The historic garrison town of Galle is the capital of the Southern region. Galle combines a rich history with golden beaches and is arguably the country’s leading boutique hotel destination – a truly ‘Sri Lanka Tailormade’ hotspot! Its rich heritage is derived from the colonial influences of the Portuguese, Dutch and the British respectively, spanning four centuries. Galle was a key harbour city for centuries, hence its value to successive colonial superpowers. The town’s centrepiece is the World Heritage listed Dutch Fort, around which the city is built. The Fort was initiated and partially constructed by the Portuguese, which was then expanded upon quite significantly by the Dutch. The Fort remains a hive of activity and is one of the few World Heritage listed sites in which a bustling population continues to thrive. Galle possesses one of the best tourism infrastructures in the country with wide-ranging categories of accommodation catering to all budgets.
The boutique style high-end tourism concept in Sri Lanka, a relatively recent concept which is rapidly gaining in repute, had its genesis in this region with the Dutch Fort itself being host to some of the finest in this category. The Dutch influence remains predominant in Galle, with its distinctive architecture highly prevalent, much of it since lovingly restored! Galle has attracted a number of Europeans in the past decade who have made it their home, many of whom operate their delightfully restored properties as tourist guest houses and hotels. The beaches around Galle are among the very best that the coastline has to offer, contributing to this region being one of the most popular and favoured destinations in Sri Lanka. Lately, Galle has been quietly developing into a centre for the arts, with the city playing host to a highly acclaimed literary festival, and as of 2009, a film festival as well. In short, Galle has something to offer everyone and is a destination not to be missed.
Must Do List
- Walk the ramparts of the Dutch Fort
- Relax on the stunning Unawatuna beach
- Catch a cricket match at the Galle International Stadium
- Explore mangrove lined waterways
- Visit museums and curio shops
- Hot air balloon rides at dawn
- Galle Literary Festival
Galle – In Focus
Galle has a long and tumultuous history mainly due to the fact that it is the best sea port on the southern seaboard of the island. Well established as a trading outpost along the Silk Route by the 6th Century, Galle was a regular port of call of the Romans, Chinese and Arabs who traded in gems and exotic animals with the Kings of Sri Lanka. A school of thought exists that Galle could have a history before this dating back to Biblical times, with it being the “Tarshish” of King Solomon. In 1505 Portuguese ships under Lourenço de Almeida were blown off course in a storm and landed on the shores of Galle, but the residents of the city refused entry to the shipwrecked mariners, resulting in the Portuguese entering the city by force and capturing Galle. They went on to construct a fortification around the city in 1587, as a means of defence against the Kings of Sri Lanka, but this did not stop the Dutch from ousting them from their emplacement in 1640.
The Dutch further improved the existing fort, building an imposing fortification around the city in 1663, but in 1796 the British laid siege to Galle from the sea and took Galle from the Dutch. Each era of colonial dominance left its mark on the cultures, traditions and architecture of Galle but the predominant influence seen today is that from the Dutch period. Galle’s demographic reflects this varied influence and though the majority of the population is Sinhalese, fair sized communities of Moors, Malays, Tamils exist. In recent times an increasing number of Europeans have been taking up residence in Galle lured by its character and charm.
Galle is typically warm and humid, with an average temperature of 28°C and relative humidity of 75%. A constant on-shore breeze makes conditions pleasant all year round, and the weather is noticeably cooler with the onset of the South-West monsoon between May and August with the area receiving an average of 500mm of rainfall over this period.
Galle is reached from Colombo by the Galle Road which hugs the Western Coast. The road is narrow and congested most of the time and the journey takes longer than it should, but offers a good opportunity to observe Sri Lanka’s vibrant culture. From the hill country the quickest way to Galle is through Deniyaya and Akuressa. Galle is also accessible by rail with trains running regularly between Galle and Colombo, but for the quickest transport opt for the air taxi which lands on the Koggala Lake 20 minutes South of Galle.
Colombo to Galle – 3.5 hours
Airport to Galle – 4.5 hours
Galle to Mirissa – 45 minutes
Galle to Tangalle – 2 hours
Tangalle to Yala – 2.5 hours
Kandy to Galle – 5.5 hours
Nuwara Eliya to Galle – 6 hours
Accommodation – Hotels in/around Galle – Click
Accommodation within Galle reflects its rich heritage and offers a range of tasteful accommodation from budget guesthouses all the way up to luxury boutique villas. Properties like Amangalla, Galle Printers and the Galle Fort Hotel within the Galle Fort are grand Colonial era buildings meticulously renovated, tastefully decorated and provide an out of this world experience; boutique villas in the Fort include Orchard House and 41 Lighthouse Street. In and around the town of Galle luxurious accommodation abounds. Jetwing Lighthouse offers 5 Star accommodation and facilities that are unmatched in the area. The Fortress, just to the South of Galle is a retro-chic, imposing property offering the best of modern world conveniences coupled with gourmet cuisine. Other properties of note within the Galle area are Aditya, a boutique property which features some of the biggest room in the area, and the Apa Villas and Thambapanni chains. Numerous other villas and owner operated properties which maintain very high standards are available to suit a range of budgets.
Galle and specifically the Galle Fort offer shoppers of all things artistic an unforgettable experience. Within the Galle Fort the Historical Mansion sells antique furniture from the Dutch Period and Elephant Walk has interesting creations by local artists, elephant dung stationary, curios and also sells spices and home-made chutneys. Barefoot Gallery, a branch of the popular main store in Colombo has a colourful range of handloom clothing and linen.
A few jewellery stores sell precious and semi-precious stones and fine pieces of jewellery within the Fort. But this is just a handful of the interesting shopping opportunities available within the Galle Fort so explore the area at leisure to discover your own favourite haunt. Outside the Fort and on the outskirts of the city there are many large antique shops selling pieces that range in size from the smallest boxes to large doors and pillars and most owners offer to ship the item overseas if it is too big to carry.
Attractions & Events
Dutch Fort in Galle
The city of Galle’s oldest landmark is the massive Fort, which was first built by the Portuguese but later captured and refortified by the Dutch. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the buildings within the Fort all have colonial architecture. Today, the 90-acre Galle Fort shows no evidence of the Portuguese founders, but the Dutch incorporated the Portuguese northern wall in a great rampart in 1663. A second, taller wall was built on the inside of it, and between these walls a covered passage connected the central bastion with the Fort’s two half bastions overlooking the sea. The Dutch also installed a sophisticated drainage system, complete with brick-lined underground sewers that were flushed twice a day by the high and low tides. The original entrance to the fort was by the harbor and still exists, marked by the British Coat-of-Arms on the outer side and the Dutch VOC (Vereenigde Oost Indische Compagnie) Coat-of-Arms with a rooster crest on the inner side of the Fort.
A stone’s throw away from the Galle city, Unawatuna Beach lies in a horseshoe shaped bay, and is considered is one of the finest beaches in Asia. Protected by a coral reef that joins the headlands of the bay, its crystal clear waters lap gently against the golden, coconut palm fringed beach. The shoreline is ringed with quaint guesthouses, restaurants and bars which practically lie on the water’s edge set amidst dense tropical foliage. A catamaran ride across the bay takes you over the reef where stunning reef fish, squid and the dreaded sea urchin can be spotted. Unawatuna also has a number of interesting dive sites just off its coast with a number of shipwrecks from the Dutch and Portuguese period lying on the shallow seabed.
A rocky jungle clad mountain lying at the headland off the Unawatuna Bay, Rumassala is cloaked in legend. Known in colonial times as Buona Vista, the Portuguese directed confusing light signals from its top to lure rival Arab trading ships onto the rocks below the headland. In the Ramayana legend its origins are mythical, with the story going that when Luxhmana was injured in a battle between his brother Rama and Rawana, Hanuman the Monkey God was sent to fetch medicinal herbs from the Himalayas to treat him. Forgetting the name of the required herb, Hanuman removed a chunk of the Himalayas but bringing it back it slipped from his grasp and broke into five pieces; legend has it that one of the five pieces is what forms Rumassala today. Legend aside though, the slopes of Rumassala are rich in ayurvedic medicinal plants and herbs. The peak offers splendid views of the Galle town to the North and has upon it a modern temple built by Japan featuring a huge stupa designed in traditional Zen style.
Galle National Museum
Lying within the confines of the Galle Fort, the Galle National Museum is housed in a building that dates back to 1671 and was built by the Dutch as a store. Opened in 1986, its aim was to preserve and display the heritage of the colonial town and prominently featured are heavily worked tortoise-shell artifacts and richly carved hard wood sculptures of animals.
Galle Maritime Museum
Galle’s history has mainly been influenced by its proximity to the sea, and the Galle Maritime Museum was established to highlight and display this heritage. The museum contains numerous artifacts from both the Portuguese and Dutch period but mostly houses depictions of the various historic moments in Galle’s maritime legacy in the form of murals and models of historic events. Also exhibited are a colourful array of corals and a good collection of seashells.
Koggala Folk Museum
This museum lies on the ancestral property of one of Sri Lanka’s most recognized literary fugures, the late Martin Wickremasinghe, who always wanted to establish a museum that would reflect the lifestyle and culture of the Sothern people, but was never able to accomplish this. Soon after his death, the Martin Wickrenmasinghe Trust built the museum on his ancestral property which initially consisted of items of folk art and handicrafts from his personal collection which he had personally gathered over the years. Though small at first, the popularity of the museum has seen the number of exhibits swell, and today the Koggala Folk Museum presents a good understanding of the culture and creativity of the people of the South, as well as pays tribute to the great man whose brainchild it was.
Literally meaning temple under the rock, Yatagala Temple is a 1200 year old temple perched high on a rock overlooking a small village encircled by paddy fields. Surrounded by dense tropical vegetation, the temple is reached by a climb of 120 stone steps and at the top lies an ancient Bo tree, a beautiful image room and a meditation cave. The temple grounds also features two prominent statues of the Buddha, one standing and one seated.
Meaning “hill of peace” in Sinhala, Samakanda is a project by The Web of Hope Organisation who advocate alternatives for sustainable development and living. Developed on an abandoned tea estate, Samakanda is described by its Founder’s as a bio-versity, and is a role-model of a lifestyle with the least possible impact on the environment. The project has wide range of attractions which include organic farms and its rainforest habitat teeming with endemic species making it very popular with nature lovers. The property is split into seven zones with each one featuring a unique aspect of the project. Samakanda also offers accommodation and food and beverage facilities.
Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery
The Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery breeds and releases five species of turtles – Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas), Hawksbill Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), Loggerhead Turtle (Caretta caretta), Leatherback Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) and Olive Ridley Turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea). Eggs laid by adult females are collected by villagers and fishermen are purchased by the Kosgoda Hatchery and kept in sandy pens until they hatched, and then kept in seawater tanks and released to the sea at night. The Kosgoda Hatchery has released more than 1,750,000 young turtles to the sea and was established through an endowment by the Hasselblad Estate.
The Kottawa Arboretum is a 150 hectare plot of managed natural rainforest located half an hour inland from Galle and is a part of the larger Kottawa-Kombala Forest Reserve. Within the arboretum all trees are named and their thick canopy holds a large number of endemic bird species. The gloomy forest floor is habitat to a host of mammals, amphibians and reptiles some of which can only be found in this region.
Dodanduwa Island Hermitage
The secluded monastic retreat in Dodanduwa was founded in 1911 and lies on the Ratgama Lake, a saltwater lagoon lined with mangroves. The hermitage spreads across the two islands of Polgasduwa and Metiduwa and it has been the retreat of a number of highly respected clergymen of Theravada Buddhism. In its early years it saw many monks from the West practice meditation and the Dhamma here, but currently the resident community comprises only Sri Lankan monks. Visitors who wish to see the hermitage are required to obtain written approval before taking a boat ride across the water to the island.
The Koggala Lake lies just to the South of Galle and is dotted with 16 islands. Rich in birdlife the lake and its islands are an important nesting area in the region for a wide variety of water birds and shore based birds of prey. Madolduwa is the most famous island on the lake with it being the home of the prolific Sinhala author the late Martin Wickremasinghe. Although little of the original house remains today it is from here that he penned some of his most captivating stories based on typical Southern Sri Lankan culture. Cinnamon Island is another interesting island on which a small community of village folk plant and harvest cinnamon in the traditional manner, based on an art passed down to them through the generations. The Koggala Lake is also used as a landing zone for the air taxi service into Galle.
The Maha Modera Ganga which is a tributary of the Gin Oya offers a splendid opportunity for nature lovers to experience the rich bio-diversity of the inland wetlands around Galle. An early morning boat ride along its mangrove lined waterways offers sightings of reptiles and amphibians that are found in plenty along the banks, and the surrounding lush vegetation is home to a wide range of birds and butterflies.
Galle International Cricket Stadium
Described as one of the most picturesque cricket grounds to be found anywhere in the world, the Galle Stadium lies at the centre of the bustling city of Galle. With the Indian Ocean on one side of it and the imposing Dutch Fort forming a backdrop at one end of the grounds, it is no surprise that it has earned this reputation. Having borne the brunt of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami which devastated most of the Galle area, in its aftermath the stadium looked very similar to a dumping ground and few thought it would ever see cricket played on it again. Assistance from the international cricketing community and hard work put in by the curator though saw the Galle Stadium being used as a test playing venue by 2007 and it is now in better shape than ever before.