There’s no doubt that Galle Fort has a different feel to other towns in Sri Lanka, not least because the large number of foreigners who visit and live there have made it a pretty cosmopolitan place.
But its also a Unesco World Heritage Site packed with hundreds of historic buildings, many of which now house lovely boutique shops, hotels, spas and restaurants. So I think Galle Fort is a must on any Sri Lanka itinerary.
It’s easy to visit even if you’re on a beach holiday as it’s a quick day trip from many of the popular resorts on Sri Lanka’s south coast. But if possible I’d really recommend staying within the fort’s walls. There are lots of great accommodation options and and it feels quite different and more atmospheric once the daytime crowds have disappeared.
Galle Fort sits on a peninsular jutting into the Indian Ocean and though originally built by the Portuguese it was redeveloped by the Dutch, so most of the buildings are Dutch colonial style. They built pretty solid walls for the fort too, which saved the buildings from too much damage in the 2004 tsunami, unlike Galle’s new town which was badly hit.
A great way to get a feel for Galle Fort is to do a walking tour. We used one in our Lonely Planet guidebook which took in most of the main sites and fort walls. Walking a circuit of the walls is a popular pastime with locals at dusk when the heat of the day has cooled a bit. We heard its also a great place to see a fabulous sunset, but unfortunately we saw only cloudy skies on our visit.
We did see plenty of other interesting things on our walk around the walls though. Flag Rock, where crazy daredevils jump in the sea and hope they don’t crash on the rocks; the international cricket stadium which looks surprisingly small; and the lighthouse, British built in 1938 and still in use today. Nearby were the snake charmers – I’m really not a fan of snakes.
Historic buildings include a wide variety of places to worship as Galle Fort is quite diverse. As well as Buddhist temples, there’s Anglican and Dutch Reformed churches and a mosque. The bottom end of the peninsular has quite a a big Muslim community. Further round on Hospital Street there’s the former Dutch Hospital which, as with the one in Colombo’s Fort area, has been beautifully restored to house shops, restaurants and bars.
Galle Fort also has some gorgeous hotels. The Amangalla is the fanciest, but we really liked the smaller Galle Fort Hotel which is a converted Dutch merchants house with a wide veranda and wooden shutters. The perfect spot for a colonial cocktail.
Our accommodation choice was significantly cheaper. The Beach Haven guest house is a bit of an institution in Galle Fort as has been around for years and in the 1970s hosted the founder of Lonely Plant for a lengthy stay. Mrs Wijenayake ran the place back then and though her daughter has taken over she still sits in the reception area with her all day. Every time we popped in the two ladies insisted we first take a seat opposite the sofa where they held court before having a chat about whatever we needed.
Rooms are variable depending in what you want to pay. We went top end and had a pretty big room with an en suite bathroom and two vast four poster beds. There’s was a balcony outside running along the side of the building where you could sit and cool off, as well as a larger one at the front. We had a very good Sri Lankan breakfast there each day – the first morning it was thrown in for free, not entirely sure why but we didn’t argue!
As I mentioned earlier, the eating and drinking options are many and varied in Galle Fort and for dinner we went to both ends of the scale. First night dinner was at Fortaleza, a fantastic restaurant in the upmarket hotel of the same name. The courtyard setting is fab and the food delicious.
The following night we fancied the sort of traditional fayre we’d had at homestays, so opted for Cafe Punto, a tiny place that cooks up a great rice and curry. They don’t serve alcohol which is quite common in Sri Lanka, so best to check first if you want it. We were quite happy having water when we had local food and just went for drinks after.
Another place that’s dry is the Pedlar’s Inn Cafe, a very popular spot where we were lucky to get a table for lunch outside. Also the Serendipity Arts Cafe which is another good lunch venue in Leyn Baan Street, a quieter part of town so easier to get a table and has some interesting murals and art to enjoy while you eat.
And there are plenty of places where you can enjoy a beer, glass of wine or a cocktail. Some of the fancier hotels have nice bars and there’s also a quite a few in the Dutch Hospital. Up on the balcony there A Minute by Tuk Tuk has a great position with an ocean view, but we preferred the better value Sugar Bistro and Wine Bar on the ground floor.
As mentioned earlier Galle Fort is also a really good place for shopping. There are nice branches of Barefoot and Luv Sl Odel, but our favourite shops were Exotic Roots and Spa Ceylon, both in Lighthouse Street. The latter speaks for itself and the smells of the huge range of ayurveda products inside are incredible. Exotic Roots is in a lovely building and just has all sorts of lovely things.
Spa Ceylon is also one of the places you can have treatments but there are others spas too. We didn’t partake as our next stop was a beach hotel and spa, so we decided to wait and instead just enjoyed hanging out, eating, drinking and shopping in Galle Fort. Very different to the other places we’d been in Sri Lanka, but an equally fab place to spend a chilled couple of days.
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