Famed for its picturesque Dutch Fort (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and a gathering for literary enthusiasts during the month of January on account of the annual Galle Literary Festival, Galle epitomizes the essence of holidaying like few other places in the isle of Sri Lanka. A city that beckons you with its bustling enterprises, sea and sand, it is definitely not for the sort who like spending their time indoors! If you visit Galle during the season, you need to be prepared to grow a tan, be exhausted from roaming its streets and perhaps spend considerable amounts of quality time with the waves.
The capital of the southern province, Galle, located in the Galle District, is a city enriched by a colourful history. Perched in the southern coastal belt, 116 km from Colombo (from road or rail), the city comes to life mainly from October through April when the monsoon moves northeast and the sea becomes calm under clear blue skies. The beautiful beach of Unawatuna is just 6km south east of the city centre, and is a must-visit beach if you are in Galle.
A UNESCO declared World Heritage Site; the magnificent Dutch Fort is the most popular attraction in the town. Even today, so many years after independence, once you pass through the gates of the fort, you are sure to feel the influence of the Dutch screaming at you through the walls of restaurants, homes and even from the narrow cobble-stoned streets!
The Portuguese built the first fort to withstand attack from the Sri Lankan kingdoms to the north and the Dutch who eventually captured the coastal cities from the Portuguese developed the defence system of the fort, widening the moat on the landside and improving the ramparts and the bastions. The British, who came next, did not influence its architecture in any way, hence the permeating presence of the Dutch there even today.
While most of the buildings retain their old Dutch semblance, sadly there are those in private hands that show no signs of such a history.
A walk around the ramparts of Galle at dawn or at sunset is an experience. The massive ramparts built primarily by African slaves using the ballast from Dutch ships that arrived from Europe, comprise 11 bastions. The area between the present army garrison and the Neptune bastion now serve as a multiple and impromptu cricket ground. The ramparts between Neptune and Point Eutrecht serve as a promenade for the community
A walk around the inside streets of the fort reveal a myriad of old streets and houses, many with their original names and facades; a true time warp to the past.
The fort houses many colonial buildings. Largely still well preserved, the original Dutch buildings within the fort were designed to be as insulated as possible from the sun; hence the multi-layered tiles, roofs and thick masonry walls.
The Fort is best experienced on foot as you take in the ambience at your own steady pace, stopping to take a look at whatever catches your attention.
The famous beach of Unawatuna is just 15 minutes away from the city of Galle. The beach is fairly crowded and you will not find complete solitude and relaxation, so it may not be your ideal choice if you prefer lonely beaches. A popular tourist destination, the beach is usually dotted with many visitors, everyone almost fighting for that perfect spot under the umbrella! The water however is warm and inviting and the bay provides safe swimming and snorkeling, protected by its reef. Unawatuna is also known for its corals. Be mindful of boats that offer rides for coral watching at exorbitant prices which can be negotiated.
Whales and dolphins can be seen not far off shore at Mirissa.
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This is home to a unique type of fishing technique. Stilt fishing is a popular fishing method in the area and is a very beautiful scene to watch, especially at sunset. Ahangama is also a popular surfing location and relatively less crowded than the surfing location in the north.
Koggala, near Galle, is the hometown of a famous local writer Martin Wickramasinghe. The museum of Folk, Art and Culture built in his honour at his old residence has an excellent display of local folk items. They include the costumes of folk dancers, sports items, household items and furniture and a vast arena of the folk life of the early 20th Century.
Koggala Lake – Take a boat ride on this lake and you will be able to see many of its small islands, which are popular destinations for bird watching. You can also visit a local cinnamon plantation and watch cinnamon being harvested. Madol Doowa is another famous attraction, the island being famous because of Martin Wickramasinghe’s novel by the same name. Boats leave from the Ananda Spice Garden.
Martin Wickramasinghe Ancestral Home and Folk Museum, Koggala (Tel 091 228 3327)
The ancestral home of one of Sri Lanka’s most renowned authors, the house is set in a large, sprawling garden, and contains a fascinating archive of 70 years of his writing. Also set in the ground is a Folk Museum, with a well-labelled selection of artifacts used by villages of a bygone era. The museum is open daily from 9 am to 5 pm.
To get there, take the Matara road to Koggala, turn left opposite the Fortress Hotel and drive across the railway tracks.
National Museum of the Galle Fort (Tel 091 223 2052)
This is a small museum located on Church Street, inside the fort, next to the Amangalla Hotel. It houses a limited collection of exhibits from the Portuguese, Dutch and British periods, including an original lace pillow with bobbins! Open from Tuesday to Saturday from 9 am to 5 pm, except on public holidays.
There are five jumpers who you can watch jump into action each day from 9 am to 5 pm. This hair-raising 45-foot jump from off the ramparts into the ocean below is thrilling and entertaining to watch. You can find these daredevil lads on the rampart walls of the fort on Flag Rock, between the Point Utrecht Bastion and the Triton Bastion. You cannot however, try this yourself!
The Katuluwa Purvarama Mahaviharaya lies a couple of kilometres beyond Koggala, inland from the Galle-Matara highway. The paintings on the walls of the shrine-room, depicting Buddha’s life and the Jataka stories of his previous life, were done by four different artist families, so you would be sure to see a distinct difference in style.
Predominantly displaying Dutch architecture, the city of Galle had been the European administrative centre for four centuries during colonial times before the British shifted the port to Colombo. Galle is said to be the best example of a fortified city built by Europeans in South and Southeast Asia, showing the interaction between European architectural styles and South Asian traditions.
A ‘walled city’, Galle was known as Gimhathiththa before the Portuguese arrived in the 16th Century; the city reached the height of its development in the 18th Century, during the Dutch colonial period.
Travel Tips and Planning Information
Galle features a tropical rainforest climate. The city has no true dry season, though it is noticeably drier in the months of January and February. So if you cannot handle an overdose of heat, you should avoid visiting Galle during this period.
Temperatures show little variation throughout the course of the year. Average temperatures hover at around 260C throughout the year.