Sigiriya, Kandy, the scenic train, and paddy fields are probably some of the most well-known attractions in Sri Lanka to travelers in the world. Galle, a city on the southwest coast of the country, may only come into the picture while you are planning your trip to the country, realizing that the city is rather frequently featured in travel books as an important place to see. In fact, Galle Fort is a popular location and I found the area one of the best old towns to explore in Sri Lanka. Other than that, the surrounding area offers a number of outdoor activities and cultural sights that appeal to different types of travelers.
Here we go! Let me share a little bit of Galle’s history and background and then dive into my list of amazing things to see and do in Galle!
Galle was a major port city established by the Portuguese in the 16th century (1589) under their rules. The city was then taken over by Dutch in the 18th century, who upgraded the fortification their predecessor once built. At one time, the fort was a first-class, strategic facility for trade, transportation, and defense. After Dutch’s defeat in the Napoleonic Wars, the city fell into British hands in 1796. The new power continued to use Galle as a major trade hub for Ceylon tea until Colombo’s rapid development overtook Galle’s status later in the century.
Geographically, Galle has the advantage of having a good natural harbor, as well as a convenient location of sea routes that connects European and Middle Eastern countries with Southeast Asia and beyond. Regarding the fort, it started out small and expanded dramatically over the years of development. European engineering technology was employed under British rule to install a sophisticated sewer system, flushing out waste by tides that is still in use today!
When Colombo took the spotlight and became the head of the country’s economic train, Galle slipped into the background for a period of time as Sri Lanka moved forward to independence. The upside, however, is allowing Galle to keep its old colonial townscape almost completely intact, and preserving its tranquil and historic charm.
Today, the city still serves as a minor port, as you may see a few giant container ships parked offshore of the Galle Harbour. The more exciting transformation, to us, was the influx of money and foreign population in the past few decades. Expats and Colombo elites were drawn into Galle, and renovated the many historic properties in the Old Town, turning them into beautiful residences, followed by boutiques, hip bars, chic stores, and restaurants to couple with their lifestyle. The sleepy town has become a trendy enclave with a sizable foreign population and a perfect getaway from the hustle and bustle of Colombo.
Where to stay in Galle
So now you see, Galle is now repositioned from a port city to a holiday destination, with (at least in Sri Lanka) a vibrant market of holiday villas along the pristine beaches on the coastline, all the way to the green, picturesque paddy fields in the forest. Some of them are local residences and some of them are actually available for tourists.
Look them up online and you would probably find an exciting amount of choices from Thalpe to Tangalla in different sizes and price levels; for an apartment for 2 persons, it could cost less than US$100 per night, and for an entire house that could accommodate up to 16 people, costs about US$1000-2000, depends on its locations and travel seasons.
There are about twenty houses that were converted into holiday houses in the Old Town; but If you are self-driving on your trip around the island, consider some bungalows a little bit further away from the city area, have yourself a quiet, intimate, relaxing, and self-indulgent vacation with an incredible view. Note that many of the houses are still under renovation or require renovations, look through the tourist comments and real pictures to have an idea and make a better judgment. The owner’s pictures could be deceiving and don’t go for houses or apartments that are too remote or priced suspiciously low. I stayed in a 2-bedroom apartment with a balcony at Galle’s waterfront with a view of the Galle Fort. Parts of the apartment building were still under renovation, but the owner was very friendly as he and the maid chatted with us during breakfast, and the price was under US$100! The only negative of the apartment was that it doesn’t have air conditioning in the living room area and the Wi-Fi reception was very weak. Other than that, my stay was quite pleasant and comfortable.
Still, as I walked through Galle Fort, I found quite a lot of charming and contemporarily decorated hostels or hotels. Some of them are rather simple and neat for budget travelers, and some of them are luxurious with spacious suites, open courtyards, and exceptional services. They could be easily searched on Airbnb or any hotel booking website.
How to get to Galle, which way is best?
We hired a driver which makes our trip around the island much easier. Having said that, it’s also very easy to go to Galle from Colombo by public transportation.
One way is by train. Sri Lanka’s train ride has been one of the most popular attractions in Sri Lanka, and what could be even better to enjoy the journey than sitting on a traditional train and traveling through the palm-fringed coast? Direct trains depart from Colombo Fort station to Galle Station daily every two to four hours, starting from 6 am each morning, to 7:30 pm at night. The journeying takes about 1.5 hours. Go to the Sri Lanka train schedule website for an up-to-date train schedule.
Train ticket price LKR 220 (Second class); LKR 120 (Third class)
Departure from Colombo Fort Station to Galle Station
Departure time ~6 am to 7:30 pm for about every 2 to 4 hours
Another way is by express bus. The bus service is more frequent and there are several local bus routes commuting between the two cities via either the new expressway or the coastal road. While it takes a longer time to travel on the coastal road, the journey is more special with older buses and better scenery outside the window.
Bus ticket price LKR 155 to 400 (depends on the bus route and if it’s air-conditioned)
Departure from Maharagama Bus Station or Bastian Mawatha Bus Station (next to Colombo Fort Station) to Galle
Departure time ~5 am for about every 20 mins
Amazing Things to See and Do in Galle
There is already quite a lot to see and do in Galle Old Fort, but if you have more time or wish to explore further, I have a list of 10 amazing things to see and do!
Enjoy the city view and sunset at the Galle Fort
Galle Old Town is about 16 square kilometers and it takes about a day or two to cover the highlights. On the first day, after we settled down in our apartment and then we stopped by the Galle Fort Clock Tower. It was our first visit to the Old Town area and the clock tower is located at the entrance behind Galle International Cricket Stadium. To our surprise though, the structure was a great viewpoint to have a panoramic view of Galle.
Established in 1883, the Galle Fort Clock Tower was a long-standing tower featuring a large clock face on top of a former guard room. It is a great place to have a first taste of the historic fort and the raised platform offers a clear view of the entire city. The sun setting behind the entire old town was dreamy.
This is also the location where most of the main historic landmarks are located: once you pass the War Memorial and the Fort New Entrance, the Dutch Fort is right on the left of the road. Walking through the Engineering service office and Road Development Authority, the Moon Bastion leads to the Sunset Observing Place and Old Slave Quarters.
Take a morning walk along the ramparts
Now that you have got the fort done, move toward the edge of the water along with the Galle Fort. On a nice day, it’s a pleasant promenade walk to enjoy the view of the ocean with waves hitting on the stone wall beneath. It could get a little bit too hot walking on the wall in the afternoon, so I suggest doing the walk-in early morning or late afternoon. It is one of the most popular things to do – once you see the walking paths at the waterfront, it’s filled with locals and tourists, taking pictures on the stone wall built over 500 years. You will also visit a number of landmarks along the wall, like the Clippenberg Bastion in the middle point, water holes, Flag Rock Bastion, and finally the Lighthouse. The historic lighthouse at the fort was built with a recognizable simple style and a small beach for swimmers.
Explore the many historic landmarks in Galle Fort
Within the walls of Galle Fort stands many historic landmarks that are worth a visit. These buildings are scattered at different spots in the fort, surrounded by shops and dining places.
- Post Office Fort was one of the first five post offices opened in the colony by the British in 1820.
- Meeran Jumma Masjid is right across the lighthouse amongst the aged landscape. It’s also one of the most eye-catching white architecture at the corner of a road. Now the building is named a mosque, but the baroque-style facade would suggest that it was actually a Portuguese Cathedral back in the day. The building is well-maintained, as it kept the Baroque and British Victorian flavor, plus a dash of Islamic detail. There are Islamic citings on the facade, with features that look like minarets; and once you walk into the buildings, it resembles a church with stained glasses.
- Dutch Reformed Church, or Groote Kerk, was built by the Dutch in 1755 and is one of the oldest protestant churches still in use in Sri Lanka. The church garden is beautiful, and the cemetery has some sort of haunting beauty.
- Old Dutch Hospital was a historic functional building and it’s transformed into a modern shopping mall with shops, restaurants, and even an event venue for weddings and conferences.
- Amangalla is another historic building transformed into an upscale colonial-style hotel with a spa.
- Sudharmalaya Temple is a small whitewashed temple complex including a prayer hall and a large reclining Buddha.
- All Saints Anglican Church is another Gothic-style monument that was built on Church Road in 1871.
Visit the many museums in Galle Fort, too
Apart from the many landmarks, there are many museums that showcase the city’s history and development. Many of them are located on the east side of the old town, and I recommend starting from Galle National Museum, then to the Historical Mansion Museum, and finally back to Galle’s Old Gate and Galle Fort National Maritime Archaeology Museum, and a slow walk through Baladaksha Mawatha and back to the main entrance of the fort.
- Galle National Museum is an old Dutch building dating back to 1656, and it is practically the oldest building in Galle. It was converted into a museum in 1986 with three galleries that feature artifacts of ancient village life, including masks, carvings, instruments, ship equipment, and armor.
Entrance Fee: LKR 300
Opening Hour: 9 am – 4 pm
- The National Maritime Archaeology Museum is one of my favorite museums because of Galle’s port trading history. Galle has been a melting pot of cultures and a trade center of luxury goods including gems, ivory, tea, and spices. The museums kept a number of ancient anchors, maps, naval craft, ropes, earthenware, barrels, artillery guns, and sailor shoes recovered from shipwrecks for over 800 years. The museum also explores Sri Lanka’s marine ecosystem like the distribution of mangroves, sea lives, and turtles.
Entrance Fee: LKR 300
Opening Hour: 8:30 am – 4:30 pm
- Historical Mansion Museum is a collection of historic items of the owner, predominantly Dutch items. It’s a small museum, and the interior is absolutely cluttered; It would be fun to explore the property.
Entrance Fee: Free
Opening Hour: 9 am – 6 pm
Enjoy the food!
If you love food, then Old Town is where you are supposed to be because there are so many cafes and restaurants here, and they are really good. Stop by any restaurants or enjoy an afternoon tea in one of the charming hotels, there are many dining places in the Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct, where you could also shop until you drop!
- Isle of Gelato is a charming ice cream parlor in Galle with an adorable interior and a wide variety of gelato choices that would make your day under the immense heat.
- Galle Things Roti is a diner serving simple local curries and kottu roti – here they serve the locals’ favorite and you simply can’t leave Galle without trying it! Simply speaking, a roti is a flatbread made with wholemeal wheat flour.
- Hoppa Galle Fort is another small local diner. Another amazing local cuisine is hopper, and it is a must-try. Hoppers are based on a fermented batter, usually made of rice four and coconut milk with spices. The delicacy could be pan-fried or steamed, and it is commonly served for breakfast.
Take a “staycation” in a boutique hotel
I have mentioned that there are many holiday homes and villas in Galle. On the other hand, if you are staying in Galle for a couple of days, I recommend saving some days and taking a staycation in a boutique hotel in the Old Town as well.
There are hotels and hostels at different price levels, sizes, and styles. Look them up on any hotel booking site and I will bet you have a tough time choosing one. Many of them are the restoration of old colonial buildings – usually, with lovely restaurants, outdoor pools, or charming back gardens for guests to just stay in and enjoy some peace and quiet.
- The Fort Printers features an outdoor swimming pool and a lovely restaurant
- Seagreen Guesthouse is an affordable hotel with a sunset terrace
- Villa Amma Erna also features an outdoor pool with contemporary interiors and stylish room fixtures
- Fort Bliss overlooks the rampant and charming restoration of a colonial building
- Small House Boutique Guest House is a small boutique hotel with some beachy flavors
- Khalid’s Guest House is close to Galle Church with balconies
- Niyagama House has a mix of modern and traditional elements in its design
Shop until you drop in trendy and stylish shops
To be honest, there aren’t that many unique boutique stores or shops while we were in Central Sri Lanka; that’s why I was pleasantly surprised as we explored Galle Old Town, naming it the best old town to explore in Sri Lanka.
Truth be told – It’s not an overwhelming number of shops lining up on both sides of the streets; rather, the shops and galleries are subtly located here or there in the allies and streets, that we enjoyed walking through the area and exploring them one by one. I found that the souvenir and shops here are more original – you might still see some handbags or T-shirts that you saw in many other souvenir stores, but if you look closely, you will find some original postcards or souvenirs with better quality (and a little bit more expensive). I was glad that Galle was my last stop back to Colombo, because it is the best place to get some gifts for my friends, and I didn’t have to carry them around for a long journey.
So what to buy? Fashion, accessories, postcards, posters, or decorations are some popular gifts in souvenir stores. You may also pick up some fancy resort or beachwear for your next stop at the beach.
If you are looking for something more specific or valuable – Galle has a history of being a trading port of gems, and today many old jewelers remained are a throwback to the glorious days.
There are also some trendy mini-stores in Pedlar Street or Church Street offering books, toys, spa and beauty products, or homeware. Of course, a trip to Sri Lanka won’t be completed if you don’t buy fine Ceylon tea or spices.
- Embark is a clothing store in Lighthouse Street with some modern street-style clothing
- Mimimango offers some beautiful handmade kaftans, tops, shawls, wraps, or pants.
- Barefoot is a small “department store” with some great choices of souvenirs and unique design products.
- Luv Sl Odel is a trendy clothing store with a nice collection of design tee and fashion items. Personally, I like their design tote bags collection.
- Ibrahim is one of the oldest jewelers on Church Street if you are looking for some high-quality gemstones and jewelry with their unique Sri Lankan-style designs.
- STICK NO BILLS™ is a poster gallery on Church Street, and I think it is probably one of the most photographed stores in Galle just because of its great entrance design – it is simple but eye-catching and distinguishable. It has a great variety of poster designs and you might find some that you like for your home or office!
Hit the beaches in Unawatuna
Heading out of the Galle Old Town, explore Unawatuna. It is a beach town in Galle with waves that is popular among surfers. It is a good place for beginners to have some fun in the water. Head to a surf club along the beach and they will have some surfboards for rent or take a lesson if this is your first time surfing. There is also a coral reef and a shipwreck off the shore if you are interested to go scuba diving.
If you are not up for an active day, sit down in one of the many seaside restaurants along the beach and just chill and enjoy the view. It’s nice to get some sun at the beach with your family and friends, as Unawatuna Beach is also quite kid-friendly.