As one of Sri Lanka’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the medieval fortifications of Galle form one of the must-see attractions in this South Asian country, at least according to prominent travel guide books. Thus, in our recent visit to Sri Lanka, we hopped on the train and seized the opportunity to see this famous site for ourselves. Galle as a whole is a big city, which looks very much the bustling capital of Colombo, but it is the Old Town called Galle Fort where tourists go.
Once our train arrived at the station, we managed to get a tuk tuk (three-wheeler) to bring us to Galle Fort. As we made our way to the entrance, the tall medieval wall unveiled before our eyes. It was like we were entering a new territory with its own rules and culture, different from the rest of the city. True enough, Galle Fort appeared to be a land of its own. Away from the congested row of dilapidated cement buildings and the dusty chaotic roads outside, the space within the fortified walls appeared much more organized, cleaner and relaxed. It immediately became obvious to us that it is groomed to cater to the large number of tourists that visit every year.
The barricades around the Old Town were built by the Portuguese colonizers in the 16th century. Thus, Galle was already a flourishing town even before the arrival of the British forces. The fortified community is a fine example of the integration of European architecture, with elements of South and South-East Asian design styles. This is one of the main reasons why UNESCO has declared it an important cultural and historical site deserving of protection and preservation.
There is certainly something charming about cobble-stoned streets in the old quarters colonized towns, and this is especially true in Galle. Here, the old meets the new. The ‘old’ referring to colonial style buildings and ancestral homes, while the ‘new’ refers to the restaurants, cafes and shops that line the streets and occupy the corners of the fortified town. But the word ‘new’ does not translate to modern architecture. Although the commercial facilities are not as old as the medieval town itself, they were certainly built to blend in with the colonial architecture. If you are searching for pretty and trendy shops with ornate displays in Sri Lanka, you will find the best of them in Galle. You can tell that the owners spend quite some time making their shops appear quaint, colonial-looking and enticing. But if you are a shop owner in Galle Fort, there is actually a strong need to do this as the competition is steep and real estate prices on this side of the city are most likely pricey in comparison to the rest of Galle.
Everything a tourist needs is within the Old Town – it has fine dining restaurants, pubs, wine bars, coffee shops and lots of hotels and guesthouses to choose from. You don’t really need to get out of the fort, except of course, if you are looking to buy some stuff like grocery items that are significantly cheaper. Yes, like many tourist hubs, you pay the high price for staying within this enclosed medieval space. Everything sold here is two or three times higher than their usual amount. But hey, if you are there to splurge, why not?
Despite being touristy, we did not regret visiting Fort Galle, as the place is undeniably picturesque. The fortified town is nestled on a rocky peninsula making up part of the south west coast. If you walk around the fort walls, you will enjoy an uninterrupted view of the shimmering blue sea and the raging white waves coming into shore.
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The Kalutara and Seenigama temples are some of the main attractions inside the fort. It is absolutely free to enter the fort area. But there are no other major activities inside Galle Fort other than walking around the fort and enjoying the vibe and the view. Bring a guidebook with you if you want to learn more about the history of a particular building. A day visit is enough to wander around town if you come early in the morning, but staying for one night is highly recommended as the Old Town lights up beautifully. In the morning, wake up early and bring your camera and you will not resist clicking away.
We stayed in a guesthouse run by a family who has been living in the Old Town for many years. And though we paid more than the usual guesthouse price compared to other parts of Sri Lanka, the room was quite spacious and clean. A number of guesthouses offer internet access but many of them don’t have air conditioning. There are, of course, other more luxurious hotels and accommodation choices in the fort.
The sea panorama offered by the bay of Galle becomes even more spectacular during the setting of the sun, when varying shades of color touch the old cement and stone structures. My only advice is that during this time, drop everything you’re doing in Fort Galle and make your way to the top of the fort walls. Even though we saw many tourists in town, we had no problem finding a quiet little spot where we just soaked up the beauty and serenity of the place.
I would have to day that early mornings and late afternoons are the most atmospheric and romantic times in Galle Fort. It seems as though the locals must agree, as we saw many couples taking their pre-nuptial pictures against the gorgeous backdrop at these times.
As we watched the last light emitted by the sun and thought about where to find a reasonably-priced restaurant, we were reminded of why we came to Fort Galle. For all its majesty and rich history, the visit was worthwhile. We ended up at an Indian restaurant that serves naan and tandoori chicken… and it was nothing short of delicious.
How to find the cheapest rooms in Galle?
If you happen to be heading to Galle Fort anytime in the near future, click here to search for hotels using a convenient map tool (about half-way down the page). We recommend trying to get an ocean view room if possible to see the beautiful waves rolling in with the sunset in the background.
During our stay in Sri Lanka, we used a total of three different hotel providers to book our rooms: www.agoda.com, www.hotelscombined.com and www.booking.com. We found Agoda to be the most useful for most of our nights, but www.hotelscombined.com came in handy when we wanted to compare prices prior to confirming. Either way, all three of these options are reputable and should have what you are looking for.