh seafood dishes here and, of course, the signature table barbecue.
However, we also recommend going to the fort in the late afternoon with a third-generation resident. Full of local knowledge and stories that bring this history-steeped place to life, your guide will help you to discover what it is really like to live among these historic walls. Your guide can also take you to a fantastic art-and-crafts shop tucked away in this ancient place.
Here, you will learn about the history of mask making, and their use in performances or rituals in modern-day Sri Lanka, before getting the chance to make your own using age-old techniques and sustainable materials such as recycled paper, kithul (or ‘treacle’), kurundu (acinnamon’), clay, broken tiles, beeswax and even cow dung.
As dusk falls in Galle, the city is at its best, with a buzzing atmosphere and soft lights twinkling. Another fun way to get around is by classic car. We can arrange for you to be collected from your hotel in a 1972 Volkswagen convertible and driven to the bustling markets just outside the city, the cricket stadium and, of course, the fort itself. This is an exhilarating and fun expedition.
Beyond the Old Town
There are also many things to do beyond Galle’s famous fort. The surrounding countryside offers a wonderful landscape of rice paddies, villages, spice plantations – particularly cinnamon – and low-altitude tea estates. A great way to experience this area is by boat or bicycle, which takes you off the beaten track and gives you an insight into rural life.
Cricket lovers should pay a visit to the Galle International Stadium. Considered one of the most picturesque grounds in the world, it was, in fact, originally a racecourse for the British colonials. However, since 1998, it has hosted many an over. If there is a match on when you are in town and you would like to watch a game, we can book tickets for you and arrange for a local to join you at the cricket who will share some interesting personal stories and give an insider’s perspective of Galle (and the game).
Palm-fringed beaches lapped by the turquoise ocean line the tropical shores near Galle. We went to Wijaya Beach, which was a lovely spot to relax and sip on a fresh coconut. For those keen to test out the surf here, we can certainly organise some private lessons. Seafood is in abundance on the coast, and you can choose from delicious prawns, mahi-mahi, seer, tuna, cuttlefish and many more. Pass by the fish stalls, just outside the city walls, and watch the locals bartering for the freshest produce.
If you’re travelling between November and April, we can organise for you to go sailing on a fully crewed catamaran to spot blue whales and dolphins off Weligama Bay, about a 45-minute scenic drive along the coast south-west of Galle. As you return to the shore, you can cool off with a swim or snorkel, or even have a go at standup paddleboarding. At this time of year, it is also possible to see the whales from the air, where you soar above these incredible creatures in a three-seater Cessna. Taking in Sri Lanka’s stunning coastline from the sky is an unforgettable experience.
We absolutely loved the charm, rich history and feel of Galle on our recent trip. It was very different to the other towns and cities we travelled to, and is somewhere we always encourage our clients to include on their Sri Lankan journey.