Clinging to Sri Lanka’s curved southwest corner, the country’s fourth largest city of Galle (pronounced gawl), sits 80-miles south of the international airport and capital, Colombo. Friends who had visited in the past assured me that Galle would be a great place to get acquainted with the island before I ventured further so, two hours after touching down at the airport, my taxi rumbled into Galle Fort.
Walking the Walls
Perched on a headland that hooks around the harbour, this 17th century, Dutch-built district is splashed by the Indian Ocean on three sides and flanked by Galle’s new town to the north. Thick fortifications shield its cobbled streets from the power of the ocean and UNESCO World Heritage status protects it from modern development.
Strolling along the Fort Walls is a popular activity and, giving elevated views over the city and sea, it’s easy to see why. Arriving at my hotel in the early evening, I was desperate to stretch my legs after more than 13-hours of aeroplane and taxi rides, so I headed to the wall’s western stretch above Rampart Street, where the sun was starting to set over the Indian Ocean.
As I strolled through the humid evening air I got my first taste of just how tropical Sri Lanka can feel, with its salty winds, swaying palms and screeching monkeys – even in a city setting. Other tourists were walking the walls too, as were groups of schoolgirls dressed in clean white dresses. Romantic couples gazed out towards the horizon, ice-cream vendors stood chatting by their carts and, in a wide, grassy area below the walls, a team of young boys were playing cricket.
With the evening drawing in, I followed the ramparts southwards past Galle Lighthouse and Flag Rock – the wall’s most southerly bastion – and along the eastern strip beside Hospital Street. Here, the 18th century Dutch Hospital.
was once a sanctuary for colonialists who had succumbed to local infections but, today, it’s slowly transforming into a cosmopolitan hub of shops and smart bars – the perfect place to christen my first evening with a bottle of local Lion beer.
One of the best things about Galle Fort is how easy it is to explore on foot. The following morning, after a delicious pineapple shake and lentil dhal in my guesthouse, I set out to explore. Several friendly locals had offered to show me the sights for a small fee but, armed with a guidebook and map, I decided instead to potter at my own pace.
Despite being only 600-metres long and around 400-metres across, this compact colonial area bursts with historic landmarks – around 400 notable houses, churches, mosques and temples in total. Following the walls in an almost complete circle is a good way to tick off the sites, as you pass the beautiful Old Gate, the 19th century Main Gate and can hop on and off to take a closer look at other landmarks.
Of Galle’s colonial relics, the Dutch Reformed Church was one of my favourites. Built 1640, the floor is paved with gravestones, and its brightly coloured glass windows create a pretty rainbow effect across the stones, while outside is a well-tended garden of tropical plants, thick grasses and colonial graves. Also worth seeing is All Saints’ Church on Church Road – a beautiful Gothic Revival Anglican building.
The Inner Grid
Beyond the fort walls is a small grid pattern of narrow streets. Running east to west, Pedlar Street and the lanes leading off it have a scattering of cafes for your morning Ceylon tea. A lovely place to wander, these low-rise, car-free streets are dotted with art galleries, gem jewellers and boutique shops, as well as Dutch architecture and quirky museums.
My favourite of these was the Historical Mansion – a private collection of antique crockery, clocks, cooking pans and more, all stuffed into an ornate but dilapidated house. Documenting various shipwrecks and maritime history, the Marine Archaeological Museum is also worth a look, as are the ancient masks in the National Museum.
Beyond the Fort
Exit the fort through the Old Gate and the frenzy of modern Galle hits you immediately: tuk tuks zip past and buses clog the roads but escaping the sanitised old town is essential if you want to experience local life and get a fuller picture of the city.
You’ll pass Galle International Cricket Stadium on your left, just outside the fort walls – a former colonial racecourse, which has been used for international cricket since 1998, it’s a legendary place to watch a professional game. Further into town, the markets buzz with local life – find food, spice and clothes stalls along Main Street, or visit the Old Dutch Market where fruit and veg are sold beneath a 300-year-old columned roof.
There are even a few pockets of sandy beach in modern Galle, and you’ll no doubt see a few local kids swimming in the harbour waters – join them if you’re really desperate for a dip, but there are infinitely better places to bathe just a few minutes along the coast.
Ready to move on
Discover why Galle should be your first port of call when arriving to Sri Lanka and how this unassuming yet unmissable city has plenty to offer travellers in the way of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, cricket playing fields and plenty of colonial and historical landmarks. It’s a great place for getting introduced to the country and generally observing local life go by at its usual calm pace.