The coastal city of Galle, located on the southwestern tip of Sri Lanka, has UNESCO-listed treasures, boutique shops and gorgeous cobbled streets to wander. With colonial architecture that’s largely unchanged since 1663 when the walled enclave sprang to life as a Dutch garrison, Galle Sri Lanka is the perfect destination to spend a weekend.
From shopping for Sri Lanka’s famous sapphires, moonstones and silks through to enjoying the spices found in local curries and tea, visitors have plenty to be wowed by in this bohemian city. Here’s insight into just some of the things I squeezed into a weekend in Galle Sri Lanka.
See the Galle Fort World Heritage Site
Unless you’re a cricket fan hell-bent on seeing Sri Lanka smash India at Galle’s International Cricket Stadium—like Dilip my tuk-tuk driver—the main reason most people come to Galle is to see the world heritage site of Galle Fort. (Although the stadium is worth a visit, too).
I first read about Galle Fort after the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004. As reports came through of devastation and lives lost, I learned the fort’s Dutch colonial-era walls acted as sort of wave breaker, protecting the old part of the city from total devastation. Today, as a result, it’s still possible to enjoy the fort’s 300-year old history, walk its winding pedestrian streets and hike among its crumbling rock walls.
Walk the Galle Fort at Sunset
Plenty of people still live and work within the charming walled city. So, expect to see clothes hanging from washing lines, bustling restaurants, children at kindy and tourists and locals alike wandering through Galle Fort’s open-air markets and streets.
The ocean breezes that come off the Indian Ocean and swirl around the city streets can be just the tonic for Sri Lanka’s steaming hot days. On sunset, as the temperature drops and the sky turns pink, the fort’s high ocean-facing walls provide the perfect promenade for a romantic stroll – or even a spot of unplanned shopping. From a local hawker, I picked up a homemade cotton dress for 550 rupees (about $3.50 USD).
Visit the Meeran Jumma Mosque in Galle Sri Lanka
I love beautiful buildings. And the eclectic architecture dotted throughout Galle is reason alone to visit. Throughout the district, you’ll see Christian churches, Muslim mosques, and Buddhist temples.
Within the walled city, there are the commercial and heritage buildings of the Portuguese, who first built the fort in 1588, and the Dutch, who occupied and extensively developed the fort during the 17th century.
Wandering within the fort, I came across several architectural standouts. The whitewashed Meeran Jumma Mosque, with its baroque and Islamic detailing, was one. It’s located on Rampart Street, directly opposite the lighthouse (another monument to check out).
The Dutch Reformed Church with its outside cemetery (and pac man-like headstones) and the Anglican All Saints Church are others definitely worth visiting.
Check Out the Fort Gates
Galle Fort is an enclosed village with two main entry points open to vehicles and foot traffic.
It’s worth checking out both entrances for their ornate and historic beauty (Old Gate was completed in 1669, while Main Gate was built in 1873).
Walk through the gates to follow in the footsteps of thousands of others who’ve transitioned from the outside world into the fortress through these solid, granite portals. Strolling under the brick archway of Old Gate on foot, I was joined by a speedy red tuk-tuk, two women in colorful silk saris, and a salesman on a bike laden with coconuts.
Eat From the Street and Enjoy Fine Dining
The Tamils make some of Sri Lanka’s tastiest street food, sold on beachfront promenades, through train windows, and at the country’s many fresh fish and produce markets.
The prawn vadai (fritter) is one example. A simple snack made from prawns and a lentil or dhal pattie, it is flavored with chili, ginger, curry leaves, coriander, cumin and fennel (and often served with a dab of lime juice).
It’s street food like this that you’ll find at Galle’s centuries-old Dutch Market, alongside plenty of South Asian fruit and veg like ochre, snake gourd, and banana blossom. Go early to see fresh fish arriving and to shop with local Sri Lankans.
For fine dining, I headed out of the walled city to The Lighthouse Hotel. Designed by internationally-famous Sri Lankan architect, Geoffrey Bawa, the hotel restaurant offers open plan dining and stunning views of the ocean. Book a table at the Cinnamon Room for curry leaf tempered jumbo prawns, its signature dish. Or go to enjoy happy hour at Nihal’s.
Shop for Gems in Galle Sri Lanka
It was hard to ignore the compelling argument of Mr. Rahman, a professional gemologist, who told me: “I can give you a thousand reasons to buy a Sri Lankan sapphire and, really, there isn’t one good reason not to.” Yet somehow, back in Colombo where he delivered the news, I did. I was unsure if my resolve would endure in Galle.
Dropping into Han Gems on Layn Gaan Street, without Mr. Rahman at my side, I got away with simply peering into glass cases of sparkly gems, trying a few out in the palm of my hand and enjoying a few minutes of icy-cold air conditioning.
Book a Boutique Hotel Stay in Galle
You have three main accommodation options in Galle: stay within the walled city itself; stay nearby and make a day trip to the walled city and surrounds; or book a stay in Galle district. All three options provide an excellent range of boutique hotel accommodations.
The Jetwing Lighthouse, a modern hotel on the fringe of Galle, is another excellent option.
Both Nisala and The Lighthouse provide the added opportunity of exploring the work of Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa. Nisala Arana’s grounds and resort are Bawa inspired and close to Bawa’s original homestead and gardens, which you can tour. The Lighthouse is a Bawa-designed property.
Visit Nearby Beaches
Southern Sri Lanka is blessed with miles and miles of prime coastline. The beaches surrounding Galle are some of the best in the country for swimming, surfing and sun worshipping.
For nature lovers, the February and March period is ideal for off-shore whale-watching.
At any time of year, you can visit a turtle sanctuary and donate a few dollars to the conservation cause. I stopped into the Kosgoda turtle sanctuary, where they’re working hard to increase the hatching and survival rates of species like the loggerhead and green turtle. For just a few dollars, you can help make a difference and see hundreds of tiny, rare turtles up close.
With so many wow moments just waiting. Galle Sri Lanka is the perfect destination to spend a weekend. In fact, you may be tempted to extend your weekend and stay a while longer in this beautiful paradise.